The New Dooryard Garden
A modern twist on colonial plantings
When Evelyn Shahan visited a Cape Cod nursery some years ago, a golden-yellow rose caught her eye. With its profusion of fragrant, many-petaled blooms, it looked and smelled like an old garden rose. In fact, it was a newer hybrid, most likely an English rose—a cross between classic cultivars and modern repeat-bloomers that flower from spring until fall. Although the plant was not labeled, Evelyn saw right away that this rose would be right for her home on Barters Island, Maine, near Boothbay.
There, between the wings of their L-shaped house, Evelyn and her husband, Mel, had made a south-facing dooryard garden, reminiscent of an old-fashioned, English cottage garden. Perennial favorites such as lady’s mantle, catmint, and phlox abound. They mingle with delicate ferns and velvety lamb’s ears, colorful annuals, and aromatic herbs. The rose went into the mix, and it flourished, bearing dozens of blooms that first season. Now this lovely rose flowers profusely—a perfect fit for the Shahans’ timeless old house in Maine.
Like the rose itself, the entry garden is a hybrid, a grafting of a personal style onto a traditional form, one that goes back not to England, in this case, but New England, and to the dooryard gardens that were necessary adjuncts of every colonial home. Positioned to face south and take advantage of the protection afforded by the house and outbuildings from north winds, these gardens were laid out in basic rectangles, fenced in, and set up for performing routine tasks, such as washing clothes and making candles and soap. Their primary purpose, though, was the cultivation of culinary, medicinal, and other vital plants and herbs. A rose had no place in such dooryard gardens—unless it was the apothecary rose, Rosa gallica ‘Officinalis’. Yarrow, Achillea, was grown not for its looks, but for alleviating fevers and aches. The silvery foliage of wormwood, Artemisia, was valued mainly as a repellant of bugs.
Since the Shahans do not use any pesticides, they grow wormwood with southernwood, tansy, rosemary, and myriad other plants and herbs that happen to be useful, ornamental, or both. The plants are not boxed up in distinct little square plots as they were in colonial days, but inter-planted in softly rounded elongated beds, in which feverfew mingles with forget-me-nots, parsley edges columbine, and veronica brushes up against sage. In this dooryard garden, a birdbath is a focal point, not a washtub. And the house itself is part of the garden, with black-eyed Susan vines twining up trellises and masses of petunias spilling over from window boxes into the delphiniums, snapdragons, coneflowers, and marigolds.
While home and landscape look as though they have been joined for decades, the dooryard garden and other cultivated spaces on the property are fairly new. Fifteen years ago, when Mel and Evelyn bought the two-and-a-half-acre property overlooking the Back River, the view was practically the only thing to recommend it. The land consisted of swamp, hayfield, thickets of trees, and weeds, and the 1860 farmhouse was a wreck. “It really was a tear-down,” Evelyn recalls, but seeing rustic where others saw ruin, she and Mel fixed it up, retaining the old bones and warm woods of the structure and making a twenty-first-century home with the ambience of a nineteenth-century farmstead.
As a longtime dealer in antiques, Evelyn has a special appreciation for the art and craft of bygone times, as well as a unique flair for seeing fresh possibilities in objects that appear outdated. She loves weathered old clay pots and has collected hundreds over the years. Planted with herbs, the vintage pots were a signature item at Sweet Woodruff, her former antique shop, named after the aromatic groundcover that blooms in spring. Although the shop closed, the business carries on in Nobleboro, Maine. At present, potted mint and alpine strawberries dwell among flowers at home, along with birdhouses, sundials, and other finds.
Evelyn has a knack for placing her treasures. An urn with petunias was just an urn with petunias until she put an old tin watering can beside it and created a pleasing vignette. The objects incorporated in the gardens do not have to be old. Like the whimsical wrought-iron sculpture that rises from a geranium bed in the dooryard garden, they just have to blend.
Of course, gardening is more than designing. Deadheading, dividing, and digging must be done, and the Shahans do it all themselves. If a weed can squeeze in among the daisies and larkspurs, they may let it grow. And if perchance a patch opens up, basil is as likely as anything else to fill it. In this garden, anything goes—at least anything the climate allows.
To be sure, this open-door policy can invite trouble. The introduction of a sturdy horseradish resulted in a wrestling match with the spreading foe. Mostly, though, new plants mesh with the old, and new gardens spring up where there were none—along the driveway, where dainty coreopsis softens the edges, or by the red barn, now a backdrop for a stand of birches underplanted with astilbes and hostas. Guided by a good eye for color and a sure sense of form, garden-making here is impromptu, and it works.
But as Evelyn says, the weather does place limits on just what can be done. It is a cold hard fact that winters can be brutal in Maine and that the growing season is always too short. True, the area around Boothbay enjoys a relatively mild climate compared to the rest of the coast, and Barters Island is in USDA zone 6, with temperatures more like those in Massachusetts than Maine. Nonetheless, the first frost usually occurs sometime in October, the last one in mid-May—a frustrating reality for Mel, for whom gardening is a full-time hobby.
Adding a hothouse solved that problem and extends their growing season as well. With its modest footprint and high, pitched roof, the structure resembles the “Hothouses for the Millions” that were mass-produced in the mid-1800s. This one, however, is custom-built by Don P. Viens rather than prefabricated and has a post-and-beam frame, not a metal one, making it look more like the main house. When snow covers the ground, a well-worn path leads from home to hothouse, where Mel prepares trays for his seedlings in early spring.
Only a few vegetables grow in the kitchen garden, where winter-squash vines tumble over the fence and nasturtiums also grow, in an ad-hoc combination typical of the Shahans’ style. The main vegetable garden is the exception. There, in a large plot down the hill from the house, they cultivate vegetables in long, neat, well-demarcated rows. Straight Eight cucumbers line up next to straightneck squash; columns of Butter & Sugar corn march alongside stands of Tendergreen bush beans. Early Wonder beets and Jet Star tomatoes produce right on cue. Long Island Brussels sprouts keep up as expected into October. Here, again, no chemicals are allowed, so bugs take a few bites. Critters, however, tend to stay away—rattling strings of shiny pie-tins scare them off. Watched over by Mel, the harvest—shared with friends, neighbors, and food pantries—is plentiful all season. In the Shahans’ garden, a wealth of plants thrives year after year.