Nemours Garden

Garden Designers Roundtable: Maintaining a Grand Plan

I had the privilege last week of free and unfettered access to one of America’s great country estates, Nemours. Happy for a working day out in a grand garden I had only heard about, I went.  Nemours, in Delaware, was built by a duPont and the gardens and mansion have just re-opened after a $40 million renovation.

Nemours Garden

Built as a love letter to his second wife (who did not love him back)  in 1907, A. I. duPont had the money and the means to build a European style pleasure garden complete with grand vistas, follies, fountains and enough formality and gold leaf to awe just about any visitor.  The most impressive golden object (they’re 24K gold leaf) at Nemours is a garden sculpture titled ‘Achievement’ in the grand allee.  Self aggrandized irony in that choice?

Gilded sculpture at Nemours

There are 4.5 miles of clipped hedging including boxwood, privet and barberry in the gardens.  Less invasive and lower maintenance choices were not made as part of the renovation.  There are acres of annuals.  A.I. duPont  had a staff of more than 300 to prune, pinch back, weed and maintain the formal gardens as well as the estate’s farm.  Today the staff is much, much, smaller and reliant on chemical solutions rather than the inexpensive labor-centric, mostly organic practices of 1907.  When labor became too expensive, chemicals became the cheap solution.

Abandoned greenhouse at Nemours

In its heyday, there were orchards and a formal potager, and there were greenhouses, now in a state of abandon, not far from the house.  It was self-sustaining in a way that few large properties are even now.  The original vision for the property included these details – food, cut flowers for arrangements, and homegrown bedding plants.  It was a working integrated estate.  Now, as a garden museum, it’s working core isn’t evident.  The grape arbor from the original potager is being replanted with table grapes, but the rest of it has been paved over for parking.  The pumphouse and root cellar are still there.  The only other remnants of Nemour’s farm are a few old pieces of machinery that were left in a forgotten corner of a barn and are set quaintly out in a field as if they didn’t matter much.  Most of the producing farmland was sold and  is now part of a state park.

These bygone estate gardens, which we should consider museums of our own garden history, are unsustainable without huge, well-trained staffs of gardeners and the working parts that served them.  Their pristine (if somewhat skewed in their reverence) ideal is expensive to maintain.  The pleasure gardens were never meant to be natural to begin with.  I’m sure there are ways to include more sustainable practices, the types employed when the estate was first built, but it takes imagination and not a little bit of knowledge to get them there without legions of low paid workers.  But wait!  Isn’t that who we employ to cut our own lawns and mulch our own beds? Few of them have training or practice organic gardening either.  What’s wrong with us?  Why do we seek to maintain (outside of a garden museum) the pristine yet false ideals of a world long gone when cheap labor needs to be replaced with chemicals who do our earth such great harm?  A little bit of mess is a good thing for all of us and the planet we live on.

For more  thoughts about maintaining gardens from designer/bloggers,just click the links below.

Christina Salwitz : Personal Garden Coach : Renton, WA
David Cristiani : The Desert Edge : Albuquerque, NM
Debbie Roberts : A Garden of Possibilities : Stamford, CT
Douglas Owens-Pike : Energyscapes : Minneapolis, MN
Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK
Mary Gallagher Gray : Black Walnut Dispatch : Washington, D.C.


18 thoughts on “Garden Designers Roundtable: Maintaining a Grand Plan

  1. Thanks for this post. Being from the west Coast, I had never heard of this garden. I also appreciated your comments on the ways that chemicals have altered out maintenance practices. It made me wonder if there is any way that gardeners will ever find their way back to the garden?

  2. Logan- This is not the most famous duPont garden. Winterthur and Longwood are.

  3. I always thought duPont and the rich contemporaries created these elaborate gardens for their own enjoyment and status seeking, not for the public. They paid the staff and probably thought their heirs would also pay the staff. Some people with “money” may try to recreate the private estate gardens; there are plenty of want ads right now. Resorts, hotels, and conference centers often have intricate landscape designs. Several of the formerly private and now open-to-the-public botanical gardens here in Michigan have legions of volunteers who help “install the reality” of professional designs.

    Everyday people like me learned about maintaining the yard by looking at what the neighbors were doing. And we all appear to have copied what the new-middle class of England was doing in the 1800s.

    “A little bit of mess is a good thing for all of us and the planet we live on.” I love that! A few years back I bought a pair of dwarf boxwood. The nurserywoman said something like, “don’t prune them, they are charming when allowed to be a bit ragged.” I allowed, and they are.

  4. Jackie- You are right about why these gardens were built, but there are two other reasons the nouveau riche Americans built these types of gardens–first they wanted to validate their position as wealthy on a global scale and to display their knowledge of European roots and traditions, mostly ignoring the landscape movement of Capability Brown and his ilk. The second is that there were few (other than Olmstead) creating American gardens in an American style appropriate to and celebrating our own landscapes. Why that continues today is beyond me. We do emulate 19th and early 20th century ideals in a world where they aren’t sustainable.

    I agree with you about the boxwoods by the way.

  5. My staff (me that is) has no choice but to leave a little bit of mess. My very natural looking garden keeps growing larger as I keep getting older. Fastidiousness has left the premises and been replaced with joy. My hope is that the joy will continue to be sustained.

  6. Bob–after the money was spent, there was joy in the gardens at Nemours, but not until A.I. divorced his unloving wife, went to legal war with his cousins and remarried a childhood friend and rejoiced in sharing the estate with his grandchildren. Few of those things have to do with gardening…

  7. I find the uptight, scorched-earth approach to gardening to be very weird. The result is a garden that’s unreal, uninviting and just plain un-fun. Relax, people!
    Thanks for the tour and the history lesson, Susan!

  8. I agree with the scorched earth Jocelyn, but when viewed as a ‘museum’ and a window to our collective garden history, it’s interesting to see how much and how little has changed.

  9. Christina–There are some lovely images and lots of historical anecdotes on the Nemours website that you’d probably enjoy.

  10. Oooooh, a garden as a love letter to someone who didn’t love him back? That is pretty juicy & I’d love to get the whole story behind that. Is this place open to the public regularly now?

  11. Grand, but like I read in your text and comments, what a waste when the 1% does this! No wonder many of the public hold this as the paragon, ignoring other costs.

    This ties directly into what I aspire to, in having only a few concentrated oasis areas here, or discrete manicured areas, with the majority what the local area’s ecoregion sustains, with some subtle manipulations. Treating my entire city as an oasis to resemble Des Moines (since the 1930’s) is really showing it’s true face! Well, to about 1% of 1/2 of this states populace, so far. Why won’t it rain?

  12. Mary–Sadly, this grand romantic gesture failed and they were divorced. More family mayhem ensued, a fortune lost, another gained and his 3rd marriage was a charm. Nemours is open to the public now. Reservations are suggested though.

  13. David–When looked at like a great painting, these garden museums have much to teach us about design, but not about plants and maintenance other than as a cautionary tale! It is spectacular and rather cold without people in it. The scale is intimidating as you can see from the two guys tending the main allee’s containers in the first image. It’s a MASSIVE display of bygone wealth.

  14. Very interesting post. Back then the 1% spent money on grand estates with large staffs because that’s what there was back then to spend money on. Nowadays you take your G7 to drop a couple million in Vegas or Macau for the weekend instead of inviting friends out to your estate–much quicker and easier.

    A return to nature for most of that property with walking trails for visitors would be lovely.

  15. Susan, I am always fascinated by these large estate gardens, fun to visit but they always leave me wanting….something else. As you said they are so massive and, to my eye, uninviting. It’s too bad the funds aren’t there to make the garden self-sufficient like it was back in the day. Thanks for sharing the story and photos.

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