The Longfellow Garden is getting back into shape.

Tucked behind the Wadsworth-Longfellow House at 489 Congress St., the garden was dismantled three years ago as part of the expansion of the Maine Historical Society library. Now that everything has been replanted and had a couple of years to grow, there is again a quiet oasis in downtown Portland.

When the historical society holds its annual meeting on Saturday, the children’s gate is going to be reinstalled at the garden. The gate was designed by Alexander Wadsworth Longfellow Jr., a nephew of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and a Boston architect.

The Longfellow Garden probably does not have any plants left over from the time that Henry lived in the house, said Imelda Schaefer, a member of the historical society who helped coordinate the restoration of the garden after the library project.

But there is at least one lilac that dates to when Henry’s sister, Anne Longfellow Pierce, lived in the home. She bequeathed the home to the Maine Historical Society upon her death in 1901.

“Jeff O’Donal pulled that lilac, took it to his nursery and kept it for us for about four years,” Schaefer said. 

But while the plants are different, and some of the garden was lost to the expansion of the library, it has the same feel.

“It still has the same long view over the garden from the house,” Schaefer said. “And it still has the brick paths in the center and the stone path along the wall.”

Schaefer got involved in the garden as a member of the Maine Historical Society board of trustees. And when the library expansion began, she volunteered to be the liaison to the Longfellow Garden Club, which was formed in 1907 to maintain the garden. After doing that task, she joined the garden club, and with Betty Umbel — the club member most involved in the garden’s maintenance for many years — and other members, is coordinating the care of the garden now.

Schaefer said that the plan restored a lot plants that were part of the garden 100 years ago.

When Longfellow Pierce owned the garden, there were three American elms in it. Those elms were lost to Dutch elm disease, and the garden continued for several decades without the elms. But with the renovation, three Princeton elms — a disease-resistant variety of American elm — have been planted. There were also two hawthorn trees and a birch in the garden originally, and there are hawthorns and a birch in the garden now.

Schaefer said the garden cannot be an exact replica of the garden that Longfellow Pierce had, although many of the plants are from that era. It is part of the nature of gardens that they evolve. “This is now a sun garden,” she said, “but when the trees become larger, it will be a shade garden.”

Some plants that were in the original garden are definitely not coming back.

“It was wisteria that brought down the original garden gate, and that is not coming back,” she said. “And the garden back then had some bittersweet vine.” Bittersweet is an invasive plant that is no longer sold.

“We are trying to be more careful of what gets into the garden,” Schaefer said. “We are keeping a record of all the plants.”

The Longfellow Garden Club is hoping to make more people aware of the garden. Schaefer said it gets some use, but is seldom crowded. There have been some small weddings held there, and some meetings and similar events.

But it is also a place where people can drop by during the day for a little bit of quiet, to eat their lunch or to check on what is in bloom.

Tom Atwell has been writing the Maine Gardener column since 2004. He is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth, and can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:

[email protected]


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