A Visit to Manchester

Two Gardens a Century Apart

Manchester (Vermont) is more than just a big shopping experience. It is also the home of two splendid public gardens.

D51-0695These two gardens, just four miles apart, are separated in time by exactly one hundred years. And, as such, they provide the attentive visitor a quick lesson in how garden fashions have evolved over the past century.

The first, created in 1907, graces the splendid manor house of Hildene, private summer home of Robert Todd Lincoln (son of President Lincoln) and his wife Mary.



Now thousands of people visit Hildene annually, many coming specifically to enjoy the huge formal garden which is laid out with geometric precision, emulating the grand gardens of old Europe.



And, for a complete contrast, garden aficionados will be delighted to discover a lovely contemporary garden tucked away behind the expansive Northshire bookstore. This is a quintessential 21st century garden, complete with informal flowing lines, artistic stonework and an eclectic mix of flowers and shrubs.



It is right in the heart of Manchester, very close to the new roundabout in Manchester, recently constructed to replace the infamous ‘malfunction junction’. But, despite its central location, this lovely garden is often overlooked by the visitor.

So, next time you are in Manchester, after browsing Northshire’s extensive bookstacks and perhaps finding that perfect book, be sure to leave through the rear door and pay a visit to their delightful ‘back garden’.

The gardens of Hildene


Visiting Hildene is to take a trip back in time. After entering the main gates and strolling up the carriage road flanked by tall trees you come to the large circular driveway and the imposing mansion set on a high promontory; you have clearly ‘arrived’.



Continue on around behind the mansion to the long rear terrace, and you will be facing Hoyt garden, an amazing creation that is the ultimate in formality.


The Lincoln’s daughter, Jesse, designed this garden as a birthday gift for her mother, Mary. Using the sweeping flat space behind the house, she styled the garden after a French parterre to resemble a stained-glass cathedral window. Looking down from her bedroom in the center of the house Mary would be able to absorb its entire panorama in a single glance.

And, even when viewed it from the ground-level terrace, as in the picture above, you will be immediately aware of the pivotal central axis, running southwest and flanked by four symmetrical quadrants each containing a small central lawn.  In beds in each quadrant have complex outlines, all delineated by low clipped privet hedges.

D51-0756The long axis terminates in a semi-circular rose garden backed by an imposing pergola and a grand view back to the house.

The Hoyt garden is justly famous for its peony collection, where recently over 1000 different types of peonies have been carefully documented against century-old records. One year we visited Hildene in mid June and were treated to an amazing peony extravaganza.

D51-0708But summer does not end when the peonies stop blooming. The beds also contain plenty of later blooming perennials, including lilies and daylilies, salvia, Veronicrastum, Cimicifuga, feverfew and shasta daisies, with a different color theme assigned to each of the four quadrants.

D51-0710The large estate offers plenty of other attractions for the garden-minded visitor, starting with the ‘not to be missed’ containers of tender plants set in the shady porches around the house. Their big leaves and exotic color schemes surely made this gardener envious.


The vegetable garden looks nicely productive, but the practical side of me noted its long distance from the main house, clearly not very convenient for popping out to get for a lettuce for lunch.

Everything about Hildene reminds us that it required a commensurately large staff to support daily life on the estate.

The Northshire garden

After visiting Hildene the garden tucked away behind the Northshire bookstore will come as a complete contrast. Created about ten years ago, it was a collaboration of garden designer Carrie Chalmers and her stonemason brother Cameron.



Although it borders on a parking lot, this is a surprisingly intimate garden, where people can stroll around, perhaps stopping awhile to read or chat.  And the upkeep, though not negligible, is vastly less than that needed at Hildene.






The space uses two levels, a narrow upper level and a more expansive lower level, separated by a meandering stone retaining wall and connecting steps. Be sure to cast you eyes upwards to admire the interesting mix of overhanging shrubs along the upper level, creating a tableau of texture and color all season long. One standout is the bronze colored Physocarpus ‘Diablo’.




In this garden, the first thing you notice is the absence of lawn. Instead the walking spaces (or negative space) throughout the lower level are created with finely crushed bluestone.

So—gardens do not need lawns to be complete!!



The second thing you notice is the garden’s complex spatial layout, delineated by stunning stonework. And you can’t miss the beautiful blue metal butterfly and some island stones set among the crushed bluestone.

Gardens today are much more than the sum of their plants!


YA9V5445-aOn the lower level the flowerbeds are all slightly elevated, a nice touch that brings everything closer. They are edged with substantial stonewalls and flat capstones that create extended seating areas. And since all the plants in these beds were thriving in mid-summer presumably plenty of good-quality topsoil mixed with compost was brought in at the outset.

The flowerbeds are filled with easy-care perennials of contrasting shapes, such as the tall spikes of Veronicratstum and shorter spikes of Salvia and Nepeta, versus the daisy-like flowers of Leucanthemum and Coreopsis. And the magenta poppy mallow, Callirhoe involucrata, makes a brilliant splash as it weaves between its taller companions.

And finally, clumps of tall grasses, used to create a visual barrier with the parking lot, are a nice way to avoid interfering with snow removal in the winter.

Vive la différence

Two gardens, and a century apart.  What has changed, and what do they tell us about the ways we like to garden today?

Here are some of my conclusions about the garden at the Northshire Bookstore and its message for today’s gardeners:

We like to enjoy our gardens up close.

We enjoy informality, both in our lives and in our gardens.

We combine shrubs for structure combined with perennials for spontaneity

And, last but not least, our gardens must be easy to maintain.

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