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Henry Bowen's Parterre


"...In modern flower gardens...it is the practice to choose, for the most part, low-growing flowers...And to plant them in masses, sometimes filling a whole bed, or at others only part of a bed, with the same flower. This produces a brilliancy of effect quite impossible in any other way."
-Andrew Jackson Downing,
Cottage Gardens, 1842.

In 1850, when Henry Bowen began to lay out the gardens at Roseland Cottage in Woodstock, Connecticut, the old straight lines of colonial days had begun to bend, and the curving line triumphed. Instead of the usual center line is a curiously curved oval, long and dominant, planted with brilliant red geraniums surrounded by low bright green boxwood. On either side are the curved lines of the parterres, twenty islands of color in the sea of gravel walks, brim full with horticultural delights, such as heliotrope, cosmos, dahlias, and coleus, all of which were found on Bowen's plant inventory list of 1850.

An unusual, surviving example, ultimately derived from the princely gardens of Renaissance and baroque Europe, this type of design is labor intensive and rarely used today, an exception being at the garden of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. At Bowen House each spring, SPNEA's part-time gardener and volunteers set out 4,500 annuals following Bowen's original list, requiring an average of sixty plants to fill a 4' x 6' area.

Early American designs of the flower parterre also show the addition of ornamental trees to the ensemble. In colonial gardens, particularly in the south, there were native plants such as dogwood, redbud, and fringe tree, brought in from the surrounding woodland. In later gardens, the emphasis was on exotics. At Bowen House there is an impressive Japanese maple and a Chinese Wisteria, as well as old hydrangeas and lilacs that add notes of informality to the whole pattern.

This garden was restored in 1978 by Professor Rudy Favretti, landscape historian at the University of Connecticut, and continues to be studied today as SPNEA discovers new evidence of what once existed there.

-Diane K. McGuire
Director of Landscape Preservation

Henry Bowen's Parterre