Designed in 1804 by Daniel Crommelin Verplanck and his daughter Mary Anna, our English-style garden attracted many visitors from the Hudson Valley and beyond for well over a century. Originally the garden comprised six acres, but later was reduced to four. In this space one could find fruit trees, vegetables and flowers, formal box-edged beds, pergolas, a sun dial and a brook.
Between 1827 and 1866, the garden was managed by James Brown, as escaped slave from Maryland. In his journal, which he kept for 40 years, James recorded riots, epidemics, steamboat races and explosions, visitors to Mount Gulian, births and deaths, as well as daily calendar of weather, planting and cultivating. He writes of taking the ferry to Newburgh to buy his plants from Andrew Jackson Downing’s nursery.
In 1880, Virginia Eliza Verplanck, wife of William, assumed the responsibility for the garden. Virginia was deeply aware of her legacy. In her essay “The Verplanck Garden” she writes: “our old garden has been a joy to the wives of the Verplanks since the beginning of the last century…Think how these masses of fraxinella have been blooming there since 1804! I feel as if I never could do them enough honor.”
Virginia especially delighted in what had become an annual June event: taking lighted candles at night into the garden to light the fraxinella, commonly called the gasplant. She writes, “The flame leaps from blossom to blossom from the base to the point of the spike, leaving the flowers unharmed, for it is only a sticky oil exuding from the stalk which ignites.”
The old-fashioned roses
which had been in the garden for decades received Virginia’s particular
attention. The yellow Harrison rosebush, by her own account, measured 12 feet
high and 23 feet in circumference. At one point, she counted 140 rose bushes
in the garden. Like many gardeners of her day, Virginia shared her knowledge
of gardening by writing books. In 1913 she wrote Every Day in May Garden
followed by A Year in My Garden.
Following the 1931 fire, the garden fell into disrepair. The open fields became filled with trees and brush. Everything was taken over by vines. The Society was somewhat reluctant to take on a restoration project. But in 1995, with a map from 1912 and Mrs. Verplanck’s books, volunteers entered the overgrown garden determined to find the original flower garden. They walked over fallen trees, cut through the prolific akebia vines, tried to avoid the poison ivy and made an estimate as to where the garden possibly once was. Mrs. Verplanck’s book was invaluable. She gave exact measurements as to the width of the outer gravel path, the entire flower garden’s dimensions (50 feet by 50 feet) and the location of the well in relation to the pergolas. The volunteers spotted nine upright posts in the forest, all wrapped with akebia. Incredibly the posts turned out to be the remains of the large pergola depicted on the map. Through trial and error, they also located the well, covered by vines and ground covering two feet thick.
Progress has been made on the restoration of the formal garden. Sixty foot trees have been cut down, vines and tree stumps dug up, original paths outlining the garden discovered, the garden plotted, a supply of flowers and boxwoods planted, and the restored paths filled with gravel. A gift of yuccas, roses, and peonies, all descending from the original 1804 plants, was made to Mount Gulian by Anne Durland, a Verplanck descendant. In the late 1950’s, many years after the fire, Ann had made several trips to her grandmother’s garden bringing back to her own home an array of plants that had survived and she had been fortunate to discover. Today these plants continue to flourish in the restored garden, along with other heritage plantings. When visiting be sure to sit on the stone bench near the pergola draped with Catawba and Isabella grapes. Take in the garden lovingly cared for by James Brown and the Verplanck women.