On a recent trip to Longwood Gardens, my sister and I went with her goddaughter and family. We thought of our early trips to the rose gardens there with our parents and grandmother. Never would we have imagined we’d end up as gardeners ourselves or repeat trips with the next generation.
At Longwood I thought of Walnut Hill gardener extraordinaire Penney, her sister Patsy and their brother Hank running around the gardens as children. They grew up in nearby Wilmington and went to Longwood with their grandparents.
“At the time we were not happy about spending Sunday with our stern, maternal Welsh grandfather, going to see stupid gardens,” remembers Penney. “But we did have fun running around the tropical plants in the greenhouses.”
The scale of the 1000-acre former Pierre du Pont estate is memorable. Today the gardens include more display gardens, conservatories, children’s gardens, tree houses, fountains, paths and trails through the parks and gardens. During the holidays 500,000 twinkling lights festoon outdoor and indoor trees.
Bone-chilling temperatures on our January visit kept us moving. The two young brothers, six-year old Hudson and three-year old Clark, tore up tree-lighted paths to a magical outdoor train garden. Later they relished coming inside and unzipping their parkas in a toasty conservatory filled with tropical poinsettias, hibiscus and bougainvillea. I imagined tow-haired sisters, Penney and Patsy, darting behind the same columns where a conservatory cat now stepped gracefully through beds of euphorbia, poinsettias, and anthurium.
Trips to Longwood Gardens today are not the endurance tests for children that Penney and her siblings or my sister and I remember. Watching Hudson and Clark rush to the indoor ponds and lean forward unprompted to sniff odorless poinsettias and fragrant lilies made me believe an enjoyable garden experience was being added to their memory bank.
This year’s French-themed display of floating fruit and gold-painted walnuts also caught their attention. Talk began of a future art project, perhaps on a smaller scale than the impressive parterre filled with 3000 gilded walnuts, 8000 Granny Smith apples, and 670,000 cranberries.
A pipe organ concert in the du Pont ballroom came unexpectedly. Before it started, we explored the adjacent room filled with pipes. After sitting, listening to music, and singing the boys climbed through an indoor children’s garden and played in another fountain. We walked to the 1730 Pierce-du Pont house and its original conservatory, then stood at a blazing fire pit as our final stop. Under a full moon we celebrated a perfect winter night.
Leaving through the tree-lighted road, I pictured our mother’s rose garden and remembered Gertrude Jekyll words: “The love of gardening is a seed once sown that never dies.” How fortunate to see Longwood as children.
– Kathy Hudson