The People’s Garden

Text by Paula M. Bodah

Big things—miracles, even—can grow from the smallest seeds. Back in 1991, Boothbay Harbor, Maine, storekeeper Rollie Hale, a self-taught gardener, was planting tea roses as he chatted with his friend Chip Griffin. Admiring Hale’s green thumb, Griffin casually suggested Hale start a botanical garden.

We all hear those those “you ought to” thoughts any number of times. We might even think, “Yeah, I ought to.” All too often, though, that’s as far as those little sparks of potential genius get. Not this time, though. The idea lodged in Hale’s mind and within weeks he’d gathered a handful of people with the same passion for gardening to explore the possibilities. A year later, Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens was incorporated as a nonprofit organization. Then the real work began.

In a new book, Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens: A People’s Garden, authors Bill Cullina, Dorothy E. Freeman and Barbara Hill Freeman, the gardens’ executive director, ­director of philanthropy and ­director of communications, respectively, recount the ardent troupe’s sixteen-year journey that culminated in today’s heaven on earth: 250 acres of color and fragrance that draw 100,000 visitors every year.

Botanical gardens are usually formed in one of three ways—by municipal government, as a research arm of an academic institution or as the result of a large philanthropic gift. No such avenues existed for the Maine garden. Rather than throw up their hands in defeat, Hale and the others decided this garden would have to come from a grassroots effort to raise the initial funding, and would have to be self-sustaining, generating its own sources of income through admissions, gift shop sales and a series of educational and special events.

A four-year search for the perfect piece of land led to the gardens’ original 120 acres in Boothbay (a gift of 128 additional acres in 2005 brought the gardens to their current size). No matter that the young organization’s coffers didn’t have anywhere near the $500,000 asking price for the land. Ten of the group’s founders stepped forward to offer their own homes as collateral, and the gardens were born.

The next twelve years were spent getting the word out, generating a member base, raising money and, of course, designing and constructing the garden. Finally, on what the authors of the book call a “glorious Maine summer day,” the state’s First Lady Karen Baldacci took a scissors to the ceremonial garland, and the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens was finally, officially open to the public. “Before the year was out, some 37,000 visitors would find their way to the Gardens,” the authors write.

Today, people who visit the gardens find a land of enchantment in a series of connected gardens, all with their own personality. Children adore the Bibby and Harold Alfond Children’s Garden, two acres of woods, ponds and theme gardens designed by landscape architect Herb Schaal. Schaal took his inspiration from children’s books written by Maine authors, including a barn and vegetable garden straight out of E.B. White’s classic Charlotte’s Web.

The Lerner Garden of the Five Senses, also designed by Schaal, takes visitors along meandering paths and up and down hills through a series of tiny gardens created to engage all the senses. Tasting is encouraged in a garden of fruit, vegetables and edible flowers; touching is welcomed in an area that features soft-leaved plants, stonework and a waterfall; hundreds of fragrant lilies, lilacs and aromatic herbs perfume the air; a quiet spot invites sitting and listening to the sounds of the frogs and katydids that call the garden home; and masses of brilliantly colored flowers delight the eyes.

A meditation garden celebrates the Maine location with its stairs, paths and boulders perfect for sitting for a bit of contemplation, all created from granite taken from old quarries around the state.

Every season brings a new display of color, from thousands of rhododendrons in May to June roses to the silvery plumes of maiden grass in the fall.

The road from casual conversation to world-class botanical garden may have been a long one. But as any gardener knows, patience and diligence yield rewards that elevate the spirits of everyone lucky enough to see the results. •

Editor’s Note: Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens is open daily year-round from 9 a.m.–5 p.m.

132 Botanical Gardens Drive, Boothbay, Maine, (207) 633-4333, www.mainegardens.org. Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens is available at New England bookstores.

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