“The old-fashioned perennial flowers that come up year after year in the same places and are always happy looking and vigorous—They have become to me like old friends, and I should feel very badly to miss them and their greeting.”
– Mabel Hubbard Bell
Mabel Gardiner Hubbard: Historic Female Scientist
Mabel Gardiner Hubbard is frequently credited with being the grounding force of her innovative husband’s fruitful career. And while it’s true that she supported Alec’s endeavors as a life partner and an entrepreneur, Mabel pursued groundbreaking scientific endeavors of her own—especially when it came to ecology.
Historians and researchers recently uncovered thousands of sketches and notes detailing Mabel Gardiner Hubbard’s gardens—and they were exquisite.
The documents offered a glimpse into the inquisitive mind of a gardener-turned-scientist.
Over a century ago, Mabel designed, cultivated, and recorded meticulous observations about the gardens she kept on the Beinn Bhreagh estate she shared with Alexander Graham Bell. Sure, many women kept gardens in Mabel’s day, but Mabel’s garden was something more—it was her laboratory.
Mabel’s recovered notes demonstrate a thorough understanding of ecological tenets that have only recently been acknowledged and commercially applied throughout the agricultural industry. For example, she penned theories detailing crop diversity and postulated the importance of pollinators.
In other words, Mabel had developed solutions to complex ecological challenges decades before her time.
Some pages offer detailed sketches of wildflowers planted next to vegetable crops, while others are dotted with questions and hypotheses about the role of bees and the importance of biodiversity. She details a fenced-in kitchen garden with everyday staples such as corn, sweet peas, and cauliflower, as well as a sprawling vegetable garden along the lakeside, rolling hills of fruit orchards, and lush flower gardens.
The level of organization, inquisitiveness, and innovation in her notes suggests Mabel was more than a gardener— she was a researcher with the mind of a seasoned scientist.
Mabel’s Agricultural Genius Had Practical Applications
Those who knew Mabel in life have spoken frequently of her fascination with gardening. Neighbors recalled her frequent walks through the village, peeking over fences to see what other people had in their gardens. She was also known to engage in long conversations about gardening and ecology with close friends and family.
But her expertise in cultivating plants and crops went beyond the scope of curiosity. Mabel Gardiner Hubbard’s gardens fed everyone who lived on the estate at Beinn Bhreagh. During World War I, she even managed to turn the estate’s lawns into a working potato farm. The potatoes were shared with villagers in need when food was scarce during the war.
Mabel’s genius in the garden continues to impact our lives today. We can thank Mabel for vicariously gifting North America with a handful of newly cultivated crops, and even the famous Washington D.C. cherry trees. Mabel’s son-in-law, David Fairchild, was a noted “food explorer” and recalled having passionate conversations with Mabel about biodiversity and the role of pollinators.
Fairchild went on to successfully transplant the famed D.C. cherry trees from Japan to Washington. He also introduced dozens of new crops to the U.S., including kale, quinoa, and mangos. He attributed much of his knowledge and inspiration to his conversations with Mabel.
The Revival of Mabel’s Gardens
As the world’s food supply faces growing threats, scientists today continue to refine the very same food security methods Mabel developed over a century ago. One scientist has taken on the task of reinvigorating the gardens at Beinn Bhreagh to see what else we can learn from them.
In 2021, Dr. Alana Pindar partnered with Parks Canada to reconstruct Mabel Gardiner Hubbard’s gardens. Pindar is using Mabel’s detailed journals, including Mabel’s hand-sketched landscaping plans, to guide the reconstruction.
Pindar believes it’s time for Mabel to receive the credit she’s due regarding her research, and she describes the opportunity to work with Mabel’s research and gardens as a “dream come true.” Through this project, she hopes to show the world how simple it is to embrace biodiversity and grow sustainable food for your own household.
Today, the project is in full swing. A variety of crops and wildflowers have been cultivated across two 65 square meter plots—the size of a standard backyard. The size is intentional, as Pindar hopes to demonstrate how any family might similarly plant their own backyard garden. Visitors are welcomed at the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site and can now experience the reconstructed gardens for themselves.
Mabel Gardiner Hubbard was an extraordinary woman with a legacy that extends well beyond her husband’s greatness. Her gardens at Beinn Bhreagh were not only a source of pride and joy, but also a living laboratory. And while her work may have been ahead of its time, today we can truly appreciate the significance of her research. Learn more about Mabel Gardiner Hubbard here.