This is a small part of our yard in inland Maine. I started with no garden at all, in 1994, and by the time we moved away in fall 2002, I’d planted about 1/2 an acre. Nine acres were left untouched, except for a small playhouse my husband built a few hundred yards from the house. The back nine acres were mostly woods, swamp, streams, and some fields, which were making their way back to woods.We also had an amazing area we called “the glade,” a small lawn with birch and other deciduous trees surrounding it, dappling it with magical light. Some boulders, a human-made pond, and pathways to unknown territory beyond completed the sorcery.
Although I had had a house of my own, with a blank slate for a garden, for 3 years before this, that was in the mid-Atlantic. I learned a lot gardening that land, taking a landscape design class, experimenting with transplanting very established trees and a host of perennials I had never heard of nor seen before. That garden is where I learned the words buddleia, deutzia, spirea, and where I learned that magnolias come in shrub form, not just magnificent aromatic trees.
But this house, in Maine, was the first house I’d lived in in New England, in zone 4, a totally new palette for me.
I started with a vegetable garden. Well, no, I started with a notebook of ideas, plants for zone 4, cold climate tips, designs, notes from many gardening books. I got a little overwhelmed. That’s when, probably under the influence of Helen and Scott Nearing, I asked my spouse to rototill a patch behind the shed, with good sun, about 20 yards long and 10 yards wide. For 8 years we planted it, first with corn (failed experiment – deer and worms ate it all), tomatoes (which I don’t really like and couldn’t use enough of for tomato sauce, not being a canner and not wanting to be a canner; and which attracted the largest, most striking hornworms that I would pluck off, put in a bucket, and rehome across the street in the apparently unowned woods, where Lady’s Slippers would appear for a week or so in early spring), green beans, wax beans, summer squash, Jacob’s coat chard, rainbow chard, spinach, romaine lettuce, chives, basil, nasturtiums, catmint, dill, marigolds, zinnia, calendula – when I was very passionate about medicinal and tea herbs, early peas, cucumbers … is there anything more delicious and less like something you’d buy in a store than fresh cucumbers and fresh peas? At least half of our harvest went to the food pantry in the next town. I hope they liked squash and tomatoes.
Eventually, I branched out … I can’t recall the order, but over time I planted
- a little pocket garden near the house (and the grand crabapple) with heaths, heathers, euphorbia, and flowers;
- a shade border that I’m still in love with (hostas, chelone/turtlehead, tricyrtis/toad lilies) – it was a bright green sight to behold;
- a sunny annual garden with divine cleomes; a garden arcing the shed – anchored by tall lovage, delphinium, bee balm and monkshood in the front and against the shed with exotic kirengeshoma (Japanese yellow waxbells), with bloody cranesbill, platycodon (balloon flower) and Ozark sundrops (Missouri evening primrose) in the lower story;
- a sunny bed with existing small trees on either side and mugo pine, a yucca plant, bearberry, campanula, daylilies, lupine, tropical lilies, and more;
- a pond garden with flowering lilies and pickerel in the pond and penstemon (Husker Red), tradescantia, Rodgersia and other shade-loving plants around it;
- a sinewy garden across the front of the house, with dogwood trees, summersweet, rhododendrons (already there), azaleas, and lots of flowering plants given to us by friends;
- and this little shade garden in the photo above, with columbine, cimicifuga (actaea) racemosa (aka snakeroot, bugbane, black cohosh – it has an amazing odor! These are the white spires you can see in the photo), hostas, Japanese painted fern, tiarella, aruncus (goatsbeard) and dwarf aruncus. The aruncus+tiarella combo was an idea I got at Longwood Gardens. Would work with astilbe too.
A decade later, I still love some of the plants in that garden and have used them in both gardens since: Rodgersia, Japanese painted fern, snakeroot, tiarella, tradescantia, penstemons (all so different from each other!) , hostas (hundreds of varieties). And since then, I have come to love others, ones I knew nothing about then, outside my awareness as I scanned books, magazines and newsletters looking for — as always — the right plant for the right place.