This Belfast Gardener’s Tulip-Filled Yard Is One of the Brightest Spots Around

Molly Ahrens’s property dazzles with Monet-like dabs of color from more than 1,000 tulips.

Molly Ahrens in her tulip-filled yard in Belfast, Maine
By Virginia M. Wright
Photos by Kelsey Kobik
From our May 2024 issue

In early May, when most Maine gardens are bedraggled beds of brown stems and leaves, Molly Ahrens’s yard dazzles with Monet-like dabs of color from more than 1,000 tulips: frilly burgundy flames, peachy lavender-flushed ruffs, and creamy-white cups congregate in mounded islands, along fences, and above the clay pots that line peastone paths. “I love bulbs,” Ahrens says. “I love the idea of burying something like a treasure and waiting for it to emerge.” She enjoys it so much, in fact, that she does it every fall with all-new bulbs so that, come spring, a landscape entirely different from the year before bursts into bloom around her contemporary farmhouse, in Belfast.

Soon after purchasing the one-third-acre property, in 2019, Ahrens worked with Belfast garden designer Kate McLeod to overhaul neglected flower beds, plant new ones, and lay out paths and sitting areas. “But these gardens really started when I was a little kid living in New York City with a windowsill full of spider plants and avocado pits that I was trying to hatch,” Ahrens says. “I grew up on books like The Secret Garden, Anne of Green Gables, and Miss Rumphius — all stories with strong, independent girls and women who had a connection to gardens or nature. It’s been my lifelong dream to have my own house and gardens.”

Though Ahrens is always tweaking, her arrangements of shrubs and perennial flowers are mostly fixed, designed to provide six months of blooms — clematis, daffodils, lilacs, day and oriental lilies, foxgloves, hydrangeas, penstemons, peonies, phloxes, poppies, roses, and more. Her caprice is reserved for the tulips. “I’ve amped it up every year,” she says. “In May, when they’re blooming, I start to think about what I’d like to do in fall.” In June, she digs up and discards the spent bulbs (many of her tulip choices are single-season bloomers) and plants dahlias and other annuals in the gaps. Using garden-catalog photographs, she maps out next spring’s tulip combinations on paper and places her orders early. She’s fond of fluffy romantic varieties, like La Belle Epoque, with its dusty-pink peony-like blossoms, and of brilliantly colored kinds, like Negrita, which has fringed, deep-purple petals, and sweetly scented Princess Irene, whose orange petals appear to have been brushed with swishes of burgundy paint.

The bulbs arrive in October, when she’s digging out the dahlias. She plants them after the first frost, typically in November, to minimize risk of diseases like fungal tulip fire, which produces brown spots and withers leaves. “I’m racing against the clock to get it done before the ground freezes,” she says. “It can be pretty miserable. My fingertips freeze and my nose drips, but I visualize what it’s going to look like, and it’s like having spring before it happens. That vision helps me get through the winter. It’s like floral Prozac.”

May 2024, Down East Magazine

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