Port City garden

Colonial society brought Portsmouth's Moffatt-Ladd House garden back to life

Special to the Union Leader |
August 05. 2013 7:01PM

A grape vine blossoms on an arbor in the gardens of the Moffatt-Ladd House in Portsmouth. (Ralph Morang Photo)

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the third article in an occasional series profiling some of New Hampshire's historically significant gardens that are open to the public.

PORTSMOUTH -- By 1912, gardens once teeming with literally tens of thousands of tulips and bursting with all manner of fruit tree had been left for dead.

"From 1900 to 1912 no one was caring for the gardens, so they became very run-down," said Liz Hoefler, chairman of the garden committee of the Moffatt-Ladd House and Garden in Portsmouth. "Especially because at that period it was a very rough part of town and it's obvious people sort of came in and took advantage of (the) fruit trees and such. So when we took it over, it was in very bad shape."

That rough part of town was Market Street, overlooking the waterfront and now lined with tony boutiques and restaurants.

It was in 1912 that The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America in the State of New Hampshire took over the house and gardens. Populating the Moffatt-Ladd grounds with plants from their own gardens, members of the Dames brought the gardens back to life. Today, the Moffatt-Ladd House gardens are one of dozens of historical gardens in the state that are open to the public.

The house was originally built in 1763 by John Moffatt, one of the wealthiest men in the colony of New Hampshire prior to the Revolution, according to house officials.

"Through letters and records, we know that a garden was being put in at the same time," Hoefler said. "Probably mostly for looks, for beauty— but also some utilitarian use (with) herbs a few veggies maybe, we don't know for sure."

A major addition and legend came to the garden came in 1776. As the family story goes, General William Whipple—who married his cousin Katherine Moffatt, who was John Moffatt's sister-in-law— came back from signing the Declaration of Independence with a handful of horse chestnuts from Philadelphia.

One of the nuts was planted in the yard in commemoration of his participation in that momentous event. The resulting tree is still standing and, Hoefler said, "it gets very, very special care."

But it would be the next generation, when Alexander Hamilton Ladd's family moved in, that the gardens would become glorious. Ladd lovingly worked the garden from 1850 until his death in 1900. The contents of his garden are known only because he kept notes on what he was working on in a journal.

"He was a serious gardener," Hoefler said. "Primarily he speaks of having 120 fruit trees and literally thousands of tulips, because he speaks of having a bad season when he lost over 60,000 — which is hard to comprehend. He details (in the journal) a lot of what he did, and it had to have been an awesome garden."
It's even believed, based on what he wrote in his journal, that he developed new strains of tulips. He also talks about meticulously sifting rocks out of his soil and using them as ballast on his merchant ship and scraping horse manure off Market Street for use as fertilizer on his plants.
After Ladd's death there was no one to care for the gardens and so they fell to ruin for 12 years until the Colonial Dames stepped in."(The Dames) tried to decipher where the gardens had been," Hoefler recounts. The group's garden chairman "was adamant she wanted to make it a Colonial Garden, which we call today a Colonial Revival Garden. So the gardens ultimately became more geometric, which they definitely are today. You can't number the gardens. In the main part of the garden there are four gardens that are geometric, and then there are side gardens and there are groups of roses and a circular trellis with a rose on it."
Ladd also kept bees in the garden, and beehives are part of today's garden as well.

Many of the original plantings by The Dames are still in the gardens including peonies, daylilies, phlox, black eyed susan's, pink and red bee balm, yellow yarrow, old fashioned golden glow, Joe Pie weed, balloon flowers, a very unusual upright clematis, tall verbena and tiger lilies.
Today, a hired gardener works on the garden for six hours per week and then a team of four volunteers work for another combined 25 hours per week. The majority of that work is deadheading, Hoefler said.

"You have to keep the color going and to do that we do have to deadhead these plants," she said. "That's the major thing to do every time we come in, but in addition there's weeding, transplanting, there's a plant sale that we run from June to the end of the season.

"What we hear so often from people is, 'We had no idea this garden was here,'" Hoefler said. "...The town has developed around us. We have these big four- and five-story buildings around us and going up, and this is a little oasis of peace and solitude and beauty."
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