By Lynn Ascrizzi
SWEET-SCENTED AZALEAS, bee balm, roses, and phlox. Moss-lined pathways meandering amid green light and shadows. Reflecting pools, cedar-fragrant, sun-warmed air, and artfully planted herbaceous borders bursting with Japanese irises, delphiniums, velvety lamb’s ears, poppies and sunny dahlias…
This is a mere sampling of the unfolding seasonal riches to be discovered in the roughly three dozen foremost public gardens of Maine — generous legacies of horticultural genius strung primarily along the state’s coastal areas, like brilliant gems. And for a brief moment, they’re all ours. Here are 8 favorites (including one in neighboring New Hampshire)
Asticou Azalea Garden
A beautifully maintained Japanese garden, Asticou is set like a rare jade ring stone amid 2.3 acres at the southern end of Mount Desert Island, only 4.4 miles from Acadia National Park. “It’s nicer than any (garden) in Japan that I’ve seen, and less crowded, especially if you go in the morning,” says Elly Andrews, director of the Northeast Harbor Library and member of Land & Garden Preserve. “A path goes around a pond. Around every corner, another beautiful plant specimen.”
Highlights: Colorful azaleas and rhododendrons (June); rosebay rhododendron, smoke bush and irises (July); water lilies (August); fiery leaf light, in the fall. Oh, did we mention birds and waterfowl?
Asticou is free and open seven days per week during daylight hours, May 1 – Oct. 31. Main gate and limited parking on Route 198. Enter, and feel a liberating stillness.
Asticou and nearby Thuya Garden and Thuya Lodge, set on a granite hillside, can be visited in one morning or an afternoon. Those who enjoy short hikes can walk from Asticou, about one-quarter mile, up a driveway or on a wooded path, toward Thuya. Named for the area’s northern white cedars, Thuja occidentallis, the English-style garden offers more than 110 varieties.
Highlights: English-style border gardens planted with colorful perennials and annuals, a reflecting pool, and a delightful, open teahouse in a native woods setting.
Parking is available at the top of Thuya Drive, close to the entrance. Open seven days a week, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., June 18- Sept. 30.
Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens (CMBG)
Truly the crown jewel of Maine’s botanical gardens, this masterwork is set on 270 acres and along 3,600 feet of shoreline. People can come to the gardens by land or sea. “We offer electric boat and kayak tours, so people can explore the tidal river and get garden views from the water,” says CMBG’s Kris Folsom. The land entrance and free parking is on Barter’s Island Road.
Highlights: Shoreline hiking trails and 14 acres of gardens, including rose arbors, a garden of the five senses, meditation and kitchen gardens, and a children’s garden and story barn with books for youngsters by Maine authors. Check their website for 16 special events, tours and flower-find maps. Arrive early. “People spend more time here than they think,” Folsom says.
Open daily from May 1 – Oct. 31; 9 a.m. – 5 p.m., May 1 – June 30; until 6 p.m., July-August. Adults, $16; seniors (65+), $14; children ages 3 -8, $8; under age 3, free. Mobility scooter and wheelchair accessible.
Merryspring Nature Center
Camden & Rockport
At Merryspring’s 66-acre, non-profit nature and educational center, visitors can hike woods and meadows trails any day of the year, during daylight hours, for free.
Highlights: A rose cottage and freshwater springs; special gardens for herbs, roses, hostas, birds, insect pollinators, perennials and children. Also, an American chestnut breeding orchard and an arboretum for wildlife sighting.
Check for weekend workshops, watercolor classes, field trips, volunteering and more. Office hours: 9 a.m. – 2 p.m. Tuesday – Friday.
Colonial Revival Longfellow Garden
Wadsworth-Longfelllow House, Portland
This secluded urban garden on Congress Street is tucked alongside the historic childhood home of American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. There is no entry fee for the garden, which is open when the house is open. Plantings replicate the plants first put there by the Maine Historical Society in 1911.
Highlights: Teak benches and wrought-iron chairs, little pathways to explore, a small patio area, hostas and roses. It’s a great place to bring your own lunch and enjoy a pocket of peace just steps from busy streets in the heart of Portland.
The house is open for guided tours, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m., Monday – Saturday, May 1 – Oct. 30. Adults, $15; seniors and students, $12; children ages 6 -7, $3; age 5 and younger, free. The historical society’s museum and store are next door.
Celia Thaxter’s Garden
Isle of Shoals, New Hampshire
Celia Thaxter’s 19th-century garden, made famous by her charming classic, “An Island Garden” (illustrated with color lithographs by impressionist Childe Hassam), is located on Appledore Island, 6 miles and a 45-minute boat ride off the coast of Maine and New Hampshire. This year, visitors will see the most historically accurate recreation of the garden to date.
Two different tours (see below) are available. Both include tour guides and are appropriate for travelers in good physical shape. Wear sturdy walking shoes. Adventurers for either tour arrive via the University of New Hampshire’s 50-foot research vessel, Gulf Challenger, boarded at Judd Gregg Marine Research Complex, Newcastle, N.H., just 5 minutes outside Portsmouth. Check websites for tour dates.
Note: tickets sell out fast.
The Shoals Marine Laboratory Tour
This tour focuses on Celia Thaxter’s artistic history. Highlights: A rugged island landscape, historic buildings, a recreation of Thaxter’s cutting garden—a fenced plot with sustainably raised beds and heirlooms, including poppies (June, early July), hollyhocks (July), Japanese hops trellis vines (July-August). Trip: $100, includes a gourmet, buffet, island lunch. Ticket profits go toward maintaining Celia’s garden.
The Appledore Island Walking Tour
New Hampshire Sea Grant, a national educational and research program about coastal resources, hosts this walking tour. Highlights: The tour focuses on the island’s natural and human history (rock formations, intertidal creatures, sea birds, Native Americans, early settlers and Shoals Marine Laboratory.) Visitors will see Celia’s garden, but it is not the main event. (Trip: $50 adults; $40 children, ages 10–17; not for young children.) Bring a picnic lunch.
Hamilton House Garden
This handsome garden complements the circa 1785 Hamilton House, situated on 33-acres overlooking Salmon Falls River. The Colonial Revival country estate and museum is the property of Historic New England. “Painted murals inside the house evoke the idea of a water line that’s even with the river tide so the design carries into the garden. There’s serenity and beauty. People meditate, do yoga and enjoy (Sunday) garden concerts,” says South Berwick site manager Marilyn Keith Daily.
The gardens are free, open from dawn to dusk.
Highlights: formal gardens with fountain accent and garden statues.
Parking is at the end of Vaughn’s Lane, in a grassy field. A gravel path leads to a visitors’ center and gift shop in a charming garden cottage. The gorgeous house is open, 11 a.m. – 4 p.m., June 1 – Oct. 15. Tours on the hour. Admission: $10 adults; $9 seniors; $5 students. The Vaughn Woods hiking area is next to the property. Check their website for events and programs.
In 1947, Lithuanian Franciscans purchased a 30-acre Tudor estate, situated on the west side of the Kennebeck River that flows into Kennebeck Beach. Today, it is St. Anthony’s Franciscan Monastery, only one-half mile from Kennebunkport. The friars welcome all visitors.
Highlights: A paved walkway leads to a cluster of trees by a river inlet from the ocean, with a lovely view of Kennebunkport and boats on the water. “Visitors like the silence around here. People come to recollect themselves. Everybody likes to experience a kind of peace,” says monastery guardian Fr. John Bacevicius.
Monastery and grounds are open daily, dawn to dusk. A gift shop is open daily, 10 a.m. to noon and 1 – 4 p.m., March 1 – Dec. 31. A nonprofit retreat center and guesthouse (franciscanguesthouse.com), separate from the monastery and one-quarter mile from the beach, offers simple, standard accommodations, at reasonable rates.