It’s that time of the year when gardeners’ fingers itch to get back into the dirt. Snuggled under afghans, cradling hot drinks in our hands, we turn the pages of our gardening catalogs and dream of the months to come.
“Growth rampant, fruit long and slim, dark green throughout the entire length with a light white marking at the blossom end. That’s what we want. Put down one ounce Improved White Spine.” My Dearest Love
It is seventy degrees and sunny here today, so I’d be feeling the gardening urge, even if I hadn’t just read Gay Courage.
Emilie Loring loved gardens. There was one-half acre between her home and her mother’s in Wellesley Hills, and she planted her first garden there, including a grape arbor which Victor tended. During World War I, she joined the Women’s National Farm and Garden Association and even added chickens. She called them her “wartime best-sellers.”
One of Emilie’s gardening buddies was Mary Curtis. Mary and her husband, Ben, lived around the corner from the Lorings in Wellesley Hills and down the road from them in Blue Hill. In fact, it was an invitation to visit the Curtises at “Starboard Acres” that cemented the Lorings’ decision to buy their summer home there. Blue Hill’s local historian Esther Wood played with Jane Curtis as a child, and she had a child’s memory of events there. As she told it:
No less man than Frederick Law Olmsted gave advice on the Curtises’ side garden, the terrace, the “turn-a-go-round” with its half-circle of shrubs, and the long walk that led to the teahouse and the swimming pool. Deep Roots by Esther Wood
In truth, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.’s firm sent out Mr. J. Fred Dawson, who made no mention of the teahouse or swimming pool. His main purpose was to determine locations for the main approach and service drives, although he also recommended locations for the gardens and tennis court. He was the one who suggested the identifying characteristic of the property, even today: a low, stone fence that separates it from the road. In a way, that’s even ritzier—to hire a famous firm simply to tell you where to place the delivery road so as not to disturb the view and peace of one’s main parlour at the summer home!
The Curtises’ tea house path was an especially romantic feature at Starboard Acres. I believe it is described in Give Me One Summer:
She left the room by a long window with the dog at her heels, dashed across a brick terrace patterned in gold from the reflected sun and ran down the path to the shore between borders gay with gigantic late tulips, pink and bronze, white and lavender; blushing with huge pink peonies, and splashed with the scarlet of Oriental poppies… The slope to the shore was terraced. There were steps between each terrace and a Victorian wrought-iron seat to lure the passerby to linger… Lissa resisted the temptation to dip into the boulder-enclosed swimming-pool near the shore and ran on to the boat-house.” Give Me One Summer
The Lorings made inquiries with Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., too, so I was excited when I traveled to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. to read the design file and see the sketches. Alas, the inquiry ended at that. Victor asked about “a complete plan” for the gradual development of the Wellesley Hills grounds, the firm told its price to make an initial visit, and that was the end of it. For homeowners and biographers, sometimes the moment just passes.
Emilie’s favorite gardens were at Stone House in Maine. The Lorings left the Wellesley Hills plots in the care of a gardener and spent the rewarding part of the growing season, July through September, in Blue Hill.
“Flowers and fruits are about two weeks later in Maine.” I Hear Adventure Calling
Would she ever grow flowers as perfect? Apparently she had picked up the gardening bug—among others—since she had come to the State of Maine. Hilltops Clear
Stone House had a trellis on each side of the front door, window boxes filled with blooms, flower beds lining the front paths, and an additional garden between the gun room and kitchen ell. Can you tell what she planted?
I took a horticulture class once that required us to identify hundreds of plants by just a leaf, a stem, or a partial blossom. That experience proved a godsend, because I learned to pay attention to the shapes of plants. Additional help comes from one of my favorite gardening books, Color Schemes for the Flower Garden by Gertrude Jekyll. I especially appreciate this book, because it was completed before color film but shows lush garden pictures, all in black in white, fully labeled.
I think that Emilie read Gertrude Jekyll, too. She loved color, and her designs followed Jekyll’s recommendation to use masses of brilliant color in the centers of gardens and taper off to soft tints at the sides.
“Do you know what color does to me, Mr. Si? It sends my courage shooting above par, gives me the-world’s-my-oyster feeling—know it? Makes no difference where I see it, in a shop window or a gay gown. Color does to me what the touch of the earth did to the giant Antaeus—sends new life, vitality, courage, initiative surging through me. Sometime the scientists will discover that color is a renewer of life.” Hilltops Clear
No wonder, then, that her garden descriptions are written like splashes of paint on canvas—not yellow, pink and red, but gold, rose, lemon, and cherry. She also had a gardener’s eye. Her plants never stand in one place; they nod, riot, and “raise their dainty faces to the sun.”
A side project of mine (like I need more!) is to diagram each of the gardens in Emilie Loring’s novels. I imagine sketches, shaded with colored pencil, on the walls of a little gardening cottage that I don’t own yet. I wonder where I got that idea?
On the neutral tinted walls hung plans of gardens, watercolor sketches of gardens, photographs of gardens. At one end of the room tools of all descriptions stood erect or leaned in a rack. Great rolls of paper kept them company. The broad shelf of the secretary bookcase was scattered with open seed-catalogues. Late sunlight filtered in through a western window. In a bay which faced the south hung pots of ivy, vines of fragrant primrose-jasmine, green as the girl’s smock. There were shelves of pots holding annuals just coming into bloom from seeds sowed in the summer, snowy patches of candytuft, calendulas, snapdragons, stock not yet budded, common mignonette, standards of heliotrope. Some of the plants were experiments, more of them true and tried friends. Gay Courage
I recently made the acquaintance of Rochelle Greayer, a garden designer who has a longtime project to reproduce the gardens of Emilie’s friend and fellow author Clara Endicott Sears. Clara was the founder of the Fruitlands Museum at Harvard, Massachusetts where she also had her summer home, “The Pergolas.” Black-and-white photos of Clara’s gardens survive, all the more enticing, because the remains of the gardens truly linger—remnants of Venetian pillars, traces of woodland paths, the sharp spears of descendant yucca. You can read about the project here (and while you’re at it, discover Pith & Vigor‘s gardening inspirations).
It is entirely likely that one of Emilie’s books describes the gardens at The Pergolas, and I’ll be looking for it. In addition to the Curtis garden, I have identified Emilie’s description of the Owen sisters’ sunken garden, Anne Nevin’s garden at Arkady, and possibly the garden at her mother’s home, Burrcroft.
Like period dress, gardens reflect their times and the artistic sensibilities of their creators. Slim and regal, Clara Endicott Sears planted stately foxglove. Vivacious Emilie Loring created masses of color in bold patchworks.
Garden-making was a thrilling occupation providing one had vision and imagination. One wouldn’t get far without. Gay Courage
How fun would it be to collaborate and recreate Emilie Loring’s gardens? Have you grown one already? Please share in the comment section below, and when you have photos to share, please post them on our Facebook page (see the sidebar). As soon as we have enough, I’ll open a new tab and create a gallery here.
Meanwhile, there are seventy-two days until the last frost date at my house. It’s good that I have a stack of gardening catalogs and a shelf of Emilie Lorings. How about you?