The linden trees may still be budding, but the hillside is golden with a host of 60,000 daffodils. They will blow in the spring breeze by the water channel down the Blue Stairs. They will crowd near the round moon gate in the Chinese garden and around the poles on the terrace painted as bright as Venetian gondolas.
The historic gardens at Naumkeag in Stockbridge have made a name around the world. And this spring, they will fill with tulips and spring bulbs, says general manager Brian Cruey. He is speaking by phone from St. Louis, taking time at a haunted house and Christmas light show convention to look ahead to the spring.
He has been looking ahead since last October. Cruey and a few willing hands planted the bulbs last fall in two weeks of rain. He was setting up for the annual Halloween pumpkin walk and haunted house, he said, and preparing for Naumkeag’s first holiday light show. In November and December, he turned on 100,000 new bulbs — holiday lights — and they drew in 22,000 people.
“We were excited at the turnout,” he said, “and thrilled to have so many people who have lived in the area for so long come to Naumkeag for the first time. We heard over and over again, I’ve lived in this area my whole life and I’ve never been here — I never knew it existed.”
The house looks out over the Housatonic River Valley on a hillside so steep that the garden is built of stairs and terraces.
It is now a historic property with the Trustees of Reservations, but Naumkeag began as a Berkshire ‘Cottage,’ a summer playground for a New York family in the Gilded Age. Joseph and Caroline Choate bought the land and began the house in 1885. He was a courtroom lawyer who argued cases before the Supreme Court, according to the Trustees of Reservations; she was an artist and an activist for women’s education, and she co-founded Barnard College.
They made this place as a summer retreat, with its lawns and flower beds, and they had a working farm in the valley. When they got off the train in Stockbridge, Joseph Choate would walk down to collect eggs, ask after new calves and scratch the pigs along their backs.
In the 1920s their daughter, Mabel, met Fletcher Steele, a pioneer in modern landscape design and a Williams College alum. Over the next 30 years, according to landscape historian Jacqueline Connell, they worked together to transform the Naumkeag gardens.
Paths swirled around the winter-hardy roses, and the cocoa shells mulching the beds used to smell of hot chocolate on rainy days.
A house for all seasons
Naumkeag has always drawn summer visitors. But Cruey wants to meet his neighbors and welcome them in.
“This is part of a thoughtful effort to expand our season,” he said, “and offer something for the community at a time … when plenty of people are looking for things to do.”
He began the effort four years ago with Halloween events. He created a pumpkin walk for families with luminaries and Jack-o-lanterns, and for teens and adults a haunted house. Last fall he brought spirits into the mansion cellars into with Limelight in Lee and stage and set-design students from Bard College at Simon’s Rock.
Both events have grown year by year; last October 7,000 people came. And then Winterlights dazzled the landscape. Cruey and his staff worked for months to electrify the house and grounds — a rainbow of lights on the linden trees, gold on the birches by the blue steps, blue shimmering around the fountains, and a lit fir tree in the library.
In six weekends, they saw twice as many people as Naumkeag often sees in a summer, even in a raw early winter without snow. And these are not summer visitors, Cruey said. They are local families. They live here.
He looks forward to welcoming many of them again in April.
“Especially in the spring,” he said, “after the winters we have in the Berkshires, people are ready to get outside.”
Cruey has designed the bulb plantings with paths to follow and color all through the garden, and he has channelled the new flood of flowers.
“We respected historic nature of the garden,” he said, “tucking them into places where they wouldn’t impede the design.”
Mabel Choate had not planted many bulbs, he said, because she most often came to the house in the summer, and so in the past her gardens have not bloomed widely in the spring, not even her well-known terrace of white and crimson tree peonies.
“The tree peonies usually bloom in early June,” he said, “but it always depends — even with daffodils. If they come up a week early, we’ll start a week early.”
He will open the festival when the flowers open. Spring in New England is rarely predictable, and warm days almost never begin on March 21.
By mid-April the buds will be stirring, and the gardens will open, like Winterlights, with a trail to follow and surprises, art installations and decorations in each garden room.
Each weekend Cruey will have activities on the grounds: a scavenger hunt, craft tables and games for kids, greenhouses open with bulbs on display.
“And we’ll have flower sculptures,” he said, shapes made from blooms — pansy balls and tulip trees.
He is planning pop-up performances including a concert on the last weekend, on May 12, for Mother’s Day.
He wants to encourage people to wander the gardens and grounds informally, he said, and get familiar with them. Let their children run on the lawn where the Choates held amateur plays.
“Bring your mother, or any caregiver you want to celebrate, and bring a picnic.”
Naumkeag also has a café working with the Marketplace in Sheffield and Harney teas, and now they are also working with Berkshire Mountain Distillers — the concession cart they premiered at winter lights will come back all summer long.
Warm days and nights
The house and grounds will open for the regular season on May 17, with historic tours, and Naumkeag will join in a celebration of Trustees of Reservations properties across the state open free on May 18. Events will move inside the house and out on that free day with an art and architecture theme, Cruey said.
Starting in June, Naumkeag will also stay open in the evenings, at sunset, from 5 to 8 p.m. every day. People can bring a picnic, sit out on the grass and sip a gin and tonic with lime, even before live music returns with Naumkeag at Night weekend concerts at the end of June.
Taking in these gardens at quiet times is one of the hidden pleasures of the Berkshires, says Carrieanne Petrik, Trustees of Reservations’ engagement manager for Southern Berkshire County. She enjoys walking on a warm night through the grove of birches planted in the rocks. She enjoys the way the Choates have used the landscape to create the sense of another place.
From the pagoda, she said, she can see some of the best sunsets in Berkshire County.
Naumkeag will open for the Daffodil Festival Thursdays to Sundays, April 25 to May 12 — and may begin earlier if the spring and the flowers come earlier. Check naumkeag.thetrustees.org for day-to-day updates in April and May.