Roses Flourish On This Unforgiving Norway Plot

A formal garden blooms among farm buildings and fields in the Oxford Hills.

Xuan Xanh Laurie and her roses

From the September 2021 issue of Down East magazine

Thirty-odd years ago, Xuan Xanh Laurie flipped through a gardening magazine in a California airport, thinking about the retired 18th-century dairy farm she and her husband, Jim, had purchased in Maine’s Oxford Hills. Pointing to a photo, she told Jim, “I want this rose.” When they got home to Norway, she ordered a bush and planted it alongside their farmhouse. “Then,” Xuan Xanh says, “it died.”

Over the next few summers, she planted more roses, but they only bloomed in spring, when the Lauries were in Moscow, where Jim, a journalist, was stationed for ABC News. Frustrated, Xuan Xanh sought a local nurseryman’s advice.

“What zone are you in?” he asked.

“What’s a zone?” she replied.

Xuan Xanh (pronounced “Soon Sahn”) laughs at the memory. She grew up in Vietnam, which she fled at age 18, during the fall of Saigon, in 1975. For several years, she lived in New York City, until she met Jim (who, coincidentally, was in Saigon on the days that Xuan Xanh and 7,000 others were airlifted out of the city, one of the few American reporters who stayed on the scene). “I knew nothing about flowers,” she remembers. “I knew nothing about Maine.”

ABOVE Xuan Xanh Laurie has planted a number of small garden areas around a property that includes an 18th-century home with an attached barn.

She knows now. Armed with her newfound knowledge of USDA planting zones, Xuan Xanh dove into gardening manuals and taught herself to be a plantsman. Today, her expansive beds are lush with Bonica and Knock Out roses, Bloomerang and Tiny Dancer lilacs, Ruby Spice summersweet, and other plants that, unlike those first roses from California, thrive in the Oxford Hills, where winter temperatures routinely dip to negative 20 degrees (that’s planting zone 4). Backdropped by rolling meadows, the Lauries’ property has hosted Maine Rose Society lectures, McLaughlin Garden and Homestead fundraisers, and the weddings of family and friends.

The couple live roughly half the year in Norway, where Jim, a Massachusetts native, summered as a boy. The rest of their time is spent at their other home, in Washington, DC, or traveling (Jim’s production company, Focus Asia, is headquartered in Hong Kong). Their annual migration north always includes a stop at a DC Asian market, where they purchase seedlings for Xuan Xanh’s large vegetable garden: Thai basil, Chinese chives, Asian eggplant, lemongrass, sorrel, Malabar spinach, and other ingredients for Vietnamese dishes. Xuan Xanh also raises broiler chickens, and she’s revived five old apple trees that weren’t bearing fruit when the couple acquired the property.

In the front yard, two American beeches are remnants of Xuan Xanh’s early attempts at horticulture. A few feet above the ground, their central trunks split into numerous thick branches that curve upward into broad, rounded crowns. The form is unusual for a beech, a result of Xuan Xanh’s unschooled pruning technique. The trees are gorgeous — reminders that, sometimes, a little naiveté is a marvelous thing.