Historical accuracy guides maintenance of Edith Wharton’s estate

Photos by Kevin Sprague, Courtesy of the Mount.

Edith Wharton’s estate, The Mount, has been restored to its original glory, with the mansion framed by gardens designed by the author.

Edith Wharton became the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize when she was honored for “The Age of Innocence” in 1921, but perhaps was best-known during her life as a leading figure in the field of garden design. Wharton traveled extensively, becoming an expert—and trendsetter—in European garden design. In addition to writing several books on the subject, she created a landscaping masterpiece on her estate in Lenox, Mass., where her vision and ideas continue to be preserved.

Today, The Mount (www.edithwharton.org) is a National Historic Landmark that welcomes public visitors to enjoy and marvel at the mansion and surrounding grounds. The splendid condition of the estate, built in 1902, is made possible though a great deal of effort. For starters, after Wharton moved out of The Mount in 1911 and took up residence in Europe, the property went through a series of owners and was even partially divided over the years.

The condition of the buildings and grounds deteriorated substantially. In 1980, an effort was started to restore The Mount to its former glory, and ever since work has been ongoing to raise funds and complete the work. More than $15 million has been spent on the effort thus far, with results that have won awards from several national and regional preservation groups.

The intricate nature of the formal grounds, including this row of lindens, means that much of the maintenance must be done by hand.

While bringing back the mansion and other buildings on the property has been a priority over the past decade, a great many of the preservation efforts have focused on the grounds and gardens. In 2005, a $500,000 donation provided funds for the planting of perennials and annuals, helping to recreate the lavish gardens that Wharton had designed.

Ross Jolly is facilities manager and oversees maintenance of both the buildings and grounds at The Mount, and Sam Tomashek is directly in charge of landscaping. Together (and supported by one or two seasonal assistants in the summer months), they work to care for the lawns and landscape.

The Mount retains 50 acres of the original 113-acre estate. “Fortunately, the land that was sold over the years has never been developed because that would have destroyed our viewscape,” says Jolly. This is especially important because one of the key considerations in Wharton’s garden designs was the relationship between the house, the gardens and the greater surrounding landscape.

The most labor-intensive aspect of the grounds maintenance is caring for the 3-plus acres of formal grounds surrounding the mansion. “There is a tremendous amount of intricate landscaping around the house to maintain,” says Jolly. This includes trimming shrubs and hedges, as well as edging of the walkways.

“Edging is nonstop. As soon as we get done with the whole area around the mansion, it’s time to start up again,” says Tomashek. Weeding, often by hand (even in the lawns), is another perpetual maintenance item. “We go through the grass and pull dandelions and any other kind of weed we see,” he says.

Unique “grass steps” are an original part of the design and maintained with Hover Mowers, as well as hand “mowing” with clippers.

The majority of the mowing is done with a John Deere zero-turn unit. “It works great, but we really need a bagger for the zero-turn in the future,” says Tomashek. Currently, grass clippings are hand-raked, bagged and transported to the compost pile. “That’s a very, very important part of the maintenance program,” he explains.

Several push mowers are also utilized on tight areas, but there is one special part of the landscaping that requires even greater maneuverability. “Our grass steps are a very unique feature—they were original to the property and were brought back,” says Jolly. “They require quite a bit of hand-work to maintain.” While Hover Mowers can be used to maintain some parts of the grass steps, others must be “mowed” using hand clippers.

“Each spring and fall, we aerate, overseed and fertilize. I try to set it up on a day before it’s going to rain so it will all get washed in,” explains Tomashek. Because of the extensive network of walkways that are incorporated into the garden design, compaction isn’t a large-scale challenge, but he says “there are some areas of lawn that are pretty heavily walked on by tourists.”

While the lawn areas are stunning, the true focal point of the formal gardens is the Flower Garden. An outside contractor, Laura Walton Gardens, maintains this area. “We assist them—helping them get rid of their waste, bringing in soil and mulch, and so on—but they work throughout the summer to maintain all of the flowers,” explains Jolly.

A “lime walk” bordered by lindens connects the Flower Garden to the Rock Garden. The pleaching (braiding) of the lindens is handled by an outside arborcare firm, Race Mountain Tree Service.

There are other areas of the landscape that require substantial routine maintenance, including a rock wall garden with flowering bushes that must be trimmed, and there are acres of larger, open areas to mow. This is done with a John Deere compact utility tractor with bucket and brush hog. “A few years ago we also bought a 1954 Farmall Cub that we use to finish-mow our upper parking lot and to pull carts around,” says Jolly. “We just realized we didn’t need a real high-end piece of equipment to fill that role, and the Farmall has a lot of ‘curb appeal.’ People love the thing—it’s amazing.”

Because The Mount is open to the public seven days a week during the summer, the grounds staff tries to be done mowing in the formal gardens by 10 or 11 a.m.

During the summer, The Mount is open to the public every day of the week from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., so there’s a need to balance maintenance with the needs of the guides proving tours. Weather is another wild card. “We’re here by 7:30 a.m. and mowing before 8 a.m.; [we] really have to be done by 11 a.m.—10 a.m. preferably,” says Tomashek. “Then, we really try to stay away from the mansion, so it’s as quiet as possible for the visitors.” The focus the rest of the day is on areas further from the house that require mowing, trimming or rough-cutting.

The Mount is open on a more restricted schedule through the late fall/early winter, and after Christmas is closed to the public completely until the end of April. In the winter, Jolly and Tomashek focus on dirt roadway work and snowplowing, among other chores. Snow also has to be cleared from the shrubs to avoid branches breaking under the heavy load.

The off-season also provides time for tree work. “We do a lot of tree work in-house, but we don’t usually do take-downs of mature trees. We just don’t have that expertise, and it isn’t safe,” says Jolly. This year, a local arborist association held its annual gathering and volunteer day at The Mount, performing a tremendous amount of pro bono work to help improve the health and safety of the trees. “That was a huge help,” he says.

Recently, the grounds staff has been working to open up the Woodland Gardens to create the open vistas that Edith Wharton had sought. “The Woodland areas had become very dense, and they were screening the views close to the formal grounds, so there wasn’t a lot of depth and perspective to those areas. So, we’ve put a lot of labor into opening those areas up,” Jolly explains. Brush and trees have been cut out, and the ground is regularly “scalped” using trimmers to keep seedlings and weeds from developing and to allow a groundcover of vinca to reestablish beneath the trees, as Wharton had intended. “It’s proven to be a very effective way to achieve that look and help the vinca become more dense and established,” he adds.

There are a number of experts who have researched the history of the gardens and landscape at The Mount, and they contribute to knowledge on plants and design. “There was a lot of archeological work done and research of old photos to identify where the walkways were and what plantings were used and how the various gardens were oriented to the house. They really tried to bring it back to the way it was during Edith Wharton’s time here,” says Jolly of the restoration work.

Because of the commitment to historical accuracy in that restoration, the same respect toward original plantings and design carries over to the maintenance of the property. That said, there are times when what are believed to be original plantings don’t perform well on the site. In those cases, they are replaced with a species that is “appropriate” and that will also grow better; Jolly adds, “We know what Edith Wharton planted in most cases, but we don’t know the success she had with those plantings. So, if we run into problems with something historically correct, we do have to substitute it.”

Landscaping expert Gordon Clark also provides general grounds consultation when questions arise about particular plants. Tomashek says that visitors are constantly prompting him to learn more. “Every day we get questions about the grounds and the plants, so we have to know the answers,” he says. “It keeps you on your toes. You can’t just come in, mow and go home.”

It’s difficult for all involved to fathom how far The Mount has come through all of the hard work that’s been put in to its restoration and maintenance. “It was really derelict when they started the restoration. All of the original features of the grounds were essentially gone. The pools were filled in. The original plantings and shrubs were gone. The arborvitae that used to be hedges had grown into immense trees and had to be cut out. There was tremendous civil engineering work required for draining and irrigation system installation,” says Jolly.

The Flower Garden and fountains are the focal feature of the grounds surrounding the mansion.

Tomashek says the restoration of the grounds was so well done that it makes maintenance at The Mount both enjoyable and more challenging. “We’re so fortunate because of the work that was done—we’re kind of spoiled taking care of this beautiful place,” he says.

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 13 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vt., and is always on the lookout for unusual stories.