Skip navigation

The Garden in Alma

In 1902 the decline in Francis health led to a decision to seek treatment in Alma, Michigan. It was reputed that King sought treatment for alcoholism, a specialty of the Alma sanitarium. Whatever his disease, by 1903 he was cured. Mrs. King, never particularly comfortable living in an urban setting, seems to have been very pleased by the family's decision to remain in rural Alma. The couple purchased a half-square city block, about two acres, on Alma's most desirable street and ordered the large, red brick house then on the property removed.

Orchard House
"Orchard House"
In its place was constructed a Tudor Manor House similar to the one the family had left behind in Elmhurst. Louisa was careful to locate "Orchard House," as the couple came to name it, on the northern edge of the property, leaving considerable room for the garden taking form in her mind.

As she was formulating her ideas for a garden in Alma, Mrs. King read two books which she credited with greatly influencing her. Elizabeth and her German Garden, published in 1898 by Annette Beauchamp and Helena Rutherfurd Ely's 1903 volume A Woman's Hardy Garden both caused considerable comment. Mrs. King wrote that "The former created the desire to garden; the latter gave practical advice towards the garden's making." The basic design for the new garden was drawn by English horticulturist William Consabel. By 1907, with the help of full-time gardener Frank Ankney, the garden started to take clear shape.

Frank Ankney
Frank Ankney

In the garden, brick walks crossed at a center pool. The resulting four sections were each divided into eight flower beds, divided by sod paths. Although this early plan was never fundamentally altered, Mrs. King soon became dissatisfied with it. She concluded it was too open a design and began to include elements within the garden that would create smaller, more private areas. She added hedges, garden gates, high wooden fences, and a gazebo.

King's philosophy was that somewhere in the garden flowers would be in bloom all year round and no soil was to show. King was driven in her desire to achieve the maximum possible effect. She toured widely to see examples in other gardens of plantings that she might use.

She also maintained a small, but concealed, experimental plot in her own garden where she planted four specimens of a potential addition to the garden and noted carefully its characteristics over a growing season. Only after this "trial" did she decide whether or not to introduce the species into her "real" garden. Each Sunday morning she toured the full garden with a specially designed notebook, carefully recording what was in bloom and taking other notes. Based on her notes, each fall adjustments were made among the perennials to ensure her goal of continual color would be met.

the garden in summer
The garden in mid-summer

The result of this constant attention was plain to see. The snow would be barely off the ground when King's scilla bulbs burst forth. Crocus followed. Mrs. King did not plant a bulb here and there. She thought in terms of mass blooms involving hundreds and thousands of bulbs. Tulips came next, supporting then giving way to lilac. By mid-summer shasta daisies and roses had taken center stage, backed by foxglove and the tall spikes of larkspur and delphinium. So it continued until autumn's frost brought an end to mid-Michigan's growing season.

King's garden was the background for several important flower events in th 1920s. In the spring an annual flower festival featured her tulip bulbs and seventy variety of lilac. The event drew visitors from throughout the midwest in part because Louisa King herself played a role in the festival. Each year she delivered well attended lectures eagerly anticipated by gardeners such as Mrs. Henry Ford. In the summer Orchard House's south lawn served as backdrop for an equally colorful, but more local, annual flower show. Local people from throughout mid-Michigan swarmed over the lawn to see the best their neighbors had to offer.