Gardens: A Gertrude Jekyll Legacy
by Betsy Miller
Glebe House is an historic landmark in Woodbury, CT, “birthplace” of the Episcopal Church in the United States. Meticulously restored to its 1750 heyday, it is also one of the first historic houses ever opened to the public as a museum. But, for gardeners, all that pales compared to what’s going on in its backyard, where the only extant Gertrude Jekyll (1843 - 1932) garden in the U.S. is blooming its way through the summer of 2011.
On Sunday, June 26, Connecticut celebrates its 8th annual statewide Historic Garden Day, with fourteen historic gardens across the state open for touring. The Litchfield Hills area has four: Bellamy-Ferriday House and Garden, Bethlehem; Osborne Homestead Museum and Kellogg Environmental Center, Derby; The Beatrix Farrand Garden at Three Rivers Farm, Bridgewater, and, of course, Glebe House Museum and The Gertrude Jekyll Garden in Woodbury.
Legendary garden designer Gertrude Jekyll (pronounced GEE-kal; Robert Louis Stevenson, a family friend, borrowed the name for his novella Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) is generally credited as being the reason bourgeois backyards are not filled with sculpted boxwood, mazes, and knot gardens. She’s the one who introduced undulating drifts of color, punctuated with spiky delphiniums and hollyhocks (formerly considered too homely for a proper garden), and loose presentations of bright shades merging into pastels. In short, Jekyll steered upper-class taste away from the formal and toward the informal garden.
Her extensive writing and collaborations with one of the most famous architects of their day, Sir Edwin Luytens, brought Jekyll world-wide acclaim. On a trip to Great Britain in 1926, philanthropist Annie Burr Jennings sought her out, convincing Jekyll to put together a site plan for Glebe House—sight unseen. Jennings came somewhat prepared, able to describe the compass points, tree lines and fence posts. With that scant information, Jekyll plotted her design and made a list of recommended plantings.
But for unknown reasons, the design was never implemented. It lay dormant until 1978 when the landscape designer and preservationist Susan Schnare discovered it among Jeykll’s papers at the University of California at Berkeley while doing research for her master’s thesis. A quick phone call to Woodbury confirmed that the design had never been executed and instantly triggered a call to action (and mild panic) in the tiny western Connecticut town.
The directors of Glebe House quickly learned that 52 years can make a big difference in the natural world. Trees that had cast only negligible shadows when Jekyll sharpened her pencil were now towering oaks. The strain of lupine that had been considered best in the Roaring Twenties had long since been overshadowed by newer, stronger, taller varieties. In short, the estimable garden designer had created a master plan that was now half a century out-of-date.
So the directors consulted Litchfield landscape designer Barbara Damrosch and George E. Schoellkopf, creator of the famed garden at Hollister House, in Washington, CT, and, at the time, gardening columnist fore The Newtown Bee, to help interpret Jekyll’s design. And everyone who sees it has been marveling over the results ever since.
More than three decades later, with the help of the historic house staff and lots of green-thumbed volunteers (a groups that calls themselves JAWS for Jekyll Association of Weeders) perennials and flowering shrubs (including weigela, spirea and roses) are surrounded by an evergreen hedge of yew, holly and cypress. An allee of roses and a classic “English-style” mixed border confines hot colors to one side, cool colors to the other. The garden moves—through the color wheel and through textural contrasts—in quintessential Jekyll style.
8th Annual Connecticut’s Historic Gardens Day
Sunday, June 26, noon – 4 p.m.
49 Hollow Road, Woodbury
1 – 4 p.m., Wednesday - Sunday
Self-guided garden tour/free; museum/$5