Our recent Philadelphia Garden Tour took us to the Brandywine River Museum, an art collection that includes many paintings by the Wyeth family along with other American artists. The museum is operated by the Brandywine Conservancy. This organization is devoted to preserving the Brandywine River watershed, a river valley packed with Revolutionary War history that also provides drinking water for the city of Wilmington, Delaware.
Part of the Brandywine Conservancy’s mission is to preserve native plant species along the river, and the Museum provides a showplace for their emphasis on native plants. In years past I have walked the Conservancy’s trails along the Brandywine and observed their efforts to re-introduce native plants with some amusement. All along the trails we saw little structures made of stakes and chicken wire, protecting newly-planted saplings from deer. As a landscape gardener and designer, I have mixed feelings about this effort. It was hard to tell what all the fuss was about.
The historic Brandywine museum is a wonderful old stone mill grafted onto a modern building made with plate glass and cast concrete. The landscape plantings around it could be colorful and alive, cheerfully accenting the rustic mill with colorful flowers. Instead we saw foundation beds and planters overflowing with plants best described as woodland weeds; the kind of plants we would normally eliminate with Roundup and replace with hybrid perennials, flowering shrubs and annual borders in a rainbow of colors. Our customers would demand their money back if we produced a landscape as subtle as the one at Brandywine.
Our definition of a weed is “any plant growing where it’s not wanted”. My imagination runs wild, imagining colorful borders of impatiens, coleus and black-eyed Susan flattering the handsome stone and weathered wood museum buildings. Or a colorful perennial border. Am I a hopeless Neanderthal? Don’t I understand how important native understory plants are to our environment?
A closer look turns up Solomon Seal, Turtleheads, and other perennial flowers we’ve used in landscapes for years, but choked with nameless weeds. Oakleaf hydrangeas compete with nettles, ironweed, oat grass and wild field asters in raised planters. We see wild ginger and phlox mixed with milkweed and goldenrod. Everything has the overgrown appearance of benign neglect. There’s a small nursery devoted to carefully raising plants we would pull from our home landscape and toss on the compost heap.
To my eyes, these kinds of native plants are what grow in places where nobody cares enough to weed, mulch, and plant colorful bedding plants and perennials that liven up and flatter our living spaces. To put so much effort into cultivating a motley assortment of bland, scrappy, tattered and disorderly volunteers is a missed opportunity. The gorgeous Brandywine Museum and the Wyeth legacy deserve better.
We’ll return to the Brandywine Museum next fall on our third annual Philadelphia Garden Tour.
Steve Boehme is the owner of GoodSeed Nursery & Landscape, located on Old State Route 32 three miles west of Peebles. More information is available online at www.goodseedfarm.com or call (937) 587-7021.