February 02, 2022
I first visited Winterthur on a blustery June day in 2016. In mid-October last year, I returned to see the garden at the turn of a new season, its summer greens tinged with pale gold and rusty orange, berries and quince brightening bare branches, and pastoral fields stubbled with mown grass. Its country grandeur was as beautiful as I remembered.
Winterthur kicked off three days of garden visiting in the picturesque Brandywine Valley. It was also the start of the solo portion of my big road trip from Maine to Virginia. Here’s part 1 of my tour of Winterthur’s gardens, established by the du Pont family in Wilmington, Delaware, in 1839.
Nearly a thousand acres of farmland surrounds the 60-acre garden at Winterthur, “all of it protected under a conservation easement so the property can never be commercially developed.” Views of rolling fields extend beyond the naturalistic outer gardens, where grand old trees spread sheltering limbs over benches and pavilions, and flowering trees create a glorious spectacle in early summer.
The place is huge. And hilly. I skipped the tram tour and felt like I was tramping all 1,000 acres on the uphill walk from the entrance to the back of the garden.
I skipped the winding paths of Azalea Woods and Magnolia Bend, since their flowering seasons were over. When I reached the solemn evergreen giants of the pinetum, I stopped and sat for a while among the shaggy-trunked trees.
Scented branches nearly brushed the ground…
…creating secret rooms beneath the skirts of the trees.
Sycamore Hill came into view as I rounded a bend at the outer edge of the garden. Great trees, a sweeping lawn, a brick pavilion, and large flowering shrubs combine to make a romantic vista.
A granddaddy sycamore, as wide as it is tall, sheltered a curved garden bench.
A bench and a grand old tree — maybe that’s all you need for a transcendent moment in a garden.
Although the grass was wet, I continued my tramping and high-stepped out to the brick summerhouse.
No one else was around — just me and the trees and birds twittering in the shrubbery.
At this time of year, Winterthur’s famous displays of spring bulbs and colorful azaleas are quiet, and the blazing colors of fall await brisker days in late October or early November.
That suits me fine. I love a feeling of solitude in an old garden.
Just beyond Sycamore Hill, rock steps lead down into a hollow.
Formerly a rock quarry, this space was transformed into a garden in the 1960s.
At the bottom, a channel carries water through naturalistic planting beds, where asters and other fall perennials were blooming.
Above, on a hill shaded by venerable oaks, a bench overlooked fields and a large pond.
Cochiums leaned soggily in the grass, giving the hillside a faint lavender haze.
These beautiful little autumn-flowering bulbs are unknown in Austin, or at least I’ve never seen them. Too hot and dry in Texas, probably.
Heading into the inner-loop gardens, I found the formal Sundial Garden. The du Ponts once played tennis here, but in 1955 Henry Francis du Pont asked his friend and landscape architect Marian Coffin to redesign the space as a garden. The dark conifers of the pinetum loom tall on a ridge in the background.
Boxwood balls outline the borders like sewn stitches on a quilt.
A long axis in the center leads the eye to an armillary sundial and beyond, to the brick summerhouse on Sycamore Hill.
A bronze flowering yucca — or agave? — attracted my notice on some stone steps. A matching one stood on the other side.
Steps terracing a lawn path lead up to the pinetum. On each side, flowering quince showed off fall fruits.
Orange fruit and a few orange-red blossoms hanging on
As I headed to the Enchanted Woods, I enjoyed another long view of the brick summerhouse in the distance.
Up next: The Enchanted Woods children’s garden and reflecting pool garden at Winterthur. For a look back at James Golden’s acclaimed Federal Twist garden in New Jersey, click here.
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