A Border Garden by the Book

Taking a cue from the writings of New England's and Great Britain's foremost horticulturists, Elsie Freeman transformed a rugged landscape into a glorious English garden.

By Susan Stiles Dowell

When Dr. Elsie Freeman was an undergraduate at Smith College, she found escape from her studies by also learning about flowers. While she didn't yet have a plot, she pored over British doyenne Gertrude Jekyll's horticulture books as a way of getting her hands in the dirt. Fascinated with old-fashioned borders, Elsie wondered if she could plant such a garden one day and make it thrive.

Eventually she found a spot of her own: 100 oceanfront feet near the cottage she and her husband built on a midcoastal Maine island. They bought the remote 75-acre tract of logging land in 1972, when they were both medical residents. During summers in the '70s, they lived in a tent on the bluff, lugging supplies on paths Elsie cut through the woods. After the births of the cottage and two babies, their "back-to-the-land" ethic prevailed. They brought in sand for the septic system and regraded the steep slope themselves.

"One day my father, visiting from New York, walked outside in dense morning fog," recalls Elsie, "and sank up to his hips in dirt we'd trucked in to fill around the foundation. It was awful! That's when I found landscape architect Nancy Nelson. She developed a master plan."

The base for the design included stone walls, 300 new shrubs to retain the slope, and a sweep of lawn to create a deep vista. Elsie was in high clover seeing sunny space extend from the cottage to frame the ocean view out back. She also had perennials dancing in her head. But translating the vision didn't go as planned. "This oasis at the forest edge produced a feeding frenzy that first summer," she laments. "I lost every single perennial to woodchucks."

Instead of quitting, she deterred the animals and reengineered a wider approach to take in the entire view. By the following summer, the several hundred perennials she ordered were waiting for pickup. "The nursery only knew me by phone and labeled my boxes 'Elsie Blue Hair,' figuring me for a little old gardening lady," she says. As she diligently planted the 10-foot-wide border with at least a half-dozen of each variety, she faced another surprise: "I couldn't tell the difference between the plants and weeds."

Seeking guidance, she perused "An Island Garden" Celia Thaxter's 1894 account of battling the rocky habitat on Appledore Island, Maine. There, in American Impressionist Childe Hassam's illustrations, were the components of the classic English cottage garden: lofty spires of hollyhocks, windblown poppies, trumpetlike lilies, vining sweet peas, and clumps of blue bachelor's buttons. Even more inspiring was its down-to-earth text on tasks, pests, and homemade inventions. "If you want a garden like this," Thaxter advised, "be prepared!"

With new respect for the work ahead, Elsie's luck changed. Now, the spectrum of cool blues to hot reds yields vivid bouquets for her home from early spring to late fall.

Celia Thaxter would have approved. In An Island Garden, she wrote, "Down to the sweet plot I go and gather a few of these, bringing them to my little table. ... Who indeed shall adequately describe any one, the simplest even, of these radiant beings?" Like Thaxter, Elsie has nurtured simple beauty and created something poetic, indeed.