Gardening has always been a vital part of life at Sanborn Mills. The Sanborn family were primarily dairy farmers alongside their milling enterprise but there was always a need for fresh vegetables. Their vegetable garden was near the top of the property and is now underneath the Barden Barn. The proximity to the horses and cattle provided unlimited fertilizer for the site making the soil rich and friable. So good was the soil that one summer after completing an excavation job local Ken Magoon was paid in garden topsoil, cash was short in those days. This left the old garden far from useful and by then vegetables were easier to access throughout Loudon.
When Colin and Paula arrived in 1997, they quickly got to work planting a knot garden comprised of vegetables and herbs in the dooryard outside the mudroom. As the needs of the farm changed, they added a bigger vegetable garden in the barnyard of the Sanborn Barn (next to what is now the Dining Room.) The raised beds have evolved through several configurations but settled as a geometric pattern with grass paths in between still seen today.
The ornamental gardens as they exist now are quite a change from the original layout surrounding the family home. The main house was built in a space that had been dug out of the hill to use in building the dams leaving a narrow path around the perimeter. The trees on the bank were so close to the house that legend has it that one of the sisters living on the second floor could climb out her bedroom window and into the trees without detection
When Colin’s father, Francis H. Cabot, visited for the first time, he suggested that the top of the hill behind the Main House would be an excellent place to build a house in the Georgian style surrounded with accompanying gardens. When he learned that the site was under a conservation easement, he then turned his attention the very steep bank into which the Main House was nestled. He quite forcefully urged that the bank be removed. Initially Colin and Paula resisted such a drastic move but as they developed the area, it became obvious it had to be done.
Frank Cabot was a renowned gardener who built famous gardens throughout the latter of his life at Les Quatre Vents in Charlevoix, Quebec and at Stonecrop in Cold Spring, New York. There is a documentary film called The Gardener about his life and work with plants. The gardens at Sanborn Mills also house many alpine plants propagated by his nursery at Stonecrop and are an homage to his passion for rock and alpine gardening.
The bank behind the house was removed over a period of years and rock walls were built to retain the soil and support garden beds cut into the earth and to give enough room to build what is now known as the Great Room, completed in 2015. Colin designed the bones of the garden, incorporating a waterfall on the axis of the Great Room Bay window, and three levels of gardens culminating at the 1919 Lord and Burnham Greenhouse at the top of the hill overlooking the campus. Today the gardens of Sanborn Mills have expanded to not only provide a peaceful gathering place for students, but to provide materials for craft workshops like basketry and natural dye.