At Hildene, the 412 acre estate that from 1905 to 1975 was home to three generations of President Lincoln’s descendants, the spring and summer seasons in the gardens are both special and busy, attracting guests whose interests run the gamut from garden aficionado to environmentalist.  Guided by its mission Values into Action Hildene sees the family estate, not just as the historic site that it is, but as a pollinator sanctuary that it must be.  From forest to formal garden the goal is the same, to raise awareness that pollination is essential for plant reproduction and for ecosystems to endure.  Aware that pollinators are under siege, due to loss of habitat, pesticides and disease, Hildene is committed to becoming a property wide example of how to make a difference in reversing this dangerous trend, using responsible practices in its gardens, woodlands, meadows and farmland and creating educational programming around these issues.  

Admittedly some of the credit for the intense interest in spring is the magnificent Peony.  The more than 1,000 fragrant peony blossoms in the Formal Garden at the Lincoln’s mansion draw visitors from far and wide. The garden was designed by President Lincoln’s granddaughter, Jessie Lincoln, for her mother, Mary Harlan Lincoln in 1908.  Archival documents suggest that Robert Lincoln collaborated with his daughter in bringing the garden to life. The pattern is that of a stained glass window; the privet representing the leading, the flowers the glass. As a young woman, Jessie had seen such windows in the cathedrals of Europe as well as the parterre design in gardens. 

Proof that Hildene’s are heirloom peonies, came with the discovery of correspondence from Robert Lincoln dated Nov. 9, 1905 and bearing the following directive, “There is at the express office, Manchester Depot, a box addressed to me from Paris, France.  It contains peony roots.”  This was proof positive that the peonies were more than one hundred years old, making them centennial cultivars. Archival research also revealed that while Mr. Lincoln handled the financing, it was daughter, Jessie, who was primarily responsible for the design, placing orders and planting of the garden.  Jessie Lincoln’s plant list, which included many peonies, further confirmed the age of the garden.  The prestigious American Peony Society designated two of Hildene’s peonies, the Hildene and Jessie Lincoln, as previously unidentified cultivars. The study that led to this honor took place in the observation garden located behind the historic carriage barn, now the Welcome Center.

Hildene gardeners do not use synthetic pesticides and avoid the use of chemicals when possible.  Guided by an Integrated Pest Management Program (IPM), the goal is to create healthy plants in healthy gardens. In addition to not relying on chemicals and applying compost in the formal garden when possible, more plants are intentionally left over the winter to create habitat and food for winter birds and insects.

While this garden is surrounded by spectacular mountain views, the family preferred the gardens located southwest of the house down the terraced hillside, past the apple tree and Hawthorn allees for recreation and relaxation.  The apple tree allee is a meadow and informal garden designed and planted to enhance pollinator habitat.  In addition to the commonly found pollinator and butterfly plants, milkweed and golden rod, garden browsers will find lupine, Echinacea, Agastache Giant Hyssop, and more.  
The Hawthorn Allee is the historic division between the home’s formal and informal area, referred to as the Cutting and Kitchen Gardens.  In the Lincolns’ time, the allee led to a children’s play area which included a reflecting pool and playhouse, it is now the site of the Hildene Friends Walk where volunteers who have been integral in making Hildene what it is today are honored.     
Records and historical photos indicate that the Cutting and Kitchen Gardens behind the Lincolns’ carriage barn, now the Welcome Center and The Museum Store, supplied the family with a full range of vegetables, berries and fruit.  The Plant A Row vegetable, butterfly, cutting, and observation gardens are located here, as well as a cold compost bin.

For more than a decade garden volunteers have grown hundreds of pounds of vegetables annually for the local food cupboard in the Plant A Row vegetable garden.  The cold compost bin located just behind the garden is used for vegetables and other easily broken down food scraps and garden debris. The Butterfly Garden is designed to attract different species of butterflies and thus contains a variety of nectar plants, food for adult butterflies, and host plants, food for caterpillars.  Most caterpillars depend solely on specific plants. This garden has milkweed for Monarchs, dill for Eastern Black Swallowtails, and mallow for Painted Ladies. By having both nectar and host plants there is the opportunity to observe the complete life cycle of butterflies. A variety of nectar plants, blooming at different times, is planted in order to have continuous blooms throughout the season. There are also sunning spots for basking, puddling areas, and shrubs and bushy flowering plants for shade and shelter. Hildene Horticulturist, Andrea Luchini refers to the garden as a “purposeful mess” noting that, “Pollinators and other beneficial insects need leaf debris for shelter and for the little rain puddles.  Interpretive signs identify host plants as food resources for specific butterflies.  Education Director, Diane Newton calls the Butterfly Garden, “an invaluable educational resource.”  The Soft Fruit Cage is a prime spot for pollinator enhancement. To encourage them to be there all season long, flowers that bloom in different times all during the season must be planted and others often seen as undesirable, for example the dandelions in the side bed, need to stay.  Hildene guests can now find currants, blueberries, gooseberries, raspberries, and strawberries for the tasting in addition to a cherry tree and grape trellis in the cage.

Also located in this area is the Cutting Garden, a source for a supply of fresh flowers for use by the renowned “Hildene Flower Ladies.”  These volunteers use fresh flowers from the garden, as well as their own, to create arrangements weekly that are placed throughout the Lincoln home and Welcome Center, bringing the outside gardens’ beauty inside. 

A good portion of the family’s estate is forested and Hildene’s Forest Management Plan is a model for stewardship. The protection of forests is important as pollinators and trees need each other for survival. Many flowering trees and shrubs need insect pollination for flowering and fruiting, just like our vegetable crops do.   This increases food for wildlife and biodiversity in general.  Forest edges, the transition areas between forests and fields are crucial pollinator habitat.  Hildene’s management plan also includes our 80 acres of wetlands and the protection of that very valuable area.  Wetlands are rich in biodiversity, they purify and replenish water, act as a sponge against flooding and drought, and store carbon.

The Dene Farm is a great example of this crossover and the different habitats that are all connected. The farm is located down along the Battenkill and adjacent to our wetlands.  There is also a forest buffer between the wetland and the fields.  The new farm provides the opportunity to create pollinator habitat as we develop and grow.  The farm manager, education director, and horticulturist all work together at the farm.  Some of the ideas already implemented include:  Using beneficial insects over pesticides for gardens, Pollinator habitat (specific plantings) and bobolink sanctuary, using animals to build the soil instead of adding lots of outside inputs, focus on soil diversity and soil health.

Since Hildene visits all begin and end in the Welcome Center, The Museum Store is the place to be for products that reflect the rich experience to be had at the historic site.  In the spring the shelves and tables come to life, just like the gardens, with all things floral.  From peony soaps, candles and perfumes from England, France and the United States to stationery and linens, guests’ purchases will provide them with a memory of the beautiful flower year round.  Historic Peony Seeds and fledgling plants propagated from peonies originally planted by Jessie Lincoln are also available.  New this year will be a custom designed tote bearing the peony image.  There are gardening books for young and old, garden puzzles and apparel from garden logoed tees to straw gardening hats.  What would a garden be without its trusty pollinators, so honey product and all things birds and butterfly are also available.  

Exploring Hildene’s gardens is only part of the excitement of a day at The Lincoln Family Home and estate.  Guests also enjoy visiting the mansion and Lincoln exhibit, Hildene Farm and cheese-making facility, the 1903 restored wooden Pullman palace car, Sunbeam, and the woodlands and trails that crisscross the estate. 

The Lincoln Family Home at Hildene is open daily year round from 9:30 am to 4:30 pm.  To learn more about Hildene visit or find us on Facebook.