The 5-acre French and Italian inspired Fountain Garden at Longwood in the Brandywine Valley. The biggest fountain in the garden reaches 40m into the air. Photo - Michael McCoy
Money isn't an essential ingredient of a great garden, but my, can’t it help! Michael McCoy reports on how the dollars show at the lavishly loved Longwood Gardens.
There are many ways by which Longwood could be judged as important, exciting, audacious and inspiring. Not the least of these is the sheer scale of the vision of its major creator, Pierre S. du Pont. In 1906 DuPont purchased an 18th century arboretum. His first determination was to save the trees. He went on to develop one of the most extravagant gardens the world – certainly the New World - has seen. Du Pont used the latest technology to build several enormous fountains, lakes, glasshouses, waterfalls and a belltower, laying out a huge, grand garden.
The gargantuan vision of Longwood hits you first, but what you remember is the quality of the horticulture. There’s an intensity here that you see virtually nowhere else – a consequence of commitment to the very best, and a budget to make the best a reality. Money alone can’t do it, but it can’t be done without money – something Pierre du Pont clearly knew, and allowed for abundantly. He died without an heir in 1954, leaving the garden and a very generous endowment in the hands of a foundation with a vision for education and excellence in horticulture. Longwood currently has an annual budget of more than US $50 million.
The Topiary Garden is a landscape of fabulous shapes clipped in yew. The garden also features a sundial accurate to two minutes. Photo - Michael McCoy
When my Ross Garden Tours group visited in May, the tulips were at their peak. It was an incredible display. Not just extravagant (though it was that), it was clear that every tulip was placed in careful height gradation. Our Longwood guide explained that this was only the second year that the gardeners had played with height variation. Previously the intent was for a flat plateau of colour. We liked it as we were seeing it: some tulips towered over others – some with stem and flower visible, while others nestled among taller varieties. The staff had clearly taken very careful notes about the height different varieties achieve here and planned the display accordingly.
The tulip planting shows great understanding of individual varieties; and they're out as soon as they're past their peak. Photos - Michael McCoy
Gardens under cover
While there were plenty of horticultural highlights outdoors, nothing could match, nor really prepare you for, the intensity of what was going on in the enormous glasshouses.
Shed all preconceived ideas of glasshouses! These glasshouses contain whole gardens, right down to substantial lawn areas and gushing, boisterous water features. Among the perfectly grown plants on display are common things grown simply for their colour, sitting alongside plants of fabulous rarity, organized to create an overall, unified picture.
Longwood will reshape your ideas about conservatories. Photo - Michael McCoy
We saw a gob-smacking display of the pink/red Echium wildprettii. Most gardeners will be familiar with Pride of Madeira with its spring spires of cobalt-blue, but its red relative is virtually unknown. Not only were there many massive towers of this rare plant, they were of the very best colour selection I’d ever seen – no second-rate forms at Longwood!
Only the best forms make it at Longwood. This is a red Echium wildprettii. Photo - Michael McCoy
Elsewhere were hot-pink hydrangeas in hanging baskets, framed by our own Acacia cognata ‘Lime Magik’, its wispy branches trained almost climber-like up the glasshouse frame and across overhead struts. To see a familiar plant grown in such an original way is both inspiring and a little vexing. You can't help but wonder ‘why didn't we think of that?’.
Hanging baskets of pink hydrangeas are fringed with Acacia congata 'Lime Magik' grown as a climber. Photos - Michael McCoy
When you’re overwhelmed by the horticulture, you can take a breather (as we did) in the ballroom, which is within the glasshouse structure and contains an enormous, electronically driven pipe organ, made up of 10,000 pipes. It sounds corny, but trust me, the Wagner we heard, played with astonishing sensitivity and subtlety, moved us all.
It’s unlikely that we’ll ever see a garden like this in Australia. There’s really nothing for it but to plan a visit to Longwood – at least once!
Yes, this is the toilet block! Photo - Michael McCoy
Colour matching tips
Longwood does some lovely colour matching, and not just between flowers. Very often it’s about matching berries to flowers, or bark to leaves in such a way as to draw attention to an otherwise subtle characteristic of a plant. Think, for instance, of the white trunks of silver birches underplanted with white primulas, or white tulips. The two sources of white validate and draw attention to one another.
On one autumn visit to Longwood, I was impressed by a stunning orange-berried form of the deciduous holly (Ilex cornuta) planted with an orange-flowered Cuphea. The very loud flowers (with colour-matched foliage) linked beautifully with the berries floating overhead.
This is much simpler than trying to colour-coordinate between two adjacent flowers. Berries and bark last much longer, so you’re much more likely to achieve a season of overlap than with flowers whose flowering times are harder to align. Give it a try at home.