A GARDENING LIFE: Dr. Charles Richards


photograph by LYNN KARLIN

THE STORY OF Dr. Charles D. Richards’s garden is a hopeful tale beginning some 85 years ago in Cumberland, Maryland. His father was a lawyer, and very much an “indoor person,” as Richards recalls. But his mother adored her flower gardens, and Richards acquired a love of gardening both at home and at his grandfather’s truck farm, where he was given his own vegetable garden to tend. This experience he now credits with awakening an interest in horticulture, albeit one that would lie somewhat dormant for decades to come.

The vicissitudes common to his generation (military service in World War II, marriage and the raising of five children) and a distinguished 30-year career as Maine’s preeminent field botanist and plant taxonomist left little time for gardening. His doctoral work at the University of Michigan focused on the distribution of native plants as indicators of that state’s postglacial ecology. A soft-spoken teacher with a deep knowledge of the natural world, he taught generations of University of Maine students both the science of plant classification and the gentle art of “botanizing.” And for 16 years he served as president of the Josselyn Botanical Society, Maine’s venerable amateur organization, and led the group’s annual forays to take unofficial census of the vegetation in each county.

And so, the inner gardener slept. Indeed it was not until some five years after retiring from teaching that Richards and his wife of 62 years, Kay, paid a visit to some of the great gardens of England, a trip that would rekindle his gardening spirit. He came back saying, “Now that’s what I really want to do during my retirement.”

He had only a small lot with which to work at his Orono residence, but had purchased, in 1965, a secluded cottage on nearly three acres of land on Great Wass Island, overlooking the Gulf of Maine. The land, however, could scarcely have been more challenging to his hopes for creating a garden, consisting as it did of a massive granite outcropping, deeply fissured and covered with a thin layer of peat, in which a carpet of sheep laurel and other scrub vegetation tenaciously grew. Aside from the nurturing fog and mild coastal temperatures, the only mitigating features in the otherwise barren garden site were an assortment of native trees that Richards had earlier transplanted into spots that held enough peat for the roots to run.

Starting close to the cottage and without much of a plan, Richards developed a method for taming the site. Yard by yard he stripped back the tough carpet of native plants to expose the heavily sculpted granite, being careful to save as much of the peat as possible for soil amendment. Then, wheelbarrow by wheelbarrow, he filled in the hollows with loam and compost to create pockets of moisture-retentive, fertile tilth. These early efforts were rewarded with just enough success that the subsequent years found Richards expanding the boundaries of the garden and further improving his methods of soil building.

The layout of the garden is largely dictated by topography, with massive tilting tables of exposed granite punctuating the verdant splendor. Paths consist of flat granite stones hauled in by boat from outlying islands, a Herculean feat, given their numbers. Richards insists he is not a high-energy person, just a slow and steady worker with a strong vision. The visitor can only marvel at how much he has accomplished, creating a garden with a deep and timeless quality that belies its relative youth.

“I’ve really enjoyed just seeing what will grow here,” Richards says today, as he surveys an acre or more of lush perennial beds and mature rhododendrons, adding “my goal has been to try and integrate the native vegetation with the more exotic species.” Asked if he feels any pressure from the botanical community to be environmentally correct, as it were, Richards concedes that he does. He understands the desire to protect and preserve native plants but cannot accept the need to grow them to the exclusion of all others. “I’d have to give up most of my garden!” he says, with tempered exasperation.

Richards’s gardens have been featured in three magazine articles, prompting many visitors to make the long trek to his remote island retreat. He is always gracious about showing people his creation, though he confesses that it’s best to know in advance when to expect a visitor. He shies from the inevitable questions about how he creates such magic in the garden; his methods involve lifting one bed a year to replenish the soil with compost. He has been a tireless experimenter with a wide variety of plants, not all of which have succeeded. Clematis, for example, seems to be doomed to decapitation wherever he plants it.

With each passing year comes a little more limitation in what he can accomplish physically. “When the time comes, I’m ready to let the gardens go back to nature,” Richards muses. “But I would much rather have done this than play on a golf course!” H

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