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
May 15, 2003
Maine landscape designer Bill Phinney turned a swampy area of overflowed well water into a small pond. Elsie's garden was inspired by Celia Thaxter's words: "Often I hear people say, 'How do you make your plants flourish like this?' ... And I answer with one word: 'Love.' "
Brian Vanden Brink

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 doyenneGertrude Jekyll's horticulture books as a way of getting her handsin the dirt. Fascinated with old-fashioned borders, Elsie wonderedif she could plant such a garden one day and make it thrive.

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

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

The base for the design included stone walls, 300 new shrubs toretain the slope, and a sweep of lawn to create a deep vista. Elsiewas in high clover seeing sunny space extend from the cottage toframe the ocean view out back. She also had perennials dancing inher head. But translating the vision didn't go as planned. "Thisoasis at the forest edge produced a feeding frenzy that firstsummer," she laments. "I lost every single perennial towoodchucks."

Instead of quitting, she deterred the animals and reengineered awider 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 BlueHair,' figuring me for a little old gardening lady," she says. Asshe diligently planted the 10-foot-wide border with at least ahalf-dozen of each variety, she faced another surprise: "I couldn'ttell the difference between the plants and weeds."

Seeking guidance, she perused "An Island Garden" Celia Thaxter's1894 account of battling the rocky habitat on Appledore Island,Maine. There, in American Impressionist Childe Hassam'sillustrations, were the components of the classic English cottagegarden: lofty spires of hollyhocks, windblown poppies, trumpetlikelilies, vining sweet peas, and clumps of blue bachelor's buttons.Even more inspiring was its down-to-earth text on tasks, pests, andhomemade inventions. "If you want a garden like this," Thaxteradvised, "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 forher home from early spring to late fall.

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