Step Into the Past at These Four Historical Gardens

Tended by URI Master Gardeners, these properties offer fragrant ways to experience our local heritage.

Smith’s Castle: A Tale of Three Histories

historical-gardens

Pink and red peonies bloom in the center of the garden with yarrow, oxeye daisy, dame’s rocket and foxglove. Below right: A foxglove attracts a native bumblebee; a shade garden outside the historical garden thrives under a sycamore tree. Photography by Chris Vaccaro.

In 2010, a small group of master gardeners were invited to staff an informational kiosk at one of Smith’s Castle’s annual festivals. Because educating the public is one of the program’s primary missions, the group graciously accepted the opportunity.

“They wisely put us in front of the garden, which was incredibly neglected and so overgrown at the time,” says master gardener Ann Casey. Whether it was serendipity or strategy on the part of the Cocumscussoc Association board (the corporate entity that owns and oversees the nonprofit National Historic Site), the juxtaposition proved fruitful. “We decided then to take on the garden,” says Casey, who today is the project leader for the Smith’s Castle Historical Garden Project.

While perhaps lesser known than some of Rhode Island’s other historical attractions, the story of Smith’s Castle is as rich. Presiding on the outskirts of Wickford off Post Road in North Kingstown, the roughly two-acre parcel that hosts the present-day house and gardens was once part of an area known as Cocumscussoc. Around 1637 Roger Williams (yes, that Roger Williams) and Richard Smith both established trading posts in Cocumscussoc, which at that time was home to a community of farmers, fishermen and members of the Narragansett tribe. In 1651, Smith purchased Williams’s trading post and continued expanding his estate until his death, at which time the property was inherited by his son.

From then until about World War I, the property’s size, use and ownership went through multiple iterations as did the property’s namesake house (which was completely burned to the ground during King Philip’s War). In 1948, a group of citizens purchased the deteriorating property in order to preserve its heritage and prevent its demolition. It was in the 1950s, shortly after that purchase, that the first gardens designed by Irmgard Graham were established on the site.

Today, Smith’s Castle showcases gardens that reflect three different periods in the area’s history: the time of the natives/pre-settlers, the Early Colonial period and the plantation’s peak.

Casey says a three sisters garden, which honors the traditions and techniques of the area’s native population, features corn, beans and squash. The group hopes to slowly expand that garden to include rhubarb, strawberries and other plants the natives would have farmed. The early Colonial garden is filled primarily with dye plants in addition to some medicinal and culinary herbs. The plantation garden is arguably the property’s piece de resistance.

historical-gardens

From right: Pink dianthus and cranesbill geranium bloom in the back. Lavender, rose campion and a tawny daylily flourish near a fence; Speedwell (Veronica spicata) is just starting to bloom in foreground; Valerian (top foreground), apothecary rose (bottom foreground) and rose campion (left mid-ground) pop against the white house. Photography by Chris Vaccaro.

“Originally the garden was as stylized as it was at Williamsburg,” says Casey. “It’s since been changed to more accurately reflect what would have been here during the property’s heyday.” The plantation’s size peaked in the 1700s; at that time the estate encompassed about 3,000 acres.

Although the current team of master gardeners has honored Graham’s original Georgian style approach (symmetrical plantings set on a right angle, beds lined with brick and a small hedge), it’s not always easy. “Plants have a mind of their own,” admits Casey.

This garden, which is adjacent to the house, includes a mix of herbs, native plants and exotics, all of which would have been accessible to wealthy traders at that time. In making selections for each of the gardens, the group has made every effort to be as authentic as possible, relying on sources such as Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum for guidance and on Monticello for seeds.

“It’s always a work in progress,” notes Casey. “We’re trying to reflect pieces of the history and showcase best practices.”

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