Regional Gardens: Winterthur Garden

By Elaine Mills, Extension Master Gardener
Photos © Elaine Mills

The 175-room house is the premier museum of American decorative arts.

Winterthur Museum, Garden, and Library, located a little over two hours away in Winterthur, Delaware, is an excellent destination for a day trip or weekend away from Northern Virginia. The former estate of Henry Francis du Pont (1880-1969), a horticulturalist and renowned collector of antiques, houses an important collection of Americana and features 60 acres of formal and naturalistic gardens.

General admission tickets are honored for two consecutive days and include access to the museum’s galleries and special exhibitions, an introductory house tour, access to the gardens, and a garden tram tour. The current exhibit, “Costuming The Crown,” is on view until January 5, 2020.

The one-hour house tour takes visitors to the bedrooms and entertaining rooms enjoyed by weekend guests of the du Pont family during the 1930s and 40s. The rooms are decorated with objects from the museum’s outstanding collection of American decorative arts and are enhanced with fresh flowers from Winterthur’s cutting garden and greenhouses. Special arrangements can be made for reserved tours focusing on antiques, fashionable furnishings, distinctive collections, and conservation techniques.

A narrated 30-minute tram tour provides background on the history of Winterthur and introduces visitors to some highlights of the garden. Henry Francis du Pont learned to love nature as a boy, studied agriculture and horticulture at Harvard’s Bussey Institution, and was given responsibility for supervising the garden in 1906 when his father was elected to the United States Senate. Extensive foreign travel gave him the opportunity to study the great gardens of Europe. He began by improving the formal garden areas surrounding the house and went on to select plants that would enhance the natural wooded setting, providing a succession of bloom from January through November.

In 1956, after a lifetime of gardening at Winterthur, du Pont was awarded the Medal of Honor by the Garden Club of America which described him as “one of the best, even the best, gardener this country has ever produced.” The award noted particularly his skill in garden design in which the four layers of natural woodlands were reinterpreted with abundant wildflowers, ferns, rhododendrons, and curving paths. For du Pont, color mattered more than any other aspect of design, and many sections of the garden feature his favorite combination of yellow and blue (for example, daffodils and Virginia bluebells in the March Bank).

Of course, the best way to see the garden is to explore it on foot, following Garden Lane, the principal road through the property, as well as numerous smaller signed paths. There are a number of formal gardens, the closest to the house being the Reflecting Pool. This section was designed in 1929 by Marian Coffin, one of the first female landscape architects in America and a lifelong friend of DuPont. It incorporates the symmetry and proportions of Italian Renaissance gardens and features elegant terraces, fountains, and steps.

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The Peony Garden near the museum showcases the work of Dr. A. P. Saunders, a noted peony hybridizer. Created in 1946, it contains a collection of herbaceous and tree peonies of many colors that flower in May.

Located to the west of the house is the Sundial Garden, designed in 1956, also by Coffin, in an area that originally was used for a croquet lawn and tennis courts. April-blooming plants with pink, white, and lavender flowers, including lilacs, spiraeas, rhododendrons, cherries, and crabapples, are arranged in concentric circles around the central sundial.

A short distance away is the Pinetum, an arboretum of conifers, including pines, firs, spruces, and cedars. It was started by Henry Algernon du Pont in 1914 in collaboration with noted plantsman Charles Sargent and features a collection of flowering quince in pink, salmon, white, and red beneath the evergreens.

Trees, shrubs, and understory of the March Bank.

Winterthur is perhaps best known for the various naturalistic sections of the garden. The March Bank was the first area to incorporate a “wild” design inspired by the writings of such British horticulturalists as Gertrude Jekyll and William Robinson. It was begun by the young H. F. du Pont in 1902 with the naturalizing of daffodils on the slopes. Over the years, du Pont added many other early spring ephemerals such as snowdrops, winter aconite, crocus, bellworts, squill, and glory-of-the-snow. Thousands of these bulbs are replanted each year.

The eight-acre Azalea Woods is the largest section of the garden and is in its glory in May. Designed in 1917, it incorporates not only azaleas, but numerous large broadleaf rhododendron crosses developed by Charles Dexter, a prominent early 20th century rhododendron breeder. Rhododendron fortunei, native to China, was one of the species used; some of the resulting crosses were simply numbered by du Pont and never named.

The Quarry Garden, the last naturalistic garden designed by du Pont, makes use of the outcroppings in a once-active rock quarry as niches for a variety of ferns, perennials, and shrubs. The garden is best known for the pink and red candelabra primroses that carpet the moist quarry floor from mid-May to June.

The various garden areas at Winterthur are enhanced by the addition of numerous follies, decorative whimsical or picturesque architectural constructions positioned in the landscape to create a focal point or add intrigue. Four of these were installed during Henry Francis du Pont’s lifetime and include a pagoda-topped gazebo that was transferred to the Peony Garden in 1929 from the nearby Latimeria estate when that property was being dismantled. Likewise, an historic house from New Castle, Delaware was rebuilt bordering the Azalea Woods. Newly added follies include an Ottoman tent, a Gothic tower, and a Chinese pavilion.

A charming addition to the Winterthur grounds since du Pont’s death is the Enchanted Woods, a unique three-acre children’s garden built under the canopy of majestic oak trees. A serpentine path allows exploration of the magical landscape from a Fairy Flower Labyrinth over the Troll’s Bridge to a huge bird’s nest, the Tulip Tree House, and the Faerie Cottage.

Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library
5105 Kennett Pike
Winterthur, DE 19735

Winterthur is closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and from January 6 to March 1, 2020. See website for hours.

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