Sarah Orne Jewett House Landscape History
"Come some time when the garden is blooming well and we can show you our dear South Berwick with its pleasant look."
—Sarah Orne Jewett
A map from about 1835 shows the Jewett family compound at the center of South Berwick. Landscape features are carefully recorded, including a rectangular plot labeled “Garden” near the 1774 dwelling. The house and garden may well date to the same time. Sarah Orne Jewett described the site as “…an old plot of ground where several generations have been trying to make good things grow.”
Until the twentieth century Jewett preserved her venerable home grounds in literature depicting “wide green yards and tall elm-trees to shade them” with sweeps of fences that bound her grandfather’s old house and Jewett-Eastman House, her childhood home next door. Young Jewett enjoyed red roses around her door and happily smuggled herself into her grandmother’s enclosed front yard for the crumpled petals of blush, white, and cinnamon roses that she used to make a delicious coddle.
Jewett achieved fame as a writer early in life, treasuring the privacy and inspiration of what she christened “my own New England garden.” From the church just beyond the trees at the foot of the garden came singing voices and a droning organ, a soundscape for her solitary imaginings. She wrote, “The bees were humming in the vines and as she looked down the wide garden-walk it seemed like the broad aisle in church, and the congregation of plants and bushes all looked at her as if she were in the pulpit.”
In 1887 Sarah and her sister Mary made a midlife move into their late grandfather’s colonial house and perfected the olden backyard plot. Even as vestiges of eighteenth-century gardens were disappearing, a counter trend was giving free reign to romantic inventions on early design. These Colonial Revival gardens retained enclosed proximity to the house, the rectilinear symmetry of classical architecture, and the three-dimensional spatial quality of long-lived perennials and self-sown annuals and biennials.
Across the carriage lane behind the house, through a gateway with ball finials, the Jewetts now entered a great garden room of paths and wide beds abundantly planted. There were shrubs, a large area of roses, a kitchen garden, and fruit trees. “The garden is so nice—old-fashioned indeed with pink hollyhocks and tall blue larkspurs,” Sarah enthused. “You might make a sketch with but slight trouble, with figures of old ladies wearing caps in the long walks.”
Today, visitors still enter at the gate to follow the broad aisle and linger among flowers. Borders and pots are planted in heirlooms, many of which Jewett described. Early on there are peonies and roses in “great clusters…heavy with dew and perfume.” The London pride of midsummer is “most gorgeous to behold with its brilliant red and its tall, straight stocks.” White mallows and orange tiger lilies follow in bloom and, finally, crimson cardinal flowers that “belong to the old nobility.”
On the west side of the house ell, there is a collection of herbs mentioned in Jewett’s masterpiece, The Country of the Pointed Firs. On the east side grows the ancient shrub of “The White Rose Road” that comes in June “with a grace of youth and an inexpressible charm of beauty.”