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MY LIFE WITH PLANTS: The Ruin Garden at Chanticleer

By Jim Bishop, for Let’s Talk Plants! July 2022.

This spring Scott and I visited gardens near Philadelphia in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. We revisited several gardens we had previously visited on Pacific Horticulture Society tours back in 2012 and 2013. We were especially looking forward to visiting the wonderfully creative gardens at Chanticleer which they refer to as "a pleasure garden". The garden is actually a series of gardens and garden rooms. Seven horticulturists are responsible for the design and maintenance of different areas, creating one of the most romantic gardens in North America. The gardens emphasize using plant forms, texture and colors set against unique hardscape and garden features.

The back corner of the "Pool Room" at Chanticleer Ruin Garden.

Of the gardens, the Ruin Garden is one of my favorites. In Europe you frequently see gardens that include ruins of old buildings, but it is much rarer in the U.S. Whether they are a castle, church or large house these gardens create a sense of imagined more romantic times and lost styles of living.

Sudeley Castle Ruin Garden in the English Cotswolds in 2013.
“Minder House, built in 1925, is where Adolph Rosengarten, Jr. lived most of his life. In 1999, under the vision and direction of Chanticleer’s Director Chris Woods, the house was razed and construction of the Ruin Garden began. Originally the plan was to use the partially dismantled house as the ruin, but for safety reasons the only part left of the original house is the foundation and the tile ‘rug.'”
Approach to the ruin.

Great Hall

The ruin is built of black granite - some polished and some left rough. The walls set the stage for showcasing mostly foliage plants and vines. The ruin has three open to the air rooms. The main room is the "Great Hall" centered on a large black granite and tile reflecting pool. The pool at first feels like a giant dining table or maybe a billiard table. But it can also take on the feeling of a giant sarcophagus.

Inside the "Great Hall" with the water table.
Tile floor of the "Great Hall."

The floor of the great hall is made of tile, granite and slate.

The table also serves as a reflecting pool.

Pool Room

Just behind the "Great Room" is the "Pool Room."

View into the “Pool Room”.

A lovely fountain sits in the corner of the "Pool Room."

On closer inspection, marble faces gazing up out of the pool come into view. It was likely designed to be observed as a surprise. But when you first realize that there are heads in the water it is a bit disconcerting, like the feeling you are being watched...perhaps by ghosts.

Marble heads peering out of the pool.
Perhaps things in the ruin garden aren't as tranquil as they first appeared.
Nearby in the garden is an oversized head by Marcia Donahue resting in repose.
Isn't this a great idea?

Repurposed large chains with buckets climb the sturdy posts and are planted with succulents. They add to the sense of age - perhaps a mining operation was here decades ago?

Framed view back into the garden.
Looking back into the "Great Hall."
Vines are allowed to climb and cover some of the walls. I'm curious how much maintenance is required to keep the plants from swallowing the walls.

A great plant combination - Beds filled with soft color foliage and a terrestrial orchid.
A soft-hued Clematis climbs a wall.

The Library

The first clue that you are in the library are the sculpted books on the floor and in the corner.

A fern filled fireplace warms the library. Variegated Agave attenuatas are tucked into pockets in the wall.

The books in the garden are the work of Berkeley, California, artist Marcia Donahue. The San Diego Horticultural Society visited her garden on a tour of Bay Area gardens in 2012. You can read more about Marcia's garden in this article from Pacific Horticulture.

Acorns trapped between the stone pages.
Carved books never to be read.
A stone skull adds a Dia de los Muertos touch.
View from the library back to the pool room.
Vines and an agave giving a sense of age.

The Patio

In front of the garden sits a patio with potted plants giving way to the gravel garden below.

Pathway leading to the patio with the ruin beyond.
Pots - filled with plants that we can grow! - on the patio.
A spot of bright color in the otherwise restrained plantings.
A wider view of the patio with plants engulfing the ruin walls.

The Garden Below

An outdoor living room with stone furniture.
A stone couch complete with a stone TV remote control.
A stone chair - looking ever so soft.
Another stone chair with split upholstery.
A framed entrance back into the "Great Hall."
A wider view of a ruin wall.
One last view of the reflecting table.
Lush planting a view in the Minder Woods Garden.

Last Photo

The last photo is of my most liked photo on Facebook from our visit to Chanticleer. It is of the fountain and rill behind the main house.

It was a pleasure visiting the garden at Chanticleer, "A Pleasure Garden".


Jim Bishop in his native habitat.

Jim Bishop is, among other things, the SDHS Horticulturist of the Years 2019-2020, past president and current publicity chair. He lives and gardens in Mission Hills, CA.


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