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What Has Happened to the Buttrick Gardens?

By Joyce Miller. Joyce was a reporter and editor for the now-defunct Concord Patriot newspaper. She now lives in Dallas Texas.

The Buttrick Estate's gardens are located up the hill from the Old North Bridge in Minuteman National Historical Park. The floral photos on this page were taken after a short-lived restoration effort at the gardens a few years ago.

irisThirty years ago, when I first moved to Concord, the Buttrick Gardens were beautiful. As the long winter turned to spring, I eagerly anticipated the beautiful flowers, especially the irises and peonies. I spent many balmy afternoons walking through these gardens or sitting and relaxing in them. I did not realize it then, but iris growers once came from around the world to learn from and be inspired by the Buttricks. The gardens that I took for granted were a national treasure.

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.

iris and peoniesA Garden Carefully Tended by the Buttricks
In the mid-1930s, Stedman Buttrick, an investment banker in Boston, started growing irises, and he built his garden into a world famous attraction for dedicated iris enthusiasts. Azaleas and rhododendrons bloomed on the hillsides. Tall shafts of Virginia juniper-accented terraced vistas. Peonies and columbine wove patterns through iris beds that contained some 200 varieties of bearded irises. Many of his white and blue varieties, perfected after years of breeding and experimenting, drew admiring comments at both American and British flower shows.

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
That was what used to be. Then the estate was given to a government less interested in flowers and gardens that could equal the formal gardens of Europe and more interested in battles and budgets. A national treasure became a thing of the past.

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)
Beautifully terraced stairs and plantings overgrown by weedsfalling through the cracks, so to speak
This year, local volunteers went to the gardens in May and weeded them. But, according to one of the groundsmen, volunteers are a two-edged sword. They help out, but they are not able to commit to regular work in the gardens. But the fact that they volunteer means that the government can and does hire fewer people to do the work. When the volunteers cannot come, the gardens go untended.

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)
another view of the formal gardenThe main Iris bed  several weeks after boomingBeautiful old Rhododendron strangled by weeds

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."

Photos: blooming iris ©1998, 2001 Deborah Bier; the untended garden ©2001 Richard Stevenson
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