Longing for Longwood

The garden that never sleeps!

By Karel Ulizio
Penn State Master Gardener ©2013

My garden is sleeping…finally, but my tribute to Monet’s nasturtiums was riotous this year. Their warm colored blossoms, spilling over and into the pea gravel walkways of my herb garden, perfectly complemented the orange pumpkins of fall. Our recent frost did them in, and they are now feeding the mulch pile to fuel the sprouts of next spring. And so it goes when you garden in Pennsylvania: It is over for the year. Or is it?

Longwood espalier
Espalier along a wall near the entrance

There is a place in our state, in fact, one of the world’s greatest public gardens, just a few hours to our east that never sleeps. Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, is a mere three hour drive, east of Pittsburgh. It is a four-season garden- a place where gardeners can gain inspiration and enjoy a greenspace long after their own gardens have been put to bed.

Located on the western side of Philadelphia, Longwood boasts indoor and outdoor gardens plus production greenhouses covering a total of 1,077 acres. The land we today call Longwood Gardens was occupied by the Lenni Lenape tribe for thousands of years. In 1700 it began as a working farm when Quaker George Peirce purchased the land from William Penn, and in 1730 built a farmhouse that still stands today. Peirce’s twin grandsons had an interest in the natural world and began a modest arboretum that included specimens from the entire eastern seaboard as well as overseas.

Peirce's Park
Peirce's Park

The 15 acres became known as Peirce’s Park. By 1850, it had garnered recognition as one of the finest collections of trees in the country. But passing generations lost interest in the arboretum, and in 1906 the farm and the arboretum were slated to be sold for lumber. Industrialist Pierre S. DuPont, however, stepped in and purchased the land, avoiding the loss of the Peirce family’s treasured plants. DuPont’s vision transformed the quaint Quaker farm into a private estate that became one of the most famous public gardens in the world.


The glass conservatory, which Mr. DuPont built in 1921, encompasses 4.5 acres with traditional displays such as an orangery and bonsai exhibit to a more current horticultural trend, the living green wall.

Longwood Treehouse

Outside the conservatory one can stroll through a range of gardens devoted to woodland, meadow and cultivated plants. Children will delight in exploring the treehouses and a garden designed especially for them.

Not impressed yet?  The most iconic feature at Longwood is the Fountain Garden, which Mr. DuPont engineered and built in 1931. It was inspired by his visits to fountains in Europe and the 1893 Columbian Exhibition in Chicago. The five-acre garden and fountain, which recirculates 10,000 gallons of water a minute, is beautifully illuminated. On summer evenings fireworks and music add to the experience.

fountain garden

The gardens offer visitors something new every season of the year. Longwood hosts world class horticultural exhibits, dining events, classes, workshops, and musical performances. Performances range from classical to flamenco dancing. Longwood’s resident instruments include the 62 Bell Carillon housed in the stone Chimes Tower,  a 1923 Steinway grand piano and last, but not least, a 10,010 pipe Aeolian organ commissioned by Mr. DuPont. The organ is the largest of its type constructed in a residential setting.

Autumn Displays

Every autumn at Longwood brings the Chrysanthemum Festival, which is on view in the conservatory through November 24, and touts the largest thousand-bloom mum in North America, one plant featuring 1,416 perfect yellow flowers. The Japanese technique of Ozukuri trains a single chrysanthemum plant to produce as many perfect blossoms as possible. Another 20,000 chrysanthemums have been trained to resemble clouds, fans and spirals.

garden at Longwood

Outside, there is also plenty of color. Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum), winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata), Japanese stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia) and Inchang viburnum (Viburnum inchangense) are but a few of the hardy plants displaying beautiful fall foliage and long lasting berries. A grove of our native witch-hazel, Hamamelis virginiana is right outside the visitor center. It is not to be missed!

The equally enchanting “A Longwood Christmas” opens on Thanksgiving day this year and runs through January 12th.  It features a water, light and musical performance in the open air theatre garden outdoor, plus thousands of lights within the conservatory and on the grounds. 

Pointsettias contrast with blue hydrangea

   Christmas Color!


Spring whispers its own song with lovely white snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) and blue Siberian squill (Scilla siberica) blooming when the gardens come back to life. The Idea Garden and Flower Garden Walk are planted with hundreds of tulips and other bulbs creating a rainbow of brilliant color. The elusive Himilayan blue poppy Meconopsis ‘Lingholm’ which blooms in March in the Orangery, could be the inspiration for the timing of your visit. Or, schedule a visit sometime between mid-April to mid-May to gaze at the iconic Longwood wisteria vines, Wisteria floribunda. These decades-old vines are trained in tiered tree forms and display in shades of lavender, purple and white with an aroma that is nothing short of heavenly.

The Fountain Garden

Finally, summer’s sweet cadence at Longwood is highlighted by its Fountain Garden and the many activities for visitors to enjoy.  View more than 100 types of waterlilies, including Victoria “Longwood hybrid” known as the giant water platters.

Finding a place that brings out the best of all four seasons—each with its inherent, unique beauty—is a rare joy. One visit to Longwood, whether it’s to view the breathtaking holiday arrangements on display in December, or to soak up the first sweet smells of spring’s blossoms, will have you checking your calendar to schedule a trip to experience the next season’s offerings. A tribute to the limitless possibilities of flora, horticulture and design year-round, Longwood is truly a garden that never sleeps. For more information, visit


Longwood Gardens

Philadelphia information

The Christmas Rose


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