Blithewold is R.I.ght here!
Like many other tycoons and coal barons in the late 19th century, the Van Wickles decided Rhode Island, a southern facing scoop of shore between Connecticut and Cape Cod, was where to “summer”. The insanely wealthy came en masse in high summer from the sweltering south to build outrageously palatial “cottages” in the cool sea breezes of the Ocean State. Newport was the famous choice of the rich and fabulous but Augustus Van Wickle chose little industrial Bristol because he was able to purchase 70 beautiful bayside acres with deep water moorage out front for his yachts. The quality and quantity of land was more important to him than the prestigious folderol of summering in Newport – the Van Wickles spent long summers and holidays at Blithewold actually enjoying their property rather than endlessly attending society parties.
Rhode Island is pretty special. It’s the smallest state in the union and has the longest name. Remember “The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations” the next time you play Trivial Pursuit. R.I. was founded on religious freedom, was the first state to declare independence, and the last (of the first 13) to ratify the constitution. The state motto is Hope, our bird is a chicken (Rhode Island Red), the state drink is coffee milk and our official shellfish is the quahog. (Does your state have a drink or a clam?) With a population of just over one million, we’re the size of a small city and everybody knows everybody or is somebody’s cousin. We have a skewed perception of distance and time – no place in the state is more than an hour and a half away from another but to go “off island” is an expedition (we pack a lunch). And we always give directions based on what used to be there (“turn right where the Almacs used to be…”) which tends to frustrate tourists and newcomers. Rhode Islanders garden in about 3 different zones – from 5 to 7a – in a state that could fit inside Yellowstone Park.
Bristol (zone 6) is a town of 22,500 in the East Bay. We are nearly surrounded by salt water – Narragansett Bay on the one hand and Mt. Hope Bay on the other. Bristol is the home of the oldest (longest, loudest, bestest) 4th of July parade in the country and I think Bristol gardens are also particularly outstanding. Bristol has a sizeable Portuguese community, many of whom emigrated from volcano infested Azores and brought a beautiful and utilitarian garden culture with them. A few years ago the Bristol Garden Club helped sponsor a Portuguese Garden tour and I’ve never seen such lovely city gardens – every inch under cultivation with grape arbors, orchards, vegetables and ornamentals in cheek-by-jowl neighborhood backyards.
The climate in R.I. seems particularly conducive to gardening. The weather is constantly changable and we enjoy four lengthy seasons (though spring has a tendency to feel an awful lot like winter up until the moment it feels like summer) that aren’t any longer than they ought to be. Right when we’re truly ready for summer to end, fall falls. And though I was just talking to another professional gardener last night who said she didn’t want winter to be over quite yet (we’re still enjoying our rest), I’m sure in a few weeks it will seem like the most perfect thing to be back outside full-time cutting back and tidying up.
I really love Rhode Island. I moved away when I was 18 and for the next fourteen and a half years the biggest little called to me. “Come back!”, said little rhody. So I did. The Van Wickle McKees loved it too and eventually made Blithewold their year-round residence. Thank you to Jodi at Bloomingwriter for suggesting we all tell our garden’s geography story.