Chanticleer Gardens fosters horticultural creativity

Most public gardens have a theme: a devotion to the historic design of the grounds or an unyielding commitment to a specific type of plant (maybe roses). However, Chanticleer, located in Wayne, Pa., bills itself as a “pleasure garden,” and Director of Grounds Peter Brindle says that’s exactly what the property is all about. “There’s no theme; we’re not a botanic garden or an arboretum, so we don’t have collections of plants. It’s about gardening for fun, based on what the horticulturists and the director making decisions based on what they think would be aesthetically pleasing and culturally suited to the Delaware Valley. It’s a lot like a bunch of people gardening at home for fun, but in a setting where the public gets to come in,” Brindle says.

While the grounds are not required to follow any historical plans, to be sure, the property has a rich history. Adolph Rosengarten, heir to a family pharmaceutical company that merged with Merck, once called the property home. The main house, along with two additional houses on adjacent properties that belonged to his son and daughter, all boasted lavish grounds. While the landscaping was impressive, it was composed mainly of grand trees and lawns, and wasn’t fully developed as a garden. The properties together were left and endowed for the purposes of creating tremendous gardens that would be accessible to all. Since Chanticleer opened to the public in 1993, that’s what’s taken place.

Chanticleer is operated as a “pleasure garden,” meaning that the horticulturists have great freedom to try new plants and designs rather than being tied to some historic plan. And, there is a bit of whimsy, as well, such as this series of “stone sofas.”
A team of seven horticulturists tend to the impressive Chanticleer grounds, each responsible for the design and maintenance of a specific area.

Chanticleer now encompasses about 38 acres. “There was a lot of work, both with the physical plant and horticulturally, to get it ready to open to the public,” explains Brindle. In addition to creating a parking area, restroom facilities and pathways to allow visitors to stroll throughout the grounds, there was the matter in the early 1990s of creating the type of tremendous gardens that visitors would come to see. “The gardens had been pretty conservatively planted, so we just started planting flowering trees and shrubs by the hundreds, and bulbs and herbaceous plants by the tens of thousands,” he says, “and we’ve planted huge numbers of things since then. We’ve never slowed down with planting.”

There are seven full-time horticulturists at Chanticleer, and each is responsible for a specific area. “They’ll simply make decisions regarding changes with the director, it’s that simple. There’s no subcommittees or anything; it’s fun,” says Brindle. There also are one to two grounds staff responsible for the non-garden portions of the grounds. “We do have some large, open lawns that we have to sort of beat back the horticulturists as they try to take them over,” jokes Brindle. “The lawns are very dramatic.”

The turf does more than simply frame the gardens at Chanticleer. “I think the grass is critical. When we’ve just mowed the place, it looks very sharp. If the grass was a mess, it wouldn’t matter what the gardeners had done in their beds and borders, the first impression people would have is that the grounds looked sloppy,” says Brindle. “We treat the lawns as an important part of the whole aesthetics of the gardens.”

In fact, in the past year Chanticleer added a turf specialist to its staff for the first time. Scott Steinfeldt has a degree in turfgrass management from Penn State and a background in golf course maintenance. “He’s someone who can really look after the turfgrass every day, the same way our horticulturists look after their gardens every day,” says Brindle. “We’re thrilled to have someone who really knows turf and can catch problems early.”

Yamaha UMax utility vehicles with dump beds are used to help get horticulturists and materials around to the gardens, which are spread throughout the property. “We’ve had a number of utility vehicles over the years, but we’re now trying to go with electric models. We like the quiet, and we’re trying to be good stewards here without polluting. Once you use the quiet electric ones, especially with the visitors we have here, it’s hard to go back to gas-powered units,” says Brindle.

The lawns are mowed with Toro Z zero-turn and John Deere mowers. “We use hydro walk-behinds on our hilly areas, and they work really well,” says Brindle. “And, the hydros make it a lot easier than belt-drives as far as getting in and out of beds. We also run two Ventracs. We have one with a loader and one without; they work great, and we can add a variety of attachments.”

The cutting widths on the mowers range from 48 to 60 inches, and Brindle says the smaller sizes have proven to work well in terms of maneuverability and reducing scalped areas. “With our smaller spaces, it’s often handy to go in with smaller machines. We used to run big Groundsmaster and Jacobsen golf course mowers, but we’ve found that the smaller mowers have proven to work better for us. And, we don’t mow grass the way a golf course does; we’re mowing usually about once per week at 3.5 inches.”

The grounds crew makes an effort to keep the grass looking good without going overboard in that pursuit. For example, spraying of the lawns for weeds consists strictly of spot-spraying with backpack sprayers, and crabgrass preemergent is used only in areas where pressure is known to be high. “At the moment, we’re not trying to eliminate clover from most of the lawns. We’ve made the decision that the clover is enjoyed by the bees and that we can really reduce our herbicide by not trying to chase down all the clover,” explains Brindle.

Other steps also have been taken in terms of turfgrass maintenance to improve aesthetics while reducing mowing requirements, and in turn manpower needs and costs. “Over the years, we’ve moved toward the use of a lot of turf tall fescue, and recently we’ve been experimenting with sheep fescues and hard fescues in some areas, and then not mowing them,” Brindle says. “The taller, links-style mixes also really work well with the bulbs that we have on some areas of the lawns.”

Before the property opened to the public in 1993, horticulturists added many gardens throughout the landscape of native trees and shrubs that Adolph Rosengarten had added during his lifetime. Pathways were installed to guide visitors through the 35-acre property.
Chanticleer Gardens in Wayne, Pa., is set on the former estate of Adolph Rosengarten and features a wide array of different plant species and gardens, all framed by lush, green lawns.

There are hundreds of thousands of daffodil bulbs scattered throughout the turf on the property, as well as a number of smaller bulbs. The daffodil foliage is allowed to stay until June, to allow the plant to photosynthesize and replenish for the following year. Those areas are not mowed during that period. “Bluegrass/rye lawns don’t really do well under those circumstances; you tend to get a lot of weed pressure, so we think the links-style mixes will do much better,” he says.

During the times when the areas with bulbs are not mowed, the grounds crew does mow bands through the area to provide a place for visitors to walk and be completely surrounded by the flowers. “It’s really beautiful to see the contrast between the bands of mowed turf and the huge drifts of bulbs in unmowed turf,” Brindle points out. “This approach has allowed us not to have to mow some areas on the outer edges of the property, while also creating interest to bring visitors into those areas.”

Visitors to Chanticleer run the gamut from professional horticulturists to skilled amateur gardeners. There are a large number of the latter in and around Philadelphia, an area with a rich gardening history. Everyone has a chance to ask questions of the horticulturists, who take great pride in sharing information about plants and garden design.

“It takes a lot of hard work for our horticulturists to care for the gardens, so the fact that they do get a chance to have a say in the design and aesthetics of the grounds really gives them an investment in the whole property,” Brindle says. “We’re very fortunate to have talented people who enjoy what they do, and that’s clear to everyone who goes through the gardens.”

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 13 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vt., and is always on the lookout for unusual stories.