A Trip Through New England Gardens
My name is Erin Clark and I’m a horticulturist with Smithsonian Gardens. Each year Smithsonian Gardens sends staff on professional development trips to gather inspiration for the gardens. Thanks to this travel grant, I was able to tour the gardens of New England. From Connecticut and the hills of Vermont to New Hampshire and Massachusetts, the vistas I experienced were vivid and the people I met were warm and welcoming. Many of the gardens I visited in the area showcased the use of plants, something we like to highlight in tours at the National Museum of American History.
I began with a selection of historic gardens in Connecticut. Starting in Hartford, I visited Hill-Stead, a home designed by an architect’s daughter for her wealthy parents in retirement, complete with a sunken garden by Beatrix Farrand. Works by Monet and other artists hang in the house and the hills outside the home used to be a working farm. I toured with Hill-Stead’s head gardener at a time when the roses bloomed in top form.
At The Florence Griswold Museum I spoke with Landscape Historian Sheila Wertheimer who works with volunteers to ensure that the grounds are beautiful and accurate to their original aesthetic. Sheila enlisted the help of an archaeologist to find the original bed locations. Referencing old photographs and paintings by the artists that flocked to this boarding house turned artists’ colony, she recreated a colonial revival garden, complete with roses, yarrow, and delphiniums. The site now hosts an art gallery and a cafe overlooking the Lieutenant River.
In Massachusetts I visited the campus of Smith College, toured the greenhouse there, and enjoyed the synoptic beds laid out by plant family. Near Massachusetts’ northern border is a place called the Bridge of Flowers where a footbridge stretches across the Deerfield River, adorned in cottage garden flowers and trees reminiscent of Monet’s garden in France.
Next I drove to Tasha Tudor’s Garden in Marlboro, VT. There the famous children’s book illustrator lived a quiet life in a house built by her son. The Tudor family leads a few tours each year and still keeps the house much as the artist did during her lifetime. An entire field of lupine greeted visitors at the gate. The garden’s crab apples and daffodils had long since bloomed, giving way to the exuberance of summer. Tasha’s grandson, Winslow, proudly showed us the gardens and chickens. Seth Tudor, Tasha’s son, showed us the beams of the house he built by hand and the tiny puppet studio that the family used to entertain neighborhood children.
Tasha Tudor, born in 1915, had a love of the old way of doing things, and kept goats, churned butter and gardened, all in late 19th century style dress. There are still notes on the wall with phone numbers, important dates and weather conditions, and sketches of her beloved corgis. A testament to her love of the artistic process, she chose weaving over modern pastimes like watching television and kept two looms that dwarfed the rooms they occupied. Staying there in Vermont among lakes and evergreens, watching the water birds and the sunset, I could understand why Tasha had chosen this place.
I was off to Portsmouth, New Hampshire the next day, and explored the preserved town of Strawbery Banke (named in the English of the day). It was named for the wild strawberries that grew along the banks, enough to fill the hull of a ship. Several houses and backyard gardens illustrate this site’s 400-year-old history. Erik Wochholz, the Curator of Historic Landscapes at the Strawbery Banke Museum, led me on a tour and we sampled our way through herbs used for brewing and as garnishes. Kids have an opportunity to wander through colonial gardens, explore a WWII-era store, and even do a paleobotany activity examining modern pollen under microscope.
John Forti, the Massachusetts Horticultural Society’s Director of Horticulture and Education, met with me for my last stop before heading back to D.C. MHS owns a historic estate next to a soccer park, complete with a grotto, a formal garden and several themed gardens. During the last year, wooden structures and arches have been built and educational interpretation for youth has grown. The veggie garden, next to a peaked frame house built by the monks who once ran the site, is the current domain of several heirloom lettuces, tomatoes, and strawberries, as well as a nesting killdeer.
Heading into the city and to the airport, I was left with beautiful memories of the places I had visited on this whirlwind tour. I learned about the importance plants have in providing a sense of place in a garden. I saw many different ways of interpreting history with labeling, programs and art. Every place has a different focus, a different plant palette, and a set of people who love it, dedicated to its continuance, much like Smithsonian Gardens.
– Erin Clark, Smithsonian Gardens Horticulturist