is every garden worth saving

August 15, 1913 celebrated the opening of The Blue Garden in Newport, Rhode Island. 300 people gathered, performances by musicians and dancers culminated with the Amphitrite, the Greek goddess of the sea, leaping from a giant shell placed at the far end of the long pool.









Bygone photographic processes, unremembered people and obliterated gardens is my October.  The Blue Garden in Newport, Rhode Island, an Olmsted extravaganza designed in 1913, was by the 1970s  rendered unrecognizable due to neglect, fire and financial imperatives.  Dorrance Hamilton was the force behind  reviving the garden.

Arthur Curtiss James House, Newport, Rhode Island, Blue Garden flower border.

Last night at an event sponsored by The Garden Conservancy, Sarah Vance, Director of The Blue Garden in Newport, Rhode Island, spoke about what it took to re-invent this garden.  Vance formerly worked with Reed Hilderbrand, the landscape architecture firm, who were asked by Dorrance Hamilton, to propose a plan to bring The Blue Garden back to life.

The Blue Garden, Newport, Rhode Island

The Olmsted firm, original designers of The Blue Garden spec’d 12,780 plants (perennials,annuals, trees) for the garden.  Working with Arleyn Levee, landscape historian and preservation consultant, the original Olmsted plans for the garden were accessed.  Vance showed several of the original plans, but most fascinating was one page of a 16-page instruction book put together by the Olmsted firm, detailing correct garden maintenance practices. For example “remove all exotic shrubs at base of the cliff and leave all native shrubs.”

The Blue Garden, photo courtesy of Flower Magazine

The 2014 plan for the garden “restoration” was centered around two concepts:  “a monochromatic concentration of purples and of blues” originally requested by Mrs. James to the Olmsted firm.  And Dorrance Hamilton’s insistence that the garden remain a formal, italianette style garden. I suggest watching the video of the re-construction of the garden to get an idea of what it took to do this.
Sarah Vance was asked how much the “renewal’ of the Blue Garden cost.  The answer, I don’t know, all phases of the construction were handled by Parker Construction.
The garden contains approximately 83 varieties of blue plants. There is a paired down plant list on the blue garden site.  For example, Hibiscus syriacus ‘Blue Chiffon’ (Rose of Sharon), Vitex agnus-castus (Lilac chastetree) and Aster laevis ‘Bluebird’ (Smooth Aster). Vance was asked what makes a blue garden?  blue water, blue pots (Pottery Express, Florida), blue stone and blue vines on the pergola.
For me one of the most interesting parts of Vance’s talk was the time she spent explaining a particular cause of failure in the garden. Large shrubs, like Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Twist-N.Shout’ and Caryopteris x clandonensis ‘Grande Bleu’  were not blue. It turned out that the water had a PH of 8.8. This was a result of using local water.  The answer was to  install an acid injector pump into the irrigation system.  Vance:  “This garden is like a teaching hospital.”

Being of a certain age, I have many gardener friends, who have created beautiful gardens; sold their home and moved on.  Was The Blue garden worth saving? I asked myself on my way home.
Except for the fact, that Dorrance Hamilton, heir to Campbell Soup fortune, billionaire, and resident of Newport had the funds and the desire to restore this garden, was this garden outstanding in design, groundbreaking in  conception, to warrant spending millions and millions dollars on its restoration?  My answer was NO.
Although I agree with the Garden Conservancy mission:  saving and sharing outstanding American Gardens. I would like to see the definition of outstanding expanded to include those beautiful and unusual gardens,created by gardeners.  These gardens represent a lifetime of devotion, innovation, ecological sound practices, environmental art and not least of all, back-breaking work.


Renewal of the Blue Garden
Sarah Vance, Director of the Blue Garden.
Garden Conservancy
Wednesday, October 24, 2018
New York School of Interior Design

Sarah Vance holds a Master of Landscape Architecture degree with distinction from the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. She was a partner at Peter Walker and Partners and has been art director for more than thirty books and magazines dedicated to landscape architecture published by Spacemaker Press. Before becoming director of the Blue Garden, Sarah was a senior associate at Reed Hilderbrand Landscape Architecture when, in 2012, they were hired by noted philanthropist Dorrance H. Hamilton to consult with the team that supervised and rebuilt the Blue Garden.

Subsequent to the renewal project, Sarah was asked to assume the role of garden director. She now works with a group of dedicated gardeners to maintain the garden as an accessible and sustainable landscape. She edited the book, The Blue Garden, Recapturing an Iconic Newport Landscape, written by Arleyn Levee.

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