True Colonial-era gardens were practical, rarely ornamental, and relied on edible and medicinal plants.

Victorian gardens required regular manicuring and betrayed a taste for artifice. But gardens planted in the first decades of the 20th century continue to guide garden design today. A mix of American nostalgia and lessons learned from the great English landscape designers of the Arts & Crafts Movement, these gardens featured lush plantings that spilled over the formality of geometric layouts.

These magnificent gardens survive and thrive at the historic Bellamy–Ferriday House in Bethlehem, Connecticut. The original house was built in 1754 and extensively added to in the 1760s, then given its most important facelift during the 1790s. Subsequent owners added incongruent Victorian features.

Colonial Revival garden beds

The parterre—a formal arrangement of geometric or symmetrical beds separated by paths—is ringed by long flowerbeds featuring perennials, biennials, and annuals in a delightful and painterly mix.

Then, in 1912, it became the property of the Ferriday family of New York—who hired the Colonial Revival architect S. Edson Gage to both restore the house and upgrade it for 20th-century life. The gardens were extensively redesigned in the nostalgic mode of the time: profuse plantings spill over a well-planned layout that includes a formal parterre garden near the house.

The gardens have survived. Many plants, including the English yews that outline beds, are the originals planted in 1914. The specific type no longer exists. “If I had to replace these, I’d be in big trouble,” says George McCleary, a trained horticulturalist under whose experienced hand and watchful eye the garden has flourished. McCleary has, however, replaced several other evergreens, including a pair of two Japanese yews which, by the time he took over the garden 14 years ago, had reached a height of nearly 16 feet and crowded everything around them.

Tastemakers beginning in the latter part of the 19th century recommended a garden of hardy perennials, self-sowing annuals, and native American plants. Forms were based on those of remembered or imagined Colonial gardens. A decorative use of vegetables and fruits in the flower garden was encouraged, as was the use of striking native “weeds.” Crowded plantings in raised beds, a practice dating to Colonial days, was revived. We see some of those recommendations in practice here.

colorful peonies

Various peonies grow in the gardens, including those grafted by Caroline Ferriday. Purple and white spiderwort lines the stone wall; reliable perennials and annuals fill flowerbeds.

The formal parterre garden is also a revival. Sited close by the house, it features a symmetrical, geometric arrangement of flower beds each framed by an evergreen hedge—in this case, English yew. Gravel walking paths radiate from a statue placed at the center.

But there is a pleasing serendipity amidst the formality. Even as he labors to keep the garden in order, George McCleary is mindful that the garden’s original owners tolerated—and even encouraged—some degree of disarray amid the ostensibly formal borders. It was a Ferriday rule that “a plant should be allowed to grow wherever it’s happy,” McCleary says—which explains the tufts of bright-pink silene, purple spiderwort, and candy-colored spikes of columbine that pop up randomly along the gravel paths. He points a wary finger at a lump of Canada anemone—an innocent-looking mass of mild white flowers. “This will take over the whole garden if I let it,” he says out loud, as if putting the plant on notice.

With several Ferriday favorites—such as purple loosestrife—now identified as invasive, McCleary’s wariness is well placed. The two Ferriday women’s collection of medicinal plants—among them feverfew, lady’s mantle, and monkshood—also demand careful management, particularly in a garden that is open to the public.

Peonies were a Ferriday favorite; tree peonies anchor corner beds, while herbaceous peonies are planted in long beds beyond the stone wall around the parterre. Grapevines grow on a recently rebuilt arbor, separated from the beds by a hedge. Familiar and stalwart plants are everywhere in evidence.

Deutzias

Deutzias are the epitome of tough but gorgeous garden stalwarts. From the Biltmore Nursery Catalogue of 1912:“Hardy, vigorous shrubs with showy flowers. They are extremely floriferous and ornamental 

Lilacs were favored by Caroline Ferriday—her affection is hinted at in the title of the 2016 novel Lilac Girls, which portrayed her work on behalf of female victims of the Ravensbrück concentration camp in World War II. Lilacs from Caroline’s collection that remain include the fragrant purple Pocahontas and Ruhm Von Hortenstein varieties, as well as the soft-pink Antoine Buchner and Lucie Baltet.

By their numbers, however, roses were the clear favorite. Caroline and her mother planted over 100 varieties of rose, including many old-world roses cultivated by Empress Joséphine at her Chateau at Malmaison, from 1800 to 1815. Varieties such as Cardinal de Richelieu, Alfred de Dalmas, Belle de Crecy, and—not surprisingly—Empress Joséphine dot the property as a living testament to Caroline’s love for both roses and all things French.

Eliza Ferriday had introduced lawns as well as evergreens to provide privacy from the road. She added fragrant trees, many shrubs, and perennials beyond the lilacs and roses. Specimen trees include a yellowwood planted in 1913 and a copper beech—now towering—added in 1938. Other notable trees are Japanese stewartia, royal empress tree, Japanese snowball, and weeping hemlock. Perennials abound, among them astilbe, daylily, false indigo, bellflower, clematis, coreopsis, foxglove, and cranesbill.

American dogwood tree

An American dogwood blooms near the house.

By midsummer, a changeable cast of annuals fills the voids amidst perennials and biennials within each of the kidney-shaped beds that are framed by manicured hedges of knee-high yew. Last summer, cleome and blue salvia starred. Many of the flowers that reappear each season—among them hyssop, campanula, and poppies—are descended from seeds the Ferriday women cast into the garden in the decades before the Great Depression.

McCleary tends the roses carefully to keep them in bloom, as he does the remaining trees from the Bellamy family orchard, some of which, despite their advanced age, still bear cider apples, pears, and quince.

Behind a tall hedge, George McCleary also maintains a propagation garden, in which he nurtures offspring of select garden plants to ensure replacements are always available. Seeds gathered from the garden are also tended here. In the spring, the seedlings are sold to visitors, reaffirming the Ferridays’ conviction: the best gardens have no borders. 

English yews

Outlining flower beds in the parterre are English yews dating from Ferriday ownership.

Inspiration

Eliza Ferriday wasn’t prepared on the day the designer whom she’d hired to landscape her summer home showed up at the door. Looking at the French Aubusson rug at her feet, the New York socialite was struck with an idea—or so the story goes—and suggested the gardener adopt its pattern for the formal garden near her 18th-century house. • The rug is long gone, but each spring that parterre garden unfolds in a carpet of color behind the Bellamy–Ferriday house. The still-bucolic property originally included nearly 100 acres of working farm. Today, the area immediately surrounding the house, including the formal garden, is maintained by Connecticut Landmarks. The remaining 81 acres belongs to the Bethlehem Preserve and Land Trust, an organization that Eliza’s daughter, Caroline Ferriday, helped create in the late 1970s.

view of formal garden

Its wings bent with age, a lead statue of an angel still stands in the center of the formal arrangement.

A View of the Formal Garden

The formal garden would have been Caroline’s constant companion during her summers at the stately Georgian house. When she was 16, her mother enlarged her second-floor bedroom, adding a balcony and a bay window to overlook the formal garden. The center pane frames the statue of an angel that presides over a round pool at the center of the garden. The passage of years is apparent in the angel’s lead wings, which have shriveled into little more than round cap-lets at the shoulders.

Colonial Revival sentiment grows with the roses in “Grandmother’s Doorway” (ca. 1900) by Abbott Fuller Graves, who made a specialty of painting the old houses of New England and their cottage gardens.

Colonial Revival sentiment grows with the roses in “Grandmother’s Doorway” (ca. 1900) by Abbott Fuller Graves, who made a specialty of painting the old houses of New England and their cottage gardens.

What is a Colonial Revival Garden?

America does have its own gardening tradition, particular to our history since Colonial days. Whether you call it “the old-fashioned garden” or “grandmother’s garden,” it’s a tradition aligned with nostalgia, much like its architectural counterpart the Colonial Revival. Obvious in paintings and photographs of the late 19th century, documented in now-obscure writings, the tradition is so rich in sentiment, so associated with favorite flowers, that it influences design and plantings today.

Typically, a “grandmother’s garden” was close to the house, arranged in rectangular beds bordered by planks, stone, or some low-growing plant—often dwarf box. All of this echoes true Colonial gardens. The arrangement of flowers within the beds was informal and exuberant, seemingly haphazard but often planned with a painterly feel for harmonies and contrasts. Hollyhocks, phlox, sunflowers, and roses were favorites. Because it was their owners who planned, planted, and maintained them, these gardens were (and are) a vernacular American form.

If the old-fashioned American garden recalls the contemporary English cottage garden, there is good reason. Both were created by a new middle class aspiring to gentility. As in England, gardens here were tucked into restricted space, especially in the new American suburbs. In appearance and intent, the vernacular gardens were distinct from professionally designed estate gardens (usually done in the Italian manner) and from workaday gardens on farms.

Concepts such as planting for a long sequence of bloom, massing plants for impact, and orchestrating color harmonies were discussed by American writers Candace Wheeler and Celia Thaxter by the 1880s, independent of English influence. —Patricia Poore

Hamilton House in South Berwick, Maine, is a great study example: a hipped-roof Georgian of 1785, it was restored and its garden interpreted during the early days of the Colonial Revival. The garden becomes an extension of the architecture.

Hamilton House in South Berwick, Maine, is a great study example: a hipped-roof Georgian of 1785, it was restored and its garden interpreted during the early days of the Colonial Revival. The garden becomes an extension of the architecture.

Colonial Garden Hallmarks

Often there’s strong allusion to Colonial-era practice—but improved! Dirt paths become brick walks; beds are outlined in cobbles rather than wattle; the plot is larger and the plantings lusher. Flowers join culinary and medicinal plants.

  • Geometric layouts and a degree of formality are complemented, and softened, by plants allowed their habit: becoming dense, spilling over edging and paths, self-propagating. Low hedges, usually boxwood, define areas.
  • Gardens near the house have an axial arrangement. It’s popular to place a garden ornament (fountain, birdbath, sphere, statue) where two main paths cross in a cruciform design.
  • Roses, lilacs, and cottage-garden flowers such as hollyhocks, phlox, larkspur, and Johnny-jump-ups (violets) are standards.
  • After 1905 or so, with the embrace of the California lifestyle and revival of Spanish Mission gardens, look for pergolas and patios and a move toward Arts & Crafts garden design.

A list of reliable, early-20th-century plants

• Buddleia: butterfly bush

• Chaenomeles japonica: Japanese quince

• Chaenomeles speciosa ‘Simonii’: Simon’s flowering quince

• Continus coggigria: smokebush, smoketree

• Cornus stolonifera: redstem dogwood

• Corylus ‘Red Majestic’: hazelnut

• Deutzia; Deutzia gracilis: slender deutzia

• Fothergilla: witch alder

• Hamamelis intermedia: witch hazel

• Hydrangea paniculata: panicle hydrangea

• Kolkwitzia amabilus: beautybush

• Philadelphus: mock orange

• Potentilla fruticosa: shrubby cinquefoil

• Ribes odoratum: clove currant, golden currant

• Sambucus nigra: blacklace elderberry

• Spiraea: spirea

• Syringa: lilacs

• Viburnum (150+ species of viburnum)

• Weigela florida: weigela

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