12 May 2014

On the Case: Garden Detective

As a gardener, there are times when I visit a garden and my hand automatically reaches for my hip and the secateurs that should be there, the itch to restore order to an unruly border a constant garden visiting companion. As a garden historian there are times I step through a garden gate and find myself thrown back in time, too easily seeing the ghosts of gardeners past. It's when these two sensations collide that I know I've found some place special.

I discovered just such a place last week when my friend Dan Maffei, a landscape designer, asked me to take a look at a property he's working on. What was once a farm on the Philadelphia Main Line is now under corporate ownership but the 1930's mansion perched atop a hillside over a once formal garden complete with grotto and reflecting pool, all screaming 'American Country Place Era', are what stopped me in my tracks and made my mouth form a soundless, "Oh."

View of the garden at the rear of the house, complete with grotto.

Overgrown yew hedges and junipers left to smother their neighbors do their best to obscure the garden features but we garden detectives are trained to read beneath the overgrowth (Dan laughed at me as I declared, "I'm going in!" and dove headlong into the thicket). Massive boulders forming a terrace of 'natural' paths with scraggly azaleas struggling to bloom in the shade, the boulders themselves in danger of being consumed by tree roots, and the outlines of a fountain basin still imprinted on the ground tell me this was once a grand garden indeed. Strong axial alignments and a plant palette popular in the 20's and 30's all give tantalizing hints but the identity of the original designer remains a mystery. For now.

This conifer's roots have been growing over the rocks for some time.

The pool terrace

Ever since my tutor used the term I've preferred 'garden detective' to 'garden historian'. It really is surprisingly accurate, after all. In seeking to discover who designed this garden I've got to follow seemingly random leads and apparently minor associations, looking for clues wherever I can. It's a fascinating process, and I was only too thrilled to take the case. I shall be, to the best of my ability, the horticultural Sherlock to my friend's Watson, for while I endeavor to solve the garden mystery it will be Dan who saves it's life.

The goal isn't necessarily a wholesale restoration of the garden, though that depends on what is revealed about its creators and the ultimate desire of the present owner. I think there's more to this garden, though, and while I find myself wishing fervently for a TARDIS (yes, fandoms colliding, I can't help it) I know with a little digging the garden's ghosts will reveal themselves to me in time.

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