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Come to your senses: The healing power of some New England grand estate gardens

A round stone gate frames the enclosed Rose Garden at Blithewold.
A round stone gate frames the enclosed Rose Garden at Blithewold.David Lyon

Nature clearly didn’t get the memo about restrained living during a pandemic. In places where the natural world gets an ample helping hand from professional gardeners and groundskeepers, this summer’s blooms range from the merely exuberant to the utterly fantastic. Getting away to these estates for a stroll through the landscapes will literally bring you to your senses. The properties below also have museums or mansions. We’ve indicated where buildings are open, but check the websites for details. Or just go for the grounds. The sensual landscapes and riot of colors in the gardens will lift your mood.

The French Flower Garden at The Mount is an exuberant design.
The French Flower Garden at The Mount is an exuberant design.David Lyon

The Mount, Lenox

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If Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Edith Wharton were alive today, she’d probably be an HGTV star. She launched her career in 1897 with her first book, “The Decoration of Houses.” Soon after, she built The Mount as a summer retreat and put her own advice into practice. But it wasn’t enough to rattle around in the many rooms of her three-story manse. Wharton concocted a landscape filled with gardens that she envisioned as outdoor rooms. It was as if she had a different garden for every mood.

The sunken Italian Garden is a retreat of serenity, filled with white begonias, hostas, and astilbe. It is a cool and shady place — the outdoor equivalent of a tranquil library. The Lime Walk pathway of crushed gravel lined with linden trees connects the Italian garden to the flirty French Flower Garden, where a proliferation of shapes and colors creates a party ballroom in the open air. Thanks to painstaking restoration of the property, even the terraced lawns conjure up the decade that Wharton and her husband spent at The Mount. They always had a gaggle of toy dogs, and you can almost imagine the little canines romping down the green lawns after their mistress.

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2 Plunkett St. Grounds open daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m., free. House tour Wed-Mon 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Adults $20, seniors $18, students $13, ages 18 and under free; reservations required. 413-551-5111, edithwharton.org

The Blue Steps, created in 1938, is the most famous landscape design feature at Naumkeag.
The Blue Steps, created in 1938, is the most famous landscape design feature at Naumkeag.David Lyon

Naumkeag, Stockbridge

Not all of us would want to inhabit the sprawling 1886 Stanford White-designed mansion at Naumkeag, let alone try to keep all 44 rooms dusted. But it’s hard not to covet the sheer tranquillity of the lyrically formal Afternoon Garden. Designed 1926–28, it was the first collaboration between owner Mabel Choate and the pioneering Modernist landscape architect Fletcher Steele. To create an outdoor salon for entertaining, they broke up the shaded piazza with a small pool, several shell fountains, and a snaking low hedge. For an air of extravagant whimsy, they surrounded the perimeter with brightly painted Venetian gondola poles.

Over the next 30 years, Choate and Steele would radically remake the Naumkeag landscape with inspired thematic gardens that coalesced into a visionary landscape. The most complex project was the Chinese Temple Garden, the capstone of their collaboration. But the landscape’s most iconic feature is the Blue Steps — a cascade of deep blue fountain pools stepping down a steep incline from the house. Four flights of stairs and a grove of white birches flank the Blue Steps, creating a striking Art Deco design that links the mansion to the farmland below.

5 Prospect Hill Road. Mansion and grounds open Thu-Sun 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Adults $20, seniors and students $15, ages 12 and under free, advance purchase only at thetrustees.org/COVID19/passes.html. 413-298-8138, naumkeag.thetrustees.org

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The extensive hydrangea gardens at Heritage Museums & Gardens are a special treat in August.
The extensive hydrangea gardens at Heritage Museums & Gardens are a special treat in August.David Lyon

Heritage Museums & Gardens, Sandwich

In the height of summer there’s no denying the wow factor of this undulating 100-acre garden landscape dotted with museum buildings. All the idiosyncratic architecture — from a round barn to a circa-1800 windmill — takes a back seat to the extravagant blooms. July’s daylilies surrounding the Flume Fountain give way to the August groves of hydrangeas lining both sides of the paved path. The marvelously twisted limbs of rhodendrons — many hybrids were developed at the site — are a reminder of the spectacle of May and June.

Perhaps the gaudiest display garden of all, the McGraw Family Garden of the Senses, tends to attract as many pollinators as human viewers. Hummingbirds, four types of bees, and several butterflies and colorful moths set the blossoms aflutter throughout the day. The McInnes Garden behind the Special Exhibitions building is also planted to attract pollinators and serves as a monarch butterfly way station during the fall migration. The design of the garden lets you walk right into the center to observe the pollinators up close.

67 Grove St. Grounds and some buildings open daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Adults $20, ages 3-17 $10; tickets must be purchased online in advance through website. 508-888-3300, heritagemuseumsandgardens.org

Blithewold Mansion, Gardens & Arboretum, Bristol, R.I.

Pack a picnic and you can claim a table just off the walled Rose Garden near the entrance to this 33-acre estate on the shores of Narragansett Bay. But tote your cooler (or your picnic backpack) a little farther and you’ll discover many spots to enjoy your repast — from a bench with built-in checkerboard to Adirondack chairs surrounded by flowers and looking out to sea to a shady tea table next to the display gardens.

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Seven distinct gardens dot the grounds, and the map available at the entry desk details the bloom highlights in two-month increments. As impressive as the flowers are, trees make Blithewold truly magical. Rarities include a giant sequoia planted in 1911 and the beautifully blooming Franklin Tree last reported in the wild in 1803. The spongy gravel path through the Bosquet — a grove of trees with spring-flowering bulbs on the forest floor — is shady and cool as cicadas buzz in the treetops. On your way to the display gardens, take the pathway through the stand of bamboo to be transported to an otherworldly house of grass.

101 Ferry Road. Gardens open Tue-Sat 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Sun 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Adults $10, ages 6-17 $4; tickets must be purchased in advance through website. 401-253-2707, blithewold.org

Visitors stroll in the lushly blooming flower garden at the Florence Griswold Museum.
Visitors stroll in the lushly blooming flower garden at the Florence Griswold Museum.David Lyon

Florence Griswold Museum, Old Lyme, Conn.

Not as extensive or as elaborate as at some estates, the gardens at the Florence Griswold house were nonetheless made famous in the early decades of the 20th century. The American Impressionist artists who boarded at the Georgian mansion along the Lieutenant River loved to paint the bright blooms in the garden. Daughter of a sea captain, landlady Florence Griswold planted the garden with loosely massed arrangements of bordered beds. With a kind of unbuttoned promiscuity, she interplanted towering hollyhocks, heady-scented phlox, delphiniums, daylilies, and more. It was — and is — the model of what horticulturalists fondly call a ‶grandmother’s garden.″

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Throughout the season, the Griswold gardens embody the bright, patchy color and gaudy romanticism of American Impressionist painting. On any given day, you might see modern plein-air painters standing at their easels to capture a perspective of the blossoms and the landscape beyond.

96 Lyme St. Open Tue-Sun 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Free admission to grounds; house and museum adults $10, seniors $9, students $8, ages 12 and under free; tickets must be purchased online at least 24 hours in advance. 860-434-5542, florencegriswoldmuseum.org


Patricia Harris can be reached at harrislyon@gmail.com. David Lyon can be reached at harrislyon@gmail.com.