Henry Francis du Pont had three life-long passions: gardening, breeding cattle and collecting American antiques. Gardening was his first love. Even after he turned his former home into a museum in 1951, he kept his garden in private ownership until his death in 1969. He said that while after 1951 he was only a visitor to the museum, he was still Winterthur’s head gardener.
Three generations of the du Pont family gardened at Winterthur. In 1839, Evelina du Pont and her husband moved here and named it after the Bidermann ancestral town of Winterthur, Switzerland. Before they named the estate, built the house or even sited the well, Evelina du Pont and her husband, Antoine Bidermann, the first generation of du Ponts to live at Winterthur, considered flowers. While in France in 1838, Evelina wrote her sister in Delaware: “Antoine . . . is getting a plan here for our House in which he has not forgotten the little Greenhouse, if such may be termed a little room for flowers.”
Evelina had more than a budding interest in flowers: they were her passion. The same can be said about all the subsequent owners of Winterthur, gardeners and flower arrangers all. Each generation built on the previous generation’s work, and all preferred a garden that made the most of the natural landscape. The garden at Winterthur wraps around the house. The most formally landscaped and gardened areas are those closest to the house. As one moves farther away from the house, the tame, cultivated garden gives way to the freer Wild Garden style.
H. F. du Pont as Master Gardener
The Winterthur Garden is built out of the Brandywine landscape, finding its unique form in forests, fields, streams and hills. “The woods of Winterthur,” as the Bidermann’s said, have always been one of the great treasures of the property. H. F. du Pont said a garden “should fit in so well with the natural landscape that one should hardly be conscious that it has been accomplished.” Du Pont took his inspiration from the landscape he grew up with at Winterthur, including the woodland. A natural woodland is composed of four layers: the ground cover, shrub, small tree and tall tree layers. In such a woodland, the screen of vegetation is often so dense one can hardly see through it, but here in his garden, du Pont took this idea of woodland layers and re-imagined it, opening it up to create beautiful vistas and views.
In 1956, after he had gardened at Winterthur for seventy years, the Garden Club of America awarded Henry Francis du Pont their Medal of Honor, proclaiming him, “One of the best, even the best, gardener this country has ever produced.” The award cited du Pont as being a master of gardening, noting, “The woodland trees under planted with a profusion of native wildflowers and rhododendron, acre upon acre of dogwood, great banks of azaleas, lilies and peonies, iris and other rare specimens from many lands, each planted with taste and discrimination, each known, loved and watched, looking as though placed there by nature, forms one of the great gardens.”
The Big Ideas behind the Winterthur Garden
Winterthur is one of the last of the original Wild Gardens. William Robinson’s book The Wild Garden stimulated a new type of garden design at the turn of the twentieth century in Great Britain, Ireland and America. An idea with tremendous appeal to large landowners, The Wild Garden concept is built around the idea of gardening on a broad scale, “placing perfectly hardy exotic plants under condition where they will thrive.” Most early twentieth century Wild Gardens have not survived due to the post War land development and natural disasters such as the hurricanes that struck Great Britain in the late 1980s. Because Wild Gardens depend on plants rather than architecture, or hardscape, once a Wild Garden becomes neglected and goes literally wild, it is almost impossible to reclaim.
In the Winterthur Garden the flora, consisting mainly of naturalized exotics, is arranged to appear as if it grew spontaneously, planted in large drifts and grouped with other plants that harmonize in color and form. The garden encompasses the entire estate; the views in every direction are important to the whole; the woodlands, hay fields, and meadows are as crucial as the more formally planted areas. The paths are an integral part ofto the overall design, curving rather than straight, following the contours of the land, passing around tree, drawing walkers into the garden. At Winterthur “color is the thing that really counts more than any other,” said du Pont. A master of color, the garden is known for its harmony and “near-discords,” as landscape architect Marian Coffin, who worked with du Pont on the garden’s hardscaping, wrote with admiration.
At Winterthur nearly one thousand acres of farmland surround the 60 acre garden. The land at Winterthur is under a conservation easement so the property will never be commercially developed. We manage the garden today as though H. F. du Pont were alive and his vision still informs our decisions.