Monday, May 27, 2024

Cambridge Plant & Garden Club workers in the perennial beds at the Hooper-Lee-Nichols House on Oct. 13. (Photo: Liz Adams)

Have you noticed anything different about the garden at the Hooper-Lee-Nichols House this fall? The Cambridge Plant & Garden Club, which has maintained the garden for decades, is making changes.

The Hooper-Lee-Nichols House was left to the Cambridge Historical Society in 1957 after the deaths of the last private owner, Frances Emerson, and her husband. After settling into the house, the Society reached out to the then separate Cambridge Garden Club (founded 1938) and Cambridge Plant Club (founded 1889) about the care of the grounds. The Garden Club, which was considering a project to celebrate its upcoming 25th anniversary, accepted the invitation as a major project.

Garden Club members set to work – pruning existing plant material, including the existing crabapple trees. Out of this hands-on work came a collaborative design for a garden that would represent a colonial-era Brattle Street estate in miniature. Features: yew hedges, herb garden within a boxwood circle, lilacs and orchard. To realize the plan, members propagated boxwood and yews. (Those yews have grown into the hedges that are now one of the garden’s most prominent features.) A great deal was accomplished on a surprisingly small budget.

In 1966, the Garden Club merged with the Plant Club to form the Cambridge Plant & Garden Club, a nonprofit. With the Hooper-Lee-Nichols garden in good condition, the club focused its united energies on other projects. A club committee continued to tend the grounds at Hooper-Lee-Nichols, but it was a low-key effort.

Michael Hanlon, Angel Maldonado and Juan Penate remove perennials Nov. 21. (Photo: Annette LaMond)

In the late 1980s, the club returned, re-digging and expanding the front perennial beds. The club has since added several trees and funded annual hand-clipping of the yew hedges, lawn care and tree-pruning. Other projects: restoration of the front gate, the grape trellis, brick edging and paths and, most recently, the drainage border behind the front perennial bed. Along the way, the club has held regular workdays featuring cleanups, bulb planting, pruning, deadheading and weeding. By the estimate of the club historian, nearly 100 club members have volunteered time in the garden.

Just before Covid descended, club members were discussing whether it was time to undertake a major revision of the garden. The perennial beds had become crowded. On the west side of the house, the last boxwoods had been removed, along with the dogwood and climbing rose planted in the early 1960s. On the east side, far more shady than in the days when the Garden Club began working in the garden, only one fruit tree of the miniature orchard survived. The old chestnut tree along the front fence had been taken down after a long decline.

Perennial beds, re-edged and amended with new soil, seen Dec. 1. (Photo: Annette LaMond)

This October, club workers kicked off the garden renovation – timing that marks the 60th anniversary year of the club’s first project. A large number of perennials were removed from the perennial beds where some species had become overgrown and dominant, defying the efforts of the club’s best weeders. Many of these perennials (asters, phlox, lamb’s ear, Japanese anemone and speedwell) were replanted at other club project sites – the On The Rise women’s shelter in Mid-Cambridge the Cambridge Community Center in the Riverside neighborhood. The transplanting effort was followed by two days of welcome rain, increasing the odds they will thrive in their new homes. 

To reconstruct the HLN beds, the club hired Cambridge planter Michael Hanlon and his crew to remove the last and largest plants, some of which were salvaged and planted for later use in a holding bed behind the garage. The crew removed six inches of soil to help with the eradication of invasives and added a soil-compost mix. As significant as the soil improvement, they reduced the beds to more manageable size, straightening the front edge and rounding the corner to the screen porch. The beds have been covered with salt marsh hay for the winter.

Beds are covered Dec. 2 with salt marsh hay for the winter. (Photo: Annette LaMond)

Over the winter, while the new soil is rejuvenating the old, club members will design new perennial beds where native plants can be integrated with hybrids, adding habitat for birds and butterflies. In the spring we will plant anew.

Also on the agenda: Club members are looking at options for a new shade tree at the southwest corner of the property to replace the ancient horse chestnut. The type of tree is yet to be determined, but a top candidate is the magnificent and long-lived Quercus alba, the White Oak, one of the preeminent hardwoods native to eastern and central North America.

Look for a follow-up report in the spring.

Interested in volunteering in the Hooper-Lee-Nichols House garden? Contact [email protected]. 


About History Cambridge

History Cambridge started in 1905 as the Cambridge Historical Society. Today we have a new name, a new look and a whole new mission.

We engage with our city to explore how the past influences the present to shape a better future. We recognize that every person in our city knows something about Cambridge’s history, and their knowledge matters. We support people in sharing history with one another – and weaving their knowledge together – by offering them the floor, the mic, the platform. We shed light where historical perspectives are needed. We listen to our community. We live by the ideal that history belongs to everyone.

Our theme for 2022 is “Who Are Cambridge Workers?” Make history with us at