By Chris Cohan
The largest concentration of premier gardens in America is a short ride away. Outside Wilmington, Delaware, is Nemours, the grandest formal French garden in North America. Close by is Mt. Cuba Center, the top native plant botanical garden. Winterthur, the grandest of the many estates in the area, and best known for its decorative arts museum, has glorious, naturalistic gardens to explore. One reason for the concentration of all this beauty is that the area was the center of early American prosperity.
The weather is just that much milder than Rye, providing a wider variety of plant material to choose from. Plants grow lusher and are rarely victim of winter burn.
Turning any gardening dream into reality is not always easy. Especially when you want to transform hundreds of acres of raw land into some of the most awe-inspiring landscapes anywhere. That is exactly what Alfred I. du Pont did at Nemours Estate. He created the largest formal French gardens in North America, surrounded by acres of scenic woodlands, meadows, and lawns.
Alfred loved showering his wife, Alicia, with gifts. No separate bedrooms for that couple. By far the grandest of his gifts was the spectacular home that he built for her on a 3,000-acre plot of land. He hired Carrère and Hastings, a prestigious New York architectural firm, to design the mansion in the late 18th-century French style that she adored. Alfred named the estate Nemours, after the French town that his great-great-grandfather hailed from.
The estate includes The Long Walk. Lined with Japanese cryptomeria, pink-flowering horse chestnuts, and pin oaks, it extends from the Mansion to the Reflecting Pool. The 157 jets at the center of the one-acre pool shoot water 12 feet into the air; when they are turned off, the entire “Long Walk” is reflected in the pool, holding 800,000 gallons of water and taking three days to fill. Carrara marble fountain statues of Triton face each other across the pool. This spectacular work is the crowning centerpiece of the Nemours Vista.
The Sunken Gardens is complete with walls and steps of Italian travertine; the statuary of Carrara marble. The Four Borders is named for its mixed herbaceous borders – 8,500 square feet of annuals and perennials. What garden would not be complete without Americana memorabilia? Cannons from the <U.S.S. Constitution> (“Old Ironsides”), the frigate that took part in the War of 1812, overlook a lawn area.
Mt. Cuba was the home of Mr. and Mrs. Lammot du Pont Copeland, who were visionary in their approach to conservation, and in their creation of the Center. Mrs. Copeland’s founding vision was: “I want this to be a place where people will learn to appreciate our native plants and to see how these plants can enrich their lives so that they, in turn, will become conservators of our natural habitats.”
The Copelands transformed open field farmland into a lush botanical garden featuring some of the most beautiful native plants. Pathways are well cared for and accessible for all. Strolling through the calm natural setting the importance of native plants and natural lands is confirmed. It is not enough simply to observe beauty. It is clear we must also protect it for future generations.
Winterthur, founded by Henry Francis du Pont, is the premier museum of American decorative arts, reflecting both early America and the du Pont family’s life. Its 60-acre naturalistic garden is among the country’s best. Gardening was du Pont’s first love. Even after he turned his former home into a museum in 1951, he kept his garden in private ownership until his death in 1969. He said that while after 1951 he was only a visitor to the museum, he was still Winterthur’s head gardener.
The garden at Winterthur wraps around the house. The most formally landscaped and gardened areas are those closest to the house. As one gets farther away, the tame, cultivated garden gives way to a freer wild garden style.
Winterthur’s 1,000 acres encompass rolling hills, streams, meadows, and forests. du Pont selected the choicest plants from around the world to enhance the natural setting, arranging them in lyrical color combinations and carefully orchestrating a succession of bloom from late January to November. The gardens and landscape surrounding the museum are not a botanical collection, but rather an artistic composition that captures a significant period in the history of American horticulture.
Passion is a key to success in whatever you pursue. Having a few nickels in your pocket, a retinue of gardeners at your beck and call, and your name being du Pont doesn’t hurt. While they had to wait decades for these marvels to mature, you may go wander, delight, and be inspired while leaving the heavy lifting to others.
Mt. Cuba: Under the dappled light of mature native hardwood trees at the Mt. Cuba Center is the perfect setting for a bench. From this vantage point you are surrounded by flowering plants from ephemerals to native shrubs, trees, and fragrant perennials.
Nemours: The view to the far end of the Long Walk with the Temple of Diana at Nemours is reminiscent of the Luxembourg Gardens of Paris. The marble balustrade and steps with enormous planters leading to raked gravel paths around manicured lawns punctuated with topiaried trees in jardinières all come together to create one of the most amazing private gardens.
Winterthur: Winterthur has the oldest collection of Kurume Azaleas in America. At the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, the first time they were displayed, Mr. du Pont was so taken that he bought every azalea. He then placed an order for more.