Spring Forward – a Horticulturist’s Metamorphosis

March 11th, 2014
Jen Dunlap post 3-11-14 (1)
Jen Dunlap post 3-11-14 (2)

Greetings all! As we spring forward into this season of new beginnings, change is certainly afoot at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens. The snow cannot melt fast enough as we all, here at CMBG, patiently await the first signs of plant life to emerge from the thawing tundra below. Anticipation over the forthcoming bulb display is thick and we remember well those grueling planting days of fall with our calloused hands and sore knees. We planted more than 23,000 bulbs last fall, and this spring looks to provide another jaw-dropping color extravaganza.

I saw the gardens and their bulb display with fresh eyes on Mother’s Day last year with my mother. This being my first experience at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, it left a lasting impression on my soul. A spark ignited within. As I mentally prepared for my move from Portland, Oregon, back to my homeland of Brunswick, Maine, I remember asking my mother to register the faces of the employees we encountered during our visit. If they looked happy, then that would be a true sign that this would be a great place to work. And indeed, we saw many inspired smiles that day. So, here I am today, the newest member of the Horticulture Department with a grin so wide you can see it on the Maine Tourism Guide Map, along with directions to our breathtaking garden.

Gardening in the Pacific Northwest proved to be an amazing, character-building experience. A temperate climate and growing season that is nearly year-round lent to a lushness of life that I have experienced in no other place I have lived. While gardening in Maine poses its own unique set of challenges, there are none that can take away from the joy of witnessing the fruits of your labors in the form of a bounty of flowers (or fruit, for that matter). And with the pollinator theme for 2014 fresh in my mind, I contemplate my own metamorphosis over the last few months. Try laying out a garden bed design when there is still a foot and a half of snow on the ground! We certainly have many exciting plans on the table for 2014 and the show must go on. Mother Nature willing, we just might see some signs of life springing forth soon! So please stay tuned and we too hope to see your smiling faces!

Jennifer Dunlap, Horticulturist (March 10, 2014)

Thinking about “the Way Life Ought to Be”

February 18th, 2014
Lunch at the Berkley Garden Center.
Margaret's Garden
Margaret's Window
Photos  by Dick Zieg

Help!  My desk is covered with catalogues from every seed and plant company that I ever bought anything from!!!  New tools, new vegetables, new flowers, new ideas to take the cold out of winter and get me thinking about the “way life ought to be”…the reasons why I came to Maine in the first place.   Winter is planning time here in the Horticulture Department at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens…planning to make our dreams and your expectations come true.  We all need to create a vision for what we see as the perfect garden.the one that will inspire and energize those who see it to want to do something similar.  My vision, my dream for our visitors and especially for those who have homes or properties nearby is that they are inspired to plant more flowers and vegetables. 

Where did this idea come from, you may ask?   I am happy to say that my wife is British, which gives me the opportunity to visit England on a fairly regular basis.  Yes, I have seen some of the gardens you may have heard about like Kew Gardens, Wisley, and Hampton Court; these are not totally the source of my vision for our neighbors in the Boothbay area and beyond.  What really got my attention was that it seemed that people in England valued gardening in general and went “all out” to beautify their properties with flowers and/ or, make the most of their property to grow vegetables. 

Lunch at the Berkley Garden Center

The garden center my wife’s parents often visited has its own 125 seat restaurant that attracts diners there with a full menu for lunches and dinners. As you can well imagine most, if not all, diners make purchases of vegetable and flower plants on their way through the sales area.  This may well explain why many English gardens seem to have a “one of these and one of those” design.  It is difficult to resist buying a beautiful new plant you have seen!  This is a photo of my wife’s aunt’s house in Derbyshire just to give you an idea of what I mean.

This sort of garden is a result of many years of planning, planting and tending as most gardens are.   The garden dream you make come true will be unique but no less a fulfilling accomplishment.  One doesn’t have to immediately take on a project of the proportions in the photo but it is prudent to do some planning this winter surrounded by the catalogues that are piling up on your desk.  I suggest starting out with a small bed of annual flowers, bulbs or hanging baskets and expanding your creation from there.   I really hope that you will take up the challenge and promise me and yourself to do a little “beautification” this year.  Spring will be here before you know it.

~ Dick Zieg (February 18, 2014)

Snow Is A Good Thing

January 22nd, 2014
Bibby and Harold Alfond Children's Garden under a blanket of snow.

Bibby and Harold Alfond Children’s Garden under a blanket of snow.

Are we having fun yet? This season is shaping up to be a “good old-fashioned Maine winter.” We’ve been spoiled the past several years with relatively mild conditions. I was born and raised in Aroostook County; so I’ve felt like the stereotypical old-timer with my “back when I was a boy” stories about “real Maine winters”. (You know the ones: 25 below zero, three feet of snow, and walked four miles to school-uphill–both ways.)

Here at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens our weather extremes are usually moderated by our maritime location. This enables us to grow more species of plants than our neighbors just a few miles inland. We are classified as Hardiness Zone 6a, a rarity in the state of Maine. Unfortunately, Mother Nature doesn’t read maps all that well. This is when snow becomes a good thing.

Several inches of snow provides a good thermal “blanket” for the roots and crowns of our plants. The air temperature can drop well below zero, but with adequate snow cover, soil temperatures in the plants’ root zones will remain just below freezing. While most of our plants are capable of surviving bitter cold without snow cover, some will not and some will sustain damage that will make them more susceptible to insect and disease problems the following spring.

Snow cover also prevents problems later in the winter. As the sun gradually gets higher, snow reflects the light and warmth away from the plants. Bare ground, on the other hand, absorbs the heat and thaws the ground around the plants. This becomes a problem when night time temperatures are still dropping into the teens and twenties. Damage to the plant crowns, the near-surface roots and possible mortality can occur if this freeze-thaw cycle goes on for an extended period of time.

The plowing, shoveling, and cleaning up after snow storms gets old as the season progresses. Just remember, the next time the weather forecast calls for a foot of snow, at least your gardens will be happy.

- Will Bridges, Horticulturist (January 7, 2014)

Year’s End (with a tip of the trowel to Irving Berlin)

December 30th, 2013

Diane WaldenPlease channel your best Ethel Merman and help me sing out the old year….

There’s no business like grow business,
Like no business I know.
Everything about it is appealing,
Everything the good earth will allow.
Nowhere could you have that happy feeling
When you’re not wielding that muddy trowel.

There’s no business like grow business ,
Like no business I know,
Chug-chugging in your Kabota down the road
You press on, working out in the cold.
Still you wouldn’t change it for a sack of gold,
Let’s go on with the grow

There’s no people like grow people,
Smelly dirt, it thrills them so.
Five hard weeks a-mulching your seasonal fare,
Those nights you ache so, but there you are.
Springs comes, the gardens boom, they’re sprung with flower
Let’s get on with the grow,
Let’s get on with the grow!

A Happiest and Most Bountiful New Year to you all. See you in 2014.

Diane Walden-Rapalyea (December 30, 2013)
Staff Horticulturalist, Milliner, and Aspiring Diva

Savoring the Moments

December 5th, 2013
meditation garden for Patty's post-300w
 A snowy Vayo Meditation Garden
(photo by Patty Robbins)

It is here, with frost glistening on the autumn grasses, that I still find peace in the early mornings at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens.  The air is chilled and the squirrels have just begun to stir.  I stand in the Meditation Garden, looking down over the stones, cold and bare, reflecting on the season that has come to an end.

I remember the days filled with visitors, people full of wonder and questions.  I recall how far I’ve come since the early days, when I feared the questions, knowing I may not have the right answers to give.  But, as the years have passed, I no longer have that fear.  I have come to a point of knowing more than I give myself credit for and the ability to direct people to an answer, if I have none.

I think about the hours of hard work we’ve all put in during the past months; trying our best to make each and every part of the gardens the best that they can be. I recall the pride that we shared, as visitors young and old expressed wonder at the beauty before them.

The property that surrounds me on this cold December morning is a gift from God.  Each piece of ledge that juts out from the moss covered earth, every rolling hill and timber that reaches to the sky, has been placed here for us to work with.

It is like the perfect canvas before the artist starts his work.  Each stroke of the brush, each burst of color only adds to the magic before us.  We swoop through the gardens, with rakes instead of brushes, and plants instead of paint. 

We do this as much for ourselves as we do for those who will come to marvel at the beauty.  There is something that is born in us, a need to put our fingers in the soil, a need to plant, sow seed and nurture every seedling that springs from the ground and the desire to make these gardens as good as they can be.

We work the season alone or as a team.  Each day brings forth a new challenge, a new desire to fulfill.  We pull each other’s weeds, deadhead each other’s flowers, rake each other’s leaves; or we spend countless hours in our own small world in the boundaries of our gardens.

We watched as spring brought forth a burst of bulbs, a welcome sight after the past winter.  We raked and mulched and finally pulled those same bulbs and rushed to get in annuals before the visitors even knew what happened.  We watered in the dry spells and weeded in the wet.  And before we even knew what had happened, autumn was upon us. 

We removed the plants that had gone by and, with great reluctance, pulled the ones that still screamed to be admired, as their colors hung on with urgency.  It was that time again; the season had ended in a flash and autumn dropped in overnight.  There were bulbs that needed planting before the ground froze, so with knees upon the ground, we went to work.

But, here and now, when the visitors are a sacred few, when our days are numbered before the garden is buried in snow, I savor the moments.  And though I can’t stop and smell the roses, I can stop, take a deep breath and admire the canvas that lies before me.

Patty Robbins, Horticulturist (December 5, 2013)




Light at the End of the Tunnel

November 27th, 2013


whale rock in snow -WCullina

Whale Rock (Bill Cullina photo)

We had our first taste of winter at the Gardens yesterday. The forecast of a few snow flurries in the early morning turned into over an inch of the cold white stuff. Mother Nature gave us a little preview of things to come and a reminder that she is still in charge of the ultimate gardening schedule.

This pushes us into a final frenzy of fall clean up before “the big one” arrives. The last bits of raking and cutting back take on a little more urgency. The pots that need to be put away, the hoses that should be recoiled and covered, and a host of other small projects suddenly rise to the top of the to-do list. I begin to realize why all the squirrels seemed to be so frenetic the last few days. Arctic cold fronts have replaced the warm golden days of autumn.

All this activity is really more in preparation for spring than girding for winter. Getting everything neat and tidy now enables us to hit the deck running when the weather eventually warms again. The outline of projects and changes for the Gardens is beginning to take shape and next year promises to be a busy one. Everything we get done now makes work easier in the spring.

On a similar note, most calendars (and people) view December 21 as the first day of winter. I, being a bit of a contrarian, consider it to be the first day of spring. The days start getting longer and the sun’s angle on the horizon starts to rise. This, in my view, is the starting point to the gardening season. Happy holidays and remember—-spring is right around the corner.

- Will Bridges, Horticulturist (November 27, 2013)


November 13th, 2013
Rodney post 1_1
Rodney Eason at TEDxDirigo
Rodney post 1_2
Rodney post 1
(Treehouse Institute photos)

Let me catch y’all up on what we’ve been doing since mid-October. We gave away or composted all of the pumpkins we had on display. Just by doing a visual estimate, we’re guessing that more than half the pumpkins we had on display went to new homes for Halloween. If you came out and took a pumpkin, or two, or three, Thank You! If you enjoyed the pumpkins and gourds and would like to see us do more next year, please let us know, as we have even more ideas in the works.

With the mild fall, we felt guilty ripping out all the lovely annuals. By late October, we had a couple of mild frosts, but some of our annuals still looked rather good. Nonetheless, we went ahead and composted all the annuals because we had to get our nearly 23,000 spring-flowering bulbs in the ground. Our team worked diligently to get them all planted in nearly two and a half days. Hats off to the team plus our wonderful horticulture volunteers who came in to give us a boost!

Now, as the days are shrinking and the temperatures are getting colder, we are starting to put the garden to bed for its winter respite while at the same time dreaming of new ideas for 2014. In the search of new inspiration, I signed up for the TEDxDirigo conference, which was on Sunday, November 3, at the historic Cabot Mill in Brunswick, Maine. In case you’re not familiar with TED, it is a conference series started years ago in California. The genesis of the early talks sought to bring together the best and the brightest to share ideas to make our world a better place. As these talks became more and more popular, the idea spread and there are now TED-sanctioned talks all around the world. TEDxDirigo is Maine’s contribution to the movement.

What a wonderful day! The room was packed with nearly 300 Mainers searching for new ideas and ways to improve our state. I ended up sitting next to a friend who is helping lead the Truth and Reconciliation hearings for Maine’s Native American tribes. I also sat next to the executive director of Maine’s office of The Nature Conservancy. The room was packed with folks ready to keep changing for the better this state we love.

Being a newcomer to Maine, I love our motto: “Dirigo,” which is Latin for “I lead.” I grew up in North Carolina where our motto was “Esse quam videri.” That means, “to be rather than to seem.” North Carolina has a pretty cool motto but it just doesn’t have the action of “I lead.” After going through the day with so many new ideas, shared by Mainers both young and old, I now see the motto as “I LEAD!” 

If you look at the population statistics of Maine, we seem like a small state with a projected static population. I see it differently. We have around 1.3 million residents in our state. I see us a big city spread out over a large area that happens to be a state. The reason I see it this way is because of the collaborative nature of folks I met in the room and the small-town, roll-up-your-sleeves feel of wherever you go in Maine. You get the feeling that we’re all in this together.

As we begin our 20-year master plan for Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, I am as pumped up about the prospects for our gardens as I am for our state after leaving TEDxDirigo. The key, I think, is to continually push the envelope on what can be done. There was one scientist who is researching genes that make our hearts heal themselves. There was an heirloom apple grower who is working to resurrect old apple varieties and the craft hard cider industry. A recent college graduate is spearheading a permanent home for the Brunswick Farmer’s Market in an abandoned barn. A high school student of African heritage gave a powerful talk on what it felt like to be an American but treated as a foreigner in your own class and what he and his friends are doing to change that.

Bringing it back to 2014 at CMBG, we have a lot of cool ideas that we cannot wait to flesh out and bring to the gardens. We’ll be spending the next couple of months refining these ideas so that, hopefully, when you return next spring, you’ll smile and continue to be proud of these gardens that you have helped build here in Maine.

 - Rodney Eason, Director of Horticulture (November 13, 2013)

Crowd Control at the Gardens

October 16th, 2013
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1 Photo #2
1 Photo #3 (2)
1 Photo #4
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Photos by Dick Zieg

This has been a banner year at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in many ways. With the number of guests approaching 96,000 for the year so far, there have been days where staff has had to help visitors find available parking places … not a bad problem to have! An exceptionally rainy and long spring has made our plants very happy to provide an incredible flower and fruit display. Therein lies the catalyst for a population explosion of another sort that the Horticulture Department has also had to deal with this summer and fall. The red squirrels are multiplying like rabbits and so are the rabbits!

Early in the summer, the rabbits (really snowshoe hares) found that grazing on lilies, hollyhocks, and newly planted annuals provided quite a varied and yummy menu and much frustration for us as we tried our best to keep our gardens in top shape for our guests. In the last couple of weeks my nemesis in the Cleaver Event Lawn Garden has been the red squirrels doing their best to ruin the Benthamidia japonica (Japanese dogwood) trees. For several mornings in a row I have found two or three branches dangling from the tree that had given way to the combined weight of the fruit and squirrels, leaving long scars on the tree where the branch was ripped off (see photo #1).

Having experienced this sort of damage caused in past years by raccoons looking for a meal, I had propped up the branches of the Benthamidia japonica ‘Big Apple’ as one would on an apple tree, hoping to prevent a reccurrence. (photo #2). So far, this tactic has worked on ‘Big Apple’ because it has a more horizontal branching structure. However, Benthamidia japonica ‘Autumn Rose’ and my favorite B. japonica ‘Moonbeam’ haven’t fared as well. Tying branches together with twine was my only option with the more upright form of these trees (photo #3).

Preventive measures having failed meant I had to go on the offensive and set some traps (photo #4) to catch the offending culprits (photo #5). In the last two days I have caught and “relocated” seven red squirrels. The squirrels seem to be fond of the peanut butter-coated fruit from the tree that I used as bait to lure them into the traps.

Crowds of guests we love and appreciate, but hungry herds of hares and squirrels? … not so much!

- Dick Zieg, Horticulturist (October 16, 2013)

Secrets Revealed!

October 12th, 2013
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“Maggie’s Couch”
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“Boat Bench”
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This blog won’t reveal secrets of state, weight loss, or celebrity scandal.   Hopefully, it will reveal quite the opposite, giving you a respite from the ceaseless noise of the outside world. 

Bear with me for a moment while I explain where this is coming from.  In August,  our staff and board members met with the newly selected design firm of Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, continuing the process of getting to know each other and feeling our way forward to a new master plan for the Gardens.  When asked by the design team what people enjoy most about our gardens and other gardens visited, a quite captive audience suggested favorite garden styles and features, but also mixed in were several  voices echoing the sentiment of discovering, sometimes quite by accident, a place for quiet reflection.  A space they felt they had all to themselves, or maybe to share with a friend or family member.  For some of us, it may even be more desirable to come upon a place unexpectedly and be rewarded with a bit of peace.  A serendipitous breather, or moment to yourself, so to speak.

Now, I love this idea of tranquility.  I feel this often when I work in the Fern Garden, with the lady’s slippers, or grow new plants in the greenhouse.  As an employee of the Gardens, I know that I am one of the lucky ones; not everyone works in the woods of coastal Maine, abundantly diverse in plants and wildlife.  But they do have the opportunity to visit us here.  And we are more than willing to share. 

From the meeting, I came away with a vivid idea of what I needed to do next.  With potentially 248 acres at the Gardens accessible, there will be a lot of room for people to spread out.  While we wait for the design team to reveal the new master plan, why not work with what we already have available.  Another staff member, Patty, and I made it a goal to seek out and revitalize some of the long-forgotten or neglected areas of the property that were better known to earlier visitors and volunteers.  Hopefully, people would stumble upon them and take that moment for themselves.

Some of the lesser known areas, especially those along the Shoreland Trail, have taken a back seat for some time to the rapidly expanding Main Campus area and Education Center.  There are many opportunities along this path for revitalization, with basic cleanups, mossification, and simple plantings.  Mossification is our term for transferring mosses, native ferns, and other groundcovers to add beauty, softness, and the feel of age to a new or existing structure or setting.   Quite often, we simply encourage a process that has already begun naturally. 

You may have already discovered the following places on your own, but hopefully I can entice you to find your way again and stay awhile…

One restored place of reflection is known, unofficially, as “Maggie’s Couch” (or “Maggie’s Bench), a large, stone sofa-esque seating area with a sunset view over the Sheepscot’s Back River.  Maggie Rogers, one of the Gardens’ founders and an active member from the beginning, selected this place to honor the memory of her family.  Passionate about gardens, filled with exuberance and an endearing wit, Maggie once voiced her opinion at an annual meeting  that the Horticulture Department should be uniformed in lavender jumpsuits so they would stand out to the visitors as they did at a Caribbean botanical garden she recently visited.  You can imagine the reaction to this scheme from the Horticulture crew, made up of Dick, Bruce, and myself, at the time.  Affectionately, I remember Maggie as our “Lavender Princess.”  Humor aside, I think she would be pleased to see people sharing this peaceful space again. 

Another recently rediscovered setting, hidden in plain sight, due to its location next to the “Pinecone” sculpture, is the “Boat Bench.”  Three large, uniquely placed stones invite passersby to rest between the bow and the stern.  When the bench was originally installed, our crew thoughtfully planted mosses and lichens so the contrast in colors and textures would represent the frothy spray and waves dancing around a boat as it made its journey down the river to the open sea.  Well, yes, there may have been some imagination required by the observer.  As the original plantings did not hold up over time, Patty and I made the “Boat Bench” the next recipient of our revival gardening efforts, adding mosses, ferns, and a few selected plants.  Even before we completed our project, small groups of people were drawn in to sit or recline along the length of the bench.  Giggling, they lifted their feet as we tucked in mosses and bunchberry, a familiar action evoking images of my brother and me as children, lined up with our feet in the air while my grandmother ran the vacuum along the front of the sofa before receiving visitors.

Many of you may be familiar with Steve Tobin’s sculpture, “Pinecone,” appreciated for its industrial beauty and inspiration as a man-made creation depicting nature from recycled/ repurposed metal materials.  From a different perspective, it can be considered the “real thing,” a cool drink of water, and not a mirage, after crossing the desert, as for many tired guests “Pinecone” is the symbol on their map that means the end of their walk and a shuttle ride is within reach.  What you may not know about this sculpture is that it can also be music to your ears.  During Tobin’s full sculpture exhibition at the Gardens, I was working early in the morning in the Fern Garden, feeling very closed off from the rest of the world by a thick blanket of fog.  Slowly, the musical chimes of stone and metal on metal made by a family gathered at another Tobin piece, “Sunflower,” drifted down from the Birch Allée and out over the water.  The effect the sounds had on me at the time was magical.  On your next visit, try experimenting with different objects (sticks, stones, keys, rings, etc.) and create magical harmonies of your own that will resonate throughout the Shoreland. 

These are only the first of the not-so-secret places for you to discover or re-discover.  There will be more to come.  Remember, in the din and chaos of everyday life or an overscheduled vacation, you are always welcome to visit us here and take a breather.

- Sharmon Provan, Plant Records Coordinator & Plant Propagator (10/12/2013)



Fall Is Upon Us

September 30th, 2013
(photo by Bill Cullina)
 (photo by Rodney Eason)

As Rodney noted in last week’s blog post, the air has changed, the light has diminished, and summer has faded. Here at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens the plants are beginning their slow march to winter dormancy. But before reaching their destination, they give us one more flush of color and interest. The leaves on the trees and shrubs reveal the pigments hidden by summer’s chlorophyll. The flowers shed their bright petals to show off interesting seed heads. And the grasses, in their autumn splendor, dance gracefully in the breeze. (How’s that for waxing poetic?) Fall is a wonderful time for anyone who loves plants and the outdoors to be at the Gardens.

Those of us on the horticulture staff get to enjoy this time of year as we go about our duties of cutting back, cleaning up, and making ready for next spring. And yes, we are already thinking about next year. This is the time of year when we can evaluate our plantings and think about changes, big and small, to improve the gardens for next year. The real fun will come in a couple months when all the 2014 nursery catalogs arrive and we get to peruse new and exciting plants.

On another note, all the guests that I have spoken with are quite taken with the pumpkin displays. Kids of all ages are taking advantage of photo opportunities with the displays that are scattered around the main campus. This is a far larger fall display than we have done in the past, and we are very interested in our guests’ feedback.

Here’s the bottom line, folks. The gardens are gorgeous. The fall displays are awesome. The weather is perfect. With that combination, you cannot go wrong. You should come visit with us this fall.

 - Will Bridges, Horticulturist (September 30, 2013)