What's behind the garden wall? A new book tells all

by Len Lear
Posted 4/18/24

Nicole Juday grew up on a farm, where she never laid eyes on a carefully curated landscape. Then she paid a visit to Morris Arboretum.

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What's behind the garden wall? A new book tells all


Nicole Juday grew up on a farm in Illinois, where she never laid eyes on a carefully curated landscape and “had no interest whatsoever in gardens.”

But then, shortly after her 1997 move to Germantown, where she and her family had purchased a “fixer-upper” with a yard that needed a lot of attention, she paid a visit to Morris Arboretum. And it was pretty much love at first sight. 

“I was astounded,” said Juday. “I knew absolutely nothing about the subject, so I started taking classes. Then I spent tons of time in my own garden, and pretty soon my interest became an obsession.”

Now, that young woman with an obsession with gardening has grown into a fully-fledged expert, and author of what she describes as the “first-ever coffee table book on the city’s private gardens.” Morris Arboretum & Gardens is hosting a release party for the book, “Private Gardens of Philadelphia,” on Thursday, April 25, at 7 p.m., followed by a book signing on Saturday, April 27, at 10 a.m. 

Produced by Juday and award-winning photographer Rob Cardillo, the book takes readers to 21 private gardens in the Philadelphia area, all of which are found behind tall hedges, down quiet lanes or tucked into bustling neighborhoods. These are private places where gardening knowledge, and even the plants themselves, have been passed down through generations. Five of the gardens are in Chestnut Hill, one is in Mt. Airy and another is in East Falls.

Cardillo, who has been the primary photographer for more than 25 books, had been discussing the idea for the book with publisher Gibbs Smith when he invited Juday to collaborate with him – something she describes as “an incredible experience.”

“Every garden we selected had inherent beauty, but I felt an obligation to not just record the obvious physical beauty but to elevate it to another level,” said Cardillo. “This required multiple visits to catch seasonal peaks, optimal lighting conditions and ephemeral details. I also wanted to identify visual threads and themes within each garden that help the images give some insight into the gardener's mind.”

Juday came to Philadelphia to study textile design at the Philadelphia College of Textiles & Sciences in East Falls, now known as Thomas Jefferson University, where she earned a master’s degree. And while she never worked in that field, she said, she nonetheless uses what she learned in her current work because “some of the same principles apply to designing gardens.”

You could say her career has been homegrown. It started when friends would ask her to help them make their gardens look like her Germantown one, so she started a garden design business, which she ran until 2008, when she became Landscape Curator at Wyck Historic Garden in Germantown. 

She then went on to run the Arboretum School at the Barnes Foundation, and after that became Director of Audience Engagement at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, where she created content and programming to inspire countless gardeners. A Chanticleer Scholarship allowed her to pursue her interest in garden writing, and she has since published numerous articles, winning a silver medal for her writing from the Garden Writers Association. 

With all that experience, she says, the most important thing she’s learned about gardening is that everyone can enjoy it. 

“Gardening is not an innate talent,” she insists. “Anyone can learn to do it. Here in Philadelphia, we can grow so many different kinds of plants because we have such good soil, decent rain and good weather. We have lots of advantages. The sky is the limit.”

When not spending time in her own garden with friends and family, Juday enjoys volunteering in local beautification efforts. In recent years she has also served as board chair for the IDEAL Industries Foundation, a charitable corporate foundation.

For more information and to register, visit morrisarb.org/lectures. Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com