Activities Walking

Wild Winterthur Gardens

Winterthur gardens feature curving walk paths.

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.

Winterthur Gardens is a 60-acre paradise.

Self-Guided Tour

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 is the home of industrialist Henry Francis du Pont.

Come walk the gardens at Winterthur Mansion

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.

Delaware’s Monet

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.

Winter Gardens features a koi pond.

Winter Gardens’ Koi Pond

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.

There are ancient trees growing at Winterthur gardens.

Looking through a tree canopy

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.

Estate Views

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

There are miles of trails to hike at Winterthur Gardens.

Winterthur Browns Meadow & Trail

Garden Pathways

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.

Wild Winterthur Gardens features curving paths.

Paths and stairs curve rather than lay straight.

Plant Palette

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.

Fall foilage on display at Winterthur is colorful.

Fall foliage at Winterthur is spectacular.

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.

Enchanted Woods

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.

The Enchanted Woods at Winterthur features special programs for children.

Children eagerly head to the Enchanted Woods.

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.

Family Friendly

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 does not permit dogs to visit.

Perry (left) and Teedie (right) are sad.

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.

Gardening Books

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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  • Katie Diederichs
    November 27, 2020 at 7:52 pm

    What a beautiful place! Looks like a place I’d want to sit on a fall morning with a book and a thermos of coffee! And if I got bored with my book I could just watch those koi fish all day haha! I love gardens in the fall and am already missing the leaves.

    • Terri Markle
      November 28, 2020 at 6:39 am

      I am so sad that you have to miss autumn. It is my favorite seasons – the colors! I live in DC so I am in awe of the trees changing colors.

  • Ummi
    November 28, 2020 at 5:26 am

    I love this idea of ‘painting with plants’ and the fact that the landscape here is not laid out in the most straight-forward way. I would love to spend at least half a day here, but I think I will wait for warmer weather 😄

    • Terri Markle
      November 28, 2020 at 6:39 am

      Ummi you would LOVE these gardens. I am glad you like my comparison of du Pont and Monet. I see so many comparisons. I will do another article in the spring about Winterthur’s azalea festival. You can enjoy virtually.

  • Sharyn
    November 28, 2020 at 5:39 am

    What a lovely place. Shame you can’t take you dog for a walk.

    • Terri Markle
      November 28, 2020 at 6:38 am

      I decided to list the fact that dogs weren’t permitted because Americans are very accustomated to bringing their dogs everywhere – wineries, restaurants, parks etc.

  • Sue
    November 28, 2020 at 5:44 am

    I’ve never heard of these gardens but they look beautiful & the perfect antidote to escape to. Loving the idea of the fairy woodland too & bless your dogs for their sad-looking faces!

    • Terri Markle
      November 28, 2020 at 6:37 am

      Winterthur is probably in the Top 20 most famous gardens in the USA yet so many international travelers don’t know about it. I hope I spread the word. (Can you believe that photo of Perry & Teedie?)

  • Ophelie
    November 28, 2020 at 5:52 am

    What charming gardens! I would love to wander here it looks so beautiful and relaxing! The perfect place for a stroll! Thanks for sharing all the info and too bad you couldn’t take your dogs with you…

    • Terri Markle
      November 28, 2020 at 6:36 am

      I wish I could bring my grandpups here too. They would LOVE it. But it will definitely be a place I visit more than once. I want to see the gardens in all 4 seasons.

  • cosette
    November 28, 2020 at 6:08 am

    Beautiful gardens, would be perfect to see them in fall. Love your photos.

    • Terri Markle
      November 28, 2020 at 6:35 am

      Awww thank you so much. The gardens make it easy to take great pics!

  • Adele
    November 28, 2020 at 9:49 am

    What a beautiful place, shame there are no dogs allowed. Ours would love it there! Fabulous photos.

  • Katherine
    November 28, 2020 at 9:57 am

    Lasting four hours outside in the gardens while it was below 40 degrees seems like a feat to me! I’ve never seen an estate using the wild gardening principles, it sounds very interesting. Especially since the ones I’ve visited have had gardens that have been planned and manicured to within an inch of their lives.

    • Terri Markle
      November 28, 2020 at 2:35 pm

      This is what makes Winterthur so spectacular. You really do feel like you are escaping into the wild. I think it is one of the most beautiful gardens in America.

  • Carley
    November 28, 2020 at 9:59 am

    What a nice article on a beautiful place! I clicked through to their bloom guide, which is such a nice resource for visitors! I wish more places offered something like that!
    Your doggies are precious by the way 🙂 thanks for sharing!

    • Terri Markle
      November 28, 2020 at 2:35 pm

      I do have cute grand pups, don’t I? And I didn’t even show the golden retriever (Calvin). I also agree that Winterthur provides so many resources, including virtual tours. I should have listed it in my article.

  • Lisa Shehan
    November 28, 2020 at 11:53 am

    Wow this is such a stunning place. I love the fall foliage!! Adding it to my bucketlist! 🙂

    • Terri Markle
      November 28, 2020 at 2:34 pm

      It is definitely worth a visit. You could spend a day just exploring the gardens.

  • Katie
    November 28, 2020 at 2:23 pm

    Great post! I love the comparison of the gardens to Monet! Seems like a beautiful place to visit. Thanks for sharing!

  • A Capone Connection
    November 28, 2020 at 2:50 pm

    Such a charming garden space to enjoy the fall. Thank you so much for sharing. Sorry that the pups were not allowed to experience it too.

    • Terri Markle
      November 28, 2020 at 3:15 pm

      You should definitely visit if you live on the East Coast. The mansion and gardens are a national treasure!

  • Kariss Ainsworth
    November 28, 2020 at 4:01 pm

    What a gorgous place for an autumn visit!

    • Terri Markle
      November 28, 2020 at 5:51 pm

      It was spectacular. I can’t wait to return in the spring and see the azaleas!

  • Nancy Hann
    November 28, 2020 at 7:57 pm

    This looks wonderful. I’d love to tour the home as well. I love botanical gardens in any season. If you’re ever in southeast Virginia check out the Norfolk Botanical Garden too.

  • Agnes
    November 28, 2020 at 10:11 pm

    I’ve never even heard of this place, but it does truly resemble a place that would inspire some poetry! I love anywhere that leads me to an enchanted wood. 🙂

  • Holly
    November 28, 2020 at 11:18 pm

    Wow it really does look like something out of a fairy tale!

    • Terri Markle
      November 29, 2020 at 7:25 am

      Especially the Enchanted Woods. The children get to experience a fairy tale world. Thanks for reading Holly!

  • Kelli
    November 29, 2020 at 12:10 am

    Gorgeous! What a tranquil escape, thanks for sharing.

    • Terri Markle
      November 29, 2020 at 7:25 am

      It is such a Zen retreat. I would love to do yoga in the Winterthur gardens.

  • Nessica Birwadkar
    November 29, 2020 at 1:34 am

    Great post! Loved the content. Perry and Teedie look like such adorable little floofs! 😀

    • Terri Markle
      November 29, 2020 at 7:24 am

      I am so glad you enjoyed the article. I love visiting gardens both in the US and internationally. And I agree: my grandpups are adorable (and often quite naughty!)

  • Sara
    November 29, 2020 at 4:19 am

    These gardens look stunning! It’s so funny, there is also a city called Winterthur just next to Zürich 🙂

    • Terri Markle
      November 29, 2020 at 7:23 am

      I also learned in my research that Winterthur was the home of the family in the 19th century, which is how it earned its name.

  • Alma
    November 29, 2020 at 8:16 am

    I can just see myself exploring Winterthur Gardens! Those autumn colours are amazing.

    • Terri Markle
      November 29, 2020 at 6:37 pm

      You can really lose yourself walking around the property. I can’t wait to see the gardens in the spring!

  • Margarita Ibbott
    November 29, 2020 at 8:54 am

    This was an amazing read. If you enjoy large estate gardens and are ever in #QuebecMaritime be sure and stop off at Reford Gardens/ Jardins Métis. They are stunning. I have a post about the International Garden Festival.

    • Terri Markle
      November 29, 2020 at 6:37 pm

      I love Quebec. Hopefully I will get back again after this pandemic is over. Thanks for recommendation.

  • Joanna
    December 5, 2020 at 10:41 am

    I’m not a gardener but I love exploring gardens. I enjoyed reading this post. Thank you for sharing.

    • Terri Markle
      December 6, 2020 at 6:42 am

      I always try to visit gardens when I visit a new city. I especially love historical homes & gardens like Winterthur and Biltmore.