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Cultivating History

Cultivating History
All Photos Winslow Townson

By Jeff Harder

More than 20 years after first visiting Long Hill for a gardening lecture, Jane “Didi” Blau still grows enchanted when talking about what grows from the Beverly property’s landscape: the weeping hemlock; the blooming bells of yellow corylopsis, a variety of witch hazel; a peony so special her heart skips a beat when she sees it. Blau, a Manchester native and member of the 104-year-old North Shore Garden Club, spends close to 40 hours a year volunteering at Long Hill—pruning, weeding, planting, and deadheading gardens that tread a line between manicured and wild. “You come across little treasures as you wander,” she says. “The more I’ve worked there, the more treasures I recognize.”

The gardens at Long Hill might look like magic untouched by human hands, but that beauty owes to hard work carried out by some of The Trustees’ most enduring volunteers. Season after season since 1979, the North Shore Garden Club (NSGC) has nurtured the landscape, polishing a horticultural crown jewel while carrying on the legacy of two of the garden club’s brightest minds. “There’s a mutual mission: both organizations care deeply about Long Hill, and want to build a great plant collection to present in a beautiful way,” says Cindy Brockway, The Trustees’ Program Director for Cultural Resources.

Long HillMabel Cabot Sedgwick, the horticulturist author of The Garden Month by Month and wife of Atlantic Monthly editor Ellery Sedgwick, first conjured the gardens of Long Hill after the couple began occupying the property in 1917, shaping a series of outdoor “rooms” and punctuating 114 acres with iconic elements like a hilltop copper beech and a red pagoda. After Mabel’s death in 1937, Ellery married Marjorie Russell, another accomplished gardener who furthered the property’s stumbled-upon vision.

Both Sedgwick women were active members of the North Shore Garden Club; Marjorie was president twice. In 1979, after meetings in which Marjorie offered the garden club’s expertise to The Trustees, she passed away; her children subsequently donated Long Hill to The Trustees, and volunteers transformed the private property into a public garden. The partnership evolved: in exchange for assisting The Trustees, the NSGC gained access to storage and meeting space, Long Hill’s horticultural library (which they helped expand greatly) and other benefits.

In summer, Long Hill blooms with Shasta daisies, clematis, roses, beebalms, water lilies, fairy candles, and coneflowers, among others. “We’ve tried to keep the garden rooms basically the same as they were when [Marjorie] was around, except the pieces in the rooms—the plantings themselves—can change,” says Dan Bouchard, The Trustees’ Senior Horticulturist at Long Hill. Volunteers are essential for Bouchard, the property’s lone full-time staff gardener, and the NSGC is uniquely attuned to helping the property flourish. “Everything that’s done there is estate garden quality—the highest professional level of skill,” says Marc Mahan, The Trustees’ Acting Volunteer Program Manager. “It’s so beautiful and so well maintained, and there’s just one constant: Dan and his volunteers, the preservation actors in this play.”

While the North Shore Garden Club takes on other projects, Long Hill is the showcase for the club’s efforts—and a horticultural classroom where members grow their skills. Before becoming an offcial part of the organization, each provisional NSGC member must spend 36 hours at Long Hill, learning about landscape design, pruning, transplanting, and invasive removal under Bouchard’s tutelage. That education dovetails with Long Hill’s low-impact take on gardening: no by-the-cubic-yard mulching, little supplemental irrigation, leave the “good” weeds alone. Meanwhile, Bouchard is a go-to resource for members’ garden queries, like how to trim an Andromeda or how to make green weedkiller from botanical vinegar and soap. “It’s like a free horticulture seminar on what we should be doing in our own gardens that week,” says Blau, a member of the NSGC since 2001 and a past president.

Beyond clean-ups and regular maintenance, the NSGC has been key to a series of undertakings on the property, like restorations of the Little Garden and improvements to the approach leading to the copper beech tree. Throughout the growing season, the NSGC leads garden walks. In the spring, the club devotes hundreds of hours to helping Long Hill’s spring plant sale, a major fundraiser. “That help is so significant—I couldn’t run the plant sale without the club’s support,” Bouchard says.

Forty years on, the North Shore Garden Club remains as devoted to Long Hill as ever. “It has become such an important part of our garden club’s identity,” Blau says, practically rushing out the door to visit the property. “For those of us who volunteer there, it’s hard to spend a season without falling in love.”

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