On MDI, a Couple’s Native-Plant Garden Shelters Fauna (and Fairies)

On MDI, a Couple’s Native-Plant Garden Shelters Fauna (and Fairies)

And boasts what is likely the largest collection of heaths and heathers in the state.

A series of paths connects multiple gardens on Jan and Tom McIntyre’s Bar Harbor property.

ABOVE A series of paths connects multiple gardens on Jan and Tom McIntyre’s Bar Harbor property. Tom fashioned the arbor from cedar branches collected from a friend’s yard.


From our Summer 2023 issue

Thirty-five years ago, Jan and Tom McIntyre bought a two-acre parcel on the north end of Mount Desert Island that was so densely wooded they couldn’t traverse parts of it. With the help of a hired hand, Tom cut down some of the massive white pines and used the logs to build a one-bedroom cabin that served as the McIntyres’ seasonal retreat for nearly two decades. By then it had come to feel more like home than their house in Nashua, New Hampshire, so they said goodbye to Nashua and put their energies into improving the Bar Harbor property for year-round living, not only for themselves, but also for the wildlife they share it with.

Their cabin is now a three-bedroom house surrounded by gardens that host mostly Maine and New England native plants. Cedar waxwings, robins, thrushes, vireos, and pileated woodpeckers feast on bayberries, elderberries, flowering raspberries, and viburnums. Bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds flit amongst ironweed, swamp milkweed, verbena, and, in a sloping 600-square-foot bed, scores of heaths and heathers that Jan, a member of the Garden Club Federation of Maine, believes may be the largest such collection in the state.

ABOVE 1) Jan has planted drifts of heaths and heathers with their flower and foliage colors and forms in mind. 2) The steep slope, along the east side of the house, ensures the good drainage these plants require. Jan prunes them annually, some in spring, others in fall, after their blooms are spent. 3) Pea-stone paths wind around a garden planted with coneflowers, Joe Pye weed, lamb’s ears, phlox, and salvias, as well as assorted annuals, such as gomphrenas and zinnias. Young lavender plants grow in the curved raised bed created with pieces of slate. The birdbath is outfitted with a gravity-fed drip fountain.

“Our whole aim when planting is to provide the essential elements of wildlife habitat,” Jan says, ticking off the features that have earned the property National Wildlife Federation certification: “Territory for nesting; cover for protection in bad weather; places to raise young; food, like berries, nectar, pollen; and, of course, water.”

Birds prefer moving water, so the McIntyres have outfitted their gardens with gravity-fed baths that they assemble by threading a hose from the bowl and fountain to a five-gallon pail set four to five feet uphill. They’ve also dug a small pond in a fen at the edge of the woods, where water naturally flows and pools. Great blue herons and kingfishers fish for the frogs and minnows that have taken up residence under the blanket of lily pads. River otters and mink roam the mossy banks where Jan has planted buttonbushes, ferns, meadowsweets, pickerel weeds, and pussy willows. Mallards nest on the floating island that the McIntyres built by anchoring two coir-covered plastic bins to marine foam and drilling them with wicking channels into which they transplanted marsh marigolds and other pond plants.

ABOVE 1) Clematis creeps up a corner of a workshop/garden shed Tom built. 2) A treehouse of bark, moss, and branches in the fairy village Jan and her granddaughters created. 3) A birdhouse with a “swimming pool” from Bar Harbor’s Frost Farms. 4) Fairy abodes fashioned from juice cartons, beach pebbles, and periwinkles.

Jan and her granddaughters, ages 29 and 18, still add details to the fairy village they created near the house’s main entrance when the girls were young. It’s a pixie-style mixed development with miniature abodes ranging from the humble (two rocks set several inches apart and topped with a lintel stone) to the artful ( juice jug “frames” clad in pebbles and periwinkle shells) to the luxurious (an assemblage of hypertufa modules).

Jan derives particular satisfaction from her heath and heather garden. “It’s my baby,” she says. Dozens of varieties ensure mounds of deep-purple, lavender, rose, and white blooms from early spring to late summer. Equally beautiful is the foliage, a rainbow of lime and sage greens, bronzes, and fiery reds, oranges, and yellows. “I cover the plants with a cloth in winter so they won’t get decimated by the wind and sun, and I have to prune them regularly, some in the spring, others in the fall,” Jan says. “They’re a lot of work, but they’re so worth it.”