Putting The Landscape Back The Way it Was and Why it Matters

“Gardens are living witnesses of those who made them, tended them, discovered new plants to go into them.  Gardens cannot be separated from their origins or originators.”  Anne Leighton, American Gardens of the Nineteenth Century

The Justin Morrill Homestead is one of the finest examples of a mid-nineteenth century gentleman’s farm existing in New England.  Morrill’s hand drawn plans for his landscape reveal a man who was keenly interested in science, horticulture and landscape gardening.

The nineteenth century was a time of great interest in plants especially those from the Far East, South America, and the American West.  Wealthy patrons sponsored plant expeditions and subsidized nurseries to grow the newly transplanted trees, flowers and shrubs.  Horticultural societies were formed, exhibitions were held and a proliferation of printed material, gardening handbooks, and seed catalogues, all touted new discoveries of exotic plants.

Nurserymen were eager to share their experiences and sell their plants.  Washburn & Co’s Seed Catalogue established in Boston in 1845, entitled Amateur Cultivator’s Guide to the Flower and Kitchen Garden offered two thousand varieties of Flower and Vegetable Seeds.

Once the province of a few rich individuals and their expert gardeners, the gardening revolution had moved decidedly into rural America.  An article in the periodical, The New England Farmer suggests that gardeners in the New World “enjoy the circumstances of the American farmer…generally the owner, as well as the occupier, of the soil which he cultivates.”

Justin Morrill’s ideas for his landscape drew heavily from two nineteenth century authors that wrote prodigiously about rural ornamental landscapes at a time when Americans were distancing themselves from the formal, linear estates of Europe:  a Scotsman, John Claudius Loudon (1783-1843), and an American, Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-1852). Morrill stocked his library with their books and filled the margins with handwritten notes and plant choices.

In Loudon’s, The Villa Gardener, architecture and gardening were described as fine arts; a gardening style “subjected to a certain degree of cultivation or improvement, suitable to the wants and wishes of man.”  Landscapes were designed to enhance the individual beauty of trees, shrubs and plants in a state of culture; the smoothness and greenness of lawns; curving gravel walks….all intended to display the art of the gardener.

Andrew Jackson Downing’s seminal book, Landscape Gardening:  A Treatise On The Theory And Practice Of Landscape Gardening, Adapted to North America; With A View To The Improvement Of Country Residences , was written in 1841 when Downing was 26 years old.  The son of a nurseryman from Newburg, NY, Downing explored the rural landscapes surrounding his home, as well as the area’s estate gardens belonging to gentlemen with extensive libraries with collections on botany and horticulture.  He described landscape gardening as a form of fine art consisting of two variations – simply put – the picturesque and the beautiful.  Downing recognized the need for formality in public squares and parks, and even in small private gardens with knotted beds, pleached allees and sheared trees.  But, rural landscape gardening should resemble the beautiful – simple, flowing forms of round headed trees in natural groupings, emerald colored lawns and gently curving serpentine paths; or the picturesque – the wilder side, with striking, irregular shapes and spirited forms of jagged rock outcroppings, dark, pointed conifers and thickets of deep foliage.

It was Downing’s second book written in 1844, Cottage Residences, A Series of Designs for Rural Cottages and Adapted to North America, a pattern book of houses and gardens featuring architectural designs in the Gothic Revival, Italianate and Tudor Revival styles, that Morrill designed his homestead with. Drawings taken from Downing’s books provided the design for the house and landscape. Downing’s influence was such that, a novelist at the time wrote “that no one builds a house or lays out a garden without consulting Downing’s works.”

Morrill’s dedication to the ideas in Downing’s and Loudon’s works is such that his homestead, including the ‘bisque colored’ Gothic Revival cottage is a successful blending of the beautiful and the picturesque.

Morrill sited the working part of his farm, the farm buildings, greenhouse, agricultural fields and kitchen garden behind the house.  The rectangular kitchen garden, Morrill’s laboratory for experimenting with plant hardiness, was filled with fruit trees, shrubs, perennials and herbs. The tall hedged that bordered the garden served two purposes: camouflage and animal protection.

Design for the pleasure ground in front of the house is both beautiful and picturesque.  A gently curving carriage drive approaches the house.  Serpentine walking paths lined with fragrant shrubs – lilacs, sweet shrub, roses, honeysuckle, and magnolia are positioned throughout the lawn near the house.  Colorful arabesque flowerbeds and a fleur de lis rose garden are cut into the lawn to add to this serenely beautiful composition.   These were in stark contrast with the tall, dark spires of Norway spruce, tamarack and sculpted arborvitae; the hooded windows, the sharp peaked gables and the vine-covered verandah of the Gothic Revival house. Downing would have been thrilled with the results Morrill achieved.

According to landscape architect, Harrison Flint in the June 7, 1968 publication of the Arnoldia, Volume 28, Morrill was conducting “adaptability trials of a variety of trees and shrubs at his home in Strafford, Vermont.  The trials were very small by comparison with many present efforts, but were done before the establishment of any public arboretums in the United States.” After the completion of his Gothic Revival cottage in 1851, he prepared a landscape plan for the grounds surrounding the house. Lists of plants mentioned in Loudon’s and Downing’s books appear in the margins of Morrill’s plan for the grounds. Along with the plants that survive today, Morrill’s notes are the only evidence of plants used in the landscaping. Planting activity seemed to diminish after he was elected to the House of Representatives.

Why do we care about reconstructing an historic landscape?  Because these landscapes reveal aspects of our country’s origins, of ourselves and our living conditions that are just too dear to us to erase.  In some cases, however, a non-surviving site hasn’t enough documentation or historic features with integrity to reconstruct.  Those sites would draw from other historic sites of the same period with full disclosure in the interpretation.

In 1990, the Homestead’s property owner, the State of Vermont Division for Historic Preservation contracted to have a landscape restoration plan developed. The plan includes archival photos, planting lists, maps, and excerpts from letters and newspapers, anecdotal interviews, deeds, and nursery catalogues that were available to Morrill at the time.  In addition, the document contains a complete inventory of structures in the landscape, including buildings, garden ornamentation – often drawn from mid-nineteenth century Victorian styles- along with existing trees and shrubs.  This became a working document for restoration.

The Friends of the Morrill Homestead have also been dedicated to restoring this phenomenal landscape. Of the many features included in Morrill’s original plan, it was decided from a practical and financial standpoint, to initially concentrate on the decorative arabesque beds in the pleasure ground in front of the house and the kitchen garden behind the house, considered the working part of the landscape.

Restoration is defined by the Department of Interior as “the act or process of accurately depicting the form, features and character of a property as it appeared at a particular period of time by means of the removal of features from other periods in its history and reconstruction of missing features from the restoration period.”

Restoring the gardens of the Morrill Homestead has been a labor of love from the very beginning.

While the scope of the Master plan is extensive many gardens will never be restored.  Long-range plans include converting the landscape to a self-sustaining small farm, turning the fields over to livestock, planting out the apple orchard and adding bee keeping for pollination.  The kitchen garden would continue to be an experimental laboratory for testing plant hardiness of perennials and roses, but a greater emphasis would be placed on growing food: berry bushes, fruits and vegetables.  Morrill would have supported today’s interest in turning ornamental landscapes into food producing landscapes.

Recent concentration has been on restoration of the kitchen garden located behind the house and is considered part of the working landscape.  Morrill originally planned a rectilinear garden laid out with paths and planting blocks with berry bushes and fruit trees planted along the perimeter boundaries. Perennials and herbs are planted in interior beds.

One of first steps in the restoration was to set the borders of the kitchen garden, sited next to a crumbling concrete foundation for the old green house. The kitchen garden had been completely enclosed by a protective six-foot hedge – hemlock and arborvitae on three sides with Korean barberry creating the border closest to the house.  Over the years the hedges grew into large trees, no longer performing their protective function as a hedge as well as drastically changing the appearance of the garden.

In order the restoration to be successful the gardens must adapt to changing conditions of climate and plant material.  In particular, the hemlock and arborvitae that formed the kitchen garden border were replaced with plants that are not as ravaged by deer. Replacing the barberry hedge with cornus racemosa has been successful. Cornus racemosa has a vase-like shape, is a fast grower and turns a rich burgundy color in the fall before dropping its leaves.

The Morrill Homestead is deeply grateful for the hard work and interest shown by Master Gardeners and volunteers over the years.  Without them, our work could not proceed. Are you interested in helping us?

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