I have the kind of backyard garden where, despite my best efforts, everything is slightly askew. Instead of growing straight and tall, my camellias lean precipitously forward as if they were hailing a taxi. At 18 inches high, my tulips and daffodils loom over newly planted, miniature shrubs. Isn't it supposed to be the other way around?
So in one sense, a visit to two of the nation's foremost flower bowers -- Winterthur and Longwood gardens -- was a lesson in abject humiliation. At Winterthur, every arrestingly asymmetrical tree, every thickly branched bush, seems to be under the care of its own individual, full-time gardener. At Longwood, grass grows thick and lush despite the thousands of feet trampling it daily -- even in areas where, by all the laws of horticulture, no grass should ever grow, such as beneath the chairs set up for the audience in the open-air theater.
Just seven miles apart, Longwood and Winterthur are the crowning creations of two cousins. The former estate belonged to Pierre du Pont, and the latter, to Henry Francis du Pont, both fabulously wealthy members of the family that founded the chemical company.
The gardens are about 30 miles south of Philadelphia, and highlights from each can easily be sampled in the course of a day trip; in fact, there's a joint admissions pass costing $20, available through the end of this month.
But the character of the gardens is as different as the character of the du Pont cousins.
Winterthur in Delaware aims to make its gardens appear as if they grew naturally, aided by a particularly benevolent providence. The estate also boasts a mansion, dubbed by one visitor "The Enchanted Castle," that is filled with what has been described as the world's finest collection of American federal furniture. It is open for tours.
Longwood Gardens, which is just across the state line in Pennsylvania, unabashedly celebrates human know-how and ingenuity. It boasts a world-class conservatory where visitors could easily spend the entire afternoon.
For instance, at Winterthur, a waterfall tumbling down rocks appears to have been untouched and unvisited for hundreds of years. At Longwood, an automated fountain show held every hour shoots towering jets of water spectacularly skyward.
Winterthur has few tulips, which are notoriously finicky and unpredictable if fresh bulbs aren't planted each year, but the grounds erupt each spring with millions of reliably perennial bulbs such as crocus and daffodils. Longwood glories in its tulips.
A coin toss settles the matter: I'll stop first at Winterthur. About an hour and a half after leaving Baltimore, a shrub trimmed to resemble a horse jumping a fence announces the arboretum's entrance.
But what's the best way to see 66 acres of flowers, trees and shrubs?
For an extra $5, I could take the guided Lyrical Landscape tour, which is held at 1:30 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday through June. Or, I could hop on the free tram, which runs every 15 minutes, and get off at whatever spot piques my interest. Instead, I hoof it, wandering wherever my eyes draw me.
"You definitely don't need a formal tour to enjoy the gardens," says Karen Steenhoek, who supervises the garden landscape tours.
Winterthur is perhaps best known for its "Azalea Woods" -- long banks of the shrubs flaunting H.F. du Pont's favorite color scheme of purple, white, pink and cherry. The azaleas should be at their absolute peak of loveliness about Mother's Day, but even before then, there's plenty to enjoy.
Designed to be especially harmonious in April, the Sundial Garden has concentric circles of pink, white and lavender flowers. Redbud trees are just beginning to strut their stuff, so the branches are adorned with pink blossoms the shape of baby peas. Farther along are some giant coral-colored flowering quince and forsythia bushes laden with bright yellow flowers, each blossom resembling a miniature ball gown.
I'm tempted to take off my shoes and go barefoot for the first time this year, or to catch a magnolia petal as it flutters to the ground. But to linger too long is to risk missing the Enchanted Woods, the garden designed for children.
Despite the sign playfully warning, "Never, ever step inside a fairy ring," a few tiny girls stand triumphantly in the midst of the magic circle. Their "intrusion" triggers jets of water, which gently mists their ankles.
An older boy pumps water from an old-fashioned trough -- a holdover from when H.F. du Pont kept cattle at Winterthur, while a boy and girl climb into an oversized nest just a few feet above ground.
Watching all those tykes in perpetual motion has made me hungry. While both Winterthur and Longwood have cafeterias on the premises, I stop instead at Buckley's Tavern in Centerville, Del., midway between both gardens.
The back of the menu says that Buckley's was built in 1817 as a private residence, and that the front porch, where meals are served, was a combination stagecoach stop and tollgate.