ABOVE Amy Pollien stands in front of a hoop house where she keeps art supplies so she can set up her easel in the garden. At her feet is a mound of composting garden waste and other organic materials — a future vegetable bed.
TEXT BY VIRGINIA M. WRIGHT
PHOTOGRAPHED BY HEIDI KIRN
In Amy Pollien’s garden, there are no well-defined borders, no straight and tidy rows. Angelica, dahlias, poppies, and milkweed overflow irregularly shaped beds. The green beans, zucchini, and kale flourish in scattershot arrangements. “It’s a cheerful mess,” says Pollien, as she leads me along a narrow path signposted by random mounds of decomposing branches, dead leaves, hay, and clippings.
It’s also an intentional mess: “It disguises the plants,” she explains. “The bugs that like broccoli want nothing more than to find 60-foot-long rows of broccoli. The things that want to gnaw on carrots want to find the carrots. If I hide them here and there, I get much less nibbling.”
Pollien and her husband, Robert, both artists, live in a 1,200-square-foot house that he built almost entirely without help in the Bar Harbor woods a quarter century ago. “We started small and took down trees in stages,” says Pollien, looking a little like a pioneer in her wide-brimmed hat and calf-length dress and apron. She grew up in central Connecticut, where her parents raised vegetables in naturally deep topsoil. “Here is an entirely different experience. We’ve been building the soil for 26 years with seaweed, hay, and, when we can get it, stable bedding and horse manure. It takes a long time.”
Most of the food the couple consumes comes out of their 1½ acres of vegetables and fruit trees. What isn’t eaten fresh is canned, dried, juiced, jellied, or condensed into tinctures and ointments. “Everything I grow has to be generous because I don’t have a lot of space,” Pollien says. “It doesn’t have to be valuable in terms of its output. It could just be beautiful.” Beauty has its purpose too: The flowering perennials and annuals attract bees, butterflies, and other pollinators. They also are Pollien’s muses — she’s a painter of still lifes.
Pollien is a fan of hügelkultur — raised beds created with layers of logs, branches, wood chips, garden waste, and other organic materials. Those pathside composting mounds we passed will eventually become vegetable plots. While hügelkultur is a widely used horticultural technique, planting in disarranged, rowless beds is a method Pollien developed on her own. “I believe strongly that plants will tell you where they want to grow,” she says. “If I plant something and it doesn’t do well, I move it somewhere else, even if it isn’t the easiest or most accessible place.”
What’s good for the plants is good for her, she reasons. “I’m in my 60s, and I’ve read a lot about aging. This garden is my fitness regime. I want it to require balance and coordination. I want to be lifting, carrying, digging, moving. I want to challenge my memory. I don’t want it to be easy.”