For the region’s major garden attractions, which count on spring to reawaken the public’s appetite for nature and add measures of growth to their operating funds, April was the cruelest month, and the cruelty lapped into a spectacular first weekend in May.

June isn’t looking much kinder, with coronavirus-related closings likely to persist in the region for weeks.

“We have no word on when we will be able to reopen,” said Bill Cullina, executive director of the Morris Arboretum in Chestnut Hill.

“April is when everyone really starts to emerge from hibernation,” said Mark Nardone, communications manager at Winterthur Gardens in Delaware. For Winterthur, losing April was "like losing August at the beach.”

The "closed" sign at Chanticleer Gardens summarizes the situation succinctly.
CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
The "closed" sign at Chanticleer Gardens summarizes the situation succinctly.

The closings have been especially frustrating, says Cullina, because the magnolia blossoms and other flora have outdone themselves this spring, what he called “the bloom of the decade.” Ironically, that’s thanks in part to the very weather conditions that have generated a bumper crop of complaints among would-be admirers.

For all the professional sports teams out there that might end up playing in empty stadiums and arenas, the magnolias have known the feeling.

The garden spots have lavished their websites with visually splendid virtual tours, videos, and blog and social media posts.

But those who tend the gardens — and they still require considerable tending — say there is nothing remotely or virtually like the real thing.

A photo earlier this month of the magnolia grove at Morris Arboretum.
Bill Cullina/Morris Arboretum
A photo earlier this month of the magnolia grove at Morris Arboretum.

What really hurts

Those that charge admission — Longwood, which lures crowds to rival those of professional sports leagues; Morris, renowned for its stately and rare trees; Winterthur, known for its flower-covered hillsides; Chanticleer Gardens, a boutique preserve on the Main Line — are losing out on revenue.

Based on past visitation data, April cost Longwood more than $850,000 in walk-up, nonmember admissions alone — in addition to restaurant and food-stand revenue — and Morris about $150,000. Longwood, Morris, and Winterthur also are extending current memberships to cover all the lost time.

Longwood had to furlough 400 part-time staff members.

For the first time in its 43-year history, Winterthur canceled its annual Point-to-Point steeplechase event, a rite of spring in the Brandywine Valley.

But the toughest losses are immeasurable, says Cullina and other keepers of the gardens.

For the remaining full-time staffers who have been watering, pruning, and tending to all those flowering dogwoods, eastern redbuds, and rhododendrons among Longwood’s 1,000-plus acres, the closing has been “emotional,” said Patricia Evans, the communications director. Naturally, she said, they would want people to see, appreciate, and enjoy their handiwork.

“This is a time when people need beauty, inspiration, and fresh air more than ever,” said Winterthur’s Nardone.

What visitors are missing in April are about 500,000 heirloom daffodils, to be followed by “acres” of azaleas in May. “We all take it personally when we can’t share that,” Nardone said.

Cullina said that as fate would have it, this has been a spring for the ages, thanks to April’s cool and dreary sequel to a remarkably mild winter. The blossoms have gained extra shelf life thanks to below-normal temperatures. (Ever wonder why flower shops are so chilly?) After a balmy weekend, the chill is due to return during the workweek.

He predicted that in retrospect, “2020 will go down as a near-perfect spring.”

Certainly not in all ways, but aesthetically, the eye confections on the gardens’ websites make a reasonable case.

The virtual spring

Morris is posting a mix of flowering visuals and how-to videos, including one in which Cullina stood in front of a blooming crabapple tree and walked viewers through the glamorous process of making compost. It also is offering “virtual tours” of its 92-acre garden, what Cullina called an effort to “bring a bit of the arboretum to our community.”

Daffodils and snapdragons make a beautiful combination of spring blooms. Photo by Hank Davis.

Posted by Longwood Gardens on Saturday, April 25, 2020

On April 7, Longwood debuted “Our Gardens Your Home” on its site, a portal for videos and still images of what’s blooming and instructional programs. Evans said that within three days, it was drawing 37,000 visitors.

Tulipa ‘Orange Emperor’, Muscari armeniacum and Narcissus ’Hawera’ bloom at the base of Lonicera reticulata ‘Kintzleys Ghost’.

Posted by Chanticleer Garden on Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Winterthur has beefed up its social media presence on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, said Nardone, and Chanticleer says it is regularly freshening its online visuals.

When will in-person visits resume?

The gardens’ staffs would love to know. In the meantime, they are preparing, and the horticulturalists are keeping busy.

Longwood has retained all 235 employees, Evans said. Morris, which is affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania, and Winterthur and Chanticleer have kept all staff on the payrolls.

Whenever the reopening happens, Evans said, it will be a complicated process. “We’ll need time to prepare our fountains, our hundreds of acres of gardens, and the conservatory.”

Morris is looking at a “phased reopening plan,” Cullina said. “I can tell you that it is likely that for the first phase, we will be utilizing timed ticketing to eliminate crowding, and to allow for proper social distancing.”