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Simplicity Preserved

Canterbury Shaker Village welcomes visitors into its historic gardens.

Verbena bonariensis , a popular perennial, is among the flowering plants grown at Canterbury.
Verbena bonariensis, a popular perennial, is among the flowering plants grown at Canterbury. (Photo / Dave Henderson)

GARDENS REFLECT THEIR DESIGNERS' SENSIBILITIES AS SURELY AS HOUSES REVEAL their owners' personalities. Nowhere is this more evident than at Canterbury Shaker Village in Canterbury, New Hampshire. There, amid captivating blossoms and exuberant growth, it is possible to step back in time and experience what it meant to be a Believer.

The village was established in 1792 by the followers of Mother Ann Lee, who fled England in 1774 to escape religious persecution. By the mid-1850s, Canterbury comprised 3,000 acres and more than 100 buildings overseen by 300 sisters and brothers of the United Society of Believers, a celibate sect also known as the Shaking Quakers, or Shakers, because of their use of dance in worship rites. At the time, the Shaker movement was at its peak. Historians differ on how many Believers there were across the country, but between 4,000 and 6,000 brothers and sisters are estimated to have lived in about 18 communities from Maine to Kentucky. Today, only a few Shakers remain.

Nurturing that past, the preserved New Hampshire village is considered one of New England's top cultural attractions. The gardens, along with the 25 buildings that remain on the property, reflect their Shaker heritage, both in their beauty and in their care.

"There's a sense of peace here that's hard to duplicate," says Will Frey, who is in his fourth year as garden manager.

True to their motto - "Hands to work and hearts to God" - the Shakers worked the land with great care and efficiency. A 3-acre vegetable garden supplied a major portion of the community's food. "If anything was left over," Frey says, "they sold it and fed the poor. That tradition continues today."

But the Canterbury Shakers were best known for their herb and botanical gardens, which were used in the medicinal products and seeds that eventually became the major source of the community's income. "The World, as Shakers called outsiders, regarded their products as superior," says Frey. "Their reputation was built on integrity, their inventiveness, and their abilities to produce the best."

Today, the organic vegetable garden, still on the site of the original plot, is tended by two full-time and four part-time workers and 20 part-time volunteers. They produce the same crops that their 19th-century predecessors harvested, such as Swiss chard, mustard greens, and broomcorn, from which the famous Shaker brooms are made (and now sold in the Canterbury gift shop).

In the apple orchard, old-fashioned varieties such as Winesap, Sheep's Nose, and Chenango are grown. Local farmers had been tending the trees, but, this year, Frey tried his hand in the orchard. He will be using the apples to make cider for the village's Harvest Festival next month.

However exemplary the orchard and vegetable garden, it is the flower and herb gardens that draw the most attention. Perennials, annuals, and biennials thrive together. Wide, neatly mowed grass walkways separate the 8-foot-by-20-foot beds that Frey plants with poppies, calendula, marigolds, delphiniums, phlox, and nasturtiums, choices taken from those listed in old Shaker seed catalogs.

Roses (classified as herbs), which are frequently mentioned in Shaker journals and recipes, grow throughout the village. "The old-fashioned damask and gallica were then, and still are, the favorites," says Frey. One section of the garden sports graduated rows of sunflowers, the taller dancing in the breeze, the shorter edging a pansy border.

There is also a cutting garden, where, for 25 cents a stem, visitors can pick their own bouquet of amaranth, statice, snapdragons, purple-top verbena, scabious, and more. In a small yellow bee house at the garden's edge, displays explain how the beekeeper goes about his work. Close by, a henhouse is home to six chickens and one rooster.

From a strategically placed bench, a visitor can perhaps best glimpse the very essence of what it meant to be a Shaker in Canterbury. To the left, Tallow Hill, where sheep once grazed, appears on the horizon. Nearby, nestled in the sylvan setting, is the "Holy Ground," where the Believers went for outdoor worship. In the distance is the area where seven ponds were dug by the Shakers to supply water and power for their mills. Today, only three ponds remain, and the Pump Mill building is the only mill that still stands.

The botanical garden remains on its original site but has been reduced from 1 1/2 acres and 350 plant varieties to just 40 feet by 70 feet and 70 types of plants, including dandelion, hyssop, southernwood, wild indigo, coltsfoot, and gas plant. Canterbury's first physician, Thomas Corbett, is given credit for planning the garden as well as for the many cures his botanical formulas gave The World. The most popular was his Syrup of Sarsaparilla, made from Aralia nudicaulis, or American sarsaparilla, which grew wild in Canterbury. The tonic was also 10 percent alcohol and claimed to cure so many ailments that it took 12 lines on the label to list them all.

Set in open fields with low stone walls, the gardens nestle against a backdrop of the foothills of the White Mountains, a reminder of the industrious Shakers who called the place their "Heaven on Earth."

Autumn at Canterbury

* Special autumn events at Canterbury Shaker Village include the Harvest Festival, October 1 and 2, featuring hayrides, farm animals, garden tours, old-fashioned games, and storytelling, and the Classic Car Show, October 15, which focuses on the Shakers' love of machinery and features more than 150 classic vehicles dating from 1907 to 1978, the time span when Shakers owned cars.

* The Shaker Table Restaurant serves lunch Monday to Saturday, dinner Thursday to Saturday, and Sunday brunch. (Reservations recommended for dinner, 603-783-4238.)

* Canterbury Shaker Village, 603-783-9511, www.shakers.org, is open daily through October 30, then Friday through Sunday through November. Adult admission is $15; children 6-17, $7; no charge for children 5 and younger.

Marilyn Myers Slade is a freelance writer. She lives in New Hampshire.

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