Finding Natural Lands in the suburbs with opening of Main Line garden

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Stoneleigh Gardens is the newest preserve from Natural Lands. Formally the estate of the Haas Family, the gardens and grounds will open to the public in May 2018. Many of the structures are over 100 years old. (Emily Cohen for WHYY)

Stoneleigh Gardens is the newest preserve from Natural Lands. Formally the estate of the Haas Family, the gardens and grounds will open to the public in May 2018. Many of the structures are over 100 years old. (Emily Cohen for WHYY)

The organization Natural Lands has been preserving open space in Pennsylvania and New Jersey for more than 60 years. It’s most often associated with securing easements on farms and woodlands, but on Sunday, it will open its latest acquisition to the public: Stoneleigh, a classic Main Line estate in Villanova.

“People have driven by this property for years, and it’s sort of surrounded by this curtain of tall pine trees and oaks, and they’ve never really seen what’s inside,” said Ethan Kauffman, director of Stoneleigh.

As it opens the gardens to the public, Natural Lands has also launched an awareness and education campaign aimed at fending off condemnation of parts of the Stoneleigh property for the use of the Lower Merion School District.

District officials have indicated their interest in condemning a 6.9-acre portion of Stoneleigh to build ball fields. They also want to inspect the rest of the garden “in anticipation of a potential condemnation of all or part of the property.”

Natural Lands has told the District it will fight vigorously any such attempt.

Before being given to the conservation group, the gracious stone mansion surrounded by 42 acres of gardens was the home of the Haas family.

“It has a long history of being the palette of some famous landscape architects,” said Kirsten Werner, Natural Lands director of communications. “The sons of the famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed Central Park, have their longest history of working on a single property here.”

Rather than creating a formal, manicured garden with exotic plants, as was fashionable at the time, Kauffman said, the Olmsted brothers opted for a more natural feel and let the gardens evolve over time.

“It was maintained in a way to allow things to grow as they would. One of the most remarkable things they didn’t do was to prune all these things formally,” Kauffman said. “They allowed them to grow naturally and to create this really unorthodox beauty.”

At Stoneleigh, the Olmsteds were early adopters of native plant species.

“I’ve run across some lists of native trees that they put in here,” said Kauffman. “And what surprised me is that a full 70 percent of them were native species. This was in 1921.”

For six decades, Natural Lands has worked to preserve open space and connect people to the natural world. The organization is excited to now offer those experiences in a location that’s accessible to more people.

“This is the first property that we have that’s in a suburban setting like this, that’s close to a train station,” said Kauffman. “It presents a new opportunity for us to engage a lot of different audiences.”

And that presents the opening for a teachable moment by building on the original landscape architects’ use of native plant species.

“What gardens do, in their purest distillation, is create joy in people’s lives,” said Kauffman. “And it’s our hope that when people come here, they’ll find that. But they’ll also find some educational opportunities, in terms of how they can take a lot of these native plant species and principles of ecological gardening to their own yards and to their communities.”

Natural Lands will open Stoneleigh: A Natural Garden to the public on Mother’s Day with a member preview the day before.

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