September 7, 2009

What Clarence Hay Wrought

Truly great rock gardens are rare. In the Northeast, the one at the New York Botanical Garden is magnificent. Smith College has a fine, albeit small one. And then there’s the rock garden at The Fells, on the eastern shore of Lake Sunapee in Newbury, New Hampshire. It’s the one that makes you truly appreciate why rock gardens are such special places.

The name of John M. Hay has fairly well passed into the history books, but he was a pivotal figure of the nineteenth century, serving as private secretary to Abraham Lincoln, ambassador to Great Britain and Secretary of State under Presidents McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. The Fells was his family’s country retreat, a thousand acres on one of New England’s most scenic shorelines. Upon his death, The Fells passed to his son, Clarence Hay (1885-1969).

An avid amateur horticulturalist, Clarence started building a rock garden in 1920. He and a crew of skilled stonemasons began setting lichen-speckled rocks on the south-facing hillside toward the lake. He planted hundreds of alpine and rock garden plants to give the impression of a rocky Swiss hillside. A stream was created to wind the length of the rock garden; at its center he created a lily pool surrounded by azaleas and Japanese iris. Stone paths with rock steps meandered through the garden, and alongside them crevices and raised islands provided growing conditions for the more demanding rock garden plants. (The photo above, left is a view of the garden in the 1920s.)

The bulk of the Hay estate became a wildlife refuge beginning in the 1960s. By the time a non-profit organization called The Fells began managing the property in 1995, the rock garden existed only in memory and old photos. The organization set out to refurbish the multiple gardens Hay created, with special attention to the rock garden. It has taken over ten years of work by a dedicated staff, and volunteers (many of them New Hampshire Master Gardeners) but today the rock garden has been restored to its 1920s splendor.  The photo below was taken this weekend from the same vantage point as the one from the 1920s.

We were there this weekend to draw inspiration for our own rock garden. While Hay’s was a labor of love, ours was one of necessity. The back of our property slopes down steeply to a pond and, when we purchased our home, spring and summer rains poured off the roof, washing grass, soil and everything in its wake down into the woods toward the pond.

A civil engineering project worthy of the WPA came first. New downspouts were added across the back of the house and French drains installed to safely carry away rainwater and snow melt. Something had to go on top of all those pipes. We brought in large rocks to begin stabilizing the hillside and to create terraces. After the first few dozen stones were in place, we realized that, without intending to, we were creating an ideal environment for a rock garden.

We made our first visit to regional rock gardens, including The Fells, about nine years ago. We’ve returned to the Fells several times a year ever since, each time gaining new appreciation for what Hay (and a cadre of volunteers decades later) accomplished. The garden changes both with the seasons and from its multiple interior and exterior perspectives. The garden is at its most colorful in early summer but, even in September, there is color, texture and shape to please the eye. We’ve tried to learn from what Clarence Hay created. We have a long way to go.

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