lessons from philadelphia gardens, with nicole juday and rob cardillo Leave a comment

THE AREA around Philadelphia is well known for its richness of public gardens, including many historic ones. But the region is also home to an impressive roster of distinctive private landscapes, from formal 19th century European-style estates to mid-century modern residences and contemporary ones. Now, a new book takes us inside the gates of 21 of them, places filled with ideas for our own gardens maybe, too.

“Private Gardens of Philadelphia” (affiliate link) is the new book from garden writer Nicole Juday and photographer Rob Cardillo, both of them Pennsylvania gardeners in their own right. Its pages welcome us into a rich world of horticulture and landscape architecture, and they shared with me some of what they saw and learned in creating the book.

Plus: Enter to win a copy of the book by commenting in the box near the bottom of the page.

Read along as you listen to the May 6, 2024 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

philadelphia gardens, with nicole juday and rob cardillo



Margaret Roach: Oh, boy, there’s just so much beauty and so much to learn from reading and looking at the book. So just to get started, I keep wondering why this area around Philadelphia? [Laughter.] Because I mean, not long ago I read a book about the DuPont family gardens in the Brandywine Valley, in that same area, and now here’s your book.

And what are the forces that you guys think made this area so horticulturally rich? I know in the book you say something like, “It’s the northernmost southern city, and the southernmost northern city.” That made me laugh (and I wondered if I was going to be able to get that out without getting it wrong).

Nicole Juday: Well, this is a question that I have been pondering over for many years because I’m not from Philadelphia. And when I got here, I was astonished by the number of public gardens—and then as I became more involved in gardening, private gardens. And this book was the excuse or opportunity to do a really deep dive into trying to unpack a little bit of some of the factors, anyway, that all conspired to make gardening expressed really almost at its highest form in Philadelphia.

And not to say that there are not amazing gardens elsewhere, because there certainly are in many areas. But there really is a concentration here. And there is a culture of horticulture that is quite strong here. We have a lot of horticultural institutions. We have college-degree programs focused on horticulture as well as certificate programs.

But I got really interested in some of the historical factors that led Philadelphia to have such a concentration of gardens. And one of those that might be interesting to your audience is that Philadelphia, which is not a particularly prosperous city today, was incredibly wealthy right during that golden age of horticulture. When you think of the robber barons and the big industrialists, and there was so much money to be made in Pennsylvania basically by exploiting its natural resources in the late 19th and early 20th century: incredible deposits of coal through most of Pennsylvania, wood that could be made into charcoal, which then could be made into iron and then steel, and then those used for the tracks for these railways. There were a lot of great railway fortunes.

And this was all happening at the same time that having a fabulous garden, even if you didn’t particularly care about gardens was just something that wasn’t really even socially desirable, but it was almost like a prerequisite.

Margaret: Right. Well, and I think that the European tradition, and of course many of the people who came and settled, obviously of European origin and so forth. So that was a tradition that was almost imported, in a sense, yeah. Rob, did you grow up there? Are you from the area?

Rob Cardillo: I’m a transplant also, from Pittsburgh. There was almost no real horticulture, at least when I was growing up. So when I came to Philadelphia, I was just overwhelmed by the number of public gardens and arboreta, and then eventually started finding the private gardens, which are just some amazing gardens. And I had thought for years that a book about these private gardens would be wonderful.

I had done a book on private gardens of South Florida a few years back with Jack Staub, and I found it to be really… It was wonderful, but I kept thinking, “Why isn’t there a similar book on Philadelphia?” I mean, our gardens seem to be a little bit more reality-based than Florida, and more conscious of conservation and more attached to history. And so the idea for this book was actually a few years in the making.

Margaret: Yeah. So the book of course shows and tells the stories of these gardens and their makers, and in some cases their history, depending on whether they’re some of the older gardens. But in the photos and the words, I found a lot of ideas, of kind of lessons, as I said in the introduction, for gardens and gardeners elsewhere as well. And I thought maybe we could highlight some of those.

And it was interesting because some of them were just little ideas that just reminded me of something that I was like, “Oh, yeah, I want to do more of that.” And I think the gardens, you tell the name of the town that each one is in the headline. And I think one is in Coatesville, is that how you say the place? There was these beautiful pollarded willows in Coatesville [above], and even the old stump of a willow resprouting. And just these very simple things that anyone could do but it just had been done and had been maintained for years. And it was just wonderful. And I just thought, “Why don’t we all do more of that?” That’s not expensive and it’s not complicated, and it just requires consistency [laughter].

So which one of you wants to start and tell me something that you saw that stuck with you or that you think other people would benefit from?

Nicole: There were a number of things that I feel like I took away from the project, and some that have really changed my own gardening. And a really easy one that I have paid so much more attention to since studying these gardens, is that I now have an arborist come up to my garden in the winter and do structural pruning on younger trees. Trees like a Cornus mas, a Cornelian dogwood, crape myrtles. Anything that just benefits from being shaped while it’s young. It’s not expensive, and then it just pays off for the lifespan of that plant. And one thing that was very consistent among these gardens that were wildly different in size and style and cultivation, was people had invested early in getting their woody plants shaped beautifully. That’s probably the most obvious one.

I thought there were a lot of really interesting lessons in how people use objects in their garden. There are some gardens in the book that really have very little in the way of ornament [above] and that anything that’s not living would be something utilitarian like a wooden tuteur to grow roses up, or just a simple picket fence. And then there were other gardens that made lavish use of found objects as decorative elements and sculptures. And some of these were important sculptures and some of it was people finding things that they liked, like an old piece of industrial equipment, and putting it in their garden. Or making something themselves out of some inexpensive materials. So it gave me a broader sense of how ornament can be used in this sense, and objects. And the same with positive and negative space, too.

Margaret: As another idea?

Nicole: Yeah. And how there are not very many gardens that have a lot of open space between plants in the book. And I thought that that was interesting. And how people kind of played off the void of a lawn or a gravel garden with then something really lavish in terms of a planting plan.

Margaret: Yeah, and I think a lot of times we think we have to plant up everything. And you’re right, the opposite, having the antithesis of it makes the lushness over there seem more exciting in a way. So, Rob, what about you?

Nicole: You said it better than me.

Margaret: Well, no, but Rob, what about you? Were there things that really… And you come at it with a different eye, not just as a gardener, but as a photographer. And you’ve photographed, oh my goodness, I can’t even imagine how many incredible gardens over the years, and what struck you in particular?

Rob: Well, that’s interesting. And what struck me, is actually I’ll piggyback a little bit on what Nicole said, was that the use of ornaments and objects can add a lot of personality to a garden. They become very important focal points, especially when you’re dealing with naturalistic plantings. It seems like it calls out for something to just hold the eye a little longer.

And even expanding on that a bit, I know one of the gardens, there’s one in Frenchtown where the woman who is, I think she’s a trial lawyer now, but she used to be an interior decorator, decided to paint her outbuildings certain colors that would match the flowering trees. Her barn is painted partly red, like a red Aesculus [below] that blooms nearby. Or there’s a soft white she uses behind some of her hydrangeas. And there’s a nice gray that complements her flowering wisteria. And I just realized how a lot of people don’t really consider that when they’re painting outdoors, that you can actually pick up the colors from the garden and put them on the walls.

Margaret: Yeah, that’s interesting you say that, because one of the gardens that struck me, and I don’t know for you two what you thought, and I don’t know how to say the place, Rydal, is that how you say it? How do you say the town?

Nicole: Rydal, yes.

Margaret: Rydal. There was a mid-century modern house [photo, top of page]. And you point out, Nicole, in the book, you point out that we know what a Victorian garden is supposed to look like, and we might know what certain other period gardens are supposed to look like—a colonial garden. But we don’t know what a mid-century modern garden is supposed to look like.

And those people, like what you were just saying, Rob, they picked up on some of the color things. They had these panels of color on the side of the house, and then they planted certain of the annual things and other things in the beds that picked up on those colors. Blue and red I think were two of the colors, they’d have big swaths of blue and red in the beds as well as on the side of the house.

And they used that Corten steel, those beds. I’m almost so envious of those. It looks like rusty metal, but it’s this incredibly strong steel that can be bent and made into—they had like amoebic-shaped, all these interesting-shaped, mod-looking beds. Again, it picked up on the style. I loved that. You know the place of course and you probably could describe it better.

Rob: No, that’s Craig Wakefield and he is a mid-century fanatic. I think he redid the house first, and maybe Nicole can expand on that, but his entire house was redone to reflect or to restore it back to a mid-century look. And then he decided to make the gardens in that fashion. Which you’re right, there is no tradition of mid-century gardening. So it was wonderful to see. I think it was very innovative and clever.

Margaret: Yeah. And then the plantings were great, too.

Nicole: He was inspiring to me because he had been so fastidious in restoring the house to exactly how it would’ve been, would’ve looked, when it was built in the late ’40s. And then with the garden, he just let himself go completely free and just have the garden that he wanted. And what I love about that garden, among many things, is that strong use of color. And modern architecture is not supposed to be very graceful or welcoming; that’s not the point of it. But he’s put in this garden, and especially his use of ornamental grasses that have such incredible movement constantly, and then this very static rigid structure behind it, the way that the landscape and the architecture play off each other is fantastic.

Margaret: Yeah. And then again, those steel beds. So they’re very solid, but they’re, again, the shapes are a little soft, I think, at some of the edges. So it’s like this hard-soft thing. It was fun. It was really fun to see the experiment that was going on there. But I do love, to pick up on Rob’s point, the idea that we can think about color, and color either being inspired by the color of our house and then using that in the garden or vice versa, and that that’s a way to anchor things better.

So Nicole, do you have another “aha,” was there something else that really stuck out?

Nicole: Well, people had taken some pretty creative and really attractive measures to manage stormwater, which is becoming a bigger and bigger issue. I didn’t quite realize that throughout our region in Philadelphia, in some places there aren’t a lot of restrictions around what you can and can’t do. But yet other areas that have a more delicate watershed, it is extremely restrictive of how much you can build, how much open space you need to leave, what kind of mitigation measures you need to put into place.

And so people had done really interesting things from very complex rain garden systems to a dry streambed that would have the capability of channeling water when it comes through, to planting a lot of trees in wet areas or meadow plantings. Which in some cases made land that hadn’t been usable in a very long time, because it was too wet when it flooded, into space that you could actually walk on or play on or ride your horse on. So that was interesting. And I think that there are details about the kind of interventions that people took to deal with some of these challenges.

Margaret: There was one in Wayne, Pennsylvania, that had a series of rain gardens to deal with the problem with the wet. But in the pictures at least, congratulations to Rob, I didn’t look at it and go, “Oh, it’s a bunch of rain gardens to solve the problem of wetness.” It was just beautiful, you know what I mean? So the technology, if we want to call rain gardens technology, that strategy was used, but in a very beautiful way. So it’s practical and beautiful. And I think that’s what we, as gardeners, we have to unite the two things, not just the aesthetic but also the practical in these fast-changing times, in these challenging, unexpected times.

Rob: That’s true. And actually in that garden in particular, the rain gardens aren’t just simply pits or depressions, but there are highly engineered sets of pipes underneath in certain types of soils so that everything drains out in a really smooth way. And it takes maintenance, too, they need to be cleaned out I think every year so, all the debris. So it’s not just a simple rain garden, it’s a bit of engineering to get it to work.

Margaret: There was another one, someone I haven’t seen in many, many years, Charles Cresson, who’s been gardening a long time in that area, a well-known gardener, and how he manages to have so many different plants versus big drifts or multiples of a smaller palette of plants, and yet it hangs together. Can we talk about that a little bit? Because I think that’s a problem. A lot of us have that collector inclination, we want to get, “Ooh, look at that. Look at that. Oh, I want to get that. I want to try this. I want to try that.” And it can just get to be a mess, right? A collection and not a garden. And yet he manages it, how does that work?

Nicole: Well, I feel that because that’s my own personal challenge with gardening. Have you heard this phrase “drifts of one”?

Margaret: Yes. Drifts of one, exactly [laughter].

Nicole: And Charles’s Garden is absolutely a collector’s garden. And Rob, I’ll be curious what you think. I mean, one is that he does have a true collection garden where he’ll have multiples of a genus or a species and put them in some areas in proximity to one another so that it’s not completely discordant or disconsonant. So the camellias are all in one area, even though it might be 50 varieties. And he collects categories—so rock gardens, bonsai—and will group them together. I think that helps. Rob, what do you think?

Rob: I think it helps, too. I think it helps that he gardens probably more than anybody I know. I mean, he’s out there constantly. Almost every day I visit the gardens, he is there. He works really hard. He has some helpers. And I think he’s on top of everything and his eyes is good, and he can see where things aren’t working. And he’s not afraid to move things and shift things around. He’s fanatical, and I love that in a gardener.

Margaret: [Laughter.] It helps to be fanatical. I love what you were saying, Nicole, about the grouping, the camellias grouping, the whatever. It reminds me of gardens that I really loved in visiting English gardens years and years ago. I was attracted to go see all of the famous, what they in some cases called order beds or taxonomic beds or systematic collections, where related plants were put together. Usually it was by family of plants, all the aster relatives were put together or whatever. All the grasses were put together. But I loved seeing that because it could still be beautiful. It didn’t have to look purely scientific. It could still be done with beauty. And so yeah, that’s a good description. Any other ones? Who wants to mention another aha, or just highlight?

Rob: One that just keeps coming back to me and perhaps, I mean it’s something probably everybody learns early on: It’s the beauty and futility of symmetry. Trying to make something symmetrical in your garden [above] and having it reflected on the other side is just… In your mind’s eye, it can look really beautiful until something dies or is stunted or needs to be pulled, and then you’re sort of stuck. And it’s a shame when you see gardens where a boxwood has succumbed to something and it’s a missing tooth in the garden. So I think instead of symmetry, people are moving more towards a dynamic balance. Something that might have some symmetry, but it’s not a direct symmetry. It’s not a mirrored symmetry.

Margaret: It’s not like a parterre, a four-square, formal kind of old-style garden, yeah.

Rob: Yeah.

Margaret: O.K. And Nicole, another thought?

Nicole: Let me see if I can articulate this. But probably the most, to me, profound thing that I still think about since finishing this book is how people can be really good at doing something, extremely talented, but then you could take it to the next level which is to be able to articulate why it is that you are making the choices that you’re making aesthetically and with your design. And that’s something that I have been bad at doing in my own practice of gardening.

If you were to ask me, “Why do you like alpine gardens so much?” I don’t know, I just do. I feel like it. I enjoy them. But no, it turns out I like the idea of worlds within worlds in a garden. And I wouldn’t have been able to articulate this if I hadn’t spent so much time talking to people who were so good at framing what it was they were doing in their garden and why.

And I would kind of encourage anyone who’s really into gardening and also doesn’t feel very articulate, like I often don’t, to just practice even in your own head of putting your impulse into an actual thought of why it is that you’re doing what you’re doing. Because it’s a discipline, but it also is quite satisfying and fun.

Margaret: That’s a good point, a very good point. Uh-oh, now I’m in trouble [laughter]. I’m going to be sitting here thinking about that, wondering why am I doing what I’m doing over here? Rob, do you have one more that you want to share, for instance?

Rob: No, I’ll just pick up on Nicole’s. I think I learned that, too. It seems like every garden needs a mission statement, and I think I put mine together too during this book. And it’s evolving, but at least I have themes now that I can work in my head, so it’s a positive thing.

Margaret: Does that help? I mean, at this time of year, one of the big dangers of course is that we can all go binge and run amok [laughter] when they open the garden centers and so forth. So I guess having a mission in our head would help us even with that, right? If we’re shopping and moving things around within the garden and so forth, is to let that be in our mind, front of mind, yeah?

Rob: Yeah.

Nicole: I think so. And in planning new projects in your garden and to think about what it is that you want to do and what you’re trying to, what’s your philosophy behind that? What are you trying to accomplish? What are you trying to convey? It just makes it a more… It’s like just adding another layer of texture and richness to a project that is already going to be very textured and rich.

Margaret: So you two, you’re not out running around looking at gardens together this spring, are you [laughter]?

Nicole: No, it’s sad. We had a couple of really fun years of doing that.

Margaret: I bet. I bet. Well, you certainly did a magnificent job. And it’s so great that you collaborated, and so it’s not just well-researched and written but it also has the beautiful photographs; you can really dig into each garden and get the whole picture, which helped me a lot. And I just want to thank you for making the time today to tell us a little bit more about it. So, thank you.

enter to win a copy of ‘private gardens of philadelphia’

I’LL BUY A COPY of “Private Gardens of Philadelphia” by Nicole Juday and Rob Cardillo for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box below:

Following up on that last point they took away from their experience visiting all the gardens for the book: Do you have a mission statement for your garden? What are you trying to convey?

No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in” and I will, but a reply is even better. I’ll pick a random winner after entries close at midnight Tuesday, May 14, 2024. Good luck to all.

(Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.)

prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 15th year in March 2024. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the May 6, 2024 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

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