Gardens of historical significance

The Fells in Newbury blossomed under its second owner

Special to the Union Leader
July 15. 2013 5:35PM
The Old Garden was The Fells' first formal garden, built in 1909. It was restored 100 years later and still has its original layout. (COURTESY)
Visiting The Fells

Hours: The gardens and trails of The Fells are open daily, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The main house is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Tours: Guided tours of the gardens, led by members of the landscape staff, are offered at 1 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday until mid-August. Tours last 40 minutes and are included in the cost of admission.

Admission: $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and students, $4 for children ages 6-17, free for age 5 and under. Families of 2 adults and 2 or more children ages 6 or above, $25.

More info: The Fells is located at 465 Route 103A, Newbury. For more information call 763-4789 or visit

EDITOR'S NOTE: New Hampshire is home to a number of gardens of historical significance that are open to the public. This is the first in an occasional series profiling some of them.

NEWBURY -- When John Hay inhabited The Fells about 120 years ago, the property lived up to its name: a vast expanse of wild moorland.

"During those first 15 years, it was mainly just fells land; you can picture grazing sheep and rocks and grasses," said David Bashaw, acting executive director for The Fells.

But in the hands of Hay's son Clarence, the grounds were transformed into the lush and color-filled wonderland that still exists today.

"Walking through the gardens really is like walking back in time," Bashaw said.

The Fells started out its life as a summer house for John Hay, Abraham Lincoln's private secretary who later became secretary of state. Built in 1891, the post-colonial style house was Hay's refuge until his death in 1905.

Clarence Hay and his wife Alice inherited the house.

"It wasn't until 1909 that the first formal garden was built,'" Bashaw said. "And that was the 'Old Garden.'"

The Old Garden, was restored in 2009. In that case, restoration meant cutting back 100 years worth of plants that had become overgrown, replacing some grasses and plants with historically accurate plants using old photographs as guides, and repairing the fountain and pebble areas.

The Old Garden still has its original layout, said The Fells' master gardener Joe Thompson, but now it also contains plants that can handle the shade that has developed over the years.

"The toad lilies and the bugbane are real standouts for the perennials, but the Kousa dogwood put on a beautiful show this year," Thompson said. "Actually it did this everywhere on site. We have several. One is still blooming in the Pebble Court at the main house."

Two more gardens were added in the 1920s: the rose terrace and the perennial border.

The rose terrace was done in the early part of that decade and included the installation of a stone wall and urn fountain. Included in this garden are hybrid tea roses and a climbing hydrangea on the wall.

"I think (the choice of flowers) was a combination of reflecting what was popular," Bashaw said. "But also Clarence had taken some courses in horticultural landscape design so he probably had some favorites."

Bashaw said Hay's wife, Alice, also had her favorites as seen in the perennial garden, where flowers bloom in in red, white and blue - but never yellow.

"She apparently didn't like yellow," Bashaw said.

Currently, Thompson said, the perennial border is displaying Filipendula rubra "Venusta," also known as Martha Washington's Plume, and a variety of Salvia verticillata, known as "Purple rain."

"They're looking great and are easy to grow," Thompson said

However beautiful the flower gardens are, it's the Rock Garden for which The Fells is best known, Thompson said. Clarence Hay built it in the 1930s. Bashaw said this garden, which extends along the side of the house and into the woods, was a labor of love for Hay and an opportunity to do some experimentation.

All of Clarence Hay's notes on flowers that worked and didn't work are in the collection at The Fells. What he ended up with was more than 600 different species of rock and alpine plants that he tended.

"We have such a diversity of conditions from one garden to another," Thompson said. "Many of the plants in the (Rock Garden) have turned my head since I began to work here. I've begun to incorporate them into designs for private clients.

"This is where the diversity of conditions in one garden really goes to extremes. The plants near the rill and the bog - man-made - all have extensive water needs, while other areas are excessively drained and bake in the sun all day."

Though there are several actual gardens, Thompson is quick to point out that the Fells estate is itself a canvas filled with beautiful plants and wild things to discover.

"There are areas visitors walk through that may not feel like gardens, but they're worried over and cared for as though gardens," Thompson said.

"These are often the places I like the best - the mosses, lichens, ferns and shady perennials along the main drive, and the naturalized heathers, lowbush blueberry, highbush blueberry, along with the mosses and exposed ledge near the Roosevelt Maple.

"These areas don't really stand out to everyone, but they are still a big part of the experience."

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