Poetry Among the Perennials

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by Jenevieve Hughes | September 15, 2014

It has been said that the poetry of a garden is found in the appreciation of “simple things at their true high worth.” This sentiment surely speaks to the spirit of Colonial Revival gardens, which became popular in the 1880s following the Centennial and remained in vogue throughout the early decades of the twentieth century, peaking in the 1920s.

With their axial paths and emphasis on heirloom plants instead of imported or hothouse varieties, these gardens were initially intended to convey an air of classical simplicity. Herbs and vegetables were sometimes included to call to mind the utilitarian ethos of America’s past.

However, the integration of decorative flourishes like arbors and sundials, and the addition of a rich array of romantic flowering plants, ultimately made these gardens unique products of their own time.

A hallmark of the style was the incorporation of hardy perennials similar to what would have been found in a quintessential “English cottage garden,” giving Colonial Revival gardens a heightened element of nostalgia.

Perennial bed at the Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum

And, laden with nectar as they tend to be, these flowers are also favorites for pollinating species. As we continue with our two-part series on pollinators, let’s take a peek at the Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum in Wethersfield, home to a Colonial Revival garden designed by landscape architect Amy Cogswell in 1921. The majority of plants she selected remain part of the landscape today.

Whether she took pollinators into account while designing the garden, we may never know. But her original plans specify generous quantities of Delphinium, Heliotrope, Phlox, Dianthus, Iris, and Aquilegia (Columbine), all of which attract some of the prettiest things on two wings.

Female Ruby-Throated Hummingbird on Phlox

Amy Cogswell's Original Drawing

This historic garden is maintained by the Garden Angels, a volunteer team headed by master gardener Rose Riley, along with garden volunteer coordinator and researcher Ann Foley, who leads tours of the three historic houses on the property as well as tours of the garden. On her tour, I learned about the influence of the Colonial Dames of America in preserving this landscape from the effects of industrialization and the inspired choice this group of women made by hiring Amy Cogswell to design the garden.

Cogswell was the long-time principal of the Lowethorpe School in Massachusetts, one of the first schools where women could obtain training in landscape architecture, gardening, and horticulture. In addition to her own private commissions as a well-known Colonial Revival designer of the period, she also worked with the Olmstead Brothers and with Fiske Kimball on a never-installed garden at Monticello in the late 1920s.

Cogswell is a fascinating subject in her own right, and it is fortunate that the garden at the Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum is so well preserved, along with her design plans in the museum’s archive. True to the Colonial Revival style, her design divided the garden into quadrants, where today each contains a flowering tree. There is a lovely almond, a dwarf saucer magnolia, a cornice dogwood, and a crabapple. A few plants substitutions have been made in the garden, but the Sea Holley and Dwarf Mock Orange from Cogswell’s original plan mix pleasingly with self-sowing annuals like Nigella (“Love in a Mist”).

Below, the dwarf mock orange creates a fragrant cloud of white blossoms in springtime and is a favorite of hummingbird moths.

Webb-Deane Stevens Museum double arbor

Past the garden lies an orchard, and beyond that a landscape that is entirely native.

All in all, it’s no surprise to find that this place is a beehive of activity.

Master gardener Rose Riley knows too well the plight of those who must share the space with such busy creatures. She’s even giving us a few gossamer thoughts on the subject, so please read on below for her lovely musings, and thank you, Rose, for sharing!

With a mix of wisdom, poetry, and wit, she writes:

A happy bee.“The Gardener is not welcome in the garden… at least not at mid-day with pruners in hand and the intent to deadhead spent blossoms.   

I’m not an expert on pollinators. I recognize bumble bees, yellow jackets, wasps, hoverflies but there are also many other insects which I can’t identify out in force on this warm late summer afternoon.  They are busy everywhere and the sheer numbers of them pose a formidable challenge to the gardener.

The many-blossomed phlox (which of course, is most in need of deadheading) seems to be the main attraction. They are swarming with insects.  As I approach them, I recite a sort of mantra: “Don’t sting me – I’m doing this for your own good,” but I suppose that they’re replying, “We’re not finished with that flower head yet – there’s still pollen to be gathered”.

To avoid over-agitating the pollinators on the phlox, I turn my attention to the just-opening trumpets of the Plantagenet hosta. I find them also well populated with insects. Most enter the trumpets directly but others ride bare-backed on the not yet open blossoms. I wonder what they could be doing. (I’ve seen the same behavior by bees on the long trumpets of Nicotiana sylvestris.)

Swallowtail on Purple PhloxThe lavender blossomed obedient plant seems bereft of insects until I come close. Then I find amazing numbers of hoverflies and a smattering of yellow jackets. The yellow jackets move purposefully, spiraling up the flower stalk checking each flower on the way.  

Insects are less methodical with the anemones, wallowing in the half opened flowers until their saddlebags are full of pollen and their outward-bound flight slow and wandering.

Perhaps I should return to deadhead at another time. Morning would be good although I would need to be careful of waking the bumblebees who are asleep in the flowers. It seems to me that they must fall asleep suddenly rather like a puppy who has played too long. Morning finds them still asleep waiting  for the warming air to rouse them. 

Perhaps I should deadhead in the evening. Most pollinators would be gone and those remaining would fly slowly like the drifting butterflies.

That is the better idea, but still, here I am at midday engaging the various insects in conversation and making quick forays back to the safety of the garden path. The excitement of a garden full of pollinators is not to be missed.”

Hummingbird Moth

We quite agree! Thank you again, Rose.

To learn more about the Colonial Revival garden and the history of the landscape at the Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum, please visit: http://webb-deane-stevens.org/colonial-revival-garden or stop by the museum for a garden tour. Hours and other details can be found at: http://webb-deane-stevens.org/hours or by calling (860) 529-0612.

Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum Sign

Note: The quote in the opening line of this post was excerpted from Grace Tabor’s Old-Fashioned Gardening: A History and a Reconstruction (1913).