Mt. Cuba Part One: Formal Gardens

Mt. Cuba formal gardens 5-8-2016 12-54-50 PMThe Colonial Revival manor house built at Mt. Cuba in 1935 by the Lammot du Pont Copelands.

For Mother’s Day my family surprised me with a visit to Mt. Cuba Center in Hockessin, Delaware. Although I had visited this garden in the early 1990s before it was open to the public, I haven’t been there since.  What a mistake!  I was so enthralled by what I saw that I went back three days later to explore the gardens more thoroughly.

Nursery News:  Carolyn’s Shade Gardens is a retail nursery located in Bryn Mawr, PA, specializing in showy, colorful, and unusual plants for shade.  The only plants that we ship are snowdrops and miniature hostas.  For catalogues and announcements of events, please send your full name, location, and phone number (for back up use only) to  Click here to get to the home page of our website for catalogues and information about our nursery and to subscribe to our blog.


Mt. Cuba formal gardens 5-8-2016 12-56-17 PMThe courtyard in front of the manor house as well as the gardens surrounding it are all very formal.

Mt.  Cuba Center is the former home of Mr. and Mrs. Lammot du Pont Copeland.  Mr. Copeland was the President and Chairman of the Du Pont Company while Mrs. Copeland was a pioneer in the movement to protect and appreciate US native plants.  In the 1960s, the Copelands began installing extensive native, woodland gardens on their 582 acre property.  In the 1980s, they focused their efforts on developing a private botanic garden to study native plants of the Appalachian Piedmont.  When Mrs. Copeland died in 2001, Mt. Cuba became a public garden with limited access.  In 2013, it was opened for general admission in the spring, summer, and fall.


Mt. Cuba formal gardens 5-8-2016 1-23-16 PMThe house is beautiful from every angle, here the terraces in the back.

Mrs. Copeland wanted Mt. Cuba:

…. to be a place where people will learn to appreciate our native plants and to see how these plants can enrich their lives so that they, in turn, will become conservators of our natural habitats.”

With that goal in mind, the Copelands developed the 50 acres surrounding their home into display gardens highlighting native plants in formal and informal settings.  All of it is spectacular, and I hope to write two more posts on the woodland gardens and the trillium collection.  This post will focus on the use of native plants in the formal gardens directly around the house.


Mt. Cuba formal gardens 5-8-2016 1-22-17 PMThe view from the terraces.


Mt. Cuba formal gardens 5-8-2016 1-31-27 PM.

Plants native to the US and particularly the Delaware Valley are a favorite of mine so I loved every part of Mt. Cuba, but I was most intrigued by the use of natives in the formal mixed borders.  Mt. Cuba demonstrates that native plants work just as well around the house as “foundation plantings” as they do out in woodland gardens where they are usually found.  In the following photos, almost all the plants are native species found on the East Coast of the United States or cultivars of natives:


Mt. Cuba formal gardens 5-13-2016 10-46-16 AM


Mt. Cuba formal gardens 5-13-2016 10-46-32 AM
Mt. Cuba formal gardens 5-8-2016 1-24-44 PM
dwarf ninebark and native azaleas
Baptisia 'Carolina Moonlight'‘Carolina Moonlight’ baptisia
Mt. Cuba formal gardens 5-13-2016 10-48-15 AM.
Mt. Cuba formal gardens 5-8-2016 12-57-01 PMOakleaf hydrangea as a foundation planting.
Mt. Cuba formal gardens 5-13-2016 10-51-50 AM.
Mt. Cuba formal gardens 5-13-2016 10-50-02 AMGoldenstar, Chrysogonum virginianum, as a groundcover.
Mt. Cuba formal gardens 5-13-2016 10-47-16 AMContainers filled with native plants decorate the terraces.
Mt. Cuba formal gardens 5-13-2016 10-46-51 AM

If you would like more information about using native plants in a formal design, click here for an interview on this subject with Travis Beck, Mt. Cuba’s Director of Horticulture.  He states that native plants were chosen to achieve the character of an English garden without staking, fertilizing, or watering.  The all-native redesign of the formal gardens has resulted in a very significant increase in pollinators.

I hope that you will have a chance to visit Mt. Cuba Center and its amazing display of East Coast native plants.  I found it inspirational and a source of many ideas for my own gardens.



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Carolyn’s Shade Gardens is a local retail nursery in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, U.S., zone 6b/7a. The only plants that we mail order are snowdrops and miniature hostas and only within the US.

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16 Responses to “Mt. Cuba Part One: Formal Gardens”

  1. Jackie Jerko Says:

    I was not aware of the garden and so glad you shared your visit. It is now on my bucket list. What a beautiful way to spend your Mother’s Day.

    • Jackie, I intend to visit Mt. Cuba on a regular basis to get ideas for my gardens and to visit their trial gardens. It was fascinating to see their trials of garden phlox. Many varieties that look good in a pot were absolute failures in the trials. Every nursery owner should go there before purchasing plants to sell. Carolyn

  2. Says:

    Jean Leaman 53 Woodbine Drive Hershey, Pa. 17033 717 533-4405 phone djl99@comcast .net e-mail interested in snowdrops and mini hostas Thanks

  3. Sallie Jones Says:

    Enjoyed the Mt Cuba post and look forward to the next installation. Happy summer.

    Sallie Jones


  4. Now I wish I had visited Mt. Cuba while I was still living in the mid-Atlantic! Well, this will give me incentive to get to the New England Wildflower Society’s Garden in the Woods, which is an easily doable day trip. Very much enjoyed your photos of these native plants.

    • Jean, I have been to Garden in the Woods many times and love it there. However, Mt. Cuba is the most spectacular display of native plants that I have ever seen at least when I was there and the trilliums were in bloom. You can always come back and visit! Carolyn

  5. Mt. Cuba , outstanding! Impressed with how Heuchera can transform a pot.

  6. debsgarden Says:

    LOvely! Definitel a place I would love to visit. It is especially interesting to see natives used around an elegant, formal home.

  7. Lorraine Says:

    I just discovered your wonderful “Carolyn’s Shade Garden” blog and happily entered my subscription – thank you so much for all the wonderful information.

    Of special interest to me, was your writing on white-flowering hydrangeas. If you were to recommend only one, for reliable flowering in full shade, zone 5, and many deer, which would it be? I hope you will have time to answer.

    Thank you again for all the shade garden inspiration!

    • Lorraine, Thanks for posting this as a comment. Deer love hydrangeas. Hydrangea arborescens is supposed to be the most deer resistant and is good for shade. It is also native! I am growing ‘Invincibelle Spirit’ and ‘Incrediball’ and like them both. If you can get the straight species H. arborescens, that would be my favorite of all. Carolyn

  8. Even though I visited a month later, much in your photos looks about the same. Azalea were still in bloom when I visited. I very much enjoyed their gardens.

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