Weir Farm’s historic gardens on display

Jeannette Ross photos
Many people are familiar with the Sunken Garden at the Weir Farm National Historic Site, but how many have visited the Secret Garden? Both gardens will be the focus of attention on Sunday, June. 25, as part of Connecticut’s Historic Gardens Day. From noon to 4, there will be a ranger or volunteer on hand to show off the gardens, identify plants, and answer questions. As it does every weekend it is open, the site will put out watercolor kits for those inspired by what they see.

To be a member of Connecticut Historic Gardens, sites must not only have a garden that is historically significant, but at least one historic house accessible to the public.

The gardens at Weir Farm, home of American Impressionist painter J. Alden Weir, were designed by two of his daughters, Cora and Dorothy, each of whom inherited a part of the 248-acre property.

The Sunken Garden, which is near the visitor center, is the legacy of Cora Weir Burlingham. Created in a low area left when a road was built up, work began in 1932 and was completed in 1940. Cora’s original planting design no longer exists, said Greg Waters, Weir Farm’s integrated resources program manager. It was redesigned in 1958, he said, and then again in 1998 by Norma Williams of the Wilton Garden Club to resemble as closely as possible Cora’s plant and design choices..

Williams worked from historic photos to maintain the “basic bones” of the garden, Waters said. “What holds it together is the serpentine of boxwoods and columns of boxwoods,” he said.

The columnar boxwoods are a modern substitute for the original choice of dwarf Alberta spruce, which he said, is not deer resistant “and not dwarf.” Cora’s original choice of perennials was also replaced by deer-resistant varieties which include an unusual dwarf aster called Purple dome, as well as columbine, snakeroot, yellow foxglove, perennial geranium, pulmonaria, and spiderwort.

“Cora had it planted for spring and fall — probably because she wasn’t here in the summer,” Waters said, but today the garden is planted for all seasons.

Along with the sunken garden, Cora created the terraces across the road and enjoyed container plantings around the house, something a dedicated group of volunteers, called the Garden Gang, maintains.

Secret garden

When the park was established in 1990, all that remained of Dorothy Weir Young’s secret garden were the remnants of a sundial, part of a fountain, some stone work, and a few plants.

It is thought this was a flower garden planted by Anna Baker Weir, the artist’s wife. Four paintings or sketches executed by Weir in 1905 depict a small flower garden near his studio. A photo from that time also exists, showing the family around the fountain.

“There was no planting guide, but we’ve made some good guesses,” Waters said as to what was originally there.

This garden was restored by the Ridgefield Garden Club and when members began work in 1994, the fence surrounding the garden had been long gone, but archeological testing revealed spacing for the posts that were recreated.

The original boxwoods were still there, but had grown to a spindly 16 feet tall.

“They cut them back, but they couldn’t get them to grow right, so they took cuttings,” Waters said, and essentially created clones.

Here, deer are not a problem since in addition to the fence, a thick Victorian shrub called Deutzia surrounds it, creating a screen, making the garden a “secret.”

With no deer to worry about, garden club members planted the handsome garden with an heirloom musk rose, peonies, day lilies, asters, phlox, and yucca as well as the small boxwoods. The sundial and fountain were replaced with the same designs.

Eighteen gardens across the state will participate in Historic Gardens Day. Information: