Mass. Horticultural Society tends the Gardens at Elm Bank

Carly Silverman, 4, plays in the Italianate Garden at the Massachusetts Horticultural Society’s Gardens at Elm Bank property in Wellesley.
Carly Silverman, 4, plays in the Italianate Garden at the Massachusetts Horticultural Society’s Gardens at Elm Bank property in Wellesley.
Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

On an August morning in the Gardens at Elm Bank, children are ducking in and out of perennial beds that tower over them. They hide in a hollowed-out weeping mulberry tree in a place with enough whimsy and mystery to meet the demands of childhood imagination.

The flourishing gardens are nestled in the state’s Elm Bank Reservation, 182 acres that straddle the Dover-Wellesley line along Route 16. Thirty-six of the reservation’s acres are tended by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society,  and for 11 years buildings on the property have served as headquarters for MassHort, the nation's oldest formally organized horticultural organization. 

With a new executive director who cites her Babson College MBA instead of her extensive gardening experience as her top qualification, MassHort is aiming to be a go-to resource for hobby gardeners and the horticultural community just a few years after the private nonprofit staved off potential extinction.

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“There’s just been this great resurgence in gardening,” said Katherine Macdonald , who was hired to helm the society 18 months ago. “To me, gardening is a connection back to being stewards of our environment . . . That's the thinking behind where we are going.”

In 2008, MassHort laid off more than half its staff members after years of financial difficulties, and in 2009 had to cancel its signature event, the annual New England Spring Flower Show, after 137 years. People wondered whether the venerable society, which introduced the Concord grape and the garden cemetery movement, would survive.

But over the last three years, membership has doubled and the bank account has been in the black, said Macdonald.

“We’ve been working on the governance and watching the finances,” she said.

The Elm Bank gardens harken back to a time before the troubles, and reflect a commitment to the future of MassHort. There are eight major installations on the property, including the Italianate, Garden to Table, and New England Trial gardens. 

The space where the children were frolicking is called Weezie’s Garden, a storybook setting by landscape designer Julie Moir Messervy that aims to engage all of a child’s senses. According to the society, it is named after a young girl named Louise who died many years ago and whose family sent up a foundation to honor her.  

Nearby is the 1.1-acre Bressingham Garden, a four-season display created by British gardener and designer Adrian Bloom that features 200 species of perennials and 5,000 to 7,000  plants.

David Fiske, the curator of the Gardens at Elm Bank, started working for MassHort just a week after Bloom planted the Bressingham Garden with the help of 180 volunteers  in 2007. Fiske makes sure the society’s 16 acres of lawn and 20 acres of planted beds remain healthy and beautiful.

“It's a lot, but to me it’s just another day at the farm. It’s just a matter of keeping those plants as stress free as I can,” said Fiske, whose family ran the Fiske Garden Center in Northborough for 78 years. 

With only two other grounds staff members, Fiske is reliant upon volunteers to help trim, edge, mulch, weed, and water.

Macdonald said volunteers spent 10,000 hours helping out at Elm Bank last year.

MassHort was formed in 1829  to help farmers trade seeds and growing information. Over the years, the organization became best known to many for the New England Spring Flower Show, which MassHort ran until 2008. The Paragon Group took over the flower show in 2010, and MassHort now oversees the amateur horticultural competition.

In a nod to its roots, MassHort is focusing on edible gardening again, said Macdonald.

“The food movement now is about nutrition . . . We need to get kids off the couch and into the garden. There’s just so much hands-on learning that goes with being in the garden, working in the dirt,” she said. “It's really getting people connected back to their food.”

Next to the Bressingham Garden is a vegetable garden with 42  raised beds. It was installed last year for MassHort's Garden to Table   program, created to get people planting their own food and preparing what they harvest.

Some of the beds are devoted to regional cuisines — there's the French bed, sporting leeks, French filet beans, and tall bushy fennel, while the Chinese bed has dark purple-red “yard-long beans” that are chopped up and used in dishes. Others are devoted to a specific crop, like the kale bed brimming with two varieties. The “too beautiful to eat” beds show how edible crops can be as pretty as ornamental plants.

About half of the produce is grown for cooking demonstrations, but in practice, about 90 percent of what's grown is donated to two local food pantries, said Macdonald. Elm Bank has provided 1,600 pounds of food for families in need this year, she said.

“It’s wonderful to be able to get fresh produce into these people's hands,” said the Wellesley Food Pantry’s president, Cynthia Scott. The Natick Service Council is the other food pantry beneficiary.

Scott said local organizations and gardeners have been donating produce to the Wellesley Food Pantry for a few years, but MassHort’s contributions have ensured that every client has access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

“When MassHort approached us about this last year, it was really the linchpin of the effort,” said Scott. “Instead of just offering a few things, we’ve been able to give people so much more.”

Near the vegetable garden, quiet reflection is available in the formal Italianate Garden that the Olmsted Brothers, the design firm of Frederick Law Olmsted’s son Frederick Jr. and stepson John Charles Olmsted, laid out in the early 20th century when Elm Bank was inhabited by the daughter of Benjamin Pierce Cheney, the man who founded the company that became American Express.

Bordered on one side by 16-foot-tall purple beech hedges that are cut by hand once per year, the garden’s carefully planned symmetry and paths lead to a central lily pond where a 14th-century  baptismal font will be returned later this year. The Italianate Garden is the most popular location for brides who have turned Elm Bank into a thriving wedding destination, said Macdonald.

The 40-room  neo-Georgian mansion abutting the Italianate Garden will remain closed indefinitely, however. The mansion, built by Cheney's daughter, Alice Cheney Baltzell, is structurally sound but needs renovations that Macdonald estimates would cost $25 million. 

Fiske said that during MassHort's financial struggles a few years ago, preserving the gardens was the organization’s priority. That priority remains, and, for the youngest visitors, the reward is Weezie’s Garden.

“What a pleasure it is to work in that garden, to hear the laughter of the kids, to see them in the sandbox, chasing each other through the paths,” said Fiske. “People really enjoy Elm Bank.”