“A garden is a place of healing to the soul.”
Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1855
Harriet Beecher Stowe loved flowers and gardens. She created gardens at each of her homes, traded plants with her friends and family, carefully transported seeds and cuttings from home to home, and pressed blossoms into her sketch books. Even into her final years, she could be seen gathering bouquets of wildflowers picked during long walks. Floral paintings, painted by Stowe herself, grace the walls of her Hartford home; symbolic floral images adorn the pages of her novels. “A garden is a place of healing to the soul,” Stowe wrote in 1855—sentiment she put into practice by planting flowers on the graves of her loved ones to ease her loss.
As an author, Stowe was also an astute observer of her society, and her gardens reflected that. She was an early promoter of the Aesthetic movement that connected a well-ordered and beautiful garden and yard with a productive life. “He who loves and cultivates flowers, compared with him who raises fruit and vegetable, is like him who loves virtue for its own beauty compared with him who loves it because of his own self-interest. Surely the former is the higher way of thinking…He who would compare a squash with a rose to the disadvantage of the latter shows an undue materialism.”
Like many Victorians, Stowe was interested in new hybridized plants because they expanded color bloom options. She also embraced what we today call alternative medicine in which plants play an important role.
The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center sits in the middle of what was once a 140-acre neighborhood known as Nook Farm. Between 1853 and 1900 the parcel was an enclave of writers, artists, and activists. The land included woods and meadows and was ideal for creating the then popular picturesque landscapes—woods, curved paths, rocky outcroppings, pine trees, gothic style houses all in harmony together. The existing gardens and grounds of the Stowe Center layer this historic landscape and inspiration of Stowe’s many interests with the need for public accessibility.
The landscape design was created in 1968 when the Stowe House was first restored and opened to the public. The architectural landscape firm of Stevenson & Channing and Stowe Center curator Joseph Van Why used photographic and archival primary sources, as well as scholarly conjecture, to recreate a nineteenth-century style landscape. In 1978, the gardens were redesigned by Rob Fuoco, balancing visitor expectations of continuous blooms and vibrant floral color with historical accuracy.
Visitors to the Stowe Center Gardens will discover beds that represent Stowe’s interest in wildflowers, or the cottage style—informally designed gardens of old-fashioned flowers popular in England. Other gardens reflect Victorian interest in bedding—groupings of a single plant type—while still others illustrate their passion for color-themed beds.
Harriet Beecher Stowe promoted healthy American homes using a holistic approach to nature by growing plants both inside and outside the home. She thought that gardens were places of healing. In our modern world, we invite you to explore the gardens with their ever-changing beauty and be inspired by Stowe.
This season, the Stowe Center collaborates with New Orleans artist jackie sumell on this garden in honor of Stowe Prize 2020 winner Albert Woodfox for his memoir Solitary. This garden is the same shape and size (6’ x 9’) as the solitary confinement cell where Woodfox spent 43 years.
Solitary Garden is built from the largest chattel slave crops of the 19th-century South—sugarcane, cotton, indigo, and tobacco—mixed with lime from a historic Connecticut mine. The plants are flowers from Stowe’s historic gardens and from her description of those growing outside Tom’s cabin. This artwork expresses confinement as well as hope, love, and imagination.
Solitary Garden is on view now through October 15, 2020.
The Stowe Center thanks the Greater Hartford Arts Council for supporting the Solitary Garden art installation.