by Jeremy Jones
When the white picket gate is closed and latched after a long and busy day at 8125 Germantown Ave., Laurel Hill Gardens rests her eyes as the cool night air echoes with memories of long-held friends and history as rich as her nurturing bed of soil. She hears the metronome cadence of the blacksmith’s anvil striking iron in the centuries-old house by her side, and the whinny and trot of horses waiting to be groomed and shod next door.
Now when the sun rises, the little house and the lush 8,000 square feet of land serve as a full-service landscape design and retail garden center, as well as a welcome retreat for passersby, customers and folks who may just want to refresh their spirit. It is Chestnut Hill’s own unique pocket park, thanks to the vision of owner Joe Ascenzi.
With a degree in ornamental horticulture from Penn State, Ascenzi’s first job out of college was working for the National Parks Service, maintaining the gardens at Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell and the Betsy Ross House.
“History in plants,” Ascenzi said. “You can’t beat that.”
That passion and regard for the voice of botanical legacies is the imprint of Laurel Hill Garden’s signature look in landscape design. Its expertise for capturing the style and elegance of turn-of-the-century homes and estates stays true to the original inspiration.
In 1981, having established Laurel Horticultural Services Inc., a landscape contracting company based in Villanova, Ascenzi initially purchased the Germantown Avenue plot of land as a holding facility for the trees and shrubs he used in his landscaping business.
It wasn’t long before this green oasis on the Avenue called to people passing by who wanted to purchase plantings and take them home.
Necessity being the mother of invention, Ascenzi decided to move the ball and burlap materials to another location, and on this site he created a mini retail garden-world, offering perennials, annuals and plants. He transformed the little house from a storage area to a garden shop.
“You have to go outside and change your mind – that’s how small it is,” Ascenzi said.
But this diminutive and graceful little Eden is a super source for gardeners near and far – from small-space tenders to ambitious land owners to interior designers. And it’s not just for customers who already have a green thumb; it’s also for those who want to learn how to grow one.
The big news is, Ascenzi and his crew are currently building an energy-efficient greenhouse on the property which will house tropical and indoor house plants.
“Up until this year, Laurel Hill Gardens closed after Christmas and stayed closed until early March,” shop manager Susan Dannenberg noted. “With the greenhouse we intend to stay open year-round. We’ll be able to do workshops, and in winter people love to come inside a green space.”
“You can’t find a place like this in the city,” said a woman from Northern Liberties who paused on the sidewalk to observe the greenhouse construction in progress. “This is very special.”
Laurel Hill Gardens is so special it received the 2013 Independent Garden Center Retailer award and was featured that year in Garden Chic magazine, headlined as “Sophisticated retailing in history’s shadow.”
If you have gardening questions or ideas you would like to discuss, Laurel Hill Gardens welcomes the opportunity to share its advice and design expertise. Also, it will come out to your property to take a look or you can bring in a photo of the area you’re working on. There is no charge for a local on-site visit.
The firm services areas as far away as Northern Bucks County, the Jersey Shore, the Main Line and the city. Services include design and planting, masonry and fencing, historic renovation, creating vertical gardens and water features. It is currently installing a pond on acreage surrounding an old farmhouse.
It also is popular for providing help with container gardening needs and designs. It will pick up and deliver your materials and you can always bring in your own container which it will re-do as the seasons change.
Christmas and Halloween at Laurel Hill Gardens call up scenes of Dickens and Currier & Ives, from the bright pumpkin patches to children rolling their Christmas tree home in a red wagon.
In addition to garden supplies, the store carries a new line of indoor/outdoor carpeting made from recycled plastic by Mad Mats, locally made jams and jellies and organic dog treats.
“Dogs are regulars here,” Ascenzi said. “Sometimes dogs get in the garden shop before the owner and we know the owner by the dog.”
On Oct. 4, Laurel Hill once again is partnering with WAGS for a dog rescue day. Twenty puppies were adopted last year at this event.
Ascenzi is a member of Chestnut Hill’s Green Space Initiative and has been a key player in the implementation of its Re-Tree the Avenue program.
Laurel Hill Gardens would love for you to stop by, pick up one of her free gardening books, sit beside her on a bench and read. She always enjoys the company of friends.