Chanticleer Garden: A Hidden Gem Outside The City of Brotherly Love
Chanticleer Garden came into being in 1912 as the Rosengarten family estate along the main line of the Philadelphia Railroad– a country place where the family could escape the hot summers of the rapidly-industrializing city. Today, the 35-acre pleasure garden is not only a highly-regarded regional showcase of innovative plantings, but is considered one of the greatest gardens in America.
The founder of Chanticleer, Adolph Rosengarten Jr., was the first to call Chanticleer “a pleasure garden,” and this has become the garden’s motto as a public garden ever since.
Some say the name Chanticleer refers to the fictional “Chanticlere” from William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1855 novel The Newcomes, in which an estate is described as “mortgaged up to the very castle windows” but “still the show of the county.” And because “chanticleer” is also the French word for rooster, the Rosengarten family also playfully developed a rooster motif throughout the estate.
Open to the public just from April through October, Chanticleer’s six staff horticulturists are each responsible for the design, planting, and maintenance of particular areas of the property, including 15 distinct garden “rooms”, each on a scale of a good-sized residential garden, and each with its own look and feel. They all flow together and are seamlessly woven into rolling lawns, curving pathways, gentle hills, and woodlands.
Designing a Teacup Garden
Close to the garden entrance is a house built for the daughter of the family with stone terraces and an enchanting “Teacup Garden” designed, planted, and maintained by Dan Benarcik, whose plantings change with the seasons. A very large teacup fountain–one that Alice might find in Wonderland–is the centerpiece of this garden room, with many exquisite container plantings placed strategically around seasonal edibles and annuals in the beds.
An April color palette of lettuce greens, happy pink tulips, and deep purple annuals, is somehow simultaneously relaxing and invigorating, generating lots of fresh ideas for the home gardener. Later on in the summer, this garden will be transformed. It might become a silvery blue, cool oasis with a desert theme, or a tropical paradise of hot orange blossoms.
“Adolf Rosengarten Jr., Chanticleer’s founder, wrote: ‘To create a garden is to search for a better world….for the very act of planting is based on hope for a glorious future.’”
Among Chanticleer’s practical features are the helpful plant lists available in whimsically-designed, handmade boxes located throughout the garden. The lists have both botanical names and images — the garden has more than 5,000 different plants– plus helpful planting advice. Visitors can download the lists from the garden’s website (or you can buy them for $2 each).
Helping visitors with practical gardening techniques is an important goal, according to Executive Director R. William Thomas. “Chanticleer is essentially a large demonstration garden,” he notes. “Our guests take away ideas on how to garden in their own home spaces.”
Three-Dimensional Works of Art
To spread their advice, Thomas and the Chanticleer gardeners recently co-authored The Art of Gardening: Design Inspiration and Innovative Planting Techniques from Chanticleer (Timber Press, $34.95). Gorgeously photographed by Rob Cardillo, the book reveals the gardeners’ personal styles and varied approaches to color in their designs, to the use of sculpture, to experimentation, and to choosing plants. Valuable advice is provided for creating your own lovely landscape, even if you are the only gardener.
The book stresses the artistic vision of each gardener– how each one creates three- dimensional works of art by combining sight, scent, color, sound, space, and textures. “At Chanticleer,” Thomas explains, “the gardeners are given a great deal of artistic freedom in their work, which is what makes Chanticleer unique.”
From sculptured drinking fountains and wrought-iron railings to hand-painted lawn chairs and a water-spouting stone toad, the artistic craftsmanship of each multi-talented gardener is evident. Even the gravel circles and paths are carefully raked into grooved designs.
Over the years, the gardeners always planted a “Serpentine Garden,” with an agricultural type of crop, such as rye, cotton, sorghum, or kale. Last year it was artichokes; this year it is brilliant golden yellow rapeseed (Brassica napus)–huge cheerful swaths of it in full bloom flow down a gentle hill to a great lawn. Two matching yellow lawn chairs placed at the bottom of the hill are like punctuation marks, echoing the color of the flowers.
In another area of the garden–alongside a winding creek called Bell’s Run– more than twenty thousand deep blue camassia (Camassia leichtlinii, aka ‘Blue Danube’) completely carpet the meadow in peak bloom as far as the eye can see. The color is astonishingly beautiful and peaceful. First conceived in the 1990s by Christopher Woods, who was then Chanticleer’s executive director, the staff continues to expand the sweeping camassia along the creek.
Upright fern fronds cleverly stand up along the edges of the camassia beds like little flags, reinforcing the naturalistic feeling of the beds. A green lawn chair imprinted with fern fronds provides a wonderful resting spot to enjoy the creek and little pond, with its charming stone toad fountain.
A Tennis Court Transformed
While the original estate had a proper clay tennis court, the space today has been drastically altered. In one of the newer designs by horticulturist Jonathan Wright, “ribbons of grasses” provide visual interest, connecting five rectangular beds planted with perennials and bulbs.
A lovely arbor at the north end helps to enclose the space and a grand stone staircase at the other end lets visitors take in the view from the top of the steps. This spring, the beds are filled with a huge variety of colorful perennials, bulbs, and annuals.
Magnificent Trees Frame The Landscape
Originally Chanticleer was filled with chestnut trees, but most were lost to chestnut blight, so the family planted oaks, pines, and beeches. Also, throughout the garden are original black walnut trees (Juglans nigra)– among the oldest trees on the property. They date back to the 1880’s, when their high-quality wood was considered an investment.
Along a path near a bulb meadow, a tree with remarkable, deeply-grooved bark stands out. It is a native persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) so tall that it may be one of the largest and oldest of this species in the area. Such trees define Chanticleer’s landscape and remind us of its historic past.
Long ago, Adolf Rosengarten Jr., Chanticleer’s founder, wrote: “To create a garden is to search for a better world….for the very act of planting is based on hope for a glorious future.” He was a devoted hands-on gardener and especially loved trees. To his credit, today’s Chanticleer is really much more than a pleasure garden. It is a learning garden and a living tribute to the amazing creativity of its gardening staff.