Friday, October 18, 2013

Travel: Longwood Gardens, Part 1

Sometimes it's easy to overlook what is in your own backyard. So today, I'd like to tell you about mine. Ok, not literally my backyard (I wish!!), but one about an hour or so from where I grew up.

If you're ever traveling in South Central Pennsylvania, in between the bucolic farmland of Lancaster County and the historic landmarks of Philadelphia, you'll find one of the most beautiful gardens in North America: Longwood Gardens

Besides its beauty, it has historical significance as one of the oldest arboretums in North America (begun in 1798), a world-renowned display garden and horticultural education program, vibrant public arts, theater and musical performances, and a commitment to both innovative and sustainable environmental practices.

In 1906, Pierre S. du Pont, a U.S. wealthy industrialist and philanthropist with a keen interest in horticulture and sustainable agricultural methods, bought the arboretum to preserve its trees from being torn down. He ended up transforming the land into a magnificent set of private gardens with strong Italian and French influences. In the 1940s the gardens became a separate non-profit organization and du Pont set up a system that would keep the gardens open to the public and provide for the long-term financial and horticultural success of the land.

Frankly, if you love gardens, Longwood is pure magic. Thanks to the fertile soil, temperate climate, abundant rainfall of the Chester County Valley, and the excellent horticultural practices of the gardeners at Longwood, a plant there is not just a plant, but the healthiest, most vigorous and beautiful specimen of that plant you've ever seen.

I try to visit as often as I can when I am home. Several years ago, I gave my mom an annual membership to the gardens for Christmas (which is a fabulous deal if you live close enough to visit regularly), and she has renewed it almost every year since. It's one of our favorite mother/daughter activities.

Every season has its charms. Though pictures do not do justice to the beauty of this place, I hope that I can tempt you to make the effort to visit.


The most striking feature of the garden is a massive glass conservatory that overlooks the gardens. I think it covers something like four acres. You will first enter two large, central exhibition halls. The plantings in these halls are changed seasonally.

Christmas is an especially spectacular time to visit. Below is the Longwood Christmas display from a few years ago. Every year they present a completely different Christmas theme and plantings, so it is never the same from year to year.

You can be sure, however, that whatever they do, it will be done with exquisite attention to detail and to gorgeous effect.

Off the central exhibit halls, there are long corridors with smaller, distinct rooms that feature plants from various climate zones, such as Mediterranean, desert, temperate and tropical, as well as rooms which feature various families of plants, like orchids, bromeliads, roses and even an incredible collection of Bonsai, that include some over 100 years old.

The conservatory has an open-air water lily garden in the center courtyard (only open in the summer, obviously).

The water lily collection includes the amazing Victoria amazonica,  better described as a water platter. :) Their leaves are huge, 3-4 feet in diameter (in these photos) and can apparently grow to 9 feet in diameter.

If you've walked the half-mile path through the Conservatory, and you still have energy for the outdoor gardens, there is plenty more to see. Fortunately today's virtual tour will be sore-foot-free! :)

Outdoor Gardens

The outdoor gardens are extensive, and they continue to develop new ones. I will highlight just a few of them.

Main Fountain Garden

Standing on the terrace of the Conservatory, you will get a fabulous view of the Main Fountain Garden. This large, formal water garden, built in the style of Italian and French Renaissance water gardens, definitely impresses most when the fountains are on.

 It's difficult to get a shot of the entire garden without a wide lens camera. The picture above represents about three quarters of it. Essentially, the Rococo arches form a backdrop for an expansive green lawn divided into symmetrical geometric patterns created by formal boxwood borders and elegant fountains. Unfortunately, they don't seem to have the fountains on very often. This past July was the first time I had ever seen a fountain show and it was spectacular. However, I believe I saw signs indicating renovation and restoration work was going on, so it may be that once they have completed work on these fountains, they will be able to display them more often.

Descending from the Conservatory terrace to the main garden level, follow an avenue of beautifully clipped maple trees to the gardens beyond.

Idea Garden

Taking a right off of this avenue, you will come to the Idea Garden

This gardens consists of rectangular and square beds with plantings that change every year. Usually, the beds present ordinary plants in creative or interesting ways. For instance, this year they created incredible formalized plantings with coleus, begonias, impatiens and other plants more typically used in containers and front yards.

 Although I probably wouldn't plant my front yard like this, I absolutely loved this display--particularly how they created  lovely pattern, texture and color with unexpected plantings.

Vegetable Garden

From the Idea Garden, looking back towards the Conservatory, you will see the Longwood Vegetable Garden. Not only do they grow vegetables, fruits and herbs for their restaurant here, but it's a great example of a utilitarian space planted in a way that is also aesthetically pleasing.

On your way back toward the avenue of maples, there is a traditional mixed border garden.

While some of the earlier spring flowers like the peonies were faded, the mounds of phloxes, lilies, black-eyed Susan's, and a bunch of other flowers I don't remember the names of, were a lovely informal and slightly messier, let-your-hair-down contrast to the geometric beds in the Idea Garden.

Chimes Tower

Back to the avenue, now beyond the Main Fountain Garden, the path gently curves though lovely rhododendron, gradually descending, giving you glimpses of an ivy-covered, stone turret.

Suddenly, the view opens up to a lush, romantic vision of a stone tower nearly hidden and reflected in a lovely pool. Unfortunately, there is no ruined castle to explore, but the Chimes Tower Garden, which you can climb, gives lovely views across the garden.

I like the lines of these very tall-stemmed yellow day lilies contrasting with the evergreens behind them and the stone wall and tiny blue flowers in front of them. I love how lush and full these plantings are. But mostly I just love all of the green--the bright vibrant greens contrasting with the grey-greens and blue-greens. I really, really miss green. (Texas is not green. At least not like this.)

Well, I think that perhaps we'd better take a break with this garden tour.  This post is getting a little long and there is still so much more to see. :)  We've seen some highlights from the west side of the garden, so we will explore the east side next time.

Thanks for reading and Happy Traveling!

If you have suggestions for some fabulous places to visit in your backyard, let me know in the comments. I would love to hear your recommendations. :)


  1. What a beautiful place! Do you think the Christmas gardens would still be on display around New Year's Day?

    1. Yes, they are open over New Years and usually a few days after (which is an even better time to visit, since it isn't usually quite as crowded). You can check their website for the exact dates this year, but usually the Christmas display is up from after Thanksgiving until the first week of January. During peak days in the Christmas season, you usually do need to get timed tickets (for the conservatory), so definitely check the website before you go. If you are an annual member (or are going as a guest of someone who has a membership) you don't need to get the timed tickets for the Christmas display. Hmmmm....maybe we can figure something out if we're still at home then.....;-)