A Garden Legacy

Dedicated to her mother-in-law’s vision, Cynthia Hosmer tends a landmark coastal garden in York.

By Virginia M. Wright
Photographed by Douglas Merriam

In the late 1950s, teenager Cynthia Banister often exercised the horses at Brave Boat Harbor Farm in York as a favor to the owners, Calvin and Marion Hosmer. It was only later that she realized her mother and Mrs. Hosmer had been subtly playing matchmakers for her and Calvin Hosmer III. When Cynthia and Calvin satisfied their mothers’ ambitions a few years later, it didn’t take them long to understand the consequences of that scheming: one day, the elder Hosmers’ 115-acre gentleman’s farm would be their responsibility.

“I thought about it all the time,” says Cynthia, who has been Cynthia Hosmer for 51 years now and the steward of Brave Boat Harbor Farm for 19. “Cal was in the Army for 28 years, so we were mostly away, but later, we moved to Durham (New Hampshire), and we were here every weekend. I was right by my mother-in-law’s side as she worked in the garden. But you don’t get it by osmosis. You don’t get it until it’s your very own, and then it’s a lot of trial and error.”

The late Calvin and Marion Hosmer designed their gentleman’s farm in the 1950s to resemble a 19th-century English country estate. The Georgian mansion is stick-built with a thick stone shell. Eight enormous rooms — four up and four down — have oversized windows and doors and are arranged around a 10-foot-wide central hall. (Click images for larger view.)

The transformation of a 300-year-old subsistence farm into an English-style country estate was a retirement project for the elder Hosmers, a pair of anglophiles from Sharon, Massachusetts. A flour broker by trade, Calvin Jr. dove into architecture books to design the massive Georgian-style stone house, even mixing the paints himself and teaching the carpenters how to install the crown moldings. Likewise self-taught in cultivation, Marion planned and, with caretaker Wayne Gardiner, tended 4 acres of gardens — among them a walled perennial garden, a cutting and vegetable garden, and orchards with espaliered fruit trees.

“I have not changed it a great deal — the bones are absolutely as she planned them,” Cynthia says. “My job has been to improve on what she started. She was a collector, a horticulturalist who loved plants, so there are plants all over the place — trees and shrubs, and things. We’ve made some semblance of order out of that love she had by creating gardens — a woodland garden, a secret garden, little islands or oases for groupings of plants. That’s been my job: to leave it more beautiful than I found it.”

Marion Hosmer’s presence is most keenly felt in this ocean-facing walled garden, which blooms with pink dahlias, purple alliums, Spanish bluebells, and orange poppies. “It was the hardest of the gardens for me to dive into because it was so very much hers,” says Marion’s daughter-in-law, Cynthia Hosmer (above).

It is a full-time undertaking — she’s typically in the garden by 5:30 a.m., working alongside Gardiner, who at age 73 is still the caretaker (“I tell him that whenever he retires, he has to give me a year’s notice,” Cynthia says). They take a break between noon and 2, and then they get back to it, sometimes pruning, weeding, and grooming until dusk.

She toils happily — “I’m in heaven,” she says — and with a sense of duty, not just to her children who will inherit the place, but also to the community. Her in-laws willed a large chunk of their land to the neighboring Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, and in that same spirit, she and Cal have placed a conservation easement on 32 acres of meadows. They often open the gardens to tours benefiting The Garden Conservancy, a national landscape preservation organization, as well as the York and Piscataqua garden clubs (alas, the estate is not on any tours this summer).

“We are surrounded by conservation land — this is the last piece of unspoiled coastal property in southern Maine,” Cynthia says. “We are blessed to be in charge of that, and we want to keep it going for generations and generations.”

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Virginia Wright

Virginia M. Wright is the senior editor at Down East.