The Open Gate
Maine’s McLaughlin Garden and Homestead is the state’s loveliest secret
South Paris, Maine, is 45 miles north of Portland via Route 26. Also known as Main Street, this part of road is lined with strip malls, gas stations, and fast food restaurants. Opposite a car dealership is a large patch of green. Not quite a park, yet not a private residence, its open gate offers escape from the concrete and the asphalt.
In September of 1936, a 38-year-old man of modest means, just married, broke ground for a garden at his home on Main Street. The house and barn, built in 1840, sat on four acres of open land. Bernard McLaughlin was the valedictorian of his high school class and an army veteran. He farmed potatoes with his father in the summer and spent the winters in Florida as a hotel cook. It was there that he got his first taste of fancy ornamental gardens, and he wanted to try his hand at one.
There was not a lot to work with. He started with bare land, sandy, infertile soil, and a few scraggly trees. The property had been a farm, and the soil was compacted. A large cattle gate at the front of the property still served as the main entrance. McLaughlin added compost and organic matter to the soil and then added more. He grew scores of irises, hostas, daylilies, trilliums, columbines, ferns, and sedums. He was especially fond of lilacs, eventually collecting more than 125 varieties. Over decades the garden matured, and many plantings naturalized. Trilliums measured in the hundreds, and paths wove through fields of wall-to-wall primroses, forget-me-nots, and woodland phlox.
McLaughlin was a vernacular gardener: self-taught, with no formal horticulture degrees or certifications. He read voraciously, joined and later founded plant societies, and communicated with fellow gardeners. But it was the garden that gave him his education.
By all accounts a humble and generous man, McLaughlin loved sharing his garden with others. Throughout his gardening life, as long as the gate was open, anyone—neighbors, friends, strangers—was welcome to come in, walk around the garden, and talk plants. The gate was rarely closed.
The people he shared plants with shared back, filling the garden to bursting. Yet Bernard McLaughlin, plant collector, also had a keen eye for design. His plantings were simple and elegant, never haphazard. This is evident at the garden pool, where an impressive tricolor beech, Fagus sylvatica ‘Purpurea Tricolor’, with pink, green, and white leaves, reigns over similarly hued coral bells, hosta, and lily of the valley.
McLaughlin was known and loved throughout the state as the “Dean of Maine Gardeners” for teaching and inspiring so many. He received horticulture’s equivalent of an Academy Award: a plant named in his honor. The Siberian iris ‘Bernard McLaughlin’ still grows in Bernard McLaughlin’s garden. He gardened into his late 80s. By this time, the open gate welcomed thousands of visitors a year, by the busload at times.
He died in 1995 at age 98. To everyone’s dismay, he left no instructions for the continuation of the garden after his death. In fact, soon after, a “for sale” sign popped up on the property. Alarmed that 60 years of beauty could be erased by the stroke of a pen, a group of townspeople formed the McLaughlin Foundation in an effort to save the buildings and grounds. Little did the 12 people who formed the foundation know how acrimonious saving the garden would be.
Lee Dassler, a founding member of the organization, got an earful. Many believed that if McLaughlin had wanted his garden to continue after his death, he would have stipulated it in his will. That the will directed that the property be sold was evidence to many that McLaughlin did not want his garden to outlive him. Others said that a man as humble as McLaughlin would not presume his garden to be worth saving or realize how much it meant to the community. All the while, the garden was disappearing. McLaughlin’s son was digging up and moving parts of the plant collection to his own home.
“The reason to keep the garden going, to keep it open to the public, was because this is the kind of garden that doesn’t get saved,” says Dassler. “It wasn’t created by wealthy people, there’s no endowment,” she says. “It’s about one man’s beautiful collection of plants and his devotion to his garden.”
Ultimately, after much hard work and cooperation by many people, and with the help of the Garden Conservancy, the McLaughlin Foundation bought the buildings and property in 1997. The garden was saved.
But there was a $150,000 mortgage and few funds. Since McLaughlin never asked anyone to pay for visiting his garden, the foundation’s members refused to charge admission to make sure that the garden remained open to all. Inspired by naked fundraising calendars, such as one produced by the “Ladies of Rylstone” in England, the board members decided not only to create a calendar but also to pose for it themselves. Using strategically placed props in the garden, the 2003 “Altogether for the Garden” calendar was born. An interview on National Public Radio brought the calendar national attention: “We made $20,000 in one day,” Dassler (Miss November) recalls. The mortgage was soon history.
Now, almost 18 years since opening to the public, the McLaughlin Garden and Homestead are an integral part of the South Paris community. Listed as a Cultural Landscape on the National Register of Historic Places, the garden holds events and programs year-round. Spring and early summer are the most colorful times in the garden, though there is beauty worth seeing from May to October. McLaughlin’s beloved lilacs form one of the largest lilac collections in New England and have their own festival, the garden’s most popular event.
Kristin Perry, director of horticulture, has worked at the garden for 14 years. She follows a master plan that lays out what is planted where so that the plants and design stay true to McLaughlin’s intentions, even as nature inevitably changes. Perry may replace a less hardy epimedium with a hardier one—gardens, even historic ones, are not museums. Plants outgrow their spaces, push out their neighbors, get sick, die, and send seeds hither and yon. Once the trees around the barn matured, the sunny rock garden McLaughlin planted turned shady. Lily leaf beetles ate all the tiger lilies. The only place a garden stands still is in a photograph.
Yet the bones of the place are unchanged. Ferns and perennials line the feet of stone walls that once funneled cattle to their pastures. Now called Wildflower Lane, its grassy pathways lead from sunny meadow to shady woodlot. “Wildflower Lane represents a link to the land’s history,” Perry says. “It’s my favorite part of the garden; it contains its largest collection of plants. Yet the garden here feels undeliberate, as if it has always existed. Bernard was inspired by plants and his property, and people recognize that. They get ideas. They come away inspired.”
In late 2013, the foundation realized a long-standing goal. The property next door, consisting of 1.6 acres, a historic Cape, and a barn, came up for sale. The buyer was the national chain Family Dollar, which intended to shoehorn a large retail store on the site beside Wildflower Lane. Soil compaction, runoff, and radiating heat from asphalt would have stressed mature trees enough to cause their decline, which could then threaten the wildflower collections.
Thanks to local outcry, an anonymous donor, and the cooperation of Family Dollar, which agreed to find another location, the foundation purchased the site, called Curtis House. For the first time since 1936, there is a blank palette of possibility. There are hopes for a children’s garden, more parking, and a larger place for celebrations. Some of McLaughlin’s plants may make the move to the new property, but there is no question that his spirit will inhabit every inch of ground. The gate will be open.
INTO THE WOODS
The delicate charms of the woodland flowers in these photos belie how tough they are. These are not rare, fussy flowers; any home gardener can grow them. Kristin Perry, director of horticulture at the McLaughlin Garden and Homestead, shares her tips for growing these beauties.
• Trillium (Trillium) Trilliums are ephemeral, which means a plant gradually disappears once it is done flowering. When planting, mark where the plant is, for it will go dormant later and may be dug accidentally. Trilliums prefer moist, cool, peaty soil; good drainage; and partial shade. Ants helped the trilliums at McLaughlin to naturalize. Attached to the seed coat is an appendage high in protein. “Ants love this morsel of protein and take it back to their hills, dispersing the seed,” Perry says.
• Columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris) One of the easiest woodland plants to grow, it self-seeds readily through the garden. Watch for columbine sawfly starting in late May. Small green caterpillar-like larvae can be found on the undersides of leaves. Find them before they defoliate the entire plant. Handpick and drop in a bucket of soapy water or spray with insecticidal soap.
• Lady Slipper Orchid (Cypripedium) “Given the right conditions, my experience is that this orchid is one of the easier orchids to grow,” Perry says. Lady slippers need well-draining, slightly moist, acidic soil made up of 50 percent inorganic material (sand or gravel) and 50 percent organic material. “Here in western Maine the plant can withstand some sun, ideally morning sun, with high shade later in the afternoon. Mulch the crown of the plant with shredded leaves to protect against freezing and thawing fluctuations in the winter,” she says.
• Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum pedatum) Grows best in an organic, evenly moist, well-drained soil. Sandy or clay soils can be improved with compost or other organic material. Ferns require little maintenance. They appreciate leaf litter from surrounding trees and an occasional top dressing of compost. Ferns can be divided but rarely need to be. “They are not forgiving to drought and tend to show their unhappiness, though generally they will recover,” Perry says.
VISITORS have waxed ecstatic over the McLaughlin Garden and Homestead in South Paris, Maine, for almost 80 years. Add it to your bucket list and go.
McLaughlin Garden and Homestead
97 Main Street, South Paris, ME 04281
Phone: 207 743-8820 | mclaughlingarden.org
Open: May 6 to October 31
Garden hours: 7am-6pm