The first garden we visited was novelist Edith Wharton's country retreat, 'The Mount'. Like other patricians at the turn of the 20th century she retreated from New York to her country estate in the summer, in her case to Lenox where she built an elaborate 'cottage' and gardens with the requisite 'people' to look after it. It has long been on my list to visit. Wharton (1862-1937) designed the gardens herself, drawing on her extensive travels and declaring in a letter describing the Italianate garden rooms that she was "Decidedly, I'm a better landscape gardener than novelist." Of course she did have the help of her niece, Beatrix Farrand who was a celebrated landscaper.
Her home is now owned by the "Edith Wharton Restoration" and the three acres of formal gardens have slowly been restored over the last decade. A Lime Walk (avenue lined with linden trees) links a Walled Garden, there are intimate sunken spaces, open sunny flower gardens and a hill slope with rocks, ferns and grass steps. The rooms Wharton created almost a century ago still have distinct individual characters, with a long central staircase from the house to the gardens that cuts through broad grass terraces she sculpted into a steep hillside.
In neighboring Stockbridge, sculptor Daniel Chester French set up Chesterwood, his summer home and studio. Also in Stockbridge is Naumkeag, once the family vacation home of lawyer and diplomat, Joseph Choate whose daughter Mabel moved an 18th-century building called Mission House into the center of Stockbridge and commissioned a Colonial Revival garden around it. Other generous benefactors to the town were the Hoffmans who donated 15 acres to the Lenox Garden Club in the 1930s, over the years these acres have been landscaped and groomed and now form the Berkshire Botanical Garden.
The sculptor Daniel Chester French (1850-1931) is best known for creating Washington's Lincoln Memorial, his first commissioned work “The Minuteman,’’ is nearby in Concord's Minuteman National Historical Park. At his summer home he applied his artistic talents to his gardens, designing a stunning walk that begins and ends in his formal studio garden. There is a vine-covered pergola with a panoramic view of the valley that ends at a pair of white columns at the edge of a hemlock forest. A grassy hydrangea walk ends in a woodland circuit trail, which links a series of destinations: a sprawling ledge, clearings with benches, scenic overlooks and contemporary outdoor sculpture.
Pictures of this garden have always intrigued me. Three notable landscape architects and one free-spirited owner have created a mountainside jewel box with astonishing views of the valley below.
The most recent collaboration in the 1920s to 1950s was between landscape architect Fletcher Steele and owner Mabel Choate and the result is a garden of incredible whimsy punctuated with moments of grandeur.
There is a gaily painted pagoda-like structure set in a garden ringed by giant clam shells, an 'afternoon garden', with a boxwood parterre that frames small fountain pools and a pergola facing a panoramic valley view all of which is loosely enclosed by Steele’s take on Venetian gondola poles, linked by swags of nautical rope.
Then there are the iconic Blue Steps which descend a steep slope through a grove of white birches. Ribbon-like rose beds ripple through a grassy enclosure, Choate’s collection of Chinese antiquities, including an entire temple, decorate the Chinese Garden with a majestic moon gate.
This 1741 house was built by a missionary to the Mohicans back in the days when Stockbridge marked the Western frontier. In the 1920s Mabel Choate had it moved to Main Street from its original hillside location, restored the building and opened it to the public in 1930 as a museum honoring her parents. She hired Steele to design gardens suitable to the period. He created a Colonial garden with a series of compact, interconnected spaces with brick-edged paths separating rectangular beds for flowers, vegetables, herbs, and fruit trees. Like the antiques int the house the gardens are charming, although their abundant flowers are probably a more nostalgic rendering of a Colonial garden than the rather more utilitarian gardens of the time.
Berkshire Botanical Garden
These naturalistic gardens are designed to educate visitors with carefully labeled plant collections. A path through a gently sloping hillside encompasses 25 garden areas in and around a central lawn, which is punctuated by mature shade trees. There is plenty of shade and seating and the mature trees and shrubs integrate the landscape. Plant collections range from tiny sedums and alpine plants to imposing beeches. In late summer, a lavish daylily border showcases varieties in every color that can be wrung from the original orange and yellow flowers — black-red to salmon pink to exuberant lemon-yellow.
Edith Wharton Restoration
2 Plunkett St., Lenox
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, through Oct. 31. Adults $16, college students $13, seniors (62) $1 off, children ages 18 and under free; grounds pass $10, guided tours $2.
National Trust for Historic Preservation
4 Williamsville Road
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, through Oct. 11. Adults $15, children 18 and under free.
The Trustees of Reservations
Prospect Hill Road
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, through Columbus Day. Adults $15, members and children under 12 free.
The Trustees of Reservations
19 Main St., Stockbridge
Hours: Thu-Mon 11 a.m.- 3 p.m., through Columbus Day. Adult $6, Trustees members and children under 12 free.
Berkshire Botanical Garden
5 West Stockbridge Road
Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, through Columbus Day. Adults $10, seniors and students $7, children under 12 free.