A Gardener's Garden

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This article originally appeared in the Spring 2009 issue of Special Places, The Trustees' member magazine. To subscribe, join The Trustees today.

Some gardens flaunt their knowledge of geometry. Some wish you to know how much effort was involved. Some take a lot of starch. And then there are the gardens at Long Hill – rolling down from the house and blurring gently into the surrounding woodlands, relaxed and gracious as a linen suit on a summer day.

For 65 years, Long Hill was the retreat of Ellery Sedgwick, longtime editor of The Atlantic Monthly. In 1916, his first wife, Mabel Cabot Sedgwick, author of The Garden Month by Month, a noted guide to garden plants, began the gardens. After Mabel’s death, Ellery’s second wife, Marjorie Russell, took up the trowel – in the same spirit of serious horticulture and unfussy garden design.

Today, the Long Hill Garden Committee and Superintendent Dan Bouchard are four years into a multi-year plan to bring the gardens back in tune with the Sedgwicks’ guiding vision – rooting out invasive species, reworking vistas, and gradually reinvesting the five acres of garden rooms with new horticultural interest. We caught up recently with Long Hill Garden Committee Chair, Betty Stone, to get an update.

Through each phase of the renovation, what decisions must be made, and what is the process behind those decisions?
We’ve divided the project into five phases. At each stage, Dan [Bouchard, Long Hill Superintendent] and I look at the next segments we’ll be working on. We consult the Sedgwicks’ gardening journals. We look at what is overgrown and what has “shaded out” other plants over the years. Then we work with committee members to decide what to remove and what to order and when.

How closely has the garden committee followed the vision laid out by Mabel Sedgwick and Marjorie Russell Sedgwick in their gardening journals?
We’ve tried not to deviate or change at all, really. We’ve always been determined to retain the aesthetics and spirit of the Sedgwick women. But a garden is a work in time, it grows and changes. You know, both the Sedgwick women considered Long Hill to be an experimental garden, not locked into a particular period. That has given us courage and confidence through this project. We don’t always agree – with them or with one another – but we always find a way. Reminding ourselves to ask “What would Marjorie think?” helps.

What do the Sedgwicks’ gardening journals tell you about the gardeners themselves?
On first reading, the journals seem quite dry. But then you come across little comments in the margins: “This didn’t work out.” Or “Dead!” You learn that Marjorie was actually quite frugal in her work. For example, she would often buy a single plant and then propagate it. But then you read that she purchased a hundred Galax wildflowers. She must have really loved those.

In recent decades, gardens and designed spaces seem to have become more popular than ever. Why do you think that is?
Well, I’ve loved gardens so much since I was a child and was so involved in them that I never saw gardening as a fad. But I have seen interest grow, and today’s conversations about climate change, ecosystems, and interest in local food have all been a help.

You and the committee are credited with kick-starting the renovation, but also for staying actively involved through what might be a decade-long project. What has made you stick with it?
We’ve been entrusted with important decisions. We’ve been able to build trust with the organization, and that’s been very important to us. It’s not just about pulling weeds. It’s about mutual trust. It’s empowered us, really. Actually, much of what I’ve learned about gardens and gardening has been through working with this committee and The Trustees.

The Trustees are planning a Horticulture Center here at Long Hill. Can you tell us more about it?
I’m very excited about it. Education has been key to getting more people involved in the gardens here, and it’s really what Mabel and Marjorie Sedgwick might have wanted. They loved the idea of visitors, and the concept of “taking something away.” They often gave away plants to their friends, and we hope to continue this tradition of having visitors take something away: knowledge; a tip or suggestion for their own garden; and plants, if possible. I see a lot of Mabel and Marjorie’s spirit in this center.