HORT travels

Exploring the horticultural beauty in every adventure.

Stoneleigh: A Natural Garden

4 Comments

Hare Sculpture

The Hare Sculpture at Stoneleigh has been an icon of the Villanova neighborhood for decades before opening to the public. This sculpture is made from a white oak trunk and features two adult rabbits and 5 young rabbits representing the Haas family. The rabbits frequently dress up for holidays and special occasions. Haas means Hare in Dutch and German.

Mother’s Day weekend, the southeastern PA region, already teeming with more than 30 public gardens, welcomed the newest public horticulture space to the map.

Stoneleigh: A Natural Garden is a property of Natural Lands.

Stoneleigh: A Natural Garden is also under threat of eminent domain.  Perhaps one of the biggest blows to a public garden is a letter just prior to a grand opening regarding a school district’s intention to condemn a portion or the entirety of the gardens for ball fields and a new middle school.

Save Stoneleigh Banner

The current rallying cry for Stoneleigh as it’s future is threatened by eminent domain.

As a public garden professional myself as well as a person who holds in high regard the value and importance of access and preservation of these places, I decided to show support. My hunny and I donned “Save Stoneleigh” T-shirts and headed to the school board meeting.

IMG_2282

Because I do not pay taxes in that district, I wasn’t able to speak about the importance of public garden spaces as classroom and connector and contemplative space. Many others did speak. Until nearly midnight, dozens of supporters voiced their praise for the value of the space and their dismay that a school board was not able to connect the educational and community value of this public garden to the benefit of their students.  It was encouraging to see so many people there to support the gardens and to admonish the school board’s tactics. The building was awash in red shirts, frustration and determination.  It was inspiring and encouraging to see all of these people supporting the protection of a public garden.

The standing-room only crowd filling small dimly lit rooms and institutional hallways was a stark contrast to the experience of being in the gardens just days before.

Vista Stoneliegh

A portion of the mansion, some of the new native plantings and one of the many large trees.

Rain seems to be a theme with our garden visits so far, and this one was no exception. But the gray made the colors pop and the wet bluestone around the grounds glistened highlighting new paths to explore and leading the way through gardens and to vistas.

Stately Ginkgo at Stoneleigh

Stately Ginkgo overlooks the lawn, a dogwood and some azaleas at Stoneleigh

The new native plantings, not yet filled in and full of potential, compliment the large old trees around the grounds. These native plantings have stories to tell. Some are from unique wild collected populations, some are from the area, some you may not see anywhere else. There are ten of some of the largest trees of their kind in the state here on this former estate of the Haas family. They stand like sentinels guarding the property and watching over you as you explore.

Trunks on a wall

Allowed to live in their own form, Arborvitae trunks drape over a garden wall.

The willingness to embrace the nature of the place is what struck me the most. Throughout the 42 acres large limbs are allowed to flow over walkways, crooked trunks are relished for their charm and highlighted rather than cabled and braced into submission. There is the combination of strict formality and casual grace that is quite compelling and draws you through the space.

Pergola at Stoneleigh

Each corner you turned led you to another place you wanted to explore more closely.

As of this time Stoneleigh: A Natural Garden is still not protected from the grasp of eminent domain. Despite being given by the Haas family to Natural Lands at no cost for free and open access to the public, despite being under conservation easement, despite the fact that the Haas family has supported the community in many ways, the school board is refusing to take this property out of consideration for building ball fields and a sports complex for middle schoolers.

Bog in the Lawn

A circular bog in the lawn at Stoneleigh complete with carnivorous plants and pine straw mulch

The Olmsted Brothers Landscape Architecture firm was one of the designers of the grand estate. Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of the brothers, philosophy is evident in their work and important in the discussion regarding protection of this space.

Whimsy at Stoneleigh

Whimsical design offers a sense of the contrast between the formality of design and ease of natural spaces.

“Frederick Law Olmsted himself had an ambition conception of the role landscape architecture could play in improving the quality of life of Americans…Olmsted had great faith in the ability of his art to improve society and in particular to promote a sense of community in the rapidly growing urban centers of the country…Olmsted believed that scenery could have a powerful, restorative influence. He was convinced that the spacious, gracefully modulated terrain of his parks provided a specific medical antidote to the artificiality, noise and stress of city life.” ~from The Olmsted Firm – An Introduction

Of course Stoneleigh provides all of these things. It is a quiet haven in a bustling suburb. It is welcoming and peaceful. With its towering trees and diminutive native flowers it is somehow grand and unassuming at the same time.

River Birch at Stoneleigh

Enormous River Birch

Most importantly this medicine for the hustle and bustle of the every day, unlike much of the medicine available and prescribed to us, is free and effective. Let’s be sure to keep it that way.

Let’s also not take our access to these public, open, green spaces for granted. Let’s not assume they will always be there. Let’s support them. Let’s connect others to them. Let’s show adults what children can learn in them, let’s encourage children to learn in them. We all need access to this type of free education as well.

4 thoughts on “Stoneleigh: A Natural Garden

  1. Hi Kathy-
    I live in LMSD and have two young children attending the public schools. This is a very complex issue and is very frustrating for parents as well. It’s not just as easy as saying “Save Stoneleigh” and being done with it. The open space at our children’s schools is being threatened as well because if a site for a new school cannot be obtained, then what little greenspace is left will be built on to add to the school (this is specific to the school my children attend). From my understanding, the entirety of Stoneleigh is no longer at threat because the SD does intend on purchasing another site. It is a smaller space at Stoneleigh that they want for fields. While I, and many other parents and residents, don’t agree that this is necessary, if it is the only way we can get a new school then, unfortunately, I will have to support it. Hopefully, another option will be worked out.

    Your former woody plants student (from the Barnes),

    Sabrina

    • Hi Sabrina, nice to hear from you and I appreciate your thoughtful and person insight relating to this challenging issue. Of course I come to this as an outsider and from a different perspective than you. We are certainly both hoping for a different outcome.
      I guess the biggest question for me is what are we teaching future leaders about the value of green space and access to the environment for all when we take away something that was promised by a generous family for the good of the community? What does that tell students about promises and agreements and contracts? What does it say about prioritizing the good of the community over the good of a few and what does it say about the reality that gardens are as great a resource in any community for education and health and connecting and building community as any other public resource? What also does it tell students about failure to plan for the future – that if you fail to plan or consider what if’s in a master plan – that you can just take something away from others to solve your problems?
      It’s complicated to be sure. But the value of this limited resource that we call open space cannot and should never be underestimated.

  2. Kathy, thank you for sharing this. I went onto Natural Lands Trust website and signed the petition to Save Stoneleigh! I cannot believe this school district is not listening. I encourage others to check out the website and sign the petition!

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