Creatures Are a Lively Feature in This Wilton Garden

A friendly gardener creates a vibrant refuge for people and pollinators.

A cedar bridge studded with river stones leads from Ellen Shibles’s front door to her garden, where echinacea and rudbeckia bloom above a retaining wall by Mount Vernon’s Scott Horne Construction.

A cedar bridge studded with river stones leads from Ellen Shibles’s front door to her garden, where echinacea and rudbeckia bloom above a retaining wall by Mount Vernon’s Scott Horne Construction.

By Aurelia C. Scott
Photos by Kelsey Kobik
From the Fall 2022 issue of Maine Homes by Down East

White birches, creamy Tardiva hydrangeas, and a small laminated sign reading Friends — come and enjoy the garden mark a roadside path into Ellen Shibles’s property on Wilton’s Wilson Lake. “I want to share it with everyone,” says Shibles, who welcomes passersby, garden clubs, and other groups who hear of the place through word of mouth. “Just the other day, a group of artists set up their easels. It was thrilling to see them interpret the scenery with pen and paint,” she says.

Beside beds of hay-scented ferns and miscanthus Autumn Light that flank the driveway, another sign — a triangular boulder engraved with the property’s name, Wings — hints at how the garden came to be. “I was 75 and spreading my wings in a new life when I started to plan this space,” Ellen Shibles says. An Orono native who had lived and gardened in York and New York over the years, she was looking to move closer to her brother and sister-in-law when she visited the property in 2014. It needed work, but, “it was such a pretty spot on a little lake ringed by mountains,” she says. “It reminded me of Switzerland.”

From left: Ellen Shibles and bichon frise, Olivia, watch loons on Wilson Lake from her aluminum dock, which was installed in small sections that skirt the shoreline to preserve a buffer of native shrubs. A steel dragonfly by Wilton’s Vera Johnson hovers nearby. Rudbeckia and ponysfoot decorate a cauldron. River birches and blue and weeping Norway spruces shelter a memorial garden for Shibles’s sister-in-law, Betty, planted with hay-scented ferns and hostas and perennial chrysanthemums first grown by Shibles’s father in Orono. The toad was a gift from Betty.

Shibles replaced several dilapidated cabins with a small, single-story house whose evergreen siding and cocoa-colored metal roof blend into the landscape. A year later, she began to conceive the one-acre garden, using ropes to lay out walking routes across the sloping site. Today, stone steps and wood-chip paths wend through a colorful haven that Shibles maintains with the help of freelance gardeners Jamie Ault, Barbara Blake, and Cheryl Elliott.

An arched cedar bridge leads from her front door over a dry-stone moat filled with tall purple verbena bonariensis. Beyond, the path winds up the slope, around the house, and down to the shore through an exuberance of perennials, shrubs, and trees. Hydrangeas grow in drift — lacecap varieties Blue Billow and Twist-n-Shout nudge the conical blossoms of Pinky Winky and Quick Fire, and tower over dwarf white Bombshell. “I adore hydrangeas, although they have terrible names!” Shibles says with a laugh.

Along the center path, the brushy flowers of fothergilla and spreading branches of native serviceberry mingle with fragrant swaths of Karen azaleas, phlox, sweet ferns, and white clethra. Shade lovers, such as anemones, hostas, and maidenhair ferns, luxuriate beneath mountain ashes, balsam firs, maples, spruces, and Maine-bred Lyle’s Legacy magnolias. Throughout, ornamental grasses, such as Fairy, Pixie Fountain, and six-foot-tall Striped Porcupine, wave. “Grasses came late in my gardening career,” Shibles says. “I love them because they make a statement and are beautiful in all seasons.”

 From left: A moat of reseeding verbena bonariensis feeds pollinators. Shibles’s unobtrusive home and artful bridge were constructed by G & L Contracting of Belgrade Lakes.

In 2019, Shibles won a LakeSmart Award from the nonprofit Maine Lakes for environmental practices that protect water quality. Her favorite Blue Billow hydrangeas, for example, bloom pink without chemical fertilizer, but are “nonetheless beautiful,” she says. Her small wooden dock was constructed without disturbing the shoreline’s plant buffer, including a hedge of elderberries on which cedar waxwings like to feast. More birds dine on the fruit of a pagoda dogwood and many berry-producing shrubs, while pollinators depend on the flowering native annuals and perennials.

Watching a family of loons drift by the dock, Ellen Shibles sums up her seven-year-long effort: “I think of this as an acre of beauty and fun for people and wild creatures. I hope visitors will feel as inspired and uplifted by it as I do.”

April 2024, Down East Magazine

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