August 19, 2011 – Chanticleer, PA
(written by Quill Teal-Sullivan, photographs by Nate Tschaenn)
The third destination for the First Year Fellows’ summer fieldtrip series was Chanticleer, a 35-acre estate garden along the Philadelphia mainline. Once the home of the Rosengarten family of Philadelphia, the house and surrounding grounds became a non-profit organization with the death of Adolf Rosengarten, Jr. in 1990. While the house is preserved to illustrate how the family may have lived during the early 1900’s, the grounds are not maintained according to historic records. In keeping with the founder’s wish, the grounds are intended to be pleasure gardens designed and kept to the standards of the talented garden staff. Chanticleer’s vision is to be one of the most beautiful gardens in the world, while creating the intimacy and comfort of a private estate. And this they do quite well. The moment we pulled through the gates it was as though we had fallen through a rabbit hole and landed in a world of horticultural wonder, where tranquility and sensual stimulation are perfectly balanced.
We were greeted by Bill Thomas, Chanticleer’s Executive Director, who was dressed in work boots as though just in from the dirt. He led us to the open-air welcome pavilion, nestled in a tropical extravaganza of banana trees and elephant-ears, its roof dripping with a tangle of passionflower and Dutchman’s pipe. The pavilion was crowned with a statue of Chanticleer himself, a proud rooster who shares the namesake of the garden, and can be found perched here and there atop a fence or column. Bill subsequently sent us out into the gardens to explore at our own pace, so that we could develop our own unique interpretations.
The gardens at Chanticleer are comprised of a series of vignettes, each with its own character, charm and mystery. Each could stand on its own, yet they are gracefully strung together by the common thread of horticultural whimsy. I found myself drawn to the Ruin Garden, which sits on the footprint of what was once an original estate house. The ruin itself is not authentic, but it certainly elicits the allure of crumbling farmhouse in the Irish countryside. Traces of human habitation and order are combined with the wildness of nature overtaking an abandoned structure. Vines creep up the walls. Echeveria adorns the mantle like an overgrown arrangement. A tree bends through the opening of a window. Ferns take the place of a fire in the hearth. This play between human function and nature’s prowess is a reoccurring theme at Chanticleer. But it is orchestrated with such intention and elegance, a testament to the gardener’s creativity and skill.
At lunchtime, we gathered at the terrace gardens beneath the pool pavilion for sandwiches and sweet tea with Bill Thomas and Ed Hincklen, the facilities manager and general contractor. Afterwards, they lead us on a behind-the-scenes tour of the new projects underway, so we could see first hand the incredible amount of work that goes into making such a garden so pleasurable. The first stop was Bell’s Woodland, Chanticleer’s newest addition to the gardens that exhibits flora of the native east coast forests. A winding path throughout the woods is made from rubber mulch, an innovative new material of recycled tires, quite convincingly made to look like natural mulch but with a spring underfoot. A feature of Bell’s Woodland will be a bridge resembling an abstract fallen beach log, which, when finished, will be dripping with ferns an moss.
Chanticleer is very conscious of energy consumption and is working to be as gentle on the environment as possible. This effort is seen in their recent solar panel installation atop the equipment garage, which produces 20% of Chanticleer’s energy needs. Ed showed us the “numbers rolling in” on the megawatt meter, a sight that makes an energy-wise facilities manager proud. The major capital project at the moment was the construction of a new greenhouse big enough to over winter a menagerie of tropical plants. The new greenhouse features radiant floor heating and all American made building materials, 98% of which are recycled. In another effort to reduce energy use, Chanticleer is minimizing turf by replacing areas with plantings of mondo grass, ferns and fescue mixes. It is clear that the staff of Chanticleer takes pride in their environmental initiatives both big and small. It is inspiring to see that innovations in environmental responsibility are approached with the same enthusiasm as innovations in horticultural display.
Our tour came to an end at the Entry Courtyard, which boasts containers planted with vegetables in the most inspired ornamental arrangements. The elements of color, texture and form were each considered carefully in stunning compositions. We said goodbye to our generous hosts amidst urns ripe with kohlrabi and cascading cucumbers. And away we went, the image of a crowing rooster disappearing in the distance. Each First Year Fellow dreaming of their next visit to the beautiful gardens of Chanticleer.