I had the good fortune to spend the last two weeks on an island in Maine. While it was a challenge to leave behind my own overly ambitious garden, a visit to the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay provided a welcome weed-free antidote to my gardening withdrawal symptoms.
Botanical gardens, first established in the 16th century for the study of medicinal plants, differ from parks and pleasure gardens by growing, displaying and documenting living collections of plants for scientific research, conservation and education. According to Botanical Gardens Conservation International (www.bgci.org/usa) there are currently 1,775 botanical gardens and arboreta located in 148 countries worldwide. To locate public botanical gardens in the United States visit the American Public Gardens Association (www.publicgardens.org) an organization representing over 500 gardens nationwide.
Opened in 2007, the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens are the largest botanical gardens in New England. Celebrating the botanical heritage and natural landscapes of coastal Maine the gardens, at 248 acres in size, provide a range of habitats and experiences designed to engage people of all ages. A new book about the gardens, Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens A People’s Garden, has just been published.
The gardens are uniquely designed to showcase Maine’s landscapes. They contain traditional gardens, including the Lerner Garden of the Five Senses, the Bibby and Harold Alfond Children’s Garden and the Giles Rhododendron Garden as well a series of woodland and shoreland trails that can be used for fitness and walking. Two large lawn areas provide spaces for events and permanent and seasonal art collections are sited throughout.
According to the website, www.MaineGardens.org, the gardens were conceived through a grassroots effort of mid-coast citizens in 1991. The first 128 acres of land, including 3,600 feet of tidal shoreline, were acquired five years later in 1996. In 2005 an additional gift of 120 acres was received from the Pine Tree Conservation Society. Apparently, several members of the Board of Directors were so committed to the endeavor that they used their own homes as collateral, a remarkable leap of faith that judging from the success of the gardens, was well rewarded. One a recent mid-week visit the gardens were well-attended.
The Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens showcase local designers, artisans and contractors whose empathetic use of native materials reflects their passion for the Maine landscape. Leighton & Associates completed the original master plan and Bruce John Riddell, (http://www.landartdesigner.com/), a landscape architect from Bar Harbor Maine, designed the Vayo Meditation and Harney Hillside Gardens, provided initial planting plans for the Central Garden and was on the team that designed the Giles Rhododendron Garden. Riddell specializes in granite detailing and has lent his expertise to stonework features throughout the gardens including benches, steps and paving. The most recent master plan for the central gardens is by Herb Schall of EDAW, completed in 2004 (http://www.aecom.com). Schall also designed the Bibby and Harold Alfond Children’s Garden.
The Gardens plan to raise 3.5 million dollars by the end of 2012 to retire their debt and build an endowment. To date, more than 21 million dollars has been raised, matching a series of challenge grants, including from the Kresge Foundation. The funding has allowed the construction of not only the gardens but also a visitor center and the Borsage Family Education Center, Maine’s greenest public building.
In just sixteen years, the gardens have become one of Maine’s most popular attractions, providing a visible example of the organization’s mission to “protect, preserve and enhance the botanical integrity and natural landscape of coastal Maine for people of all ages, through horticulture, education and research.”
In deference to summer a mostly visual tour of garden highlights follows. For additional images visit the gardens website (www.MaineGardens.org).
Lerner Garden of the Five Senses:
Opened in June of 2009, the one-acre Lerner Garden of the Five Senses is designed with features to provide accessibility to all visitors. The garden is located close to the Visitor Center making it one of the first visited (if following the recommended tour) and provides a wonderful introduction to what is to follow. Extensively detailed, the garden includes a labyrinth, pavilion and pond with a waterwall. A horticultural therapy program has been piloted at the gardens with a goal of providing training opportunities in the health care and educational fields.
The Lerner Garden of the Five Senses includes many tactile features.
Rose and Perennial Garden:
Visible across the great lawn and ledge garden from the Visitors Center, the Rose & Perennial garden is framed by a wooden rose arbor. The garden features both native and hardy shrub roses and a range of perennial plantings. Many of the roses were not in bloom on my visit. I enjoyed a conversation with a gardener detailing the challenges they had this season with deer and other wildlife throughout the gardens something I had been thinking about given the naturalistic setting.
Burpee Kitchen Garden:
The Gardens host many educational programs including a Kitchen Gardens Series featuring prominent Maine chefs. To view a schedule and make reservations for dinner visit: www.mainegardens.org/events-and-programs/kitchen-garden-dinner-series-2.
The Bibby and Harold Alfond Children’s Garden:
Created in 2010, the two acre Children’s Garden is a delight. When I visited it was a happy, busy place. While there were group explorations in progress there was also lots of independent, imaginary play taking place from hanging up clothes (do people still do this?) to casting for lobsters. The garden includes a maze, blueberry pond complete with fishing dock, a keeper’s cottage and story barn, chicken coop, spray fountains, vegetable garden, bog, windmill,tree house and many other features. It is difficult to imagine any child not finding something to engage them in this garden and while visiting I could not help but wish that every child had an opportunity to play in space so thoughtfully conceived and beautifully executed.
The garden was designed by landscape architect Herb Schall and uses themes from children’s literature throughout. Although I saw the quote, “You must do something to make the world more beautiful” from one of my favorite characters, Miss Rumphius , I somehow sadly missed her topiary figure. I did spy the bear from Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey, created by Nancy Schon the sculptor responsible the ducklings in the Boston Public Garden. According to an article written when the garden opened it contains 18,000 plants.
Vayo Meditation Garden:
The meditation garden, designed by Bruce John Riddell, is located on the Shoreland Trail and can be accessed by the Harney Hillside Garden. For me the garden evokes a distinctly Japanese esthetic, enhanced by granite stonework and stairs that provide an overlook with a vista to the sea. The garden is graced with several granite features that merge effortlessly with the landscape. The central element is a great basin that evokes the ebb and flow of the ocean’s tides, carved and partially polished by the sculptor David Holmes.
The Giles Rhododendron Garden and Birch Allee:
The gardens contain a series of trails throughout the woods including several that lead to the Giles Rhododendron Garden, carved into a hillside and featuring a dramatic waterfall. It is an approximately 35 minute walk from the Visitor Center through the Birch Allee to the Rhododendron Garden. Most of the trail system is serviced by a volunteer-run shuttle.
In mid-July the Giles Rhododendron Garden is a tapestry of green subtly enhanced by the texture and scale of the plantings. As in the rest of the garden, granite provides a structural framework.
The Birch Allee, planted with 1,000 trees, is an outdoor corridor that provides a formal connection to the education and visitor’s center. As the birches mature this will be an elegant passage, particularly in the winter season.
The Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens are open every day from 9 – 5 year round. They are located just north of Wiscasset, Maine in Boothbay and easily accessed from coastal route one. The gardens have both a visitors center (with cafe) and education center and host educational and informational events throughout the year including an annual lecture series and the Maine Fairy House Festival.
The Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens provides a rich experience on many levels. It is well designed, easy to navigate and includes a balanced mix of formal and informal gardens. Carved out of the Maine woods, it derives its inspiration from the rich heritage of coastal gardens, set within an ecological framework.
In Maine illustrator and author Barbara Cooney’s book Miss Rumphius, the title character, her Great-aunt Alice, sets out to explore the world with a mandate to make it more beautiful. She travels near and far and returns to her house by the sea where she spreads lupine seeds throughout the landscape. This simple gesture multiplies in impact as the seeds are spread, creating the beautiful lupine fields that characterize Maine in the early spring.
For me the story is a fitting metaphor for the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, begun with the seed of an idea not so long ago.
Copyright © 2012 Patrice Todisco — All Rights Reserved