It is a challenge to recreate a garden that was first installed in 1913 and had been lost to the ravages of weather and real estate development since the 1950s. The Blue Garden, one of the most celebrated gardens of the late Gilded Age, truly speaks to Newport’s horticultural legacy and the culture of an era. Designed by the most noted landscape firm of its day, the Olmsted Brothers, it was their original plans that were referenced to recreate this singular garden which opened in 2014.
Five years later, the Blue Garden deserves a visit as it provides many valuable lessons in trying to design a monochromatic garden (in this case, blue). I lead with this observation…until you have lived with a garden the critical truths are not so evident.
There are very few truly blue flowers in the plant world. Most are varying shades of a blue palette…azure, sapphire, periwinkle, orchid, turquoise, violet, aqua and indigo (see 2014 plant list). Some gardeners may be happy with a shades-of-blue-garden while others are definitive in “wanting blue, not purple” (as was the current owner).
Some plants don’t like full sun. The Blue Garden is located on the highest point of this island and receives direct sunlight from early morn ‘til late afternoon. This fact eliminated a number of plants for consideration that would otherwise be happy with some sun during the day.
Plants can outgrow their borders. The beds at the Blue Garden are smaller than would appear. Coupled with the optimum growing conditions like full sun, sea breezes and misty mornings, it is challenging to guesstimate just how large plants will become (as an example in this garden…Artemesia, Nepeta, Caryopteris and Perovskia). Fortunately, growers today are breeding smaller varieties of many popular plants.
It’s difficult to second guess Mother Nature. Put quite frankly, depending on the situation, weather is either a friend or a foe. The Blue Garden’s original design specified some large drifts of single plant material. Obviously, when those died (i.e. lavendar), the garden was left with gaping holes. This is a big topic in the horticulture world today – “do not plant large groups of one selection”. The conversation is ongoing…
Water high in pH is a big challenge for gardens. Better known as “city water” (more alkaline, and what we all drink), high pH water is difficult on plants if it is being used for irrigation. Plants need a neutral pH water to be able to take up their nutrients. At the Blue Garden, an acid injector has been added to the irrigation and watering tank to lower the pH.
Every garden deserves a re-evaluation each year. The Blue Garden is carefully monitored for those two major points that relate to this monochromatic creation…color and scale. Practicality has also become an overiding consideration, with three mandates…simplify the plant list, lower the maintenance demands and strive for longer bloom periods. This all falls into the capable hands of Sarah Vance, continuing on in her position as Director of the Blue Garden following the passing of philanthropist and preservationist, Mrs. Dorrance Hamilton, the former owner. Ms. Vance works with a dedicated group of gardeners to ensure the design intent of the garden’s plan and to maintain the Blue Garden as an accessible and sustainable landscape.
The Blue Garden is private, open by appointment most every Thursday from June through early October. Please visit TheBlueGarden.org for additional information. The coffee table book, The Blue Garden, Recapturing an Iconic Newport Landscape by Arleyn Levee, is also available by clicking here.
Featured Image Credit, Millicent Harvey Photography.