Gardens of the mid-Atlantic states

In England garden hopping is a national passion. Here in America, garden touring, popular around the turn of the century, is coming back into its own as more people rediscover this organic culture heritage. The gardens I visited on a recent trip ranged in feeling from the Victorian splendor of a former Vanderbilt estate to the wild abandon of the North Carolina Botanic Garden. Although almost invariably such gardens are connected with a house of some kind, my thrust was not to explore indoor nooks and crannies but to spend as much time as possible outdoors. This time around, architecture definitely took a back seat to horticulture.

While this trip's focus was mostly the mid-Atlantic states one of the loveliest (and I use that word sparingly when referring to gardens) was Old Westbury Gardens in Old Westbury on Long Island. One summer evening after escaping one of those renowned traffic jams on the world's largest parking lot, the Long Island Expressway, I arrived at the garden just as the massive entrance gate clanged shut, leaving us wistfully peering through the bars. But through a rather circuitous and fortunate series of events, my companion and I found ourselves inside the garden on a tour with one of the gardeners.

Dusk is a magical time in any garden but in Westbury it seemed especially enhanced. Though a large garden, a scene of intimacy is created by a series of "garden rooms" framed by trees, walls, and a variety of architectural features.

The first part of our impromptu tour led us away from the Stuart mansion, a former Phipps residence, down the west steps between voluminous masses of boxwood framing a view across East Pond and a contingent of Canada geese goslings. On the other side of the pond rose billowing masses of the Boxwood Garden. With these series of vistas, it was impossible to stand on this side without feeling lured to the far side of the pond and further exploration. Once in the Boxwood Garden, there was no debate about our next move -- through the faded lilac garden to the very heart of Old Westbury, the Wall Garden.

Hidden and surrounded by a brick wall, the entrance to the garden was through an archway screened by a spidery filigree metal gate. I passed through the arch feeling like Alice stepping into a wonderland. The fading light had an almost mystical glow, the entire garden was a subtle interplay of intense color and foliage textures: ink and orange poppies glowed translucent, masses of lavender spilled their dusky foliage onto the paths, while pink clematis pulsated against the warm brick walls.

The basic plan is simple: a series of grass parterres surrounded and intersected by walks edged with perennial beds backed with garlands of summer roses, a central walk leading toward a central fountain, and the perennial beds continuing around the inside edge of the wall. The only intrusion to this cloistered world are the trees against the sky.

In autumn the tulip trees turn a bright golden yellow, the sugar maples a golden-reddish-orange, and the Norway maples a voluptuous yellow, while inside the wall, fall asters bloom till mid-September, and rust, gold, and yellow chrysanthemums bloom till hard frost.

Twenty-two miles from New York City, Old Westbury Gardens are open Wednesday through Sunday, early May through October, 10 a.M. to 5 p.m. Admission is charged for both the houst and the 100 acres of grounds. Evening concerts during the summer allow visitors a chance to wander the grounds to the tunes of local popular artists.

The next stop on my tour was Wilmington, Del., an hour and a half from New York City by Metroliner or 2 1/2 hours by car through the dubious delights of the New Jersey Turnpike. Here I stayed at the verable Hotel du Pont, the type of establishment hotels used to be -- or so we like to think. From the lobby with its gilded ceilings and enclaves of upholstered furniture, to the spacious suites appointed with delicate watercolors and well-polished furniture, the atmosphere possessed the quiet elegance of a grand home, rather than a hotel.

Breakfast in the Green Room, a lofty, wood-paneled dining room, is not to be missed. At a table by the window, I chose fresh strawberries (sweetly ripe), melon (also ripe to perfection), beutifully prepared eggs, and a selection of freshly baked pastries, including pecan rolls I could have made a whole meal of if I hadn't been more sensible. For about $8.50, it was an hour of white linen luxury and pure indulgence.

During the week the du Pont is usually booked well in advance, and reservations are almost mandatory. On weekends, the rates drop with a special package deal on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday or a regular weekend rate of $59.50 per room.

Using the Hotel du Pont as a base, I had access to some of America's best-known gardens, all less than half an hour away. Certainly one of the most popular of these is Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pa. Envisioned by Pierre S. du Pont and designed to accomodate vast numbers of visitors each year, wide walks efficiently convey over 600,000 yearly visitors through 350 acres that include woodlands, meadows, rock gardens, water gardens, flower beds with seasonal displays, lakes, topiary, and wild flower areas.

But it is on misty mornings, late afternoons, and evening when Longwood assumes a pleasingly intimate quality and a personal scale. After a day visit, I returned to Longwood one full-moon night to view the much acclaimed fountain display -- a spectacle of massive bursts of water measured in tonnage. While other fountain viewers were entranced by gushing pink, yellow, purple, and blue water, my companion and I danced barefoot along the wet stone parapet till the novelty of the fountains wore off (rather quickly I must admit) and we headed on to the conservatories.

The four acres of glass greenhouses were virtually deserted. In the shadowy evening entire landscape of ponds, lush lawns, and perennial beds awaited. Cascades of pink bougainvillea clung to pillars several stories high, creating the aura of a well-maintained tropical jungle. Conservatory displays change throughout the year with autumn featuring an impressive landscape of 15,000 chrysanthemums exploding from every possible nook and crevice.

In a courtyard a series of pools bloomed with night-blooming waterlilies. Lotus flowers rose high above the night illusion of black water; their leaves in various stages of intricate unfoldment, like the birth of a poem. The waterlily display continues into October in startling blue, pink, purple, yellow, and lavender blooms from four to twelve inches across, their leaves a floating armada of lace-edged saucers.

North on Route 52, 12 miles from Wilmington, Longwood is open all year with fountain displays June through August.Admission is charged.

Nemours, another former du Pont estate, first opened to the public in 1977 and is in the process of being restored to the period from 1927-1934. Influenced by Versailles and Fontaine-bleau, the gardens stretch one-hird of a mile beyond the 77-room house. Composed of lawns, ponds, fountains, hemlock mazes, and an eclectic collection of rococo, New Deal, and classically inspired sculptures, along with the biggest, fattest cherubs I've ever seen lounging on balustrades of white Italian Carrara marble -- a garden of sugary whiteness that glittered in the brilliance of a summer afternoon.

Though this singular stretch of fantasy dominates the gardens, there are quiet corners nearer the house where pink and blue perennial borders, woodland fountains, and boxwood hedges provide a pleasing counterpoint. From Wilmington, take Route 202 and follow the signs to Rockland Road and take a left. Admission is charged.

In direct contrast to Nemours are the gardens at Brandywine River Museum in Chadd's Ford, Pa. The museum is a former grist mill containing the artwork of three generations of Wyeths, and the gardens are an interesting project of the Brandywine Conservancy, a group of local, conservation-minded volunteers. Landscaped with plants native to the lower Delaware Valley, the garden is part of a wildflower education program that sells seeds and provides information. Planned for a continuous succession of blooms, the garden can be helpful in generating ideas for naturalistic home landscapes.

Rolling farms, bordered by split rail fences and fields verdant with meadow wildflowers are typical of the Brandywine Valley. Along Star Route 52, just six miles from Wilmington, is Winterthur Museum and Gardens. Developed by Henry Francis du Pont, the museum is one, if not the,m authoritative collection of American antique furniture from 1640 to 1840. Housed in 178 "rooms," it can take anywhere from two days to two weeks to fully explore.

The first two weeks in May (depending on the weather) the gardens of Winterthur are in their full glory with the azalea woods in full bloom with Kurume azaleas in pink, mauve, salmon, and rose, along with rhododendron and wildflowers. Summer is predominantly green, but come autumn, Winterthur is brilliant again with golden meadows of aster and goldenrod, followed by the red foliage of swamp and red maples, golden beech, scarlet gums, and the rich yellow of tulip trees. In early October lavender Colchium, white autumn crocuses and fall daffodils literally carpet hillsides. But by November, trees are bare and a light mist of snow sometimes whitens Chandler Woods.

Designed and maintained as an English landscape style, Winterthur is a naturalistic garden of 200 acres -- an exciting merging of cultivated and native plants that is open all year round. Admission is charged.

Hiding a large public garden amid the town houses of Georgetown may seem akin to sneaking an elephant through Tiffany's, but somehow it happened. Originally the home of Mildred and Robert Bliss, Dumbarton Oaks is now world famous as the home of the Harvard Center for Byzantine Studies, collections of Byzantine and Pre-Columbian Art and the gardens, designed by Beatrix Farrand.

One steamy Washington afternoon, after negotiating the space odyssey of D.C.'s subway system, I arrived in the cooling shade of this notable garden. Designed to be lived in rather than 10 impress, its hillside terraces crowned by balustrades and connected by steep or meandering steps, are divided into large and small garden rooms, with each garden entry a theatrical event. I found myself descending grand stairways, ducking leafy arbors, and sweeping through gateways of fragrant boxwood.

While the summer heat of D.C. makes Dumbarton Oaks a cool reprieve, in autumn when the weather cools and the air assumes an added brilliance, the surrounding hills turn red and yellow wit sweet gums and beech. Also in autumn, the Hornbeam Ellipse becomes even more of a horticultural spectacle when its leaves turn red and yellow like sugar maples. From early September the perennial beds feature five- to six-foot white Japanese anemones beginning in mid-August, followed by Michaelmas daisies and yellow, bronze, red, pink, and white chrysanthemums.

Dumbarton Oaks is a garden for all seasons. Even after the leaves have fallen and frost has withered the last blooms, the richness of architectural detailing continue to be visually exciting. Open eight months of the year, the garden has been free in the past but an admissions policy is planned.

The next step in this hopscotch of gardens leaves a rather conspicuous gap across Virginia's gardens, an entire book in themselves with such notables as Mount Vernon, Monticello, Williamsburg, and Gunston Hall, noted around the world for its boxwood. So, reluctantly, I placed Virginia in the slot marked "future" and flew directly to North Carolina.

Biltmore Gardens is up in the North Carolina Mountains, a short hop off the Blue Ridge Parkway and 10 minutes from downtown Asheville. I arrived at Biltmore for a tour of contrasts -- a striking juxtaposition of naturalistic landscape design and elaborate Victorian-style gardens.

From the gatehouse to the mansion is a three-mile drive and an odd illusion created by frederick Law Olmstead, codesigner of Central Park in New York. It seems wild enough at first, with masses of trees and shrubs intermingled with evergreens. Only on closer scrutiny does the design subtly manifest itself. In spring this design is particularly apparent when the rhododendrons are blooming. The third or fourth week in September, the access road again comes into full color with scarlet and wine-red foliage of dogwood and the golden yellow of maples and sourwood. Due to the high level of maintenance and the extent of this landscape, this may well be one of the finest examples of the living art of Olmstead.

The Biltmore mansion resembles a cross between a Gothic cathedral and a Victorian palace. Styled after various 16th-century chateaux, it was designed to accommodate a style of living where men retired to billiards after dinner and ladies busied themselves changing their costumes -- as often as six times a day -- in an attempt to keep up with the highly structured social whirl of wealthy Americans in the early 1900s.

Below the house, the Wall Garden continues the vast scale with almost four acres lined with 12,000 feet of perennial beds. Massive displays of color begin in spring with daffodils, tulips, and hyacinths, followed by the primary colors of annuals later followed by another bedding-out scheme in September with bronze , yellow, red, rust, and white chrysanthemums. Designed for maximum impact, if not horticultural interest, the Wall Garden also contains a planting of over 3, 000 roses. But the main drawing card for the horticultural cognizant continues to be the famed collection of native azaleas of the Eastern US, generally acknowledged one of the best in the world. Azaleas peak in early May with blooms in white, pink, yellow, orange, and red.

Admission ($12, includes house and grounds) is charged at Biltmore all year round.

Out of the mountains and across the Piedmont, my next garden stop was Chapel Hill where I spent a morning at the 307-acre North Carolina Botanic Garden -- the largest native plant garden in the southeast -- a pleasant change from the grandiose. When so many of the native wildflowers which are sold are dug from the wild, the NCBG has developed an innoative horticultural approach with an emphasis on the display, propagation, and preservation of native plant material.

Except for California, North Carolina has more native plant specimens (over 3 ,000) than any other state. While wildflower gardening has continued to grow in popularity, a disturbing paradox has developed, with a large percentage of commercial wildflower nurseries digging their plants from the wild. North Carolina continues to be a popular hunting ground. The North Carolina Botanic Garden is working with various wildflower nurseries developing propagation methods suitable for large scale wildflower production.

So much for the background. The morning I was there, the garden director, Dr. Bell, showed me around. Pointing to an exuberant midsummer display of Queen Anne's lace, bee balm, and black-eyed Susans, he exclaimed, "All those are just weeds." "Weeds," he also went on to add, were drought-tolerant, virtually pest-free, brilliant as any perennial bed, and guaranteed to get a conversation going among gardeners.

A few steps from this impromptu perennial bed stood a collection of carnivorous plants: sundews, bladderworts, trumpet and pitcher plants, all soaking in pans of water. As we walked around, Dr. Bell pointed out the various displays developed as microclimates of the three major geographic areas of North Carolina: mountains, sandhill or piedmont, and savannah.

Pointing to an area about half the size of a basketball court, he explained this re-creation of a savannah contained over 100 species of plants and was "beautiful in the fall with orchids." The North Carolina Botanic Gardens are free, open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., with a varied schedule during the weekend. This garden offers a view of various parts of North Carolina not seen from a car window and all too seldom appreciated.

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