Chinese garden


Fletcher Steele is known to have exclaimed that “the chief vice in gardens is to be merely pretty." With one of landscape design’s most renowned built gestures – "the Blue Steps,"  Steele has turned vice into virtue.   

From SUNY ESF Fletcher Steele Manuscript Collection

From SUNY ESF Fletcher Steele Manuscript Collection

To continue my tour of Naumkeag, we reconveine on the runnel that links the pyramid steps on the upper terrace with the top of the Blue steps.

The concrete stairs are shaded by a luxurious grove of Betula papyrifera (Paper Birches) providing a canopy above the Taxus (yew hedge), native ferns + perennials which provided Mabel Choate a gradual descent to her cutting garden at the base of the hill.  This vaulted Art Deco design uses industrial materials -- cast concrete and painted white pipe which are formed into handrails for the four flights of stairs complementing the natural coloration of the birches.  

The blue coloration of the mini fountain pools underneath each staircase provide an exclamation  and color to the extension of the water flow from the runnel above, which is emphasized sensorially by the sound of tricking water and the reflections within the grottos.

Notice the upright hammered wood logs used as edging for the plant material, then repeated as stone in the mini fountain pool/grotto. (These upright hammered wood logs were also used as the serpentine edging for the Oak Lawn)

Planted at the base, flanking the lower fountain are classic yellow-orange hemerocallis (Tiger lillies) which provide a colorful contrast to the blue fountain/grotto.

Fletcher Steele, Mabel Choate and terrier choosing paint colors! (from

Fletcher Steele, Mabel Choate and terrier choosing paint colors! (from

Rose garden – a modernist design to be seen by Mabel Choate from her second story bedroom windows, the rose garden is best viewed from above. Steele painted the railings purple – he considered this color the least obtrusive. The serpentine lines of gravel wind through sixteen beds of Rosa floribunda.  I have read that these curved lines of gravel (originally pink colored) are reminiscent of common motif in chinese art – the imperial scepter.   In this way Steele attempts to provide a link to the nearby Chinese Garden.

At the center of the evergreen garden is a circular pool surrounded by a hedge of Buxus sempevirens (boxwood), which forms the focal point of this garden.  In late July (sorry, these pictures were taken in very early June!) tall, white spires of Cimicifuga racemosa (snakeroot) and Yucca filamentosa (Adam’s needle) make a striking feature against the background of various evergreens.

From SUNY ESF Fletcher Steele Manuscript Collection

From SUNY ESF Fletcher Steele Manuscript Collection

If you tour the gardens you typically approach the Chinese Garden by climbing a staircase from the evergreen garden below, transitioning these series of stairs up to the Chinese Garden which has high brick/stone walls, seemingly representative of a Forbidden Palace. Entrance into the Chinese garden is through a zigzag screen, also referred to as a Devil’s screen.  Once inside are treasures that Mabel Choate collected from travels to the Far East, including a pair of Foo Dogs that guard the Temple stairs. Plant material also have an eastern flavor as Ginkgo bilobas (Maidenhair tree), Acer palmatum (Japanese maples) and various Phyllostachys (bamboo) are generously placed throughout this garden.

You may exit the Chinese Garden through the Moon Gate or… glimpse the Chinese Garden from afar through this portal if you were to arrive directly from the mainhouse.  In sheer brilliance, Steele created an intriguing, sensory journey regardless of one’s direction through the landscape.  This garden essentially completed the landscape at Naumkeag.

Ironically the first garden creation, the Afternoon garden was created with a pair of stone chairs that client and designer would relax in. The final creation, which was the Chinese Garden has a pair of wicker chairs placed at the top of the Temple in the Chinese garden for viewing purposes.

*unless noted all photos ©ToddHaiman2014