New Life for Old Gardens

New Life for Old Gardens, by Marge Smith

Every year in late spring, the gardens at Seven Hearths garner many compliments, with the tulips, iris and peonies in full bloom. It is a pretty show, to be sure, but nothing like what Laurence and Helen Nelson saw when they sat on the back porch at Seven Hearths. The gardens were once a profuse, brilliant display, lovingly tended by the Nelsons, and we are about to embark on the second phase of bringing them back to glory.

Laurence and Helen Nelson purchased the house in November, 1919, to use as a weekend and summer retreat from the hustle and bustle of New York City. The place was shabby and rundown, both inside and out. Laurence wrote about the grounds in his essay New Life for Old Timber, saying, “Everywhere thistles, nettles, burdock and plantain competed with the grass which had grown to the height and volume of a sturdy crop of hay…Here and there, currant bushes struggled amidst the nettles…A few old fashioned roses revealed where a garden might have flourished, and a clump of daylilies managed to raise their clear yellow blooms above the confusion.”

The Nelsons were not daunted by the mess. They hired a man, fictitiously named “Mr. Kirk” in New Life, to help them make botanical order out of the chaos in their yard. Being fairly new to the world of perennial gardens, they paid close attention to Mr. Kirk and learned as they went along. Because the house itself first required the majority of their free time in the country, the gardens took shape slowly.

Then the Great Depression hit! The Nelsons struggled in the face of shrinking income to maintain their country home and their apartment and studio on West 67th St. They finally had to make a choice: New York or Kent? Fortunately for us, they chose Kent. They moved to the country, where they made Seven Hearths their real home, finding solace in the gardens that they now had time to expand and nurture.

From Laurence’s diaries and Helen’s articles, we know that they spent winters poring over seed catalogs and designing additions to Mr. Kirk’s first small garden. They grew their own annuals and perennials from seed, choosing varieties that Laurence loved to portray in his still-life paintings. He made “sketches” during the summer that showed the various stages of a flower as it opened and bloomed, as pictured above. Those sketches became his reference over the long winter months when he was forced to paint indoors. While the gardens lay dormant, Laurence could create his great floral masterpieces.

Often Helen, a noted art critic for The New York Globe, would write an article about their gardens and submit it, along with one of his paintings, to magazines such as the March 1930 issue of Country Life, in which she wrote, “Now the garden is vibrant in the full blaze of the sun; color relations are complimentary, warm and cool, and poppies of various shapes, sizes and colors are spreading their crinkly petals and honey bees galore are tumbling ruthlessly amid the   stamens, making an orgy of their pollen gathering, as though drunk with the pungent odor of undistilled opium. “ Their time in Kent, while not easy financially, was rich and productive for them, and they both drew great joy from their gardens.

Helen died in 1971 and Laurence in 1978. He left Seven Hearths and much of its contents to the Kent Historical Society at the urging of his friend and longtime society president, Miss Emily Hopson. The gardens had begun to fade by that time, owing to both Nelsons’ ill health. Miss Hopson, at age 76, was no spring chicken herself, but she lovingly tended the gardens as best she could until she was over 90 years of age!

Finally, she realized that she needed help, and called me in. At the time I had a full time garden design and maintenance business, so I brought my crew to Seven Hearths to work alongside the undaunted old lady. Under her watchful eye, we pulled out barrow after barrow load of goldenrod, wild phlox, honeysuckle vine, goutweed and other vile invasives. Gravel pathways began to appear. Tiny shoots of struggling peonies poked up. Square wire cages, used by Nelson to protect his beloved lily bulbs, often surfaced on the tines of a grubbing fork, the bulbs having long since been smothered by the weeds. Bearded iris, Siberian iris, old fashioned roses – all sorts of treasures emerged again. Some may even have been the ones that Helen and Laurence had found in 1919. When exposed to a decent share of sunlight, soil and water, they all began to thrive. The Nelson gardens were not lost!

While we worked in the garden, Miss Hopson discovered that I had a deep interest in the history of Kent. She talked me into joining the board of the society, and I volunteered with her once a week as she worked in the archives. She eventually created the position of Executive Director for me so that someone would be at the helm when she passed away, which she did at the venerable age of 99! In the following decade or so, I worked with KHS board members Jeff Morgan, Mary Grusauski, Beth Dooley, and other dedicated volunteers to try to maintain the gardens. We’ve managed to keep the weeds at bay, but even with hired help we’ve never had time or resources to really restore the gardens.

But that’s about to change. Nancy Schaefer, President of the Kent Garden Club and a long time avid gardener, joined the KHS board a couple of years ago, and has offered to spearhead a formal effort to make the gardens at Seven Hearths a showstopper once more. She’s carefully examining the Nelsons’ diaries, scrapbooks and photo albums, as well as Helen’s articles, for clues to the original layout and contents. We’ve made a list of all the flowers that appear in Laurence’s paintings. When our research is complete, we’ll make a plan for the restoration and begin to dig in the ancient soil once more. If you’d like to give us some hands-on or financial support, please let us know.