History of the Garden
In the Beginning …
I bought my property in East Poland, Maine in 1990, the year after I moved to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to join the faculty at Gettysburg College. The house would be my Maine retreat, keeping me connected to friends and the beloved Maine landscape and providing a quiet haven for writing and relaxation. I have always been an outdoors person, and the surrounding woods and the house’s quiet location at the end of a rural dirt road attracted me as much as the good condition of the house itself.
The previous owner was a woman who had taken meticulous care of the inside of the house, but who was much less interested in the outdoors. I bought the house in winter, when the property was under a blanket of snow, and in spring I learned that the cleared area around the house was a scrubby “lawn” of weeds and moss decorated with a few specimen shrubs. I also learned in spring that there was no easy way into the house from outdoors. The four-room house sat on top of a rise that sloped up steeply from the driveway; a door at the end of the driveway opened into a full basement. It turned out that the previous owner had always entered and left the house via the basement (also the way I had entered with the realtor). The “front” and “back” doors (both of which faced the front of the house, one leading into the living room and one into a mudroom off the kitchen) were reached by scrambling up the slope from the driveway and were each served by a narrow flight of wooden steps pushed up against the foundation. These steps, seldom used and not maintained, were rotting, as I learned when one gave way under the weight of my new refrigerator as it was being delivered.
1990-1992: Beginnings of a Garden
I moved into the house in May and my personal journals from the period show that, while much of my focus during my first summer in the house was on the outside, it was not on gardening. My first priority was to lay out a flight of stairs up the sandy slope from the driveway to the main level of the house. One weekend, my parents drove up from Massachusetts and my father provided the expertise and much of the labor to build the steps. The following summer, I hired a carpenter to replace the rude and rotting steps at the front and back doors with more substantial entry decks and stairs that were actually attached to the house.
During one of these summers, I also created the first flower bed, which became known as the “back slope,” in an area that had been cut off from the rest of the “lawn” by the flight of steps up from the driveway. I stripped away the sod and planted, among other things, a division of rhododendron and several divisions of hosta from my mother’s garden; but there is no mention of either of these activities in my journal. The first (brief) allusion to gardening comes in June 1992, when I noted that I spent a weekend “trying to get the outside of the house spruced up” and that this included creating an herb bed by the back door and planting annuals on the back slope and in flower boxes.
1993-1999: Getting Serious About Gardening
Gardening made its first substantial appearance in my journals in 1993. That year, I was on leave from teaching in the fall, writing a book manuscript , which allowed me to spend 7 consecutive months (May-January) in my Maine house. During these months, the house began to feel like home to me, and gardening seems to have been part of making that home. In July, I created a 5’ diameter circular flower bed by the turn into my driveway and planted it with annuals. In August, I noted my new interest in gardening with these words:
I seem to have been bitten by the gardening bug this summer – partly, I think, because I am going to be here for an extended period … and have some time. My circular flower bed at the end of the driveway is a great success. I have also laid out the front walk and hope to get it finished next weekend. I have grandiose plans for fall: transplanting perennials, putting in a bed of irises in a semi-circle created by the front walk, planting wildflowers and lupine down by the well, and setting hundreds of bulbs. I can imagine even more: raised beds of cutting flowers in the front yard; perennial borders to frame a deck out back.
In the months that followed, I dug two new flower beds, the semi-circular iris bed under the bow window at the front of the house, and a narrow perennial border under my bedroom window. This was also the year that my friend Joyce gave me divisions of lilies, daylilies and Siberian irises from her garden. The Siberian irises were massed in the iris bed, and the lilies and daylilies were planted on the back slope and in the circular bed (beginning its transition from annuals to perennials). I ordered and planted bulbs, many of them in the bedroom border (where I lined them up in straight rows like crops in a vegetable garden 😐 ). I never did plant wildflowers by the well or make raised beds of cutting flowers; but I did plant a row of daylilies along the front of the property by the dirt road in 1995, and I added a row of lilacs behind them in 1996.
From the time I first moved into the house, I was aware that the most beautiful part of the property was the back yard with its view into the woods. And I was also aware that there was no easy way to enjoy it. I was also finding the weedy lawn behind the house a pain to keep mowed. By my third summer in the house, I had begun to dream of replacing that weedy lawn with a deck that would be reached by a sliding glass door from the dining area and that would also provide an entrance out to the back of the property. But this deck and any flower beds that might surround it remained in the realm of fantasy until 1999, when I was treated for cancer and developed a new sense of urgency about the passage of time.
In fall of 1999, I took an unpaid leave from teaching as a time to heal from chemotherapy. This extended summer and fall period in Maine was a time of personal renewal and reconnection with nature, and gardening was an important part of that process. Although I didn’t do anything about the deck during this period, my journals show a focus on the garden, as I developed a better sense of which plants would thrive in my conditions and redesigned existing flower beds.
2000-2007: Creation of the Back Garden
By summer of 2000, I was making serious plans for the deck on the back of the house and what would become the back garden, but my plans were thwarted by the difficulty of finding a contractor to build the deck. Most never returned my calls, and the few who did had no openings in their schedules for a year or more to come. In 2001, I did get one contractor to come and look at the project, but he never did submit an estimate. Nevertheless, inspired by visits to a whole new world of specialty nurseries that I had just discovered (see The Gardening Book that Changed My Life), I began to lay out the flower beds that would surround the deck and to dig the first section.
In 2002-03, when I was on sabbatical from teaching and able to spend 15 glorious months in Maine, the back garden really took off. In 2002, the deck was finally built, most of the deck border was dug and planted, and the blue and yellow border was begun. By the time I returned to teaching in fall of 2003, the deck border was complete and the even larger blue and yellow border, facing the deck border across a walkway, was about half dug and planted. I finished the blue and yellow border during the summer of 2004; and in 2005, I began the project of building a curving walkway of paving stones set in pea gravel from the deck down to the driveway. This project, which included building a flight of garden stairs at the driveway entrance to the back garden, took more than three years to complete.
In 2005, I also redesigned the circular bed at the turn into my driveway (now primarily planted with perennials). I expanded its size from 5’ in diameter to 8’ and developed a new planting plan that incorporated some of the previous plants but that also included many new ones and that was much more coherent and pleasing.
2008-2013: Additions to the Back Garden
More than a decade after I began creating it, the back garden is still a work in progress. By the time that I had completed the blue and yellow border in 2004, I could already see that, from the vantage point of the deck, the garden looked incomplete. When I sat on the deck and looked out over the flower beds, my eye was carried past them to the clothesline, and I began to develop plans to install a length of fence that would screen the view of the clothesline and provide the backdrop for another flower bed. The walkway from the deck to the driveway was laid out with this new flower bed in mind. I finally had a 12’ length of fence installed to the garden side of the clothesline in summer of 2008 and immediately began work on the new fence border. This flower bed was completed in 2009.
By the time I began digging the earth for the fence border, I had already begun planning for a new garden area, the Serenity Garden. Although this flower bed is also behind the house, it is separate from the back garden, located at the edge of the woods at the back of a clearing. The original idea to create a serene place for quiet reflection here was inspired by the secluded feeling of this part of the property – but that seclusion was disrupted when my septic system failed in 2009 and a new leaching field had to be dug this area, altering the landscape and necessitating removal of shrubs that had closed the area off from the clothesline and the driveway (see My Not So Secret Garden).
After considerable preparation and planning (see Planning the Serenity Garden, The Plan, and Soil Test), I finally dug and planted the Serenity Garden in 2011 (see Birth of a Garden). I hope to put the finishing touches on this project in 2013 by (1) building and planting a 4’ x 12’ raised bed just north of the clothesline that will re-create the sense of enclosure and serenity that initially inspired this garden, (2) installing a narrow path of stepping stones leading from the back garden into this area, and (3) finding just the right bench for seating in this area.
And History Marches On …
In 2014, I expect to turn my attention back to the front of the house. This is the year that I will retire and make my Maine property my year-round home. As part of that transition, I will be enlarging the house with a new bedroom added on the front. And this will provide the opportunity for creating a whole new front garden.