Stroll public gardens, old and new, in Manchester

Strolling around a lovely garden is the quintessential way to spend a leisurely afternoon in high summer. And here in Vermont one can find plenty of marvelous gardens open to the public. For instance Manchester alone is home to two great gardens that are situated just four miles apart.
Furthermore these two gardens, which were created exactly 100 years apart, also allow us to experience first-hand how garden fashions have evolved over the past century.
The first, dating back to 1907, graces the splendid manor house of Hildene — the private summer home of Robert Todd Lincoln (son of President Lincoln) and his wife Mary. 
Now thousands of people visit Hildene each year, many coming specifically to enjoy the enormous formal garden that was laid out with geometric precision to emulate the grand gardens of old Europe.
Then, for a complete contrast, look for the lovely contemporary garden that is tucked away behind the expansive Northshire bookstore. This quintessential 21st century garden, complete with flowing lines, artistic stonework and an eclectic mix of flowers and shrubs, was created by Vermont landscape designer Carrie Chalmers and her stonemason brother Cameron.
It is close to the new roundabout that replaced the infamous “malfunction junction.” But, despite its central location, this garden gem is sometimes overlooked by Manchester’s visitors.
So, next time you’re in Manchester, after browsing Northshire’s book stacks, be sure to leave through the rear door and pay a visit to their delightful “back garden.”
The gardens of Hildene
A huge curved pergola marks the farthest end of Hildene’s Hoyt garden.
Photos by Dick Conrad
Visiting Hildene is like taking a trip back in time. After entering the main gates and strolling up the carriage road flanked by tall trees, you come to the large circular driveway and the imposing mansion set on a high promontory — you have clearly “arrived.”
Continue on around behind the mansion to the long rear terrace, and you will be facing Hoyt garden, an amazing work of art that is the ultimate in formality.
The Lincolns’ daughter, Jesse, designed this vast garden as a birthday gift for her mother, Mary. Using the entire sweeping flat space behind the house, she styled the garden after a French parterre to resemble a stained-glass cathedral window. As she looked down from her bedroom in the center of the house, Mary could absorb the total panorama in a single glance.
And, even when viewed from the ground-level terrace, you will be immediately aware of the pivotal central axis, running southwest and flanked by four symmetrical quadrants, each containing a small central lawn.  Within each quadrant the individual beds have complex outlines, all delineated by low clipped privet hedges.
The long axis terminates in a semi-circular rose garden backed by an imposing pergola and a grand view back to the house.
The Hoyt garden is justly famous for its peony collection, many of which were planted when the garden was first created. Recently, by referencing century-old records, volunteers catalogued over 1,000 different peony cultivars in the Hildene gardens.
In the “white quadrant” at the Hildene garden, some lovely white lilies stand out among the daisy-like flowers of scentless feverfew. Photo by Dick Conrad
But summer does not end when the peonies stop blooming. The beds also contain plenty of later blooming perennials, including lilies, daylilies, salvia, Culver’s root, cimicifuga, and Shasta daisies, with a different color theme assigned to each of the four quadrants.
The large estate offers plenty of other attractions for the garden-minded visitor, starting with the not-to-be-missed containers of tender plants set in the shady porches around the house. Their big leaves and exotic color schemes certainly made this gardener envious.
The vegetable garden, located in an out-of-the-way corner down the hill, looked extremely productive. But the practical side of me immediately noted its protracted distance from the main house, clearly not very convenient for popping out to get for a lettuce for lunch. In fact, everything about Hildene reminds us that this vast estate obviously required a commensurately large staff just to support the daily life of the family.
The Garden at Northshire
A huge blue butterfly decorates the Northshire garden while the stone walls provide an easy place to sit and enjoy the flowers up-close. Photo by Dick Conrad
After visiting Hildene, the Northshire garden behind the bookstore, created a little over 10 years ago, will come as a complete contrast.
Although it is sandwiched next to a busy parking lot, this is a surprisingly intimate garden where people can stroll around, perhaps stopping awhile to read or chat.  And of course the upkeep, although not zero, is orders of magnitude less than that needed at Hildene.
Throughout the entire garden Carrie Chalmers used an easy undulating spatial design that is artfully delineated by Cameron’s stunning stonework.
The garden links two levels — a narrow upper level and a more expansive lower level — separated by a high meandering stone retaining wall and connecting steps.
Be sure to cast your eyes upwards to admire the interesting mix of overhanging shrubs that create a tableau of texture and color all season long.
On the lower level the flowerbeds are all slightly elevated and edged with sturdy stonewalls and flat capstones that double as seating areas — a nice touch that brings the flowers closer to people.
These flowerbeds are filled with easy-care perennials of contrasting shapes and colors, such as the tall white spikes of Culver’s root and shorter blue spikes of salvia and catmint, versus the daisy-like flowers of white Shasta daisies and yellow tickseed. And the magenta poppy mallow makes a brilliant splash of color as it weaves around between its taller companions.
Then, instead of installing a high maintenance lawn as the main walking surface, Carrie used an expanse of finely crushed bluestone with a beautiful blue metal butterfly and dramatic island stones.
And finally, to form a strong visual barrier between the garden and the adjacent parking lot, she placed a row of tall grasses — a far more practical solution than using a row of shrubs which would interfere with winter snow removal.
Vive la difference
Beautiful containers grace Hildene’s main balcony. Photo by Dick Conrad
While we all love to visit the grand estates of yesteryear, today most of us want something entirely different when it comes to our own gardens. And these two gardens — created just a century apart — tell us a lot about how gardening ideals have completely changed over the last hundred years.
Here are a few of my conclusions about gardens and gardeners for the 21st century:
We are not particularly interested in formality, either in our lives or in our gardens.
We enjoy a feeling of spontaneity, including a relaxed spatial design and an eclectic mix of shrubs and perennials.
Gardens do not necessarily require lawns to be complete.
We like to enjoy our plants up close.
Gardens are much more than the sum of their plants.
Everyone wants a garden that will be easy to maintain.
Judith Irven and her husband Dick Conrad live in Goshen where together they nurture a large garden. Judith is a landscape designer and Vermont Certified Horticulturist. She also teaches Sustainable Home Landscaping for the Vermont Master Gardener program. She writes about her Vermont gardening life at northcountryreflections.com.
Dick is a landscape and garden photographer; you can see his photographs at The Brandon Artists Guild and at northcountryimpressions.com.
You can reach Judith at [email protected].

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