A 'lost' garden rediscovered

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

In 1978, Susan Schnare began doing research for her master's thesis on the American gardens of the extraordinary English garden designer Gertrude Jekyll. She combed through all kinds of documents, including a biography written by Miss Jekyll's nephew. To her surprise, she found a reference to a Jekyll-designed garden located at the Glebe House Museum in Woodbury, Conn., right around the corner from the University of Connecticut, where she was a student.

But when Ms. Schnare contacted the museum's director, she was told that no such garden existed.

So Schnare trekked out West to pore over Jekyll's papers, located at the University of California Berkeley. There she located the plan for the Glebe House garden.

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"And boy, did that ever open up a can of worms," says Sarah Griswold, director of Glebe House, birthplace of the Episcopal Church in the New World.

It seems that Glebe House and its board of directors had just resolved to present the 1750s saltbox house in the way it had originally appeared, getting rid of later furnishings and "improvements."

"So the house itself was getting much more true, more scholarly," says Ms. Griswold. "And then this very romantic, Colonial-revival garden design was discovered. It was a real quandary."

At the turn of the last century, Gertrude Jekyll changed the design of gardens virtually overnight in Britain. Gone were the sculptured, manicured boxwoods. Out went the mazes, knot gardens, and carefully manicured lawns.

In their stead were drifts of color - spiky delphiniums and hollyhocks, loose presentations of bright shades merging into pastels, growing and changing as the season progressed. The cottage garden, as it came to be called, reflected a less formal lifestyle and the desire to step away from the structure of Victorian society.

As with any trend, Americans were eager to adopt these new practices. Jekyll, by this time in her 80s, was commissioned to design the Glebe House garden by socialite and philanthropist Annie Burr Jennings. While having tea with Jekyll in 1926, Mrs. Jennings persuaded her to design a garden for the newly public museum (one of the first "house" museums to be established in the US).

But for some reason, and no one knows why, the garden was never planted. Until 1990.

Griswold takes over the story. "When the board finally came to grips with the fact that installing the Jekyll garden was important (it would be the only extant Jekyll garden in this country), they then had to deal with changes and problems that Jekyll never considered."

These included a very high water table that caused the soil to stay wet in some places, shade trees that were now more than 65 years older than they had been at the time the designer originally put pen to paper, and plant varieties that she had recommended but that were no longer available.

"We had another problem, too," Griswold continues. "Gardeners and garden club members all wanted to help. And, as much as we appreciated their kindness, each had a really independent streak and wanted to 'improve' the design just a little. Whether by overweeding, moving plants a touch so they would be more, or less, linear, or adding a few seedlings of their own 'to fill in,' they succeeded in becoming more of a hazard than a helping hand."

So Glebe House officials hired a professional gardener. Then they decided that if they wanted to use volunteers, they had "to educate them in the proper way of doing things," Griswold says.

But what exactly is the proper way? No one is quite sure. Jekyll never actually visited Woodbury. Instead, she listened to Mrs. Jennings's careful descriptions and then forwarded sketches and some instruction.

But she didn't take into account the climate differences, or the sun-shade aspects of various areas of the property.

"She called for some plants that would have been big and bushy at her home in England," says Griswold, "but here they grow sort of scraggly."

Jekyll would also be surprised to see that her color plan has been reversed. "The garden is U-shaped with hot colors along one side and cool colors along the other," says Griswold. "But because of the shade patterns here, we had to switch the two."

Other discrepancies weren't that simple to resolve. A 65-year lapse between design and installation has resulted in some recommended varieties disappearing altogether - or being superseded by improved selections.

This leads to questions: Should the museum leave a space until the called-for plant is located, or put something similar in its place? Should scraggly bushes stand as a testament to Jekyll's recommendation, or be replaced by something that looks the same but wasn't the designer's personal choice?

"We agonize over every decision," says Griswold. "But a garden is a dynamic place. Things peter out. Climates change. Unfortunately, we can't ask Gertrude for her advice. So we have to try and re-create a pathway to the present day as we think she would have walked. But it's all an educated guess."

The garden is 600 feet of classic English-style mixed border and foundation plantings, and includes an intimate rose allée.

"It's very typical of Miss Jekyll's style," says Griswold. "She chose plants that she really loved to have in her gardens. The whole way the garden moves you around - through the color wheel and through different textures - it's a very Gertrude Jekyll sort of thing."

Jekyll surrounded the perennials and flowering shrubs (including weigela, spirea, and roses) with an evergreen hedge of yew, holly, and cypresses as a backdrop.

The original plan said "roses" without specifying a type, variety, or color, so the museum has been doing research and experimenting for the past 13 years to find the right combination - one that reflects Jekyll's vision but can survive the climatic variations that Woodbury offers.

"We've interpreted it differently over the years," Griswold explains. "One time we had climbing roses. Then at other times we have had standard roses. We're trying to find the right fit."

The quest for the right fit has extended to the place the garden now holds at the museum.

"It's an important legacy," Griswold says. "We have had some of the world's greatest gardeners visit here - all because of the garden. Penelope Hobhouse [from England] was our honorary chairperson during a recent community garden tour. She never would have heard of Glebe House were it not for the Jekyll affiliation.

"A garden is such a dynamic place," Griswold adds. "Even if a designer knows the place intimately and can account for all the variables, it's never going to be static. We often have philosophical discussions deciding if we want to honor the letter of the plan or just the idea. It's an ongoing debate that keeps the legacy vibrant."

And vibrant is a word Jekyll would certainly appreciate when describing her garden.

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