The roving gardener: Visiting the gardens of Stockbridge

By Judith Irven / Photographs by Dick Conrad
Whether or not you have a garden of your own, may I suggest the perfect pastime for spring and summer: spending time in an exquisite garden that somebody else has created and maintains.
Stockbridge, Mass., in the heart of the Berkshire hills and just an hour’s drive south of the Vermont border, is a garden-lovers paradise. Here, within a five-mile radius, you can visit three special gardens of yesteryear and a major botanical garden with its graceful contemporary-style plantings.
The gardens at The Mount, Chesterwood and Naumkeag, all maintained in their original style, illustrate the garden aspirations of their talented and eclectic owners.
By contrast, the much larger Berkshire Botanical Garden — although created over 80 years ago — has gradually evolved over time. Not only is it a beautiful place to spend a peaceful afternoon, it is also a source of inspiration for garden lovers everywhere.
Strict formality
The gardens at Chesterwood and the Mount were created within two years of each other and, while neither is extensive, both are excellent examples of the formality of the 1900s and they still exhibit their owners’ original plant choices.
The prolific sculptor Daniel Chester French is especially remembered for his massive statue of Lincoln that graces the Lincoln Memorial. Although based in New York City, he loved to spend his summers in the Berkshires. So in 1896, French and his wife purchased 122 acres of land just outside Stockbridge. 
Two years later he designed his summer studio and the adjacent garden. Today both his garden and his studio are open to visitors, together with a museum in the residence house that he built later.
His garden, featuring a long formal axis created by a wide gravel path flanked by beds filled with his favorite flowers, is structurally quite simple. And, since it runs right past his studio, it is also extremely functional, providing easy access for him to move his sculptures outside and view them in different settings.
Then, leading directly from his main studio door, he added a second perpendicular axis — this one a wide grassy path edged with peonies and tree hydrangeas, terminating in a woodland trail that leads to rocky ledges with views of the surrounding countryside. Finally, he marked the intersection of these two axes with an imposing fountain.
From Chesterwood it is just five miles to Edith Wharton’s home and gardens in the village of Lenox. In addition to being a renowned writer, Wharton was also a consummate traveler and student of European architecture and gardens.  And in 1902, she applied this knowledge to design The Mount, her classically inspired mansion and associated gardens.
She loved to entertain her many literary friends on the long rear terrace, with its commanding views across the Berkshire hills. From here she and her guests could descend the broad staircase to the “Lime Walk,” a 290-foot crushed marble allée edged with pleached Linden trees (Tilia cordata). 
Turning right took them to the square sunken “Italian Garden” enclosed on three sides with high stonewalls.  She decorated this simple space with a circular pool edged with white petunias and a rustic fountain at its center.
Turning left took them to the more elaborate “French Garden” that was open to the woods beyond.  This featured an ornate fountain in the center of a large rectangular pool — also edged with white petunias — and additional outer beds filled with colorful flowers.
Since both French and Wharton enjoyed walking in their woods, they had the underbrush removed and the trees pruned up to encourage understory flowers and ferns. They also added strolling paths that to this day beckon the visitor to explore this natural environment.
Naumkeag, built in 1884 by Joseph and Caroline Choate, was the grand summer home for these well-connected New Yorkers.
But it would fall to their daughter Mabel, after she inherited the property in 1929, to gradually create the surrounding gardens during a 30-year collaboration with the renowned landscape architect, Fletcher Steele.
The resulting “garden rooms” are both diverse and flowing — representing a marked break from the linear designs at Chesterwood and The Mount.  There is a sense of exploration as the various garden rooms, each with its unique feel and style, entice you. Start at the house with the “Afternoon Room,” which has neatly clipped boxwood hedges watched over by fiery dragons. Next, from the upper terrace look down the serpentine beds of the rose garden. Then seek out the hidden Chinese garden with its classic Moon Gate, the evergreen garden and large circular pool that affords a beautiful view of the distant hills, and finally the famous “Blue Steps” — actually a series of waterfalls surrounded by white birch trees.
The Berkshire Botanical Garden
This venerable botanical garden, founded in 1938, radiates a wonderful “settled” feeling. Majestic trees, both deciduous and evergreen provide the perfect backdrop of beauty and shade for people as well as for plants.
But, although it was established over 80 years ago, as befits a public garden, it has evolved with the times. The overall spatial design is delightfully informal — no straight lines here. And, all around, established beds, some sunny and others shady, are filled with mature perennials and shrubs.
Furthermore the planting design is anything but old-fashioned. In addition to colorful flowers that come and go, skillful designers have created season-long visual interest by massing plants of contrasting textures. The plants are all carefully labeled and the whole place is beautifully maintained — with nary a weed in sight.
The Berkshire Botanical Garden is actually bisected by Route 102, with the Visitors Center plus the more functional demonstration vegetable gardens and associated greenhouses in the southern segment. So, after signing in, be sure to cross the road and wander around the ornamental display gardens in the northern segment.
The individual display gardens run the gamut, from an expansive sunny herb garden to a shady bog garden surrounding a tranquil pond, all demonstrating how to match plants with their specific growing conditions.
The New Wave Garden — a long crescent-shaped bed encircling a central sunny lawn — showcases the informal planting style of contemporary designers like Piet Oudolf. Here shorter plants are combined with medium and taller selections in an irregular, interwoven planting pattern.  The border is only cut back in spring, allowing the plants to reseed themselves and spread naturally over time as well as providing food and cover for birds and insects during the winter. 
While The New Wave garden is predominately sunny, the exposure at its far end is relatively shady, with many familiar shade-loving plants, from masses of six-foot high goatsbeard  (Aruncus diocus) at the back, down to discrete clumps of diminutive Siberian Bugloss (Brunnera macrophylla) along the walkways.
Nearby the magnificent daylily walk is filled with hundreds of different cultivars creating a kaleidoscope of summer color. And the sweeping herb garden is beautifully situated on the broad sunny slope. Winding stone paths and steps crisscross the slope, bringing visitors in close contact with all the aromatic plantings, while large smooth embedded rocks both stabilize the slope and also add visual appeal.
In the natural hollow at the bottom of the hill there is a serene pond surrounded by masses of vigorous plants that thrive in the wet conditions — including hostas and ferns, grasses and rodgersias — all seemingly co-existing in easy harmony.
And if you go in springtime be sure to wander through the old-fashioned Proctor garden to enjoy the lilacs in bloom surrounded by a carpet of blue phlox.
And finally, as you head back home, if time permits you can always stop at Manchester, and enjoy two great Vermont gardens. (See more about that online: northcountryreflections.com/roving-gardener/visiting-manchester).
Judith Irven and Dick Conrad live in Goshen where together they nurture a large garden.
Judith is a Vermont Certified Horticulturist and teaches Sustainable Home Landscaping for the Vermont Master Gardener program. You can subscribe to her blog about her Vermont gardening life at northcountryreflections.com.
Dick is a landscape and garden photographer; you can see more of his photographs at northcountryimpressions.

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