The special relationship

Image of Robin Lane Fox

My avenues of white-flowered pears are lighting up the early evening. The tops of the trees have to be cut annually but after 25 years in their company I can give Pyrus calleryana “Chanticleer” a gold star. Chanticleers were not so easily found back in 1987. Now the RHS Plantfinder lists them as “widely available”. They have become popular too as street trees in smarter streets in London. Praise in the FT has helped.

For years I linked their spring flowering with the crowing cockerel Chanticleer of Chaucer and the poets. My neighbour even kept such a Chanticleer, who had to be hooded to stop him welcoming the dawn with a solo unwelcome to the household. In fact the pears are named after an American garden, not a rooster. This past week I have been enjoying photos of the American garden that shares its name with the trees.

The Chanticleer garden near Wayne, Pennsylvania is a tribute nowadays to Anglo-American co-operation. Its roots go back to the Rosengarten family, especially to young Adolph Rosengarten, who loved the site, planned and planted its vistas and fine trees, and never forgot the inspiring English gardens of Bodnant and Sissinghurst Castle. In wartime he served in Britain in the code-breaking teams at Bletchley Park. After the war he continued to cut his own garden’s hedges, to swim daily in summer and to lead the discreet life of a natural gentleman. One of his gardeners still remembers him for a specially thoughtful practice. He liked to give his working gardeners a financial gift in an envelope when they returned from their yearly holiday. He reckoned that “nobody is as broke as when they come back from vacation”. If only we had more Rosengartens and fewer layers of middle management.

The Rosengartens’ fortunes came from a chemical business, which they eventually sold to Merck. Chanticleer was the love of Alfred and his parents and over time it grew to be a property with five separate houses and a small demesne of 47 acres. When young Adolph first married in the years of the Depression, his parents sold him a house on the property for the grand sum of $1. He was to live on the site for the next 60 years, planting good limes and Cercidiphyllum, flowering cherries, redbuds and dogwoods.

In the early 1980s he was much exercised about his house and home’s future. After careful inquiry at great American gardens, including the nearby Longwood, Adolph Rosengarten appointed an Englishman to take the grounds forward. He chose Chris Woods from Kew. In 1990, Rosengarten died in his mid-80s and Woods became the garden’s first executive director. Under the guidance of Chanticleer’s board of trustees the planting was greatly enriched and taken in new directions. Ornamental grasses were coming back into fashion and before long a big swathe of the “prairie dropseed” had been introduced to underplant an entire hillside. The gardeners now burn its dead top growth to tidy it each spring. In England too designers were regaining their boldness with colours and unusual pairings of leaves and flowers. Big luxurious leaves were sought out for an “exotic” effect and before long Chanticleer had big-leaved bananas and purple-leaved cannas for impact.

The garden editor of the Washington Post, Adrian Higgins, has studied the Chanticleer garden over many seasons and it is through his new book, brilliantly illustrated with Rob Cardillo’s photographs, that I have been mentally walking round the property. As Higgins remarks, Chanticleer is nowadays renowned for fine planting but Adolph Rosengarten himself would probably be shocked at first if he ever came back to life. His own style had been so much quieter and more subdued. The new Chanticleer has panache and ingenuity, better suited to the many visitors for which it is now maintained. So, too, I am sure that the first reaction of the founder Lawrence Johnston to the new look of his Hidcote garden would be one of bewilderment. Gardens never stand still and if Rosengarten or Johnston had opened their gardens intensively to the public they too would have allowed their style to evolve.

Certainly Rosengarten would be delighted by the high standards of gardening and maintenance that the present team of seven gardeners and the current director Bill Thomas sustain. How could he not admire the huge sweeps of narcissi and blue chionodoxa Woods and his gardeners introduced to enliven spring? In the first year after Rosengarten’s death, no less than 40,000 narcissi were planted and have now been increased to more than 100,000. A favourite is the softly coloured Narcissus Honeybird and a part of the spring garden has been given an entire “daffodil avenue”. April is a spectacular month for a visit and then the blue bulbous camassias are at their best, flowering by the thousand too, except when a hot spell drives them to death in a few days.

The new layers of decoration have not dislodged Rosengarten’s own more durable legacy. His superb Corylopsis will soon be in full flower, including the scented Corylopsis sinensis, a wondrous mass of pale yellow. His big white-flowered Cornus Kousa survive but are now draped with the white heads of climbing Schizophragma, grown informally through the branches. Rosengarten’s pale pink cherry trees are stunning each spring but new carpets of bulbs now add a complementary colour underneath. Like me, Rosengarten admired the lovely pink Prunus Accolade and, like me, he also underplanted it with hellebores.

Modern Chanticleer may be spectacular, but visitors are not overpowered. The garden was always planned to fall into separate smaller sections, perhaps on the model of the English gardens that the Rosengartens admired. In each of them Woods and his successors have used their ingenuity, even introducing a pair of curving serpentine beds, planted with a single rose-pink colour, like a sort of floral snake. Visitors can note the details of each separate section and use them as impetus for their own smaller gardens at home. The planting under a magnificent local oak in the Oak Bed looks particularly enviable – a mixture of pale colours and three distinct woodland anemones, all happy in what is dry, shaded soil.

On the margins of Zone 7, Chanticleer is not as cold as the Cotswolds but it is not so mild that hardiness is never a problem. Some of the boldest planting is in pots and one of the neatest ideas is the use of the spaces on the tops of the steps’ side-walls as beds, or planters, for a changing mass of seasonal displays. April, May and autumn look to be the months for a top-class visit to this hybrid child of English and American gardening.

None of the photos shows a pear tree called Chanticleer in the Chanticleer garden, but I cannot believe it is missing. I am reassured and slightly haunted by the similar ways in which Rosengarten’s mind and mine have worked over 50 years. So often we liked the same things. When the Easter holiday is over it would be great to get a little envelope from the great man himself to tide me over until our gardens have begonias in flower in July.

‘Chanticleer: A Pleasure Garden’ by Adrian Higgins, photos by Rob Cardillo (University of Pennsylvania Press, RRP £19.50)

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