The wild Winterthur gardens gives me a portal to enter the world of sprites and pixies. During this pandemic time, I will do anything to escape the gloom. Winterthur is located 30 minutes from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (and less than a 2-hour drive from Washington, DC.)
In the spring or summer, I could spend a day at the gardens. I just need a picnic, quilt and book of poetry.
I don’t think I could last more than four hours walking around the gardens when it is below 40 degrees. Brrr! I need my ski jacket and gloves on this visit.
I start my self-tour of the gardens outside the conservatory. The guide recommends that I circle around the side of the mansion to see the patio. It is a palatial patio overlooking Reflecting Pool and Glade Garden. Beyond lies the Enchanted Garden and Oak Hill.
Visitors receive a free Winterthur Garden Map with their tour. There are 13 different gardens: Azalea Woods, Peony Garden, March Bank, Magnolia Bend, Winterhazel Walk, Pinetum, Sundial Gardens, Icewell Terrace, Oak Hill, Quarry Garden, Sycamore Hill, Glade Garden and Enchanted Woods.
Come join me on my adventure.
Winterthur Gardens’ History
Henry Francis (H. F.) du Pont, the owner of Winterthur, installed his multitude of gardens over four decades. It was an act of devotion.
H. F. had three passions: gardening, collecting antiques and breeding cattle. “Gardening was his first love. Even after he turned his former home into a museum in 1951, he kept his garden in private ownership until his death in 1969,” according to the Winterthur website.
H. F. carefully raised his floral family. He “walked in his garden each day … seeing how his ‘children’ were faring, what was in bloom, noticing what might be improved, what needed to be moved, and jotting it all down,” wrote Linda Eirhart, author of The Winterthur Garden Guide: Color for Every Season.
I think of H. F. as an artist, a Claude Monet unleashed in nature. Monet painted plein air masterpieces of his gardens at Giverny. H. F. created impressionistic garden scenes at Winterthur. He is Delaware’s version of Monet. But he paints with plants instead of oils.
Impressionistic painters relied on bright colors. Paint was applied haphazardly instead of rigid brush strokes. Subjects often seem blurred instead of focus. Some say Monet saw his world this way due to his cataracts.
To my eye, H. F. du Pont created impressionistic gardens that swirl and flow. Edges are often rounded, not straight edge. Colors are grouped together. This creates harmony amidst the chaos.
In addition, I love seeing the koi swimming in the pond. It was a constantly changing scene. I could linger at the Koi Pond just to watch the show.
Wild Winterthur Gardens
H. F. was also inspired by a turn of the century trend called Wild Gardening. Author William Robinson inspired this movement among gardeners in America, Great Britain and Ireland. Published in 1870, The Wild Garden showed owners of large estates how to cultivate a naturalistic style.
Hardy, locally adapted plants and exotics were placed in groupings that look like wild landscapes in a forest or woods. This was in sharp contrast to formal landscaping which relied on rigid geometric designs.
“The Wild Garden concept is built around the idea of gardening on a broad scale, ‘placing perfectly hardy exotic plants under condition where they will thrive.’”—Winterthur
Style of Landscaping
When I tour Winterthur Gardens, everything looks wild to me. Squirrels race across branches of trees—which are the leafy titans of their domain. Large drifts of bushes spread across hills. Red berries create a “pop” of autumn color. Moss creeps across slate steps. The birds serenade me from their treetop Cenacle.
I could not find a list of plants but I believe there must be thousands of naturalized exotics planted at Winterthur. It all looks so spontaneous but this effect is calculated. They must harmonize in form and color. Each season will give way to new colors and plants that define the garden canvas. Even though it is time for the earth to go dormant, there is abundant blooms.
What gave me the most pleasure from the wild Winterthur gardens are sight lines. Around every corner, I look up to see another forest “room.” And stretching beyond the woods lies the rolling meadows. I can even spy golfers playing on a distant course.
“The garden encompasses the entire estate; the views in every direction are important to the whole; the woodlands, hay fields, and meadows are as crucial as the more formally planted areas.”—Winterthur
As previously described, the trees and bushes are not planted in a formal or straight line. So too the paths at Winterthur gardens follow a meandering path.
“The paths are an integral part of the overall design, curving rather than straight, following the contours of the land, passing around tree, drawing walkers into the garden.”—Winterthur
I delight in following the serpentine sidewalks. They flow like a river, twisting to curve around the bank. I frequently find myself hidden in a grove of trees. I can also hide on a bench to observe the Winterthur world.
The landscape I see in late October is primarily red, orange, rust, gold and yellow. The dark fir trees make sections seem mysterious. I see little splashes of contrasting color, such as the lavender autumn crocus flower.
My favorites include the red berries on the Kousa Dogwood, the yellow Fall Daffodi, the white Wood Aster and the yellow Goldenrod. According to Winterthur, the fall foliage starts in September. When I visited in late October, the black gums were turning red while the hickories, ashes and beeches turned golden. On Winterthur’s website, you can find a yearly bloom guide for the gardens.
As an artist, du Pont painted his wild Winterthur gardens with precision.
“ . . . the garden is known for its harmony and ‘near-discords,’ as landscape architect Marian Coffin, who worked with du Pont on the garden’s hardscaping, wrote with admiration.”—Winterthur
The 60-acre garden still thrives after a century of cultivation. It is surrounded by 1,000 acres of farmland. Paint my world green. The property will never be developed commercially as it is under a conservation easement.
Although I am not a child, I feel a connection to the woodland fairies. I feel their spirit whenever I hear a giggle or see a tree branch quake above me.
But children will be immediately inducted into Winterthur’s fairy club. Cobweb and the fairies (and one elf) promise magic and mischief. Wee ones enter this portal whenever they cross Troll Bridge, gather green or sit at the water’s edge.
All the woodland spirits—fairies, pixies, elves, brownies, sprites, sylphs, and gnomes—gather in the Enchanted Woods. This 3-acre plot is a special home to children.
Enchanted Woods is home to a Frog Hollow. Puddle is the water fairy. Blossom, the flower fairy, lives at Fairy Flower Labyrinth. Lark stays high in the sky in the Bird’s Nest.
Plus this area is draped by majestic oaks and hidden away from curious adults. Children can seek their fairy friends at the Tulip Tree House and the Faerie Cottage.
Now I mentioned that I escaped to the land of fairies at Winterthur. I also saw super heroes, princesses and one pint-sized Notorious RGB . . . as I visited on October 31. Winterthur organized a daytime outdoor Halloween party for families. There were children everywhere.
By the way, I like the fact that Winterthur is family-friendly. I suspect a lot of locals purchase the annual family pass because Winterthur offers regular programming for tykes as well as adults.
No Pets Allowed
Unfortunately, you cannot walk your dog at Winterthur. You also are not permitted to leave in your car. “Pets are not permitted in the Gardens, nor are there provisions to temporarily house them during a visit,” according to the Winterthur website.
Darn! I can’t bring my grand dogs: Calvin, Perry or Teedie.
Winterthur Home Tour
Winterthur offers a variety of tours, exhibitions, programs, and activities throughout the year. General admission includes a tour of some of the most notable spaces in Henry Francis du Pont’s former home as well as access to the Winterthur Garden and Galleries, special exhibitions, a narrated tram tour (weather permitting), the Campbell Collection of Soup Tureens, and the Enchanted Woods children’s garden. I am bewitched by Winterthur. It is more than just a country home in Delaware. It is a haven.
The Director of Horticulture at Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library, Linda Eirhart, wrote a book about creating a four-season garden. The Winterthur Garden Guide: Color for Every Season was published in March 2020. It serves as a guide a for the everyday gardener. The book offers practical advice about his H. F. du Pont created his seasonal blooming schedule for Winterthur gardens.
I also highly recommend the expanded edition of The Wild Garden. Originally published in 1870 by William Robinson, the expanded edition features 100 photographs plus commentary by author Rick Darke.
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