Germantown: Stenton Hosts Historical Garden Presentation

Nicole Juday, center, Wyck's landscape curator, fields questions from the nearly two dozen people in attendance.
Nicole Juday, center, Wyck's landscape curator, fields questions from the nearly two dozen people in attendance.

A recent presentation at Stenton highlighted the historical gardens that Germantown had in the past and the gardens it still has today.

In “A Short History of Gardens in Germantown – One Gardener’s Observations,” Wyck landscape curator Nicole Juday spoke about the many gardens of the neighborhood and how they have changed over time.

The history of gardening in Pennsylvania started with William Penn who thought, “nature is this beautiful, wonderful thing,” Juday said.

Seven years after Penn came to Pennsylvania, Germantown was founded and his love of gardening reached the new settlers as well.

Most houses in Germantown were built close to the main footpath, now Germantown Avenue, but the properties went back fairly deep, allowing ample space for large gardens.

Early Germantown gardens had practical uses. Most families weren’t yet established in the area and relied on the gardens as a source of food. Once many families were truly established in the late 18th century that quickly changed.

“Some crop area and fruit trees were chopped down and replaced with ornamental trees,” Juday said.

Slowly, gardens were ignored. “Labor became much more expensive so people didn’t have full time gardeners anymore,” Juday said.

Among the larger gardens in Germantown are Grumplethorpe, Wyck and Stenton. Many of these gardens saw problems during the 19th century but have recently bounced back after much restoration and renovation.

Grumblethorpe had an overgrowth of bamboo but has recovered in the past 10 years. Wyck’s garden “was maintained beautifully through the 19th century,” then was nearly abandoned during the 1930s. Most of the plants lived, however, albeit overgrown, and through the work of Juday and others the garden has been restored.

Stenton's current garden is not believed to be as old as the house, completed in 1730, and may be the result of early 20th century restoration work.

Stenton’s garden “restoration” is a little different.  There is no evidence the garden actually existed as it does now so much of what exists in the current garden is from a 1910 restoration project and may not date back to the origins of the house.

Some plants are a nearly automatic confirmation of a historical garden. There are certain types of tulips and roses that signify that fact. Plants such as Allegheny Vine are almost exclusive to historical gardens. “I’ve never seen it at any place that isn’t a really old property,” Juday said.

Although Germantown has had some problems, Juday said she “doesn’t see the blight and decay” and focuses on “preserving these little slivers [of history] that remain.”

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