July 12, 2009

Altogether for the McLaughlin Garden: A Trip to South Paris

I will leave it to the social scientists to decide whether it is a sign of maturity or senility, but it has been quite a long time since I wondered what the people around me looked like naked. But I could be forgiven a lapse yesterday if I kept seeing them that way: on tractors, behind wheelbarrows, and weeding flower beds. Oh, they were artfully camouflaged with leaves or shovels in just the right places, but they were nude all the same.

I guess an explanation is in order. The McLaughlin Garden in South Paris, Maine, has a storied history. It was the 60-year-long project of Bernard McLaughlin, who died at 98 in 1995. Upon his death the two-acre property, consisting of a farmhouse, barn and the garden, went up for sale. Because of its location on a main road in a growing town, McLaughlin’s garden seemed destined to become a supermarket parking lot. Fortunately, a group of area residents acquired the property with the expectation that the garden would remain open to the public without charge, just as it had been in McLaughlin’s lifetime. Unfortunately, the group had few assets apart from the property which they mortgaged. Seven years after it was acquired, the garden seemed without a future. The McLaughlin Foundation had solicited funds in the conventional way but with little success.

Then, the foundation’s trustees hit on an idea. It wasn’t entirely original: the Rylstone and District Women’s Institute in the Yorkshire Dales had done it in 1999. They had published a calendar and it had done very well, raising over a million dollars for leukemia research. The McLaughlin Foundation had a no less noble cause: to save the garden. And so they stripped. ‘Altogether for the Garden’ raised enough to pay off the $450,000 mortgage and acquire an adjoining acre parcel.

On a glorious Saturday in July, I tagged along as the Massachusetts Master Gardeners toured the garden (http://www.mclaughlingarden.org/Tour-garden.html), led by Kristin Perry, Director of Horticulture. It was a three-hour drive each way to get there, but it was, as they say in the Michelin Guides about three-star enterprises, ‘worth a journey’.

Interior Maine has a short, spectacular gardening season. The earth is frozen solid into April but, when it thaws, plants jump out of the ground seemingly overnight. The bloom season is compressed from mid-May into late August because Labor Day frosts are not uncommon. McLaughlin was an avid plant collector and trader and the garden is a mix of Maine natives – especially wildflowers and ferns – and exotics, notably Japanese cultivars. He had a passion for lilacs (there are more than 200 of them in the garden) and irises, and those plants are found in virtually every corner of the property.

The garden plan is a combination of broad grassy strips delineating deep planting beds and narrow, hard-packed pathways among those same beds. It is astonishing to think that McLaughlin started with a treeless farm because much of the garden is in shade, some of it in deep shade from coniferous and deciduous trees that are now some seven decades old. A cow path from the barn to distant pastures became a delightful walk through a woodland garden filled with ferns and May apples. The literature describes the garden as ‘formal’ but the description is accurate only in the technical sense. Looking across the beds you see a tangle of plants, but there’s an intelligence behind it.

Kristin Perry’s job for the past seven years has been to maintain the integrity of the garden while also making sense of it. On the tour she pointed out where new trees and shrubs have been brought in as old ones died or did not over-winter. There are beds that are overrun with garden ‘thugs’ that need to be scoured of species that have outgrown their welcome. There is considerable deliberation taken before making changes: was this plant in the original garden? If so, the replacement should reflect McLaughlin’s vision. In the case of a particularly obnoxious Petasites overrunning a hosta bed, it was recently found to be an interloper. It is on its way out.

But it is a very good garden and the fact that it was the singular vision of a man with no formal horticultural training makes it all the more inspiring. McLaughlin’s house is given over to a cafĂ© and a gift shop, the barn houses exhibits. McLaughlin would approve of the local Maine cuisine served there and of the friendly staff that goes out of its way to dispel the reputation of Downeasters as being aloof. The garden looks much as it did in his lifetime; a credit to Ms. Perry and a cadre of volunteers. I suspect is it very much as Bernard McLaughlin would have liked, even if it did take a bit of artful disrobing to make it all possible.

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