Halls Pond Gardens
A tapestry of plants
Some gardens are grand because they are big and blousy, stuffed full of flowers and foliage. Some are elegant and minimalist—edited to their bare bones. Then there are the gardens that reveal themselves slowly, and you only discover their artistry and unique personality on closer inspection. Take, for example, Mark Brandhorst’s Halls Pond Gardens. Located off the beaten track, three miles from the center of South Paris, Maine, Halls Pond Gardens is easy to overlook, but this jewel box of a garden is well worth the trek.
Pulling into the driveway at Halls Pond Gardens, you see a lovely white farmhouse—it feels more like visiting a friend than a garden and nursery. Once you get out of the car, however, you notice tables covered with small black pots, filled with a huge variety of sedums and succulents. It is only then you realize that you have stumbled upon a treasure trove. As you look further, you see an old stone foundation. Walking down some nearby stone steps, you find that the entire foundation has been recast as a rock garden. There are succulents peeking out of almost every crack and crevice, forming a crazy quilt of plants.
While an abandoned barn foundation would not be everyone’s ideal garden location, Brandhorst, a sculptor and photographer, thought it was perfect. When he first saw the empty foundation on the property, his artistic instincts kicked in. “There were piles and piles of rocks everywhere—from outbuildings, from the barn, as well as big pieces of cut granite. I knew there was something there, but I just wasn’t sure what. I knew it had incredible potential as a garden.” It would take the better part of two decades to realize that vision; before he could tackle the foundation, he had to renovate the house.
As Brandhorst worked on the house with his wife, Sarah Shepley, he started to experiment with planting sedums and succulents in between the cracks in the patio. He became fascinated by how these plants could survive and reproduce between the stones with almost no care. He was also enamored of the stones at the nearby McLaughlin Garden and Homestead, which had been planted by the founder, Bernard McLaughlin. Brandhorst reached a conclusion. “Rocks just want plants on them,” says the sculptor, who takes daily walks in the nearby mountains. “They’re asking for companionship.”
So he went to work refurbishing the empty foundation and stabilizing the rock walls. In 2007, after two years of work and before the project was even completed, he started to plant. “I couldn’t resist,” he says. “It was still sort of rubble-y, and I just started putting plants in.”
While McLaughlin had populated his rocks mostly with sempervivum, Brandhorst fell in love with jovibarba, a close relative of sempervivums. “They call them rollers and they will grow on next to nothing. They’re beautiful and tenacious—I call them workhorses because they grow where nothing else will.” Over time he found that he did not need to use any soil. These plants thrived in stone dust alone. He discovered that if he mixed the stone dust with water to form a slurry that he painted on the rock, he could stick the tiny jovibarba on it, and it would grow roots and thrive.
A seizure disorder prevents Brandhorst from driving, but his gardens bring people to him. “If you build it, they will come,” he says. “Part of what I want is for people to come here and see the gardens and the plants. It’s also about reaching out and making connections with people.” Another way Brandhorst connects with people is in online sempervivum chat rooms and through the North American Rock Garden Society, which has an impressive seed exchange. “People send in seeds and then the society compiles a list and puts it on the Internet. They have about 2,000 different seed choices from all over the world. It’s a great way to learn about plants.”
Along with the foundation garden, Brandhorst cultivates a small rock garden where he experiments with alpine plants. He also created a perennial garden in a lane that cows once used to go from the barn to the pasture. “Cultivating a spot in the woods is special, particularly since there are rock walls in the woods and there’s a backdrop of stone. Also, it’s shaded, so that’s a different project and process. In the spring when the ephemerals are blooming, it’s magical.” Each May, garden visitors will see epimedium, lady slippers, Dutchman’s breeches, and many different types of anemones.
As Brandhorst’s collection of succulents and sedums grows, so does his knowledge and passion for these beautiful and hardy plants. He began selling them as well as integrating them into his works of art. On his walks in the woods, Brandhorst searches for rocks, bringing them home and carefully transforming them with chisels, grinders, and diamond blades into troughs and sculptures, which he then plants with succulents and sedums. It can take two years before they are ready to sell. “It’s my artwork, and selling plants comes along with it. My true love is making these tapestries on stone—I love stone. Stone is the coolest thing.”
Tips from Mark Brandhorst for Growing Succulents in New England
1. Once established, succulents need little to no care.
2. Many thrive in sunny, drought conditions but also tolerate shade as long as they are grown on rock or on gritty, well-drained soil.
3. Succulents come in a huge range of colors, forms, and textures.
4. The leaves undergo seasonal color changes.
5. With minimal soil, they can grow directly on rock.
More on Sempervivum
The plant name comes from the Latin semper meaning “forever” and vivus meaning “living.” Sempervivums are also commonly called houseleeks, hens and chicks, or semps. With very short roots, a low growing habit, extreme drought tolerance, and little need for nutrition, these hard-to-kill plants are perfect for the rigors of living on rocks. Belonging to the Crassulaceae family, there are roughly 40 sempervivum species and 3,000 named cultivars. Sempervivum spreads readily through offshoots and can also be propagated by seed. Traditionally, it was used as a poultice for skin disorders, to cure corns and warts, and for ulcers and earaches; you can find it growing on roofs and is thought to keep a house safe from lightning.