Lift the latch, step into the
garden. Let the brilliant colors, contrasting textures, and sweet
fragrances carry you back to the eighteenth century world of the
Updike family. Imagine yourself an honored guest in their charming
garden, a tranquil retreat on one of the largest and most prosperous
of the Narragansett plantations. The garden at Smith's Castle
today is not a restoration of the original garden believed to
have existed on the site in the eighteenth century. Rather, it
is a garden conceived in the spirit of that period.
The mid-eighteenth century was a time of prosperity, and Cocumscussoc
is said to have been a popular meeting place for intellectual,
political, and social leaders. The Updike family's connections
with Holland and New Amsterdam were close, and, as horticulture
played an important role in eighteenth century life, it is reasonable
to suppose that trade included the seeds, bulbs, and plants that
were so highly prized at the time.
When the garden was planned nearly
50 years ago, the traditions of the Updike era at Cocumscussoc
were consulted: "the house itself never formed any boundry
wall of the garden which lay out a little way to catch the sun.
A clear space was left all around for passing. At times, to get
a level situation or a southern exposure, a garden would be laid
out at the side of the house instead of the back." It was
decided that the garden should be placed at the side of the house
along an existing path.
The entrance walk, the main cross
path toward the bay, and side paths were all surfaced with gravel,
edged with brick, and lined with border plants such as lavender
and germander. Although paths in gardens of the South were commonly
paved with brick, New England garden paths were of gravel or grass.
In Updike days an enclosure was
a necessary protection against cattle and sheep: "for walls
there was earth, planted with such shrubs as were found locally;
and stone, where stone was plentiful; as bricks were being made
in most of the colonies, bricks also were used; and, of course,
wooden fences of many kinds." A simple picket fence was selected
for the Castle garden. It was modeled on an ancient fence that
surrounded the dooryard garden of a neighboring house.
Shrubs, flowers, and herbs all grew happily together in colonial
days. Plants were important not only for their beauty but also
for their domestic, cosmetic, and medicinal uses. Roses yielded
their petals for rosewater splash and potpourri and their hips
for candies, jellies, and syrups. Lavender was a "comfort
for the braines," a good strewing herb for the floor, and
its sachets provided insect protection for house linens. Stachys
(lamb's ear) made a fine bandage to stop bleeding, and Monarda
(bee balm) was the basis for tea, perfume, and potpourri.
The present garden was begun in
the fall of 1953 after the South County Garden Club received the
coveted Founder's Fund Award of the Garden Clubs of America. It
allowed them to implement the plan that club member and landscape
architect, Irmgard Graham, had proposed for the garden. Sadly,
in 1954 Hurricane Carol swept ashore, bathing the garden in salt
water, sweeping away most of the newly-set fence, and leaving
three boats and other storm rubbish in her wake. By the spring
of 1955 the garden had been planted anew and all was tidy again.
The garden has evolved over the
years. Despite human efforts, nature wields the strongest hand
in all garden ventures. Plants thrive and die, and creatures of
both fur and feather play their part in surprise relocations and
disappearances. Through it all, our dedicated and hard-working
volunteer gardeners have maintained this gem true to the spirit
of the eighteenth century.