majestic tree canopy

America’s Oldest Food Farm

As one of the oldest cities in the USA, Philadelphia has made an indelible imprint on American history. Yet with all my Philly history lessons, I never knew the far-reaching impact of one of its rural resident farmers.

Lasting Landscapes by Carol
My American history lessons didn’t include the John Hershey Homestead

John Hershey was a nurseryman focused on trees and their benefit to humans and livestock. In the 1920’s, well ahead of his time, Hershey proposed planting crops like wheat or corn interspersed with rows of trees. The trees would anchor the soil, provide shade for the crops and feed the chickens, cows and pigs. Hershey felt this method of farming would help to reverse the climatic change being caused by humans as they destroyed forests and the soil in the name of progress.

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Persimmon trees planted in a row

According to an article by Sandy Hingston in Philadelphia Magazine in 2018, “Hershey’s vision was for a better kind of American farm, one that took full advantage of what he called the ‘Orbit of Nature.’ He wanted to optimize what God in his glory had provided and teach America to make the most of it. He foresaw farmers chilling on their front porches while all around them, nut and fruit trees rained down their bounty on the land, fattening livestock even as they replenished the soil.”

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I can picture John Hershey sitting on his front porch as nuts rained down around him

I had the pleasure of visiting Hershey’s homestead in Downingtown, Pennsylvania recently and immersing myself in America’s oldest intact food forest. The homestead is now under the stewardship of owners Cheryl, Pat and George, who are committed to preserving the property and its remarkable plantings to the best of their ability.

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The Hershey homestead is well cared for by its current owners

While surrounded by residential developments, the homestead stands strong amid a number of Hershey’s fruit and nut trees which proudly display their scars showing where a cutting was grafted onto rootstock to create the ‘best of the best.’ Committed to finding the best trees in existence, John Hershey placed advertisements in newspapers asking people to respond if they had an amazing hickory or honey locust or a favorite persimmon. He rewarded winners with a $50 payment and then utilized that stock as the basis for his food farm.

Lasting Landscapes by Carol
The former nursery is nestled into a residential area
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The visible graft line showing where an English Walnut was grafted onto a Black Walnut
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A stately Black Walnut on the property

Today, most people think of nut and fruit trees as dirty trees, depositing their litter on the ground and disrupting pristine landscapes. But to Hershey, these were cherished specimens meant to be celebrated and used for a positive environmental impact.

In addition to being a ‘doer’ and leading by example, Hershey was also a writer. In Nature’s Orbits, he said, “Ever cross your mind, the violence and the violent struggle, needed to get into the stream of life? Think about the force of an acorn, walnut, or any seed that bursts forth from its shell, furiously sending down roots. … I nose-dived into the stream flow of life — plunged from the matrix, hands forward, head down, nose projected out, ready to plunge through life like a diver and will continue so until I die.”

Lasting Landscapes by Carol
My visit gave me the opportunity to reflect on an important part of our country’s horticultural history

I’m thankful for the doers out there like John Hershey and his homestead’s current owners. These people are committed to diving in head first to change the future and preserve the past.




Beautiful Gardens Everywhere

“Nothing stirs the soul and inspires the mind quite like a beautiful garden.” That’s how Alan Titchmarshbegins the first episode of my new favorite Netflix series Love Your Garden. I can relate to Alan’s statement as I have been inspired by many gardens in my lifetime, taking impressions and ideas with me and implementing them in my own landscape in a way that soothes my soul.

I’ve made it a practice to visit public gardens when I travel, which I think is a spectacular way to explore a new place, while getting a sense of the garden style and plantings that are typical of an area.There are always takeaways that get tucked inside my mind for later use whether that’s a combination of plants, a design for a sitting area or a way to attract wildlife to your garden. How do I decide which gardens to visit? The book 1001 Gardens to See Before You Die identifies places to visit all over the world. You can also join a local plant society like the Garden Conservancy or the Hardy Plant Society to gain access to private gardens in your area or the area where you are traveling. Or simply search the internet to see what’s nearby.

This year I have already visited three spectacular public gardens including the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, Arizona, the Lauritzen Gardens in Omaha, Nebraska, and the Biltmore Estate Gardens in Asheville, North Carolina. 

Desperate to escape the Northeast winter before Nor’easter number four hit, I hopped on a plane to Phoenix in March. After a lovely day hiking, my friend and I sauntered around the Desert Botanic Gardens at dusk for a magical display. 

A glass exhibit by Chihuly welcomed us and perfectly echoed the natural cactus in the landscape.

Chihuly’s sculptures looked like real cactus plants

While many of the 20,000 plants on display were not applicable to my northeast climate, the pairing of fine textured plants with those that have bolder foliage proved to be a winning combination. 

Feathery textures combined with broad-based foliage

The concept of a shade garden in Arizona made me laugh. Clearly, gardeners were challenged in this department as this area of the 50 acre landscape was not thriving.

Shade gardening in Arizona?

An inspirational quote caused me to pause and reflect while the borrowed views of the distant mountains provided a calming focal point.

So true!

Borrowed views are fantastic

In every part of the country Mother Nature gives us something to ponder.  A rare mutation of the saguaro cactus known as a crested cactus could be observed from all angles.

A crested cactus

Naturalistic plantings are all the rage in the United States. Proponents recommend removing manicured lawns and installing native grasses instead. Clearly Arizona was on board with this trend.

A naturalistic planting

The importance of color in a garden is universal.  Here the repetition of the rust color in the wall and the plant material created a peaceful atmosphere.

Complementary colors in action

Next up was Omaha, Nebraska in May and a visit to the Lauritzen Gardens. The majority of the plantings were dormant, but the bones of the garden told the story. Sometimes I think you see more when you visit a garden in the winter as you notice features and structures you might otherwise overlook like a planter that’s built into a wall or a poignant message on a bench. 

This planter was part of the surrounding wall
Another meaningful quote

The power of a conservatory is apparent during the winter months. During our visit the tropical conservatory included an art exhibit called ‘Metamorphosis’ featuring birds and aquatic creatures formed out of plastic, the ultimate in recycling. The exhibit was not only a feast for the eyes, but also a statement about becoming better stewards of our environment. 

A jellyfish made entirely of recycled plastic

Also in the conservatory were roses left a bit unkempt, their petals forming a carpet on the top of the wall. There was even an elephant in the room — and he was a water feature!

I appreciated the lack of clean up in the rose department
An adorable elephant water feature

The last garden I visited had been on my bucket list for many years. The Biltmore Estate, America’s largest private home, was the ultimate destination. The gardens, both formal and informal, were bursting with color. Of course this was the intention of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, considered to be the father of landscape architecture. Based on information from my friend’s fitness device, we walked eight miles of trails in the garden from the azalea garden, to the meadow, to the rose garden. I savored every inch!

The blinding colors of the blooming azaleas

While the rose garden’s hundreds of plants weren’t in bloom, the Chinese wisteria was and it put on quite a show visually and with its intoxicating fragrance. 

The well trained wisteria

Biltmore also had a conservatory that masterfully combined colors and textures into a feast for the eyes. 

A lovely composition in the conservatory

In contrast to the formal gardens, the natural areas like the meadow and Bass Pond showed how depth of field plays a role in a successful design, with plantings in the foreground and in the distance. I also loved how the Biltmore Estate emphasized bloom time. They even had a daily exhibit showing what was blooming in the garden. 

Bass Pond with a Calycanthus shrub in the foreground

Biltmore’s daily display of what’s blooming in the garden

I have a few more trips planned this year and have purchased tickets to multiple gardens tours. I’m sure each and every garden I see will be beautiful in its own way and inspire me in some way. I encourage you to visit gardens when you travel or even those in your own town. Celebrate the diversity of the landscape on this little planet we share. What a great opportunity to combine exercise, relaxation, education and a cultural outing into a memorable and potentially life-changing experience.