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Summers in the Garden

The plants and gardens of Green Hill, the Gardner estate in Brookline, were dear to Isabella Stewart Gardner. Her husband, John Lowell “Jack” Gardner, inherited Green Hill from his father, who died in 1884 while Jack and Isabella were traveling around the world. After their return, Isabella turned her imagination and boundless energy to the greenhouses and gardens.

The gardens were well established and under the care of Charles M. Atkinson, an English gardener who had first worked for her father-in-law. With Atkinson’s assistance, Gardner transformed the gardens, creating drama and beauty in the landscape.

In 1888, Atkinson was awarded the Lowell Plate for the "best-arranged and best-kept flower garden" by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society Committee on Gardens for his work at Green Hill. In his statement to the committee, Atkinson discussed improvements to a forty-year old flower garden:

The walks have been removed, green grass substituted, and a large mass of shrubs has been added all around the inner lines, and a gradually undulating surface of vegetation from bulb growth to trees forty or more feet high is found. When inside, one is shut out from all else. . . . These changes are entirely due to Mrs. Gardner’s excellent taste.
(Massachusetts Horticultural Society, Transactions for the Year 1888)

Over the years, Gardner created many new landscapes at Green Hill, including Italian and Japanese gardens. And each summer, the gardens were a great joy for her. During the summer of 1898, she wrote to her friend Bernard Berenson from her seaside home in Beverly:

We came here ten days ago – but I often go to Brookline to look at the flowers that I love. I have been raking in 1st prizes (did I already tell you?) for Japanese irises, foxgloves, Canterbury bells and larkspurs.
(Letter from Isabella Stewart Gardner, July 18, 1898)

Visitors to Green Hill admired the masses of color, the beds of annuals, her unusual plants, and their intriguing settings. Many came to spend a day with her in her gardens and Gardner’s guest books are filled with their admiring comments. August10 campanula

After the Gardner Museum opened to the public in 1903, Gardner relied on the gardens and greenhouses at Green Hill to supply the plants for the courtyard that amazed and delighted visitors. Today the museum maintains off-site greenhouses where plants for the courtyard displays are grown.

Visitors to the museum this month can see a plant with close ties to the “Canterbury bells” that Isabella Gardner grew at Green Hill: Campanula pyramidalis, commonly known as chimney bell-flower. This heirloom biennial often grows to a height of 5 to 6 feet and features bell-shaped blossoms. Chimney bell-flower is native to Italy and Yugoslavia, and was introduced into cultivation in England in the late 16th century. In New England, it is usually sheltered in a cold frame or greenhouse during the winter. Both Canterbury bells (Campanula medium) and Chimney bell-flower are members of the genus Campanula, named for the bell-like shape of their blossoms.

Images: (top) Green Hill garden in the spring. Photo by Thomas Marr (bottom) Campanula pyramidalis in the courtyard.

August 2010