Park Yourself Here
How one Camden hotel owner turned premium parking into a gorgeous garden.
Photo by Jennifer Baum
Joni Mitchell was right. Everywhere you look these days someone is paving paradise to put up a parking lot. But that’s not true on Tannery Lane in Camden. David Dickey is the owner of the Camden Riverhouse Hotel, Inn, and Suites, and his garden is the prettiest parking lot in Maine.
Driving through Camden, it’s easy to miss Tannery Lane, a small one-way street that runs from Route 105, between the police department and the Megunticook River, to a glorified alleyway emptying onto Route 1. The simplest way to find it is to walk. In addition to his other projects, Dickey runs a colorful ice cream shop — Riverhouse Ice Cream — at the spot where Mechanic Street curves downtown. With cone in hand, cross the footbridge over the river, and look for boxes and hanging baskets full of zinnias and marigolds, nasturtiums and petunias, all draped in green vines that spill over the sides. Once on the other side you may or may not see gourds and tomatoes and cucumbers and giant pumpkins hidden by the river bank, but you’ll definitely see the garden’s most prominent feature, the sunflowers (“just weeds” according to Dickey): ‘Mammoth Russian’, ‘Skyscrapers’, and ‘Kongs’, among others. And chances are, if you look hard enough, somewhere in the thirty-nine car lot, between the sunflowers, the Japanese flowering cherry trees, and the arborvitaes, you’ll see David Dickey himself, the “owner/gardener/maintenance” man (as his business card reads), working away in the dirt.
He’s been there since 1995, working on his thirty-six-room hotel and grounds. But the garden wasn’t part of the original plan. There were no elaborate drawings or lists of exotic flowers. Rather, there was a push from the town to put in a sidewalk to separate the hotel’s parking spaces from the street. A compromise was reached when Dickey suggested planters with trees.
“After that,” Dickey says, “the sunflower and vegetables just appeared” because the loam he used in the basic landscaping had what gardeners call volunteer seeds, seeds that spontaneously grow without the help (or sometimes desire) of the gardener.
What has bloomed since has been an organic process, haphazard even, if you believe the gardener. “At first I’d make trips to Marden’s and buy seed packs for five cents. I’d just throw seeds in the dirt. My mother denies this, but it drove her nuts. ‘You’re doing this wrong,’ she’d say. ‘You don’t just toss seeds . . . you don’t put zinnias in flowerboxes.’ I’d say why not?”
Ask Dickey if he’s always had a green thumb, and he’ll say no, with the admission that gardening was in his blood. He comes from a long line of proper gardeners “who loved their perfect little established English-type gardens. My mum and grandmother all knew the exact plant names,” he recalls. “I couldn’t have cared less. I don’t know what the hell it’s called. If it’s there for three years and it’s pretty, then I’ll learn the name.” If pressed, he could probably tell the names now. But it’s not that kind of place, and he’s not that kind of man. “I never gardened before,” he insists. “Now it’s my therapy. Half of the day I think and plan in the office, half I spend fixing stuff, and half in the garden.”
His dedication has paid off, especially because it is paired with his laid-back but innately creative resourcefulness. “I can scrounge pretty good,” he admits. “When I see something I think to myself, I can use that. It’s a Maine thing.” The large chunk of rock that forms the base of a lamppost is from the old post office, a gift from a friend. His irrigation system, which he finally mapped out only a year or two ago (“I redesigned the thing every year!” he exclaims) on the back of a manila file folder, uses the well underneath the hotel foundation that he heard about from the original well-driller and then unearthed. And then there are the squirrels, with whom Mr. Dickey has what appears to be a love/hate relationship. “I always save the seeds from the biggest, the tallest, and the best sunflowers,” he explains. “Last year, though, I got wiped out by the little goddamn red squirrels. I hate them. They are absolute vermin.” But, gracious as he is, he admits, “A lot of the flowers are planted by the squirrels, the sons of bitches.”
Whether he has the squirrels to thank or not, David Dickey’s jungle-like, voluptuous garden has become a sanctuary in a space he could have squeezed for more premium parking spots. Stop in and see it. Just don’t steal the pumpkins. “Everybody has to touch a pumpkin. No one can just look,” laments Dickey. So what does he do? “I put Vaseline on them so it’s disgusting, and the kids can’t steal them. The determined ones will steal the pumpkins by the end of the year . . . yes, the hardcore pumpkin stealers will get them.”
- By: Kathleen Fleury