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).
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.
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.