She’s a Rock Star

In South Bristol, an intrepid gardener turns a stony slope into a self-sustaining oasis.

By Virginia M. Wright
Photos by Kelsey Grossman
From the August 2023 issue

Twenty-nine years ago, Mike and Vickie Cunningham designed and built a house on the high, steep shoreline of South Bristol’s McFarlands Cove. Its large windows allowed them to bask in a glorious view, stretching all the way across the cove to Pemaquid Beach, but the scenery at their feet was another matter. The front yard, which constitutes the bulk of their one-acre property, was a precipitous rocky slope thinly covered in scrub brush. “It was ugly,” Vickie says. “Something had to be done.”

But what? Even if the Cunninghams could manage to grow a lawn, they’d tumble down the bluff trying to mow it. So Vickie, then new to flower gardening, started with a bed of Siberian irises at the bottom of the slope, where it meets the road. It was lovely, but what most delighted her was the attractive ledge her digging had exposed. As Vickie set out to uncover more of its rugged beauty, the hillside that had initially seemed troublesome became an intriguing challenge.

Both Cunninghams enjoy their steeply sloping waterfront yard, but as the sign attests, the garden is strictly Vickie’s handiwork. Set into the ledge, it comprises dozens of pockets, each planted with whatever grows well in that particular spot, be they sedums, rug junipers, daylilies, or hydrangeas.

“Once I got going, I couldn’t stop,” she says. “It was like therapy. I’d be out six to seven hours a day.” Each summer, she tackled a new section of hill, removing soil and weeds and following the rock’s contours as she worked back and forth across the slope. She packed garden mix into the ledge’s pockets, built small stone walls to keep it from washing away, and planted andromedas, coneflowers, creeping phlox, rug junipers, stonecrops, swamp milkweeds, and, from her grandmother’s Connecticut farm, orange daylilies. Her excavations revealed natural switchbacks, which she covered in bark mulch to keep weeds at bay. Where no paths emerged, she built steps, working with both the existing rock and stones she embedded with a neighbor’s help.

Today, her rock garden extends over most of the yard, and she has her sights set on digging up an untouched corner at the top of the hill. She chooses low-maintenance plants, matching them to the conditions, which vary considerably. Last summer, for example, she planted water-loving cardinal flowers in a pocket that catches rain washing down the rock. Next to them is a chronically dry spot where she’s planted drought-tolerant Russian sage. “We’re on a well, and I don’t want to choose between taking a shower or watering my plants,” she says. “I experiment — if plants can’t make it on their own, they don’t belong here.”

Trial and error taught Vickie about drainage, soil, and plant suitability. As for designing the garden, she credits the rock. “If I had a flat piece of property,” she says, “I wouldn’t know what to do with it.”

May 2024, Down East Magazine

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