Chanticleer book offers home gardeners advice from 'pleasure garden' experts

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A classic grassy promenade through vine-clad arches and beds overflowing with colorful flowers is the work of Emma Seniuk. (Rob Cardillo/Timber Press)

At 22, Chanticleer isn't terribly old, and with 35 planted acres, it's not particularly large.

But this treasure of a "pleasure garden" in Wayne has an outsize reputation in the horticulture world. It's known for its wildly creative design, impressionist-like displays, and emotional visitor experience.

They don't do weddings or concerts here. There's no gift shop. You have to look up plant names on a list; none are marked in the garden. And the only way to get a Chanticleer shirt is to work there.

What kind of public garden is this? One that aspires to be "a place of beauty, pleasure, escape."

On Sept. 2, Timber Press will release The Art of Gardening: Design Inspiration and Innovative Planting Techniques from Chanticleer, written by R. William Thomas with contributions from his staff of seven gardeners.

This is the fourth book for Thomas, who came to Chanticleer in 2003 after 26 years at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, another famous - and famously more formal - public garden. He calls his job as head gardener and executive director "the culmination of my dreams."

And why not? This is a gardener's garden, on a scale that, incredibly, home gardeners can relate to.

Described by London's Financial Times as "planted to perfection," the oft-honored Chanticleer is routinely included in "best of" books, such 1001 Gardens You Must See Before You Die and Tim Richardson's Great Gardens of America, which highlights just 25 in the U.S. and Canada.

The other day, Martha Stewart dropped by on her way back to New York from Baltimore. She pronounced the place "breathtaking" on her blog.

But don't be intimidated. The Art of Gardening is not a snooty dissertation on abstract design and impossibly obscure plants. "This book is meant to be a conversation between our staff and you," says Thomas, who notes that Chanticleer's gardeners are artists in every sense of the word, experts at not just horticulture, but with other skills, such as carpentry and metalwork.

They deserve a workplace of "beauty, not bureaucracy," he says.

For example: Two years ago, gardener Jonathan Wright was having second thoughts about the next day's sod delivery for the terrace outside Chanticleer House, which, like the garden, is part of the former Rosengarten family estate.

Instead of lawn, Wright suggested to Thomas, what if we planted wheat - and punctuated it with 4,550 tulip and narcissus bulbs in succession?

Just like that, a mini-meadow happened.

Such spontaneity, and the imaginative results it produces, struck Timber editor-in-chief Tom Fischer as one of many reasons Chanticleer was worth a book.

"I firmly believe it's the most creative public garden in the country . . . and, really, it's neat the way they operate, the latitude the gardeners are given to create their own spaces.

"I don't know any other public garden that follows that model," says Fischer, who has visited Chanticleer about a dozen times over the years.

The book's photographer, Rob Cardillo of Ambler, can top that. He visited 53 times in one year, taking thousands of pictures, often around dawn and dusk, when the light is loveliest.

"There's so much going on behind the scenes, just such intentionality and thoughtfulness," says Cardillo, whose photos also graced Adrian Higgins' 2011 book, Chanticleer: A Pleasure Garden.

The newer book, Cardillo says, is different: "I had to illustrate specific design principles and plant characteristics - not just walk around and say what I thought was interesting or beautiful, but to work with the writers hand in hand."

One of those writers was gardener Lisa Roper. She manages the sloping Gravel Garden, whose drought-resistant plants and self-sowers - lavender, butterfly weed, thyme, grasses, succulents - make for a breezy, flowing landscape.

But breezy isn't always easy. "Editing is an integral part of having a 'wild' garden," Roper writes. "For the garden to feel naturalistic, it should have repetition from aggressive seeders like asters and callirhoe, but I can't let them take over."

Emma Seniuk, at 30 the youngest of the full-time gardeners, drew inspiration for her Cut Flower Garden design from Le Jardin Plume, a small contemporary garden in northern France that fills in a formal layout with sweeping masses of perennials and grasses. She also consulted with Thomas and staff members who do Chanticleer's famous wildflower arrangements, which grace Chanticleer House, the entrance desk, and restrooms.

The result: an overflowing, exuberantly colorful garden that seems to embrace visitors with soft textures and sunny colors.

The Joe Pye is nine feet tall. Crimson and pink cosmos bow in the breeze alongside milkweed, dahlias, rudbeckias, verbena, and so many others, offering spiritual sustenance for human souls and abundant food for critters.

Hummingbirds and goldfinches dive-bomb this way and that, crisscrossing the grassy path as butterflies, moths, bees, and wasps quietly forage atop the flower heads.

"I absolutely love it here," Seniuk says, unwittingly speaking for the rest of us, creatures great and small.


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