Garden Diary - May 2012

Garden Writers Region II Meeting


Friday, 25 May 2012
Garden Writers Region II: Gibraltar Garden in Wilmington, Delaware


I know I've been here before but I cannot remember just when that was. At that time this Marion Coffin designed garden, the entire city block of it, was open to the public. I was delighted to be here for two reasons. Firstly, it was a wonderful garden. Second, it was here that Lespedeza 'Gibraltar' was discovered, and that's one of my favorite autumn plants. But sadly it is not the same today.

Dating to the early days of the last century, Gibraltar was purchased in 1909 by philanthropist and preservationist Hugh Rodney Sharp and his wife, Isabella Mathieu duPont Sharp. In 1917 they hired Marian Cruger Coffin, one of the country's first and most accomplished female landscape architects, to design the formal gardens. Her plan - three terraces leading down from the mansion, with marble paths and a sweeping marble stairway to guide visitor to long vistas lined with trees, punctuated by statuary and fountains. Italianate rennaisance meets English country.

While we were at Goodstay Gardens just across the street I kept assuring other early morning photo shoot participants that the best was yet to come. Someone came back and said that there was just a small garden, with roses. "No, no," I insted, "it's the whole block." I was wrong, Linda was correct. Gibraltar has fallen on hard times. After H. R. Sharp, Jr. died and through the 1990s the gardens were obscured with invasive vines. Years of neglected vegetation buried architectural features such as the pool, pathways, and statuary. This garden, beautifully designed by one of the first women landscape architects, may shrink to a fragment while the house becomes commercial offices. So sad.

Come, and see what's left, and mourn the departure of yet another formerly great American garden.

The greenhouse, desolate, with broken and missing glass. Just a framework of what once was.

. . . .

A pair of merry, laughing putti, holding a cornucopia of fruit. Another pair, up on a plinth entangled with roses.

. . . .

A grand staircase, sweeping to the next level. And on the right, curtaining the low wall, a swath of Saxifraga sarmentosa

. . . .

Up to the next level. An ornamental pool for water lilies that replaced the family's swimming pool. One cerise flower, floating on the mirror-still surface.

Mercury, messenger to the gods. He's been freed from English ivy,
two huge mounds of which are dumped on the grass before him.
A dedicated group of volunteers is attempting to keep up with the
weeds and English ivy as decisions are made for Gibraltar's future.

A single rose, dewdrops clinging to the pristine petals. A corona
of golden stamens like a misplaced crown. May this gem of a garden
be restored and again find its place in the crown of Wilmington gardens.

Gibraltar has been deeded to the Gibraltar Preservation Group since early 2010. Another nonprofit, The Marian Coffin Garden at Gibraltar, Inc maintains a Facebook page to encourage preservation of the gardens.


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