In an Orono Yard, One Plant Led to Another

And another. Until it was chockablock with vibrant varieties, from native to tropical.

Lisa Colburn’s property encompasses a mounded garden with Autumn Joy sedum, Montgomery spruces, and Profusion zinnias.

ABOVE Lisa Colburn’s property encompasses a mounded garden with Autumn Joy sedum, Montgomery spruces, and Profusion zinnias.


From the August 2022 issue of Down East magazine

Twenty years ago, Lisa Colburn’s plan for a third career was diverted by some browning cedar shrubs. The ink on her marketing degree was barely dry, and she and her new husband, Steve, had just settled into a 1960s subdivision near downtown Orono. Their quarter-acre yard was all grass, save for those sad, sun-deprived cedars under the house’s front eaves.

Lisa Colburn, author of the Maine Garden Journal

ABOVE Colburn grows vegetables in her greenhouse.

Lisa, who’d grown up in a family of gardeners in Fort Kent, knew pruning the bushes would be fruitless, so she uprooted them and planted anew, this time away from the eaves — azaleas, ferns, hydrangeas, peonies, a weeping crab-apple tree. Energized, she kept going. She dumped a hillock of soil on the flat front lawn and filled it with golden mops of Japanese forest grass, velvety silver sage, and nature’s candelabra, a twisty sunburst pine. When city workers tore up a patch of lawn during a sewer-replacement project, she made flower beds. She pulled up more lawn and built stone paths that swarm with the rubbery rosettes of hen and chicks. She pulled up still more lawn and . . . well, she never did enter the business world.

Instead, the former social worker and glass artist teaches others what she’s learned from gardening in different climates. (Fort Kent is planting zone 3, the USDA’s coldest; Orono is a middling zone 5.) In 2012, she published the Maine Garden Journal, a compendium of wisdom and experience from 120 gardeners around the state. She gives presentations to garden clubs and master gardeners on a variety of topics, often using her own yard as a classroom.


elephant ear and purple shamrocks
hen and chicks

ABOVE Potted plants include elephant ears and purple shamrocks, both tropical plants, and hen and chicks.

Her gardens are distinguished by a vivid palette (no pastels!); swaths of succulents; unusual conifers, like a meandering Shaggy Dog; big-leafed greenery, like astilboides; and, in dozens of pots, flamboyant tropical plants, like Elephant Ear alocasias, deep-purple oxalises, and Redhead coleuses. Come the first frost, she unpots most of the hot-climate plants and over-winters their roots in paper bags indoors; she perpetuates others with cuttings. “It’s a process,” she admits, “but they add a little wow factor to the garden.”

She likes the visual punch of the containers and makes her own hypertufa ones with a mix of one part Portland cement, two to three parts sand, and, for strength, a smattering of fiberglass fibers. She shuns the peat moss called for in most artificial-stone recipes because she’s found it creates a vessel that’s prone to breakage.

Lisa Colburn's front yard
Lisa Colburn's backyard greenhouse

As she’s extended the beds from the house toward the property line, shared with a 40-acre woodland park, she’s opted for looser, naturalized arrangements, while still indulging her fondness for uncommon plants. “I’m a big experimenter,” she says. “Some are big failures. Others are, ‘Ooh! I’ll do it again!’”