“Oh!” said one of the little old ladies. I was leading four of them on an unexpected tour of the Gardens and, at that moment, we were standing under the spreading sugar maple (Acer saccharum). “I would have loved this tree growing up. Our home was always so hot in summer,” the speaker added with a sigh of pure pleasure.
We can thank businessman Arthur Dunn for the refuge from the unseasonal spring heat the tree provided the little old ladies. In 1915 he built an estate garden, full of trees, from plans submitted by the Olmsted Brothers firm. Today Arthur’s garden is known as The Dunn Gardens.
As our little party wandered in the dappled light, we exchanged information. I told them the Dunn has a mission to preserve the design and intent of the Olmsted vision, now 100 years old. They told me memories about flowers they recognized and the fact they had a mean age of 88. When we wandered into the moss garden I said, “I’m biased, but I like to think the Gardens are beautiful.” They stared at me as if I had asked them to play hopscotch on the lawn. “They are more than beautiful,” one of them told me, almost in reproach.
Indeed, beauty has been hard to avoid as the Dunn has broken out its spring wardrobe: trilliums, erythroniums and now rhododendrons in all colors. Even the Davidia involucrata, otherwise known as the dove or the handkerchief tree, has brought forth the white hanging petals that have inspired the common names. Not to mention the drifts of the two Solomon seals—the false and the true are showing off their white blossoms as well.
As anyone interested in gardens knows, this beauty happens only as a result of conscious effort and a few sore backs. I would also posit, the glory is a consequence of a careful focus on the conservation of the Gardens so they remain in keeping with the original Olmstedian vision.
After my charming ‘ladies’ tour such thoughts were looming large. This was because the Dunn is hosting visitors in May whose members have conservation in their DNA. The tour group participants support the Garden Conservancy, a national organization based in New York that was started by financier Frank Cabot. The mission of the Conservancy is to save and share notable American gardens. Preservation is the core of their programs.
Like Arthur Dunn, Cabot was a hands-on gardener and self-taught horticulturalist. He developed two astonishing landscapes: Stonecrop Gardens and Les Quatre Vents (the Four Winds). We can assume Cabot had a sore back more than once since he was frequently in the thick of the physical activity that is gardening.
The people in the tour share the urgency that those of the Dunn feel about preserving historic trees and the property in general. Small wonder I wanted us to be seen as living up to the mandate of our National Historic Trust Registry status.
Word that the Garden Conservancy group wanted to tour the Dunn arrived in my inbox at the same time my husband asked if I had some clean socks tucked away somewhere since there weren’t any in his drawer. Laundry and garden conservation have the same unlikely common denominator, I thought as I reflected upon the two disparate but simultaneous events. The prolonged absence of each leads to unhappy consequences.
I wasn’t sure if the little old ladies, with their advertised mean age of 88, understood my commentary that the Dunn’s beauty is not a random event, but they certainly left contented. “We will be back,” they told me before they climbed into their bus. “This is a place you have to come back to see again.” Perhaps we have laundered the socks, metaphorically speaking, I thought as I bade them goodbye. And that thought felt really good.
Just so you know, we are offering a grand estate garden that has remained true to the designer’s vision, on a tour, June 26th. Love to have you there to experience the pleasure that visiting a conserved garden can bring.