Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Fordhook Farm

Last Saturday my friend and I took a trip to Fordhook Farm in Doylestown, the home of W. Atlas Burpee. Saturday was the Heronswood Hellebore Open. As many gardeners know, Burpee Inc. bought Heronswood Nursery from Seattle, WA and closed it, choosing to take the fabulous Heronswood plant varieties back east and make them amenable to east coast conditions. Many people thought this a sacrilege. And I'm not exactly a fan of Burpee Inc. as I think George Ball (the current owner) is somewhat arrogant, but the farm was lovely and the plants were lovely and the history was interesting.

W. Atlas Burpee belonged to an established Philadelphia Family and was destined to become a physician, as his father and grandfather had done. Except his boyhood hobby was poultry breeding. In 1876, Burpee dropped out of the University of Pennsylvania and started a mail-order livestock and poultry catalog. In the next few years, the focus of the Burpee Seed Company would change as Atlas talked to farmers and realized that European Settlers were having problems with seed brought from their own countries...they just did not grow well here in the United States. By the 1880s, W. Atlas Burpee was the main supplier of feed and seed to the Northeast and the Midwest.

In 1888, Atlas bought Fordhook Farm in Doylestown and set about making it into a premiere plant development facility, developing varieties that are household names today. Did you know the Fordhook Bush Lima Bean was developed here, supplied by a farmer in Chester , Pennsylvania? Burpee also developed the first yellow sweet corn "Golden Bantam". Prior to its development, the public associated yellow corn with livestock and thought that only white corn was fit for human consumption. By the 1890s, Burpee was the largest seed company in the world.

To read more about the W. Atlas Burpee legacy you can go here. He was an interesting man, as was his son, and is responsible for many of the flowers and vegetables that we see today. I think he is also the father of the seed catalog, giving all of us something colorful and dream inducing to while away the dreary days of late winter.

I didn't end up buying much. The Hellebores were beautiful but the ones I wanted were $40 and I just couldn't justify that for a single plant. A tree or shrub maybe. But not an herbaceous plant. I did buy a little plant called a Fire Pink (Silene virginica) for $4. Pretty little thing. I am a sucker for red flowers.

We stopped at Waterloo Gardens in Exton on the way home (after a fabulous lunch at Classic Diner. Everything is good there!) and I was able to find a reasonable facsimile of the Hellebore I wanted for far less than $40. And two Endless Summer Hydrangeas. And a Euonymous "Manhattan". I so love plants.

At Fordhook, I discovered a new must have plant. Hakuro Nishiki or Variegated Willow (Salix integra). Absolutely lovely. Great shape and it appears to be a somewhat fast growing shrub. Alas, they did not have this yet at Waterloo and since it was a poor seller last year, were not sure that they would be selling it again. *sigh*


Anonymous Anonymous said...

That was interesting, Meredith. I love to see the paths lives take, and especially the twists and turns. We get the catalog, but don't think I have ordered from there. It is a pretty place with lots of history. I would have enjoyed the visit, I am sure.

When I was washing windows a while ago, I flipped over a pot of tiny bush basil plants. They were doing great, too. Seems like I do that every year! And it is always something doing well.

5:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What an informative post...especially since Fordhook lima's are my very favorite veggie! Thanks for all the information and wonderful tour. I might have to check out how far that is from me and plan a day trip one of these days.

8:45 AM  
Blogger El said...

Wow how weird I made limas last night and swore they were Fordhook (as they were bush) but they weren't...I even checked my records. But $40 for a hellebore? Are they NUTS? Must be paying for digging up a Northwestern garden. I envy you your sojourns. Not much to visit around here.

9:17 AM  
Blogger meresy_g said...

I guess they are rare Hellebores and they were stunning. The one I wanted was a slate blue color bordering on black. But yeah, $40 is too much. A lot of people were buying them though.

9:37 AM  
Blogger George said...

Hi, I'm the Heronswood owner. Thanks for coming to the Open.The Hellebores were actually in three groups: the 2 year old clones were $40 each, the 1 year olds were 3 for $45 )in 4" pots), while the one year old seedlings, which included the black you admired, were $20 each. But the seedlings were also in gallon pots, so you must have assumed they cost the same as the 2 year old clones.
Perhaps the labels were not clear. Sorry for the confusion!
FYI: our founder's middle name is
"Atlee", meaning "by the meadow". Burpee is the English form of "Beaupre" meaning "beautiful meadow", while the W stands for "Washington".
Thanks again for your thoughtful post. Nice blog. Mr. Burpee actually began his career as a poultry breeder, especially pigeons. Branched out to seeds
a few years later. Intro'd first
Iceberg, yellow sweet corn, etc.
Luther Burbank was a cousin.
Finally, I would never move a world class botanical garden. A nursery consists of plants in pots.
I moved only the nursery. The garden in Washington is for sale, but only on condition that the collection be preserved. The media
kind of distorted the situation.
For the chronology of events, please go to and then click "Heronswood Voice" and review archives and op/eds printed there. We're working closely with several non profits to try to work something out for the display garden there. But the nursery lives on.

10:00 AM  
Blogger meresy_g said...

Mr. Ball,

Thanks for commenting on my blog and correcting some of the information. I guess I did misunderstand the pricing, because I absolutely would have purchased that slate colored Hellebore if I had known it was only $20. It was exquisite. The plants were all very healthy and beautiful and the grounds and gardens were lovely. I apologize for suggesting you were arrogant. When Heronswood (the west coast version anyway) was closed, there was a great deal of negative commentary by many gardening bloggers around the country and I was influenced by that. I didn't take the time to look at your perspective. Thanks again for visiting.

11:14 AM  
Blogger Annie in Austin said...

Well, Meresy - how about that! I guess people do read garden blogs. Your tour was quite comprehensive and interesting.

It's a shame about 'the Hellebore that got away', so good hunting on your next expedition.


3:59 PM  
Blogger George said...

You can call me somewhat arrogant,
it's ok. Sometimes I am.
The gallon clones were t'c'ed in Japan, grown a year in Washington, then another year in PA. The 4' pot
clones were grown last year only in PA. Ironically, the clones were
originally designed as an attempt
at perfection, a sort of ultimate form. The seedlings turn out to be
slightly better for a woodland setting, since their variability is less gardenesque--more natural.
BTW: our founder was a poultry breeder from age 12, mostly pigeons. Became fascinated by seeds
later when farmers' wives sent in thousands of special seed list requests. I used to have a large flock of guinea hens, but the hawks and especially the owls got them. I loved the things, especially their chortle, or whatever it's called.
Thanks again for the interesting feedback.

10:57 AM  
Blogger meresy_g said...

Guinea hens are cute. Maybe someday I'll have some of those as well. I can only let my chickens free range when I am outside, they have to stay in their pen otherwise. The Red-tailed hawks would pick them off in a matter of days. The hellebores in the gardens were lovely. I wish that I could just drag that whole garden behind the barn back to my property in lancaster county. Very natural looking. The scultural pieces scatter throughout were also a nice tough. I really like the large tree root sculpture (also behind the barn). Well placed pieces really add depth to a planting. You should start your own blog. It would be interesting to know what is new and blooming at Fordhook!

11:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

1:43 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

As an East Coast person, I'm happy that Heronswood moved out this way. It's allowed for me to go to the East Coast opens now. The last one was very good as you mentioned. Nice article here talks about the last one. Picked up some nice hellebores.,0,2361228.story

Future Opens

11:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The above comment by user 'Paul' was mass-spammed to dozens of gardening-related blogs by a Burpee employee with the IP in Pennsylvania. It is a rather shoddy example of astroturfing in an attempt to simulate support for Burpee's actions. You can verify this with the following google search:

Thanks for your opinion, 'Paul'.

1:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The open house in August is the time to visit, lucky for me I can ride my bicycle there.

12:55 PM  
Blogger Anne Van Meter said...

I loved that variegated willow as well! I'll still look for it, now and in the spring, since I am up for a shrubby type of border at the end of my yard...

8:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love it ! Very creative ! That's actually really cool Thanks.

10:36 AM  
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5:35 AM  

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