Over a decade ago, playwright John Guare created “Six Degrees of Separation”, a drama with comedic overtones. The title refers to the idea that any individual can be connected in some way to any other individual by no more than six connections or degrees. “Six Degrees of Separation” inspired a game that was popular a few years ago called “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”. Named after a hard-working actor with lots of movie credits, the game’s central thesis was that every Hollywood celebrity could be connected to Kevin Bacon by no more than six connections.
If I took enough time and mental energy, I am sure that I could establish personal connections with not only Kevin Bacon, but also Voltaire and Eleanor Roosevelt. Fortunately, I have other things to do.
I was thinking about such connections the other day as I walked around the kitchen garden at the Oakeside Bloomfield Cultural Center in suburban Bloomfield, New Jersey. I noticed a weed. If I had stopped to pull it, I might have made physical contact with the descendant of a weed pulled by the late Jean Oakes, who established the garden during the first third of the twentieth century. She in turn was married to the son of the man who ran the Oakes woolen mill in Bloomfield at the end of the nineteenth century. At that time, the mill made blue cloth that was used for New York City’s police officers’ uniforms. At least some of those police officers crossed paths with Theodore Roosevelt when he was New York City police commissioner. So by simply pulling one weed, I could have connected myself to Teddy Roosevelt by six degrees. By adding a degree, I could have made metaphysical contact with none other than his niece, Eleanor. It’s truly a small world.
The Oakeside kitchen garden, with all its inherent connections, is in the midst of renovation. After Jean Oakes death, her spacious house and the adjacent property were donated to the town of Bloomfield for use as a cultural center. When Oakeside’s trustees made the wise decision to restore the garden, they were probably thinking about plants and expenses, rather than the kinds of connections that occurred to me as I contemplated one large dandelion. But in the garden, with its large rectangular fruit and vegetable beds, bounded by color-themed borders of annuals and perennials, the connections are flourishing just below the surface.
The restoration is a work in progress. As you walk the beds of the kitchen garden, you can see hundreds of recently installed young perennials awaiting the opportunity to grow lush and strong. Now, at the end of the growing season, there is not much to see, unless you count some of the luminous reblooming roses and the plump ‘Rouges d’Etamps’ pumpkins, but the possibilities are exciting.
The garden restoration is meant to return the beds to the way they were during World War I and the 1920’s, when the Oakes family lived in the house, and the plot was intensely cultivated. Though the garden is an American early twentieth century original, it is integrally connected to the idea of the traditional French potager or kitchen garden. This kind of garden, intended to supply a household with ample amounts of fruits, vegetables, and herbs, consisted of beds of food crops in a symmetrical layout, usually enclosed by a wall or fence. Fruit trees stood like sentinels in corners or espaliered on one side. Berry bushes might be planted on another side. Ornamentals edged the tidy beds. Order and productivity went hand in hand with intense cultivation.
When I walked the beds at Oakeside with former trustee and current garden consultant, Patricia Tratebas, she talked proudly about the rhubarb grown from seed, as well as the pumpkins, beans, peach and pear trees. A large stand of ornamental corn held pride of place in the center of one bed. Old roses hugged the picket fence that encloses the entire one-acre plot. Guided by her personal cache of old gardening books, as well as by the original Oakeside garden plans, Ms. Tratebas was careful to select varieties that were available to home gardeners when the garden was in its prime.
The renovated beds are also connected to English gardening through the ideas of Gertrude Jekyll, a celebrated English garden designer of the early twentieth century. Ms. Jekyll’s herbaceous borders contained hundreds of plants, artfully combined for specific color effects. Some of her most famous planting schemes were comprised of beds that mimicked the color array of the spectrum. Red flowers were planted at one end, and blue flowers at the other. The colors of the plantings moved gradually from red through yellows and greens to blue, melding into each other just as they do in the spectrum.
At Oakeside, four-foot mixed borders run along the garden’s vertical and horizontal axes. All are planted according to specific color schemes. At the rear is a “hot colors” bed, where bright red Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ vies for attention with red nasturtiums, yellow coreopsis and a host of other warm-hued bloomers. The “hot colors” bed intersects with the blue border, which includes varieties such as baptisia, delphiniums, scabiosa and veronica. There is also a border filled with white and silvery plants (accented here and there with dark blue). Ms. Jekyll, with her painter’s sensibility would have been pleased at the blending of colors.
Ms. Tratebas has connected Oakeside to the past in other ways as well. Original lilies, peonies and roses found in the overgrown garden or elsewhere on the property have been plucked from weedy obscurity and repositioned. Peonies in particular are famed for their longevity, sometimes spanning generations. It is a tribute to the Oakeside trustees and to Ms. Tratebas that they have chosen to maintain so many of those deep rooted connections.
Contact Elisabeth Ginsburg