Connecticut history from the ground up

A view of Harkness Mansion from the sweeping lawn and gardens.
A view of Harkness Mansion from the sweeping lawn and gardens.

Who says you can't reinvent history? Or, at least, replant it? On Sunday, June 23, the team behind Connecticut's Historic Gardens marks 10 years of doing just that with Connecticut's Historic Gardens Day at 14 historic locations throughout the state.

In 2002, a group of tenders of various historic sites in Connecticut pooled resources to get some visibility by participating in the Connecticut Flower and Garden Show in Hartford. Ten years later, the group continues its work to raise awareness of "distinctive historic sites and gardens within Connecticut's borders."

Locally, the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, the New London Historical Society and Shaw Mansion and Harkness Memorial State Park in Waterford will participate and offer special events that illustrate the unique nature of their gardens.

And really, what's a historic house without a historic garden? These living installations provide additional context to the historical periods preserved in a given museum; or they simply offer a window into yet another historic period.

"In terms of Connecticut's Historic Gardens, we deem 'historic' to be gardens designed by a known designer or reflect an historical garden style or design philosophy," explains Tammi Flynn, a spokesperson for Connecticut's Historic Gardens.

Historical relevance, though, doesn't necessarily exclude creative expression.

"The gardens in New London County have great personality," Flynn notes.

At the Florence Griswold Museum, the resident beds reflect the eclectic style of Miss Florence herself, who was an avid gardener. None too formal, Miss Florence opted for a hodgepodge of plantings that offered splashes of color. Visitors to the museum can expect to see variations of hollyhocks, iris, foxglove, heliotrope, phlox, cranesbill and day lilies.

Admission to the gardens will be free on Connecticut's Historic Gardens Day, and painting supplies, refreshments and artist demonstrations will be made available to visitors.

Over at Harkness, park staff and volunteers will lead free tours of the gardens that surround the circa-1906 Roman Renaissance Revival-style mansion. The gardens reflect the work of Beatrix Farrand — one of the first noted female landscape architects in the United States — whom Edward and Mary Harkness commissioned to design their gardens from 1918 to 1929. Farrand's designs combine Asian statuary, wrought-iron fencing and benches with plants that reflect Mary Harkness' preferred colors.

Visitors who prefer to cover as much historical ground as possible might consider a stop at the New London Historical Society's Shaw Mansion.

"You get two time periods at a time at the Shaw Mansion — a formal Victorian garden in front of the house and a colonial garden in the rear of the house," Flynn says.

The colonial garden is a nod to the mansion's heritage; Capt. Nathaniel Shaw constructed the building in the 1750s. His great-grandson, Dr. Nathaniel Shaw Perkins, inherited the structure in 1845; the Victorian garden illustrates that transition.

And don't forget to take a look at the mansion's accompanying summerhouse, intriguingly referred to as a "gentleman's folly." This little getaway was constructed in 1792 and offers views of the Thames River.

A local croquet club will play a match and offer demonstrations at the mansion during Connecticut's Historic Gardens Day, alongside a plant sale. Refresh after the game with strawberry shortcake and lemonade.


What: The 10th annual Connecticut's Historic
Gardens Day

When: Sunday, June 23, from noon to 4 p.m.

Where: In New London County, Florence Griswold Museum, 96 Lyme St., Old Lyme; New London County Historical Society and Shaw Mansion, 11 Blinman St., New London; and Harkness Memorial State Park, 275 Great Neck Road, Waterford.

Info:, which offers a complete list of participating gardens statewide.


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