Jack Staub and Renny Reynolds arrived at their farm in 1979 and they have given it 40 years of devotion.
Renny was staging nightly events at Studio 54 in New York at the time. He needed a break so after looking in Connecticut he found a Bucks County Realtor who would help him find a place to love. At a single glance, he saw it and bought it.
It was once a dairy farm owned by the Warner-Thompson family until 1918, when the last of the family sold it to Isaac Ryan, who took advantage of nearby Neshaminy Creek to power his sawmill. The next owner, a Philadelphia bootlegger, used the barns to store his rye mash and still. Federal agents raided the site in 1932, during Prohibition. The farm fell into disrepair, was sold at a sheriff’s sale for $370.91, was rescued for a time but declined again. The owner who sold the house to Renny, tossed the keys across the table at settlement and said, “Good luck keeping that place up!”
“... Any horse with any horse sense would have taken one look and cantered off in some other direction,” Jack says in the newly published book “Chasing Eden; Design Inspiration from the Gardens at Hortulus Farm.”
But Renny, co-author of the book, saw what others did not – an intact 18th-century stone house, two large barns, a carriage house, a corncrib, a one-story frame house. Of course the stone house needed updated electricity and plumbing, plastering, paint stripping and repainting, the crumbling barns needed shoring up and cleaning out but for two capable young men, it was a welcome challenge.
“We had just become stewards of genuine Americana, however down-at-the-heels,” Jack writes. “And, honestly, we also came to understand that there could be beauty in such decline, for its being such a poor farm meant that no one had made unsympathetic modern improvements or additions to any of the buildings. Every piece of architecture remained purely what it was – what it had always been – and it was our job as stewards of such a place to guard and enhance its uncannily pristine persona.”
Guard and enhance it they did. The first year was devoted to fixing – no time for gardens. Pulling out all the multiflora rose and grapevine would come later.
Jack gives Renny, a landscape architect, credit for the vision that made the farm the showplace it is today. When the vines and brush were cleared, there was little to show the possibilities.
Eventually the hundred acres on Fire Creek in Wrightstown Township became a gardener’s Eden, a haven for birds and farm animals and thousands of plants that show their colors through all seasons. In March it is alive with gold in the 200,000 daffodils and in April, the bluebells and Delaware Valley white azaleas are in bloom. They are followed by rows of peonies and then the summer and autumn blooms.
“As we mulled and cleared, identified and shored up and mulled some more, we took at least two years to really plunge into garden making,”Jack writes. He “was merely haplessly following Renny around, season to season, wondering what on earth our next step would be.”
Renny, on the other hand, “was endlessly sniffing our the horticultural possibilities that might be before us.” Classic European gardens inspired the design but the site did not fit the classical design. Renny adapted his American training to create vistas, allées, arbors, destinations – garden “rooms.”
The book is a verbal tour of the farm, following the route Renny and Jack take when they lead garden groups through its abundant paths. The Birch Walk, lined with hosta and ferns and leading to an Italian tazza, is the first impression. It makes a turn to a lake, one of several water features, inhabited with black swans, ducks and geese.
The Perennial Borders, “the classic English borders of our dreams,” connect the two barns are a pastel palette of pink, blue, purple and white.
The Pine and Dogwood Allée, leads to the Pool Garden plateau,with a circular spa. The Urn Garden, another visual destination, runs from the Pool Garden along the Summer Borders and up to the Pine and Dogwood Allee. A twig bridge stands out among sculpture in the Woodland Walk. The Village Fountain mimics the center of an Italian village in the Mediterranean Garden.
The Topiary Garden, a clearing in the woodland, is built of large clipped boxwoods moved from a Virgina farm to Hortulus. There’s also the Specimen Arboretum unified with collections of conifers and Japanese maples, the French Garden and the Cutting Round.
Jack, who professes at the beginning of the book that he was not a gardener has learned much and written much with his experience in the Kitchen and the Herb Gardens, which are as decorative as they are useful. Jack has written books and magazine articles on gardening, especially on vegetable and fruit gardening, including “The Illustrated Book of Edible Plants”; he has become known as a “garden author.”
Renny, who started selling flowers in Manhattan before he was discovered by many celebrities, has built a nursery that supplies plants for major events and links along the Mid-Atlantic coast.
And Hortulus Farm, a longtime member of Greater Philadelphia Gardens, was honored by being made the second-only-in-their-history Affiliate Garden of The Garden Conservancy.
The Hortulus Farm Foundation was created in 2000 to ensure that this historic property will continue to exist as a public place in perpetuity. Hortulus Farm is open for tours from May to October and for weddings and location shooting for photography or film year-round.
The book “Chasing Eden,” has dos and don’ts listed at the end of each chapter. The authors encourage readers to build gardens, no matter how small, using some of the design elements of Hortulus Farm.
“Don’t hesitate and do Imagine a garden,” the authors say.
“Chasing Eden,” the book by Jack Staub and Renny Reynolds, is published by Timber Press. Photographs are by Rob Cardillo.