In July, hollyhocks march up the red brick walls of King’s Garden at Fort Ticonderoga, their colorful plumes studded with blooms of scarlet and magenta, purple and pink.
“They are so dramatic. Hollyhocks are a huge visitor favorite,” says Heidi teRiele Karkoski, the fort’s curator of landscape.
In the restored formal garden at Fort Ticonderoga, perennials are tall and showy, and thousands of annuals billow out of their beds because that’s how Marian Coffin, a pioneering American landscape architect, envisioned and designed the retreat in 1921.
WHERE: Fort Ticonderoga, Route 22 and Route 74 East, Ticonderoga
WHEN: Through Oct. 8. Garden and fort open daily 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Garden tours at noon and 3 p.m. daily in July and August; 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. daily in September and October. Guided horticulture tours: 10:45 a.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Friday in July and August; in September and October, horticulture tours at 3:15 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
HOW MUCH: $17 to garden and fort; $14 for seniors, $8 under 12; free under 5
MORE INFO: 585-2821, www.fortticonderoga.org
“She took the rigid lines of Colonial gardens and softened them,” says Karkoski. “The annuals were meant to tumble over edges.” Overflowing with flowers, the garden was designed “to get an English cottage feel.”
While most visitors come to Fort Ticonderoga to see the historic military site, since the restoration of the King’s Garden began in the late 1990s, beginner and veteran home gardeners have been flocking to the garden, which is just below the fort.
“This is the largest public garden in the Adirondack-Lake Champlain region,” says Karkoski.
Nine-foot-high rustic brick walls and arched entrances designed in 1912 by British architect Alfred Bossom surround the 3⁄4-acre oasis. The garden paths are also red brick, and at the center of the garden a bronze statue, “Young Diana,” by sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington, rises from a 25-foot-long reflecting pool set in a manicured lawn.
Perched on a cliff overlooking Lake Champlain, the fort’s landscape includes 2,000 acres of woods and fields inhabited by wildlife, especially birds.
“We have bluebirds, hawks and falcons. We have orioles, we have an osprey’s nest,” Karkoski says.
Adjoining the garden is The Pavilion, a Greek Revival-style summer home with a garden that was built in 1826 by William Ferris Pell, a New York City businessman. The house, which was a hotel for steamship travelers from 1840 to 1890 and then a private home for Pell’s great-grandson Stephen and his wife, Sarah Pell, is closed to the public.
Sarah Pell hired Coffin to redesign the walled garden, which occupied the same ground where soldiers at the fort grew their vegetables in the 1700s.
“It was all part of the Colonial Revival Movement and pays homage to military gardens,” says Karkoski. But unlike the military garden, which had a practical purpose, King’s Garden was designed strictly for pleasure and display.
In June, there are Oriental poppies, iris, pinks and roses; in July, it’s lilies, hollyhocks, globe thistle, lavender and thousands of annuals; August is the time for bee balm, tickseed and phlox.
“There are plants from the 1920s,” like a rare German bearded iris, says Karkoski.
Color by design
One of the signatures of a Coffin garden is her use of color.
“She grouped like colors together,” Karkoski says. “There is a warm palette far from the house, a cool palate close to the house. Warm colors seem closer than you actually are. It’s all trickery of the eye in using color.”
When guests like Charlie Chaplin sipped lemonade on the porch with the Pells, the goal was “restfulness,” she says.
At the opposite end of the garden, guests could also be entertained in the tea house, a small grotto-like section of the brick wall that has a fireplace.
“The gentlemen took brandy and cigars in the tea house. The ladies would have afternoon tea,” says Karkoski.
Coffin would have been comfortable with the wealthy and famous, as she was well-connected socially.
In 1904, when she graduated with a degree in landscape architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she was one of only four women in a class of 500. In a time when women did not pursue careers, Coffin opened an office in New York City and designed gardens for American industrialist families like the DuPonts, the Fricks and the Huttons. King’s Garden was one of her earlier projects and her northernmost garden.
By the 1980s, the Pell family no longer used The Pavilion, and restoration efforts shifted back to the fort.
In 1997, the Fort Ticonderoga Association launched a project to restore King’s Garden. Pathways were lifted and repaired, the soil was refurbished and master gardeners were recruited to remove a decade of weeds.
Because Coffin and Pell diligently documented the creation of the garden, there were guides to follow.
“We have draft planting plans, photos and the written word,” says Karkoski.
A Ticonderoga native with a horticulture degree from Cornell University, Karkoski has worked in King’s Garden for seven years, and manages a staff of five paid gardeners plus a dozen regular volunteers.
More to see
Outside the brick walls, the crew also nurtures three other plots: a children’s garden; a military garden filled with cabbage, spinach, turnip and other vegetables that once fed the soldiers; and a Native American “three sisters” garden. The Pells’ restored Lord and Burnham greenhouse is also open to visitors.
In King’s Garden, Karkoski is constantly searching for heirloom plants and modern cultivars to re-create Coffin’s historic plan.
“The Internet really opened doors for us,” she says.
Because tall plants were popular in the 1920s, she always chose those varieties. “We plant hundreds and hundreds of extra-tall zinnias. They are really a show-stopper.”
Including those zinnias, 5,000 annuals are planted every summer.
“It’s a continually ongoing process,” she says.
But don’t expect King’s Garden to be exactly as Coffin planned it.
Karkoski uses modern varieties of annuals, and white pines now tower over one end of the garden, so shade plants have been added.
The Ticonderoga area recently was elevated to 5A on the USDA Hardiness Zone Map, from its former 4B.
“Just because it’s history, it’s not always the same,” says Karkoski. The garden lives on “in the spirit of Coffin.”