Thuya Garden Makes the Most of Maine's Short and Sweet Summer

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Editor's note: Thuya Garden is a public garden in Northeast Harbor, Maine. To its check open hours and other important visitor information, visit its page maintained by Land & Garden Preserve.

To get to Thuya Garden you must first travel to the edge of the continent. Situated in Northeast Harbor, Maine, on the southern coast of Mount Desert Island and at the foot of Acadia National Park, this garden is a bit off the beaten path. Here the landscape is rugged and distinctly coastal, with notably brutal winters and short, delectable summers. The condensed growing timeline creates a delightful condition of overlapping blooms. Thuya Gardens are particularly rich and densely floriferous, especially in the month of August. 

THE JOURNEY

The most elegant approach to Thuya Garden is by way of the winding and rusticated Asticou Terrace Trail. (Note: This path requires navigation over steep and irregular terrain. For those who prefer a shorter or easier trip, there is an accessible parking lot and entry on Thuya Drive.) Like any good garden journey, this path evokes a sense of passage; a feeling of complete transition from one place to another. It creates tension and anticipation and allows for moments of pause and contemplation. It offers glimpses to controlled views, employs secret reveals and ultimately orchestrates a precise moment of crescendo.

Asticou Terrace Trail, designed in the 1880s by Joseph Henry Curtis, leads to Curtis's summer cottage and Thuya Gardens, designed by Charles K. Savage after the Curtis's death.

Asticou Terrace Trail, designed in the 1880s by Joseph Henry Curtis, leads to Curtis's summer cottage and Thuya Gardens, designed by Charles K. Savage after the Curtis's death.

The stony gateway to the Asticou Terrace Trail graces the eastern side of Peabody Drive, and it is marked by a simple and modest inscription in stone. It sits opposite a small, unremarkable parking lot, kitty-corner to the prestigious Asticou Inn. From there you can start the ascent up natural, granite slab steps through a steep grove of conifers (including the garden’s phonetical eponym Thuja occidentalis), blueberries, lichen and moss. 

Designed by Boston landscape designer and noted rusticator Joseph Henry Curtis back in the 1880s, the path has become so settled it almost seems naturally occurring. The granite steps, now aged and lichen covered, respond to the indigenous ledge material, and the plantings, now mature and naturalized, reflect the native flora of the coastal site. The two red-roofed gazebos appear nestled into the hillside, their vistas maintained toward the harbor below. A carved granite memorial to Curtis has been placed midway up the slope. Overlooking a large stone patio with its own southward view, the honor seems fitting for the man who held this important, original vision.

As the path continues past the cliffs and heads landward, it enters into an open forest of mixed conifers, laurels and moss. This is a softer part of the journey, more introspective, and containing nothing contrived. Soon the path reaches its apex at Thuya Lodge, a quaint little house that served as Curtis’s summer home. Built between 1912 and 1916, the picturesque retreat is officially antique, though well preserved and open for visitors. Like Thuya Garden and other nearby landscapes, it is maintained by  Mount Desert Island's Land and Garden Preserve

One doesn’t enter the garden by way of the Lodge, however. The visitor must pass between the Main Gates for the final transition into the waiting splendor. Designed by Curtis’s friend and trustee, Charles K. Savage, the gate’s unique cedar and mahogany panels are carved to illustrate a sampling of the native flora and fauna, from beehives to cattails. Their exquisite nature might seem outrageous if not for the magnitude of what lies beyond. Those who pass through these wooden gates will behold a spectacular summer display of annuals and perennials framed by elegant greens, peppered with ornate pots and reflecting pools and bordered by perimeter of intimate wooded paths. This is the crescendo. 

THE GARDENS

Thuya Garden's perennials and annuals are arranged in long, straight borders.

Thuya Garden's perennials and annuals are arranged in long, straight borders.

These gardens are a relatively recent addition to the property, however, appearing more than 30 years after Curtis’s death, and replacing what had been a simple orchard. Savage redesigned the landscape, in part, to accommodate overflow specimens from the recently disassembled gardens of Beatrix Ferrand’s Reef Point property (the bulk of which were actually used to construct the nearby Asticou Gardens.) Savage modeled the gardens in the English style of Gertrude Jekyll, creating four balanced, semi-formal borders along two perpendicular axes. From the comfortable vantage point of the upper pavilion, one can observe the garden’s full length as it stretches toward a distant reflecting pool. One lone apple tree from Curtis’s original collection still adorns the garden border, offering shade to the Astilbes around its base and vestige to those who still remember.

Lilies perfume the air into September.

Lilies perfume the air into September.

During my visit in mid-August (2019), the gardens were in full bloom and there was not a dead-head to be seen. This was thanks to a triad of gardeners, each of whom work forty hours per week. I met Alice, pink haired, staking up some delphiniums. She confirmed what I already suspected; that this was peak season. The aromatic lilies that perfumed the air would continue through September, she said, along with the aforementioned delphiniums, dahlias and the plentiful collection of annuals. By then the lovely and unusual pink daylilies would certainly be gone and by the second week in October, the garden would close its doors for the season. The visitors would naturally wane by that time anyway, since the Downeast winters are a bit less inviting. 

On this sunny day, the garden was swarming with tourists. Snapping photographs and inspecting flowers, their captivation couldn’t be contained. It was apparent that the gardeners had put a large effort into this display, providing the show the crowd so craved. Rarely have I seen a garden where so many plants were in a bloom at one time, a trick played in part by the large percentage of annuals: floss flower (Ageratum houstonianum), flowering tobacco (Nicotiana), spider flower (Cleome), green-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta ‘Irish Eyes’), Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia), edging lobelia (Lobelia erinus), Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), snapdragons (Antirrhinum), Brazilian vervain (Verbena bonariensis), as well as cosmos, marigolds, sunflowers, salvia, coleus and more. These were planted in large masses of like colors and species to avoid cacophony and overt chaos. 

Rudbeckia hirta 'Irish Eyes', or green-eyed Susan, shares space with daylilies, bulb lilies and six-foot-tall cutleaf coneflower.

Rudbeckia hirta 'Irish Eyes', or green-eyed Susan, shares space with daylilies, bulb lilies and six-foot-tall cutleaf coneflower.

Large perennial strongholds constructed the bones of the garden. Most notable were the towering delphiniums of differing blues, bulb lilies (Lilium longiflorum), purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), globe thistle (Echinops ritro), meadowsweet (Filipendula rubra), perennial sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides), Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum), astilbe and daylilies (Hemerocallis). Of course this only offers a snapshot in time. A month before was likely quite different.

A butterfly visits a zinnia in one of the borders. The gardeners also maintain a butterfly nursery full of caterpillar-feeding milkweeds.

A butterfly visits a zinnia in one of the borders. The gardeners also maintain a butterfly nursery full of caterpillar-feeding milkweeds.

Lastly, it should be noted that the garden makes a concerted effort to attract and sustain pollinators and beneficial insects. It even maintains a little butterfly nursery just beyond the colorful borders. Provided with ample supplies of milkweed, caterpillars feast there by the dozens. Once airborne, the world becomes their buffet. They dance about the beds along with the bees and other insects, all celebrating their good fortune at discovering one of the most beautiful Edens on Earth.

All images by Erica Bowman.