Swaths of Summer Bloomers Color This Barters Island Garden

Elsie Freeman’s rambling shore-front borders are filled with astilbes, coneflowers, heleniums, hydrangeas, and phlox.

Swaths of summer bloomers, such as astilbes, coneflowers, heleniums, hydrangeas, and phlox, color Elsie Freeman’s shore-front borders
By Virginia M. Wright
Photos by Tara Rice
From our April 2024 Home & Garden issue

The first time Elsie Freeman’s father visited her new cottage on Barters Island, in Boothbay, he sank up to his hips in the storm-sodden front yard. “I guess we need something to hold the slope,” Freeman wryly observed.

“Something” started with stone retaining walls, then continued over the next 40 years with formal gardens (to soften the hardscapes), a 100-foot-long shoreside corridor of perennials (to replace microburst-felled trees), a woodland frog pond (to nurture the resident amphibians), and a Zen dry garden with a white-peastone “pond” (to gently shift the scene and one’s mind). What began as a necessity, in other words, became a passionate pursuit — so much so that friends kidded Freeman for later renovating her house in the Queen Anne style just so it would measure up to her gardens.

Clockwise from top left: a weeping larch drapes over an arbor; stone walls and stairs set the stage for formal gardens; shoreline borders take on a woodland feel as they extend farther beyond the house; Elsie Freeman standing on a stone path.

Freeman, a retired physician, knew nothing about gardening when she and her first husband, Jonathan Freeman, bought 75 wooded acres at the mouth of the Sheepscot River in 1970. On summer weekends, they’d drive up from their Boston-area home, pitch a tent, and unwind. But for a few paths, their landscaping was nil until they built their simple box of a cottage in 1982.

After planting structured arrangements of catmint, foxgloves, lilies, poppies, and roses to complement the new stonework, Freeman turned to the stumpy shore edge. That’s when she became a “garden tourist.” She sought inspiration in real-life versions of the romantic gardens featured in English novels she’d enjoyed as a teen, visiting the manor landscapes of Beatrix Farrand and Charles Savage on Mount Desert Island and Gertrude Jekyll in England. She assembled a large horticulture library and collaborated with other gardeners as she grew her rambling border, favoring plants that peaked in broad Impressionistic sweeps of color in summer, when the couple and their children were present: deep-blue hydrangeas, purple coneflowers, rosy astilbes, cherry-red phlox, blood-orange heleniums. Around the shaded frog pond, which Wiscasset landscaper David Jewell dug out of a mucky thicket, she planted spicy-scented swamp azaleas, rhododendrons, hakone grass, lady’s mantles, and dwarf goat’s beards. She learned the hard way that wind-whipped, deer-abundant Barters Island requires resilient plants: “We don’t have a lot of picky things,” she says. 

Clockwise from top left: an Ernest Markham clematis; a bronze walking Buddha acquired in Thailand; a daylily grown by the late Alna daylily breeder Joseph Barth; a zig-zag boardwalk appears to float above hay-scented, cinnamon, and interrupted ferns.

“Jonathan wasn’t much of a garden maker, but he was a great cheerleader,” Freeman says, and when he died, in 2000, the gardens helped her stay connected to his spirit and heal. A few years later, she moved into the cottage full-time and overhauled it with gables, bay windows, balconies, porches, and a sunroom — which, naturally, led to more beds that hug the house. She sought to create year-round interest throughout the property with spring-blooming witch hazels, cherry trees, forsythias, and fragrant, pale-yellow daffodils. On the shady ridge above the Zen garden, she’s now encouraging a natural moss garden by regularly plucking unwanted plants and fallen leaves and twigs.

Today, Freeman, now in her 80s, is more reliant on hired help and focused on wrestling with flooding and erosion wrought by climate change. Ever the student, she is learning about rain gardens, swales, storm-water movement, and plants that can thrive with wet feet. “Gardens are ephemeral, always changing, and often disappearing entirely as their makers age or as the ecology of a place changes,” she says. “Both are happening in my garden.” 

May 2024, Down East Magazine

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