Color, on the rocks
A resourceful gardener reclaims coastline for her English garden
Although the relationship between Sus Miller and coastal Maine got off to a rocky start, the garden she ultimately installed grew on her.
Sus Miller knew exactly what she wanted for the next chapter in her ongoing gardening saga. When her husband, Doug, retired from his teaching position at Michigan State University, she wanted an English garden, just like the classic gardens she visited years ago when studying at Oxford. “Separate rooms, perennial borders, and architectural features,” were high up on her wish list. But what Sus got when they moved to the property that Doug inherited in southern coastal Maine was a pie-shaped, heavily treed lot with poor soil and bedrock beneath. All those fantasies of Sissinghurst evaporated instantly. But the garden Sus built instead is infinitely more apropos.
Sus was already a seasoned gardener when she made the move to Maine in 1998. Indeed, the Millers arrived at their inherited 1¾-acre coastal property in a 23-foot truck filled to capacity with plants from their Michigan home. Both Sus and her truck full of plants had been living in the lap of luxury, horticulturally speaking, with 12 inches of topsoil and clay underneath at their former Michigan digs. Not only was Sus in for a shock when she drove her first shovel into New England oceanfront hardpan and hit rock (“It was like working in a quarry,” she says), the plants were also in for a surprise when they tried to plunge their roots into the lean, sandy underpinnings.
The soil (or lack thereof) was a disappointment, but the fact that plumbing issues forced some prime land on the property to be used as lawn was nothing short of tragic. And lawn placement was not the only stumbling block. Sus had no alternative but to position the front door of the house to face the neighbor’s property. Fortunately, one major redeeming factor more than compensated for the tradeoffs. The back door had a heart-stopping view straight to the ocean—with a narrow strip of very rocky land to frame the horizon beside the water’s edge. Sus knew what she would do with that strip—daylilies are her husband’s favorite flower. The fact that they proved impervious to salt damage worked in her favor when she tucked them in with similar tough perennials and installed her sizzling hot color border to frame the seacoast.
There were other blessings as well. The oceanside lot boasted a peppering of mature oak, spruce, maple, and birch trees to frame views and serve as eloquent and site-appropriate focal points. Not only that, but Doug’s family had cottages all around, so a lot of hand-holding ensued from sympathetic natives. Indeed, while the home that Sus designed was being built, she housed her plants in temporary quarters on her mother-in-law’s patio. With a little tender loving care, the transplants were making the transition just fine. As for Sus, she was mired in the depths of “gardener’s block” for approximately a month. She spent hours sitting on the new foundation for her house-in-construction, head in hands, trying to fathom how her new garden could fit in.
It was clear that the geometry and simple straight axis of the English garden had to be abandoned. But Plan B was shrouded in fog. “I was really getting frustrated. Then I looked around and it gradually came to me.” Sus wanted a walkway, gazebo, pond, and archway trellis, each with its own, associated beds. Her eureka moment hit when she realized that, if she went the curvaceous route instead of using straight lines, she could create a circuit that encompassed all the features of her dreams. Even though the geometry was not the simple axis that Sus originally had in mind, she saw a way to frame focal points from the doors and windows of the house. As soon as she began to figure out the gateways to her odd-shaped puzzle, everything fell into place.
Plenty of surprises remained in store—like the fact that they had to blast a driveway and jackhammer the pond site for a week before they managed to penetrate the necessary 2½ feet to make it happen. Following along the same lines as the pond bombshell was the carpal tunnel shock that hit when she started to actually plant in the ultra-rocky, sandy soil (she now has help with transplanting thanks to Michael Walek, who does garden maintenance). However, Sus began to acclimate—and learn Yankee ingenuity. The “small but fierce” marsh mosquitoes took some getting used to. But even they could be foiled by donning a hat and—at times of the day when the biting goes into feeding frenzy mode—a bee veil as well. Beyond protective clothing, screened porches on both sides of the house provided an answer. She also added a screen to the gazebo. In fact, she began to seek all sorts of inventive solutions. “They were charging money to get rid of the rock when blasting the driveway and I thought, ‘How about building a retaining wall for the flowerbed?’” She began to recycle rock into retaining walls to shoulder flower beds and escort paths as they move gracefully and colorfully around the property. Utilizing the native rock resulted in continuity as well as a comfortably natural hardscape—Michael Walek is a genius when it comes to wall-building and rock placement.
Sus is nothing if not resourceful. Before the first plant went into the soil, she ordered up two truckloads of loam for the beds. She also made some wise choices early in the process. Placing the gazebo on an axis from the front door informed the rest of the plantings. From the gazebo, your glance moves along the curve of the beds surrounding the obligatory lawn to the pond and archway farther afield. By directing the flow as it moves from the house, Sus managed to get all the features she desired into their odd-shaped property without skipping a beat.
Another critical element in the plan has a lot to do with Sus’s family roots. Sus loves miniatures. This penchant may have something to do with her father Henning L. Nielsen, one of the artists who crafted the legendary Flora Danica line of Royal Copenhagen china. Flora Danica has a fascinating history. In 1753, a professor of botany at the University of Copenhagen Botanical Garden proposed that a comprehensive atlas of botany—including the lichens and fungi—should be created to document the flora of Denmark. Work began on the project in 1761 and continued until 1883. As borders were remapped, the focus for inclusion broadened until the atlas was defined as a chronicle of Scandinavian flora. That project alone was remarkable. But further, in 1790, the Danish Crown Prince Frederik came up with the idea of rendering the stunning plant portraits onto china. The dinner set was to be a gift from the Danish court to the Russian Empress Catherine the Great. Alas, she died in 1796 before receiving the tribute, which remains on display at Rosenborg Castle in Copenhagen. In 1885, Royal Copenhagen decided to make copies available to the general public and began a line of floral-painted
china based on the originals. Not only are the tiny flowers
on the china’s surface detailed and botanically accurate, but roots, stems, leaves, and twigs are also sculpted into handles and adornments.
Many of the little iris, spring bulbs, primulas, mayflowers, epimediums, pulmonarias, cyclamens, veronicas, ranunculus, and other small wonders that Nielsen painted work beautifully in Sus’s seaside garden. Where taller plants are buffeted by the winds, her miniatures crouch down below the heavy gusts. Among the highlights every spring is a horde of 600-plus snowdrops fluttering their bell-shaped flowers in the wind. “My heart just breaks,” Sus says of the precious scene. Her affection for the little guys includes both common plants and rarities. “Is there anything cuter than a forget-me-not?” Of course, miniatures are not the only plants in residence, but they have a strong presence, especially in spring.
In addition, color plays an important role in her gardens. Near the house, bouncy blues and yellows dance along the stone walkways that lead around the house before sending visitors onward. Taking advantage of the arid conditions inherent to the driveway, Sus installed an alpine garden. “I can grow alpines right on the driveway,” enthuses the former Michigan resident. By nature, the alpines tend to have small but vivid blossoms. Behind the pond, quiet pastels reign, allowing occasional louder yellows and purples to have their moment in the sun. In her bulb display, cheerful early spring daffodils give way to dahlias as well as Asiatic and Oriental lilies. Not far away, a kitchen garden furnishes fresh produce, and during long Maine winters, colorful orchids brighten the greenhouse.
Sus links her various gardens together with color—often repeating color themes along a path. Well aware of the color wheel, she plays oranges and yellows against blue. But pinks have a special place in her heart. “I agonize when I go to nurseries,” she admits. “I bring sandwiches and sit in the car, thinking about every purchase. Then I come home with a carload of pink flowers.” That color forms a cohesive blushing carpet, but it also climbs up the sides of the Millers’ garage with ‘New Dawn’, ‘Constance Spry’, and ‘William Baffin’ roses clambering up permanent trellises built onto the structure specifically so they can gain a foothold.
Granted, Sus was reluctant to embrace the geology of oceanside Maine. But over the years, the Maine garden has become her inspiration. During her father’s lifetime, she never studied painting. But after Sus came to Maine, she was seized by the inherent beauty of the place and signed up for art courses. When she is not fiddling in the soil, you will find
Sus Miller with her easel, painting the scene she orchestrated in all its intricate splendor. Her father would be proud—coming from a rocky start, Sus Miller now does coastal Maine in full color.
Tags: English Garden