From time to time I rail about people who are long on money and short on
taste. The ones that irritate me the most are those who buy themselves “instant” gardens, complete with mature trees, shrubs and perennials, not to mention all manner of overwrought gazebos, water features, ornaments and terraces. Frequently all of this is crammed onto a ½ acre lot that is already home to an overlarge house. The whole thing is done not because the owner is deeply philosophical about gardening or aesthetics, but because he or she wants to impress the neighbors.
So why then do I feel so revitalized after a trip to Longwood Gardens, a horticultural paradise created in the first half of the 20th century by millionaire industrialist Pierre S. DuPont?
I could chalk it up to the refreshing effects of the high humidity and
the soft spring fragrances of the Longwood conservatory, which is one of the largest glass houses in the world. After months of the arid air of the spaces where I live and work, the atmosphere at Longwood is like a tonic. The place also supplies healthy doses of color, chlorophyll, and moving water. I stood near the entrance for the longest time, mooning over the banks of tall, lavender German primroses and white tulips. Eventually, I forced myself to move through the rest of the conservatory.
I may have felt better because the harbingers of spring are somewhat more advanced on the Delaware/Pennsylvania border. Walking around the grounds of the estate I saw snowdrops in bloom. On the protected embankments the first few yellow snow crocuses were opening their petals. At lunchtime, I sat in a dining room and gazed in appreciation at a witch hazel in full flower. One of Longwood’s cats, part of the estate’s integrated pest management team, was on patrol, scanning the landscape for any mouse or vole that might have had the effrontery to awaken from hibernation and threaten the plantings.
Then again, there is the salutary effect of exposure to an endeavor
created by someone for whom money was no object. Many of the gardens and water features at Longwood were inspired by European estate gardens that Pierre DuPont and his wife, Alice, saw on their travels. The limestone basins that hide the water jets in the vast network of fountains in front of the conservatory were carved in a style that Lorenzo di Medici might have appreciated. In fact, many of the decorative carvings were imported from Italy, perhaps rendered by members of artisan families that Lorenzo di Medici might have patronized.
The plants themselves are lovingly cared for, and it is hard to find a
dead or diseased leaf indoors or outdoors on the entire estate. Like everyone else, I marveled at the glorious camellias, the astounding
orchids, and robust clivias. The roses in the greenhouse have been persuaded to bloom in the winter every year simply because Mr. DuPont gloried in having cut flowers out of season. As a gardener who struggles perpetually to keep the weeds and diseases and pests at bay, I can appreciate the behind-the-scenes workers who maintain everything in such a marvelous order.
Still, when you come down to it, Pierre S. DuPont was a rich man who used his fortune to create a uniquely personal environment. Like today’s Wall Street titans, he installed mature trees on the property and employed countless people to implement his various horticultural fantasies. By all accounts, he was not completely immune to showing off. In the winter he often sent friends boxes of pineapples grown in his indoor pineapple pits. I am sure that he could not have helped feeling rather proud of himself when he heard the oohs and ahs of the locals who were admitted to the Longwood grounds for charity fundraisers and other events.
So why do I admire Pierre S. DuPont when I disdain so many of his
modern-day peers? I think it is a question of motivation. DuPont, according to most accounts, heard that the estate’s unique collection of trees was slated to be harvested for lumber, and he bought the place to save them. An engineer by training, he devised many of the gardens himself and even figured out the hydraulics for the extensive waterworks. When mature trees were installed on the property, they were transported carefully and secured with guy wires until their roots were established in the soil.
If DuPont’s own writings are to be believed, he thought of himself as a farmer (at least in relation to the Longwood estate). He also seemed to have a great deal of fun entertaining his family, friends, business associates and neighbors. One of the pictures on the walls of the Pierce-DuPont house on the Longwood grounds shows the estate owner with “The March King”, John Phillip Sousa, who conducted a concert there on a sunny day many summers ago. Finally, when he grew old, DuPont decided that instead of simply leaving the estate to family members (he had no children), he would establish a foundation to administer it and make it into a public resource. The present day Longwood Gardens, expanded and enhanced since DuPont’s death, is the result of his forethought.
I love Longwood Gardens because the whole endeavor was done for the right reasons. At the end of my day there, I, like all the other tourists, headed for the gift shop, which is full of plants, implements, books and all kinds of botanically-themed decorative objects. When I got there, I realized that what I really wanted to do was get in the car and take all the inspiration that I gathered at Longwood home to my own suburban plot. I can’t reproduce a great estate garden, but the few hours I spent with the ghost of Pierre DuPont reinforced my own reasons for turning the soil.
Contact E. Ginsburg