June 23, 2017

A Gem of a Garden in Maine

There’s a little piece of paradise a few miles west of the town of Boothbay, Maine.  Two decades ago, it seemed to be destined to become a housing development.  Fortunately, a recession intervened and, instead, it became a treasure called the Coastal Maine Botanical Garden.

Neither urban nor affiliated with a university, CMBG is in
a sparsely populated area of coastal Maine.  But its
location is ideal for a botanical garden.
A botanical garden is usually thought of as an urban oasis (think New York and Chicago) and, if not urban, then the preserve of well-known (and endowed) universities (think UNC-Chapel Hill and the North Carolina Botanical Garden).  But the Coastal Maine Botanical Garden (CMBG for short) had its start as a discussion among friends along Maine’s midcoast region.  Looking at the garden today, you would assume its cost was underwritten by deep-pocketed folks who call Maine home for a month or so each summer.  Such people would eventually jump on board, but CMBG was always first and foremost a local initiative among residents who did more than just dream about creating a world-class garden; they figured out how to build it.

Every turn offers a new perspective.
Double-click for a full-screen view.
CMBG opened ten years ago this month and I am embarrassed to say that it took me until this week to make my first visit (Betty, on the other hand, has been several times).  But an invitation to speak at the Garden Club Federation of Maine’s Annual Meeting in nearby Freeport led me to decide to finally get me initiated into the cadre of fans of the institution.

Most of CMBG's 270 acres had been
left in its natural state, but is readily
accessible via well-marked trails.
CMBG’s site encompasses some 270 acres, including a mile of waterfront along the Back River.  The core of the garden is about 30 acres; the balance is laced with educational trails but has otherwise been left undisturbed.  

If there’s an overarching theme to the garden, it is one of surprise.  This is Maine, but it’s also southern Maine and CMBG’s microclimate is a product of its location on a south-facing ocean inlet.  This is Zone 5B to 6A; akin to eastern Massachusetts.  While it is at their northern limit, plants thrive here that common sense says ‘no way’. 

A view of part of the fern garden
along the Haney Hillside Garden.
Double-click for a full-screen view.
The other surprise is the intelligence in the design.  The best single ‘garden’ is the Haney Hillside Garden that, from the hilltop display gardens, zig-zags down toward the Back River.  No one blasted a path down the hill.  Instead, someone (or a group of someones) with a great deal of environmental sensitivity found the natural paths and switchbacks.  At each of its three bends there is a ‘study’ garden that invites you to pause and look around.  In between are sweeps of plants than can thrive in the thinnest of soils.  We likely spent more time pondering those mini-gardens than any other location.

A thirty-second look at the waters around CMBG.  
The rocky shoals at the beginning of the clip are filled
 with seals digesting the lobsters they take from the local waters.

As much enjoyment as we found in CMBG’s gardens, I had my most fun on the water.  At the admissions desk, there was a sign indicating that visitors could enjoy a discounted price for a combined boat tour and garden admission.  It sounded intriguing.  Half an hour later, we were shuttled down to a boat landing.  What followed was at least a full hour of sheer enjoyment on a perfect afternoon.  Captain Shawn Griffiths of the ‘Beagle’ took us downriver and into inlets where we learned to identify (and sampled) different kinds of kelp, learned the geology of the Maine coast, got an education about the region’s logging history, paused to watch seals sunning themselves on a shoal, and generally had a spectacular time.

Our leisurely boat trip added to our
perspective of the garden and of
the region and its history.
The most surprising part was that it was just the two of us and Captain Shawn on the Beagle.  The garden was overflowing with visitors, but no one else was apparently interested in the boat tour.  That is an unmitigated shame.  To me, that boat tour was an integral part of understanding the garden.  In other words, if you go to CMBG and you do not avail yourself of an hour on the Beagle, you’ve denied yourself both a pleasure and an education.

Beautiful gardens, lovingly care for
and superbly curated.
Which leads me to the staff.  I’ve seldom met a more talkative group of employees and volunteers.  We spent more than five minutes with an older lady who was rescuing a patch of lowbush blueberries from encroaching grasses along the Haney Hillside Garden.  We didn’t interrupt her work; we just listened to her commentary about the nature of what she was doing.  Was she an employee or a volunteer?  I have no idea.   But she was enormously knowledgeable about the garden.  We encountered people like her all across the garden and in the visitors center.  No one was too busy to stop and thoughtfully answer a question.  This is a garden where everyone involved clearly loves their work.

The clip below is a 360 degree pan of the Cleaver Event Lawn and Garden.  

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