Many of our home gardens are getting a spring cleanup; raking leaves, cutting back perennials and putting down mulch. Working in the Winterthur garden has made me look differently about my approach to this yearly task.

Our early bulb displays necessitate a fall cleanup where we shred the fallen leaves and perennials in place to provide a mulch through which the bulbs can easily emerge. We utilize riding mowers in the larger areas and push mowers in tighter spots—-between shrubs—-to achieve this look. For the volume of leaves and the acreage that we cover, we have found this to be the best way to manage our “debris” in the garden.

I have applied this method of cleanup to my own home garden until I lost a few large trees and have since adapted a slightly different approach.

It used to be that I would mow the leaves on my lawn weekly in autumn and when they finished dropping, I would take the mower through my gardens and “put them to bed”. With fewer leaves, I have modified my tactics. Instead of weekly lawn/leaf mowing I blow the leaves into my beds. I also keep the leaves whole which allows for a more persistent mulch covering and also a better insulation for the roots from frost heave. Roots are not the only ones that appreciate this blanket; so do many insects. These in turn are a wonderful food resource for many of our overwintering and migratory birds (and my chickens like it too!)

Bantam chickens rooting through leaf debris for insects.

I initially leave the perennial stems intact to help keep the newly fallen leaves in place in the beds. As the winter wetness comes and the leaves naturally compact a bit, I will choose a warmer winter day in mid to late January (earlier this year) to take my string trimmer and, from top to bottom, shred the stems leaving them to add to the mulch layer in the beds.

No two stalks are alike and it’s interesting to see “what plants are made of”. Many perennials such as hosta, astilbe and grasses chop finely while stalks of Amsonia for example turn into a fibrous mass and thicker stalks of Joe-pye weed are best broken by hand or pruners. Some perennials are easier to chop earlier in the season and some later in the season when they are drier and easier to pulverize. Its another layer of experimentation and observation in the garden!

The leaves and fragmented stems are soon to be covered by emerging bulbs and perennial foliage. There is also an added benefit of leaving this debris behind; it provides nesting materials for the birds.

Daylilies emerging through leaves and shredded stems .

Depending on location, every garden is going to be a host for different birds. Mine happens to be a favorite of the common grackle. They root through the debris pickings and travel to my neighbor’s evergreens to make their nests. One of their favorites to gather is the fibrous shredded Amsonia stalks. I will gather these masses of tangled fibers and break them into finer pieces that are easier for the birds to use for nesting material.

Mass of shredded Amsonia stalk “fibers”.

Amsonia fibers teased into bird friendly sizes.

Not sure what birds you have in your garden or their favorite nesting material/sites? There are many wonderful field guides available and of course plenty of information on websites such as the Audubon Society. Personally, I like the portability of reference books.

Two staples on my bookshelf next to the binoculars.

This spring will likely see us spending more time at home and perhaps more time in our own garden or walking through natural spaces. What better time than now to feel some connectedness with how we care for our garden and the wildlife around us?

2020 marks my 29th year of watching the unfolding of spring in the Winterthur garden. There have been some beautiful years, some heart-breaking years (read crippling frosts) and some years where the displays came and went from an errant warm day. Spring is a vulnerable time in the garden and when you are able to experience it in that “right moment” it’s like Mother Nature’s personal gift.

I don’t think that I need to tell anyone that this year so far has been a mild one, with winter displays of snowdrops, winter aconite and Adonis showing up earlier than normal and staying for a longer period of time. Its one of the best I have ever seen.

The snowdrops and winter aconite have come and gone with Leucojum vernum, spring snowflake and “the blue” of glory-of-the-snow and Siberian squill (Chionodoxa and Scilla respectively) replacing them. These vast displays are a marvel to the eye but difficult to capture in the eye of a camera.

One trick that I have tried to use is crouching down low, focusing in on a particular flower, while making sure that the flower mass in the background is part of the frame. It seems to this amateur iPhone photographer that this is the best way to try and convey the vastness of of what our eyes delight in but the camera can’t seem to capture.

The time of day and amount of sunshine play a part as well with full sun having the ability to “blowout” flowers especially white ones.

Below are some of my photos with editorial comments in the captions and while not perfect (slightly out of focus or over exposed) you are able to see the difference between distant and close up shots and sunny verses overcast conditions and make your own mind up from there. While it needs some refinement, this “close up with mass behind it” composition technique is one that I have found best—so far—to try and capture the beauty of Winterthur’s yearly changing exhibition.

Sunny day snowdrop shot from afar. Not capturing it.

The next two photos show the difficulty of a close up on a sunny day— even when the subject matter is in the shade.

Close up of snowdrop and mass on sunny day.

I like the composition of this photo better but it’s clearly out of focus.

Out of focus snowdrop and mass

Snowdrop mass in distance, cloudy day.

Snowdrop close up, cloudy day.

Snowflake mass from afar. Totally underwhelming!

A little cropping of this picture helps…

Snowflake close up with mass behind.

The Winterthur Garden is in full swing, with glory-of-the-snow and squill painting the March Bank blue. You may be wondering, can I walk the Garden? Is Winterthur open?

Winterthur is committed to our Wilmington community, and as such, we are keeping the Garden open. But to prevent the spread of COVID-19 all buildings are closed to the public until further notice, including public restrooms. This decision is for the safety of the community as well as our staff.

The Winterthur Garden and walking paths remain open dawn to dusk for those looking to get outside. (If you should run into difficulties while walking/running on the estate, please call the Winterthur Public Safety Office at 302.888.4911.) March Bank is in bloom and daffodils are emerging all around the estate. Enchanted Woods is closed as we cannot properly disinfect the area. Please do not visit or play in Enchanted Woods.

All Winterthur public events and programs are postponed through May 10. We are working to reschedule as many as we can; if you have a reservation, we will reach out to you with new dates. If these are not convenient for you, we will happily offer a refund. For questions about your reservations, please call or email our Information and Tours Office: 800.448.3883 x7029 or tourinfo@winterthur.org.

The 42nd Annual Winterthur Point-to-Point on May 3 is cancelled. You may roll over your purchase to next year’s race, make your purchase a donation to Winterthur and receive a full tax credit, or receive a full refund. Please direct all requests to point-to-point@winterthur.org.

Remember to stay home if you feel sick and be sure to maintain recommended social distancing when you are out. Stay tuned for more updates from us.

What’s Poppin’?

As if the pleasure of walking on a sun filled, 50 degree day in the winter is not enough, there are more flowers added to the list to see. Adonis and snowdrops continue their display along the main path on the March Bank with a few winter aconite showing to the keen eye. Next to the spring on the lower path a clump of snowflakes is in full flower. This particular area is a warm pocket and always previews what’s to come though this showing is by far the earliest that I can remember.

Leucojum vernum, spring snowflake, reflecting the sun

Walking up the Reflecting Pool steps toward the East Terrace, I noticed a member bending over with a camera. I inquired and she said a crocus was in flower. As I watched beside her, we noticed that they are flowering sporadically throughout the lawn. I would have walked right past them if not for her. She mentioned that she walks her every week so she does not miss anything. I appreciate those who also like to hunt for the newest flower.

Crocus tommasinianus, tommies, in the East Terrace lawn

Circling back to my office, I saw the unmistakable soft yellow petals of the witchhazel ‘Pallida’ unfolding, backlit by the sun. No doubt that all of these early flowers are being visited by bees during these 50+ degree days. Not only are they beautiful to our eyes but they are feeding insects who are also awakening with the temperatures.

Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Pallida’, witch-hazel, unfurling in the winter sun

This weekend’s rain and forecasted mild temperatures next week will surely keep adding to the floral display. If you are not a member, consider joining and getting this (very early) preview of what is only going to get better.

In the 28 years of caring for the Winterthur Garden, I don’t think I have ever seen the March Bank awaken as early and as prolifically as it has this year. Typically in mid-January, we will see a peppering of snowdrops; this year, there are masses of them alongside the first flowers of Adonis with sitings of winter aconite in warm pockets of the sunny hillside. Soon, we will be experiencing some more winter-like temperatures to stave off this mad rush toward spring but the flowering on the March Bank has begun, only to increase with every warm, sunny day that we have.

Members have access to the garden and wider estate during our closure. Come in and shake off some of the winter blues with a walk through the garden to experience spring happening before your eyes.

Snowdrop at the base of a tulip-poplar trunk

Adonis flowers opening in response to the sun

Winter Aconite emerging

A Quiet Awakening

As the world bustles, a quiet awakening occurs on the woodland floor of the March Bank; the arrival of the first snowdrops.

H. F. du Pont would walk the path from his house through the woods in search for these early bloomers, noting the date of their appearance in his correspondence as well as in his garden journal. This first sighting marks the beginning of the wonderful progression of a flowering masterpiece.

If you find yourself in need of a little peace this time of year, stroll the woodlands and search for the for these early flowers while the rest of the garden lay in slumber.

Giant snowdrops at the base of a tulip poplar on the March Bank

I am very happy to be able to share this gallery of beautiful images of the Winterthur landscape. We recently invited three of our members – including two former board members – to come photograph Winterthur in the fall. The following pictures of the property were taken by Penny Ashford, Robert McCoy, and Cal Wick on a crisp autumn day using their drones, which provide a fresh perspective on the distinctive rolling terrain of Winterthur, so characteristic of the Brandywine Valley.

Please enjoy this ‘Holiday Greeting’ of wonderful images thanks to our friends!

Winterthur is a wonderful place to go birding. This summer we began offering a monthly bird walk with naturalist and birder, Jessica Shahan. This has created new opportunities for our visitors to explore the Winterthur landscape and get to know the property. As part of this, Jessica has been using eBird to record her tallys – something you can take advantage of by loading the eBird app on your smart phone or by visiting the webpage eBird.org. The most recent eBird Checklist is available here as a PDF.

UPDATED Note that because of the holiday the walk has been scheduled for December 18 starting at 9:00 am in the Visitor Parking Lot.

For the Birds: Birding Walks at Winterthur
Wednesday, December 18, 9:00–11:00 am – starting in Visitor Parking Lot

Explore some of the hotspots for birds at Winterthur. Naturalist and birder Jessica Shahan will guide you through wetlands, meadows, the woodlands along Clenny Run, and outlying areas, such as chandler Woods and Brown’s Woods. These natural areas provide a great habitat for a wide variety of birds year-round. Observe resident birds as well as migrating raptors, warblers, and sparrows. Beginner and experienced bird watchers are welcome. Bring your binoculars! $10 per Member. $20 per nonmember. Call 800.448.3883 to reserve a spot. Free for Winterthur Garden and Landscape Society and Garden Associate Members.

We hope to see you out in the garden with your binoculars!

It is a lot of fun to get images from families and staff who worked on the estate while Mr. du Pont was alive. These few images are from 1958 through 1967 and show families enjoying sledding and skating on the estate and attending the annual Christmas party in the Clubhouse.

From all of us at Winterthur, Happy Holidays!

Christmas Party in the Clubhouse

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A Reminder to Mulch Mow

How many trees do you have in your garden? Two? Five? If you have five trees on your property, then you might find yourself raking up to a million leaves! By watching the efficiency of our Winterthur staff as they take care of tons of leaves each autumn, I have learned a few tricks. In fact, last year I didn’t rake a single leaf and I don’t plan on raking any leaves this fall either. 

One of the secrets to Winterthur’s success with leaves is the use of mulch mowing. We still rake and suck up a lot of leaves – but thankfully not as many as they used to in Mr. du Pont’s day. I am re-posting some information from a presentation on this process. If you haven’t tried mulch mowing I encourage you to test it out, I think you will be pleasantly surprised at how efficient it is.

“… a mature, healthy tree can have 200,000 leaves. During 60 years of life, such a tree would grow and shed 3,600 pounds of leaves, returning about 70% of their nutrients to the soil.”
Wisconsin County Forests webpage

Think about how many millions of leaves will be gathered here at Winterthur and in the many gardens throughout the Brandywine Valley this autumn. Cleaning up leaves in fall is one of those meditative, seemingly inescapable, chores that come with caring for a garden. Here at Winterthur we still rake and blow millions of leaves, but more and more we are supplementing leaf removal with mulch mowing.

If you hate raking leaves you have a simple alternative – mulch mowing. Mulch mowing is a process that cuts up and macerates the leaves, leaving them in place in your garden to decompose over the winter and following growing season. While not promising a total escape from gathering leaves, it offers gardeners an alternative to dealing with piles of leaves.

Mulch mowing is not terribly complicated. I’ve illustrated the basic steps below with photos and captions.

mower at Winterthur mower deck at Winterthur

Set up your mower for mulching; most mowers allow you to run them without a bag and with an insert that closes off the mower deck. This keeps the leaves and grass from being discharged and allows the mower to cut the vegetation into finer pieces.

safety equipment at Winterthur

Wear proper equipment. You should wear safety glasses, hearing protection, and boots when using this equipment. Leaves can conceal rocks, roots, and other obstacles – better to be safe than sorry.

mulch mowing at Winterthur hostas at Winterthur cut back hostas at Winterthur

Mow over leaves and any plants ready to be cut back. You don’t need to confine yourself to lawn areas. You can mow over plants, such as hosta, that are going to lose their leaves anyway.

after mulch mowing at Winterthur after mulch mowing at Winterthur

Repeat mowing weekly or as needed. The photographs above were taken 5 minutes apart. You can see how the mower reduced the leaves to finely chopped pieces that will filter down to the surface of the soil. Whole leaves left in the garden tend to mat down and can smother grass, bulbs, and other perennials. The process of mulch mowing chops the leaves into finer pieces, allowing your plants to grow freely as the leaves decompose and return to the soil.