Forging a New Path: Katharine B. Sutphin Border Garden Revitalization

For years, the Oldfields’ historic border gardens had been declining into diamonds in the rough, waiting for a revitalization to reveal their beauty once more. Over the last few years, The Garden has welcomed more guests than ever before, and additional foot traffic has made it challenging to maintain grassy pathways in the shaded garden. Tree roots were pushing up the dry-laid steppingstones that once provided a whimsical way to keep feet out of the mud for those who were able to navigate uneven surfaces. These challenges, both visual and accessible, were driving factors for us to prioritize this hidden piece of The Garden in the Master Plan. Newfields worked with DAVID RUBIN Land Collective, a landscape architecture firm, to help gracefully transition this small stretch of The Garden from one suitable for a private estate to one that is designed to welcome all guests, and we encourage you to wander through this spring and summer.  



In bringing the Katharine B. Sutphin Border Garden back to life, the first undertaking in the spring of 2020 was to strategically remove several trees that were crowding valuable specimen trees, including making more space for two of The Garden’s iconic copper beeches (Fagus sylvatica Atropurpurea Group). “This new path serves to welcome guests graciously to The Garden, and throughout the construction process protecting our heirloom trees has been a priority,” said Jonathan Wright, the Ruth Lilly Deputy Director for Horticulture and Natural Resources at Newfields. One of the most dramatic removals involved successfully transplanting a 35-foot-tall Persian-ironwood (Parrotia persica) with an 8’ root ball from the border to a new home by Garden Terrace. By doing so, we opened the canopy enough to allow increased light that has encouraged a sleeping seed bank to reemerge with robust sweeps of crocus, foxglove (Digitalis), and bugbane (Actaea) that have not been seen there in decades and has provided better growing conditions for new plantings to prosper.  



“In our commitment to our living collection, we opted to have utility lines buried and tunneled to accommodate for our modern needs while protecting the trees,” said Jonathan Wright. In April of 2021, boring for an electrical conduit to allow for garden lighting was done in advance of the new path construction, as was an update to the irrigation lines. Construction commenced in May and concluded in late October 2021, with a limestone foundation supporting the concrete aggregate pavers and crushed granite edging to soften the transition from the path to the garden bed. To repair construction soil along the path edge, a compost and soil mix was recycled onsite from the temporary garden near the Madeline F. Elder Greenhouse.  

“Improving the accessibility of these paths invites our guests to walk the same paths as the original families of Oldfields estate on their way to explore the Tanner Orchard or grab a drink at the new beer garden at Garden Terrace,” said Jean-Luc Howell, Director of Historic Preservation. Still, the layout of the path remains quite true to its historic origins, with the most significant change providing new access to the Recreation Field which allows guests a view across what was previously unseen. Additional seating areas provide ample space for strollers and wheelchairs to rest and were selected for their views of The Garden. Stunning teak chairs and Spirit Song Benches designed by Barbara and Robert Tiffany bring complementary architecture into the garden. This spring as you take pleasure in the curated designs for Spring Blooms presented by Wild Birds Unlimited, I encourage you to take the path less traveled. Sit on the benches and let yourself absorb the quiet space beneath the trees.  

Spirit Song Benches


Support for The Katharine B. Sutphin Border Garden was provided by Charlie Sutphin in his sister’s honor. The Katharine B. Sutphin Border Garden is the first of many phases of revitalization throughout this area of The Garden. Construction is currently underway on the mirroring border garden just north of the Lilly Allée. Ultimately, there will be a path around the Glick Family Fountain linking the gardens at the end of the Allée. Thanks to the generosity of the Glick Family, we look forward to sharing plans for the reimagined Glick Family Fountain. This will be the final piece to increasing accessibility to the Woven Willow Orchard Folly that overlooks the Tanner Orchard meadow—which has seen recent improvements thanks to the ongoing support of Gene and the late Rosemary Tanner—both border gardens, the fountain, and Garden Terrace—all spaces that have long been waiting for guests to rediscover their charm.  


Spring Blooms is presented by Wild Birds Unlimited. Lead support for the River of Bulbs is provided by Catherine M. Turner. 


Katharine B. Sutphin Border Garden, 2022.