(Above: The Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme; photo by Caryn B. Davis)
Vegetable and herb gardens were essential for survival in Colonial America. Only the necessities were planted. Flowers not used for medicinal purposes were considered extravagant, but as produce markets became more bountiful in the mid-1800s, edible gardens declined, and ornamental gardens grew. They evolved further as a means for artistic expression and leisure use, and with that came the country’s first landscape architects and professional garden designers. Floriculture continued to flourish with the advent of lawns, exotic flowers, the use of native plants, which had once been thought of as unkempt, and the adaptation of English aesthetics with creation of “outdoor rooms.” Today, we have gardens in all varieties, shapes and sizes, and in Connecticut we have 15 historic gardens, offering visitors a peek into our horticultural past.
Connecticut’s Historic Gardens is a nonprofit organization that works with museums statewide to help promote these cultural gems. The criteria are simple. Each garden must be open to the public and have a historic home on site that is also open to the public. Each must be historically significant, cultivate the use of traditional plantings when practical, and utilize the existing landscape as part of the interpretive story.
Roseland Cottage, Woodstock
The 1850 boxwood parterre garden at Roseland Cottage is equally as impressive as the ornate, coral pink, 1846 Gothic Revival that looms behind it in all its glory. The house was built as a summer residence for businessman Henry Bowen and his wife Lucy. The garden’s creator is unconfirmed, but it is believed that either Joseph Wells, the architect of the house, Henry Dyer, the nurseryman, or Bowen himself designed it.
“The asymmetry of the garden is in keeping with the Gothic Revival style of the house. It was thought of as more dynamic than the more balanced styles,” says Laurie Masciandaro, Roseland Cottage’s site manager for Historic New England, a nonprofit that owns the site.
The garden comprises 21 beds with generous amounts of iris, yucca, daylilies, hosta, sedum, goatsbeard roses, hydrangeas, and many others species placed thoughtfully along the edges. In between are 600 yards of dwarf English boxwoods, of which 80 percent are original. Every May, 4,000 annuals are added. “It is rare to have a garden maintained to its original plan as Roseland’s has,” Masciandaro says.
556 Route 169, Woodstock, 860-928-4074, historicnewengland.org/property/roseland-cottage
Hill-Stead Museum, Farmington
Built at the turn of the century by one of the country’s first female architects, Theodate Pope, the Colonial Revival overlooks 152 acres, a wild Walking Garden and a Sunken Garden where the museum hosts its annual Sunken Garden Poetry Festival. (This year’s event will be held June 19-Aug. 11.) The Sunken Garden was originally designed by Theodate and her mother Ada, but was turned into turf when supplies dwindled during World War II. The Connecticut Valley Garden Club and the Garden Club of Hartford reinstated it in the 1980s. They followed a Beatrix Farrand plan discovered in the archive at the University of California that was intended for Hill-Stead but never implemented during Theodate’s lifetime.
The Sunken Garden is an irregular octagon. A wrought-iron and stone staircase leads down to a brick walkway that splits the garden in half with the “Summer House” gazebo at its center. There are 90 floral varieties in 36 beds in shades of pink, blue, purple and white. The palette was chosen to complement the Impressionist paintings on view indoors. The heirloom roses date back to about 1850 to 1900, while heliotrope from the 1920s is grown for the Hill-Stead at Harkness.
35 Mountain Road, Farmington, 860-677-4787, hillstead.org
Thankful Arnold House, Haddam
Now in the hands of the Haddam Historical Society, this site along the Connecticut River has a small but lovely garden. Several raised beds are laid out in the backyard in a pleasing pattern separated by stone pathways. They are packed with flowers, vegetables and more than 50 varieties of herbs that would have been used for cooking, medicine, dyes and fragrances by Thankful Arnold herself when she occupied the gambrel-roof residence in 1830. There is also a rose garden and crude wooden trellis with a bench beneath, and shade from grape vines that hover above. While there is not an abundance to see, there is much to learn about the Arnold family and the importance of gardens in Colonial life.
14 Hayden Hill Road, Haddam, 860-345-2400, haddamhistory.org
Florence Griswold Museum, Old Lyme
It’s easy to see why members of the Old Lyme art colony of the early 20th century were inspired to paint the gardens behind Florence Griswold’s boardinghouse. Between the mystical quality of the light from the Lieutenant River and the loose arrangement of hollyhocks, iris, daisies, foxglove, heliotrope, phlox, cranesbill and daylilies overflowing in bordered beds, it reads like an Impressionist painting without the canvas. The gardens have been restored to the way they looked when seen through the eyes of the artists who immortalized the space in their paintings.
The museum is in the process of reimagining the gardens and grounds with help from a $1 million grant from the Robert F. Schumann Foundation, and work by the team at Stephen Stimson Landscape Architects. The Massachusetts firm will reintroduce some agrarian elements that have long since vanished, and create a half-mile artists’ trail with interpretive stations along the way. “Once completed, the Florence Griswold Museum will provide visitors an experience that interweaves art, history and nature in ways rarely found in the museum world,” says Tammi Flynn, the museum’s marketing director.
96 Lyme St., Old Lyme, 860-434-5542, ext. 111, florencegriswoldmuseum.org
Harkness Memorial State Park, Waterford
This shoreline property was once the summer home of philanthropists Edward and Mary Harkness before they donated it to the state. Featuring a 1906 Roman Renaissance Revival-style mansion, the property has a sprawling lawn down to the sea, bounded by formal gardens on the east and west sides designed by Farrand. An intricately carved stone pergola dripping with wisteria overlooks the West Garden, which was gifted to the family by architect James Gamble Rogers. It provides relief in the summer heat so the gardens can be enjoyed in comfort. Farther afield are cutting gardens bursting with cleome, foxglove, hosta, helenium, daisies and other flowers, and two ornamental Japanese maple trees whose canopies hide tiny tombstones below bearing the names of the family’s beloved pets.
275 Great Neck Road, Waterford, 860-443-5725, harkness.org
Weir Farm, Wilton
American Impressionist Julian Alden Weir purchased the farm in 1882 for the princely sum of $10. Today a National Historic Site, it encompasses 60 sprawling acres with wooded walking trails, open meadows, a 3.7-acre pond, and three gardens. Over time, the gardens fell into a state of deep neglect. The Sunken Garden, in the Colonial Revival style, and the Secret Garden, a “grandmother’s garden,” both formal and loose, have since been re-established with native plantings and restored to their original plan by National Park Service and the Wilton and Ridgefield garden clubs. However, the Terraced Gardens that once provided the family with produce have not been restored but rather maintained in keeping with the historical integrity of the site. Today these gardens are overflowing with flowers and blooms that surely would have captivated the artists who painted them long ago.
735 Nod Hill Road, Wilton, 203-834-1896, nps.gov/wefa
Bellamy-Ferriday House & Garden, Bethlehem
The Rev. Joseph Bellamy built the house from 1754-67, and established the fruit orchards, while Eliza Ferriday and her daughter Caroline began designing the gardens in 1912, a welcome undertaking that Caroline continued long after her mother’s death in 1953. Their vision was to transform Bellamy’s working farm into a Colonial Revival garden. They added a magnolia grove; a northeast, east and south lawn, the latter which is closely clipped and sprinkled with wildflowers and meadow plants; a walking path around the 5-acre property’s perimeter; and a privacy fence derived from evergreens and flowering trees to shield the estate from the road and town green. They surround a formal parterre-style garden at the center. An impressive collection of varied and unusual vegetation includes a weeping willow that came from a cutting of a tree on the South Atlantic island of Saint Helena, where Napoleon was exiled and died. In recent years, the estate has seen an increase in visitors, many of whom come after reading Litchfield author Martha Hall Kelly’s works of historical fiction, 2016’s Lilac Girls and this year’s Lost Roses.
9 Main St. N., Bethlehem, 203-266-7596
No matter what part of the state you call home, chances are there is a history-steeped estate and garden just waiting to be explored. Here are eight more beauties to add to your bucket list.
Butler-McCook House & Garden has a 1782 house with a restored Victorian ornamental garden created by landscape architect Jacob Weidenmann, who also designed Hartford’s Bushnell Park. 396 Main St., Hartford, 860-522-1806, ctlandmarks.org/butler-mccook
Glebe House Museum & The Gertrude Jekyll Garden includes an 18th-century farmhouse with a classic English-style garden designed by horticulturalist and author Gertrude Jekyll. 49 Hollow Road, Woodbury, 203-263-2855, theglebehouse.org
Harriet Beecher Stowe Center was home to the famous author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. There are eight major gardens on the property, the largest magnolia tree in the state, and a 100-plus-year-old dogwood. 77 Forest St., Hartford, 860-522-9258, harrietbeecherstowecenter.org
Osborne Homestead Museum & Kellogg Environmental Center has a farmhouse (circa 1840) on 350 acres with formal flower gardens, ornamental shrubs and flowering trees. 500 Hawthorne Ave., Derby, 203-734-2513, cthistoricgardens.org/gardens/osborne-homestead-museum-kellogg-environmental-center
Phelps-Hatheway House & Garden has a formal parterre garden and herb garden designed by landscape architect Mary Wells Edwards. The house was constructed in 1761 with a new wing added in 1794, and is filled with 18th-century antiques. 55 S. Main St., Suffield, 860-668-0055, ctlandmarks.org/phelps-hatheway
Promisek at Three Rivers Farm is situated on 300 acres and features a garden designed by Beatrix Farrand that is maintained to the original plan. 694 Skyline Ridge Road, Bridgewater, 860-350-8226, promisek.org
Stanley-Whitman House is a Post Medieval-style home built circa 1720 with an apple orchard, heritage stonewalls and raised garden beds on site. 37 High St., Farmington, 860-677-9222, stanleywhitman.org
Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum consists of three 18th-century houses with a restored Colonial Revival garden designed by landscape architect Amy Cogswell. 211 Main St., Wethersfield, 860-529-0612, webb-deane-stevens.org