Re-creating a 1912 Garden

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The Arts & Crafts-style garden gate and trellis are covered in Akebia quintata, with peonies in the foreground.

The Arts & Crafts-style garden gate and trellis are covered in Akebia quintata, with peonies in the foreground. (Photo: Richard Cheek)

The estate gardens designed by Beatrix Farrand are hardly known for their coziness—or for low-maintenance demands.

Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., for instance, stretches for many acres and requires a large team of gardeners, while the fabled rose garden at the New York Botanical Garden needs vigilant upkeep for literally thousands of display plants. But tucked away in a corner of the Roosevelt National Historic Site in Hyde Park, New York, an enchanting and intimate garden by Farrand has been restored.

In 1912, the famed garden designer’s cousins, Sarah and Thomas Newbold, asked her to plan a new garden for Bellefield, their 18th-century country manse, which had been remodeled by their friend Charles Follen McKim. Beatrix Jones (as she was known for half her career) had already established a name designing estate gardens for the cream of East Coast society—some of whom were part of her aunt Edith Wharton’s rarefied world.

At Bellefield, Farrand created a long, axial garden enclosed by stone walls near the house, and informal hemlock hedges where the grounds merged into the woods. The narrowing perspective from the house down to the woodland made the garden appear longer than it actually was. A hand gate in the wall led to a wild garden, where trees, shrubs, and spring bulbs provided a green backdrop for the flowers. Inside the walls, long borders filled with hardy perennials and annuals were shaded by a large American elm. The effect was one of simplicity and repose, as the garden was intended as a private family retreat, not a showcase of gardening talent.

The 18th–century house at Bellefield, now National Park Service headquarters, is framed by some of the original trees.

The 18th–century house at Bellefield, now National Park Service headquarters, is framed by some of the original trees. (Photo: Richard Cheek)

Years later, after the property was donated to the National Park Service, it languished for two decades until a volunteer group sought to resurrect the garden. In the absence of original planting plans, the Beatrix Farrand Garden Association replanted the borders using a selection of plants that Farrand typically used. As luck would have it, there were plans for another Farrand garden nearby, which had similar borders, so volunteers used them as a guide for Bellefield. The color scheme features soft hues ranging from blush, cream, and mauve to deeper tones of scarlet, blue, and purple—so evocative of English gardener Gertrude Jekyll’s color-themed borders. Farrand, who had visited Jekyll’s garden years earlier, spent a lifetime adapting Jekyll’s gardening wisdom in her own commissions.

Each of the four borders—pink, white, mauve, and gray—has a definite theme. Heirloom pink irises went into the pink border, along with astilbes, lilies, and tree peonies. The white border includes Cimicifuga racemosa, galtonia, and gypsophila, as well as peonies, foxgloves, and the tall, stately Anemone x hybrida ‘Honorine Jobert,’ while the mauve and purple border has many varieties of iris, as well as pansies. The unusual cream, blush, and gray border includes many of Jekyll’s favorite gray-foliage plants, including yuccas, gypsophila, and artemisia.

The trellis has been rebuilt and the gates restored, based on Farrand’s detailed drawings. The original grove of locust trees on the western side of the garden has been replaced. Future plans include restoring the wild garden. Today, the garden’s lush lawns, dense flower borders, and charming ornamental features offer a rare glimpse of a private family garden on a small domestic scale. You can visit and take home its secrets: The garden is open every day of the year.

Judith B. Tankardis an art historian specializing in landscape history. Her latest book, Beatrix Farrand: Private Gardens, Public Landscapes, was published by the Monacelli Press in the fall of 2009.

For more, go to beatrixfarrandgarden.org.