, Salem, MA

September 19, 2013

History in Bloom

Seven Gables gardener will give free talk as part of Trails & Sails weekend

By Will Broaddus
Staff writer

---- — At The House of the Seven Gables, even the beautiful, seaside gardens provide lessons in history.

“The gardens were founded a long time ago,” said Robyn Kanter, who has tended the Gables flowerbeds since 1980.

They aren’t as old as the house, which dates to 1688, but were first planted in 1909, a year after Salem philanthropist Caroline Emmerton bought the home.

Kanter, who runs Kanter Design Associates, will discuss the origins of the gardens and her efforts to maintain their beauty in a free talk Saturday at the Gables.

The presentation is one of dozens of Sails and Trails events that will be held across Essex County this weekend and next, exploring the region’s history, cultural heritage and natural environment.

“What I’m going to look at is how true we are to the mission and give homeowners some tips for doing that in their own garden,” she said. “I’ll give them some tools to help identify how you create a historic garden style for the architecture of your house.”

The House of the Seven Gables was originally named the Turner-Ingersoll Mansion, and Emmerton wanted to turn it into a museum to raise funds for a settlement house.

She hired architect Joseph Chandler to design raised flower beds in a pattern that, he thought, reflected how Colonial gardens appeared, Kanter said.

He believed they used a highly formal pattern from the era of King James 1, but that was an embellishment, she said.

“It was their interpretation of what they thought a Colonial garden should be,” Kanter said. “When I did research for my independent study at Radcliffe, I found the original pattern he laid out.”

Colonial gardens were in fact more sparse and practical than Chandler supposed, and they were typically used for growing food and herbs.

But the design he used became a style in its own right, known as Colonial Revival style, and it is this more contemporary history that Kanter is trying to preserve.

Which is not to say there aren’t elements of the Gables garden that reach all the way back to the early settlers.

“We’re famous for our Mrs. Lawrence Geranium, which is 100 years old, and which we basically keep alive,” Kanter said. “It was believed to be popular in Colonial times.”

The garden also includes older varieties of plants, including snapdragons, salvias and foxglove.

But Kanter has also tried to carry on the work of the man who hired her, Daniel Foley, a well-known Salem landscape architect and editor of Horticulture Magazine who died in 1999.

“I have remained true to Dan’s vision,” said Kanter, who inherited Foley’s slide collection, which she will use in her talk. “He was one of the most famous seaside landscape architects of his day. He grew up in Salem and wrote a book called ‘Gardening By The Sea.’”

Plants that grow by the ocean have special needs, all of which Foley took into account, Kanter said. While they benefit from milder temperatures and saturation from mist, they also need protection from battering wind and the effects of salt spray.

As the numbers of tourists visiting the gardens increased over the years, Foley also created orderly pathways to accommodate them, Kanter said.

He planted boxwood bushes to frame the gardens and create a sense of scale and made his own, original contributions to the gardens’ design.

“What gives that garden its integrity is the play of dark and light,” Kanter said. “You have that center lot, which is bright and cheerful with pinks and lights and blues, then dark houses that surround it.

“Then you have garden with ocean in the background. That’s why it reads so well. That’s what makes that garden special.”

A SEASON IN THE GABLES GARDEN What: Slide lecture by garden designer Robyn Kanter When: Saturday, Sept. 21, 2 p.m. Where: The House of the Seven Gables, 115 Derby St., Salem Admission: Free Information: or call 978-744-0991. For info about other Trails & Sails events, visit