Gardens

A Blooming Meadow Flourishes — in Portland?

Step inside Robin and Rob Whitten’s sprawling Munjoy Hill garden.

Robin and Rob Whitten's Munjoy Hill garden

A Blooming Meadow Flourishes — in Portland?

Step inside Robin and Rob Whitten’s sprawling Munjoy Hill garden.

Robin and Rob Whitten's Munjoy Hill garden
TEXT BY AURELIA C. SCOTT
PHOTOGRAPHED BY GRETA RYBUS

Tilting toward Casco Bay on Portland’s Munjoy Hill, an urban meadow blooms throughout the season. In spring and early summer, bluebells, purple crocus, wind anemone, and checkered fritillaria add color to tufts of fine-leafed fescue, and pale blossoms dapple pear and crabapple trees that are just beginning to leaf out. Come late summer and fall, the trees are laden with reddening fruit, and pots of blue agapanthus flank stone terraces beneath a tumble of lavender and creeping phlox.

This haven is the creation of Robin and Rob Whitten, who, since 1976, have lived on the uphill side of what was a working Maine yard, complete with a boat and lobster traps in various stages of repair. When the property came up for sale in 2012, they rescued it from a probable future as a parking lot, removed the fence between the lots, and built a place of beauty for themselves and passersby.

Robin Whitten's voluminous garden notebook

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To navigate the slope’s 20-foot grade, Rob Whitten, the founder of Portland’s Whitten Architects, designed a Maine version of Tuscany’s La Foce garden terraces and hired Tony Aceto, of Maineway Landscaping, to install local fieldstone and steps of slab granite and half millstones. In addition to designing the garden structure, Rob turns the compost and does the heavy lifting. Robin, the founder and editor of AudioFile magazine, plans the color scheme, selects plants, and maintains a voluminous notebook detailing years of successes and such failures (“Woodchuck destruction! Crocus ripped to shreds.”). Both of them plant and weed, often while walking through the garden together each morning.

ABOVE: Robin and Rob Whitten expanded their gardens when they bought the lot next door from a lobsterman who had used it to store his boats, traps, and other gear on a patch of asphalt. Today, it’s a small meadow planted with fine-leafed fescue, checkered fritillaria, wind anemone, and other flowers.

Birch, crabapple, hosta, and countless daffodils thrive in the dappled sun and shade north of the Whittens’ circa-1847 house. There, in a small greenhouse, Robin forces pots of narcissus and grape hyacinth, and starts a rainbow of nasturtiums, pansies, and sweet peas. Peonies, daylilies, and roses color the garden’s south side beneath what Robin calls “the mother of all cherry trees” (it’s 50 feet tall). Each spring, tulips blush throughout the garden in pots and garden beds, a reminder of the Pink Tulip Project that Robin founded and coordinated for several years after her 2005 breast cancer diagnosis. “Spring is our favorite season because we have to wait for it,” Robin says.  “And despite the woodchucks, I’ve had good luck with bulbs.” Come autumn, Rob scythes the meadow, and they spend several weekends adding bulbs in anticipation of spring glory. How many bulbs? “Oh, do I have to tell?” Robin says, laughing. “If I say 500 of each of six varieties, that doesn’t sound crazy, does it?”

Not too crazy, although it does explain why Rob refers to the expanded property as “our green gym.” And why Robin says that they now have “all the garden we need or want.”

“We do love it though,” she sighs. “And I like to think that it makes people happy to turn the corner and discover it.” 

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