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A 'lost' garden rediscovered

By Betsy MillerSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / October 22, 2003

Looking west at the cool border, in the shade, at the Jekyll-designed garden located at the Glebe House Museum. The American garden was designed by the extraordinary English garden designer Gertrude Jekyll.

Glebe House Museum

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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.

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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.

"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."

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