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.
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?
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.
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.