So, when I had the chance to spend a week in Concord this past spring, I looked forward to spending time in the gardens. But when I got there (with a book to read and time to spare), I found what appeared to be the before set for a recreation of The Secret Garden: lost, overgrown, and nearly unrecognizable.
What a disappointment. The gardens are no longer a national treasure. The plants are thin and unhealthy looking; there were only a few blossoms; paving bricks are missing or broken; wrought iron gates are sagging or gone.
I was not the only disappointed visitor. One woman looked around and said to her companion,"These used to be so pretty." Another said,"The budget must have been cut back." Still another said,"What a shame."
The Buttrick family had settled beside the river in 1635. Major John Buttrick led Minute Men at the battle -- what his great great grandson Stedman Buttrick preferred to call a fight -- at the bridge. In fact, until the family gave the land and the mansion to the National Park Service, only Buttricks -- 10 generations of them -- had farmed, fought and gardened on that riverbank.
A Garden Carefully Tended by the Buttricks
So famous were the gardens by the 1950s that the National Geographic did a 15-page feature article on them, carefully detailing the work that was done by Buttrick to propagate, develop, and protect the irises. Full page, full color pictures of breathtakingly beautiful irises and the impressive gardens illustrated the article.
The gardens were carefully tended year round. In the spring, the estate used three tons of fertilizer. According to Henry Murray, the Buttricks' head gardener at the time, they used "nitrogen for foliage, phosphate for flowers, potash for root growth." Then, wrote the National Geographic,"in June, this well-fed garden paid off in glorious blooms."
In summer, two- and three-year-old iris clumps were divided and reset in new locations. In the fall, gardeners spread a layer of hay to prevent frost damage to the dormant plants. In November, gardeners sprayed a winter coat of protective wax over the evergreen rhododendrons, giving their branches and leaves a milky cast. Summer heat later melted the wax.
A National Treasure Now Lost
Today, there are only three people to take care of the entire park land in Concord and Lexington. Successive federal budget cutbacks saw the gardens take lower and lower priority until, in 1990, the park stopped tending the gardens. No longer divided, the irises weaken. No longer mulched against winter freezing, plants die. No longer waxed, the rhododendrons lose their foliage to parasites.
(click on image for a larger view)
According to a gardener visiting at the same time I did, it is too late to restore these gardens. The care, the propagating, the protection -- all of it has been too long ignored. We have wasted a treasure.
(click on image for a larger view)
Very few visitors today are aware of the wonders that once were here. There is no information in the visitor center about the history of the Buttricks, of the gardens or of the estate. Once, there was an exhibit of the pictures from the National Geographic article, but the exhibit was removed so long ago that no one at the center could tell me anything about the gardens or the house, and no one remembered the pictures.
After decades of careful tending to survive the freezes and thaws of a New England winter, the gardens are failing to survive the budget freezes of a nation that has forgotten them, a nation that has chosen to ignore that old rubric:"Take time to smell the flowers."