Visitors could easily think that the flourishing flower beds, ornamental trees and manicured landscapes of Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens had bloomed above the tidal Back River in Boothbay for at least half a century. But the garden opened in 2007, on land that was purchased only 11 years earlier. This visual and horticultural masterpiece, now one of Maine’s top tourist attractions, covers 295 acres (more than double its original size) with 3,600 feet of tidal shore frontage.
The heart of the gardens is in the area that fans out from the Visitor Center across the undulating lawns, flower beds, water features and themed gardens. At the far side the terrain drops sharply through woodlands to the tree-fringed shore. A landing there allows visitors to arrive by boat or kayak.
Wide paths follow the shore to a gazebo, then curve back into low woodlands, leading eventually to the Giles Rhododendron Garden, deep in a bosky dell. Another, the Maine Woods Trail, winds through the mixed forest, which is a haven for lady slippers, trillium and other spring wildflowers.
The gardens open in mid-April with 50,000 spring bulbs that continue to bloom through May, beginning with early crocus and moving to daffodils, blue and white hyacinths, and tulips in every shade and shape.
In the woods are lady slippers, the first azaleas and trillium. Rhododendrons and white bursts of Japanese Snowball Viburnum enliven the woods in June, as the beds and borders become a kaleidoscope of roses, poppies, delphinium, peonies, iris, lupine, foxglove, lilies and alliums. In July the waterlilies dot the ponds and Japanese iris adds splashes of intense purple along the shores. The color continues through August and September, as the dahlias and other mid-summer flowers continue to bloom.
In September and October, the gardens are decorated with thousands of pumpkins. Rows of them line the walkways, some pumpkins are painted gold, others wear fancy hats, more just provide spots of bright color among the fall plantings. There is cider pressing in the children’s garden on weekends. The summer’s last roses bloom into October.
Gardens Aglow is the annual holiday spectacular in December, when trees, buildings and garden features are covered or outlined in colored lights. Gates, fences, arbors, sculptures and walkways are all lit in different shades of blue, green, yellow, red and white lights that reflect on a (usually) snow-covered landscape. The event is so popular that they issue timed tickets and run shuttles from Boothbay Harbor to prevent traffic jams on the country road leading to the gardens.
A Collection of Gardens
Eleven different gardens make up the complex, eight of them closely connected near the Visitor Center. The great lawn is at the heart, a green swath bordered in flowers and highlighted by George Sherwood’s Wind Orchid sculpture, one of nearly two dozen permanent works of art in the gardens. To the left is the large Lerner Garden of the Five Senses, a series of gardens designed for visitors of all abilities. A bronze braille map is at entrance and beds raised for access from wheel chairs are planted with species that are fragrant or especially tactile, like lambs’ ears. The art here is Windsound, a sound sculpture by Val Bertoia.
Paths circle the Slater Forest Pond and lead through the Woodland Garden to the broad Arbor Garden, a shaded curving arcade with benches overlooking the lawn and gardens below. The Burpee Kitchen Garden interplants vegetables, fruits, herbs and ornamentals in attractive beds that lead to the largest of all, the Children’s Garden. Spouting whale fountains at the entrance set the tone, and the winding paths reveal one surprise after another.
This garden is just as delightful for adults as to the kids it’s intended for, with quirky and curious-looking plants, a garden house with a turf roof, an elaborate tree house and a tunnel of leaves and flowers to walk through. One garden is devoted to plants with leaves of unusual size and an island in a flower-encircled pond is home to Sal’s Bear – a sculpture of the bear from the Maine children’s classic Blueberries for Sal.
Paths snake down a steep slope through the Hillside Garden to the Vayo Meditation Garden and the Shoreline Trail. Walking along this wooded pathway beside the water, sharp-eyed visitors will notice tiny fairy houses blending into the forest floor and hidden among the tree roots. These houses are built by children during August’s Fairy Fridays, using only natural materials they find in the woods. Fanciful little cottages are constructed of twigs, stones, bark, leaves, seed pods and cones.Fairy Fridays are only one of the many special events, programs, seminars, professional classes, and exhibits scheduled here throughout the year. These expand the gardening theme to include programs on growing and using herbs for tea, plein air painting, mushroom foraging, and art exhibitions that explore the relationship between nature and the arts.
WHEN YOU GO:
Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens are the largest, but not the only gardens worth visiting along the Maine Coast. We stayed in nearby Freeport, at Brewster House B&B, one of a group of Maine B&Bs called Inns Along the Coast. The resident owner/innkeepers are experts on their local areas, and they helped us plan a garden itinerary, visiting other gardens all the way north to Bar Harbor. Hawthorn Inn in Camden arranged for us to tour Schelppinghurst, Ken Cleaves’ remarkable Japanese inspired garden, and Limerock Inn in Rockland directed us to Deb Soule’s Avena Botanicals, an herb and healing garden in Rockport. Each of the innkeepers also shared favorite local clam shacks, lobster pounds and places to find the mid-coast specialty, Damariscotta oysters.
Barbara Radcliffe Rogers is the Luxury Travel Editor for BellaOnline.