Landscaping Matriarch Louise Beebe Wilder Brought Gardening Clubs To Westchester County
Wilder founded the Bronxville Working Gardeners Club in 1925.
When Louise Beebe Wilder died on April 20, 1938, she left behind a lasting legacy not only for Westchester, where she single-handedly made the County a bastion for begonias and bellflowers, but for an entire country of lush gardens influenced by her passion and skill.
Widely considered America’s greatest garden writer, Wilder ranks among the 20th century’s most famous horticulturists. Contagiously charismatic, she had deep-set eyes and a warm, round face recognizable across Bronxville. Wilder was born in 1878, and her passion for gardening began in early childhood. Although the Beebes were an upper-crust Baltimore family who descended from the royal House of Stuart (the European dynasty that originated in Scotland), Louise was more interested in her mother’s rose garden. She spent her Fridays giving flowers to the “sick, sad, and disgruntled.” At 6 years old, Louise planted her first garden, a 6’ by 12’ plot marked out by clothespins and conch shells.
In 1902, Louise married Walter Robb Wilder and settled in Bronxville’s Lawrence Park, which proved to be her next canvas. A man of substantial means, Walter grew up in Topeka, Kansas, graduated from Phillips Academy Andover and Cornell University, and gained an aesthetic eye from a privileged 19th-century-style Grand Tour across France and Italy. After studying under famous architect Stanford White, he soon started his own firm with Harry Keith White. The two won a prestigious commission to design the Washington State Capitol Building in Olympia.
Louise, meanwhile, refused to bide her time amid “fluff and pink tea.” Not only did she plan the landscaping of Station Plaza in Bronxville, she also founded Bronxville’s Working Gardeners Club in 1925, making it one of Westchester’s oldest organizations. The Club’s early members were poets, painters, and businesspeople. The club went on to start a botanical lending library and contributed money to the planting of a large Victory Garden during World War II at the New York Botanical Garden.
Wilder’s leadership of the group proved to be a cross-pollination of Julia Child’s joie de vivre with Sherlock Holmes’ scientific detail. Her gardens sprouted from the British tradition of abundance and color with no place for austerity and uniformity amid the exotic bulbs she chased on trips to Tibet and Patagonia. Wilder was candid about her failures and learned through experimentation. Her gardening prescriptions favored expressive, clear advice over dewy sentimentalism.
Local celebrity quickly grew into international fame. Wilder sat on the board of the Federated Garden Clubs of New York State and served as editor of New York Gardens. She was the director of the New York Botanical Garden and penned 10 books on gardening and landscaping, including Color in My Garden (1918) and Pleasures and Problems of a Rock Garden (1928). The Fragrant Path (1932) solely covered the fragrances of different flowers and leaves. Rosemary, for instance, “makes a charming pot plant, neat, svelte, with its dark, felt-lined leaves held sleek against its sides. The smell… is keen and heady, resinous, yet sweet, with a hint of nutmeg.”
In 1937, the Garden Club of America bestowed her with the distinguished Gold Medal for Horticultural Achievement. By that time, Wilder’s writings had made it to the New York Times, Horticulture, and The Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society of England. House & Garden published more than 141 Wilder bylines. Bronxville natives populated the pieces, leading her writing to be called “a Bronxville family affair.”
In addition to enlightening gardening advice, Wilder’s writings shed light on a budding suburbia, heirloom privilege, and defiant feminism. Eden Ross Lipson, former editor at the New York Times Book Review, saw “a great Romantic enthusiast, with a strong vein of scientific curiosity that she exercised on a domestic scale.”
At the turn of the century, suffragists trumpeted financial freedom. Wilder—perhaps inadvertently—pioneered this trailblazing sisterhood of autonomous women, becoming one of the first to professionalize a domestic domain. Large staffs never tended her gardens. Wilder alone transformed a weedy one-acre Bronxville property into a diverse Eden with a long grape arbor and stone pillars. The philosophy was, in her words, “formal in design, but most informal in execution.”
At Balderbrae, the Wilders’ farmhouse in Pomona, New York, the couple built a walled garden with proper herb bed, and stone wall (the property was later restored and sold in 2005 for $1.5 million). Pathways and fountains linked terraces with violets and flowering trees. After her husband committed suicide in 1934, Louise remained independent. She led the Working Gardeners Club until her death in 1938. A New York Times obituary named her the master behind residential rock gardens across the country. In April 2001, Hartley & Marks Publishers released The Louise Beebe Wilder Gardener’s Library: Four Classic Books by America’s Greatest Garden Writer just in time for spring. The collection quickly became a treasured perennial.
Today, Westchester has dozens of gardening clubs and at least 150 nurseries and landscaping
companies. Wilder continues to be quoted in books, magazines, and catalogs. And every spring, New Yorkers continue to flock north from the City to tour our manicured gardens. But, long before the trek became an annual ritual, trading pavement for petunias was Wilder’s personal pastime. As she writes in Pleasures of the Nose, “A garden full of sweet odours is a garden full of charm…It is born of sensitive and very personal preferences yet its appeal is almost universal.”