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Garden Conservancy Opens Two Secluded Norfolk Gardens

Guests welcomed to visit, admire and enjoy the beauty on July 15


By Michael Kelly

There is something evocative, almost romantic, about a secret garden. What resplendent botanical wonders perfume desultory breezes from behind the garden wall, or peek demurely over closed, enigmatic garden gates, or generate panoplies of burgeoning color around the back of the house? Legions of lovely gardens, labors of love of keen, passionate, dedicated gardeners, unique works of horticultural art, remain hidden to all but the fortunate few who happen to be acquainted with the aforesaid gardeners.

Two such secluded Norfolk gardens will be open to the public on July 15 as part of the Garden Conservancy’s annual Open Gardens program. Founded in 1989 by Francis Higginson Cabot to mitigate his dismay that two thirds of America’s gardens were being destroyed by development, the Garden Conservancy is now a national organization dedicated to preserving exceptional gardens and landscapes and helping American gardeners develop preservation plans, organizational priorities and funding strategies.

America’s only garden-visiting program, the Garden Conservancy has been sponsoring Open Days since 1995, giving people the opportunity to behold and experience beautiful, inspirational private gardens that are normally out of sight.

When Roger Mitchell and Reverend Pete Peterson purchased Fernwood, their 1908 stucco Arts and Crafts cottage, thought by many to be Alfredo Taylor’s most enchanting, aesthetically pleasing house design, nestled demurely as it is in a swale off Litchfield Road, the gardens commissioned by original owner Miss Elizabeth Farnham had long-since lapsed. Mitchell, a designer by trade and a zealous gardener, determined to restore the gardens to their historic origins, the vestiges of which he could vaguely discern. With Fernwood came an early blueprint of the gardens drawn up by noted landscape architect, Marian Coffin, Miss Farnham’s close friend. Mitchell also found photographs of the original gardens in the archives of the duPont estate Winterthur in Delaware, the gardens of which Coffin also designed, as well as vintage photographs of the gardens that appeared in the magazine, Country Life in America, in 1922.

This bench behind Fernwood provides a quiet place to contemplate Roger Mitchell’s garden.

Marian Coffin was one of the few women of her era to graduate from MIT. Because no landscape architecture firms would hire a woman in the early 1900’s, Coffin started her own practice in New York, acquiring clients from the East Coast elite with whom she grew up, including the Vanderbilts, Fricks and Marjorie Merriweather Post. Though Coffin would eventually specialize in Italianate Beaux Arts landscape design,at Fernwood she laid out an English garden in keeping with the Arts and Crafts style of Fernwood cottage. An unabashed Anglophile, Mitchell was right at home recreating Coffin’s formal English garden plan while incorporating personal touches into free-flowing, multicolored perennial borders framed by screens of picturesque shrubbery.

South of the house, just off a sheltered, plant-filled terrace, a 32-foot square of privet hedging encloses a circular flower bed and concentric pathways accentuated with arborvitae. Out back stretch two 12-foot wide,110-foot long perennial borders bursting with vivid colors, separated by a 10-foot wide ribbon of grass. Fernwood’s gardens will be open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday, July 15. Tickets at the door are $7, the proceeds of which help support the Garden Conservancy’s ongoing programs.

“Digging Deeper” is an Open Days program which offers small groups of garden enthusiasts an in-depth look at select private gardens, including personal tutorials by resident expert gardeners.

At 9 a.m. on July 15, artist John Funt will be opening his private garden, High Meadow, and his painting studio for a tour and discussion of the relationship between his choice of color palettes and artistic motifs in his gardens and in his paintings. High Meadow’s gardens beautifully complement Funt’s classic Colonial-Revival house designed in 1917 by Ehrick Rossiter (who also designed Norfolk’s much-loved Music Shed). Tall, stately, one-hundred-year-old white pines create a dramatic backdrop for Funt’s captivating gardens that feature crisscrossing pathways punctuated at intersections by colonial revival constructs and whimsical small bodies of water. Old Norway spruce allées separate the main gardens from the ruins of a late 19th century house whose residual stonework inspired Mr. Funt to create a distinctly different outdoor gardening experience. Because guest space is limited, advance registration is required for “Digging Deeper” at High Meadow. The cost is $35 and you may sign up (for one or both tours) at gardenconservancy.org or call 888-842-2442.

Photos of the garden at Fernwood by Bruce Frisch.

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