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Book Review: Chanticleer, a Pleasure Garden

Chanticleer a Pleasure Garden

Here’s my rave of the new book about one of the world’s best public gardens – which happens to be near Philadelphia, so just a day-trip away.

“Neither a museum nor a great plodding institution, Chanticleer is a gardener’s garden,” says Adrian Higgins about what he and garden photographer Rob Cardillo and this blogger and horticulturists all over the world call their favorite garden. And surely gardeners will be inspired by Higgins’s new guidebook, Chanticleer, a Pleasure Garden, to make their gardens better in at least some small way.

Now don’t let “guidebook” scare you off. Higgins is no hack—he’s the garden editor of the Washington Post, and he knows how to tell a story not just list plants. Sharing his own reasons for loving this garden, he notes that it’s not designed by committee but by a group of “very gifted” gardeners, each one allowed to take chances and get as weird and innovative as they want. No wonder those seven jobs are so coveted.

Higgins also appreciates that unlike so many public gardens, Chanticleer has no agenda to teach or preach to visitors about climate change or sustainable agriculture or any other important issue; its only mission is to induce pleasure, to satisfy all our senses. Thus, horticulture rises to the level of art form, but in a personal way that doesn’t take itself too seriously, thanks to touches of wit and whimsy.

And not guidebook-like at all are the 80 fabulous photographs by world-class garden shooter Cardillo, who has the good fortune to live just 20 minutes from Chanticleer. He’s been able to visit countless times over the years, whenever he damn well pleases, and the result is a visual feast.

Chanticleer Garden, on 40 acres along Philadelphia’s Main Line, was the vision of Adolf Rosengarten Jr., heir to the Merck chemical fortune, who created the huge endowment that’s enabled creativity here with no financial restrictions. No ripping things out because the garden can’t afford to maintain them. No having to use plants that are cheap. Lord no, none of that.

The garden’s been open about 18 years and is finally ready for its close-up—this book. But it won’t stand still in time because again, there’s no committee fighting change. On the contrary, the gardeners are instructed to “be brilliant, be inventive, and do something fresh next year.”

Chanticleer serpentine
Like the piece of land art they call the “Serpentine,” seen in this photo of ripe sorghum in late summer. It’s the work of one gardener who’s also a farmer and craftsman, and he plants a different agricultural commodity each year. (If you’re thinking “land art?” it just goes to show that it’s something we don’t see enough of in the United States.)

Or like the funky furniture, bridges and sculptural pieces the gardeners create during the winter when the garden is closed. Other winter pursuits by the staff include study and travel to gardens around the world. Nice life!

Read the book before you visit, after you visit, or, sadly for you, instead of visiting. It’ll still inspire you to take some chances in your garden. Which seems easy to say, but I’ve been there three times and did it change my garden? Not nearly enough. But like Chanticleer, my garden’s not finished and it never will be. Now I’m off to find some funky furniture and a few weird plants to try.

by Susan Harris

Photos by Rob Cardillo

Stephanie Fleming was raised at Behnke’s Nurseries in Beltsville. Her Mom, Sonja, was one of Albert & Rose Behnke’s four children. She was weeding from the moment she could walk and hiding as soon as she was old enough to run, so many weeds, so little time. Although she quickly learned how to pull out a perennial and get taken off of weed pulling duty.

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