Every summer since 1977, the Celia Thaxter Garden has been in full bloom on Appledore Island, about seven miles off the coast near Kittery. This year, the pandemic has temporarily uprooted the garden from its long-time home to Prescott Park in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

The Shoals Marine Laboratory, which is jointly run by the University of New Hampshire and Cornell University, oversees the Celia Thaxter Garden and works throughout the year with Rolling Green Nursery to grow a carefully curated set of flowers in order to recreate Thaxter’s garden from the 1800s.

The laboratory realized in late March that it would not be able to safely offer its usual garden tours, which require a 45-minute boat ride to the island that is not conducive to social distancing.

This cancellation meant that the flowers for the garden that had been planted during the winter would have nowhere to go. Thanks to a donation from a frequent visitor of Prescott Park and hard work on behalf of Jennifer Seavey, executive director of the laboratory, the flowers were transferred to Portsmouth. A team of volunteers who typically come to Appledore helped move and replant the garden in Prescott Park, at 10 Marcy St., in early June.

Volunteers plant flowers that were grown at Rolling Green Nursery specifically for the Shoals Marine Laboratory Celia Thaxter garden that has temporarily moved to Prescott Park in Portsmouth, N.H., for the summer. Courtesy Corin Hallowell/City of Portsmouth

“The city of Portsmouth was looking for plants, and they were having a hard time economically, so it’s just beautiful serendipity that it all aligned,” Seavey said.

Thaxter’s garden had been on the island since the 1800s, until a fire burned down Thaxter’s home and garden, as well as the Appledore House Hotel in 1914. The modern recreation of her garden began in 1977, when the founder and first director of the laboratory, Dr. John M. Kingsbury, decided to reconstruct the garden using the plans and information in Thaxter’s book, “The Island Garden.”

“The plants in the garden we have today are in the same spots as the garden in the 1800s,” Seavey said. “It is really important for a marine lab full of scientists to plant and do the thing that’s most accurate. You don’t understand the biology and ecology of the place if you don’t understand its human history.”

“The Island Garden” was published just before Thaxter’s death in 1894 and describes her garden and its flowers in depth. Thaxter, who was well known for her poetry, transformed her house and garden into a place for writers and artists to convene. “The garden became the muse, and it became a theme for a lot of artists,” Seavey said.

The opening pages of Celia Thaxter’s book “An Island Garden. Courtesy Corin Hallowell/City of Portsmouth

The current location of the garden in Prescott Park, however, does not allow for this same detailed and accurate replication. The beds in Prescott Park are a different size than those in the Thaxter garden, and perennials on the island could not be transported to Portsmouth. The garden in Prescott Park is inspired by the original garden, whereas the garden on the island is “meant to be an exact replica,” Seavey said.

The plants in the Celia Thaxter Garden also differ from the flowers typically found in Portsmouth, said Earle Chase, the city horticulturist at Prescott Park.

“It’s a hodgepodge of flowers. Everything (in Prescott Park) is planted in block fashion … and her garden is quite a bit different in that there is a variety of colors and flowers and heights,” Chase said.

Foxgloves, a visitor favorite, stand tall in the Shoals Marine Laboratory’s Celia Thaxter garden on Appledore Island. Courtesy Robbin Ray/University of New Hampshire

Though the Thaxter Garden will look and feel different this summer, Seavey hopes visitors typically unable to visit the island will have the opportunity to travel to Prescott Park this summer.

“It’s really a great opportunity for everybody who can’t make it to the island to see (the garden),” Seavey said. “I am really hoping to offer the tours again next summer. We are excited to have those in the future.”

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