Eight Must-Haves From Chanticleer

Chanticleer, just outside of Philadelphia, bills itself as “A Pleasure Garden” and I think that title pretty much nails it.  This garden celebrates plants, design, and craftsmanship more than any other I’ve been to. 

Now, there are various kinds of pleasure to be had from various kinds of gardens — kings’ gardens (Versailles), cooks’ gardens (potagers), botanists’ gardens (arboreta), etc.   But with stunning plant combinations at every turn and public restrooms that are nicer than the place you got married, Chanticleer is truly a gardener’s garden

Here are some of the things I’ve decided I must have after visiting this glorious garden:

 1. Persian Ivy — Is it wrong to covet a species of ivy?  I first became aware of  Hedera colchica when I worked at a local nursery several years ago.  Like all the vines you see in commerce, it was growing up a skinny little rod, so it didn’t strike me as anything special at the time.  A few years later, I saw what I think was Persian Ivy used at the gardens of The Alamo as a gorgeous groundcover at the base of some large trees, and I took notice. 

At Chanticleer, they drape the cultivar ‘Sulphur Heart’ — which sports a lime green splotch surrounded by deep emerald — over a stone wall in their Ruin Garden.  It strikes just the right tone of opulent neglect.  I want some.

2. A Gorgeous Container Water Garden with Freshly Plucked Floating Flowers Gracing my Entryway — Amazing containers are everywhere at Chanticleer.  Though it’s impossible to match them in quantity, I figure having just one stunning container at my front door would be a reasonable goal.  And yes, I would want to float fresh flowers in there!  Never mind that the only person who would see it would be the UPS man, or that our dog would probably use it as his personal water bowl after a walk, mutilating the flowers and leaving runnels of dog drool to drip down the sides of the container.  Nobody said that the pursuit of beauty was easy.

3. Strands of Virginia Creeper Dangling Elegantly from a Trellis — The gardeners of Chanticleer were able to see beauty where I had seen only a somewhat mundane native vine — Parthenocissus quinquefolia.  It grows in a tangled heap on my chain link fence, and I admit that I never thought it could be anything else.  But look how delicate this vine is in the photo below!  It’s not just that they understand the Magic of Pruning at Chanticleer, it’s that they had a vision of what this plant could be, given the right setting and a sharp pair of Felcos.

4. Hovering Balls of Dusty Miller — Dusty Miller actually used to be on my list of 10 Most Hideous Garden Plants (which I haven’t actually written yet but is on my to-do list).  Just the name “Dusty Miller” puts me off…it sounds like the name of a chain-smoking proprietress of a run down Bar & Grill in El Paso, Texas, who has greasy hair and glares at you if you order foreign beer.  So I was biased against it from the get-go.

But the gardeners at Chanticleer do some inventive things with this most humble of annuals.  Check out how they trained Dusty into a standard and then placed her among a border of richly colored foliage plants.  The effect is this ethereal ball of feathery gray foliage that appears to float, adding a sense of weightlessness to this border full of coarser, heavier plants.  So cool!

5. Allegheny Spurge — I would like to find a spot for this in my shade garden because our American spurge is just as good as any of that fancy imported spurge, thank you very much.  Hmph!  Plus, our native spurge actually looks more natural and woodsy than the Japanese variety, don’t you think?  The newer cultivars of Pachysandra terminalis have gotten so shiny they look like they’re coated with Armor-All, and they just spread too fast!  This Allegheny Spurge is way more chill; it has a muted blue-green leaf color, it doesn’t grow in such dense, uptight clumps, and it doesn’t have anything to prove, man. 

Pachysandra procumbens, fronted by some wild ginger

6. A Water Wheel — The question should not be “why would I want a waterwheel in my garden?” but rather, “how many waterwheels can I fit in my garden and will I actually be able to mill my own wheat?”  The answer to the first question, sadly, is probably “none”, which makes the answer to the second question a moot point.

But wouldn’t it be great to have one of these in your garden?  The steady trickle of water would create a peaceful ambience, and the device itself would conjure up the spirit of simpler times, like, say….the Industrial Revolution.  The tricky part would be convincing your spouse to dig in the necessary canals and install the required system of pumps.  After that, airlifting the the actual wheel into place would be a snap.


7. A Giant Serpentine planting of Sorghum Flanked by Fields of Little Bluestem — I love the artistic statement the folks at Chanticleer make with agricultural crops.  In the US, sorghum is a crop grown mostly for animal fodder, but planted this way — a dwarf form laid out in dense, snaking rows, it is a treat for the human eye.  The sorghum has deep green leaves and is topped with greenish-gold flowers, and when flanked by a hazy swath of Little Bluestem, it is pure magic. 

 My backyard is too shady but I think I have a little extra room in my side yard where I could put this.

Michelangelo said, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”  In looking at an ordinary block of marble, Michelangelo saw David, he saw The Pieta

I think what the Chanticleer gardeners have done with plants like Dusty Miller, Virginia Creeper, and Grain Sorghum shows that they share the sort of vision that Michelangelo was talking about: they see the aesthetic potential of even the commonest plants.  In their hands, the mundane becomes elegant, the utilitarian becomes sublime. 

Which brings me to my final “must have” item inspired by Chanticleer:

8. A Brilliant Imagination When It Comes to Planting Design* 

*Plus Loads More Cash, at Least 20 Acres, and a Staff of Cheerful, Attractive, Knowledgeable Gardeners to Carry Out My Every Whim.

27 thoughts on “Eight Must-Haves From Chanticleer

  1. I enjoyed your list of must-haves, esp. #8. Oh yeah! Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin knows how to make the most of Virginia creeper too. It’s draped along a stone aqueduct and turns a gorgeous russet in fall, setting off the orange tones of the stone. Sadly, in my own garden, um, no, it doesn’t look nearly so great.

    • Okay, I need to actually spend some time in Texas seeing stuff instead of just the overnights I usually do. The lLadybird Center sounds like a must see. Plus, I want to see the bluebonnets, the Dallas arboretum, and big bend nat’l park. Anything else you would recommend?

  2. * And deep, perfectly drained topsoil….And no black walnuts??
    Fab garden, especially the sorghum thing. I’ve never thought about agricultural design as a possible career before but I’m seeing new possibilities.

    • Oh yes Catherine, the perfect topsoil is a given. But as much as I complain about them, I would not want to give up my black walnut trees. They are very stately. Chanticleer actually had several of them dotted around, but I think they have a dedicated staff member whose only job is to pick up fallen walnuts, because there were none on the ground!

  3. Chris Woods is the genius who started most of what you praise and inspired the staff that has carried on his legacy. I wonder if his parking-lot medians are still there: day lilies under purple smoke bushes speckled with variegated porcelain-berry vines.

  4. First time I went a few years ago, we’d planned to do both Chanticleer and Longwood….We never got to Longwood…..So many fresh plants, combinations, and visions to savor and ponder. And all feeling very intimate and human scale and magical. The Ruin is perhaps my top favorite yet the Mediterranean area and the field and the pool area and the entry to the rest rooms and the containers at the entrance and…..are all my top favorites as well!!!! My new goal is to get there every season….

  5. Ah, this garden is such a gem! Love your photos and commentary. Chanticleer is only about five miles from my house, and I don’t spend nearly enough time enjoying it. Your post has inspired me to get over there for a long overdue visit. Excellent post

  6. Ruin Garden is really a must see. The Ivy on the wall is awesome, such a great selection, but needs a clever hand with pruners to keep that effect looking just right. I envy that sort of “bonsai master” pruning skill. Christopher Llyod had a similar effect with Hedra helix ‘Buttercup’ at Great Dixter and Carol Bornstein and staff do a similar effect with the native grape, Vitus californica, at Santa Barbara Botanic Garden in California.

  7. As an afficiando of all cultivars of dusty miller, I must protest! I believe the silver leaved plant you have pictured from Chanticleer is Lotus – parrot vine – not dusty miller. Dusty miller is an upright and lusty grower with beautifully felted leaves. Some simple, some serrated. With just and proper company, this very ordinary plant shines. Parrot vine is droopy goofy-and limp. Not my idea of a great plant either!

  8. I appreciate that your blogpost lauds not just the exotic (of which you can find plenty at Chanticleer) but some things that seem more ordinary but well used at Chanticleer. I admire the variety of wildly self-seeded plants that they allow to colonize in some areas: Perilla, Impatiens balfourii, Lychnis coronaria, Tinantia pringleii, Euphorbia stricta ‘Golden foam’. Although obviously well-tended, most of the gardens have a very relaxed sensibilities where self-sown “volunteers” aren’t extracted until they detract from the garden.

    • Eric, I also thought it was interesting that they let a whole bunch of oak seedlings grow at the base of a huge oak tree. Eventually they remove them but I guess they figure what’s the rush. More evidence that they cultivate a more relaxed look.

  9. The sorghum made me remember a time in Niger when a friend gave my husband some purple millet seeds to pass on to me. They were at the golf course at the time with two local caddies, who were very interested in this special “American” millet seed (millet is a staple crop of Niger). Our friend had to explain (with a little embarrassment) that it was purely ornamental for growing in pots. He didn’t think the caddies believed him.

    It’s so dry in Niger that the one and only golf course has no grass (you have to carry around a little rectangle of artificial turf). In the rainy season, the village’s millet fields are the rough, and if your ball lands there, you get a free drop.

  10. Love the waterwheels, you should definitely make space for them. My husband has been dreaming of recreating a water system reminiscent of the Alhambra Palace in Granada in our garden. He is bound to embrace the installation of such a project.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s