After the flood, restoring the Mount’s gardens — againMore Info
Lenox — How does a renowned garden, visited by 40,000 people a year, pull itself up by its bootstraps after being decimated by a flood? And how can this be accomplished within a few days of concerts, talks, readings, plays and, last but not least, weddings?
As The Mount’s blog describes the catastrophe: “…last Thursday’s [June 26] sunrise came with a devastating revelation: the night’s torrential downpour had wreaked havoc on our prized French flower gardens as well as parts of the road and pathways on the property.”
This is accurate: most of the formal gardens remain intact, although the French garden eerily conjured the image of a narrow wake left by a tornado.
Having once served on The Mount’s board, (formerly, Edith Wharton Restoration), and written about its gardens while being involved in its early days of restoration in the 1990s, I wanted to see its condition today first hand. How was this beautiful garden designed by landscape architect, Beatrix J. Farrand, (Edith Wharton’s niece), being restored yet again? What fast track remediation could be accomplished before the busy tourist season? And how might such damage be prevented in the future?
On July 1st, I interviewed Susan Wissler, executive director; Ross Jolly, facilities director, and Laura Walton, head gardener. Before meeting them, I walked out on the beautiful terrace of Wharton’s home built in 1902. I peered over the marble balustrade displaying her particular penchant for formal European gardens. At first nothing seemed different. The long , elegant allée of 48 linden trees was still standing; the lawn was bright green and mowed, and the boxwoods trimmed to a T.
Looking to the left towards the formal French parterre garden, I was greeted by a different sight. A team of workers, tools and machines was busy. I flashed back to the gardens’restoration project that had cost over $3 million a decade ago. Here yet again, was one of its principal landscapers: Ben Webster.
Honey Sharp (HS): So what did you discover when you arrived the next morning after the storm?
Ross Jolly (RJ): We first discovered major damage at the main entrance on Plunkett Street. Parts of the driveway were washed out by the torrential rains and seriously eroded.
Susan Wissler (SW): We had never experienced anything like it before. Six inches had fallen in less than 5 hours, much in the span of an hour. We calculated that a foot of water had rushed down the .5 mile-long driveway and lower paths. Our small stream coming from spring had turned into a river.
RJ: At some point during the night, the entire garden had been submerged; by morning, much of it was covered by about 20 tons of road and pathway debris.
HS: Were other areas hard hit in the vicinity?
RJ: Yes. In fact Lenoxdale and Lenox were put under a state of emergency. Lenoxdale was particularly hard hit.
HS: What brought about such damage? Of course, there was rain but this was unprecedented.
SW: A major culvert had been blocked by debris including road gravel, crushed limestone, small branches and mud. Smaller culverts were impacted as well.
HS: How did you deal with the situation?
SW: We first had to close the Mount, but this was only for a day. We put a restoration team immediately together. Ben Webster, our former restoration landscaper, postponed other commitments and brought a crew of five as did Laura Walton, our head gardener.
RJ: Our first goal was to reopen the road, driveway and paths and make them accessible and safe for cars and pedestrians. With a bucket loader and a track hoe/loader we began to clear and rebuild. We also used old-fashioned shovels to remove the debris including sand, gravel and larger stones.
HS: What do you anticipate the expenses to be?
SW: Somewhere between $60,000 and $80,000. We saved a lot though by acting immediately.
Walking down a formerly smooth, white limestone path, with evidence today of small water gullies on each side strewn with rocks, to the renowned French garden near the “Lime Walk,” my eye caught sight of the lovely central fountain with its dolphin statuette. Bordered by pink and purple annual Angelonias, it was bubbling quietly with clear, pristine water. Pink and white astilbes stood tall in the four quadrant beds and even alliums showed how they had toughed it out during the storm. Standing here in the bright sun while someone was raking silt off the grass, I met with Laura Walton (LW), the head gardener.
HS: I know from the photographs that less than a week ago this garden, or what Edith Wharton would call “outdoor room,” was submerged by water. It’s amazing how relatively good it looks today.
LW: We’re really lucky we got to it right away and were able to save most of the plants. Members of the crew made themselves available overnight. Aside from heavy-duty work using machines such as a front-loader we hand-dug out the annuals such as New Guinea Impatiens and Nicotiana and put them in a holding bed. Others such as petunias were ruined. By quickly removing the sand, gravel and silt around the perennials, we were able to save them. You have to admire their resilience.
RJ: There was also the fountain to deal with. It had to be emptied of debris and thoroughly scrubbed.
HS: You’ve been busy non-stop. What are some other tasks before your next scheduled wedding here on July 12 and the upcoming series of cultural events?
RJ: Aside from needing much more compost, crushed stone, mulch and annuals, we have the big task of re-crowning and redressing the driveway. For long-term protection, we also need a better barrier between the paths, the garden beds and the lawn.
HS: Finally, Susan, what are your priorities and what can you can do to prevent this from reoccurring? As we know, storms are becoming more torrential.
SW: Our top priorities are to make the property passable for vehicles and wheel-chair accessible; revive and resuscitate the gardens and improve the crucial draining systems such as the metal culverts. They definitely need to be stronger and bigger.
HS: How close are you to meeting your goals including of course your estimated costs?
SW: In less than a week, we’ve raised $26,000 which includes a gift of $10,000 from the Berkshire Bank Foundation. There’s been a huge outpouring of support from our members and the community. Many offer to volunteer but we really need to focus on our existing team. Most importantly we need to emphasize to the public ongoing events such as the Jazz Caféon weekends, the lecture series and theater. We’re known now for our many programs and been called “the literary hub of the Berkshires.”
HS: I feel confident you’ll meet you goal. After all, people like to see gardens restored to their former glory.
To contribute to the Mount’s Emergency Fund, contact Susan Wissler at: SWissler@edithwharton.org