Garden Tour: Doris Duke’s Rough Point, Newport, R.I.

Gardens are such personal things. As reflections of their creators, they can express intimate character traits: Do you prefer orderliness or spontaneity? Ostentation or restraint? Controlling nature or liberating it? To peek into someone’s garden is to catch a glimpse of their soul. Perhaps this is why it’s so interesting to visit the gardens of cultural icons such as Doris Duke, who lived at her mansion in Newport, R.I. during summer months.

Situated on a point of land at the tip of Easton’s Bay, the aptly named Rough Point faces the open Atlantic Ocean on three sides — and, by circumstance, all the weather that offers. Lying as if prostate to the sea and the sky, Rough Point has a very different character than Newport’s other Gilded Age mansions. Duke’s gardens here — at once both wild and tamed, succumbing to the coastal weather and other times defying it — mirror many of her idiosyncrasies and her sensibilities, and are also, to a degree, a commentary on the times she lived in. If the gardens at Rough Point are indeed a glimpse into Duke’s psyche, then here are its lessons: Design should be timeless, not fleeting; landscapes should be natural, not showy; and, most importantly, the joy of a garden should serve the desires of its creator.

garlic flower at garden-tour- newport-ri-doris-duke-rough-point

A garlic plant is almost ready for harvest in Rough Point’s kitchen garden. Doris Duke, when she lived here, ate fresh vegetables frequently from the property’s garden.

nepita at garden-tour- newport-ri-doris-duke-rough-point

With a well groomed privet hedge serving as a protector, a bed on the north side of the estate features dahlias and foxtail lilies, as well as other perennials such as globe thistle, nepeta, and peonies. Though Duke used this space as a cutting garden filled with annuals, for practical reasons, contemporary caretakers have installed more zone-hearty plants.

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Instead of digging them up each fall, Rough Point’s gardeners cover dahlias with straw mulch and black plastic to overwinter, just like Doris Duke did.

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Along the northern side of the estate, three beds — referred to as the tropical garden, dahlia beds, and east garden — and the rose arbor are protected by a thick privet hedge that creates a microclimate, a Victorian-era gardening technique.

globe thistle garden-tour- newport-ri-doris-duke-rough-point

fire lily at garden-tour- newport-ri-doris-duke-rough-point
organge dahlia at garden-tour- newport-ri-doris-duke-rough-point

rose arbor garden-tour- newport-ri-doris-duke-rough-point

American pillar roses, which bloom around the Fourth of July, climb up an arbor.

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The east garden was filled with bearded iris in Duke’s day, but now has a more formal succession of blooms. While the layout here is classic English formal, the plantings are anything but. Yarrow, germander, astilbe, and more fill the space, which is surrounded by a clever limelight hydrangea hedge.


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“Rough Point. It’s a rough place for plants,” says Joan Andersen, interim head gardener of the estate, which was originally landscaped by Frederick Law Olmstead, who aimed to enhance the natural beauty of the site. Today, the gardeners and landscapers use only organic products — soaps, oils, and Neptune’s Harvest fertilizer — to maintain the property. “Caring for the watershed is a big deal,” says Andersen. “We’re committed to taking care of things in a non-chemical way.”


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The gatehouse to Rough Point, which is maintained by the Newport Restoration Foundation, welcomes visitors to the site.


camel topiaries

Famous for her love for animals, Duke kept camels on the property. Today, three topiaries covered in sedum pay homage to her former pets.

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To the south and east, Rough point faces the open Atlantic. Plantings here — which include black pine, Nippon daisy, groundsell, daylilies, and Rosa rugosa — must tolerate harsh wind, salt, and temperature swings. In his initial design, Olmstead planted more than 30,000 plants, knowing many would not survive.

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The kitchen garden — slightly smaller than Duke’s original — is filled with flowering ornamental plants that attract pollinators and repel pests. Beds are bordered with stones that were used as ships’ ballast centuries earlier.

sunflower garden-tour- newport-ri-doris-duke-rough-point
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Photos by Meaghan O’Neill.

Meaghan O'Neill is a writer, editor, blogger wrangler, and the founder of Puddingstone Post. She was formerly editor-in-chief of TreeHugger, Discovery Channel online, and TLC's Parentables. Her writing has appeared in numerous print and online publications, and her book, Ready, Set, Green: 8 Weeks to Modern Eco-Living (Villard/Random House) was published in 2008. She lives in Newport, RI with her family.


  • […] the season (weather depending). Visitors will learn about the distinguished design history of this property’s amazing landscape – from farmland to premiere vacation spot – and enjoy the exquisite gardens and breathtaking […]

  • […] will hold its Landscape History and Garden Tour, which details the distinguished history of the property’s amazing grounds, from farmland to premiere vacation spot. Initially laid out by Frederick Law Olmstead, the estate […]

  • […] will hold its Landscape History and Garden Tour, which details the distinguished history of the property’s amazing grounds, from farmland to premiere vacation spot. Initially laid out by Frederick Law Olmstead, the estate […]

  • […] Duke, will hold its Landscape History and Garden Tour, detailing the distinguished history of the property’s grounds from farmland to premiere vacation spot. Initially laid out by Frederick Law Olmstead, the estate […]

  • […] As an heiress, Doris Duke had a reputation for being quiet, loyal, and a lover of music and Asian art. Duke has been credited as being an early feminist and, in many ways, truly was ahead of her time – from paddle boarding to transcendental meditation to her interest in saving and protecting works of Islamic art (who would have seen that one coming). However, she also made contributions outside the arts, and was a nature lover who would push up her sleeves and work with the rest of the gang on a large project on her farm or in her gardens. […]

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