Lit up by Longwood

Image of Robin Lane Fox

When somebody next tells you to “have a nice day”, without caring whether you do or not, here is how to have one. Take yourself to Philadelphia and head a short distance west to Longwood Gardens, the pinnacle of great gardening. Arrive just before the gate opens at 9am and trust in the calm, blue autumn sky. It will not only be a nice day. It will be one of the greatest garden days of your life. I know, because I have just had two: a hyper-nice morning and a lit-up night.

Longwood gardens are just over 100 years old and derive from the drive and taste of the legendary businessman, Pierre du Pont. Thanks to the du Pont finances, Longwood has a budget which public gardens in Europe can only envy, but they are also admirable at devising programmes of events and displays to attract a paying public. I do not begrudge Longwood’s gardeners one dime of their yearly income. I would gladly vote to double it if they asked. They practise, display and sustain the highest horticultural standards in the world. They delight their crowds of visitors throughout the year.

My previous visits have been for the Christmas season. Since 1998, I am pleased to have encouraged some of you to follow the same route and report back that you, too, have been stunned by Longwood’s indoor displays. I can now pronounce on September and October. A visit then is even better. The outdoor gardens are on top form and the indoor displays are so amazing that I will hold them over for another week.

I went in twice: once in the early morning and once at dusk. The twilight visit was to “amp up the experience”, in the fine words of Longwood’s publicity. At nightfall the garden has been illuminated all summer by hundreds of thousands of artistic lights, set out by the British light-artist Bruce Munro.

I first spotted his talent when he did a window for Harvey Nichols’ London store without losing the plot. At Longwood he has even set thousands of lights shaped like flowers and seed-heads beneath the canopy of the woodland plantings. I now realise I have been sleeping away half of my garden’s potential. It should not be hidden behind the house-curtains for 10 hours a day. It would flower twice as long if it is amped up. Art-lighting of our gardens should be the next big wave. It will counter the yellow sodium glare of street lights advancing across England’s former green belt.

It will be one in the eye for the drabbies who want to reduce gardening to eco-sustainable greenery. Forget those fairies at the bottom of the garden. Set fairy lights through the shrubs and under the trees. Baffle the badgers by lighting them up.

In 1907, Pierre du Pont wrote, “I have recently experienced what I would formerly have diagnosed as an attack of insanity”. The “insanity” was the purchase of a farmhouse and the first land at Longwood, and the decision to make a major garden. Fortunately this madness struck him, as it still strikes repentant hedge-funders who have made enough to suffer from it. On a morning from heaven I walked down du Pont’s long Flower Garden Walk and its double borders, 200 yards long. They still honour his wish to have an “old-fashioned garden” in this part of the site and to keep the paths of brick.

The fashion is no longer “old”. The new plantings tend to fall in regular blocks. The colours are segregated into sections, one after the other. Perhaps an English touch would use a little more informality within the formal beds.

However, this is top-class America, not Miss Jekyll’s corner of old Surrey. The choice of unusual plants, the matching of colours within each block and above all, the superb level of health and cultivation lift this border into the highest class.

Repeatedly Longwood gardens show ornamental cannas at their best. Some of them grow in the lily ponds. Seven-foot-high hybrids, bred at Longwood, give height to the back of the double borders.

Too many gardeners write them off as flowers fit only for the French by the seaside. I marvelled at the elegant beauty of their Longwood canna “Conestoga”, totally missing from our British plant finder. It has the loveliest soft yellow heads of flower above wonderful glaucous foliage. It helps that it is set off at Longwood by standard bushes of the half-hardy Allamanda cathartica Hendersonii, a superb shrub with flowers like a big hibiscus in shades of a brilliant clear yellow. The Allamanda is not on sale in Britain, either.

Do we ever use a rose-red plant called pentas in our best borders? Why are we so buttoned-up that we cannot see the beauty in big double marigolds with names like Primrose Lady, grading into the clearer green-yellow of the leaves of a Golden Pineapple Sage? If Canna Orange Punch sounds too strong for you, try planting it near the red-and-orange dahlia called Pooh, one which I have wrongly hidden this year in a dimming haze of white flowers. Big blocks of Longwood’s compact blue caryopteris set off the blue section without being any bother. The dark blue salvias are heavenly and I am willing to believe the best of the unopened buds on a low-growing “mum”, Chrysanthemum Soft Cheryl.

My notebooks are bursting. What about trying papyrus as a major bedding plant and growing the one called Cyperus King Tut? Why do we not use the scented white gladiolus, widely known as Acidanthera, as a flower to scatter in ones and twos in autumn borders? In Britain we used to fear that it would not flower before the frosts in early autumn. As the frosts delay until late November, this heavenly flower, white with a central chocolate smudge, is excellent outdoors in southern England. Whereas we still grow it timorously in pots, Longwood liberates it informally to rise through lower bedding-plants as if it has scattered itself naturally. The scent is divine on a Phildelphia morning.

I could raise your sights and test your botanical Latin by dwelling on bedding plants such as Euphorbia hypericifolia with tiny white flowers. You, too, would covet the lavender violet-flowered Plectranthus Mona. Longwood sets standards we can only aspire to match, but everywhere it suggests new plants and tricks that we can all adapt.

The last word, this season, should go to Bruce Munro, the garden’s illuminator for the summer. “I want to express those moments of being lost, of discovering that feeling of merging with something greater.” Perhaps it takes a light-artist to put the aspiration of my garden into words. At Longwood all of us merge with gardening greater than we know at home.

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