The wilds at Winterthur

The Win­terthur Gar­den Guide: Col­or for Every Sea­son’ by Lin­da Eirhart

In
4 minute read
Some of du Pont’s “children”: peonies outside the old du Pont home, now Winterthur Museum & Library. (Photo by Lois Mauro, courtesy of Winterthur Museum.)
Some of du Pont’s “children”: peonies outside the old du Pont home, now Winterthur Museum & Library. (Photo by Lois Mauro, courtesy of Winterthur Museum.)

How does your garden grow? With springtime enthusiasm that withers in summer’s heat? Or is your patch more like Henry Francis du Pont’s Winterthur? The Winterthur Garden Guide: Color for Every Season tells us that H.F. du Pont (1880-1969) “walked in his garden each day … seeing how his ‘children’ were faring, what was in bloom, noticing what might be improved, what needed to be moved, and jotting it all down.” A trained horticulturist born into wealth, du Pont had not only enthusiasm, but the persistence and resources that made the garden at his ancestral home world-class.

Outdoor refuge

In The Winterthur Garden Guide, Linda Eirhart, director of horticulture at Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library, takes readers behind the scenes, offering practical information validated by 60 acres of spectacular results. The title of the book, which updates a 2004 guide by Ruth Joyce, references du Pont’s daring use of color, such as juxtaposing rust foliage with apricot daffodils.

The compact volume arrives at the perfect time, when outdoor space, for those lucky enough to have it, has become a refuge—no matter what it looks like. And whether one gardens or not, Color for Every Season offers an armchair escape into sun-splashed meadows and blooming woodlands.

A vicarious visit

Readers stroll through Winterthur’s gardens as the seasons change, beginning in spring at the March Bank, where winter first gives way to blue, lavender, and white drifts of glory-of-the-snow, crocus, and snowdrops. From there, we follow Quince Walk, lined with cup-shaped blossoms, over Sycamore Hill, into the cool Glade Garden, past a profusion of late-summer berries, to a snowy hilltop overlooking the Pinetum, a sculptural group of conifers that take center stage when winter settles in.

The book is interspersed with explanations of the plants and the design approach taken in specific areas. These are enjoyable and brief. Then Eirhart steps aside and allows the exquisite photographs to show what words can’t convey. Each section concludes with plants’ horticultural details, including mature size, growing zones, and propagation requirements. The volume is organized so that it's easy to page back and forth, making it ideal as a home gardener's reference or simply as a way to savor both the pictures and botanical names like Anemone apennina (Italian windflower) and R. schlippenbachii (Royal azalea).

To the garden born

The parcel that became Winterthur was purchased in 1837 by E.I. du Pont, H.F.’s great-grandfather. H.F. was born on the estate and ultimately would garden there for 70 years, creating a property that in 1956 earned the Garden Club of America’s medal of honor. Du Pont exhibited similar vision as a collector of early American decorative arts, opening the family home to the public in 1951. Winterthur has since become a nationally known museum and library housing 90,000 objects made or used in America before the Civil War.

Stroll through Winterthur’s gardens, like Magnolia Bend, where in early spring the path leads past daffodils, magnolias, and forsythia. (Photo by Lois Mauro, courtesy of Winterthur Museum.)
Stroll through Winterthur’s gardens, like Magnolia Bend, where in early spring the path leads past daffodils, magnolias, and forsythia. (Photo by Lois Mauro, courtesy of Winterthur Museum.)

Du Pont began managing the property in 1914, applying knowledge he’d gained in the study of practical agriculture and horticulture at Harvard and through travel to the great gardens of Europe. He was impressed by the naturalistic horticultural style known as “wild gardening,” which gained popularity in the early 20th century, and applied its principles at Winterthur. (At the time, the du Ponts had a working farm at Winterthur; today, about 1.5 square miles are under conservation easement, which protects the land from development while retaining ownership.)

An invisible touch

Formal, architectural gardens radiate out from the house, referencing buildings, low walls, and a reflecting pool. Structures were added to help define spaces, such as a latticed summer house in the Peony Garden, and removed if they didn’t fit du Pont’s vision. With landscape architect Marian Coffin, a frequent collaborator, du Pont transformed tennis and croquet courts into the Sundial Garden, with beds of pearl bushes, bridalwreath spiraea, and silver bells. Eyesores were reimagined, as when a muddy stone quarry was reborn as a rock garden to nurture moisture-loving ferns, iris, and bog plants.

Farther from the house, the hand of the landscape architect is less obvious but no less present. The built environment gives way to scenic, seemingly spontaneous vistas defined by layers of seasonal plantings and swaths of bright colors unfurling across rolling hills. Lanes curve through groves and across fields, enticing you to step into the page. The object of wild gardening is to make it look as if all of this just happened, but any gardener knows better.

The impression of spontaneity is Winterthur’s hallmark, as the Garden Club of America noted a half-century ago: “The woodland trees under planted with a profusion of native wildflowers and rhododendron, acre upon acre of dogwood, great banks of azaleas, lilies and peonies, iris and other rare specimens from many lands, each planted with taste and discrimination, each known, loved and watched, looking as though placed there by nature, forms one of the great gardens.”

What, When, Where

The Winterthur Garden Guide: Color for Every Season. By Linda Eirhart. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2020. 155 pages, hardcover; $24.95. Get it here.

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