We all need a break from working in our own gardens, and there are few things more inspirational and educational than visiting other gardens. Here we will introduce destinations that are open to the public and well worth a trip.
CELIA THAXTER'S GARDEN
Imagine a treeless island of white, sun-bleached rock with nary a growing thing. And on it sits a dormered colonial house fronted by a full length veranda. The veranda, or piazza, is heavily draped with vines: Clematis, Honeysuckle, Hops, Wisteria, and Wild Cucumber (Echinocystus lobata). In front of the piazza extends a bright, lush garden 50 feet long by 15 feet deep. It is chock full of colorful cutting flowers.
Celia Thaxter’s garden must have been an oasis of color and life on the harsh expanse of Appledore Island in the late 19th Century. It inspired famous paintings by Childe Hassam, and reading about it inspired me to make a visit to the restored garden.
Appledore Island, one of the Isles of Shoals that cluster near the coast between New Hampshire and Maine, is now a base for the study of marine biology at the Shoals Marine Laboratory, shared by the University of New Hampshire and Cornell. The large hotel and home owned by Celia Thaxter’s family have long since burned to the ground. But Thaxter’s accomplishments in poetry, painting and gardening led the founder of the lab to recreate her well-documented garden for the benefit of visitors.
Reconstructed in 1977 by Dr. John M. Kingsbury, the garden sits on its original site directly in front of the remaining stone foundation of Thaxter’s former home. The raised beds and selection of flowers follow the plan she included in her last book, An Island Garden. There are even some of her original plants: the snowdrops, the hops vine and day lilies. The other plants for the garden are raised annually at the University of New Hampshire, under the direction of Mr. Christopher Robarge.
Three gardening friends and I bought tickets for the boat ride and guided tour of the island that is now offered by the Shoals Marine Laboratory. We drove to Portsmouth, NH, and boarded the research vessel Challenger at 8:45 am in a group of 40. We sped across the Bay of Maine for 45 minutes to Appledore on a hot, sunny August day.
A wooden pier and staircase enabled us to access the rocky shore where we were greeted with the barking of hundreds of resident gulls. On a docent-led walking tour of the south end of the island, we learned a bit of the island’s history and had a view of the surrounding islands—Star Island, with its vintage hotel which is now a Unitarian study center; White Island, with its lighthouse and lightkeeper’s home; and Smuttynose, the scene of a notorious axe murder.
Then we were treated to an exceptional buffet lunch at the lab’s dining hall. Finally, our group approached the garden. Enclosed in a rustic wooden fence, it sat on a rise above the small rocky cove that was once the hotel’s “bathing pool.” What we saw in the blazing sun was a small cluster of raised beds sparsely planted with parched annuals and perennials. The 50 by 15 foot area looked like a postage stamp against the vast expanse of rock and sea. Enclosed in that fence was not the lush garden of Hassam’s evocative paintings, nor the Eden so lovingly described in Thaxter’s writings. It was a sore disappointment after all our anticipation and the build-up of the tour.
While I applaud their effort, I could not recommend making the trip to see this garden as it is now. On the other hand, the boat ride, the lunch and the history tour did make for a wonderful day trip while helping to support the ongoing work at the Shoals Marine Laboratory.
What exists now is a vine-covered arbor where the entry to the piazza once stood and a scattering of some of the flowers Thaxter grew, as shown in my photos. Her tastes ran to strong, bright colors and bold mixtures. Favorites were Sweet Peas, Poppies of various kinds, Roses, Hollyhocks and Nasturtiums. The vine-covered piazza offered cool shade from the unfiltered sunshine, and the colors must have blazed against the surrounding white rock.
One plant that Celia Thaxter planted all along the front of her piazza was new to me. It was an annual vine called Wild Cucumber (Echinocystus lobata). As Thaxter described it, “There in August they form a closely woven curtain of lush, light green, overhung with large, loose clusters of starry white flowers having a pure, delicious fragrance like honey.” The flowers mature into prickly oval fruits.
Celia Thaxter was an amazing and talented woman whose accomplishments despite great odds are worthy of celebrating. I hope that the universities and the lab will improve the garden and its maintenance and provide better trained docents in the future. Appledore Island is a special place and deserves a more professional presentation.
If you would like to learn more about Appledore Island, you may visit the website, https://www.sml.cornell.edu/sml_reservation.php. Thaxter’s An Island Garden has been reprinted by Houghton Mifflin in a beautiful edition with illustrations by Childe Hassam. One Woman’s Work: The Visual Art of Celia Laighton Thaxter by Sharon Stephan describes and shows the various forms of painting Thaxter practiced, and Poet on Demand by Jane E. Vallier is a sort of literary biography, including her poems and her account of the double murder on Smuttynose Island.
Helianthus and strawflowers (above) make a striking combination in the restored garden. Love-in-a-mist (right) was another of Thaxter's favorites.
HOLLISTER HOUSE GARDEN
George Schoellkopf has an eye. Following a successful career in the art world, he was inspired by a trip to England to design his own English-style garden. And it is truly the work of an artist.
But, as he will tell you himself, he does not live in a castle or manor house. His home began as a simple 18th century salt box—now listed on the National Register. Sensitive to this incongruity, Schoellkopf has kept the approach to his house plain and simple in keeping with Colonial New England. Only a modest doorway garden hints at the wonders to be found behind the house.
As you round the corner of the house, though, the land slopes down and the view expands to a boxwood parterre—another nod to the Colonial period of the house. This is merely the first of a series of formal, symmetrical garden “rooms” defined by stone and brick walls, hedges and gravel pathways. The influence of famous British gardens, such as Hidcote and Sissinghurst, is apparent in the abundance of plantings spilling out of rectangular beds.
Within this structure, Schoellkopf plays with delightful color combinations and creates one charming vignette after another. Silver and burgundy provide contrast—fuzzy Lambs’ Ears (Stachys byzantia) play against finely cut, burgundy Baneberry (Cimicifuga simplex). The copper and bronze of Heuchera cultivars accent apricot Dahlias, burgundy Barberry (Berberis thunbergii) and grey Plume Poppy (Macleaya cordata) in the “Indian Garden.” In the Kitchen Garden, Red Leaf lettuce has been allowed to bolt for its decorative value alongside the bold red of Blanket flower (Gaillardia grandiflora).
Each garden room offers seating in at least one inviting bench, and urns, sculpture and a reflecting pool highlight the plantings at every turn. Stone steps spill over with sedum and other groundcovers. Schoellkopf even faced his barn with brick for the purpose of covering it with such vines as Euonymus and Climbing Hydrangea (H. petiolaris). As the garden slopes away from the house, down to a brook, it is allowed to get looser. Following the brook’s edge is a curving walk billowing with Daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare) and Mullein (Verbascum), a striking wildflower used to great effect here.
I have only begun to describe the pleasures of Hollister House garden. Luckily it is open for viewing every Saturday from May through September. Check www.hollisterhousegarden.org for the exact hours and directions.
It’s called Shakespeare’s Garden, but it’s such a magical place I’d like to call it Merlin’s. Or maybe it’s Shakespeare for the poetry of the place. Not a garden in the strict sense, strolling through this garden center in Brookfield, CT, delivers just as much pleasure. What makes it special is that the owners have such a creative touch. The way they display plants, containers and garden ornaments is inspirational. The containers they put together are brilliant—in color, contrast and composition.
And the indoor shop brims with beautifully chosen decorative items from global sources. I want to focus on every inch from floor to ceiling so as not to miss a single item. Seasonal décor, table accessories, rustic art, dried and artificial plant materials and unusual gifts hang, spread and mingle on every surface, horizontal and vertical. While some items have substantial prices, I find the annuals, perennials and many garden items to be lush, healthy and reasonably priced. The owners and staff are always friendly and accommodating.
Right now the center is straddling the fall and Christmas seasons, chock full of pumpkins and mums, cabbages and kale plus imaginative plants to accompany them. The extensive Christmas display is beginning to take shape. Shakespeare’s Garden is tucked away on a quaint country road, but it is well worth the trip for both the experience and the merchandise.
A PARK ABOVE
Little did I imagine I would be writing—and raving—about a must-see garden in the middle of Manhattan. No, it’s not Central Park. I’m talking about the High Line park recently opened on the west side. Thanks to some visionary citizens, the long defunct elevated train tracks that once carried freight to the industrial lower west side have been saved and reincarnated as a pedestrian passage and greenspace.
The design is simple but brilliant, retaining evidence of the railroad tracks and their merging patterns whilw adapting them to plantings and walkways. This is a new garden (Phase 1 opened in 2009 and Phase 2 just opened in June of 2011), so many of the trees and shrubs will have more impact in a few years. And when I visited, in late August, it was more about texture than color. As befits an expanse exposed to hot sun, many of the plantings are grasses and prairie flowers.
But, as you walk from one end (Gansevoort St. in the Meatpacking District) to the other (30th St. and 10th Avenue), you pass through sections designed for different moods and effects. Near the lower end you’ll find a section with wide views of the Hudson River that simulates a beach scene, with reclining chaises for sunbathing and wetlands plants such as cattails, horsetail and reeds. There’s even a “shoreline” where shallow water invites getting your feet wet.
Some areas close in to surround you with foliage, blocking the surrounding city completely. Another segment about midway becomes a breezeway, where there are no buildings to block the breeze off the Hudson which stirs a current through yards of delicate grasses, like waves of water.
The park is wonderfully user-friendly. All along the High Line are seating areas of different kinds. Bistro tables beneath shade trees, sleek benches, social groupings and solitary lookouts. Handicapped Access is provided at several entrances. (For information about accessing the High Line, visit thehighline.org.) Despite a small number of concessions that allow you to buy refreshments, I saw not one piece of litter the entire way. This says something about the way people respond to this place.
Finally, if a garden’s function is partly to enhance the architecture it touches, this one triumphs. It was a surprise to me how well the walk enhanced the views of architecture along the way. Historic or cutting edge, charming or gritty, the changing cityscape took on a new beauty when viewed from this raised and green vantage point. In this way the High Line turns upside down our expectations of a walk in the park. This buffer of nature turns the urban scene into a beautiful landscape.