Planted to perfection

Write first, visit later. I have just corrected a rare occasion on which I followed this rule, a dangerous one for gardening columnists. In the spring I discussed the excellent new book on Chanticleer garden in Philadelphia, one of the star turns of American gardening. With the help of Adrian Higgins’s text and the book’s superb photographs it is easy to enter into Chanticleer’s evident magic. I have just entered it in earnest with a targeted visit. The magic is real.

Chanticleer is easily accessible by road, leading off grassy country and rustic fencing which make Wayne, Philadelphia and Villanova seem a distant brick-and-concrete mirage. While parents, fans and female cheerleaders blocked Lancaster Avenue for the season’s first Saturday football game in Villanova, I found myself 20 minutes away in acres of mown grass among planting so adventurous and so unusual that I ran out of notes after the first hour. On any given Saturday in the visiting season you could do the same. Chanticleer’s gardening is as good as you will ever see around a house that was formerly a family home.

In the lower garden I enjoyed an up-beat American welcome from a garden underling, complete with secateurs and a mental list of jobs which her section head had allotted among the staff of seven. Beyond her stretched a pretty idea which we in England do not exploit. Little groups of rose-purple flowered colchicums had been artfully scattered in the rough grass, looking as if they had naturalised themselves in contentment. In England we tend to bunch colchicums together into biggish clumps, often near the trunks of big trees. The big glossy leaves then develop only in spring and strike many gardeners, but not me, as too untidy for an April display. If only we thought of colchicums in twos or threes across a bigger area, we would give a new twist to the difficult art of “meadow gardening” in autumn. The flowers are like big crocuses and are so bold on stems without leaves in autumn. I will be imitating the idea next year, using 40 or 50 shocking purple colchicums in 20 random groups in rough grass. At Chanticleer they will still be a step ahead as they use a sequence of varieties, six in all, which flower from late August till October. The freest flowerer is Colchicum Lilac Wonder, well able to compete with grass.

Colchicums at Chanticleer

Since the millennium, exotic, big-leaved plantings have become fashionable again among designers, photographers and obedient gardeners. Even I have tried to grow a token banana plant in the cold Cotswolds but a plastic blanket failed to bring it through the winter. At Chanticleer exotic planting has taken on a new dimension. In the 1990s the garden’s British-born executive director, Christopher Woods, developed terraced areas around the former house of the property’s owners, the Rosengarten family. He planted them with an inspired combination of bold foliage plants and jungly containers, which make a superb green setting of light and shade for views out from the terrace windows. The current director Bill Thomas and his team have carried the style forwards in the right spirit.

Stunned on a nearby seat, I tried to work out what I was seeing. As a matter of principle Chanticleer garden does not use plant labels. The belief is that labelling “shifts the place from being a garden to a classroom”. Labels draw the eye and stop the feet. Their absence is a challenge, too, for the presuppositions of visitors. I am only human and I cannot entirely suppress the selfishness that makes me want to know what this or that plant is so that I can hunt for it back home. Less selfishly I want to play botanical memory games and nail down each plant with a Latin title. These habits make a visitor look at the parts, not the whole. Instead, Chanticleer offers printed plant lists for a small fee in each different section of the garden. They are updated each season, unlike most gardens’ labels, and are set discreetly in unobtrusive boxes.

No wonder I had felt out of my depth. How many of you grow rectangular beds of tall Musaxishuangbannaensis Mekong Giant or big-leaved Colocasia gigantea Thailand Giant Strain? Do you even know an excellent Salvia called Wendy’s Wish and if you think you do, would you know to mix it with something called Stemodia tomentosa? The pots are superbly planted and the balance between flowers and greenery is of the highest class.

Readers in frost-prone Scotland may be thinking that anyone in a milder climate can be exotic with plants that surprise a visitor on a sweaty American day. If so, look at the Long Borders with plants such as Belamcanda chinensis Hello Yellow or the Cutting Garden with anything from Rudbeckia Henry Eilers and Dioscorea batatas to Iris Dance and Sing and every sort and kind of zinnia. I took battered refuge in the faith that my dahlias at home are slightly better, but the right frame of mind for a visitor is to surrender to the plantings, love the fact that so much of them is unfamiliar to alert English eyes and mentally congratulate everyone who has planned, planted and maintained this wonderful garden. It has not lost the feel of a private country house.

I could dwell out of season on the Asian woodlands or conjure up the cherries that flower so delicately above selected daffodils in spring. Right now I would emphasise the remarkable Ruin Garden, the brainchild of Woods on the foundations of the former Minder House. Here the garden’s founder, Adolph Rosengarten, had lived until his death in 1990. After his widow’s death in 2001, Woods carried through an inspired plan to recycle this outlying house as an artistic ruin with garden “rooms” based on the former library, dining room and so forth. In Berkeley, California he had been enchanted by the garden of the sculptor Marcia Donahue and brought her to Chanticleer to carve stone-sculpted books for the Ruin’s playful “Library”. The Ruin is made of grey schist, like a Welsh castle, but the planting inside is brilliantly rare and room-related. The view through “ruined” archways is deliberately artful. In the “dining” room behind the centrepiece the space centres on a clever dining “table” topped with shallow water, a water table in reality. As always the plant lists of the section range far beyond my immediate knowledge.

Chanticleer’s founder and donor, Adolph Rosengarten, wished his garden to be developed in dialogue with the English gardens he most admired on his travels. He thought of Sissinghurst and Bodnant, above all. I can give his modern heirs no higher praise than to say that I thought of neither while I walked round their wonderfully planted diversity, but that I left feeling that their Chanticleer is up there in the same high class.

‘Chanticleer: A Pleasure Garden’ by Adrian Higgins is published by University of Pennsylvania Press (£19.50/$29.95)

Chanticleer is open 10am-5pm, Wednesday-Sunday until November 4

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