Gardens

Making His Own Path

Respect for the climate and natural landscape guide a Phippsburg gardener.

TEXT BY VIRGINIA M. WRIGHT
PHOTOGRAPHED BY GRETA RYBUS
From our March/April 2020 issue
Jeff in his Phippsburg garden

On the shore of the Kennebec River in Phippsburg, a garden goes with the flow. It doesn’t challenge the north wind that sweeps across the adjacent millpond or the storms that rush up the river from the sea. It doesn’t try to defy the granite bedrock, or the harsh summer sun, or the shade cast by native trees. It doesn’t even demand water beyond what nature provides.

“I’ve mapped out the micro-environments in my mind,” says Jeff, who’s been nurturing this landscape for nearly 30 years. “Over time, I’ve learned where I could and couldn’t plant. I haven’t tried to completely define everything. I’ve used what’s here — the rocks, the ledge, the trees — and put in a plant or shrub or path that simply surprises when you walk by.”

The property, once part of a 19th-century boatyard, was in rough shape when Jeff and his husband, Bob, bought it in 1992 (the couple asked that their surnames not be used). They spent two years restoring their 185-year-old Cape, known locally as the “boat-builder’s house,” and several more reclaiming the yard from invasive plants. “We had Norway maple saplings, barberry, honeysuckle, bittersweet,” Jeff says. “We had everything you can imagine that you don’t want to have.”

There hadn’t been much prior landscaping beyond the massive lilac hedge that grows just above the riverbank, its pale-blue blooms visible to boaters in June. “It’s way over 100 years old,” Jeff believes. “The old-timers around here remember it being an old lilac hedge when they were boys.”

ABOVE Sitting on the Kennebec River’s bank, about three miles north of Casco Bay, the property has a lot of exposed ledge, which Jeff has embraced by selecting plants that grow well on bedrock. He’s also built up the soil in some parts of the yard.

seed-grown lady's slippers
Weeping Japanese maples Jeff planted 30 years ago flank the front porch steps.
dark-red Fostery King tulips, which are giant Darwin hybrids
Japanese lady's slipper

ABOVE 1) This rare splashy lady’s slipper is a seed-grown nursery plant. “We have wild showies in northern Maine, but they are protected,” says  Phippsburg gardener, Jeff. Even if they weren’t, seed-grown plants are a better choice because they’ve been cultivated specifically for the garden. 2) Weeping Japanese maples Jeff planted 30 years ago flank the front porch steps. 3) He likes the dark-red stems of these  Fostery King tulips, which are giant Darwin hybrids that bloom in late spring. 4) A Japanese lady’s slipper will open to reveal greenish-pink flowers, much like Maine’s native variety, but with dramatic whorled leaves. 

Jeff’s approach to gardening is unusual. While he loves traditional gardens that wow with swaths of brilliant color all season long, he says, “I don’t want that.” Instead, he designs to show off individual plants and plant groupings, in some cases mixing them into otherwise uncultivated pockets of native wildflowers and trees. On the slope overlooking the millpond, for example, he’s planted Japanese maples and weeping cherry trees among asters, daisies, goldenrod, and star sarsaparilla. At the edge of a wooded area on the south side of the property, he’s growing roughly 30 varieties of tree peonies, including Buckeye Belle, Japonica, Veitchii, and the one he treasures “like crazy,” Rockii peony, which is distinguished by large pure-white flowers splashed with spots as purple as Welch’s grape juice.

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He’s fond of varieties uncommon in Maine, like lady’s slippers from the Aleutian Islands (white with purple drips), Japan (pale pink to deep magenta), Kentucky (yellow), and Taiwan (white with burgundy speckles). These forest orchids occupy a raised bed that borders a drip edge of crushed stone in front of the house. Rainwater falls from the roof onto the rockery, then flows under the plants, keeping them moist and cool. Jeff applies the same concept to ledgy areas, using the rock to direct rainwater to plants, like his beloved 20-year-old tri-color maple. “I never use a hose,” he says.

He deals with environment challenges through observation and trial and error. For shady areas, he favors plants like cool-weather-loving Himalayan blue poppies, which bloom before the trees have leafed out in spring, then benefit from their shade in mid-summer. Rhododendrons are segregated on the south side of the house, which shields them from winter’s harsh north wind. Deciduous azaleas, on the other hand, don’t need that protection — the wind blows right through their bare branches.

“I want people to come and walk the garden,” Jeff says. “And every time they see something unexpected, they say, ‘I’ve never seen such a stand of lady’s slippers’ or ‘That tree is beautiful.’ If they say that, I’m happy.”

checkered lilies
Solomon's seal
Purple Gem rhododendron
late-blooming tulips

ABOVE 1) Checkered lilies, which get larger every year and are resistant to mice and squirrels. 2) Solomon’s seal, one of about eight species on the property. 3) Purple Gem rhododendron in the rock garden and 4) an assortment of vibrant, late-blooming tulips.

Making His Own Path

Respect for the climate and natural landscape guide a Phippsburg gardener.

Jeff in his Phippsburg garden
TEXT BY VIRGINIA M. WRIGHT
PHOTOGRAPHED BY GRETA RYBUS
From our March/April 2020 issue

On the shore of the Kennebec River in Phippsburg, a garden goes with the flow. It doesn’t challenge the north wind that sweeps across the adjacent millpond or the storms that rush up the river from the sea. It doesn’t try to defy the granite bedrock, or the harsh summer sun, or the shade cast by native trees. It doesn’t even demand water beyond what nature provides.

“I’ve mapped out the micro-environments in my mind,” says Jeff, who’s been nurturing this landscape for nearly 30 years. “Over time, I’ve learned where I could and couldn’t plant. I haven’t tried to completely define everything. I’ve used what’s here — the rocks, the ledge, the trees — and put in a plant or shrub or path that simply surprises when you walk by.”

ABOVE Sitting on the Kennebec River’s bank, about three miles north of Casco Bay, the property has a lot of exposed ledge, which Jeff has embraced by selecting plants that grow well on bedrock. He’s also built up the soil in some parts of the yard.

The property, once part of a 19th-century boatyard, was in rough shape when Jeff and his husband, Bob, bought it in 1992 (the couple asked that their surnames not be used). They spent two years restoring their 185-year-old Cape, known locally as the “boat-builder’s house,” and several more reclaiming the yard from invasive plants. “We had Norway maple saplings, barberry, honeysuckle, bittersweet,” Jeff says. “We had everything you can imagine that you don’t want to have.”

There hadn’t been much prior landscaping beyond the massive lilac hedge that grows just above the riverbank, its pale-blue blooms visible to boaters in June. “It’s way over 100 years old,” Jeff believes. “The old-timers around here remember it being an old lilac hedge when they were boys.”

ABOVE 1) This rare splashy lady’s slipper is a seed-grown nursery plant. “We have wild showies in northern Maine, but they are protected,” says  Phippsburg gardener, Jeff. Even if they weren’t, seed-grown plants are a better choice because they’ve been cultivated specifically for the garden. 2) Weeping Japanese maples Jeff planted 30 years ago flank the front porch steps. 3) He likes the dark-red stems of these  Fostery King tulips, which are giant Darwin hybrids that bloom in late spring. 4) A Japanese lady’s slipper will open to reveal greenish-pink flowers, much like Maine’s native variety, but with dramatic whorled leaves. 

Jeff’s approach to gardening is unusual. While he loves traditional gardens that wow with swaths of brilliant color all season long, he says, “I don’t want that.” Instead, he designs to show off individual plants and plant groupings, in some cases mixing them into otherwise uncultivated pockets of native wildflowers and trees. On the slope overlooking the millpond, for example, he’s planted Japanese maples and weeping cherry trees among asters, daisies, goldenrod, and star sarsaparilla. At the edge of a wooded area on the south side of the property, he’s growing roughly 30 varieties of tree peonies, including Buckeye Belle, Japonica, Veitchii, and the one he treasures “like crazy,” Rockii peony, which is distinguished by large pure-white flowers splashed with spots as purple as Welch’s grape juice.

He’s fond of varieties uncommon in Maine, like lady’s slippers from the Aleutian Islands (white with purple drips), Japan (pale pink to deep magenta), Kentucky (yellow), and Taiwan (white with burgundy speckles). These forest orchids occupy a raised bed that borders a drip edge of crushed stone in front of the house. Rainwater falls from the roof onto the rockery, then flows under the plants, keeping them moist and cool. Jeff applies the same concept to ledgy areas, using the rock to direct rainwater to plants, like his beloved 20-year-old tri-color maple. “I never use a hose,” he says.

ABOVE 1) Checkered lilies, which get larger every year and are resistant to mice and squirrels. 2) Solomon’s seal, one of about eight species on the property. 3) Purple Gem rhododendron in the rock garden and 4) an assortment of vibrant, late-blooming tulips.

He deals with environment challenges through observation and trial and error. For shady areas, he favors plants like cool-weather-loving Himalayan blue poppies, which bloom before the trees have leafed out in spring, then benefit from their shade in mid-summer. Rhododendrons are segregated on the south side of the house, which shields them from winter’s harsh north wind. Deciduous azaleas, on the other hand, don’t need that protection — the wind blows right through their bare branches.

“I want people to come and walk the garden,” Jeff says. “And every time they see something unexpected, they say, ‘I’ve never seen such a stand of lady’s slippers’ or ‘That tree is beautiful.’ If they say that, I’m happy.”


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