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Three Maine gardens continue to bloom

By Letitia BaldwinSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / July 23, 2003


Every summer, thousands of people flock to a far-flung Maine village to take in the subtle hues of azaleas and rhododendrons blooming in a seaside garden.

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Just beyond the Asticou Azalea Garden, along a road hugging the shores of Northeast Harbor, visitors can also climb a pine-needle-strewn path and stroll through Thuya Gardens, an English-style garden tucked artfully into a mountainside.

And if it's the right day, and they have an appointment, they can venture down Route 3 to the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden. Framed by a pink-washed stucco wall topped with glazed tiles from China, the garden features a circular moon gate and woodland walk flanked by Oriental tomb figures.

Within a mile of one another, the trio of gardens share the smoky blue hills of Mount Desert Island and Acadia National Park as a backdrop. Something else binds them, too. American landscape designer Beatrix Farrand created the Rockefeller Garden, and the other two contain original plantings from her Maine garden.

Like many formal gardens, these lead fragile lives. Expensive and labor-intensive to keep up, they would fall rapidly into decay without care and vision.

"In this country, the whole area of historic landscape preservation has lagged behind historic architectural preservation," laments Patrick Chasse, a Maine-born landscape architect who teaches landscape history at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies in Cambridge, Mass., and knows all three gardens well.

The demise of Ms. Farrand's own garden is an example. She dismantled her Reef Point Gardens rather than see it languish for lack of funds and helping hands.

"There wasn't enough money and it was exacerbated by non-tax-exempt status," Mr. Chasse says. "If she couldn't guarantee her life's work would be maintained in perpetuity, then she preferred - like putting down an old beloved pet - to dismantle it."

Now, however, the Asticou, Thuya, and Rockefeller gardens have a bright, secure future, thanks to a $7.5 million endowment fund being established to ensure their upkeep. In addition, a nonprofit organization, the Island Foundation, will eventually oversee all three gardens.

Asticou and Thuya are already under its wing. David Rockefeller, son of industrialist and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr., plans to turn over the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden - designed by Farrand for his parents - and more than 1,000 acres of land to the Island Foundation and is building an endowment fund to ensure its future.

Neva Goodwin, David Rockefeller's daughter, who oversees the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden, envisions a preserve where a woodland trail would tie together all three gardens. "Gardening is all about the relationship of people and nature," she says, speaking by phone from Cambridge, Mass. "These gardens were each conceived and are maintained in relationship to that natural environment. So having a piece of land where you can walk from one to the other emphasizes the integrity of the landscape and the gardens within."

The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden sits atop a wooded bluff in the Maine village of Seal Harbor. With its Spirit Path and English-style flower garden, it is an unusual blend of Western and Eastern elements.

A 1921 trip to China and a tour of Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, and the Philippines inspired Abby and John D. Rockefeller Jr. to create the garden at their 100-room, Tudor-style "cottage," the Eyrie. They hired fellow Mount Desert Island resident Beatrix Farrand to design it.

Like Frances Hodgdon Burnett's "The Secret Garden," the Rockefeller Garden has a magical quality. It is enclosed by a rose-colored serpentine wall capped with yellow tiles salvaged from a demolished section of wall around China's Forbidden City. The Spirit Path is lined with Korean tombstone figures and its edges softened by native shrubs and ground covers. A pool of lawn is the center of the sunken garden. This green island is bordered by lavish beds of perennial flowers.