Not many gardens feel magical in midwinter. Generally, the landscape slumbers during the “dormant season,” waiting to be awakened by warmer weather. But there’s a garden just outside Philadelphia that offers a glorious season of beauty made even more meaningful when etched in snow.
A lawyer by profession, Leslie Miller will claim she knew nothing about gardening when she first bought the 1937 Walter Durham-designed house and adjacent property with her husband Richard Worley in 1985. Perhaps she hadn’t really dug in prior to the purchase, but she is a testimony to the strength of horticultural roots as a love of the land runs deep in her family of gardeners. That love led Leslie to create a landscape that is incredibly insightful and meticulously calibrated, making every square foot meaningful and beautiful. And her design dexterity is even more evident when her garden is pared down during her favorite time of year—winter.
“There is a simple beauty in the period of hibernation,” Leslie says. “It requires a more intense focus, and I always look forward to it.” She adds that her goal is for the landscape to be as meaningful when viewed from the comfort and warmth indoors as it is when you venture out into the snow.
The property, once stewarded by a master gardener, features specimen trees that remain in their glorious maturity. Those trees formed the inspirational framework that sold Leslie and her family on the property in the first place. She gives special attention to the silhouettes of the trees that stand out in winter and punctuate the surroundings. But creating a riveting scene even while the garden is in deep slumber requires design insight beyond horticultural savvy. While plant life plays an important part in Leslie’s creation, she also gives hardscape a starring role. And she places an emphasis on the gracefulness of a swooping staircase or a curved handrailing.
Leslie commissioned sculptor/ blacksmith Greg Leavitt to create the bespoke railings that do double duty. In summer, they support entwining clematis that partially masks their lines, while in autumn, there’s a sense of unveiling as the vines go dormant. In addition, thoughtfully laid winding bluestone pathways not only have a functional agenda but also a quiet aesthetic. Everywhere, the garden navigates the tricky ratio of plant material to adornment. Invariably, elegance wins the contest— quietly, discreetly, and majestically.
The temptation to add focal points is a constant compulsion. Leslie and Richard are unapologetic collectors, a penchant that prompted Leslie to co-author a book, Start with a House, Finish with a Collection (Scala Arts Publishers, 2014). In it, she describes how her indoor collection came together. But her love for detail, craftsmanship, and the patina of the past can be found outside as well. For example, a gazebo is given a Chippendale motif as well as a defining copper finial to beautifully cap it off. The finishing finial was one of the many instances when Leslie turned to the legendary Pennsylvania antiques dealer Harry Hartman and asked his advice to “spiff this up.” Harry left his mark in other places throughout the property, including his help with the couple selecting the French blue shutters that give the Pennsylvania stone house its unique personality.
As a lifelong collector, Leslie worked the landscape on dual fronts. She first considered the hardscape as she positioned pathways and walls where they would be most meaningful. Her inner collector then rose to the challenge of perceptively adding statuary and decoration, including the gates, also by Greg Leavitt. Leslie’s affinity for animals is reflected throughout the garden, as evidenced by a stone owl, a crouching stone whippet, a pair of zinc Fiske deer, a zinc Fiske Labrador retriever, and a not-so-daunting lion. During the growing season, these fixtures partition and add to the tapestry in garden spaces, while in winter, they become focal points without competition.
The property’s horticultural wealth is also part of the winter’s tale. Venerable kousa dogwoods, magnolias, larch, chestnuts, a Metasequoia, Yoshino cherry, and other specimens are integrated into the story. Leslie calls what she does “careful layering,” and she’s always reassessing and balancing the scene. “I’m constantly studying it, walking it, thinking, surveying,” she says. And for this winter wonderland, it’s clear that Leslie’s continuous, painstaking efforts pay off year after year.