Snug Harbor Farm
You’re in for a tweet
Snug Harbor Farm in Kennebunk, Maine, might not have a partridge in a pear tree or turtle doves (yet), but owner Tony Elliott has the six geese a-laying all sewn up with a whole lot of hooves, twigs, and nostalgia thrown in.
At his shop in Kennebunk, there is a whole lot of tweeting going on that has nothing to do with cell phones. You might hear a little crowing as well, and perhaps a whinny or two. But that is just the background music happening subliminally behind the aroma of freshly cut evergreens woven into wreaths and the tactile texture of the herbal myrtle when you run your hands over the topiary standards lined up like toy soldiers on the shelves. Little succulents tucked into tiny urns wait to be stuffed into someone’s stocking. Bright-berried branches are poised to gladden up your decorations. It is enough to send you home with visions of horticultural hosannas dancing in your head.
The place is Snug Harbor Farm, and nobody prepares for a holiday like Elliott. Not only does he have decking the halls down pat, but he also knows how to do it with seminal Yankee flair, sinking roots deep in the past while forging traditions for the future. Veer off the road at Snug Harbor Farm, and you step into a reality that will redefine your holiday spirit forever. Your visit will set the proper pace for the rest of the season. It is not exactly a time warp, but it is a touchstone sort of place.
The dream of Snug Harbor Farm took a long time to realize. Not many people choose a career in first grade, but Elliott’s independent spirit began at an early age. “Every Christmas, when my parents asked me what I wanted, I told them that I wanted a farm,” Elliott recalls. By the time his sixth birthday rolled around, he had become more focused. “I want a horse” was his response to “wish list” queries. He did not know it at the time, but his request was the first rustling of the destination nursery that draws people from distant points to the funky menagerie of all things furry, feathered, and green in Kennebunk.
In a way, Snug Harbor Farm is just Tony Elliott’s way of fulfilling his childhood dreams. That said, Elliott’s take on a farm defies the traditional definition. Yes, the farm is home to the full complement of fowl and livestock. But who else raises cacklers—a bird that looks like someone shrank a Canada goose? And how many other farms go in big for tiny golden Sebright chickens; they rarely lay eggs and, when they do, the egg is minuscule? Visit Snug Harbor, and you will navigate around miniature horses and every sort of feathered thing imaginable while shopping for horticultural goodies. Indeed, the bahs that you hear at the farm have nothing to do with humbugs. Instead, they are commentary uttered by Elliott’s Suffolk sheep.
Just as the farm breaks tradition with its two-and four-legged stock, the botanical inventory appears equally unconventional. Elliott is famous for his extraordinary plants, especially succulents that could easily be staged in an art gallery. He is also renowned for his unique presentation when working with plants that he hunts up and supplies to his fellow avid collectors. Yes, he couples them with the right container, but that is just the start of the stunts that he performs with plants. Nobody does topiary like Elliott; it is his hallmark. If you encounter a myrtle standard sitting proudly on someone’s windowsill, chances are that it began its life at Snug Harbor Farm.
Of course, a few scenic detours occurred along the way between first grade and the present plant-centric state of affairs. Elliott did not actually want to be a farmer in the typical sense. He chose landscape architecture as his first port of call when it was time to pick a livelihood. “But then, I decided that I was going to feed the world,” says Elliott, who holds a degree in agronomy. Agronomy morphed into ornamental horticulture when he realized he was gravitating toward plants that feed the soul. Then he moved to Maine in 1983 and found himself working in nursery greenhouses as well as taking on landscape design clients. That was the state of affairs when Elliott drove by Snug Harbor Farm and spied the “For Sale” sign, which would soon ramp up the plant options for coastal gardeners after he bought the farm. It was 1991 when he decided to put down permanent roots in Kennebunk, and everyone has benefited ever since.
Who could blame him for his infatuation with Snug Harbor Farm? “When sailors retire, they like to say that they’re going to a snug harbor,” says Elliott, adding that it was the farm’s first owner, a Dutch sea captain who bought the property in 1850, who named the place. Poignantly, while renovating the house, Elliott found the journal from the captain’s last voyage stashed in a wall. After the captain moved on, the farm was sold to a couple for the princely sum of $1.00. They cultivated it as a secondary income, selling milk and produce to supplement their jobs in town. Elliott is the fourth owner of the property, now whittled down to three acres plus the barn and farmhouse. When he bought it, the place was unpolished and a little rough around the edges, but that suited him perfectly.
For Elliott, the snug harbor allusion has nothing to do with retiring. When he bought the farm, he had just returned from traveling to third world countries and wanted a place to use as a base of operations while he bounced around like a ping-pong ball among his clients. Prior to the purchase, he was prone to an English spin on garden design. Snug Harbor sold him on the allure of a more chipped, tarnished, and rusted approach.
“And then I thought, why don’t we do New England?” Elliott says. What followed was a search for New England’s most nostalgic items, which he offers for sale. The lure of berry jars, old brickwork, mossy pots, and sculpted plants beckons buyers to Snug Harbor Farm.
Three years ago, Elliott moved out of the quaint farmhouse, filled it with goodies for sale, and opened it up so customers could enjoy its bygone ambience. Of course, customers come in summer when tender plants spill from the buildings, but they are also apt to visit before the holidays. The greenhouses, the shop, and the entire family of pets and plants are decked out. At this time of year, the aroma of balsam wreaths, the gleam of hand-blown ornaments, the whimsy of topiaries, and the sparkle of terrariums combine with holiday plants to make Snug Harbor Farm a destination nursery for shoppers.
Not all visitors come to Snug Harbor because of a horticultural bent, but they become converts to Elliot’s vision. He gears the Snug Harbor experience to raising consciousness about their environment and rendering it more beautiful. He crusades for blurring the lines between nature and people, which is not hard to do in summer. But as the growing season draws to a close, his campaign becomes more challenging. No matter, he has the answer for merging winter into the gardening calendar. “The shop shows people how to bring the greenhouse into the house,” he says. He offers goods with a unique spin on nature’s bounty, renders common finds into treasures, and sculpts plants into masterpieces. Many years ago, the late Allen Haskell, his longtime friend and famed New Bedford, Massachusetts, plantsman, prodded Elliott to try his hand at topiary, the art of clipping trees and shrubs into ornamental shapes like globes and spirals. But topiary is just one element of his greenhouses, which are filled with begonias, pelargoniums, salvias, coleus, and other plants that he trains into prima donnas and offers up for adoption.
Although Elliott will try training anything into a mini-tree, he is most apt to clip away at true herbal myrtle (Myrtus communis), lemon cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa ‘Goldcrest’), rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), coast rosemary (Westringia spp.), lavender (Lavandula spp.), and miniature fuchsias (Fuchsia microphylla cultivars). The process is long and painstaking, but the result is a tiny lollipop tree—sometimes clipped into a triple-decker poodle cut—that is absolutely irresistible. The standards go into training about 1½ years prior to sale, when a single stem is coaxed to shoot up arrow straight. Elliott stakes the stem of each topiary to encourage perfect posture and removes side-branches until the little standard-in-training reaches its target height. Then he pinches the tip and allows the top to branch out. That is where most nurseries stop, but not Tony Elliott. He keeps right on pinching the orb so it fills in densely. The result is a visual delight that embodies the holiday spirit. If you can believe in Santa Claus, then a little forest of mini-trees is just a jump away.
Going to the farm is a journey in the broadest sense and worth the trek. The cameo peacocks and the miniature horses are all part of a larger scheme. “I want people to chill out,” Elliott explains. “I want to provide an experience. That’s an integral part of who I am.” As a result, people beat a path to his gate. They come to see the funky animals and whacky birds. They come to buy plants that they cannot find elsewhere, displayed in ways that nobody else can conjure up. Snug Harbor Farm is time travel back to another world, and it is fast forward into a more imaginative mindset. After all, creativity is contagious. So go ahead—tweet along those glad tidings.