A Contemporary Maine Garden Designed by Julie Moir Messervy Design Studio

February 16, 2021

In coastal Maine, native plantings and local granite are graced with a touch of Japanese sensibility to deliver a contemplative landscape.

Text by Meaghan O’Neill    Photography by Susan Teare

Landscape designer Julie Moir Messervy talks about boulders the way that jewelers talk about gems. She obsesses over where they are from (preferably local), how they are cut (“never, ever blasted”), and the way they are set into the ground. Each of these details is critical to her vision. So when it came to working on a project on the ragged coast of southern Maine, Messervy found herself happily wedged between a rock and a hard place, so to speak.

The clients were looking to build their dream home on a promontory at the nexus of a tidal river and a harbor. Working from the start alongside since-retired architect Barbara Freeman, Messervy and the clients chose to site the house both to maximize views and blend into the existing ledge-filled topography. The eventual contemporary dwelling—clad in granite, reverse-installed lead-coated copper, and stained cedar—cuts a low profile, floating among a blanket of vegetation.

To achieve such a low-slung presence, Messervy, who is principal of Julie Moir Messervy Design Studio in Bellows Falls, Vermont, first considered stones and trees that would blend seamlessly into the larger landscape. Her plan incorporates massive local-granite boulders that emerge as statuesque compositions throughout the property. Thick granite-plank paths and. stairways also intersect with ipe decking, which gracefully trail through mosses and ferns.

The homeowners were intent on keeping many of the existing large oak and other trees and using mainly native plantings as “a way to honor the character of the site,” says Jana Bryan, senior landscape architect and project lead from JMMDS. They were also inspired by japanesque style, which suited Messervy’s approach: she’d previously studied in Kyoto with a master of garden design.

That sensibility is expressed in a stunning courtyard with views across the property. The contemplative space also creates a protective microclimate perfect for specimen trees including an American persimmon, fullmoon maple, and katsura. The area is punctuated by two enormous granite slabs, carefully posed as a focal point. In an artful stroke, Messervy chose to lay one flat.

“We selected boulders throughout that looked like they’d always been there,” says landscape contractor
Tom Dunn, owner of Stoney Brook Landscaping & Masonry. Many, including those in the courtyard, came from his nearby farm, others from a local quarry. Placing the boulders with painstaking precision helps them appear to emerge naturally from the ground. How much stone to show, how much to bury, and at which angle they face is an art of extreme exaction the design team was happy to indulge.

To soften the cragginess of such hardscaping, Messervy chose a blanket of low-growing perennials, ferns, and mosses, all able to withstand salty air or soil. Few ornamentals were selected, and the limited spring and summer bloomers are mostly white, creating what Bryan calls “a very subtle palette.”

Come fall, however, hues throughout begin to shift, eliciting the magic of New England’s autumnal pleasures, until winter reveals the distinct and beautiful bones of the landscape—its trees and boulders. It’s a delicate yet purposeful approach, with the will of the designers holding hands with Mother Nature. “We’re always trying for a joyful process,” says Messervy of her method. “And this was that.”

Project Team
Landscape design: Julie Moir Messervy, Jana Bryan, Julie Moir Messervy Design Studio
Architecture: Barbara Freeman
Builder: Patrick Gagne, Wright-Ryan Construction