February 03, 2022
Children’s gardens are popping up like toadstools at botanical gardens everywhere nowadays. And they’re a welcome addition, encouraging families to visit and giving children, who increasingly spend much of their time online, an opportunity to explore outdoors, play pretend, climb, jump, and just enjoy nature.
Although it was built 20 years ago Enchanted Woods, a 3-acre children’s garden at Winterthur in Wilmington, Delaware, sets a high bar for others to follow. What makes it special? An article on the garden’s website explains:
“When Enchanted Woods was conceived in the late 1990s, most children’s gardens were gardens in name only. They were essentially playgrounds, purpose-built places full of features decorated in primary colors. The designers of Enchanted Woods wanted to create a true garden, a place that would delight and inspire, and they paid close attention to what children wanted: high spaces that offered a view, nooks to hide in, and water, water everywhere….[T]he garden feels timeless, a blank slate that children could paint with the full power of their imaginations.”
On my October road trip, I visited Winterthur for a second time, and Enchanted Woods remains one of my favorite spaces there. For one thing, it’s very much an ornamental garden, with lush plantings (of tough, childproof plants) and beautiful old trees. Architectural artifacts from the estate are incorporated into the garden for a sense of timelessness. The garden does not aim to instruct through educational signage and activities for parents to “work on” with their children. No. It’s a place for imagination, discovery, exploration, and feeling transported into a fairy forest. At least that’s how it affects me.
In the center of the garden, a mossy green space encircles a maypole, with swinging benches and weathered columns all around. It’s a performance space…
…or perhaps a meeting place or quiet hangout.
A thatch-roofed stone cottage appears in a clearing in the woods.
What will you find inside?
Pint-sized thrones, tree-grill windows, and even an electric chandelier.
A fireplace incorporates what looks like broken balusters in the stonework. Above the mantle, a porthole mirror makes a faux window, flanked by oak-leaf sconces.
Outside, a mossy stone bench is half-swallowed by the chimney wall.
Asters and ferns along a path
A frog fountain arcs water into a round pool.
Could he be under an enchantment?
Uh-oh, what’s this? A warning: Never, ever step inside a fairy ring! Naturally, one’s impulse is to step right in…
…which triggers a hissing mist from each toadstool’s base. Watch out, or you’ll disappear in the vapor!
Hidden in the shrubs nearby, a Green Man looks up and laughs.
A tree trunk turned upside down seems to scuttle like fingers on a tabletop.
A stone bridge under a pair of tall, straight trees invites exploration.
Around a tree in a green lawn, old stone artifacts make a circle that reminds me of ancient Celtic standing stones.
Climb on them if you like, or read them, or follow the spiral with a lilting tune playing in your head.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, they read. Life is but a dream.
Moving toward the du Pont house, you come to a grotto and hillside garden.
Toad lilies and asters flower among ferns as water trickles from above.
‘Momoe’ toad lily perhaps?
The hillside stream flows down to a koi pond encircled by a stone path and chairs.
Here they come. Aren’t koi like friendly dogs, wagging their tails to say hello and begging to be fed?
A few steps further, and you glimpse a formal reflecting pool in a walled garden.
A horse-fish sculpture anchors one end.
From the opposite side, you look back and see the grand house perched above.
Stonework of the surrounding walls
A few steps below the reflecting pond, a terrace with interlocking-ring pavers offers a spot for events.
A pretty combo: yucca, pink begonia, and a tulip-shaped path light.
Frothy asters crowding a railing
Heading up the grand stairs to the house…
…you pass a putti sundial.
And then you climb up, up, up.
A stone terrace and elegant summerhouse overlook the reflecting pond below.
Inside, the summerhouse seems a little sparse and dusty.
The massive house sits high on another terrace.
Last time I visited, I toured the grand old place, home to the du Pont family’s collection of George Washington memorabilia and elegant antiques. This time I stuck with the gardens, the beautiful, ever-changing legacy of the du Ponts.
What a load of money they must have had. But aren’t we glad they treasured gardens and planned for future generations to enjoy them?
Up next: Gorgeous floral displays at Terrain garden shop in Pennsylvania. For a look back at Winterthur’s grand trees and the formal Sundial Garden, click here.
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Attend the John Fairey Garden’s annual Budding Out Plant Sale & Festival on Saturday, March 19 in Hempstead. Rare and distinctive plants from the garden’s nursery and other vendors will be available, plus art, ceramics, jewelry, food, music, and entertainment for the whole family. Open 10 am to 4 pm. Members get first dibs at the plant sale with 9 am entry (memberships available at the gate). Check the webpage for a continually updated vendor list.
Join the mailing list for Garden Spark! Hungry to learn about garden design from the experts? I’m hosting a series of talks by inspiring garden designers, landscape architects, and authors a few times a year in Austin. Check out the 2021-22 schedule. These are limited-attendance events that sell out quickly, so join the Garden Spark email list to be notified in advance. Simply click this link and ask to be added.
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