MOUNT DESERT ISLAND, MAINE — 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.
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.
While the Rockefeller Garden is among Farrand's finest work, she is best known for designing the Dumbarton Oaks gardens in Washington, D.C., the East and West gardens at the White House, and the rose garden at the New York Botanical Garden.
As a child, she summered in Maine, where her parents built a "cottage" in Bar Harbor. The rambling shingle-style house with turrets, high gables, and wide verandas wreathed in clematis and honeysuckle faced the sea. Shielded from winds off the North Atlantic,by red and white spruce trees, Reef Point was surrounded by myriad gardens interwoven by grassy paths.
After her mother's death in 1935, Farrand and her husband, Max, set about turning Reef Point into a horticultural study center. A bog garden was built to illustrate how indigenous plants could be used creatively. Groupings of azaleas showed how seemingly exotic plants could survive the harsh Maine climate.
But Farrand's vision was never fulfilled. In 1955, she took the radical step of selling Reef Point Gardens for development after failing to gain tax-exempt status. Much of Bar Harbor's tax base had been wiped out by a fire in 1947, and the town sorely needed its few taxpayers to foot the cost of recovery. Farrand also could not find staff to maintain the gardens and carry on her work.
Local innkeeper Charles Savage, a self-taught landscape designer, stepped forward with a bold plan to rescue Farrand's plants. He used the azaleas, rhododendrons, mountain laurels, and heathers to transform a swamp into a stroll garden in Northeast Harbor.
In creating the Asticou Azalea Garden, Mr. Savage was inspired by the water garden at Katsura Imperial Villa in Kyoto, Japan. In spring, the small pond reflects the azaleas, rhododendrons, and crabapple trees in bloom. Water lilies drift on its surface.
Savage also used Farrand's plants to create Thuya Garden from an overgrown apple orchard adjoining Thuya Lodge, a century-old log cabin where Boston landscape architect Joseph Henry Curtis spent summers., and ultimately, left the property to the town. A trail weaves up among spruce and white cedar trees on the slopes of Eliot Mountain. Along the way, rustic cedar shelters invite visitors to rest and view the yachts and sailboats clustered in Northeast Harbor.
At the summit, wooden gates featuring carved reliefs of deer, squirrels, lady's slippers, and fiddlehead ferns open to reveal a formal garden. A grassy aisle divides two main borders brimming with drifts of perennials that slowly shift from warm to cool hues. Savage used Farrand's Alberta spruces to mark woodland paths that wind past a shallow reflecting pool and lead to a hidden summerhouse.
Denholm Jacobs, a retired investment banker and hospital and university administrator whose family has summered in Northeast Harbor since 1902, took over as Thuya's trustee in 1988. He knew the Rockefeller Garden would one day be under the wing of the Island Foundation. It occurred to him that all three gardens belonged together, given their proximity and historical ties to Farrand. Forging a plan encompassing the trio took seven years.
"Each of them has a certain magic," says Jacobs. "It seemed criminal not to preserve them for future generations."
• The Asticou Azalea Garden is on Route 198 outside Northeast Harbor on Mount Desert Island, Maine. It is open during daylight hours May 1-Oct. 31. Telephone (207) 276-3727. Website: www. asticou.com/gardens.html.
Thuya Garden is on Route 3 in Northeast Harbor. It is open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., late June through September. Telephone (207) 276-5130. Visit the website at www.acadiamagic.com/ThuyaGarden.html.
The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden is on Route 3 in Seal Harbor on Mount Desert Island. A private garden, it can be visited by appointment Thursdays during July and August. Telephone (207) 276-3727.