Journalist: Andrew Gapinski
Photographer: Jon Pixler
Approaching the front gate off the winding roads of Wayne, Pennsylvania you could feel we were about to enter something very special. The huge, hand-crafted, black metal gate that kept the early visitor from entering, gave us a sense of the artistry that we were about to explore. From the gardens overflowing with life to the paired Adirondack styled chairs that summon you around every corner, Chanticleer truly lives up to its title of a pleasure garden.
As we began to explore, we were greeted by Executive Director Bill Thomas. He wanted us to get a full sense of the garden and encouraged the group to experience it on our own. As he left us with Laura Aiken in the Guest Center, she explained the shed-like structure made from reused materials and topped with a metal weather vain that was crafted by the staff. The building was quaintly tucked in amongst the surrounding flora and offered a personal introduction to the gardens for everyone who took the time to stop. She shared with us a hummingbird nest she had found that morning, not much bigger than a golf ball, made completely of spider webs and adorned with tightly placed lichens blending it into its surroundings. The encounter gave us a feeling of the natural beauty that was ahead.
Pushing off to explore the pleasures of the gardens, we encountered Jonathan Wright, one of Chanticleer’s seven Horticulturists. He was happy to share all he could about his areas, including the Tea Cup garden, where he seemed to use the space as tropical experiment, with aroids of all different kinds. The gardeners are given a great range of freedom to explore with new plants and design ideas, which from speaking with may of them encouraged a sense of ownership. Jonathan noted that they are very rarely held back from exploring new concepts. As we thanked him for his time, he steered us in the direction of the Chanticleer Terrace, the garden that surrounds the original estate house.
The approach to the home greets you with stone pillars adorned with rooster statuaries. The rooster theme apparent throughout the estate was the result of Mr. Rosengarten’s, the original owner, sense of humor naming his home after a fictional estate, the “Chanticlere,” in one of his favorite novels. The name, which is also used as a proper term for “rooster,” resulted in incorporating the rooster into the whimsical feel of the grounds. As you pass the proud chanticleers you enter a stone pebble circle drive that is raked into a Zen-like design each morning. The hydrangeas that make up much of the surrounding garden spill over the drive’s edges, offering a quenching display of color in the summer heat.
As you continue to explore the estate, you are continuously amazed by common garden elements that are so uniquely displayed. Large containerized banana plants line the house with hanging baskets of five-foot cannas overhead. As you peer off the patio to what is known as the Great Lawn below, you are treated to the cascading limbs of a sourwood tree in bloom and pulled down the hill by the cool shade of the Asian Woods. Making your way down the cobble edged path, you can’t help but notice the paired Adirondack style chairs painted in all colors and designs. Children seek out the chairs for their unique and bright display, and parents for a place to rest.
Upon entering the Asian Woods, you get real sense of the uniqueness of the garden. With large canopy trees high above, the forest floor is covered with a great diversity of understory plants including hosta, ligularia, and epimedium, to name a few. Unlike what is typical at many public gardens, with signs pointing you in every direction, Chanticleer has vary little directional signage, plant labels, or interpretive panels. Bill explains, “[he] wants you to know what the plant is, only after you ask the question what is that plant.” The lack of signage also gives the visitor the feeling of being in a private garden; it increases the frequency of staff to visitor interactions, and enhances gardens aesthetics by reducing distracting elements. Chanticleer also does an amazing job of taking elements that could potentially be seen as eyesores and makes them pieces of art.
As you continue into the Asian Woods, these elements begin to appear. Each of the drinking fountains scattered throughout the gardens has a distinct appearance to match the ambiance of its surrounding. In the Asian Woods, the fountain’s base is carved out of an old stump, in a more formal area it may blend into the stonewall or match the form of an adjacent pillar. The Asian Woods restroom is also surprisingly pleasant element in this garden. I’ve never taken so many photos of a restroom, but this beautifully constructed, Asian inspired building rises from the bamboo that surrounds it. Dan Stern, first year Fellow, expressed the breathtaking attention to detail that he sees in these gardens. He felt a constant back and forth pull between viewing the garden on the big scale and then being drawn into a smaller scale by its incredible details.
As you are guided from one garden to the next by flowing lines and sweeps of grasses you are offered a sense of mental rest and reflection. The open lawn spaces between gardens was described by Shari Edelson, another first year Fellow, as a cleansing of the sensory palette, before you are immersed for another taste. This is truly the case as you make your way from the Water Garden’s stunning lotus pond, up the hill to the Ruin and Dry Garden where you are greeted by a stone sofa and love seat complete with TV remote. As we continued past the water wheel and spiting toad fountain, we were offered a restful bench under a pair of arching katsuratrees, looking through the living arches of the Cut Flower and Vegetable Garden. The cut flowers are grown in rows but from a distance gives the appearance of a colorful woven tapestry. Although the vegetables that are selected are done so for their aesthetics, the harvest is offered up to the employees and an area women’s shelter. As the thought of food reminded us of lunch we made are way back to the estate house to meet Bill Thomas where we took the opportunity to discuss the gardens.
Although, Chanticleer has no formal collections policy, Bill expressed that Chanticleer’s unofficial policy is to simply provide “visually exciting beauty with a wide diversity of plants.” He went on to say, “no plant is grown just for the sake of growing that plant”, it needs to serve an aesthetic purpose in the garden. “We change to change,” he said, expressing “the status-quo is never enough.” This approach of a continuously evolving garden comes from the vision of the estate’s last private owner, Adolph Rosengarten Jr., who left the entire property for public enjoyment following his death in 1990. He expressed his desires on three aspects of the property that include, the estate house be kept as a museum, that the property serve as an educational resource for both horticulture professionals and amateur gardens, and finally the gardens be for the enjoyment of the public with no restriction on their appearance or direction.
In 1990, the grounds were composed mostly of trees and lawn, and people in the area thought that there was no need for another public garden in the Philadelphia region. Little did they know what a unique and inspiring place they would have missed. Whether the beautifully hand-crafted artistry, amazing gardens, historic estate, or just being outside, Chanticleer has something for everyone!