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Inside Famed Landscape Designer Beatrix Farrand's New York Garden

Learn about Farrand's unique floral style and see how a team of spirited volunteers revived the historic century-old estate.

bellefield beatrix farrand anne symmes raking
Photography by: Jesse Chehak

“It is work, hard work . . . and at the same time, it is perpetual pleasure.” That’s how Beatrix Farrand, one of the most influential garden designers of the early 20th century, described her life’s calling. The niece of Edith Wharton, Farrand was the only female charter member of the American Society of Landscape Architects, founded in 1899. Over her 50-year career, she designed estates for the Morgans and Rockefellers, and spaces for Princeton and Yale Universities, as well as her lavish masterpiece, Dumbarton Oaks, in Washington, D.C. But tragically, few of her residential creations survive.

 

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bellefield beatrix garden blooms
Photography by: Jesse Chehak
The Beatrix Farrand Garden at Bellefield is divided into four borders that range in shade from creamy-white to pale-pink, fuchsia, and rich-purple flowers. In the deepest quadrant, shown here, decades old peonies mingle with spearlike Iris laevigata and low-growing Salvia nemorosa.

One rare gem, however, is thriving. Tucked away in Hyde Park, New York, a groundbreaking garden designed in 1912 by Farrand is bursting once again in a soft kaleidoscope of dreamy colors. Behind its revival is a spirited band of local volunteers, who discovered the site in a state of near ruin, rolled up their sleeves, and returned it to its former splendor, flower by beautiful flower.

 

Farrand devised Bellefield in 1912 for her cousin Thomas Newbold and his wife, Sarah. A striking union of simplicity and grandeur, naturalism and formal structure, the garden is enclosed by a stone wall adjoining a hemlock hedge and surrounds a rectangular lawn. Local fieldstones edge beds filled with perennials, annuals, and meadowy wildflowers. And the borders, which are organized by the unabashedly romantic colors of an impressionist’s palette, are devised to bloom continuously from spring through fall -- a bold break from the Victorian convention of planting annuals every few months.

 

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In the mid-1970s, descendants of the Newbold family donated the property to the U.S. National Parks Service, but over the following two decades, the garden languished. Its bones remained, but plants were lost, weeds took over, and hedges were both overgrown and ravaged by deer. Then, in 1994, gardeners discovered Bellefield and sprang into action, forming the nonprofit Beatrix Farrand Garden Association and hiring local horticulturist Anne Cleves Symmes to lead a restoration. Using old photographs and a similar plan from Farrand’s archive, Symmes and a small group of volunteers set to work reviving her unique plant combinations. More than a century after Bellefield’s inception, the work continues: Every Tuesday morning, volunteers show up to weed, deadhead, and plant the floriferous borders -- and carry forward a master’s timeless vision.

bellefield beatrix garden entry door
Photography by: Jesse Chehak
REMAKING AN ENTRANCE: In deference to Farrand’s original plans (preserved in her archive at the University of California, Berkeley), a local Eagle Scout rebuilt one of Bellefield’s gates and repaired the original Arts and Crafts–style hardware. The garden, part of the National Parks Service, is free and open daily; each June, a lecture marks Farrand’s birthday and the blooming of the gorgeous old peonies.
bellefield beatrix farrand landscape makeover
Photography by: Jesse Chehak
FROM THE GROUND UP: From top: In addition to tending Bellefield, Symmes plans its educational programs, which were a key part of Farrand’s mission. The garden shown mid-restoration. Today the original owners’ 18th-century house stands along with the garden, and is an office for the NPS.
bellefield border flowers
Photography by: Jesse Chehak
BEAUTIFUL CREATURES: When replanting Bellefield’s borders, Symmes tried to work with varieties from Farrand’s time whenever possible and used newer cultivars, in keeping with the Farrand aesthetic. Clockwise from top left: Aquilegia vulgaris ‘Munsead White’, Digitalis purpurea, Cosmos bipinnatus ‘Sonata White’, Antirrhinum majus ‘Rocket Pink’, Iris laevigata, and Paeonia laciflora.

The Grand Scheme

 

Beatrix Farrand’s personal touch is all over Bellefield. A student of Charles Sprague Sargent, the founder of the Arnold Arboretum, in Boston, she traveled through Europe studying gardens and saw firsthand the work of the great English designers Gertrude Jekyll and William Robinson. Their naturalistic approach inspired her style, which is still popular today. Here are a few classic Farrand concepts, and her favorite flora to keep an eye out for at Bellefield.

Embrace Native Species

Raised in New York City, Farrand spent her summers at her family’s home in Maine, and grew to love the state’s rugged landscapes and wild plants. Asters, tall meadow rue, and dwarf crested irises add some of that untamed spirit to her designs.

Plant For Continuous Blooms

Farrand densely planted her beds with bulbs, perennials, and annuals; in fact, she would sometimes pack three diferent plants into one tiny area. The result is nonstop fireworks: After peonies finish their show in June, lilies and summer hyacinths pop up, hiding the dull peony foliage and putting on their own commanding performance.

Blend Diverse Textures

The long, narrow lawn, a famous feature of Farrand’s gardens, is a smooth, quiet spot amid the voluptuous, overflowing borders. In each bed, she combined finely textured plants, such as baby’s breath, with bold ones, like larger-petaled phlox and yucca.

Pick Colors Like A Painter

Farrand often compared her work as a designer to that of an artist, and treated her plants like a palette. When planning the borders at Bellefield, she considered the hues of both flowers and foliage: In the cream, blush, and gray section, for example, silver-leaved varieties like lamb’s ears and santolina are grown just for the soft tone of their leaves.

 

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Watch: Martha plants a window box inspired by a garden designed by Beatrix Farrand