America’s gardening culture has deep roots in Pennsylvania dating back hundreds of years. Today, the state’s diverse horticultural attractions make it a national destination that offers residents and visitors so much to discover. There are exceptional landscapes to see, heirloom and native plants to sow, and myriad opportunities to learn and grow.
Here are ten reasons Pennsylvania has become a national destination for garden lovers.
1. We're home to the nation's first botanic garden
During the colonial era, John Bartram and his son William traveled around eastern North America cataloging plants not found in Europe. The amateur botanists brought the plants and seeds they collected back to their home on the banks of the Schuylkill River, where they established a nursery and the first botanic garden in the United States. Bartram’s Garden is now a National Historic Landmark and an active proponent of local food production in Southwest Philadelphia.
2. Penn State University educates fertile minds
Pennsylvania’s land grant university supports the horticulture industry through education, offering degrees in agroecology, horticulture, landscape contracting, and turfgrass science. Penn State scientists conduct research on a wide range of related topics and contribute to national flower variety trials. The Arboretum at Penn State educates students and the public through curated spaces such as the “Grove of the Ancients” and the “Pollinator and Bird Garden.” Most impactful, Penn State has certified more than 3,500 Master Gardeners, who serve the public as volunteers in many ways after their training.
3. We’re home to America’s first (and largest) public flower show
Founded in 1827 by a group of influential gentleman farmers and nurserymen, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society held America’s first public flower show two years later. They’re still at it. Today, the Philadelphia Flower Show is the nation’s largest annual botanical exhibition, attracting elite garden designers from around the globe and hundreds of thousands of visitors. The show’s proceeds fund the organization’s support for community gardens, tree planting, and urban renewal in the Delaware Valley. In 2021, the show was held outdoors for the first time in its history. The multi-day fête at FDR Park in South Philly earned rave reviews.
4. The Rodale Institute made organic principles mainstream
Generations of gardeners learned how to grow chemical-free by reading Organic Gardening magazine, published in Emmaus from 1942 to 2018. Founder J.I. Rodale also established a nonprofit research farm to study and share information about organic agriculture. The Rodale Institute in Kutztown hosts an annual field day for the public featuring tours of its demonstration gardens, apple orchard, research plots, beehives, and more. The Rodale Institute also offers online courses on a variety of topics of interest to gardeners.
5. Southeastern PA is officially America’s Garden Capital
More than 30 public gardens, arboreta, and historic landscapes are located within a 30-mile radius around Philadelphia. In 1989, these locations formed a nonprofit consortium dubbed “America’s Garden Capital” to encourage garden lovers to visit them all. Well-known spots such as Longwood Gardens and the Morris Arboretum are members, but the group also includes unheralded places like The Woodlands, an 18th-century pleasure garden turned 19th-century rural cemetery turned neighborhood green oasis. You can pick up the “America’s Garden Capital” passport and get it stamped at each one you explore.
6. Garden estates offer a time machine to the bucolic past
Two extraordinary properties on opposite sides of the state have become world-class public gardens. Mellon Park in Pittsburgh was established on the grounds of the city’s largest mansion, the former home of industrialist Richard B. Mellon. The park’s Walled Garden, enveloped by panels of brick and limestone, was built in the 1920s and restored to its original design in 2009. The plantings include a wide range of flowering trees, shrubs, and perennials. In the early 20th century, pharmaceutical magnate Adolph Rosengarten, Sr., and his wife Christine built a country retreat in Wayne, which the family dubbed “Chanticleer.” The extensive gardens were designed by renowned landscape architect Thomas Sears and they are now open to visitors. A team of 14 gardeners care for an always-evolving collection of spaces, from the Bog Meadow to the Ruins Garden to Bell’s Woodland.
7. Goodell Gardens and Homestead is a showcase for heirloom lovers
Located in Edinboro near Lake Erie, the Goodell Gardens and Homestead is a 78-acre botanical garden and arboretum that was originally a family farm, established in 1876. The Goodell heirs set up a foundation in 2001 to transform it into a place where the public can see and learn about American heirloom gardening. Visitors can experience native woodland plants, rare flower species, a demonstration garden designed to attract pollinators, and an 82-foot-tall paper birch tree, the largest in the state. Programs for students from K-12 expose young people to the benefits and joys of gardening.
8. The seed catalog was born in Pennsylvania
W. Atlee Burpee, the scion of an affluent Philadelphia family, began selling seeds to gardeners in 1877. He soon established Burpee Seeds, the first research-based seed company in the United States, and launched the nation’s first mail-order seed catalog. The company pioneered popular garden-ready varieties including an elusive white marigold known as ‘Snowbird’. In the 1990s, Burpee re-introduced ‘Brandywine’, an heirloom tomato that has won nationwide taste tests. Burpee remains one of America’s best known gardening suppliers.
9. The Bower sculpture garden is the next big thing
A pair of nature and art enthusiasts have transformed their property along the northern slope of the Appalachian Mountains in Perry County near Harrisburg into a showplace for horticulture and sculpture. The Bower's centerpiece is a 6-acre meadow surrounded by a 30-acre woodland. Bill and Jane Bower signed up the world-famous landscape architecture firm of Oehme, Van Sweden to create the design for their public garden. The meadow includes more than 100 species of native plants, from trees to grasses. Around the property, visitors can see sculpture by a variety of artists, including five who live in Pennsylvania. The project is still in development but is open to the public from May 1 to Oct. 15.
10. The Roughwood Center for Heritage Seedways preserves our edible history
America’s leading scholar on Pennsylvania Dutch culture and food, William Woys Weaver has gathered seeds from more than 5,000 heirloom vegetables. The Roughwood Center for Heritage Seedways began with Weaver’s grandfather, who sought and grew local varieties to feed his family in the 1930s. Today, Roughwood has the world’s most comprehensive assemblage of varieties grown by the indigenous people of the eastern United States, including 55 different kinds of beans and corn that are found nowhere else, such as ‘Tutelo Strawberry’ corn and ‘Neskopeck Wampum’ bean. Through a partnership with Kutztown University, many of the varieties are being planted and grown to produce seed for sale to home gardeners.