by Lou Mancinelli
If the architectural styles found throughout Chestnut Hill, Germantown and Mt. Airy are the type that inspire your dream home, the gardens procured by local botany enthusiasts featured in this year’s Annual Hidden Gardens Tour might make you want to stay for a while and daydream.
This year, participants can visit 13 homes — two in Chestnut Hill, three in Germantown and eight in Mt. Airy — never before featured on the almost 20-year-old tour, presented by the Mt. Airy Learning Tree (MALT), Saturday, June 4, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Interested individuals can pick up their maps at MALT that morning (6601 Greene St.) and take the self-guided tour at their own pace. Some properties will have refreshments and learning resources. A bring-one-get-one plant exchange is also part of the event.
Organized by local garden hobbyist and artist Eric Sternfels, who has won the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society City Gardens Competition First Prize for Large Flower Garden, the tour provides residents with glimpses into local gardens that could serve as subject material for paintings of perennials, azaleas and wandering walkways among gazebos that you could hang in your dining room.
A row of homes on McCallum Street boasts Japanese, Ostrich and Maidenhair Ferns, Liriope and Christmas Rose. The gardens themselves, often fitted with obscurely placed sculptures and other pieces of art, are as inviting as the names of the shrubs planted throughout them are sonorous.
One West Mt. Airy home on the tour was built in the 1950s by a colleague of renowned modern architect Louis Kahn. Its garden pond features Koi fish colored by incandescence and bursts of oranges and strawberry red. The almost 5,000-gallon sustainable pond utilizes an upper bog area and an underground stone vault that biologically filters the water without the use of mechanical skimmers.
For every ornate or modern style home in Chestnut Hill, imagine a garden just as thought-out and well-designed. Sternfels selected the sites by scouring the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s (PHS) City Gardens Contest winners, leaning on his local gardening network and the old-fashioned method of revisiting a garden you like, with the hope you may run into someone.
“It’s really astonishing the amount of knowledge you’ll find is available if you get involved in this little local garden community,” said Sternfels as he took us around for a sneak peek at a few of the properties last Saturday afternoon. “It’s amazing how much these spaces fill in between May 1 and June 4. When you’re a gardener, you’re always just missing something. Something’s always just coming into season or just going.”
It’s also mildly astonishing how quickly one can create an award-winning garden. The homeowners at an East Mt. Airy home featured on the tour began developing their garden when they purchased their turn-of-the-20th-century-carriage home three years ago.
When the couple purchased the home, the garden included a fountain, walkway, gazebo and patio, but it was the family’s Rhododendrons and Hydrangeas that brought home second-place in last year’s PHS City Gardens Contest in the individual combination garden/large category. But that distinction came only “after years of daily deep digging to eradicate grout weed,” said the homeowner.
Aside from the aesthetic qualities of the gardens, the thing that makes this tour special is the passion evident in the gardeners and the friendship and reciprocity emanating between them and Sternfels. It’s clear there is a garden community in the Northwest.
For Sternfels, 52, gardening is healing medicine. Trained as an architect at the University of Pennsylvania, when his wife died 15 months after the couple was married in 2000, he re-submerged himself in the hobby that had taken up so many of his hours in junior high, when other kids were playing sports.
At first, gardening was a sort of escapism from the world to a solitary place of beauty in the form of flowers being reborn every spring and blooming with enough colors to paint the sunset. A few years later, Sternfels became involved with the Friends of Ned Wolf Park, a group of neighbors dedicated to maintaining and improving the city park at the corner of McCallum and West Ellet Streets in West Mt. Airy.
“I got connected with the neighborhood park, and through garden connections I started meeting people. It went from this solitary phenomenon to something more community oriented.”
Sternfels also runs Pourtensious Gallery, a studio in Manayunk where he makes quirky light fixtures with coffeehouse-esque motifs. “Botanical language is like any other language,” he said. “If you’re not visiting the country and talking the language, it’s hard to learn. There’s a contagion about gardening. You know, maybe if you fix up yours a little bit, and the neighbors see it, they say, ‘I’m going to do my own garden.’”
One way to build your garden is through local plant exchanges. Flowers and plants develop a lot of root mass underground. If you divide the mass into chunks, those chunks can reproduce, Sternfels said. You can give a piece of your garden to a neighbor, and vice-versa. “It’s intriguing how sharing your garden with others has this kind of positive impact. It’s kind of like this karmic thing…And I notice, people don’t really leave a garden without saying, ‘Thanks.’”
The Annual Hidden Gardens Tour, Saturday, June 4, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., meets at the MALT office, 6601 Greene St. (at Hortter), 215-843-6333, www.mtairylearningtree.org. For more information about local plant exchanges, visit www.phillygardenswap.org.