New England's Glorious Gardens
One of the great traditions that bind New England to Old England is a love of gardening. Across the six states the wealth of horticultural delights ranges from public spaces to private places. Here is just a taste of the variety on offer.
"Must sees" include Elizabeth Park in Hartford, the state capital. The centerpiece of its 101 acres is America’s oldest municipally-operated rose garden — 2½ acres with 800 varieties and 15,000 plants, including ramblers, climbers and shrubs. The Heritage Rose Garden is at its best in early to mid June. Then there are gardens with artistic connections. In Old Lyme, American Impressionists of a century ago painted in what are now the grounds of the Florence Griswold Museum; stand where they stood, then step inside to see examples of their works. In Farmington, the Hill-Stead Museum has French Impressionists inside; the outside looks like an English estate, complete with sunken garden. Unique in the USA is the small English garden at the Glebe House Museum in Woodbury. Commissioned in 1926, it is the only surviving garden in the USA by English designer Gertrude Jekyll.
In Portland, don’t miss the peaceful Longfellow Garden. A recreation of a Colonial Revival-style garden, it is behind the Wadsworth-Longfellow House, the poet’s former home. For contrast, visit the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay. One of Maine’s top attractions, it opened in 2007; with 248 acres, it is New England’s largest botanical garden and one of the few in America on the water. On Mt. Desert Island are two gardens. The Asticou Azalea Garden is modeled on classic Japanese designs, with a stream, pond, paths and statues. A riot of crimson, coral, and peach in spring, it is equally spectacular in fall. Nearby, the English-style Thuya Garden boasts Thuja occidentalis, handsome white cedars. In Augusta, the state capital, the Viles Arboretum features hostas, lilacs, chestnuts and conifers. In the western part of the state, the McLaughlin Foundation, Garden & Horticultural Center is a century-old Maine farmstead surrounded by wildflowers and ferns. The formal garden includes hostas, daylilies, astilbes, iris, phlox, sedum and more than 200 lilacs.
Boston boasts several "firsts": the Boston Public Garden is America’s first botanical garden (1837) and the Arnold Arboretum is the country’s oldest public collection of plants (1872). Founded in 1829, the Massachusetts Horticultural Society is the nation’s oldest and is based at Elm Bank Reservation in Wellesley. Nearby in Framingham, Garden in the Woods is the headquarters of the New England Wild Flower Society. The largest collection of native plant species in the region, it includes a garden of rare and endangered plants. Tower Hill Botanic Garden near Worcester boasts 17 distinct gardens, walking trails, and two fruit-filled greenhouses — an orangerie and a limonaia.
To the west, the Berkshire Hills have some magnificent estates. In Stockbridge, Naumkeag is famous for the Blue Steps, with fountains, stairs and birches; in Lenox, The Mount’s magnificent gardens were designed by its owner, the author Edith Wharton. Another wonderful garden destination is Cape Cod, where Heritage Museum & Gardens in Sandwich is known for rhododendrons and daylilies. Thousands of rhododendron shrubs burst into bloom during the last two weeks of May and the first two weeks of June. And while on the Cape, be sure to visit Martha’s Vineyard’s horticultural and botanical landmark, Polly Hill Arboretum, where rare trees and shrubs from around the world are set among stone walls, meadows and fields.
New Hampshire’s state flower is the gorgeous purple lilac, Syringa vulgaris, imported from England and planted in Portsmouth in 1750. Today, lilacs thrive in spring in this seaside city where there is an annual Lilac Festival at the Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion. For splashy color in mid-July, visit Rhododendron State Park in Fitzwilliam, in southwest New Hampshire. Here, the 16-acre grove of Rhododendron Maximum is the largest stand in northern New England. For a historic garden, head for Canterbury Shaker Village in Canterbury, where the vegetable gardens were planted in 1795 and have been cultivated ever since. Combine art and gardens in Cornish on a tour of the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site. The former home and studio of Augustus Saint-Gaudens has 100 works by one of America’s greatest sculptors indoors and in the gardens, designed by the artist himself.
On the coast, you'll find vibrant color in Portsmouth's Prescott Park, a spot for summer concerts and outdoor plays overlooking the Piscataqua River, as well as Fuller Gardens, a stone’s throw from the ocean with meticulously maintained formal rose gardens, a Japanese garden and English perennial plantings.
Rhode Island takes pride in its gardening heritage; follow the Garden Path to see known and unusual destinations. In Providence, the big draw is the new Botanical Center, the largest indoor gardens in New England, complete with a waterfall and ever-changing displays of headily scented plants. It is set in the charming urban oasis that is Roger Williams Park, with its restored Victorian rose garden. Newport’s grand mansions are all set in equally grand gardens: The Breakers (specimen trees, fabulous flower beds), The Elms (Classical Revival gardens) and Rosecliff (French-style gardens). In Portsmouth, century-old Green Animals is America’s oldest topiary garden, with privet, yew and boxwood clipped into jolly teddy bears, a camel, elephant, even a giraffe. Nearby in Bristol, Blithewold Arboretum and Garden is most famous for its spring daffodils, but is a delight year-round with its mature trees, roses, and perennials.
The Green Mountain State is dotted with great little gardens. In Manchester, Hildene is the former home of Abraham Lincoln’s son, Robert. See the cutting and kitchen garden; picnic in the fine perennial gardens, with roses, peonies, and lilies. On the shores of Lake Champlain, near Burlington, Shelburne Farms is a working farm, where they are also restoring the grand Formal Gardens, with its lily pond, roses and other perennials, at Shelburne House overlooking the water. One of a kind is The Path of Life, a sculpture garden in Windsor, with 18 works of art symbolizing the journey from birth to death and beyond. Children enjoy playing hide and seek in the 800-tree hemlock maze and the stone labyrinth. For more than 35 years, the 6-acre Vermont Wildflower Farm has been attracting visitors. If you love snapdragons, bluebells and poppies, just head for Charlotte.