A Public Affair

Use this guide to public gardens to find your most-loved blooms and discover new favorite flowers to plant at home.

By Meadow Rue Merrill
Photo: Pat and Chuck Blackley

If you want to cultivate rhododendrons:
St. Anthony’s Franciscan Monastery
Extensive walking paths crisscross gardens, woodlands, and an outdoor chapel by the Kennebunk River at this sixty-six-acre estate. Designed by the Olmsted Brothers in the early twentieth century, the gardens and adjoining manor are now home to Franciscan friars. The massive, flowering rhododendrons are a particular highlight. Free. 28 Beach Ave., Kennebunk. 207-967-2011.franciscanguesthouse.com

If you want to cultivate roses:
Deering Oaks
Designed by William Goodwin in the 1870s, this fifty-five-acre park at the heart of Portland is on the National Register of Historic Places. Enjoy a summer afternoon relaxing beneath its canopy of oaks, pines, spruces, and ornamental trees or admire the park’s Deering Oaks Rose Circle, a hybrid tea rose garden with more than six hundred species. The park and garden are best enjoyed during the day; locals avoid them at night. Free. 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, year-round. Deering and Forest Ave., Portland. 207-874-8801. deeringoaks.org

If you want to cultivate monkshood:
Tate House Colonial Herb Garden
All summer long, folks interested in the historic use of herbs for cooking, medicine, cosmetics, and aromatherapy can arrange a private tour of the gardens at Portland’s only public pre-Revolutionary house. Don’t miss the garden’s monkshood, once used as medicine for humans and poison for wolves (one of its colloquial names, appropriately, is wolfsbane). The dark blue blooms emerge in late summer. By appointment. $10, includes admission to the Tate House. 207-774-6177. tatehouse.org

If you want to cultivate coneflowers:
Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens
Recently named as the top garden in the country by TripAdvisor, the two-hundred-and-fifty-acre Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens are the largest in New England. With woods, ponds, trails, native plant collections, a Maine-themed children’s garden, ongoing classes, free guided tours, and an inviting visitor’s center and cafe, it’s easy to spend a full day exploring. The gardens’ perennial coneflowers are due to bloom in August — and promise to bring multi-colored beauty to the grounds. 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Members free, adults $14, seniors $12, children $6. 132 Botanical Gardens Dr., off Barters Island Road, Boothbay. 207-633-4333. mainegardens.org

If you want to cultivate Elizabeth magnolias:
The Garden at Pineland Farms, New Gloucester
Located near the entrance of this 5,000-acre working educational farm, dairy, and equestrian center, the garden at Pineland Farms is popular with locals and summer visitors. Plant species are labeled for easy identification among the winding stone paths. Enjoy the nearby pond and trails, or schedule a tour of the award-winning creamery. In late spring, the large, pale yellow blossoms of the Elizabeth magnolia trees are yet another enticing reason to pay a visit. The garden is free and open from dawn to dusk, seven days a week from May through November. Rte. 231 and Freeport Rd., New Glouscester. 207-688-4539. pinelandfarms.org

If you want to cultivate lilacs:
McLaughlin Gardens
Created by Bernard McLaughlin, who tended the two-and-a-half-acre garden single-handedly for most of his life, the McLaughlin Gardens are one of Maine’s most popular. A sophisticated collection of trees, woody shrubs, and perennials surrounds this century-old Maine farmstead, which is now under the care of a nonprofit organization. The garden features a variety of hostas, daylilies, astilbes, and more than 125 lilacs beneath a canopy of trees. Special events are scheduled throughout the year. The gardens are open 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily from May 1 through October 31. Free, but donations are suggested. Western Ave. and Rte. 26, South Paris. 207-743-8820. mclaughlingarden.org

If you want to cultivate snapdragons:
The Blaine House
Designed by the nationally renowned Olmsted Brothers in the early 1900s, the grounds surrounding the home of Maine’s governor are divided into four sections, including the Governor’s Garden, a shrub garden, and the recently restored New England Garden. Features include a central lawn, footpaths, and meticulously maintained annuals and perennials of all kinds — including newly planted, centrally located snapdragons that will bloom through the rest of summer. The gardens are open by appointment only, and tours are managed by the Maine State Museum. Free. 192 State St., Augusta. 207-287-2301. blainehouse.org

If you want to cultivate apple blossoms:
The Olson House
The Farnsworth Museum owns the famed Olson House, a historic property that inspired many of Andrew Wyeth’s paintings. The museum also maintains a small garden on the premises filled with plants Christina Olson used to grow. Work is currently ongoing to restore the home’s original apple orchard, which makes a lovely picnic spot after a tour of the house and grounds. Tours are available Tuesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on the hour until August 31. $10, $8 for students and seniors. Hathorne Point Rd., Cushing. 207-596-6457. farnsworthmuseum.org

If you want to cultivate irises:
Ecotat Gardens and Arboretum
Home to more than fifty-five gardens containing hundreds of varieties of trees and more than 1,500 perennials, this Hermon property highlights the diversity of Maine’s ecological habitats. Bold, showy irises — among the first to bloom in spring after bulbs are planted in the fall — are the stars of this expansive garden. A list of interactive summer programs can be found online, and guided tours are available by appointment. Open daily from dawn to dusk. Free. 2699 Rte. 2, Hermon. 207-848-3485. ecotat.org

If you want to cultivate pink lady’s slippers:
Wild Gardens of Acadia
With more than three hundred native species, the Wild Gardens of Acadia at Sieur de Monts Spring are located near the Nature Center at Acadia National Park. Benches invite visitors to linger and admire thirteen separate display areas, including the popular pink lady’s slipper, a well-known member of the orchid family that’s considered endangered or vulnerable in many other parts of the country. Gardens are accessible year-round, but are best viewed from May through October. Entrance fees are $20 per car for seven days, $5 for motorcycles and individuals on foot or bicycle. Annual passes are also available. Near the intersection of the Park Loop Rd. and Rte. 3, Mount Desert Island. 207-288-3340. www.nps.gov/acad

If you want to cultivate azaleas:
Asticou Azalea Garden and Thuya Garden
Charles Savage designed the Japanese-inspired Asticou Azalea Garden, which includes plants rescued from Beatrix Farrand’s Reef Point estate. A winding path invites visitors to explore a series of garden rooms, including a traditional sand garden. Also designed by Savage, the nearby Thuya Garden blends semi-formal English flowerbeds and indigenous eastern woodlands on a hill overlooking Northeast Harbor. The Asticou Azalea Garden is open from dawn to dusk daily through the end of October. The Thuya Garden is open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily from late May through mid-October. Free, but a $5 donation is suggested. Rtes. 3 and 198, near Northeast Harbor, Mount Desert Island. 207-276-3727. gardenpreserve.org

If you want to cultivate pumpkins:
The Demonstration Garden at Rogers Farm
Part of the University of Maine’s Cooperative Extension, the Demonstration Garden at Rogers Farm includes unique plant varieties, innovative designs, and bountiful vegetable gardens. Stroll along the tranquil paths, inhale the scent of herbs, or simply relax on a bench and enjoy the view. This fall, look 
out for the farm’s Hijinks Pumpkins, the 2011 winner of All-America Selections’ Vegetable Award. The garden, which is maintained by volunteers, holds educational farm days every Tuesday evening from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. through August 27. Open to the public from dawn to dusk seven days a week. 914 Bennoch Rd., Old Town. 207-942-7396. umaine.edu

Meadow Rue Merrill is an award-winning Maine journalist and frequent contributor to Down East.