Written by Erica Max
March 1, 2008
Research to date has given us insights into Polly Wakefield’s design intent, philosophy and values. While no design plans have been found, the vast catalogue of notebooks, photographs, and ephemera that she left behind, along with the reminiscences of friends, has enabled us to better understand her vision for her estate. This understanding can serve as a point of departure and inspiration as we consider how the site can be developed for public use.
An accomplished amateur designer, advocate, plant propagator and plant collector, Polly’s tenure and interest in horticulture and propagation left an especially heavy imprint on the existing landscape at the Wakefield Estate including many unique vegetative features, several nurseries, and outbuildings. Evidence of its earlier agricultural use in the 18th and 19th centuries was somewhat obscured by the changes associated with its transformation into a 20th century gentlemen’s farm and later use by Polly as a site for her experimentation and propagation.
Polly’s thesis from the Lowthorpe School of Landscape Architecture for Women, Design Plan for the Davenport Farm, is an accomplished and beautifully rendered master plan which displayed Polly’s true talent and promise as a landscape architect in 1938. The onset of World War II brought changes in the profession and diminished the opportunities for women in the field. Polly’s situation was exacerbated by her father’s death at this time, and her brother’s departure for the war. It became Polly’s responsibility to return home to tend to the property on Brush Hill Road for her mother, sometimes even driving the tractor and tending to the more traditionally male chores.
Yet while these circumstances prevented her from ever practicing traditional landscape design, she applied her talents in a broad variety of ways. All of her advocacy and research related directly or indirectly to her studies, which also informed her design work on her own gardens. In addition, for decades she continually augmented her knowledge, attending dozens of courses at the Arnold Arboretum and accumulating a broad understanding of arboriculture and propagation methods. One of the strong themes in Polly’s life was her avid interest in science and nature, both observing and studying it (a passion nurtured in her classes with Dr. Wyman at the Arboretum), and also manipulating it and testing its limits.
Her class notes from Lowthorpe include a quote (presumably from a teacher) that seems to have informed her approach to the landscape: “Landscape designers should only use proven plants in design; or if the client specifically requests a more unusual choice. The designer’s personal garden should be used to test out plants for future use – as a test garden, to see how they do.” She would later remark, “Lest visitors to my garden today are inclined to wonder why it is so crowded with plants that there is little ground left between them, I would like to remind them that nature prefers it this way. It eliminates much weeding, watering and other garden chores while giving it a more natural appearance and retaining a more even degree of natural moisture.” Interviews with Polly’s acquaintances confirm that some garden features (such as the planting of dogwoods at the rear of the house, an area she termed the “Dog Wood”) were experiments—meant to reduce maintenance, but also to push plants to their limits, encouraging them to reveal what “habit” they would assume when planted “too” close. This passion for plant science and research is also apparent in her fervent commitment to the Arboretum’s plant conservation efforts and research (evident from her correspondence with the Arboretum’s leadership).
Another important theme is her appreciation for a sense of play, whimsy and informality. She prized playful garden ornaments, was very tolerant of “volunteer” plants, and welcomed animals on the property, particularly her dogs and sheep, but browsing deer as well. For her, gardening was personal, and her seedlings, cuttings and prize acquisitions were like family to her. She once remarked about her garden: “What my garden has become is a world of its own—it’s an ecosystem of my favorite trees—that is why it is exciting and fascinating–not just Elms, Oaks, Maples, Pines and Spruce, but other species entirely—my own woods of my favorite trees and shrubs. Only many years of raising from seed and cuttings favorite choice varieties of plants could produce such effective and personal woodlands!” Undoubtedly, Polly found it difficult to pull out or cut down any of her plants, especially those she raised from seed or cuttings.
While proud of what she had created, she also believed it was important to allow nature a hand in the design: “When new plants are added to the resident population one hopes they will find they like it. But if its offspring prefer a new location to those we have chosen for them, they may move and multiply elsewhere! Little does the gardener know their preferences, try as she will. Nature knows best and plants can be very particular about their living conditions! No garden can be considered truly successful until the plants have thrived in their new locations for several years.”
Polly once made the following remark about the Boston Public Garden: “…Once established, a garden begins to develop its own unique identity - its ‘genius of place,’ if you will - and becomes the kind of garden visitors remember. Its qualities are subtle and fragile and well worth preserving. For a garden that must serve increasing numbers of visitors, the challenge is to preserve its unique qualities for the sake of future generations.”
Polly’s garden attained a “genius of place” and distinctive identity as well. Its qualities are indeed subtle and fragile. She strived to create a formal garden that defied formality and convention, tested nature’s limits and embraced whimsy and a bit of the wild. The distinction between “a bit of the wild” and weedy is subtle. Today, more than three years after her death, its intentionally “wild” look reads as unkempt and without her deft direction; her intended “whimsy” comes across more as the dabbling of a dilettante than the astute and knowledgeable gardener she was. As Polly said herself, the challenge we face as stewards is to preserve the unique qualities that so well embody Polly’s vision and passion for the manifestation of science and nature in the landscape.