Gardens, forsaken and reclaimed

garden gate

In a coign of a cliff between lowland and highland
At the sea-down’s edge between windward and lee
Walled round with rocks as an inland island
The ghost of a garden fronts the sea
–Swinburne

There is something entrancing about an overgrown garden, no longer maintained. It speaks of times past when someone planned and planted, when blossoms sprang forth along well-tended paths. As Swinburne wrote in his poem, “Here there was laughing of old, there was weeping, Haply, of lovers none ever will know, Whose eyes went seaward a hundred sleeping years ago.” A lost garden tells of what once was and, perhaps, of what could be again.

Years ago, I used to visit a hidden and overgrown garden. It had been created decades before but now its paths had fallen into disrepair. While there was some maintenance of the meadows, and flowers still bloomed, thickets strewn with vines threatened to overtake them.

This was Dumbarton Oaks Park, a mysterious place behind the famous gardens. I’d go there on weekday mornings when no one was about and walk along the winding path next to the little creek. I’d wonder about the crumbling stonework. What had been intended for this place? Who created it here hidden just off bustling Wisconsin Avenue? I’d climb to the top of the meadow and sit with a view that reminded me of a Monet painting I loved. What was this garden like when it was maintained? Why was it abandoned?

I read recently about another lost garden at Vassar College. According to the New York Times, it was “a native plant garden that was cultivated by botany professors and students in the 1920s…and then forgotten for decades.”

In the 1990s, another Vassar Professor discovered the overgrown, barely recognizable, garden. The Times quotes her describing her discovery, “I start seeing these spring ephemerals, but it was only later that I realized they had been planted.” More and more she saw plants she realized had been grown there intentionally. She researched the history and learned that botany professor Edith Roberts had cultivated the garden for many years. Roberts advocated planting native species in gardens decades before it became popular.

Working with her students, the later Professor, Meg Ronsheim, documented “the many survivors from the 1920s, including red osier dogwood, alder trees, royal ferns and jack-in-the-pulpits,” the Times reported.

That story reminded me of one I read in an old nature book. I dug out the book, Flowering Earth by Donald Culross Peattie. Peattie, who wrote popular books on trees in the mid-twentieth century, told of a garden he rediscovered.

He had moved to the West Coast and rented a house. After settling into the new dwelling, he went outside to look around. He surveyed the garden on his rented property. It was bounded by a hedge. Encouraged by a botanist’s curiosity to see what might be growing beyond, he pushed through the hedge.

On the other side, he wrote,

“I stood in a circular garden where every flower was blue; it was dry and sun smitten; fallen corollas, faded petals lay on the walks… The place seemed to belong to a ground bird with a lizard in his bill, who ran before me through an opening in a farther, higher hedge.

“So I went his way, down a walk of abandoned topiary, into a little garden where every flower was red. Three steps down, and I stood in a third garden, long and stately…. It was all weedy and dreamy and strange with an accent of far places, and I stooped dazedly to read one of the labels which, I realized, I had been seeing without heed all along the way. Like the others, it was weathered to no more than a cryptic anagram with half the letters missing.”

Then an elderly man with a watering can appeared. Peattie apologized for trespassing and asked, “Whose garden was this?” With a smile the man said, “This is your garden.”

The fading garden was part of the grounds of the house Peattie had rented! The elderly man was the only one left of a staff of gardeners who had once worked there.

Peattie tells much more about this special place that was now in his care. He learned of all the plants that grew there and worked with the gardener to revive the garden.

So a forsaken garden was renewed. And now that is just what is happening at Dumbarton Oaks Park. A conservancy has been organized and has raised funds to restore the original vision of this little landscape hidden in the city. And now I have learned the story of my secret garden.

It was originally planned as a wilder-growing adjunct to the formal gardens now owned by Harvard University. It fell into disrepair when it was split off from them and given to the National Park Service. It was designed in the 1920s by Beatrix Farrand to include a stream with multiple waterfalls as well as meadow paths with benches among groves of trees. Beatrix Farrand was a prominent landscape architect in the late 19th and early 20th centuries who designed many gardens on private estates. She was the first female professional landscape architect in the United States.

Now work has begun to restore Dumbarton Oaks Park, one of the few examples of Farrand’s work which has survived. The Dumbarton Oaks Conservancy has received funding to restore the old stonework and has organized volunteers to begin the work of removing the invasive vines and bushes that have overgrown all parts of the park.

I visited the park today. Although overgrown with porcelain berry, English ivy, and Russian olive, it is still a spot of beauty. To walk along its stream path is to find a peaceful refuge in the city. That it is being reclaimed is a blessing for us all.

–Vicki Linton

Photo by Vicki Linton

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