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Grandmother's Garden

Priscilla Williams with a twiggy arbor made from black birch saplings, which she and her husband, Richard, harvest in the woods behind the house each spring.

In 1993, Priscilla Williams of Townsend, Massachusetts, volunteered to redesign and maintain a small fenced garden behind the Barrett House in New Ipswich, New Hampshire. SPNEA had installed the garden in the 1950s for the resident overseer to use for vegetables. Ms. Williams decided to transform it into an old-fashioned grandmother's garden such as the Barretts might have had during the colonial revival era, when they spent their summers there.

The colonial revival coincided with a period of affluence that afforded many women new opportunities for creative self-expression; gardening became a popular pastime. Small, enclosed gardens that could be tended by the woman of the house were popularized in magazines, described by writers like Sarah Orne Jewett, and depicted by photographers and artists like Wallace Nutting and Childe Hassam. Deemed typically American, as opposed to formal grounds laid out in the European manner, these gardens filled with old-fashioned flowers like hollyhocks, poppies, and morning glories summoned up a romantic vision of the colonial past.

The garden created by Priscilla Williams follows this pattern. She uses organic methods and selects old-fashioned and hard-to-find varieties like blue lace flower, bishop's flower, fuller's teasel, hyacinth bean, and Spanish flag, which she starts from seed each spring. A soaker hose, concealed under a thick mulch of shredded leaves, ensures a water supply for the thirsty annuals. The plot, which is very popular with visitors, produces a profusion of bloom from mid July until frost. Significantly, what began as a part-time volunteer stint by Ms. Williams has now grown into a landscaping business for her and her husband, Richard. "After years of fighting the commute into Boston," she remarks, "we're having a wonderful time working together and living by the gardening calendar." Despite the demands of tending a growing business, the Williamses nonetheless continue to volunteer at Barrett House and keep the grandmother's garden in prime condition.

-Nancy Curtis
Publications Manager

Grandmother's Garden