Gardens

Smell These Roses!

That’s what passersby stop to do when they encounter this enchanting sunken garden on Castine’s Main Street.

Jim and Leila Day's 226-year-old Castine Federal looms above a sunken rose garden in full bloom.

ABOVE Jim and Leila Day’s 226-year-old Castine Federal looms above a sunken rose garden in full bloom.

TEXT BY VIRGINIA M. WRIGHT
PHOTOGRAPHED BY NICOLE WOLF

From our Summer 2022 issue

Jim and Leila Day’s 1796 Federal rises two stories, but the east-facing vantage point of its upstairs windows is much higher. The Days gaze downhill, over lawns, hedges, and rooftops, to glittering Castine Harbor two blocks away. It was from that perch 30 years ago that Jim planned the formal gardens that today are familiar to those who frequent the couple’s next-door neighbor, the circa 1814 Castine post office on Main Street.

Running alongside the post office’s western wall, the Days’ sunken garden is an enchanted alley of pink roses, peach and yellow Asiatic lilies, deep-purple irises, and blue, blush, and white balloon flowers that’s impossible for anyone collecting their mail to miss. Just uphill, in the front yard, white, pink, and magenta peonies bloom in a carpet of lilies of the valley. In between, a brick path lined with umbrella-shaped Miss Kim lilac trees leads enticingly from the sidewalk to an opening in a brick wall draped in climbing hydrangeas. On the other side, out of view from the street, is a tidy, terraced expanse Leila calls “our secret garden.”

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Leila sprinkles water on the hydrangeas, peonies, and other perennials that define and soften a terrace’s edges in the sloping “secret garden.”
From their home’s second story, the Days can glimpse Castine Harbor beyond their terraced yard.

ABOVE 1) Leila sprinkles water on the hydrangeas, peonies, and other perennials that define and soften a terrace’s edges in the sloping “secret garden.” 2) From their home’s second story, the Days can glimpse Castine Harbor beyond their terraced yard.

Leila, who grew up in Beirut, and Jim, a Brewer native, met and married in Washington, D.C., in the early ’70s. Soon after, they moved to Castine, a community that’s immensely proud of its history. Hand-painted signs throughout town tell of two centuries of battles waged over its Bagaduce River estuary location. (The signs contain some inaccuracies, but, created in 1908, they are beloved artifacts, so up they stay.) The entire village is a National Historic Landmark, recognized for its well-preserved architecture, including the Days’ house, built for Castine’s first settled minister, Parson William Mason.

The Days renovated the ell soon after they bought the house in 1985, then turned their attention to the sloping, nearly half-acre lawn behind. They divided it into three terraces
and enclosed all but the street-facing section between the house and the post office in a high cedar hedge. Straight-lined beds of Asiatic lilies, cimicifugas, hydrangeas, Joe Pye weed, phlox, and, Leila’s favorite, Japanese anemones run along the foot of the hedge. More flower beds follow the terraces’ curved edges. On the lower level is a large round stone, similar to a grindstone, that Jim found at a salvage yard. To honor Castine’s first inhabitants, he had the Penobscot phrase wìlikàn wikimàk (“a good place to live”) etched across the center. Names of family members and friends are inscribed around the circumference.

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The periwinkle flower cluster of an Endless Summer hydrangea.
A Dalmatian White foxglove
A honeybee collects pollen on catmint

ABOVE 1) The periwinkle flower cluster of an Endless Summer hydrangea. 2) A Dalmatian White foxglove. 3) A honeybee collects pollen on catmint. 

The hydrangea-covered brick wall extends from the junction of the house and ell to meet the hedge. Occasionally, people clutching their just-collected mail stroll past the garden, turn onto the walkway between the rows of fragrant lilacs, and pass through the wall’s beckoning arch. They wander down the terraces and admire the flowers, oblivious to the fact that they’re interlopers in a private backyard.

The Days don’t mind. “One of the joys is that you make people happy,” Leila says. “They go to the post office, where they may get good news or bad news, but then they smell the roses and that makes all the difference.”

Jim used cobblestones salvaged from a railroad yard to build the sunken-garden’s path.
The graceful white flowers of cimicifugas rise above everything else in the gardens.

ABOVE 1) Jim used cobblestones salvaged from a railroad yard to build the sunken-garden’s path. 2) The graceful white flowers of cimicifugas rise above everything else in the gardens. 

The Day gardens will be open to the public as part of the Castine Historical Society’s House and Garden Tour on July 22.