A number of years ago I worked in a yard just off the main road in Kent. At the time I was working as a landscape designer for Amber Gardens in Stow. The crew and I took a little break, and during a conversation with the homeowner I mentioned one of my disciplines had taken walks through gardens, shows and nurseries to get ideas.
My client and friend asked me if I had ever gone down the street to the Wolcott Lilac Gardens to take a stroll through her friend’s local garden. I said no. As we talked, I found out there was quite a history to this home and garden. What I did not like was what she said next, “This is a private garden and open to the public a few days during the year.”
At the time I wondered how a private person would have enough energy or money or time to bring a garden into a condition that would be something of note. Well, after more than 15 years, I came across the name again and it piqued my curiosity.
I found out this garden had over 250 lilacs with 20 lilacs that would have been planted back in 1920 as a part of an initial planting of 100 lilacs, which does not make sense. The 100 lilacs were sent to Daisy Brewster from her uncle, Cornel William Plum, owner of the largest French lilac collections in the world at the time. The genetic pool of these plants are something we need to preserve in my opinion. This home and garden are celebrating a 160-year anniversary this year.
In 1863, Simon Perkins Wolcott bought the property at 450 W. Main in Kent. Wolcott was a noted politician and a civic leader and entertained many people in his home − among them Presidents Garfield and McKinley. A presidential connection to lilacs is not that unusual. Both Washington and Jefferson grew lilacs on their estates. What I liked was poet Walt Whitman, a contemporary of Lincoln, wrote about lilacs as he thought of Lincoln’s death, “When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d … I mourn’d and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.”
The Wolcotts began developing their gardens at that time.
The Brewsters acquired the property following the Wolcotts and began developing it with rambling paths, terraces, stone walls and grassy lawns. Duncan and Daisy Brewster purchased more property for more gardens. In 1930, Daisy opened the home to visitors. Because lilac is one of the traditional Mother’s Day flowers, the 8,000 visitors who appeared one day probably was not unreasonable.
Following Daisy’s death in 1955 the sons attempted to keep up the garden but fell on difficult times. In 1985, Steve and Eleanor Zavodny purchased the property and began restoration. Their son, Dr. Robert Zavodny, continues the effort. Being a private but not-for-profit garden, I believe it is one of the most outstanding gardens in the state.
Drive to Walcott Lilac Garden is well worth the trip
My wife and I drove from Jeromesville to Kent in just a little more than an hour. We entered the gates and saw all kinds of flowers. No waiting. Siberian bugloss greeted on the other side of the gate. Larch trees are unusual in that they shed their leaves each season. The odd thing is this tree reminded both of us of a dog, as if it was pruned to take on that shape. We saw primroses with most of the colors of the rainbow. Barrenswort were of many colors. Hellebores lined the edges of the path. Many other perennials were in little pockets.
The showstoppers were the lilacs. We saw the Meyer lilac, littleleaf lilac, Japanese tree lilac, nodding lilac, common lilac, cutleaf lilac, early lilac, Persian lilac and more. The information that came about all of these beautiful plants was amazing. Can you even imagine there were still 20 of the original plantings? That means that there were 20, 100-plus-year-old lilac shrubs.
The curator, Dr. Zavodny, had planted some of the lilacs just this year. One I did learned is you can prune 100-year-old shrubs if you do the work carefully. Lilacs are relatives of the olive tree and do their best when you follow a regular pruning effort.
There were bonuses throughout the garden, with the 10-foot drop waterfall, an upper patio looking down into the garden, a 3-f00t diameter gingko, a 4-foot diameter Katsura tree, a 2.5-foot wisteria vine that was 50 feet tall, a rose garden with a water fountain, pawpaw trees, many perennials, shrubs and trees. I felt I could have been there for the better part of the day. I was glad there were benches throughout the garden. To quote Arnold Schwarzenegger, “I’ll be back.”
One of the reasons we need to talk about this garden now is we can only go on the tours in early May. In addition to this past weekend, the remaining dates are: May 13, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; May 14, noon-5 p.m.; May 20, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; and May 21, noon-5 p.m. These are the only times the Wolcott Lilac Gardens is open to the public this year.
Hope you have a great stroll through your garden. If you have any challenges let me know at email@example.com. Soon I shall be leaving a blog on my website ohiohealthyfoodcooperative.org. Thank you for participating in our column.
Eric Larson of Jeromesville is a veteran landscaper and gardening enthusiast and a founding board member of the Ohio Chapter of Association of Professional Landscape Designers.