Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

William Penn’s wish that Philadelphia, the capital of his colony, should be a “Greene Country Towne” never was to come to fruition. The town’s settlers really preferred a re-creation of London in miniature. However, gardens and gardening have been an important aspect of the Pennsyl­vania heritage. Gardening has been practiced as a fine art and as a necessity based upon tradition. Gardens are elusive and dynamic. Continually changing and requiring main­tenance, gardens grow old, run wild, or simply disappear whether by neglect or bulldozer.

Gardening interest was especially vigorous in England when Pennsylvania was young. William II and Mary, who ascended to the throne in 1684, brought with them Holland Dutch gardeners and concepts. Their designs emphasized symmetrical garden arrangements which featured flower beds bordered in clipped low growing evergreens. Boxwood and santolina were especially popular. The new rulers’ gardeners also introduced a great interest in new flower forms – especially bulb culture. No doubt many of our colonial gardens owed a great debt to this Anglo-Dutch tradition, which is exemplified in the eighteenth century garden which the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society has re-created near Independence Hall.

From the mid-eighteenth century a great change oc­curred in British gardening under the leadership of Lancelot, “Capability,” Brown. The ideal of the perfect garden underwent a radical transition – the collection of formal well defined garden beds was replaced by a rolling naturalistic appearance. The image of eternal springtime became fashionable, featuring as it did cropped grass, still water and artistically arranged trees. Both of these traditions, the formal and the naturalistic, were imported into America and were developed here. The bedded garden, however, continued in greatest favor into the nineteenth century, when it was generally superseded by the more romantic landscape garden. It has been usual for successive owners of a property to change its gardens from one style to another. Cliveden, the Chew family mansion in German­town, is a case in point. Originally the house had formal gardens: today it stands amidst a flowing naturalistic landscape of lawn, trees and shrubs. As a rule, Americans did not turn to the landscape garden until the landscape around them was properly subdued. Until then, the pretext of a naturalistic vision was not considered very desirable. Combined elements of both garden forms can be found at Wyck, which like Cliveden is also in Germantown. Wyck’s garden is especially rare because it has been carefully documented since the first half of the nineteenth century.

Perhaps the earliest formal gardens in Pennsylvania were devoted to the raising of medicinals. Kelpius planted such a garden in Philadelphia before 1700 and about 1718 Christopher Witt created another. The medicinal garden at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia is a twentieth century monument to the “physic garden.” William Penn had extensive gardens developed at Pennsbury Manor which combined elements of the seventeenth century green gardens which emphasized rigidly designed forms, paths and grass and the Anglo-Dutch flower bed traditions of William and Mary. Penn’s secretary, Irish born James Logan, however, is the most important of our early gentleman gardeners. At his estate, “Stenton,” he experimented widely with plant forms and wrote an important early treatise on the functions of the sexual structures in maize. Perhaps Logan’s greatest contribution was his encouragement of a young self-taught Quaker farm boy, John Bartram, who was later to be acclaimed “America’s first native born natura­list.”

In 1729, Bartram founded on a portion of his farm what was to become America’s longest-lived botanical garden. It was to be one of the western world’s most important horticultural enterprises. Not only did Bartram maintain an extensive assortment of native American plant materials, but he entered into arrangements with various English “scien­tific gentlemen” and avid gardeners to supply their gardens with American plant materials. He was responsible for the first introduction of almost two hundred species of American trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants as cultivars to Britain and the continent.

The income Bartram received from the seeds, plants, and bulbs he sent to Europe was supplemented by his farm’s earnings. An especially adept farmer, he raised record crops of wheat, oats, corn, and flax. He justly shared the reputation with his fellow Quakers and the Pennsylvania German settlers of Pennsylvania as being among the finest farmers in the Colonies. The Germans not only brought effective farming methods to the limestone rich regions of Pennsyl­vania, but they also brought a traditional garden form with them as well – one which was to thrive well into the twentieth century when its death knell was struck by the wide spread availability of the gasoline powered garden tiller.

In its simplest form, the picket-fenced German garden consisted of four raised board-edged planting beds arranged in cruciform fashion. Packed earthen paths between the beds were just wide enough to al low the gardener cultivating and harvesting access. At planting time broad planks were laid over the bed, resting on the edging boards, to allow the gardener to work within the bed itself without compacting the soil. Friable soil and excellent drainage are the reasons why raised bed gardens are so successful. Curiously, now that this garden form has been abandoned by many traditionalists, it has been rediscovered by the ecology-minded organic farmer and proclaimed a new miracle way to grow “astounding” crops in small areas as attested to in a recent issue of The Mother Earth News. This garden form itself is ancient, and German illustrations dating from the sixteenth century are fairly common.

Vegetables, as opposed to field crops (grains cabbage, turnips, many beans). were grown in these gardens as were a variety of herbs used as seasoning for food and for medicinal purposes. As the garden evolved a central bed was added, which was often planted with a Yucca plant – “The Lord’s Candle” – as a testimony of the gardener’s Protestant faith – and subplanted with the autumn or saffron crocus.

Religious and superstitious beliefs governed the planting of the garden. For example, one planted downward growing vegetables (beets, carrots, etc.) only when the moon was waning. More elaborate later gardens often had six or even twelve raised beds. Fine re-created gardens are located at the Ephrata Cloister and the Pennsylvania Farm Museum and an especially elaborate variant has been developed at Donegal Mills Plantation, also in Lancaster County.

For convenience the garden was usually placed near the kitchen door either to the back or the side of the house. The area between the house and garden often was planted with flowers and flowering shrubs. Old world favorites, lilacs, roses, peonies, and iris, were preferred over the native American plants which John Bartram and his correspon­dents found so exciting. In fact, Mountain Laurel, our official state flower, was first scientifically collected by the Swedish naturalist, Peter Kalm, on his visit to the colonies and named in his honor by his teacher, Linnaeus, as “Kalmia.” Only much later was this beautiful plant brought into Pennsylvania gardens. Curiously, John Bartram, who Linnaeus described as “the greatest natural botanist in the world,” was not similarly honored by the father of modern systematic botany. Bartram himself named his most re­nowned discovery, a summer blooming magnolia relative, the “Franklinia,” after Benjamin Franklin, with whom he shared an international reputation in the scientific com­munity.

Interest in plant materials and gardening was carried forward by Bartram’s son William and by his cousin, Humphry Marshall, who established his own nursery and botanical garden in 1773. Marshall’s The American Grove. published in 1785, was our first completely American botanical book. The Bartrams and Marshall, in addition to sending plantstuffs abroad, supplied materials to the more sophisticated colonial gardeners including the descendants of the Quaker George Pierce to whom William Penn conveyed a large tract of land in Chester County. In 1800, twin brothers, Joshua and Samuel Peirce, began the formal development of a 30-acre arboretum known as “Peirce’s Park” wherein they planted more than 250 different tree specimens. While they planted formal avenues of beech and maples, their major accomplishment was to develop the grounds in a naturalistic style, featuring trees and shrubs not native to southeastern Pennsylvania. The “Park” was to be an extension to the glade of spruce, hemlock, rhododendron, cedar, fir, holly, and boxwood that stood near the 1730 Peirce home. A visitor in 1850 believed that Peirce’s Park was the finest man made park in America, “Here,” he exclaimed, “each tree is in itself perfect, and variety enhances the beauty of each.” Among the native American trees planted here were the rare yellow cucumber, magnolia, paulownia, Kentucky coffee-bean, bald cypress, American chestnut and white pine.

By the early twentieth century the garden arboretum was endangered. Several of the finest trees were cut down and the likelihood was strong that the rest would follow. To prevent this Pierre S. duPont purchased the property to incorporate into the estate he was planning to develop. His estate, “Longwood,” was to become synonymous with the finest tradition of gardening in America. While the overall development of the gardens has been in the Anglo-Italianate traditions popular among the very rich Americans at the turn of the century, Mr. DuPont carefully preserved the Pierces’ Park in as near its original condition as possible. Most of the millions of people who visit Longwood each year are more attracted, however, to the rose gardens, the spectacular greenhouses (among the largest in the world) and the fountains (the models for the World’s Fair of 1939-1940).

Other garden-enriched estates developed in the nineteenth century also continue to exist, notably Andalusia, the Bucks County home of the Biddle family, and the Jacob Pinter estate near Media, which after a long period of neglect was rescued and reclaimed as the John J. Tyler Arboretum. However, more of them and their pre-1930’s, twentieth century counterparts are in decline like the Phillips gardens in Butler or are in danger of disappearing completely as are the gardens of the Stokesbury Estate, “Whitemarsh Hall.”

The Hershey Rose Garden and Arboretum is probably the last great garden to have been developed in Pennsyl­vania. Founded modestly in 1936, it was substantially enlarged in 1941. Unlike its earlier prototypes, it was developed as a garden to which the public would have access, rather than as a private preserve to which the public was later admitted.

While large scale gardening is in a decline, the sub-urbanization of Pennsylvania beginning after World War 11 introduced hundreds of thousands of new homeowners to gardening and has made some nursery firms like Star Roses, founded at West Grove and W. Atlee Burpee Company of Philadelphia into mass merchandising behemoths. Most suburban gardens tend to be miniature “estates.” Confused and humorous effects are often produced unwittingly as amateur gardeners try to adopt “Longwood” scale princi­ples to quarter-acre or smaller lots. Now in the 1970’s we are also experiencing a conscious revival of historical gardening forms with special emphasis on herb gardens and, of course, there are parts of the Commonwealth where you can also still find traditional garden forms – which just never change.


Dr. Irwin Richman is chairman of the graduate pro­gram in American studies at Capitol Campus of Pennsylvania State University, Middletown.