A Rich Man's Obsession Is Now My Garden Paradise
A du Pont family legacy, Longwood Gardens makes a refreshing outdoor escape with its colorful flowers and fabulous fountains. This article was originally published in 2020 and was updated in 2023.
KENNETT SQUARE, Pennsylvania — Visiting Longwood Gardens is a tradition for my family, full of memories but always fresh. Year-round, there are longtime favorites and new surprises to explore on its 1,000 acres. So after a gloomy spring, I made a day trip to the Brandywine Valley, one hour southwest of Philadelphia, to see summer’s bounty. Gardens are, after all, natural exercises in optimism, where people plant and plan for the future. Visiting one of the country’s greatest gardens is both fun outing and a much-needed source of hopeful inspiration.
In the Beginning
What became Longwood Gardens began in 1906 when Pierre S. du Pont purchased an 18th-century farm to save its famous arboretum of Eastern trees. Today the shady woodland of Peirce’s Woods, with its towering maples and oaks, is the garden’s historic heart and one of my favorite spots.
Du Pont, who headed the DuPont Company and then General Motors, lived on the property and personally planned gardens — among them the Flower Garden Walk and the Main Fountain Garden — as a place to entertain friends. Today, more than one million people visit annually. His influence on what became a public garden is reflected in Longwood’s ongoing development of new gardens and the pursuit of excellence — okay, perfection — in plant and flower displays.
What to See
Longwood identifies more than 50 indoor and outdoor garden areas on its 1,000 acres. Exploring everything would make an exhausting day, so here are highlights.
Main Fountain Garden
For many, this 4.5-acre garden with its formal paths, elegant Italianate statues and stonework, and splashing water is Longwood. Brilliantly re-engineered in 2017, the garden’s 1,700 high-tech jets put on spectacular daily shows. In season there are also illuminated evening fountain displays with music: A bit corny, yes, but also a sentimental, popular favorite.
More than four acres of changing indoor gardens make even winter visits fabulous. I admire the elegant 1921 Exhibition Hall with its sunken marble floor, and the green lawns and colorful displays of the Orangery. In winter, the Silver Garden lets me feel the warmth of Mediterranean and desert areas. Summer is the time to see more than 100 types of water lilies floating romantically in a protected courtyard outside the building.
Flower Garden Walk
I’ve come to appreciate the sun-filled, 600-foot-long brick walk more with every visit, as the colorful seasonal displays get softer, more natural, and diverse. Longwood plants 125,000 daffodils, tulips, and other bulbs for spring, follows up with summer annuals like dahlias and even tropical plants, and dazzles with fall’s chrysanthemums and asters. I always linger in the small, pretty gardens tucked alongside the walk, too.
Italian Water Garden
From mid-April through mid-October, I head here for the 1920s fountains with serene, blue-tiled pools set off by bright green grass. They’re formal but smaller in scale and charming, and the viewing platform also has a soothing view of the Large Lake on the other side.
And So Much More
Longwood isn’t locked in time; it’s always getting better. Families love the three modern treehouses, including the Canopy Cathedral. I appreciate the ecological lessons of the 86-acre Meadow Garden, expanded in 2014, with its trails, grasses, native wildflowers, and the 18th-century Webb Farmhouse. During the famous seasonal event A Longwood Christmas, half a million lights are arranged throughout the garden to dazzling effect.
And as part of getting better, Longwood is rebuilding 17 acres around the Main Conservatory for fall 2024. The West Conservatory and nearby sections are gone, though other historic Conservatory areas remain open to visitors. An expanded, sustainable modern structure will replace the West Conservatory. Longwood's amazing orchids shine in a larger, recently opened Orchid House, and a Bonsai Courtyard and Waterlily Court are two of several fresh new gardens under construction. The goal: To make these much-loved spaces ready for the future.
Longwood is a place to relax, reflect, or celebrate — or simply smell the roses. And I’ll keep returning to add more memories to a family tradition.
How to Get There
Longwood Gardens is on U.S. Route 1, three miles northeast of Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, in the Brandywine Valley. It’s 30 miles southwest of Philadelphia, 110 miles northeast of Washington, D.C., and 130 miles southwest of New York City. Driving is the way to go: From areas to the south, take I-95 North; from New York, take I-95 South or the New Jersey Turnpike.