HORT travels

Exploring the horticultural beauty in every adventure.

Stoneleigh: A Natural Garden

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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.

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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.

Fairmount Park, Philadelphia – Shofuso Japanese House and Garden and Fairmount Park Horticultural Center

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A View of the Shofuso Japanese House and Garden

A View of the Shofuso Japanese House and Garden

With more than 30 public gardens within 30 miles of the city, Philadelphia is America’s Garden Capital. My hunny and I have a goal to visit them all this year. We began this adventure with an early spring visit to Fairmount Park.

West Fairmount Park in Philadelphia is home to Shofuso Japanese House and Garden and the Fairmount Park Horticultural Center.

Our first stop was Shofuso. The area occupied by this house and landscape has been dedicated to Japanese Culture and garden design since the 1876 Centennial Exposition. Both the garden and the house are open for exploration.

After a tour of the house interior in our stocking feet we put our shoes on to roam around the gardens. While at 1.2 acres the gardens are small they are packed full of interesting design and delicate attention to detail.

Bamboo against a wall at Shofuso House

Bamboo against a wall at Shofuso House

There is not a lot of signage related to the garden plants or design in the garden, but their website is full of information. It may be helpful to read up on the intent and history of the space prior to visiting making it a more rewarding experience.

According to their website:

A Buddha sculpture in the garden

A Buddha sculpture in the garden

“Three traditional types of Japanese gardens comprise our 1.2 acre site: a hill-and-pond style garden which is intended to be viewed from the veranda; a tsubo-niwa, or courtyard garden in the style of an urban 17th century Kyoto garden; and a roji, or tea garden, which is a rustic path to our tea house.”

We were there in time for the late blooms of Kwanzan Cherry.

Kwanzan Cherry

Kwanzan Cherry

There were not a lot of other flowers in bloom, which made it a great opportunity to see the structure of the garden and appreciate the role of evergreen conifers in the garden as screen and backdrop.

Shofuso Garden

Shofuso Garden

The Shofuso House and Garden is within walking distance of the Fairmount Park Horticultural Center. This is a greenhouse with surrounding gardens and really speaks to the horticultural past of this city park space.

Pink Flowering Dogwood

Pink Flowering Dogwood in Fairmount Park

The trees in the open spaces between the two gardens are large and diverse.

An Enormous Sweetgum in Fairmount Park

Enormous Sweet Gum (Liquidambar styraciflua) in Fairmount Park near Shofuso

The Japanese Maples were just starting to leaf out and had their sinewy skeletons on full display. The dogwoods were in full bloom and chartreuse new leaves were bursting out on trees all over.

Japanese Maple Structure

The extraordinary structure of the Japanese Maples are evident before the leave emerge.

There was a community event going on inside while we were there. This is not uncommon as this space is frequently rented out for various events. I don’t think there is always beer available in the greenhouse, but there was on this day and that is my kind of greenhouse!

This is my kind of greenhouse

Philly Beer in a Philly Greenhouse.