Lianne Audette in Edgerton Park

Land Rover

When Lianne Audette was five, her father sailed her out onto the small lake near their New Jersey home, then jumped ship. Forced to sail back on her own, she reacted not with fear but with gusto, initiating a long love affair with water. As an adult, Audette would circumnavigate the globe two and a half times by boat.

Lately, she spends her days on land, shovel or machete in hand. Weeding azaleas, trimming hydrangeas, filling holes in the ground and examining white pine and hemlock for loose limbs, she’s the groundskeeper of Edgerton Park, a 22-acre former family estate laid out in a traditional British landscape style.

With a series of winding roads and paths, some offering views of neighboring East Rock Park, “The intention was more about providing elbow room than a controlled environment,” says longtime neighbor and Edgerton Park Conservancy board member Margaret DeVane. “It’s about allowing individuals to explore.” Adjacent to busy Whitney Avenue but surrounded by iconic stone walls, people often seek solitude on the park’s great lawn, around its huge disk-topped fountain, in its lower meadow, under a grove of soaring copper beeches, in a dell beneath an old footbridge or in its network of lush greenhouses.

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When the property passed to the City of New Haven in 1965, the newly public space—celebrating its 50th anniversary this year with a string of special events—was maintained primarily by the Department of Parks, with the citizen-run Edgerton Park Conservancy providing on-premises gardening education starting in 1972. But by the 1980s, Edgerton, along with many of the city’s other parks, was suffering from neglect and vandalism. The EPC decided to step up its efforts, signing an agreement with City Hall to take on much more of the park’s upkeep. Today, the community group is responsible for maintenance of most of the buildings and grounds, with government providing support during bigger jobs like tree care and removal.

For two decades or so, the EPC made do through the hard work of countless volunteer hours. But those efforts often lacked direction and failed to adhere to the park’s “master plan,” developed for the grounds back in 1906 by estate architect, Robert Storer Stevenson. (The family that once owned the land included as a condition of its bequest that the park should be maintained, whenever possible, in accordance with Storer’s vision.) It was around the end of 2007 or early 2008—nobody can quite remember the exact timing—that Audette arrived at Edgerton Park, to plant a flowering dogwood in honor of her late mother, who’d been a frequent visitor to the grounds. Her father, she says, had some history with the park as well, having carved his initials into one of those copper beeches as a young man studying at Yale.

For Audette, the tree-planting visit was the start of something more. She began volunteering at the park, tackling poison ivy and invasive bittersweet that were beginning to choke out yew and rhododendron. This led to work in the greenhouse, and then to the discussion of becoming the park’s groundskeeper.

The hours were few in the beginning, and Audette didn’t always know how to address the challenges at hand. Though she had basic gardening concepts down, there were big gaps to fill. For instance, “I didn’t know an invasive from a native,” she confesses, towing a pamphlet around for on-the-spot lookups. For advice, she’d consult with friends, city park rangers and landscaping books. But the park itself has been her best teacher, forcing her to learn by doing, and revealing to her its cycles and quirks.

Audette’s own cycles and quirks include having studied naturopathy, acupuncture and nutrition. Along the way, she mastered the art of metal sculpture. A student of Creative Arts Workshop on Audubon Street, her depictions of waves and sea birds have shown in area galleries and exhibits. At present, a three-foot-high great blue heron, each feather individually welded, is exhibiting with 14 other pieces at the Willoughby Wallace Memorial Library. That’s in the Stony Creek section of Branford, not far from the Thimble Islands.

Further inland, we walk the curving woodland path that hugs the hillside overlooking the dell. Audette points out several young red maple trees that stand both above and below us, leaves fluttering lightly as we pass. The newly planted saplings were installed by the Urban Resources Initiative, replacing numerous older trees felled by storms in recent years. Directing our gaze uphill into afternoon sun, she describes a simple method of securing downed tree limbs into the hillside for keeping erosion at bay.

Protecting Edgerton’s bounty is her job, after all, and it’s a job she treasures. “It’s a lot of work,” she says, “but I’m really at home here.”

Edgerton Park
75 Cliff St, New Haven (map)
Open sunrise to sunset year-round
Edgerton Park Conservancy
(203) 624-9377

Written by Caty Poole. Photograph #3 by Caty Poole; others by Dan Mims.

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