Feature > Replanting the Past

Last summer, Strawbery Banke Museum undertook the restoration of the Thomas Bailey Aldrich Memorial Garden. The oldest continuously planted garden at Strawbery Banke, it was originally created by Lilian Aldrich in 1908 as a tribute to her late husband—poet, author and editor of theAtlantic Monthly—Thomas Bailey Aldrich.

The garden is on the grounds of his grandparents’ home in Portsmouth, where he was born in 1836 and returned to live with his widowed mother in 1849. The home was the location of his popular book Story of a Bad Boy published in 1869. Lilian purchased the property after Thomas’s death in 1907, had a brick museum built there to house his important papers and restored the home to the way she thought it may have looked in his grandparents’ day. It was the first historic house museum in New Hampshire and, in 1979, it was deeded to Strawbery Banke Museum for preservation.

A Memorial of the Period

At the turn of the twentieth century, a popular way of memorializing favorite poets was to gather together in a garden or in a book the flowers they wrote about in their work. Lilian did both. After researching the best plants from her husband’s writings to use in the garden, she published the related poems in a book called The Shadow of the Flowers. She referred to it as the story of the changing seasons of the year and the seasons of a poet’s life. The garden is full of old-fashioned favorites, such as Canterbury bells, evening primrose, hollyhocks, primroses, foxglove, asters and goldenrod that keep the plot colorful all season long.

Sweetly scented blossoms figured prominently in many of Aldrich’s poems and are represented by mignonette, dianthus, peonies, heather, lavender, alyssum and honeysuckle. “This garden, with its centuryold, circular grove of native hemlocks, may well be the most valuable part of the living collection here,” says John Forti, curator of historic landscapes at Strawbery Banke.

An excellent example of a Colonial Revival-style garden, the Aldrich memorial was designed to evoke a feeling of days gone by with its hedges, symmetrical beds, intersecting paths, summer house, arborcovered terrace, roses, lilacs, grapes, hops and fragrant flowers. Colonial Revival-style began in the 1890s, popularizing all things Colonial—including homes, furniture and gardens—as symbols of a disappearing way of life. Also at this time, New England was becoming more industrialized and less agricultural. Immigrants were pouring into the country, much to Aldrich’s dismay. Even though his own ancestor Edward Dotey came from England as an indentured servant on the Mayflower, Aldrich called for quotas on immigrants to keep America from becoming “the cesspool of Europe.” He blamed immigrants for the labor unrest of the times and for the loss of old Yankee ways. Life was changing rapidly and in Aldrich’s old Puddle Dock area of Portsmouth, there was a huge influx of immigrants from all over the world.

“Strawbery Banke tracks all of this history in one neighborhood—the good, the bad and the ugly. The Colonial Revival was a ‘noble cause’ of the upper classes who were trying to retain a piece of the past before it slipped away,” Forti says. “Looking back, these people offered a romanticized view of the good old days, and the gardens were a way to teach moral lessons to new immigrants about the way New England used to be. Looking ahead, our hope is to have the gardens tell the stories of that time period.”

Restoration Work

The 2008 restoration was done not only in honor of the garden’s one hundredth anniversary but also because the garden needed significant attention.

“The soil was spent; it had no vitality left,” Forti says. The gates that led to the garden were too narrow for modern equipment. “We couldn’t even get a lawnmower in there,” Forti says. “The restoration gave us an opportunity to widen the entrance from Jefferson Street through the arbor that once was an old summerhouse. The bricks in the paths were unstable and had come to look like a bad set of teeth. We were able to remove and reset all of them in their original basket-weave pattern in the walkways. The steps were replaced with a gradual incline, which makes the garden accessible to everyone now.”

All the perennials were removed and temporarily heeled in near the hemlock grove. Eight pallets of organic compost and manure were brought in to rejuvenate the soil. Some changes were made to the previous garden plan to make it more closely resemble the garden Lilian originally designed.

“We didn’t want to just gussie it up,” Forti said, “but rather to return to the plant list from The Shadow of the Flowers and restore the look we found in early pictorial evidence.”

Strawbery Banke staff restored the cedar edging around the beds, rebuilt the garden arch, and raised and reset the Durham flagstones under the hops arbor next to the house. The ‘Maiden’s Blush’ roses were cut back and their trellis shortened, in keeping with period design, to open up the view into the side yard. The sundial needed to be moved from its original position in the middle of the hemlock grove to a location that actually gets some sun. When the hemlocks were planted nearly one hundred years ago, the trees formed a short hedge, but now they soar to more than fifty feet tall. The hemlocks form a shady, cool spot to sit and relax on a hot day but no longer provide the perfect location for a sundial. Instead, a donated birdbath from the time period took over the location. Other garden elements— such as benches and plant stands from the original plan—were reworked. A path worn by visitors from the house to the hemlock grove was paved with Durham flagstones.

“Everything we do to the garden brings it back to its original intent, what Lilian was trying to do. And yet, as in all restoration, we have adapted it for modern use,” Forti says. “The newly planted garden looked good last fall, but this spring it should fill out and be spectacular.”

An endowment from the Portsmouth Garden Club, in place when Strawbery Banke took over the home, still helps support the Aldrich garden; even more important than the financial aid may be the continued presence of club volunteers who help maintain the garden. To finance the restoration, Strawbery Banke Museum received—in addition to the garden club endowment—grants, private donations and in-kind gifts from many businesses. In all, it took two years from initial grant writing to the completion of the project.

“We look at this garden restoration as a gift to the community,” Forti says. “Heirloom plants are meant to be shared, and we have always shared plants with our volunteers. The heirloom hops growing on the arbor in the Aldrich garden were harvested last fall and made into beer by the local Portsmouth Brewery. Visitors come away with plant lists, garden plans and ideas they can use in their own landscapes. Re-created historic gardens are places where we all can learn about our roots.”