Philly’s Secret Gardens

This is adapted from my article in the April 2009 issue of Garden Design magazine.


THE GREENING of Philadelphia goes back to 1683, when founder William Penn modeled its four park-like squares (still there!) on those of Europe’s “green countrie townes.” The whole Greater Philadelphia region is a temperate-zone Eden, with fabled public gardens like Longwood and Chanticleer. But you don’t have to stray far from the brick and cobblestone streets of Center City, abloom in April with pear and cherry blossoms, to grasp the city’s three-century-old garden obsession and see how it’s playing out in the hip Philly of today.


  • Step into the 18th century on the corner of 4th and Walnut, where a Colonial-style formal garden is artfully re-created next door to Dolley Madison’s former abode. It’s a tidy little gem, with boxwood parterres, a miniature orchard, and a handsome vine-covered pergola.
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  • Drive 15 minutes south of the city to stroll the riverfront grounds of Bartram’s Garden, home of early botanist John Bartram. All elements of an authentic Colonial garden are there, including a kitchen garden near the eccentric 1728 house, below. Heirloom daffs and rare ‘broken’ tulips, scattered among silverbell trees, horse chestnuts, and bottlebrush buckeyes, bloom in profusion this month, along with native flame azaleas.


  • Then check in to the 15-room Revolutionary-era Morris House Hotel, where breakfast is served in a tangerine-colored library and afternoon tea in front of a fireplace (that’s the courtyard, below).
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  • West of the Schuylkill River, hundreds of cherry trees make Fairmount Park a fantasia of pink from mid-March through early April (the painting below is from the Japan America Society of Greater Philadelphia website, which has a map of the best viewing spots).


  • Take tea among cloud-pruned evergreens, a koi-filled pond, perfectly placed boulders, and concrete pagodas at Shofuso,below, the Japanese house and garden built in 1957 to evoke the late 16th/early 17th century.


    • From March 30-April 18, see organic sculpture take shape at the 92-acre Morris Arboretum, where pdoughertyhutrenowned artist Patrick Dougherty, working with locally gathered sticks and no pre-conceptions, will weave a large-scale, site-specific creation likely to resemble a whimsical fairy-tale dwelling (see an example of his work at right).



    • The city’s rep for vanguard culture is growing. Tour the hydroponic growing houses at Greensgrow, an urban farm and nursery in the up-and-coming Kensington section, and pick up some unusual container plants and hard-to-find heirloom vegetable starters.


    • In the uber-hip Northern Liberties neighborhood, choose from hundreds of gorgeous cement urns and planters made from antique molds, below, arrayed under enormous skylights at City Planter.


    • Indulge in chocolate-chip pancakes at the Morning Glory Diner in Bella Vista, just south of Center City, and be wowed by the eye-popping window boxes( 215 413 3999).


      About cara

      I blog for fun at, and write about architecture, interiors, gardens and travel for many national magazines and websites. My recently published posts and articles can be found here:
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      9 Responses to Philly’s Secret Gardens

      1. Melissa says:

        Hmmm…why am I still in NYC?

      2. Astor C. says:

        Is the sunlight better in Philadelphia??? Very inspiring story… and great photos too. I am intrigued by the botanist’s house. The garden is all native plants isn’t it?

      3. cara says:

        Bartram traded seeds with the Chelsea Physick Garden in London and he and his son traveled extensively, so probably it was not all native plants.

      4. FortGreeneGardener says:

        There are so many nice gardens in Philadelphia and environs! As you know, there was a large amount of recreation of gardens for the Bicentennial; in fact, buildings were ripped down to make way for them and they were very successful.

        My husband brought a class of his grad students to Philadelphia a number of years ago, and tagging along I ended up having a number of days left alone to walk around and rediscover the city. We have friends there but they work daytime so I really went around as a tourist. Not quite my style but I really had a good time. I even went to the Betsy Ross House all by my lonesome! I found it more interesting than when we brought the kids years ago. It was truly fascinating to be on my own and walking the historic streets of Philadelphia.

        Have you toured the grounds of the Barnes Foundation? If you make the effort to reserve your ticket and make it there, you’re more likely to spend your time indoors with all the Degas, Renoirs, etc., etc., etc. (mind-blowing!) and not make it outdoors to really tour the grounds but if you get a chance, especially in spring/early summer, you’ll be pleased.

        Also not far from Philadelphia, the campus at Swarthmore is quite spectacular in its way. If you haven’t been there and find yourself down that way again, make sure to go and tour the gardens and campus in general.

        Thanks again!

      5. copprmaven says:

        What is a “broken tulip”?

      6. cara says:

        I haven’t been to the Barnes Foundation yet – it’s on my short list, along with Chanticleer and the Morris Arboretum.

      7. Carolyn says:

        Those are lovely! I was intrigued by your comment in an earlier post that you hope to live in Philadelphia one day….I don’t know much about the city, and would love to know more about neighborhoods there that you like, and what the city culture/ ambience is like.

      8. cara says:

        Right now, my favorite area is Fitler Square – quiet, leafy, low-key, with small-scaled brick row houses. But there are many great neighborhoods. I’m planning more posts on Philly, so stay tuned. You might check a blog called for starters.

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