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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.