Garden Restoration

One day in the spring, not long ago, I visited one of Carmel’s treasures: the National Historic Landmark known as Tor House. This was the home from 1918 to 1962 of the poet Robinson Jeffers and his remarkable wife Una, who was with him until she passed on in 1950. I encourage readers to learn of Robinson’s and Una’s fascinating lives. Today, however, we address the restoration of the Tor House gardens.

Before describing that project, I will share a bit about garden restoration. This work involves recreating—as the extent possible—a garden’s design as it existed during an earlier, significant period. The principal motivations for garden restoration are

  • to reveal the historical culture of the original garden,
  • to restore an exceptional landscape (by the owner or a designer), or
  • to enrich the biography of the prominent owner(s) of the garden.

Garden restoration is closely related to garden conservation (i.e., maintaining a noteworthy garden), and less closely related to garden rehabilitation (which might or might not include the garden’s original features) and garden reconstruction (which might replicate a typical garden of a given period). The U.S. Secretary of the Interior recognizes these four garden treatments, so you know they are official!

Proper restoration projects depend upon drawings or photographs of the garden’s design or lists of its plants or both. Securing such documentation can be challenging, since residential garden designs commonly lack a visual chronicle, and plant lists routinely change over time as the original gardener adds, subtracts, multiplies or divides plants, or presides over their sad demise.

When working with detailed garden records, however rare, the restorer typically seeks historic cultivars that are difficult or impossible to find in the contemporary marketplace.

Because of such issues, restoration projects often become creative art, in which the restorer replaces missing information with deduction, extrapolation, and educated guesswork, and represents long-gone heritage plants with near—or distant—relatives.

Still, garden restoration can be an intriguing and enjoyable enterprise, comparable to solving a mystery, untangling a puzzle, or tracing a family tree.

Like all gardening, restoration projects proceed slowly as the restorer unearths facts, searches for plants, and decides next steps, and as plants grow to complete the picture.

Now, the preamble has postponed the story. For next week’s column, we will proceed to the restoration of the gardens of Tor House. Meanwhile, visit the Tor House website for the rich “back story,” and perhaps find time to visit the Tor House itself. The website has all required information.

Also, if you are considering your own garden restoration project, you might enjoy a brief historical perspective: visit the website of the Smithsonian Institution, click on “Collections & Research” and then “Garden History Timeline.”