NORTH HAMPTON — It’s a blooming tradition.
Yellow, purple, white and fuchsia flowers flutter in the breeze from east of the sea wall. Once again this summer, members of a local garden club have planted a picture-perfect garden just north of the fish houses on the ocean side of Route 1A.
This year’s theme is “whimsy.” There is a winding stone path, with a small bridge over a miniature pond, a tree stump with a front door fit for a gnome, a “clock” made of groundcover plants and delicate metal chairs at a table bearing an oversized tea cup brimming with flowers.
“It’s a little bit Alice in Wonderland,” said Margaret Schoenberger, president of the Rye Beach-Little Boars Head Garden Club.
Sarah Coorssen, club vice president, said, “The economy is bad, so we chose something lighthearted. I think we accomplished that. People are raving about it.”
There has been a garden in this location in the Little Boars Head District of North Hampton since the mid-1930s. It was first planted as a defense against messy picnickers. As automobiles became more common, day trippers began parking their sedans and coupes there to walk or swim at North Hampton Beach. Often, they left their trash behind.
Miss Mary Frost, whose family owned a summer home across the street, obtained permission from the state Highway Department to add more rocks and soil and to plant flowers, thus transforming the litter-strewn “parking lot” into a rock garden.
Frost was a member of the Rye Beach-Little Boars Head Garden Club. When she died in 1939, at the age of 83, the club adopted the garden. They called it the North Garden, to distinguish it from the garden south of the fish houses, now planted in wildflowers.
In the early years of the club, most members did not grub around in the dirt themselves; they had gardeners. The purpose of the club was to cultivate beauty in their homes and community, learn about plants and, most importantly, to socialize.
The two women who founded the club in 1916, Mrs. George Allen and Mrs. John Hobbs, are Katherine Southworth’s great-grandmothers. Southworth and her husband, Robert, own one of the fish houses that were once used by fishermen and now serve as rustic summer cottages.
When the Southworths came home to North Hampton in 1973, Katherine Southworth’s mother — an accomplished gardener who won many of the club’s flower shows — took her aside and politely informed her it was time to carry on the family tradition.
“I’m not much of a gardener,” said Southworth. For years she had blue plastic hollyhocks “growing” behind her house. Her husband had given them to her as a joke.
But she had a knack for organizing and was club president before she knew it.
For years, staple plantings were red salvia, purple petunias and yellow marigolds. A man named Mr. French cared for the garden. After he died in 1989, the club funded a landscape company for several years until it became too costly for their modest dues to support.
Southworth described what happened next: “I had a brilliant idea that we were a garden club — maybe we should garden.”
She developed the summer calendar of work that is still in use, with members volunteering for a week of duty that includes weeding, deadheading and watering to keep the flowers in top form.
“There are people who have been walking by this garden for 30 or 40 years. On summer vacations, they look for it,” said Southworth. “It is much appreciated.”
This year’s garden was planted after the last full moon in May and will be put to bed in early October. The plants, a mixture of annuals and perennials now, are purchased locally. This year the mulch has some seaweed in it. Spring installation was three days of hard work for volunteers, but worth it.
“It’s a labor of love,” said Helen Coorssen, who served as club president in the early 1990s. (She is Sarah Coorssen’s mother-in-law.) The idea of having an annual theme began with her tenure. “I got creative and planted a whale made of white petunias. Imagine the deadheading.”
People liked it and another tradition was established. Last year’s theme was “serenity.” A few years ago, a pink ribbon made of flowers honored victims and survivors of breast cancer.
Leslie Asadoorian remembers the “tropical” theme of 2008. She discovered eight large palm trees on sale at Home Depot in early spring, purchased them, and kept them in her house until it was warm enough to plant.
Asadoorian lives across the street from the garden, in the same house where Mary Frost spent her summers keeping an eye on the litterbugs of the 1930s. Asadoorian likes to look across the street too. She takes “enormous pleasure,” she said, in watching people admiring the garden she helped to plant.
The Rye Beach - Little Boar's Head Garden Club in 1919
Garden club members, from left, Sarah Coorssen, Leslie Asadoorian, Helen Coorssen, Margaret Schoenberger and Katherine Southworth.