design lessons from chanticleer, with bill thomas

p154_132_RCP_140514_7997IT’S NOT a botanical garden, exactly, nor an arboretum–not a park or a museum. So what is Chanticleer, the much-visited 48-acre fill-in-the-blank in Wayne, Pennsylvania, about half an hour from Philadelphia?

Maybe the best answer to that question is one I found on page 28 of the new book “The Art of Gardening: Design Inspiration and Innovative Planting Techniques from Chanticleer,” where it says:

“It is a garden for the sake of being a garden.”

p337_group photo © Rob CardilloBill Thomas (above photo, back row, far right), came to Chanticleer Garden in 2003, as director and head gardener, after 26 years at nearby Longwood Gardens. Bill’s is the lead voice in the extravagant new book from Chanticleer, but as in the garden itself, the book’s pages also contain other voices: specifically those of the other six gardeners Bill collaborates with to make this very unusual place come to life.

Fall planting season—a great time for adding new plants, or dividing and moving things about—isn’t far off, so I figured we home-garden types could use a dose of Chanticleer-style wisdom to help fine tune our own designs, and look at the pictures we’re creating with a much sharper eye.

Read along as you listen to the Aug. 17, 2015 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

my q&a on chanticleer gardens

with bill thomas




Chanticleer CoverQ. Can we have the quick history of the place called Chanticleer first, as a scene-setter?  What is Chanticleer?

A. We call ourselves a “pleasure garden.” We are to be beautiful; we try very hard to make sure it’s a beautiful place, and I think most of our guests feel that. It’s exciting; we want it to be visually exciting. We want it to be informative. But you could also say it’s a former estate garden, a former private garden. It was the home of the Rosengarten family, who had a pharmaceutical firm that merged with Merck in the 1920s. They planted beautiful trees and wonderful lawns, and since we opened to the public in 1993, we’ve been planting lots of flowers and other plants to create what we hope to be a very fun and exciting place to visit.

Q. A pleasure garden: It sounds like a phrase that would be used in English gardens, somewhere you go and stroll and enjoy yourself, and have a day out.

A. Yes, exactly. The last owner of the property, Adolph Rosengarten Jr., in his writing in the last decade of his life said he wanted Chanticleer to be a pleasure garden. We use that as a quick mission statement for us. Every guest should leave here in a better mood than when they arrive.

Q. So on bad days I need to take a drive there. [Laughter.]

A. Yes, you do.

Q. The garden is 48 acres—do I have that number right?

A. The whole property is 48 acres; the garden itself is about 35.

p026.027_RCP_131002_5495Q. In the book you’re writing about 48, or at least 35, acres—nevertheless the tenets of the Chanticleer design philosophy seemed like ones I need to keep in mind in my own backyard. I kept coming across ideas that no matter the scale, are important guiding principles.

Like the first bullet point of design philosophy in the book:

“Make the most of a site’s features.”

A. Whatever one is gardening—it could be a person’s balcony—first it’s: What do you have? Do you have a view you like; do you have a view you don’t like? With a balcony, for instance, you usually have a view from the apartment or condo. With Chanticleer it’s 35 acres of beautiful, rolling countryside with some great vistas or views—and we make sure we don’t block those.

We have a great lawn; a wonderful hill to roll down. It faces west, so in late afternoon, when the light is low in the sky, it backlights a lot of the trees.

We each know our own places better than anyone else, so its highlighting the things we like and if there’s something we don’t like, then it’s hiding it.

Q. So make the most of a site’s features by really looking around—and with an intimate eye; looking as you say to not deprive yourself of the best of the site.

A. And essentially to identify what gives you pleasure. If there’s something you really like on your property, highlight it.

Q. Another tenet of the Chanticleer design philosophy says: “Integrate the structures and the garden.” That can be a hard one sometimes, because some of them aren’t so gorgeous. [Laughter.] You have some beautiful ones on the property, and you even have the ruins of one former structure.

A. Yes, we took down the house of our last owner, Adolph Rosengarten Jr., and we built a run, a folly to look like that house had fallen into disrepair. That made the house literally part of the garden.

Integrating the structures into the garden: We think of the whole property as one place, one garden. We want everything to come together. For instance, when we built a restroom in Asian Woods, which is at the far end of the property in an area where we highlight plants from Asia, we decided to go with a Japanese-style building.

We built it in a little clearing in the woods, so we didn’t have to take down any trees, so we have it just nestled in, yet you can find it.

Q. It’s not an eyesore, nor idiosyncratic to the site. It feels integrated, as best as that can be.

A. Going back to balconies: I recognize not everyone has 35 acres to garden on. But your balcony is part of your home; it’s not a separate unit. You want to integrate it into your living room, if your living room opens into it. You want to think of it essentially as one place.

It may have a very different feel, but you still want it to be integrated.

Q. Similarly, the next of the design principle says: “Have themes that tie the areas together into one garden.” You have a lot of “rooms,” or gardens within the garden at Chanticleer, but it’s not jarring. It’s not like you’ve just walked over a threshold into a new world.

A. A number of people say, “Chanticleer Gardens,” and I always try to make our staff say it’s “Chanticleer Garden,” one garden.

Q. Singular, yes.

A. We do things that are usually pretty subtle. There are a lot of curving areas, pathways and bed edges here, and so we emphasize that.  When I look at an area I look to see does that curve—that edge of the bed or lawn—curve in a pleasing way, and does it seem to relate to an area that’s across the lawn?

We have a pathway that goes around the whole garden, so we’ve lined the asphalt path with Belgian blocks, so they help tie together the garden. When you come into our parking lot, we’ve actually divide the parking spaces with these Belgian blocks; we introduce that idea there.

The asphalt is actually a brown asphalt, rather than black. These are not inexpensive things to do, but in one’s own garden for instance–in one friend’s garden, he found some old concrete and he put those pieces of broken-up concrete on edge in places, so that helps tie his garden together.

p303_RCP_140525_8409Q. It can be a found material used in a repetitive manner, or plants, or a color. But you don’t want to sit on a bench and stare across to another area and be like, “Wait, that doesn’t connect at all.”

Another tenet says, “Change evolutionarily rather than with grand landscape designs.” Evolutionarily. [Laughter.] I look at that word and it’s like, “Whoa, how am I going to say that word?”

A. [Laughter.] My mother would have said, “Why use such a long word when you can use a shorter one?”

In most cases, in our home gardens or at Chanticleer, you don’t want to rip up the whole place. Instead, keep trying to improve it; keep making gradual changes. I think of a garden as being different from a landscape, because a landscape is done often all at once, and the designer really wants it to stay pretty much the way it was.

Whereas a garden is developed over a long period of time, and you keep changing it as trees grow, or other plants grow. You might have too many trees, and you may have to remove one or two. If it’s a small garden, something may outgrow the space. All we gardeners, since we’re working on our gardens as a longterm proposition, we think: How can we keep making it better?

Anytime I see something and I like it, I still think: Would it be any better; can I tweak this in any way?

Q. So iterations, not wholesale havoc where we erase something, throw up our hands. I’m always tempted, especially this time of year, to do that: to get a brush hog and mow it all down. [Laughter.]

A. And there are times when that is the thing to do. But in most cases, it’s not.

Q. Tease it apart, make some holes, play with some things before you go into erasure mode.

The last design-philosophy tenet in the Chanticleer book says: “Focus on plants.” That’s pretty important, because there is a lot of plantsmanship and incredible plants in the collection there.

A. We think about our pavement, we think about our structures, but the thing that really makes the garden and what we focus on and put our time into: the plants, and the plant combinations.

Q. And “plants with a purpose,” you say, too, which I thought was a very important point. It’s not just, “Oh, that’s pretty, I’ll bring home one of those!” and loading up the car with pretty faces, but plants with a purpose.

A. As we know: all of us love plants. In a garden center they’re going to be focusing on plants that are looking good today. And so it’s easy, especially in the spring, to see something that’s stunning. Or you drive down the road and you see a flowering cherry in bloom, and you think, “I’ve got to have that in my garden.” But what will it look like next week, next month, or in July? Will its leaves be diseased in August and your tree will be leafless?

Crabapples would be an example: Every crabapple looks pretty in the spring; it has pretty flowers. Instead of choosing a crabapple for its flowers, think instead of if it will have a great fruit display, and will the fruit stay on and draw birds into December and January. Will it look good with snow on it? Will it be healthy, so you don’t have to spray it?

And of course we put in some plants just because we fall in love with them.

Q. Because they did look good that one minute when you saw them.

A. But the ones we really appreciate, and what we try to have discipline about: Thinking what that plant is going to do in that area of the garden for its whole lifetime.

So if it’s an annual, since you’re only planting it for one season or one year, will it give you color all season, and look good? Or will it peter out after three weeks, in which case you’ve spent money and time and gotten not much out of it.

Q. You want us to challenge each plant and ask if it’s doing the best job it can: contributing structure or defining spaces, as you mention in the book, or giving us color (with the annuals you just mentioned). Whatever we’re turning to it for—is it giving us that over a long time? Have we sought out the best possible plant?

Sometimes the one in the garden center looks good in the plastic pot or flat, but isn’t one that’s the most garden-worthy of all.

A. In a way, it’s like going to buy a puppy; going to the shelter or the pet shop or the breeder.  Every puppy is cute, but is that puppy going to grow up to be 6 feet tall, and 250 pounds, and are you ready for that?

Q. Is this the right puppy for you?

A. Right. We all need some discipline in what we’re choosing. I tell people to go to gardens if they’re not happy with their own garden in August, which is a tough time in this part of the country for a garden. Go to a public garden and see what looks good, and then think about growing that instead of just going to a place in the spring and just planting something that you see.

p157_RCP_140509_6875Q. Speaking of plants with a purpose, as you do in the book: You write that they can make a place for the eye to rest, or soften structures—lots of jobs that plants can do.  I confess I have this obsession, and maybe to a fault now that the plants have all gotten so big, with gold foliage.

Now I have a ton of it. It does move your eye from here to there; it draws attention if you plant it at a distance; it brightens things up. I think the Tennis Court Garden at Chanticleer [top photo] uses a lot of gold.

What are some of the other things that plants’ color can do?

A. You mentioned gold foliage, but purple is another major color, and it’s so strong. It always draws the eye, especially if you highlight that or group purple plants.

One of the things about foliage is that it will be with you the whole growing season (or with an evergreen, it will be with you year-round). Much of our color display comes from foliage: from greens, from yellows, from purples, or variegation. That foliage gives us the color, but there’s also usually a textural effect with that through whole season.

And then we use flowers as accents, coming and going.

Q. I think that’s very important, and a very different balance than many of us who run in to the garden center and say, “Ooh, look at the flowers.” Instead having the discipline to shop for the foliage.

p137_RCP_090119_3383A. You can get color from twigs [above], especially in the winter, such as willows with red twigs—or Japanese maples that have red twigs. There are also willows that have yellow twigs, and twig dogwoods.

Q. There are so many plants at Chanticleer, but do you think there are any plants that are synonymous with Chanticleer–sort of signatures? I know much of the plantings, especially near key buildings, are changed out once or even multiple times a season, but there plants you can’t imagine being without?

A. That’s a hard question. Flowering dogwood, for instance, has year-round interest: flowers in the spring, red fruits in fall that go into winter, and good red-orange fall color, and I also like the horizontal branches.

p133_RCP_140509_6801Trees—almost every tree—but I’m especially fond of oaks, such as white oaks. Many people won’t plant them because they say they’re too slow, but actually if you plant a small one and it will transplant well and grow quickly. Lindens are also quick-growing, and there are some beautiful ones. Trees are so important, and they really tie our whole garden together.

We have bulbs in lawns—we use spring-flowering bulbs like daffodils in lawns. But even more special are camassias, blue-flowering bulbs that grow along our creek.

One of the things we do with the bulbs in lawns: We use a lot. With the Camassia [below] we probably planted 25,000. If it’s a small garden, we would have planted 100. But instead of  just planting a couple, go bigger and go bolder with bulbs.

p063T_RCP_090508_3081Q. The Camassia in the lawn, or the daffodils, come up and bloom and you wait until the bulb foliage has faded before you mow?

A. Right. And that’s the one tricky thing with bulbs in lawns: You cannot mow until the bulb foliage is starting to turn yellow.  But I like the long grass, and if you plant the bulbs in a pleasing shape or pattern, the long grass can look very nice.

Q. It can be very strategic—not all over your lawn, but an island, and then it’s a double pleasure: the beauty of the bulb, and then the beauty of the long grass contrasted against the areas alongside that are mown.

A. And by mowing around them, it lets people know you haven’t just forgotten, or are lazy.

Q. I call that effort, “evidence of human.” [Laughter.] I’m so glad to get to talk to you, Bill.


win a visit to chanticleer, from timber press

p051_RCP_080504_8261TO CELEBRATE the release of “The Art of Gardening,” publisher Timber Press is offering six winners the chance for an exclusive Chanticleer experience. Timber’s giveaway runs through September 4, 2015. [Note from Margaret: This is not a paid advertisement; I’m happy to entice anyone and everyone to get to see this fantastic place and meet the team that creates it.]

The Grand prize winner will receive:

  • An exclusive Chanticleer experience for two
  • Two complimentary copies of “The Art of Gardening”
  • Entrance for two on Sunday, Oct. 4th, with guided tour by one of the Chanticleer gardeners
  • Two  invites to the launch party for “The Art of Gardening,” on Monday, Oct. 5th
  • Luxury accommodation for two at the Wayne Hotel October 4th and 5th
  • Dinner for two at Paramour, in historic Wayne, PA

5 other winners will receive:

  • One autographed copy of “The Art of Gardening”
  • Entrance for one to Chanticleer for a date of their choosing any time the garden is open.

To enter the Timber Press contest, go to this link.

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 seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. 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 Aug. 17, 2015 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

(Photos from The Art of Gardening© Copyright 2015 by the Chanticleer Foundation. Published by Timber Press, Portland, OR. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.)

  1. Joan Weed says:

    Margaret, wanted to tell you how you entertained me in the depths of winter while recovering from a broken wrist. I was confined to bed at first from many aches from my fall. With one hand, I could barely hold a book and turn pages etc. What could I do?–no TV there. I discovered a pile-up of unheard Podcasts that in my busy life I hadn’t had time to hear. So I had a Way To Garden marathon in the darkness of winter. Thank you. I have been better about keeping up to date.

  2. Meg says:

    This sounds like such an interesting garden to visit. I’m sorry to realize we moved from thzt area to New England before Chanticleer opened but I’d love to amke up for lost time.

  3. holly says:

    A summer does not go by without a visit to Chanticleer. I have redesigned and added to my beds in the spirit of Chanticleer- using more texture with the foliage and more under-plantings.

  4. Nell says:

    Chanticleer made a deep impression when I visited more than a decade ago, and I’m determined to get there again soon. The book will help tide me over until then!

  5. Jennifer Taylor says:

    This is another wonderful post. Thank you! Chanticleer has been on my bucket list for many years. I am very excited about the giveaway and have spent the past half hour trying to enter in every way listed on the entry form. Turns out one needs to be more technologically savvy than i am to complete each step. I joined Twitter so i could Tweet about it, but i have no idea how to capture the URL for my tweet. I posted on FB about the contest (for 10 extra points! :-) ), but the contest form is not registering that I completed that step. And so on. I am frustrated. I wrote a comment on the form. Maybe they will help me on Monday. Not your problem but perhaps some of your other fans will have helpful hints!
    Thanks again for telling us about the giveaway.

    1. margaret says:

      You’re welcome, Jennifer. I will pass your comments on to the folks who organized the contest. I didn’t enter (of course!) myself so no first-hand insights to share.

  6. Gail Wilkinson says:

    Hi Margaret! A dear friend of mine who is a a amazing gardener with a breathtaking garden, introduced me to your website. I’ve been enjoying your emails and have gone through the former ones as well…not wanting to miss anything! It’s been a labor of love for certain. I’d love to visit Chanticleer and your garden as well. Thanks for the wonderful, insight-full website!

  7. Barbara Fornwalt says:

    I would love to visit Chanticleer. Have been to Longwood several times, but I have wanted to see Chanticleer for a few years now. I like the style. Would love to win the book.

    1. margaret says:

      It is a beautiful book, full of good ideas. I always learn from the Chanticleer gardeners,some of whom I have had the pleasure to meet, and they all have inspiration to share in here.

  8. Karen Summers says:

    Hi Margaret,
    I had my winter brightened up by your site also. While hunting seeds I found your list of seed purchases.
    I would love to visit Chanticleer! I tried to visit Longwood years ago but was unable to due friends schedule.

  9. Barbara says:

    Great interview, thank you. The Chanticleer connection with you is perfect!
    For the past 20 years I have taken a garden vacation with my best friend.
    This year our first stop was Chanticleer, it was a repeat visit for us and is absolutely one of my all time favorite gardens. Ten days later, (June 6), the last garden we visited on our trip was yours!

  10. MikleG says:

    Visited Chanticleer a decade or so ago as part of the American Hosta Society conference, but because our bus got lost, they cut 60 minutes off our tour. It is really hard to see Chanticleer the way one should when you are only given 20 minutes…grrrrrr.

  11. NETTY says:

    What a treat of an interview! We went to the land of DuPont for our first honeymoon (mini-moon) and were able to get to Chanticleer on the last day of the fall season and though rainy and cool, it was absolutely perfect. We try to visit every fall and sometimes in spring to continue our mini-moon. 10 yrs later and with a toddler we hope to make it back this fall. It is a very special place as a couple but as a plant dork I cannot get enough (buying the book so I can dream about it in the cold dreary months). I love the work of Bill and his awesome team. Pleasure!

  12. Marsha says:

    Hi, Margaret;

    I have made plans to visit in the near future with a friend who lives in Philly so I would love to do it as their first. Thanks for the great podcast; I never miss an episode! I have learned so much from it.

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