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).