Tag Archives: longwood gardens
If you have a chance to go visit Longwood Gardens this spring, I would highly suggest doing so because it is truly a sight to see and smell! Some highlights include the magnolia tree, tulips, bluebells, crabapple trees and the list goes on and on. I could spend a whole day looking around the beautiful grounds, conservatory, and of course, the gift shop. My personal favorite spot is the Peony Garden, which is in bloom once a year in May and is located on the western side of the 1908 Square Fountain. It’s sort of a secret spot where not too many people are often around, plus peonies are one of my favorite spring time flowers!
Last month, I spent a few hours with talented author, photographer, lecturer and horticultural consultant Rick Darke at his home in Landenberg, Pennsylvania. He introduced me to his world filled with passion for horticulture, landscape design/ethics, garden art, photography, travel and much more. Not only is his work fascinating, his worldly accomplishments are altogether inspiring.
This post focuses on the ‘Meadow Metropolis,’ a piece of art he created in his backyard from old sash vents from the conservatory at Longwood Gardens, where he worked for twenty years. Please enjoy Rick’s narrative on his career and his diverse interests.
Rick Darke on his career and the ‘Meadow Metropolis’:
I never imagined a career working with landscapes and gardens. I’ve always been fascinated by machine design, and thought mechanical engineering would be the ideal way to work at something I loved. I nearly went to General Motors Institute but chose instead to enroll as an engineering student at the University of Delaware because it offered a more varied environment. That was a fortunate decision, because I quickly realized that there wasn’t enough art in the engineering curriculum. I changed majors, wandering through art and cultural geography before settling on botany and plant science as the best fit. I was lucky to join the Longwood Gardens staff fresh out of school in 1977, first as Assistant Taxonomist and then as Curator of Plants. My twenty years at Longwood proved to be an extraordinary education about people, places, and plants. As Curator, I contributed to the concept and planting design of new gardens including Peirce’s Woods, the Silver Garden, the Cascade Garden, and the Mediterranean Garden. My role in plant exploration and introduction literally took me around the world, with trips to diverse places including Japan, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, and the Canary Islands. The more I traveled, the more I realized I was most intrigued by how human culture shapes landscapes, and by the inherent stories that are evident to keen observers.
It’s been nearly fourteen years since I launched my independent practice with a focus on landscape ethics, photography and contextual design. In that time, I’ve been fortunate to have a number of books published on landscape design, which have found an international audience, and some have been translated into other languages. An active speaking schedule has continued to offer glimpses into communities and landscapes around the world, and this, and the books have in turn lead to involvement in a wide range of design projects including botanic gardens, parks, transportation corridors, and residential landscapes. The camera plays an ever-increasing role in all of this. After taking more than seventy five thousand 35mm slides, I switched in 1999 from film to digital photography and now enjoy taking pictures and using them in my work more than ever before.
One of the greatest gifts of my line of work is that it constantly enriches my perspective on what makes landscapes truly livable, and I’m able to use this knowledge at home in the garden that my wife and co-hort(iculturist) Melinda Zoehrer and I have been making together for almost two decades. Situated at the edge of the White Clay Creek Preserve, in Landenberg, a half mile from the Delaware state line, our 1.5 acre property is both our home and a living laboratory where we can try out our ideas in real-time 3-D. The garden is full of functional spaces including outdoor dining rooms, an outdoor shower, a stone fire circle, a small cabin with a tin roof for listening to the rain. But it also serves as a living theater in which we enjoy telling stories by means of plants with special provenance or found objects and other cultural artifacts.
One such story is an interweaving of my machine interests, childhood experiences in New York City, my Longwood Gardens association, and the notion of the landscape as a palimpsest (a parchment or entablature that has been written on many times, each time being imperfectly erased so that the previous writing is partly legible). As a child, my parents for years took me on birthday trips to the Museum of Natural History in New York, where I was equally awed by dinosaurs and skyscrapers. I learned years later that Longwood Gardens’ founder, Pierre S. du Pont was one of the financial major backers of my favorite, the Empire State Building. He maintained offices on the 80th floor, which survived the 1945 crash of a B-25 bomber relatively unscathed. Longwood’s main conservatory, built in 1919 by Mr. du Pont, was undergoing extensive renovation in the mid-90’s while I was still working at the gardens. This work included replacing the sash windows that vented the monitor atop the conservatory. More than seventy-five years of increasingly acid rain had taken their toll on the sashes, which were beautifully constructed of wood, hand-sheathed in copper, with glass arranged in repeating patterns of eight lights with diagonal cross muntins. After learning the old sash vents were destined to be recycled for their copper, I expressed an interest in acquiring a few as relics and was permitted to purchase a number of sections at scrap value. I brought them home and began experimenting with placing them in our garden. The ideal location quickly presented itself – a position at the edge of our small grassy meadow, where they could be viewed looking south from our glass-walled bedroom. I arranged sections of the sash in a ziggurat pattern evoking the set-back spire of New York City skyscrapers. Melinda took one look and christened it the ‘Meadow Metropolis’, a name that has endured, along with the sash, for the past fifteen years.
The soft-textured matrix of grasses is the perfect foil for the organized geometry of the Meadow Metropolis. The translucent grasses and the acid-rain-etched glass are regularly set aglow by the sun as it arcs east to west over our little meadow. The glass is illuminated in different patterns corresponding to seasonal variations in the sun’s angle, and experience has taught us to tell the time of year by these varied signatures. It’s delightfully dynamic in its celebration of small moments – those incidental keys to the universal. It is also the perfect prop for those visitors interested in stories. I believe the notions of renewal and recycling are at the heart of gardening. Tomorrow’s landscapes will always find life in each summer’s seeds and each autumn’s fading treasures. Authentic artifacts of experience are worthy of reconsideration in the places we make today, weaving together a pride in past accomplishment and novel insights into the present.
Maintaining my machine interests, I bought a 1938 Chevrolet pickup a few years ago with the intention of using it as garden art. It was a farm truck from southern Delaware that had been stored in a barn. It proved to be such a strong runner. I redid the brakes, carburetor, starter, and some wiring, replaced the wood in the bed and registered it as an antique. It is street legal and is used for local trips and appearances at the Hagley Car Show each September but still occasionally spends time in the garden, back by the Meadow Metropolis.
The truck contributes to the story of the ‘Meadow Metropolis’, since the truck was made by General Motors, Pierre du Pont was a GM board member in the 1930’s as well as being one of the principal financial supporters of the Empire State Building, and of course the sash pieces came from the Main Conservatory at Longwood, where I was on staff for twenty years. I began my college studies as a mechanical engineer, and was in final stage of interviews for General Motors Institute (a 5-year engineering program) when I decided at the very last minute to go to the University of Delaware instead. So, it really is one big circle.