Flower Bed Time
The way you put your garden to bed will determine the wonders you’ll see when springtime wakes it up again.
- By: Rebecca Martin Evarts
- Photography by: Benjamin Magro
Putting a garden to bed for the winter is never as fun as waking it up in the spring. It’s a chore that inspires reluctance — chapped fingers and intimations of mortality — even though everyone knows that ditching your fall homework may make your garden flunk, come June.
One who doesn’t mind the fall clean-up is Priscilla Hutton, the happy head gardener at Thuya Garden in Northeast Harbor. She swears she has the best job anywhere. Back in the 1970s, she took a vacation on Mount Desert with her husband and never left. “We looked at each other and said, ‘If we can find jobs and a place to live this very afternoon, we’ll stay.’ And we did,” she says. She worked in a hardware store, had a cut flower business, raised four sons, was a private estate gardener, and ended up as the grower at Deer Meadows Landscaping. When the owner retired and closed the business six years ago, “I was totally bummed, because I loved that job,” she says. But right at the same time, an ad appeared in the local paper for a position as head gardener at Thuya, and she caught the brass ring.
“There’s not a day, when I see Somes Sound and Cadillac Mountain, that I don’t say to myself — ‘Amazing, here I am, driving to work.’ And when I come up the driveway at Thuya, I open all the windows and think, ‘I have to be the luckiest person in the world,’ ” she says.
We paid a visit to this pro as she prepared to settle one of Maine’s most beloved and intimate public gardens for its long winter sleep. Suited up for the job in a heavy sweater, vest, work gloves, and rubber boots, with curls of graying hair escaping from a green baseball cap embroidered with Mount Desert Land & Garden Preserve, the name of Thuya’s parent organization, Hutton gave us her first cardinal rule: Keep it clean.
“That’s the most important thing,” she says, especially in a garden that she is endeavoring to make as environmentally sustainable as possible. When she took over from Tim Taylor, Thuya’s head gardener for thirty-two years, she brought with her a commitment to organic gardening. To allow soil health to be maintained without pesticides, it’s vital to stay on top of any bugs or fungi that may lurk in dead leaves and withered stalks.
Although the garden is technically open year-round, virtually none of the tens of thousands of annual visitors come before June or after Columbus Day. During the four-month summer season, Hutton and her staff are continuously dead-heading, replacing annuals as needed, and cutting back spent perennials to keep everything at its best at all times. But by mid-October, all the annuals have been pulled and the perennials in the English-style borders cut down to about eighteen inches high. She leaves the stalks tall until she sees the basal growth in the spring, since it’s easier to tell in the spring what’s survived and what hasn’t. She may also move some perennials, based on notes she’s taken during the summer. “I never hesitate to divide perennials in the fall,” she says, “as long as I know the plant is dormant.”
The single biggest chore is lifting the sixty-five different varieties of dahlias for which Thuya is famous. “Everyone pitches in. It’s real grunt work, but we get it done in a day,” she says. By everyone, she means the four other staff members who tend the garden — Carl Kelley, Rick LeDuc, Jason Ashur, and Crystal LePrade. Each set of tubers is lifted with a spading fork, then washed off over a screen to harvest any clinging earthworms that are then returned to the soil. “I want my earthworms back!” she exclaims. The tubers are dried out for a few days in the greenhouse, the dirt is brushed off, then they are gently nestled into wood shavings in custom-made boxes. (“Okay, it helps to have a well-endowed organization behind you,” Hutton laughs, embarrassed, while describing the dahlias’ luxurious winter quarters.) The boxes are stored in a root cellar with a constant temperature between forty-five and fifty degrees.
The lilies and delphiniums, for which the garden is also known, don’t require any special attention in the fall, though routine summer lily maintenance involves stroking the stalks while wearing gloves saturated with neet oil to remove lily beetles and stop trouble before it starts. And because before June no one ventures up the quarter-mile path that snakes up a steep hillside to the garden from the parking area on Route 3, there are no spring bulbs to be planted in the fall. The only exception are later-flowering purple allium, which combine well with lime-green, hay-scented ferns. They require nothing special, she says, just following standard bulb-planting directions.
The borders are raked clean of leaves and debris, though there isn’t any mulch on them to be removed. Hutton notes that since the borders are planted tightly, mulch isn’t really needed in the summer, and, besides, who knows what kind of shady non-organic past your ordinary mulch may have? “I just can’t be sure where it comes from,” she says. Once the beds are clean-clean, a mixture of seafood compost and finely shredded leaves is spread on them to a depth of two inches, which helps anchor the soil against winter winds. The shredded leaves are particularly delicious to earthworms, Hutton says.
Seafood compost is Hutton’s magic medicine for weaning Thuya off chemical fertilizer. She buys it from “an old time guy” named Elliott, located in Addison, who takes seafood residue, ripens it on a huge concrete slab, then delivers it by the pallet. Aged between sheets of black plastic all summer long, it reduces to a quarter of its original bulk and leaves its smell behind. Since first using it at Thuya to enrich the soil, a process that took longer than she’d hoped, Hutton estimates that some eight tons have been worked into the beds. It is incorporated into the soil in the spring, as well, though not used on the lawns where bits of shell might mar the green swath.
Instead, the lawns receive a winter dressing of manure that has been aged all summer between two tarpaulins. It is crumbled on the lawn, and in the spring any remaining chunks are raked into the surrounding beds, since, as she puts it, “I’m always in favor of getting the most benefit from the least work.” Similarly, pine needles are bagged and stored in the fall, to be spread in spring along the beds’ edges and underneath hostas to repel slugs who, fortunately, can’t abide prickly surfaces.
One of Thuya’s most notable features is the huge, ancient rhododendrons rescued in 1956 from Beatrix Farrand’s famous garden at Reef Point. These winter-hardened survivors need no special cover, Hutton says, though the big Soderholtz urns and a lead cistern, also from Farrand’s garden but too heavy to be moved, are covered with plywood and then wrapped in plastic.
Thuya’s bedtime ritual doesn’t just involve the borders and lawns that make up two acres of the 140-acre site. That’s where property manager Carl Kelley, 65, comes in. A self-described jack-of-all-trades who has lived his whole life on Mount Desert except for six years in the navy as a hurricane hunter, Kelley attends to all the other needs of the garden, mechanical and otherwise. His fall chores include draining pipes in Thuya Lodge and water from the reflecting pool; shutting the buildings up tight; checking the protective deer fence that surrounds the flower beds and lawns; torching the burn piles he’s collected during the summer, as well as assisting in clean-up. The big wooden entrance doors, carved with woodland creatures some half a century ago by master craftsman Augustus “Gus” Phillips, are taken down to protect them.
Thuya has its own landing on Northeast Harbor, making it perhaps the only public garden in the country accessible by water, so another of Kelley’s fall jobs is hauling in the dock and floats. He is responsible for making the woodland areas look artless, a job that ranges from thinning and topping trees to plucking weeds from moss before soothing it with a dose of buttermilk mixed with water.
Hutton points out that another aspect of getting Thuya ready for winter actually begins in the summer. While everything is blooming, she continually updates the garden plans she creates on long, horizontal sheets of paper, each corresponding to one of the beds. As each perennial blooms, she evaluates its color and placement with respect to the annuals she’s selected the fall before, then rushes back into her office to scribble notes. One thing she’s learned is never to bring the plan out into the garden when there are visitors since everyone wants to take a look.
In the fall, she retreats to the cedar-lined shed warmed by a pot-bellied stove that serves as an office, deciphers her jottings, and prepares her order for spring. Each year she adds about four or five new perennials (all Zone 5- or even Zone 4-hardy). “I want to show people things they haven’t seen before, Hutton says. “I’ll try to grow any annual, even very tender ones.” She makes sure to have a large back-up selection of annuals, which are started in the Rockefeller greenhouses, to fight Maine’s unpredictable summer weather.
By Thanksgiving the whole job is done. Then these gardeners can relax, dreaming about spring while leafing through flower-filled catalogs and toasting their socks by the fire.
A Forest Haven
Surrounded by the white cedars (Thuya occidentalis) for which it is named, Thuya Garden remains the “forest haven” that its creator, Joseph H. Curtis, imagined over a hundred years ago. The Boston landscape architect acquired the original twenty acres in 1880 when Mount Desert Island was drawing “rusticators,” city dwellers drawn to simple summer pleasures. As the island became ever-busier and before Acadia National Park had been established, Curtis saw the need for a place where visitors and residents could commune with nature. He built paths up the steeply wooded slope and lookouts where visitors could stop to admire the view. Around 1912, he created a trust with a small endowment and gave the property to the town of Northeast Harbor, though he continued to summer in his cabin, Thuya Lodge, until his death in 1928.
His life-long friend and neighbor, Charles K. Savage, the proprietor of nearby Asticou Inn who was appointed sole trustee, strove to continue Curtis’ vision by opening the lodge to the public and establishing a botanical library. Savage envisioned eventually transforming the apple orchard beside the lodge into an enclosed hillside garden “of an informal nature to blend with the rustic setting” reachable only on foot. However, it wasn’t until the late 1950s that the opportunity to do so arose when he bought what remained of Beatrix Farrand’s garden at Reef Point for five thousand dollars with the financial help of John D. Rockfeller. Her collection of unusual azaleas became the Asticou Azalea Garden, and the rest of the trees and plant materials formed the basis for Thuya Garden, which Savage designed himself and was completed in 1962.
Over the next decades, Thuya became a magnet for visitors, drawn to the “billowing drifts of delphinium, lavender puffs of globe thistle, rounded heads of phlox, yellow-flowered helianthus, creamy plumes of snake root, and other perennials and annuals [that] compose a stunning picture of varying hues, heights, and textures,” as Letitia S. Baldwin puts it in her excellent book, Thuya Garden: Asticou Terraces & Thuya Lodge. In the early 1990s, a major restoration was undertaken to adjust the garden’s proportions and clarify the demarcation between the borders and the surrounding woodland. Drawing on Savage’s original plans, landscape architect Patrick Chassé rearranged a path and edited the beds. “Under his hand, the color palette of the long borders shifted from the warm yellow and bright pinks to the cooler blues, violets, silvers, and whites — leading the eye to the farthest pavilion,” notes Baldwin. Today, a lone apple tree survives from Curtis’ orchard, a hardy testament to a history spanning three centuries.
IF YOU GO
Thuya Garden is located on Route 3, Peabody Drive, on Mount Desert Island. Open daily from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., from late June to September. Mount Desert Land & Garden Preserve, P.O. Box 208, Seal Harbor. 207-276-3727. www.gardenpreserve.org
- By: Rebecca Martin Evarts
- Photography by: Benjamin Magro