Ellen Hixon’s garden

Peggy Derrick

Most of the time we try to preserve historic artifacts by storing them in acid-free conditions and inside rooms with controlled temperature and humidity. But this week’s artifact is left in the dirt, exposed to the elements, and gets water and composted manure dumped on it. That’s because it is a garden, Ellen Hixon’s rose garden, to be exact.

For many years after Hixon’s death in 1913, her gardener, Henry Puent, continued to maintain the grounds in the manner in which she had taught him.

The La Crosse County Historical Society’s major Hixon House restoration project in 2004-05 included research by a landscape historian who studied Hixon’s letters, old photographs and the remains of flower beds to confirm the original form of the formal flower garden on the south side of the house, as well as the varieties of roses, peonies, dahlias, irises and other flowering plants that either had been grown, were still there or would likely have been there.

We know that Hixon was passionate about her garden. She was a member of the local Northwestern Horticultural Society and reported to the group about which varieties of roses and other perennials she found were suitable for the La Crosse climate. Her report reached a conclusion that many northern gardeners will recognize:

“After many experiments and repeated failures with ‘novelties’ with high-sounding names and beguiled by flattering descriptions, we are forced to admit the fact of a soil and climate adverse to the cultivation of any but the most hardy, and we might add, common, varieties, and that ‘eternal vigilance’ is the price of success.”

Hixon grew hybrid roses, which were dug and stored each winter, in the greenhouses at Oak Grove Cemetery. But she also grew hardy, own-root roses — along with peonies and irises — all of which grow in profusion in the garden today, according to the plan produced by the landscape historian, Peggy Beedle.

Most of the plantings are flowers that bloom from late May through June — the garden will never look lovelier than it does in these next few weeks. There is no better time to visit the house than when Hixon’s roses and peonies are in full bloom.

In April of 1907, when she was on a trip to Europe, Hixon wrote home to a friend, “I have visions of my garden waking from its winter sleep, and it is a great magnet.” At this time of year, it is especially poignant to imagine her presence among the awakened beauty in this garden.

This article was originally published in the La Crosse Tribune on May 26, 2017.