Warmed by the Gulf Stream , Rhode Island's infolding coastline is blessed with a mild climate that makes it a gardener's paradise -- at least by New England standards. As early as 1789, the city of Newport was hailed as "the Eden of America." Today the nickname could apply to the entire state, which boasts more than 30 gardens and other designed landscapes open to the public -- a number lavishly disproportionate to its minuscule size. (Massachusetts, roughly seven times larger, contains only about three times as many public gardens, according to People Places & Plants magazine's annual guide.)
Wealth added bounty to the hospitable climate. From Colonial times through the Gilded Age, elaborate private estates sprouted along the coast, and public-spirited Victorians commissioned lavish city parks, the mark of sophistication and enlightenment. This small sampling of five public spaces shows that there are myriad ways to slice paradise, and that even one relatively small garden can be a sanctuary.
Roger Williams Park, Rose Garden and Botanical Center in Providence This sprawling urban park, laid out in the 1880s by landscape architect Horace W.S. Cleveland , contains all the amenities of the day: a carousel, a zoo, a lake for boating, a model Greek temple, a bandstand, and several distinctive gardens. One of the loveliest is the rose garden near the entrance, laid out in a corridor of stone-edged beds with Victorian-style arbors and a pavilion. From cool white and pale pink to hot magenta and burnt orange, the roses provide delirious color for most of the summer, aided by the Rhode Island Rose Society .
This spring, the park opened another garden attraction that harmonizes with the period: a Botanical Center comprising a new conservatory and two restored greenhouses housing 12,000 square feet of indoor gardens, an events space, and an education center. Plants from all over the globe fill the sunlit conservatory with texture and color. Fountains, a waterfall, a koi pool, and a flowing runnel create a soothing curtain of sound. Alix Ogden , superintendent of the Providence Parks Department , says almost every feature in the garden can be changed, including the fountains, so that visitors always have a reason to come back.
Blithewold in Bristol Its name means "happy woodland," and with 3,000 specimen trees and shrubs, it truly is. This 33-acre estate includes a 1907 mansion, the former home of the Van Wickle-McKee family , but a visitor can easily spend a day savoring the grounds alone, designed in the early 1900s by landscape architect John De Wolf in collaboration with his client, Bessie Van Wickle McKee. In the mid-1920s, the variety of plants on this oceanfront property astonished two visiting specialists from Boston's Arnold Arboretum. Today the gardens remain horticulturally rich, without a hint of showiness. The trees -- from Rhode Island's signature beeches to a giant sequoia -- have attained grandeur of size and form. Paths meander through dense groves and airy allées and open to a vast lawn that sweeps to the ocean. Each of the several garden spaces -- the Bosquet , the Enclosed Garden, the Water Garden, to name some -- possesses a distinct mood and style. Despite the lush summer beauty, Julie Morris , Blithewold's director of horticulture, says the staff thinks the landscape is at its peak in autumn. To celebrate the glory of the season, Blithewold holds "September Days" in the last two weeks of that month, featuring gardening programs and teas.
Hunter House in Newport A Georgian mansion built by a merchant in the mid-1700s -- the local Golden Age -- Hunter House perches on the edge of the harbor next to a public park. A completely enclosed garden begins in the side yard, which contains a vine-covered arbor, herb garden, and sundial garden. This opens into a grassy space with box-edged flowerbeds, shaped like pointed ovals, flanking a central path. Rows of crabapple trees line both sides of this central space. Beach roses wave in the breeze between the water and the garden's end . But, surprise: This charming garden turns out to be a mere 20 years old. John Tschirch , architectural historian and adviser on historic landscapes for the Preservation Society of Newport County , which manages this and the Newport mansions, says that Hunter House, once jammed between other buildings on the working waterfront, originally had no garden. The preservation society created this one mainly to propagate Colonial plants, such as the boxwood around the flower beds, grown from cuttings from an 18th-century garden in nearby Middletown.
Rosecliff in Newport After standing tall in an 18th-century garden, prepare to feel like a speck of flotsam on the lake-like lawns of the Newport mansions, built at the turn of the 20th century by captains of industry from Ohio or Pennsylvania, or, in the case of Rosecliff, from Nevada. Silver heiress Theresa Fair Oelrichs hired famed architect Stanford White to build Rosecliff in 1899. (White modeled the white-marble mansion on the Grand Trianon at Versailles.) A circular front lawn fountain with a long path lined with floral stripes of pink, white, and chartreuse speaks to the grandeur of the building. Venus Garden, entered through a marble-columned pergola on the south side of the house, is a series of rose beds (restored in the 1970s) enclosed by shin-high parterres, low hedges shaped into patterns of clipped boxwood. A marble Venus, clutching robe to breast as though startled mid-skinny-dip, stands in the center. Beyond her, bordered by a hedge, stretches a sparkling ocean panorama.
The Elms in Newport Two sphinxes, ridden by bronze cupids, flank the entrance to this 1901 chateau-style mansion -- a hint of the ornate statuary that decorates the gardens on the opposite side of the house. The spectacular Classical Revival gardens, designed by the mansion's architect, Horace Trumbauer, were inspired by the Italian Renaissance and 18th-century France, which shared a penchant for geometric forms, greenery, and stone. Add some Japanese trees, and you have a true American original. Tschirch says that it all clicks because the house and gardens were designed together. As the site lacks ocean views, Trumbauer made the rear gardens the chief visual attraction, and the principal rooms look out on them. A lawn dotted with century-old trees ends at the Grand Allée, a double row of cone-shaped arborvitae defining a grassy path. This marks the beginning of the lower garden, which was completely restored in 2001. The path passes a pair of marble tea houses that conceal views into a Sunken Garden below. Italian-inspired fountains spill streams of water into basins below the teahouses. Parterres of precisely clipped boxwood and serpentine scrolls of euonymus complement beds of pink begonias and blue ageratum. Japanese maples and Hinoki cypresses lie at the edges. The most celebrated of the mansion gardens, this one, six years after the restoration, has matured to its intended scale and beauty.
Jane Roy Brown, a writer in Western Massachusetts, can be reached at regan-brown.com.