SARATOGA SPRINGS – The Yaddo Gardens in Saratoga Springs have enchanted visitors and locals alike for more than a century.
With its budding roses, picturesque pergola and peaceful rock garden, the gardens have long connected the community with the long-running artist retreat.
That connection was broken during the pandemic as the gardens were closed to the public during the 2020 and 2021 summer seasons.
On Monday, they’ll reopen regularly to the public and it’s in part thanks to the Yaddo Garden Association (YGA). The group was founded in 1991 by the late Saratoga Springs resident and former Yaddo Board Member Jane Wait. She, along with volunteers like Saratoga Springs resident Gay Gamage, worked to revive the gardens, which Yaddo’s co-founder, Spencer Trask, had gifted to his wife, Katrina, in 1899.
During Katrina’s lifetime, many of the family’s staff members tended to the gardens, which stretched out across 10 acres.
“The whole of Saratoga, I am rejoiced to say, feels that Yaddo belongs to them almost as much as it belongs to me,” Katrina wrote in 1917. However, by the late 1980s, the gardens were in disrepair, in part because of vandalism, and the Corporation of Yaddo lacked the resources to care for the sprawling greenery.
Wait stepped in and in 1991 gathered a team of about 17 volunteers to restore the gardens, according to a 2011 article that ran in The Gazette.
“If Jane was working on it, I was working on it. She was an inspiration,” Gamage said.
Over the years, the association raised funds to replace roses and install water lines and faucets for the garden’s water features and reconstruct the pergola.
“There were always things to do. It was a challenge and it was fun and I think the best part about it was that everyone who came through loved it. They could see what we were doing and really appreciated all the work [we put into] bringing it back,” Gamage said.
This year, which marks the 31st anniversary of the YGA, brings the group’s history full circle.
Since the volunteers weren’t able to get into the garden in 2020, they had their work cut out for them in 2021 when they returned on a limited basis, with only a few volunteers gardening at a time to maintain social distancing.
“The deer had eaten everything down and the weeds were knee-high,” Gamage said. “We had put all that work in for 30 years, and then it doesn’t take long for it to revert.”
Even coming back this year on their traditional three-day-a-week schedule, the 56 volunteer gardeners had plenty of weeds and critters to fend off.
“It’s going to take a few years to get the garden back to where it was because there’s just so many weeds,” said Barbara Hefter, a Malta resident who has been volunteering with the YGA for 18 years.
To clear them out, gardeners returned in April and have spent hours tending to each of the garden areas, trimming hedges, edging garden beds and clearing out dead plans. The gardeners have a well-oiled system at this point. Each of the rose beds, as well as the rock garden, has a “bed captain” who is in charge of prioritizing the work that needs to be done in each area. That way each volunteer knows just what to work on when they arrive.
While this spring has been packed with work, volunteers have also spent time reconnecting with each other.
“It is a wonderful group of people. When COVID hit, and we weren’t allowed in the garden for that first year, we didn’t get to see each other and that was hard because we stay in touch even through the winter,” Hefter said.
Getting back to gardening together was a homecoming.
“It’s definitely a close-knit group of people,” Hefter said. “Everybody’s going through different life-changing events, and . . . . everybody [helps each other] through whatever’s going on in their life at that time, the good and the bad.”
It’s also been rewarding to tend to the gardens again.
“You put all this work into it, and you get to reap the benefits of watching it grow and be beautiful,” Hefter said.
That includes tending to the oldest rose bushes, some of which were planted not long after the garden’s founding.
“There are three that have been there since the beginning, which is astonishing,” said Gamage, who is in charge of caring for them. There’s a pink damask that blooms once in the summer, as well as a large Grootendorst which blooms off and on over the summer, and a white rose of York.
“Our whole object is to plant things that are tough and that will survive,” Gamage said. “Those [plants] are good. I prune out all the dead bits in the spring and keep an eye on them during the summer.”
Typically, the roses begin to bloom in mid-June and reach peak season from about the third week of June through July, and then peak again in mid-to-late August, according to Yaddo. The rock garden is in bloom from mid-June through mid-September.
This year, YGA will also bring back its popular Garden Tours, which started in the 1990s and cover the history of the gardens.
Docent coordinator Lesley LeDuc is looking forward to leading tours again and showing visitors parts of the garden they might otherwise miss.
“They come into the gardens and they see the rose garden, and then they see the pergola and they walk up there, [and] they totally miss the rock garden, which is behind the pergola. The rock garden is one of my favorite parts of the garden . . . it’s less formal. It’s very peaceful and quiet,” LeDuc said.
There are 16 volunteer docents and tours will start again the last weekend in June and run through Labor Day. They’ll run at 11 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays and during track season, there will be additional tours on Tuesdays. Tours are $10 per person. They also offer pre-arranged group tours.
“The Yaddo Garden Association (YGA) has contributed tremendously over the years. We are lucky to have them, and incredibly appreciative of their efforts in maintaining the Gardens at Yaddo,” said K.D. Albano, Director of Communications at Yaddo.
YGA is looking for more volunteers, including those with or without a green thumb.
“People do not have to have a gardening background,” Hefter said. There are always plenty of willing teachers and YGA provides the needed tools. Those interested should note that all volunteers must be vaccinated and boosted against COVID-19.
Starting this week, the gardens will be open Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information visit yaddo.org/yaddo-gardens/tours/.