Off the Clock: The splendor of New Hampshire gardens

“Of all the wonderful things in the wonderful universe of God, nothing seems to me more surprising than the planting of a seed in the blank earth and the result thereof,” wrote 19th century New Hampshire poet Celia Thaxter.

With the winter months behind us, and the raining days of May subsiding, the earth has begun to put forth its annual surprise of color, texture and scent for all to enjoy.

The varieties of gardens in the Granite State are nearly as varied as the blooms within them. Some exist solely for the sheer appreciation of their beauty; others offer visitors the added benefit of indulging their love of history and appreciation for nature.

Prescott Park on Marcy Street in Portsmouth, with its fountains and tree-lined walkways, sets 10 acres of gardens, walkways and stretches of lawn against the waterway of New Hampshire’s Port City. The perfect place for a stroll or weekend picnic, Prescott Park is also the venue for the Prescott Park Arts Festival. The annual Chowderfest in early June and the Chili Cook-off at the end of September bookend four months of music and entertainment, giving visitors lots of excuses to visit the park’s beautiful gardens.

“We’re here for something almost every week,” said Darcy Nichols of Newmarket. “All the events are great, but my favorite thing is watching the garden change over the summer months. There’s always something new, and it’s always beautiful.”

A short drive down Route 1A into North Hampton leads garden-lovers to the Fuller Gardens. Walkways edged with wildflowers link five separate gardens full of rosebushes (2,000 of them), hostas, perennials and annuals. A conservatory of tropical and desert plants is located at the far end of the two-acre parcel.

For those who enjoy a more natural setting there’s the garden at Lost River at Kinsman Notch, North Woodstock. Glacial carvings of gorges and caves make Lost River one of New Hampshire’s greatest examples of natural history. The park’s garden sits like a proverbial pot of gold near the bottom of the gorge’s 3/4-mile trail. More than 300 varieties of native wildflowers — including the elusive Lady Slipper — mix with ferns, mosses, shrubs and trees along the edge of Lost River’s trout pond.

Rhododendron State Park in Fitzwilliam is another natural garden. For Jim and Kathy Craine of Keene it’s a perfect place to unwind on a sunny spring weekend.

“We visit every year – usually a couple of times,” Jim said. “This time of year is nice. It’s peaceful and everything is coming to life. But the place is amazing in July when the rhodies are in bloom, they’re really a sight to see.”

The “rhodies” are those that make up a 16 acre grove – the largest grove in New England — enveloped within the park’s 2,723 acres. A National Natural Landmark, the rhododendron grove washes the park in pink blooms during the middle of July. A 0.6-mile trail encircling the grove is edged with wildflowers native to the area and joins the Little Monadnock Mountain Trail, leading visitors along a mile-long hike to the intersection of the 117-mile Metacomet-Monadnock Trail.

Vistas of Mount Monadnock, Pack Monadnock and North Pack Monadnock greet visitors at this trail intersection.

History and horticulture go hand in hand at many New Hampshire gardens.

The homestead of Celia Thaxter, one of New Hampshire’s most beloved poets, is one example. Located on Appledore Island, the largest of the Isles of Shoals, Thaxter’s garden is perhaps one of the more difficult to reach, involving a drive, ferry ride and quarter-mile hike. Public visits to the garden are overseen by Shoals Marine Laboratory of the University of New Hampshire and Cornell University and are limited to Wednesdays.

Planted by Thaxter in the late 1800s, the garden was brought back to its original glory in 1977 by laboratory founder Dr. John Kingsbury. Many of Thaxter’s original plants — snowdrops, hops vine and day lilies — still remain in the Appledore garden. Nearly 100 other varieties, including Rugosa roses, poppies and woodruff grow near the foundation that supported Thaxter’s cottage before fire destroyed it, along with her father’s hotel, in 1914.

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