The two public gardens that grace this stunning coastal village on Mount Desert Island are not merely lovely, they represent an act of beneficent salvage. Asticou Azalea Garden and Thuya Garden contain the cherished plant collections of Beatrix Farrand (1872–1959), a prominent American landscape gardener of the early 20th century. Ms. Farrand is best known for the lavish estate gardens she designed at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., and other wealthy folks' "country places."
Though she designed many private estate landscapes along the coves and cliffs of this forested island, Farrand did not design these public gardens. In the mid-1950s, landscape designer Charles Kenneth Savage (1903-79) created them to incorporate the extensive plantings – azaleas, rhododendrons, mountain laurels, cedars, hemlocks, and perennials – from Reef Point Gardens, an educational and botanical garden Farrand had established at her home in nearby Bar Harbor. In 1955, when Farrand realized that Reef Point Gardens would not have enough financial support to survive her, she tore down the house and began selling her horticultural holdings. Mr. Savage, who was then on Reef Point's board of trustees, persuaded John D. Rockefeller Jr., a friend and client of Farrand's, to purchase the plantings. The resulting gardens lie less than a quarter-mile apart, separated by the Asticou Inn, which Savage owned when he began these ambitious projects.
"Farrand was an important role model for Savage, so he exhibited great sensitivity in designing these gardens to save and reconfigure her collections," says Patrick Chassé, a landscape architect who has led the successful effort to preserve Farrand's last garden, at Garland Farm in Bar Harbor. "The gardens were original, yet they had strong resonance with Farrand's aesthetic and with their common feeling about the importance of native plants."
Asticou: a Japanese influence
Asticou Azalea Garden is one of the few Japanese-influenced public gardens north of Boston. Though a plaque near the parking area carefully states that it is "meant to be a combination of ideas from East and West," the overall concept, as well as particular features – a moss garden, raked-sand paths, streams and ponds, artfully placed boulders, stone lanterns, a Zen sand garden – lean more East than West. "It's not a single Japanese garden type, but a blend of several, including a stroll garden, a pond garden, and a sand garden, all skillfully blended within a naturalistic framework," says Mr. Chassé.
The garden is ravishing in early morning, when the dew still saturates the moss and the sand is freshly raked. Flowering shrubs, especially the prized collections of azalea, rhododendron, and mountain laurel (all in the Ericaceae family), bloom from mid-May to late June. But like most Japanese-influenced gardens, this one is about subtleties, not floral display. Artful proportions and contrasting textures – fine and coarse foliage, lush moss against speckled granite, water running over stone – define the garden experience. In the middle distance, sculptural effects come into focus: a twisted pine, a curved bench, a lantern marking a fork in the path. Native plants appear in every layer of the garden, including mosses, ferns, bearberry, native azalea, and pitch pine.
"The overall feeling is restful and peaceful, and that is because there is continuity among the plants themselves," says Diane Kostial McGuire, a landscape architect who wrote, along with Diana Balmori and Eleanor McPeck, the 1985 book, "Beatrix Farrand's American Landscapes."
Because one object of the garden is to contain views so that each bend in the path reveals a new attraction, only a few vantage points allow strollers to look out at more distant scenes. These "windows" reveal distinct landscape compositions: The Great Pond reflects the form and color of overhanging trees; the sand garden appears stark and timeless against the transitory green. In autumn – a spectacular season here – new colors shimmer in the pond.
Thuya: native connections
Thuya (pronounced THEW-ya) Garden, only about three minutes away by car, takes its name from another coastal native plant, white cedar (Thuya occidentalis). This garden crowns a short but sublimely scenic hike through Asticou Terraces – a series of wide gravel paths, stone steps, and landings ascending a granite ledge. As the path rises, views open to the stunning harbor below, and a pavilion with broad benches invites visitors to take in the scene. Thuya Lodge and Garden lie a few yards down a path from the top of the terraces. (It is also possible to drive to the garden, which is wheelchair-accessible.)
Joseph Henry Curtis, a Boston landscape architect, designed the terraces and lodge. When he died in 1928, he bequeathed his lodge and 200 acres to the town for use as a park. Today the rustic lodge houses a horticultural library assembled by Savage.
Beyond the building, where an orchard stood in Curtis's day, Savage created semiformal, English-style perennial beds set into a grassy lawn about the length of a football field. The beds run both lengthwise and crosswise. "Many of the flowering plants in the beds are species Farrand used in her garden designs," says Carole Plenty, executive director of the Mount Desert Land & Garden Preserve, which manages both gardens. "But the plants along the edges of the garden include native viburnums, pagoda dogwood, and groundcovers of local moss and ferns."
A three-sided tea house stands at one end of the lawn. A reflecting pool creates a tranquil spot at the other end, near a woodland area shaded by old maples, spruce, and cedar. The shade exudes the island's signature mossy scent, and a series of well-placed benches, nooks, paths, and vistas await along the paths. Several resting spots present varied vantage points, including a second tea house near the garden's midpoint.
A high wooden fence surrounds the garden to keep deer at bay, but a gate near the entrance opens to a network of hiking trails that connect with Acadia National Park. A hike into the surrounding forest, bracketed by refreshing pauses on a garden bench, may be the most satisfying way to experience the nature and culture of Mount Desert Island and honor the gifts that Savage, Farrand, Rockefeller, and Curtis left for others to enjoy.
•Asticou Azalea Garden is on Route 198 outside Northeast Harbor on Mount Desert Island, Maine. Thuya Garden is on Route 3 in Northeast Harbor. Both are open during daylight hours from May 1 to Oct. 31. A donation of $2 to $3 per person is requested. For more information, contact The Mount Desert Land and Garden Preserve at (207) 276-3727.