The past is in bloom at Harkness for state's annual Historic Garden Day

Waterford - Dorothy Cheo, of Niantic, and her husband Peter make a point of going every year to Harkness Memorial State Park for Connecticut Historic Garden Day.

"I have a strong feeling for this place," said Cheo, explaining that she became involved in volunteer group Friends of Harkness in the 1990s when former Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. said he was opposed to renovating the Harkness mansion. The mansion has since been renovated and is now frequently used for weddings.

Cheo was among about 50 people who visited the park Sunday to tour the grounds of Harkness, one of 14 sites across the state participating in the annual celebration of historic gardens, which tour guide Chris Callahan said was nearly 10 years old. The Florence Griswold Museum in East Lyme also participated in the celebration, offering free outdoor activities for the afternoon.

Callahan, a volunteer with Friends of Harkness, taught one group of visitors about topics ranging from Mary Harkness' floral preferences to what it takes to keep the park going.

During a pause in the West Garden, Callahan told the tour participants about landscape gardener Beatrix Farrand's style of arranging gardens to evoke watercolor paintings.

"As you walk through, you can kind of see colors go into each other," he said. "Beatrix thought of herself as a garden artist."

Farrand was the niece of novelist Edith Wharton and was one of the founders of the American Society of Landscape Architects, according to a Friends of Harkness pamphlet.

While crossing the East Garden, he pointed out the many purple clusters of heliotropes. The flowers were Mary Harkness' favorite, he said.

He repeatedly emphasized that the gardens were intended to appear as close as possible to how they would have looked in the 1930s. As an example, he pointed out two original Chinese dog statues in the East Garden.

Waterford resident Diane Holohan said that she visits Harkness on a regular basis yet still learns new things and stumbles upon parts of the park she didn't know existed each time she makes a stop at the grounds.

She said Sunday during the tour that she never knew the mansion was the third to stand in its location, the first two having burned down. She also said she had never seen the Alpine Rock Garden that was included in the tour.

"Every time you come you see something different," she said.

Callahan touted the role of staff and volunteers in keeping Harkness alive and running by grooming the grounds and lobbying for the needs of the park.

He said Friends of Harkness was crucial in securing money for renovations to the mansion so that it could be opened for weddings, which he said were an important source of funding for the park.

"This isn't done by elves in the night," he said after the tour.

Some things don't fit in the state parks budget, he said during the tour. As an example, he commented on how the rock garden was overgrown.

This year's tours fell roughly two weeks after staff finished planting gardens, according to seasonal park ranger Zach Cash. Cash said the park's new greenhouse had facilitated quicker planting than last year, when park staff were still planting in July.

He commented that this year staff were able to grow 1,700 heliotrope plants thanks to the greenhouse, more than he recalled the park ever growing.

t.townsend@theday.com

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