The Impeccable Gardener

A garden is a maddening dilemma; turn your back on h it and it deteriorates.

Beatrix’s choice of career subjected her precise character to a maddening dilemma: a garden is an ephemeral, living thing; turn your back on it and, instantly, it deteriorates. In her lifetime—and perhaps unrealistically—Beatrix tried to deal with that fact by herself assuming absolute control over all her gardens. At Dumbarton Oaks she even moved into some rooms over the east wing of the building. According to Robert Patterson, she often hired gardeners for her clients and even paid them through her own office. In spite of her efforts, however, it proved impossible to guarantee the kind of maintenance she demanded for her “places” in perpetuity.

Nowhere did this conflict grieve her so cruelly as at her own Reef Point, where her grandest scheme caused the most bitter disappointment of her life. As an escape from the imperfect and ungenerous world, Reef Point was always there, a place, as she once said about her childhood home, “where one’s roots go down into the very cracks of the floors.” Throughout a lifetime she had tended these seven acres of rough seashore. Together with her husband, Max, she envisioned turning Reef Point into a botanic garden and research center second to none. The library of more than twenty-seven hundred volumes was at the “living heart of the enterprise,” and the garden of single tea roses was the most complete in existence. Beatrix cultivated every plant known in Maine—carpets of thyme, juniper, bunchberry, and bearberry, patches of dwarf iris and lavender, red spruce and azalea—and also coaxed a wide variety of exotica into thriving in the austere climate. Only serious scholars and gardeners would be allowed to study at Reef Point. “The casual tourist will not be admitted as he would disturb students who may be working,” she wrote in the Reef Point Bulletin , a publication she issued irregularly. Those whose motives were pure were astonished to find there the most skillfully cultivated gardens ever conceived in America.

When Max died in 1945, Beatrix, now seventy-two years old, dedicated the rest of her life to fulfilling their shared dream. In the early fifties, shortly after the house had been completely renovated to accommodate study rooms and the library, and when every inch of turf had been plotted and all the plants neatly labeled, she learned that the town of Bar Harbor would not give Reef Point tax-exempt status, an absolutely necessary allowance, according to Beatrix, for its survival. She had once complained that the locals seemed to have no horticultural sap in their veins, and now she would not be able to guarantee Reef Point’s future as she saw fit. For her biographical record, written in 1956, three years before she died, she wrote, “In her old age, Beatrix Farrand saw more and more clearly that changes which affected the whole world had bearing on the enterprise she and her husband had started.” Before anyone could stop her or even talk to her, Beatrix made up her mind and had the house torn down. Many of the plants were uprooted and dispersed to local nurseries. The magnificent library and all her papers, along with the endowment she had amassed for Reef Point, went to the University of California in Berkeley, where they remain the solid core of an impressive landscape-design program. Today five house plots and a few hydrangeas, thistles, and echinopsis are all that remain of the once flourishing gardens.

When she was sure that Reef Point was nothing but a hole in the ground, Beatrix Farrand, now over eighty, retired to the nearby farm of her housekeeper and assistant, Amy Garland. From her bed the old woman could still look out of the window over what was left of the “much-loved” Reef Point. Surrounding her were dozens of vases, each with a single rose, bearing the names of those old, aristocratic friends of her youth: Baroness Rothschild, Bon Silène, and Marie von Houte.