by George Ball
Here in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, “Heronswood East” is what, until recently, we called the 4-acre shaded areas of Fordhook Farm devoted to rare perennials, shrubs and ornamental trees. It still consists of a dream-like complex of several gardens containing thousands of rare and experimental hellebores, epimediums, thalictrums, geraniums, sedums, lysimachias, mahonias, begonias, primulas, cardiocrinums, weigelas, impatiens, hydrangeas and hundreds of other genera and species, aka “taxa”.
Also, it continues to be a challenge to find the right place for each specimen we culled from the original Heronswood Garden back in Kingston, Washington, always careful to “thin” the often-crowded beds, without ever removing a population entirely. Despite what a few over-anxious locals back in Washington say, this process is called “dividing” perennials—an essential part of gardening. We culled, thinned and divided—whatever you wish to call it—for several years, and then finished up the work about a year ago. But we kept two seasonal part-time gardeners—Alan Hansen and Suzanne Hissung—on retainers to help us keep the gardens preserved and intact, as the following article from “The Garden Conservancy News” attests:
“A New Future For Heronswood Gardens”
The sale of Heronswood to the local Port Gamble S’Klallam tribe was completed on Thursday, July 22. Over the past twelve years, George Ball and W. Atlee Burpee & Co. have been committed to preserving and maintaining the garden and its extraordinary plant collection. Since 2006, they have generously welcomed thousands of people to the garden through our Open Days program.
The property was put on the market that same year, and since then Burpee has been looking for the right buyer who would and could continue to maintain the garden and keep it open to the public. The S’Klallam tribe plans to do just that. The first opportunity to visit the gardens under this new ownership will be on July 28 as part of our Open Days program. Proceeds will once again benefit our preservation work at the Chase Garden in Orting, Washington.
Bill Noble, the Garden Conservancy’s director of preservation says, “We applaud Burpee for keeping the garden intact and maintaining it for so many years. They have assured that it is placed in the hands of people who value the garden and will manage it as a resource for the public. Heronswood is a wonderful collection of plant materials and an important horticultural destination.”
According to newspaper reports, the new owners are committed to maintaining the garden as an asset to the community. As reported, S’Klallam tribe chairman Jeromy Sullivan said, “We understand how passionate people are about Heronswood and, as a neighbor, we are committed to maintaining this local treasure.”
However, the aesthetic contrast between Fordhook Farm and Heronswood couldn’t be starker. Fordhook is 60 acres, Heronswood 15 acres. Fordhook is mostly full sun, about 80% of the 20-25 acres of display and research garden area which fluctuates every year. Heronswood is essentially a heavy shade display garden, and again about 80%, or 4 of the 5 acres.
Heronswood possesses a “through the looking glass” quality or “down the rabbit hole” effect. A famous garden designer told us she’d never seen a garden even remotely like it before, “and I’ve seen them all”, as she put it. Mysteries jump up or pop out at you from every corner. Most people find it delightful, while some are a bit overwhelmed. But all are charmed.
Heronswood is “folded”, much like the Asian culture that its design references, perhaps unconsciously. The gardens reveal themselves in unique layers with each visit. Ergo, the passionate attachment to it of the locals who can visit several times a year. During its heyday of the late 90s to 2006, Heronswood became a cult, of sorts. If you especially like odd and unusual shade plants adapted to a warm and wet zone 8, you have found the Beulah Land.
Fordhook Farm offers a completely opposite experience. Although we have replicated Heronswood-type research gardens in full shade, they occupy a small fraction of the property. The glory of Fordhook Farm is not only its history—though that was enough to receive its National Register of Historic Places status—but also its openness to the broadly dramatic sky for which the Philadelphia area is famous.
At its center, Fordhook Farm sits astride a ridge. But, in fact, there are three major elevations. A large hillock with a copse surrounding it descends from one corner of a long 60 acre diamond-like rectangle to fan out below in an “upper meadow” of about 15 acres. This middle level is the widest part of the estate and borders the ridge, which is more like a sort of rim or lip from which, facing southeast, the land slopes down, tapering to a ravine about 50 feet below where the property ends in a diamond tip, cut at the point by the local sleepy passenger train line. It appears much larger than its acreage, like a movie screen projects images. It’s full of light and very rhythmic.
There’s a large descending lawn in front of the Main House, which is a French style bastide set on the ridge. To its right or east, you can see a shaded, descending hellebore walk, and a full-sun creek walk nearby. These areas are punctuated by a bridge and a pair of man-made ponds, complete with a colony of frogs. Near the very bottom of the ravine is a collection of shade (both full and partial) as well as sun-loving plants in a series of odd-shaped beds at the edge of the woods near the railroad tracks.
Behind the Main House/Carriage House/Burpee Hall triangulation, which includes an 80 seat conference center, spread out the historic fields and meadows where the Burpee flower and vegetable “firsts” were either discovered, developed or collected by our founder, beginning in 1888, when he moved his research here from his small, crowded test plot in Philadelphia, where he began his research in 1876 as a young man. Later, his sons worked at Fordhook for the majority of the 20th century. We have experimented at Fordhook for the last 22 years.
Among the many innovative cultivars that helped make “Burpee” a household name are ‘Iceberg’ lettuce (the first crisphead lettuce, thus the first year ‘round salad green), ‘Golden Bantam’ (the first yellow sweet corn), ‘Fordhook’ (the first bush lima bean—meaning no more 12 foot staked plants with ladders up the sides), the first “stringless” string bean, the first ‘burpless’ cucumber. . . in short, the first—and even second and third—generation of American vegetables—varieties that could survive our often tropical late spring, summer and early fall climates throughout much of the continental U.S. All were bred or discovered at Fordhook.
Next to these famous test plots is a four story Seed House—one of about a dozen of these unique and distinctive structures left in the world and a major attraction for our Open Day guests. To the north is a large full-sun perennial demonstration and Japanese sculpture garden, and to the west is a chessboard, or ‘The Last Year at Marienbad’ movie, meadow where I have placed most of our monumental Steve Tobin sculptures, spanning 20 years of this world-famous artist’s career, as well as a collection of rare and unusual conifers deliberately set apart from one another, just like in the aforementioned surrealistic movie.
And that’s only about half of Fordhook Farm. Rambling across the 30 other acres, you can find several large (1-2 acre) full-sun scientific test plots with row-by-row vegetable, annual flower and full sun perennial candidates in what we call “root camp” and “Catholic school for plants”. These are blind test plots. If an experimental line doesn’t make it there, it is rejected, no matter who created it.
In addition to these sections, you will find a small poignant shade garden devoted to my mother, Vivian Elledge Ball, and designed by Dan Hinkley in 2001, the year after she passed away.
On the opposite side of the estate, near the visitor entrance, are several more Steve Tobin sculptures, some magnificent beeches and a large (1 acre) vegetable display garden called The Kitchen Garden, serving as a “beta” site for the “alphas” that survived “root camp”.
Then, you will find you are close to where you might have started. Behind the vegetable garden is the entrance to the “Hellebore walk”, where we research and show off our collection of thousands of these seductive creatures in almost all shades of colors.
Yet, the main quality of Fordhook is its magical “stepped out of time” feeling. It isn’t a forced or contrived effect; it was there when I arrived. I had nothing to do with it. I walked the perimeter and was smitten by it. The ancient Chinese would have called Fordhook, “place where the ladders of heaven descend”.
Spend any amount of time here and you never forget it. But it is for a different reason you return to Heronswood, now relocated officially to Kingston, Washington. Fordhook is extremely “open”—there is nothing “folded” about it. It is more like a massive set of pearl necklaces you see on older women in Italy. The “grandmas” wash them—thick strands of pearls still around their neck—in the Mediterranean, when they go wading with their families. By contrast, Heronswood is an intricate, bejeweled brooch, the last thing a woman puts on before she goes out for the evening—her finest piece.
Fordhook Farm will be on display soon. Coming up just next week—Friday, August 24 and Saturday the 25th—the gardens will be open. We’ll be selling rare plants of berries and exotic ornamental perennials at bargain prices, giving lectures on the many new blueberries we have coming out now, conducting guided tours, and offering tomato tastings from our extensive collection of 137 years of breeding these sensational vegetables (berries, in fact). Plus, of course, you can just float around the large and lovely estate.