Gardens

Scores of Colorful Glass Orbs Lend Continuity to This Harpswell Garden

And bring joy to owner Betsy Atkins, who says walking her property each morning is “the happiest part of my day.”

Handblown glass orbs by Wisconsin artist Douglas Sigwarth pop up by the dozens throughout Betsy Atkins’s Bailey Island gardens.

ABOVE Handblown glass orbs by Wisconsin artist Douglas Sigwarth pop up by the dozens throughout Betsy Atkins’s Bailey Island gardens. ”They’re happy, whimsical, and silly,” she says.

TEXT BY VIRGINIA M. WRIGHT
PHOTOGRAPHED BY DAVE DOSTIE

From our Summer 2021 issue

As a business executive, Betsy Atkins travels the world, but her Bailey Island garden is never far from her thoughts. Outside a restaurant in Italy, she took measurements of an antique wooden wheelbarrow and asked her carpenter to build a replica when she got home. In New Zealand’s botanical gardens, she admired the liberal use of obelisks; today, her own flowerbeds are peppered with white spires. In Japan, she walked upon a sweet red footbridge; now, its twin spans her garden stream.

With views of the one-of-a-kind Cribstone Bridge to the north and Ram and Pond islands to the east, Atkins’s 2 1⁄2-acre property on Casco Bay was spectacular when she bought it 16 years ago, but it contained just two buildings — a log cabin and a garage that she had razed — and no garden. She went on to create a small compound, with a main dwelling and two guesthouses, that allows her to summer in Maine while leading Baja Corporation, her Miami-based venture-capital investment firm.

The sprawling garden is a collaboration between Atkins and her “thought partner” and head gardener, Cathryn Comptois. Despite different tastes — Atkins likes hot, bright colors; Comptois prefers a subtle palette — they have an easy relationship. “Sometimes I poke fun,” Comptois says. “When Betsy explains what she wants, I say, ‘Okay, so obnoxious is what you’re looking for?’” Their negotiations take place during morning walks Atkins calls “the happiest part of my day.” For an hour or more, “I’m not doing much except thinking about the garden — being in it, smelling it. I’m constantly designing it.”

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Wisteria spills from a trellis fronted with dahlias at the entry to one of the guesthouses
the gardens are a collaboration between Atkins, left, and her head gardener, Cathryn Comptois
Atkins collects fragrant asiatic lilies andis especially fond of salmon-colored varieties

ABOVE Wisteria spills from a trellis fronted with dahlias at the entry to one of the guesthouses; the gardens are a collaboration between Atkins, left, and her head gardener, Cathryn Comptois; Atkins collects fragrant asiatic lilies and is especially fond of salmon-colored varieties. 

The many perennial beds vary in size, palette, and setting, but relate to each other through common components, such as the obelisks, which were built by Jefferson’s Tom Greenleaf, who also constructed the wheelbarrow, red bridge, and all three houses. Likewise, scores of multi-colored glass orbs, handblown by Wisconsin artist Douglas Sigwarth, rise above the blossoms, as if giant Tootsie pops have come to life and spread their roots throughout the grounds. Some plants, like Asiatic lilies and phlox, appear again and again, but in different colors to complement their companions. Brilliant Nikko Blue hydrangeas line paths, guiding ramblers from one area to another.

Three memory gardens contain plaques bearing the names of deceased loved ones. One is dedicated to Atkins’s family, another to her partner Bob Drew’s. Employees and friends are invited to place plaques in the third, which is shaded by a gnarled apple tree and edged with tumbling mounds of chartreuse Hakone grass.

A fiery-orange tiger lily, its petals peppered with black speckles
a replica of a bridge that Atkins saw in a Japanese garden arches over a stream toward Casco Bay
a handblown glass curlicue sculpture by Sigwarth
one of three memory gardens dedicated to deceased family members, friends, and pets

ABOVE A fiery-orange tiger lily, its petals peppered with black speckles; a replica of a bridge that Betsy Atkins saw in a Japanese garden arches over a stream toward Casco Bay; a handblown glass curlicue sculpture by Sigwarth; one of three memory gardens dedicated to deceased family members, friends, and pets.

In contrast to the flowerbeds, which follow the terrain’s curves, vegetables grow in long rectangular borders trimmed with granite Belgian blocks. A circular herb garden, ringed by a gravel path, is inspired by formal gardens Atkins toured in Europe. North of the vegetable beds, a small vineyard produces Pinot Noir grapes, which are turned into jams and jellies and jarred for gifts. Near the main house is an unusual sight: Bartlett pear trees with glass bottles dangling from their branches. Inside each bottle grows a single pear. When the fruit ripens and drops from the branch, the vessel, with a full-size pear inside, is filled with brandy to make Poire Williams, an after-dinner eau de vie.

Atkins didn’t grow up in a gardening family, but as a little girl she’d wander into her neighbor’s yard to pick tulips. “I’ve been in love with flowers since I can remember,” she says. “For some people, it’s boats, diamonds, or cars. For me, it’s gardens. I’ve wanted to do this my whole life.”

An old apple tree shades a memory garden at right.

ABOVE An old apple tree shades a memory garden at right. This is where Atkins’s staff and friends are invited to place plaques commemorating loved ones. The beds are edged with perennials that thrive in dappled light, such as pulmonaria, noted for its white-spotted green foliage, and shaggy golden mounds of Hakone grass.

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