BEVERLY — “Put a different set of lenses on when viewing a winter garden. In November, December, and January, you are looking at the bare bones of the garden, but the bones are gorgeous.”
Wendy Murray, a volunteer at Long Hill estate, was speaking about the future, because on the day I visited Long Hill in north Beverly, the Sedgwick Gardens and woodland trails were still enveloped in late-fall splendor. Yet, despite the sun and blue sky, a biting wind foretold winter: The leaves were turning, the last blooms were out, a bee fitfully alighted on a brilliant white anemone.
Long Hill was the summer retreat of Ellery Sedgwick, the long-ago publisher of The Atlantic Monthly, and champion of writers such as Ernest Hemingway and Robert Frost. He acquired this 114-acre estate in 1916. Together with his first wife, Mabel Cabot Sedgwick, a horticulturist and author of the 1907 book “The Garden Month by Month,” they created a horticultural and literary oasis, building a lovely Federal-style home surrounded by gardens and woods.
The gardens and trails are open year-round and feature plants typical of New England, and also include exotic species, many of them donated by the Arnold Arboretum in Boston. Today the estate is maintained by The Trustees of Reservations.
Mabel Sedgwick wrote in her book that “color is the chief glory of the garden,” so I asked Murray what could a visitor expect when the weather turns frigid?
Winter provides an opportunity to really see a tree devoid of its ornamentation, Murray said. She mentioned a Japanese stewartia near the estate’s south lotus pool, noted for its mottled brown bark, clearly visible once the tree loses its serrated leaves. Nearby, a stewartia monadelpha has a lovely cinnamon color and sheds its bark in the winter with delicate, shiny shreds. On the gravel road that was once the old entrance to the estate, winter provides a glimpse of the textured, delicate, potato-chip-like curls of the paperbark maple.
“You appreciate a tree when you see its bark,” Murray said.
Earlier, standing in a garden near the front of the house, Murray showed me leucothoe plants, and unclipped, free-flowing andromeda, shrubs that will give green relief all winter. She pointed out Eastern red cedars, evergreens that produce waxy blue berries in the winter, an important food source for birds, which themselves bring color to the winter garden. Two Japanese umbrella trees in the woods behind the house will display year-round shiny needles that burst forth like green fireworks.
Much winter color, of course, is provided by berries, from the fire-engine red of the common winterberry bushes located throughout the garden paths, to the peppercorn-size purple berries of the beautyberry bush found in the gardens behind the house. Sapphire-berries located along the old entrance road leading to the house will appear in glorious blue, especially in the late fall.
The estate’s mansion is open to the public only by reservation or during special programs. I called ahead for a tour and I saw right away how important gardens were to the Sedgwicks.
In the central hallway the walls are covered with an exquisite, dark green 19th-century Chinese wallpaper depicting an exotic garden with ornamental trees and brilliantly colored birds. Upstairs, Mabel Sedgwick had commissioned her friend, Massachusetts artist Mabel Sturgis, to paint images of the plants, trees, insects, and animals living in Long Hill’s gardens right on the walls of her bedroom on the second floor. She could live surrounded by sumac, mountain laurel, red cedar, magnolia, lilies, jack-in-the-pulpit, deer, butterflies, and swallows all year long.
“The Sedgwicks created their house and gardens not as separate entities,” Murray said.“They connected the outside and the inside.”
In its day, Long Hill was a literary haven as well as a horticultural one. Ellery Sedgwick was a man of letters, and invited writers to visit, among them Frost and Bertrand Russell.
In keeping with that tradition, literary-themed lectures, readings, and discussions are held in the mansion’s parlor several times throughout the year. The parlor was bedecked with Long Hill’s own winterberry, beautyberry, and umbrella pines for a yuletide reception featuring readings from Dickens and Cynthia Ozick. Spring flowers from the gardens will adorn the parlor at the next reception.
For those waiting for the first bloom of the year, that can come as early as February, when the Chinese witch hazel sends out small, bright orange blossoms. But why wait?
Even in winter, as Murray said, “You don’t have to look far before a splash of color pulls you in.”