It was a very wet & windy January when I made my way out to Massachusetts Horticultural Society headquarters at Elm Bank in Wellesley. There would be no walking around the gardens enjoying a bit of vanishingly rare winter sunshine today, what with the rain and melting snow, Elm Bank looked more akin to a swamp. Such is New England in winter and what better time to attend a lecture on Artists of New England and their Gardens.

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee, one clover and a bee, And Revery. The Revery alone will do if the bee are few.

Emily Dickinson

We first heard about Emily Dickinson and her garden in Amherst.  Michael Medeiros regaled us with poetry readings and educated us about Emily’s life. I learned that Emily never ventured too far from her own house and gardens, and in the later years of her life never even left the house. She had the good fortune of having her family’s abundant gardens, orchards and woods which she could look out upon and write her moving and soulful poetry. Most of her poetry was written either in her conservatory or in her bedroom, where she could look out of her windows at the surrounding gardens. Emily filled the conservatory with sweet blooming plants like jasmine, paperwhites and hyacinths. Their sweet smells floated all throughout the house and up to her bedroom, framing the boundaries of her isolated world and uplifting her spirit.

Of all the wonderful things in the wonderful universe of God, nothing seems to me more surprising than the planting of a seed in the blank earth and result thereof.

Celia Thaxter
Painting by Childe Hassam

Celia Thaxter’s garden is on Appledore Island, Isle of Shoals, Maine. Unlike Emily Dickinson’s garden, which was part of a large estate, Celia’s garden was very small. The 15’ by 50’ plot of land was designed into a garden and brought to life by Celia. The Isle of Shoals is a drastic and difficult climate for a garden, as there is barely any soil and the harsh maritime climate is challenging for all but the most robust of plants. It takes a great deal of effort and care to grow anything on the Isle of Shoals, but Celia was up to the challenge. To her, plants were like people, they were her companions in an isolated life and brought her more comfort and joy than her fellow humans. She cherished each individual seedling, planting them in eggshells and carrying them to the island on the local ferry. She transplanted the seedlings from their eggshells into her garden, and let them grow as they chose. Celia’s garden was immortalized and romanticized by her close friend, American Impressionist Childe Hassam. Over the years, the hollyhock, poppies and sweet peas self sowed themselves escaped the boundaries of her garden and created a river of color that marched down hill to the sea. Unlike Emily Dickinson, Celia spent hours outside tending to her garden and caring for her plants. She was also one of the first members of the Audubon Society.  Her garden was the inspiration for her book “An Island Garden”, which is a delightfully honest read that fully explores both her gardening triumphs and shortcomings.

I am amazed at the success of my efforts. Decidedly, I’m a better landscape gardener than novelist, and this place, every line of which is my own work, far surpasses The House of Mirth…

Edith Wharton, reflecting on “The Mount”, her house in Lenox, MA.
Edith Wharton
The Mount

Unlike either Emily or Celia, Edith Wharton grew up amongst the sweeping luxury and European influences of the Gilded Age. As a reflection of this, the gardens and houses she designed for herself and her husband were a combination of Italian symmetry and French exuberance. The scale of The Mount is very grand, with sweeping views and intricately sculpted fountains. Edith thought that “gardens should possess a charm independent of the seasons”, even though she only spent springs and summer at The Mount. Whereas Celia mostly planted annuals and perennials, Edith was able to plant large allee of plane linden trees and structural boxwoods to make different outdoor rooms. She designed her gardens to compliment her house – she created both a sublime Italianate sunken garden and a more exuberant French garden. The latter was filled with her favorite flowers, overflowing with phlox, stocks, lilies, hydrangea, dianthus, delphinium, and dahlias. While Edith did not participate in any planting of her gardens she regularly walked in them and greatly enjoyed sharing her gardens with friends and family.  After only ten years at The Mount her marriage was falling apart and she sold the house and moved back to France, never to live full time in America again. In France, she would continue to improve the gardens and houses that she bought there, but would never again design and build a garden from the ground up.

Celia Thaxter’s Book

I found it very interesting that these very unique accomplished women,  each who struggled in their own separate ways, found peace in their individual gardens. All of them were affected by mental illness in some way, and their gardens became the balm for their soul. They expressed themselves in individual way, but all found solace in nature, either by hiring others to conceptualize their plans, getting in the dirt and planting seedlings, or just watching natures show from a bedroom window.  I can find parts of myself in each of them, three dramatically different women whose lives were greatly influenced by love of the natural world around them.

If you’re planning on visiting these gardens…

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