George Weymouth turns the grounds of The Big Bend into a natural canvas
George Alexis “Frolic” Weymouth’s Swedes-built stone manor, The Big Bend, is so named because it sits on a pronounced oxbow bend in the Brandywine River. The front of the stone farmhouse (the earliest section dates to 1650) faces the river.
For a 2-mile carriage trail that follows the river, bluebells, when in bloom, are everywhere. He used to lie in these fields of native wildflowers and paint them, watching intently how they turned toward the setting sun. However, a “carpet of yellow flowers,” lesser celandine, an invasive species that someone planted upstream, have seeded themselves here and are taking over.
However, there’s plenty left at The Big Bend that is perfect. Through the curiosity and creativity of Weymouth, a du Pont heir and a man of art, sport, principle, preservation and conservation, the grounds and gardens are an enduring model. “Generally, there are several of us trying to save the great gardens,” he says. “I think several will have staying power. If they don’t, it’s tragic.”
At 73, Weymouth is only barely content with the concession that he’s “mostly the pointer” these days. David Brown, a horticulturalist, has been the property manager for the last 14 years. His assistant is Martin Martinez. Brown and Martinez spend 90 man-hours per week between them in the gardens and with turf upkeep.
Brown, who lives on the property, worked in several settings before coming to The Big Bend. He has a degree in landscape architecture from Penn State, “and another one from Big bend,” Weymouth interjects.
“This is where I’ve learned a lot of stuff,” admits Brown, who doesn’t always agree with Weymouth’s wishes. “That just makes it fun,” Weymouth says.
Design flexibility and integration
Weymouth wants to create an experience coming from every direction to his place. “It’s why I haven’t paved the road,” he says. “It’s a country road, and it has potholes, but potholes are great. At one point, through all the brush and growth, it looks like you’re one turn closer, but then it’s almost another mile before you see the house. Each side [of the house] is attractive. There’s no such thing as a back door.”
From behind (the actual front), in the spring and summer, beside two urns, there are white Rose of Sharon, while clematis, white hydrangea and white hibiscus that blooms in mid-August, all set off a Georgian-design wrought-iron staircase that climbs to the middle story from each side.
The foundation is clearly white, including white lilies. First, white snowdrops bloom, then white daffodils and azaleas in May on a bank above a root cellar. White clematis and impatiens bloom all summer.
The house is the axis point for the gardens. He considers the historic house and garden as one, and as it was in the 18th century or earlier. “You didn’t build the house, then plant the garden after,” Weymouth says. “Today, that’s what we do in America. We have these big houses with driveways right to garages. Some don’t even use their walkways to get their groceries into the kitchen. They put these ditty little things [plantings] in the corners. Good design takes your eye from one place to another.”
Landscape design as art
Landscape design is like a landscape painting, one of Weymouth’s fortes. He’s been chairman of the Brandywine River Museum since it opened in 1971. The Brandywine Valley is Wyeth country, and the late Andrew Wyeth, Weymouth’s dear friend, once painted Weymouth, too.
After two years, Weymouth has just finished and hung his latest painting, “Requiem.” The landscape centers on a tree torn to shreds in a storm within a field of wildflowers. There’s a backdrop of barns and outbuildings.
A realist, his landscapes, on and off canvas, mix and match all colors.
Some of The Big Bend’s gardens begin with ornamental iron gates he’s unearthed at antique shows. At the end of one overseas trip, he stopped in New York to see the Rockefellers, who made a gift of blue Rose of Sharon and hollyhock. This past summer, a purple vinca.
Through a trellis of hornbeam, there are The Blue Walls, which are 8-foot-high rows of blue Rose of Sharon. The first six were gifts from Mrs. Rockefeller. “Then, I went and got 100,” Weymouth says. They lead to a tiki hut over a carved Indonesian fertility bench.
Weymouth’s cutting garden features Anna Hyatt Huntington’s sculpture, Greyhounds Playing, which received the George D. Widener Gold Medal of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, as a centerpiece. In the circular vicinity, there are 15 varieties of sunflowers, marigolds, zinnias and a Mexican strand of tithonia.
An offshoot path leads to the White House, a replica birdhouse, which is surrounded by red, white and blue annuals and blue hydrangea along the way, though they’ve never bloomed in the 10 years since he planted them. “That’s not a worry because the color of their leaves is enough structure,” Weymouth says.
Opposite the White House is the 30-foot wide, three-level-high stone slab amphitheater.
The herb garden includes a mint patch, some of which is from his maternal du Pont family lines.
Year-round color in the gardens is best accomplished with annuals. Blue salvias are among Weymouth’s favorite. Within 3,000 linear feet of narrow bordered beds, there are 5,600 different annuals from Chadds Ford Greenhouses planted. The beds are prepped with a few inches of horse manure and compost, which is tilled in during the early spring.
Brown says the grounds have evolved and matured. “But, everything we did last year, we have to do again,” he notes. “It’s a challenging garden, and a lot of work. In a 10-minute conversation with Frolic, you can get a year’s worth of work.”
To cut the approximately 3 acres of turfgrass, mostly in the high-traffic areas, there’s a basic Husqvarna 52-inch deck and a single push mower. The turf is kept between 3 and 3.5 inches high, and it’s mowed once a week.
Twice a year, in the spring and fall, the turf is fertilized with 125-pound bags bought from Scotts or Agway. It’s used to control the broadleaf weeds, but there’s no preventative used to hinder crabgrass since they’re usually seeding with a sun-shade mix at the same time. Occasionally, some of the same rich compost that’s used in the gardens is also used to repair a section of turf.
To keep the turf green, and wet, an overhead, oscillating sprinkling system is used off a hose cart. The system is set to water the annuals-filled garden edges as much as the lawn. “We’re watering the high-water annuals, but it allows us to keep the grass looking good, too,” Brown says. “We don’t have much of an irrigation system. We’re still watering the old-fashioned way, by hand.”
A love of the land
A dedicated conservationist, Weymouth is also chairman of the board of trustees of the Brandywine Conservancy, an environmental, arts and cultural preservation organization he helped found in 1967. The conservancy has protected 43,000 contiguous acres, including much of the former Revolutionary battlefield land. Weymouth is often called the “Savior of the Brandywine, the Nile of Chester County.”
The Big Bend is nestled within a tract of roughly 1,000 acres, all under conservation easement, divided between 30 owners. Perhaps Weymouth’s most interesting, or at least iconic, use of his treasured turf is his Amazing Maze.
About 15 years ago, for a year straight atop a 40-year-old red International Harvester tractor, he cut a 3-mile, 8-foot-wide path through 20 acres of brush. “The maze just snakes around,” Weymouth boasts. “It’s fascinating to see from above.” For friends atop carriages, the goal is to get to a tree in the center.
With two tractors, one with a brush hog and one with a loader attachment for a pallet fork, and one finishing mower, Brown has been trying to add a side sickle to tackle the multiflora rose in the maze.
The author has been published in national and regional magazines as well as daily and weekly alternative city newspapers. A gentleman farmer in Quakertown, Pa., he writes about people, social trends, historic preservation and 18th century America, agrarian culture, land use and sports and recreation topics.