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Gardens through history

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    Daniel Zuckerman/Columbia-Greene Media One of the Steepletop’s gardens known as “The Ruins” in Austerlitz.
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    Daniel Zuckerman/Columbia-Greene Media One of Steepletop’s gardens located towards Edna St. Vincent Millay’s main house on the property.
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    Daniel Zuckerman/Columbia-Greene Media An entrance to one of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s gardens, known as “The Ruins” in Austerlitz.
July 24, 2017 12:15 am Updated: July 24, 2017 12:15 am

AUSTERLITZ — Visitors to Steepletop, home to the Pulitzer Prize winning poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, had the option of touring the estate’s numerous gardens Sunday as part of the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days program.

The Garden Conservancy is a nonprofit organization dedicated to saving, restoring and preserving gardens throughout North America to educate and inspire the public, according to the conservancy’s website. The Open Days program allows visitors to take self-guided tours of gardens.

Steepletop used to have its garden Open Days in August, but this year switched to July because there were not as many flowers in bloom, Steepletop Visitors Services Director Martha Raftery said.

“We’re at a higher elevation here so a lot of flowers are blooming now,” Raftery said. “It also happens to be the beginning of the blueberry time and so we have blueberries.”

Steepletop has been participating in the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days program for three years and the conservancy helped to restore the estate’s gardens, Raftery said. She believes this event brings in new visitors to the estate and to other events, like the Austerlitz Historical Society’s Blueberry Festival.

“Austerlitz is a very small area and very rural, so this brings more people, gets them to drive through here and realize that we’re here,” Raftery said. “They become aware that we exist because we’re on the Garden Conservancy tour.”

Raftery believes that Millay herself would be happy by all the attention her works and her garden are getting, even though she was a private person.

“I think she’d appreciate all these people interested in nature and the nature of her property,” Raftery said.

The gardens are considered to have historic value because Millay wrote many of her poems about them, and she kept meticulous records of everything planted in the garden, Steepletop garden volunteer and docent Carol Derfner said. Millay and her husband, Eugen Boissevain, did much of the gardening work themselves with some help from local people here and there.

“She loved to do it,” Derfner said.

An area of the estate known as “The Ruins” was where Millay would have legendary parties that would go on for days, and tall trees surrounded the garden and a swimming pool so Millay and her guests could have some privacy, Derfner said. In her lifetime, Millay was a well-known figure who published 26 volumes of poetry.

“She was like the rock star of her day,” Derfner said of Millay’s popularity. “We’re just starting now to bring the home to life.”

The property also boasts trees originally brought from Maine, three rose gardens near the Ruins and a cabin that was built so Millay could write, Derfrner said. When writers from around the world visited Steepletop’s grand opening to the public in 2010, they were most interested in checking out the writing cabin, rather than the gardens or Millay’s main house.

“It’s like an icon in the minds of writers,” Derfner said in reference to the cabin.

Linda Weisberg, who owns a home in Lenox, Massachusetts, has wanted to come to visit the property, as did her husband, who is a literature buff.

“It’s amazing how they’ve kept up the property,” Weisberg said. “It’s beautiful, very peaceful.”

Weisberg has visited other properties that are part of the Garden Conservancy’s Open Day program, including Linda Horn’s home in nearby Spencertown.

“Every weekend in the summer they are other gardens featured,” Weisberg said of the program. “The Garden Conservancy is a good thing.”

John Bulbrook, of Weston, Massachusetts, had never been to Steepletop before Sunday and said his visit rekindled interest in Millay’s poetry that he read in high school.

“It’s inspiring others to do something with their own gardens,” Bulbrook said. “Edna St. Vincent Millay is a bonus to get to see her garden.”

Sue Sector, of Sand Lake, was brought to the Steepletop gardens by her friend and said visiting the garden was worth the trip for her. “This is unexpected, and what a pleasure,” Sector said. “It’s a hidden treasure.”

Sector praised the staff of Steepletop for their kindness and knowledge of the site and its history.

“I had no idea she lived out here, and what a beautiful place to write,” Sector said.

To reach reporter Daniel Zuckerman email or follow him on Twitter @DZuckerman_CGM.