Over the past decade, an enormous, extraordinary botanic garden was carved just off the Atlantic Ocean shoreline of Maine’s central coast. Dedicated, risk-taking locals (full-time residents) as well as summer people took on the project when a luxury housing development fell through and the beautiful location became available.
With 228 acres on a bluff above a back river a few hundred yards from the surf, and nearly a mile of waterfront, the Coastal Maine Botanical Garden invites hikers, plant lovers and families looking for an unusual outing. Horticulturists, gardeners and masons built and bordered about a dozen large gardens in a spectacular setting. There are also moody, sublime pockets, corners and pathways tucked about.
Maureen Heffernan has been CMBG’s terrific executive director since 2003 and has done a great job leading the crucial pre-opening years in concert with a supportive board.
Modernism in garden design originates in early 20th century architecture. “Less is more”, and “Form follows function” were the bywords. Recently, Julie Moir Messervy shared with me her brilliant notion: “Form follows feeling”. This should apply to garden and landscape design, if not landscape architecture as well. CMBG is a perfect example of Messervy’s new maxim. The board and staff created a botanical garden that serves the feelings and emotions of their visitors. Maine is a true “natural state”. Imagine Arizona covered with dense forests, or southern Alaska moved 5,000 miles across the continent. The sense of vast space is otherworldly in New England, and unique to Maine. Unlike in Texas or Nebraska, in Maine one wishes to explore everyday, everywhere. The woods are always inviting. Outdoor nature activities take up a great part of people’s leisure time. Hiking and walking trails and shore paths are everywhere. So, unlike a place like Morton Arboretum, CMBG functions not as an oasis, but as an elaboration, or a focus of scattered parts. On one site are included a prime section of coastal Maine back river, woodland paths at different levels, rustic allees lined with ornamental trees and a collection of outdoor sculpture. Think of it as a rustic, youthful Bloedel.
The “irony” refers to the contrasting lack of energy expressed by the media in response to the great news about the debut of this innovative botanical garden. The Grand Opening on June 15 wasn’t attended by a member of the national press. This is unbelievable, since the botanical garden community has kept its eyes on the project for years. More than ironic, it is even shameful—unless I’ve missed a news article somewhere—that there has been no major media.
Consider: there are several ambitious gardening magazines, NPR’s frequent garden radio articles, televised garden shows of every kind, and “shelter life style” shows. The distaff of the idle rich write a coffee table garden book every week. Celebrities announce their support of the “green” movement as a matter of course, and often repeatedly. There are professional organizations like “Garden Writers of America” with hundreds of members. Yet, not a mention anywhere about the first coastal botanical garden in over 50 years and the largest of any kind in New England. If a bona fide horticultural milestone isn’t newsworthy, what is? In any other industry, art or profession, the journalists would come running with their phones on. Perhaps CMBG needs a giant plant fossil, a boulder of amber, or dinosaur bone just in time for TV sweeps, radio ratings and the magazine awards. But why can’t they discover a beautiful, multifaceted, naturally situated oceanside botanic garden? What a pity for the public, who will have to trip over this treasure in the gorgeous state of Maine. Time for the non-profit professional horticultural societies to welcome a new baby to their family. Don’t leave it to the garden journalists. Most are being forced to reprint press releases, if they haven’t been induced to retire next year.
The CMBG is an awesome place with fabulous gardens, burgeoning plant collections, stunning vistas and astonishing stone walls and terraces. Its homegrown and community-based origin is also a unique story that has a righteous quality. Go to the website to learn more and, by all means, go visit.