JARS v44n2 - The Atwater Garden

The Atwater Garden
Marcia Mitchell
Newton, Massachusetts

The seaside garden of Berta and Nate Atwater, in Little Compton, Rhode Island, is a tour de force of contrasts. There are contrasts of size. The property itself is quite large, encompassing some fifteen acres, but the cultivated gardens constitute only a portion of this, some two to three acres. The fastidiously maintained gardens taper three-quarters of a mile from the house across the lawn and garden to a field backed by brush and woodland shrubbery. Beyond this lies a pond, visible from parts of the garden, a barrier beach, and, in the distance, the Atlantic Ocean.

There are contrasts of style. Nate Atwater was born nearby in Tiverton, Rhode Island, and his affection for this broad flat land comes naturally to him. Berta Atwater, the star gardener of the family, was born in the Netherlands. Her European heritage shows in every exquisite detail of her garden. She is an expert at the art of espaliering, as is illustrated by the Cedrus atlantica , espaliered to the chimney breast, that greets visitors as they enter the driveway.

Berta's hand is evident everywhere in the garden. She prunes her trees into graceful forms that approach topiary, but she never crosses the line between guiding a plant to be as beautiful as possible, and making a noble tree look silly. Even a rather unstylish plant like Cotoneaster horizontalis can be made interesting by the gardener's hand on the pruning shears. One such is grown over a nice grey stone, about fifteen inches high. The cotoneaster has been pruned into thick fingerlike shapes that curve over the stone as if holding it gently to the earth. Berta trims such details into perfection with a tiny pair of scissors. Such painstaking work is not characteristic of many New England gardens, and the proliferation of such details is the extraordinary thing about the Atwater's garden.

Many rhododendrons and azaleas are planted among a collection of conifers. On the east side of the property, where the house and other plantings provide some protection from the salt spray coming off the ocean, are four large rhododendron beds. One of these, twenty or more feet long, contains a massive display of that classic Northeastern rhododendron combination, 'Scintillation' AE and 'Boule de Neige'. Another contains mature plantings of 'Nova Zembla', R. catawbiense album , and 'English Roseum'. The other two beds contain plantings, some fairly recent, of 'Mary Fleming' AE, R. bureavii , 'Llenroc', 'Balta', R. yakushimanum F.C.C., 'Mist Maiden', and 'County of York'. The rock garden has a number of choice dwarf evergreens among small-growing rhododendrons such as 'Ptarmigan', R. keiskei 'Yaku Fairy', 'Tiffany', R. carolinianum var. album compacta , R. nakaharae , 'Egret', and R. cephalanthum.

R. 'Scintillation' and R. 'Boule de
'Scintillation' and 'Boule de Neige'
Photo by Marcia Mitchell

In a large mixed shrub border are specimens of R. yakushimanum 'Appleblossom', 'Yaku Angel', R. roxieanum var. oreonastes , and a stand of pink and white R. schlippenbachii . In addition to the rhododendrons, there is a handsome collection of Exbury azaleas, including 'Gibraltar', 'Annabella', 'Klondyke', and 'Oxydol', ranging in color from orange through yellow to white. A small collection of cedars, of which Cedrus deodara pygmea is a favorite, is used to contrast with the under plantings of heaths and heathers.

Like so many outstanding and memorable gardens, the Atwater garden is special because it so clearly reflects the people who created it. The combination of Nate's native understanding of the land where he was born, and Berta's European views on the appearance of the well-groomed and lovingly tended garden, make theirs a garden of contrasts that work together to create a harmonious whole. The garden's seaside location endows it with flat, sandy soil, and the moderating breezes off the water keep its winter temperature above -5°F. The quality of the Rhode Island light, white and pearly, brings a special beauty to this part of the world, and to Berta's meticulously-groomed plants. It is easy to imagine her ancestors, creators of the landscapes and interiors beloved of the Dutch painters from van Ruysdael to Vermeer, being pleased with the work of their descendant in her new land.

Marcia Mitchell, Massachusetts Chapter member, is the chairman of the 1990 ARS Convention Truss Show.