SHELBURNE, Vt. -- Lila Vanderbilt Webb loved her gardens. She and her husband, Dr. William Seward Webb, are better known in these parts for having bought up 4,000 acres along Lake Champlain in 1886 to develop a farm, a parkland, and forests. And there's the sprawling manor they built overlooking the lake, where they entertained family and friends for 50 years, until Lila's death in 1936.
Today, the Webb investment, whittled down to 1,400 acres, makes up Shelburne Farms, a nonprofit agency devoted to environmental preservation and education. The Webb manor is a majestic inn that opens in summer. The farm barn is a giant education center, where, among other things, Shelburne Farms runs a small, thriving cheese-making operation. The gardens are just a sideline, but a magnificent one.
In June 1926, Lila Webb placed a notice in the Burlington Free Press, inviting people to visit her garden. She wrote in her diary that 350 people came the first day. Five hundred came the next. Today, the gardens are not touted as a destination in themselves, gorgeous as they are, but they are included in twice-weekly tea tours of the inn and its grounds, and in daily property tours, which start in May.
Given the scale the Webbs operated on, the garden is modest. For ordinary folk, it's ambitious: a green allée separating two terraced 70-foot-long beds of perennials, unfurling from the inn's lawn toward the lake. Birgit Deeds is head gardener, and she works to preserve Lila Webb's vision.
''The fall is nice," Deeds says, ''but the best time here is in the spring. I like June, when the peonies, the iris, and the poppies are out. The wonderful poppies!"
When the Webbs began summering in Vermont, Lila planted formal parterre gardens, in a geometric pattern intended to be viewed from above, filled with annuals. In time, she developed a fascination for the landscape design of Gertrude Jekyll, who developed the English cottage-style gardens, less rigid and featuring more perennials.
Lila followed Jekyll's color scheme, grouping flowers of similar shades together to create a rainbow effect across the entire garden. The palette flows from blues and pinks into warmer ranges of red, yellow, and orange, and at the far end, it quiets to white, then returns to blue.
A rose garden blooms on the left, and Queen Victoria peonies line the lower wall overlooking the lake.
It's early for gardens in northern Vermont. And Lila's flowers aren't the only ones that bloom on Shelburne Farms. Naturalist Matthew P. Kolan leads a Spring Ephemerals and Wildflower Walk on April 23 through the nonprofit's forests and parks, keeping an eye out for the first wildflowers: Jack in the pulpit, trillium, trout lily, and false Solomon's seal. The very first wildflowers to look for are hepatica, the tiny white and blue buds that bloom before anything else.
Ephemerals are the bread and butter at the Vermont Wildflower Farm, a 6-acre spread in Charlotte, just down Route 7 from Shelburne. The farm opens April 23 for the season; you can look for hepatica there, and buy seeds for just about any native wildflower.
The floral fireworks start in May, when the great white trillium bloom petal to petal with yellow violets. The great white trillium is rare in New England; it opens pure white and blushes to pink as it ages, one of the few flowers that actually changes color while it blooms, according to the farm's founder, Ray Allen.
Around the time the trilliums are blossoming, the Shelburne Museum holds Lilac and Gardening Sunday, scheduled this year for May 15.
In addition to 400 bushes of 90 varieties of lilacs, the museum features six kinds of gardens.
Like the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, the Shelburne was founded by a wealthy and eccentric collector. A Webb daughter-in law, Electra Havemeyer Webb, had a fondness for folk art before it was known as folk art.
The elder Webbs gave her land and 28 horse carriages, with which she decided to create a museum in 1947. She imported interesting vernacular architecture, such as an old schoolhouse and a general store, to house her collections of textiles and paintings.
Most gardens at Shelburne Farms are designed for utility more than beauty.
Since the general store, dating to the 1840s, has an apothecary shop, Electra Webb had an apothecary garden planted in front, typical of the mid-19th century, with spearmint, violet, comfrey, and other medicinal herbs.
The Hat and Fragrance Garden features plants and herbs used to make dyes, as well as decorative herbs and roses to adorn hats. Penny royal, which has citronella in it, is grown for use as an insect repellent. Lavender, lemon balm, and scented geraniums are grown for use in perfumes.
Two kitchen gardens feature the vegetables, hops, and herbs grown in the 18th and 19th centuries, including currants, squash, onions, kale, and tomatoes. A schoolhouse garden's perennials sprout amid 19th-century toys and games.
The Bostwick Memorial Garden was designed in memory of Electra Webb Bostwick, the founder's daughter.
Some of the highlights include antique and hardy roses, poppies, daisies, periwinkle, and in the center, spring tulips.
Framed by dry stone walls, the garden mimics a painter's palette, with sections of blue, pink, red, orange, white, yellow, and green. Like Lila Webb, the designers knew a gardener must have the eye of an artist.
Cate McQuaid is a freelance writer in Providence.