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.
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.