Gardens

Cultivating Zen

Owls Head zen garden

Plantings are common, deer-resistant varieties, like catmint, salvia, and bearded iris. The dry creek is actually a drainage ditch dressed up with boulders and smooth pit tailings to look like a natural waterway.

By Virginia M. Wright | Photographs by Douglas Merriam

A homeowner and her gardener’s harmonious relationship yields beautiful results

Barbara Nims and Lee Schneller Sligh
Homeowner Barbara Nims, left, accompanied garden designer Lee Schneller Sligh and her crew on one of their regular tours of Japan last year. Sligh often uses Japanese-design principles in her continuously blooming gardens.

The dry creek enters Barbara Nims’s Owls Head property from the north and descends gently eastward before it loops south and makes a beeline to the sea. Nims’s house is nestled in that wide curve, where the streambed’s banks are thick with vinca’s trailing evergreen leaves and persicaria’s bottle-brush blooms. How clever, you might think, to site the house in the channel’s lush embrace.

But that’s not what happened. Six years ago, there was no streambed, and strictly speaking, there isn’t one now. The rocky channel is actually a drainage ditch that was improved when Nims renovated the house, which had been her parents’ summer home for more than a decade. The fact that it resembles a natural, intermittently flowing creek cobbled with smooth, rounded stones of all sizes, is the influence of her garden designer, Lee Schneller Sligh, of Camden.

So is nearly everything else on the property, from the checkerboard courtyard on the east side of the house, to the cozy-but-not-crowded brick patio on the west, to “the dragon” out back — a Camperdown elm’s contorted branch resting atop a spruce snag. Nims, in fact, has been open to pretty much everything Sligh has suggested, a granting of trust that’s delighted and surprised her — and energized Sligh and her crew. “Barbara, more than any other client, lets us do some really cool things,” Sligh says.

Take the checkerboard courtyard: Sligh, who specializes in Japanese-inspired landscapes, seized upon the rare opportunity to create an authentic Zen garden, modeling it after a famous one at Tofukuji Temple in Kyoto. Located just outside Nims’s glass-walled spa, the courtyard comprises small, alternating squares of Irish moss and tumbled bluestone topped with a single teak bench that faces the ocean.

Owls Head oceanfront facing Muscle Ridge Islands

Shrubs, perennials, and boulders have been placed in a cobble bed to mirror the silhouette of the Muscle Ridge Islands.

From that seat, one can see another Zen garden, this one executed in the karesansui style, a type of austere dry landscape that uses sand and stones to represent flowing water, as well as plants and boulders to create shakkei, or “borrowed scenery,” from the surroundings. Here, low-growing shrubs, perennials, and rocks have been placed in a narrow, cobble “beach” to mirror the undulating silhouette of the Muscle Ridge Islands a few miles offshore.

Nims’s renovations have given the house a U shape, with space for a hidden water garden between the wings. Guardian of Monastery tree peonies and two varieties of Japanese maples — weeping cutleaf and North Wind — grow alongside a small pond. A native pitch pine adds texture and contrast, its asymmetrical growth habit well suited to the Japanese aesthetic, which emphasizes the beauty in nature’s eccentricities.

CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT TO RIGHT: Beautiful allium blooms. A bluestone path follows the creek bed. Fragrant white peonies. Sligh and her crew scoured their favorite beaches for the driftwood in this fence; the stained-glass window, sheltered by a small green roof, came from a salvage store on Mount Desert Island. Sporting raspberry-colored blooms, persicaria, or lady’s thumb, is tough as nails, making it a good choice for edging a driveway. The checkerboard moss courtyard is inspired by one created in 1938 by famed garden designer Mirei Shigemori at Tofukuji Temple in Kyoto.

Here and there are playful artistic touches, like the ornamented bricks that pepper the patio. Shaped in mortar by Sligh and her team, the pieces are studded with random artifacts like marbles and broken hand tools (from used-tools shop Liberty Tool). The gardeners also collected driftwood to build a whimsically irregular fence to conceal a generator on the house’s northwest corner, incorporating into it a salvaged stained-glass window and overhang planted with hen and chicks.

The most recent artwork: a totem carved into the trunk of a storm-felled tree by Sligh employee Noah Gottleib. Rising from the greenery, the totem’s many faces gaze out over the dry creek. “When I hired Lee, I never envisioned anything like this,” Nims says, standing on the opposite bank and taking it all in. “It’s really magical to see.”

A tangled cedar-branch fence built by Sligh’s crew protects Nims’s kitchen garden from deer. “At first, I resisted the fence,” Nims admits. “Now, I love it, and I can’t imagine the garden without it.” 


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