A group of Portland gardeners open the gates to their Munjoy Hill retreats.
By Rebecca Martin Evarts
Photograph by Ted Axelrod
A stroll around Portland’s Munjoy Hill in summer may give the avid gardener an attack of bad manners. You know peeking is rude, especially where there are fences and hedges expressly designed for privacy, but the urge to see more is almost irresistible. A scarlet tendril of trumpet vine escaping over a fence; violet clematis twined with a pink climbing rose; the cheerful yellow of a blooming heliopsis: If this is what you can see from the sidewalk, what other delights bloom in the backyard gardens of the city’s most densely populated neighborhood? Here is your chance to find out. Come with us as we venture inside four hidden gardens to see the blossoms and meet the Portlanders who nurture them.
An Alley Garden
You might be forgiven for poking your head into the narrow alley where Mark McGarity and Jill Atkins garden, since no fence separates it from the street. A dozen years ago, they moved into a first-floor apartment where the only available gardening space was “a barren city-type alley, littered with broken glass and bits of garbage,” Atkins says. A few sad remnants of a previous tenant’s efforts remained: a scraggly cherry tree, a rickety rose, an overgrown forsythia, and some half-dead, light-loving perennials. Measuring only five feet across at the front, the alley widened to twelve feet at the back, where a broken cement path led up four steps to a landing by the back door.
McGarity works at South Portland’s Broadway Gardens — hired, he says, on the basis of having helped his grandmother water her geraniums years ago in Georgia; that, and an intimate acquaintance with a forklift. Atkins is a painter. Together they began to improve their alley by trial and error.
“We had to be resourceful with what we had because the space was so limited,” says McGarity. One resource was the neighbor’s grapevine, which curled along the rusty wire fence separating the properties. Using tomato towers cut in half and flattened, he fashioned a pergola over the eight-foot-deep landing, and coaxed the grape to climb. In the summer, the large leaves cover the pergola’s top and sides, and planters with tall begonias and a large red hibiscus shield the front side. Furnished with a small outdoor sofa, a round table, and two chairs, the private space glows with candlelight at night. “We live out here in the summer,” Atkins says.
A row of white impatiens draws a visitor into the garden, where cracks in the cement path have been softened with lush green Irish moss. The forsythia has been pruned to an umbrella shape so it lets in light, and shade plants — pink astilbes and hostas — now grow under the cherry tree. Colorful annuals in dozens of containers and sphagnum baskets on the wire fence give the effect of a jeweled passageway. Each year, McGarity plants his signature bed of salvia ‘Red Spike’ underneath the ancient apple tree on the front sidewalk.
A spirit of cooperation prevails. Atkins lends an artist’s eye; McGarity provides horticultural know-how. He made the bamboo spout for a tiny fountain; she created the ceramic leaf that catches the water. The neighbors harvest the grapes, and Jill, who’s not fond of grapes, makes Greek roll-ups with the leaves. Both sides harvest the tart cherries, and share them with the birds — jays, finches, cardinals, and a family of doves.
A Rescued Garden
Some people rescue grey-hounds. Manny Peña and Karen Rasmussen rescue plants. They longed for lush borders to fill the relatively large fifty-by-fifty-foot lawn beside their red-brick Victorian house, but lacked funds. They discovered that many nurseries have discard piles, where the most mangled specimens can be free for the taking. “I saw all those plants and thought, ‘Oh, poor plants! Don’t throw them away!’ ” Rasmussen says.
In just four years, their garden behind a tall board fence is bursting with a wide variety of trees, shrubs, perennials, as well as scores of potted plants. They estimate that about 10 to 15 percent were completely free, either collected from the compost heap or given away by the nursery because they were unsalable. They acquired the rest at 75 percent off retail or even less, in cases where they got a volume discount. Virtually everything was damaged, yet their survival rate is close to 90 percent.
Their secret weapon? Peña’s bonsai skill. Back in North Carolina, where he lived before coming to Maine in 2007, he taught himself the art of extreme pruning from books borrowed from the public library, then practiced for years on rescued plants. “I did a lot of experimentation,” he says, “and there were a lot of dead plants.” Rasmussen had also done nursery prowling, but it wasn’t until they joined forces that the project took off.
With winding rock-lined gravel paths, scattered boulders, and trailing vines, the garden has the rough-and-tumble air of a large family. The beaming foster parents point out some of their favorites. A pink-flowering dogwood that was “beat up, lots of bark loss, really shabby” has developed into a healthy seven-foot-tall adolescent. The cherry tree that suffered an unfortunate decapitation halfway up its trunk now bears fruit. A weeping cherry tree split down the middle is in rehab: a bandage supports its trunk, and stones dangle from branches on one side to correct its posture. The black pussy willow and the witch hazels that “came back so nicely from scraggly little things,” Rasmussen says, are especially welcome for their early spring color.
Their favorite recent rescue is a five-dollar purple smokebush. In a single summer, it went from an ugly-duckling one-foot stump in a pot, to a giant three-foot-wide shrub, so big and gorgeous that it has been sent out into the world — to South Portland, that is, where it now grows in front of Taco Trio, the Mexican take-out restaurant that is the couple’s latest venture.
An Inherited Garden
Clarkson Woodward is the first to credit those who preceded her in transforming an all-blacktop desert into a charming, flower-filled garden. Rumor has it that the husband of the owner before last had a thing for asphalt. The couple divorced, and the ex-wife sprang the backyard from its prison, leaving only a paved driveway. The next owner, a friend from whom Woodward bought the house in 1999, created the garden’s bones by adding a small raised area in one corner and guaranteed a particularly fecund flowerbed by bringing in quality loam. “I’m just a steward of this garden,” Woodward says, “and I hope that some day there will be another one after me.”
Every garden should have such a caretaker. Woodward brings an eye for variety and proportion, great color sense, and a seemingly intuitive understanding of what plants will groove on the Hill’s microclimate, where fig trees are not unknown. A meticulous gardener, she documents her successes and failures in words, photographs, and diagrams in a logbook.
To say that gardening runs in her blood is hardly an exaggeration. Woodward comes from Baltimore, where her mother has “a beautiful garden,” and she is named for a great-aunt, Elizabeth Clarkson, who in the 1920s created Wing Haven, a well-known North Carolina garden-cum-bird sanctuary, now open to the public. Some of the plants in her Maine garden — hellebores, sweet woodruff — originally came from Wing Haven. Woodward obviously absorbed a thing or two as she was growing up.
Japanese anemones love her touch. Her young clematis serratifolia is racing its way across the back fence, yet still has enough energy to put out tiny yellow blossoms not once, but twice a year. Her potted orchids summer in baskets on a side fence, where they manage to breathe enough sea air to see them through a winter indoors. To complement the viburnam ‘Mohawk’ hedge and picket fence that shield the property from the street, Woodward added a small lawn and an unusual tree-form shadblow (or serviceberry), which wraps itself in fluffy white blossoms in spring, then turns a splendid golden-orange in the fall. By using rustic materials — unpainted wood on the Adirondack chairs; an old planter on stick legs for a cutting garden; natural stone flagstones for the patio she recently laid — she has created a space with a homey sophistication well-suited to Maine’s climate and style.
A Restored Garden
Dan Haley grew up on Munjoy Hill back when it was a diverse working-class community of Irish, Italian, Jewish, and a few black families. One of six children, he left the state as a young man. “I swore I’d never move back to Maine, and swore I’d never sell insurance,” he says. So much for youthful vows: He soon returned, took over the insurance company his father had founded, and, in 1997, moved into the grand Samuel D. Plummer House, one of the Eastern Promenade’s Victorian gems. For the last fifteen years, he and his wife, Connie, a dedicated and knowledgeable gardener, have worked to restore both the 1898 house and its garden to their former glory.
By the time Miss Plummer, the last descendant of the house’s builder, died in her nineties, the garden had been swallowed by brambles. “There was bittersweet as thick as my arm,” says Dan, and a towering privet hedge that completely obscured the spectacular view over Casco Bay. “You could tell that it had once been well planted,” says Connie. After hauling out fifteen truckloads of brush and rubble, they found traces of a circular bed. They whacked the privet back and kept the large maples and mature lilacs that ring the lot.
The first objective was to clear just enough space in the middle to plant Connie’s dahlias. They had come with her to Maine in 1978 from her family’s farm in New York and flourished in every garden she’d had up to then. Little by little, the bed began to expand as Dan, the chief lawn mower, realized that more border meant less work. “It would be ten feet in this direction, then ten that way,” Connie says. When he was finally encouraged to stop, it had become a huge, twenty-five-by-fifty-foot rectangular bed, threaded with stepping stones, that takes up a third of the lawn.
In spring, the bed is filled with iris and lupines that run wild. By mid-summer, coneflowers, pink and white phlox, yarrow, bee balm, and foxglove have grown tall, and over their waving tops, there is a postcard-perfect view of the sparkling blue bay and humped islands. Blue hydrangeas complement the house’s green, blue, and pale orange color scheme, and the broad leaves of a Dutchman’s Pipe vine make a truly Victorian privacy curtain along one side of the wrap-around porch. The house’s original glass conservatory has proved ideal for over-wintering the Haleys’ many container plants. During the long winter, the profusion of green stops pedestrians in their tracks. And they don’t even have to peer over a fence to appreciate them.
If You Go: The seventh annual Hidden Gardens of Munjoy Hill tour on June 24, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., offers access to a dozen private gardens. The self-guided tour, sponsored by Friends of the Eastern Promenade, is held in conjunction with the Society for East End Arts Open Studios Tour, so visitors can pop into artists’ studios as they stroll from garden to garden. Tickets are $15, in advance, and $20 on the day of the event. For details, visit easternpromenade.org/event/hidden-gardens-munjoy-hill