I first learned about Harkness Memorial State Park while flipping through the New England Home Magazine, which had been serendipitously mailed to me in error. The gardens, at what was once the Eolia estate owned by the Harkness family, were designed by Beatrix Farrand in 1918. Because women were, “emphatically not admitted to the field” she was not allowed to design public gardens, and rather designed gardens for private residences.
The article caught my eye because the photos were stunning and she had happened to have designed another garden called the Sunken Garden at Hill-Stead which I had recently visited. We set out to visit on a beautiful day this past August. Mostly sunny, mid-70s. Perfect. Everyone was in a good mood. The backdrop felt sweet and bubbly and it all set the pace for a slow and happy day. At the park we wandered around multiple gardens, sweeping lawns, sandy beaches and under a couple of giant shade casting trees overlooking the water, and we certainly didn’t see it all.
The gardens were varied and in places embraced what I learned was called volume planting, or the planting of large numbers of the same flower for maximum visual interest. One of the things that really drew my attention was how all the flowers and greenery smelled. Being next to the water and engulfed in flowers, the air was fresh and sweet. I breathed it in.
According to Lynden Miller in New England Home Magazine, “Most landscape architects focused on hardscape, but Beatrix Farrand used plants. And she was wonderful with color.” Some of the gardens are bold and startling with color and some are softer and wispy. The juxtaposition was what I enjoyed. That and many of the gardens felt hidden and rambling.
After meandering through a garden filled with hundreds of zinnias and lifting my 2 year old to smell the sunflowers we settled into a picnic under the shade of the large trees that overlooked the water. It was like going to the beach but without the drawback of all the sand in the car or in your bellybutton.
We had a simple picnic, but had I known how beautiful it was I may have attempted to make the picnic worthy of the location. Perhaps I would have come up with a crispy salad and fresh fruit rather than some smooshed peanut butter sandwiches and apples. But it didn’t matter, we were relaxed and full of the joy of a carefree day. We loved it so much that we went back a couple of weeks later with my parents. They brought a kite, and we lucked out with another beautiful summer day.