Life at Water's Edge

Gardening and lobstering in coastal Maine

Karlin Hartzog 347Photographed by Lynn Karlin The view from the Hartzog house encompasses the lower cottage gardens, the ocean, and the islands beyond.

In 1984 on a Christmas trip to Europe soon after Gretchen Hartzog gave birth to her seventh child, her husband, Larry, broke their no-gift agreement and presented her with “just one little gift.” It was a deed to a house on the water’s edge at the end of the Damariscotta peninsula. They named the house Le Cadeau Noël, which means “The Christmas Gift” in French, in honor of where they were vacationing. Le Cadeau Noël has been the family home ever since.

Gretchen had fallen in love with Maine on summer family vacations, and for a while, in the early years, Larry commuted to Oklahoma from Maine for work. “My heart was never in Oklahoma, it was just where my husband was,” says Gretchen, a native of the Texas Gulf Coast. As a child in Texas, she learned to love the great outdoors and boating and fishing on the water. Decades later, she still leads a life where the water is close—less than 50 feet from her back door. Now in her 70s, she spends many hours each week gardening, lobstering, and taking in the beauty of nature.

Le Cadeau Noël is a charming house that sits on more than six acres of oceanfront land with water on three sides. There are many gardens on the property, including a rose garden, moss gardens, rock gardens, meadows, a shade garden filled with hosta and ground covers, a walled garden that also serves as a family burial site, wooded areas, and two cottage gardens—an upper and a lower—that sit between the house and the water. Some of the plants, including spirea and potentilla, are substantial and old, having been planted by the previous owner at least 50 years ago. Stone walls run through the property and, as with all stonework, lend character and a craggy patina to this spit of land.

Karlin Hartzog 449The stone walls on the property were built in 1926. They remain largely intact with only a few renovations.

The climate on their stretch of rocky Maine coast can be surprisingly mild. The waters from the Gulf of Maine keep temperatures on this remote peninsula relatively stable. A few miles up the road, gardeners deal with USDA hardiness zone 5 (−15 to −10ºF), but Gretchen and Larry’s property is significantly warmer. In recent years, however, Gretchen says that her microclimate has become unpredictable and affected by changing weather patterns. She blames climate change for what she calls a “crap shoot” when it comes to knowing what will work in the garden and what will not. Each year brings new surprises as snow cover and low temperatures challenge the garden, which continues to adapt.

Gretchen and her garden helpers use the resources of the ocean without worry. They rake seaweed straight out of the ocean and onto the planting beds as nutrient-rich mulch. She finds that she does not have to wait for aging and decomposition to take advantage of the ocean’s gifts. Her plants love the seaweed fresh.

Karlin Hartzog 932Below the porch and above the shoreline are two cottage-style gardens. Spirea and potentilla planted by the original owner more than 50 years ago anchor the upper garden, along with several conifers.

High tides often overcome the lower cottage garden bed, which is edged with a profusion of white violets that were planted at least 35 years ago; they seem unbothered by the regular deluge of seawater. But there are significant challenges to seaside gardening. “Wind is a real issue and we must do the necessary staking with the peonies, tall perennials, et cetera, if we want them to survive,” Gretchen says. Irrigation is also essential when combating the wind and compensating for rocky outcroppings.

Everything is organic in this garden. Gretchen uses no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. To banish Japanese beetles, she flicks those leaf munchers into a red Solo cup filled with soapy water and drowns them on her nightly strolls through the garden. As for herbs, she grows them in containers. After years of trial and error, she finds that they do not thrive in the native soil and prefer to be coddled in pots on the sunny south side of the house. The upper cottage garden is prone to wind damage and plant loss, while the lower garden bed, which sits just feet from the water, is more conducive to plant survival.

Even though Gretchen says that she has no favorite flowers, daisies, snapdragons, zinnias, phlox, sweet William, sweet peas, and foxgloves abound in this rambling cottage garden. “We start the season off with lovely drifts of daffodils, snowdrops, and narcissus in both sun and shade. They are especially handsome as they grow amongst the sweet woodruff (Galium) as it blooms with its white feathery halo,” she says. In summer, peonies, yarrow (Achillea), astilbe, delphinium, coral bells (Heuchera), veronica, bee balm (Monarda), hollyhocks, lilies, daylilies, several different coneflowers (Echinacea), rue (Thalictrum), sedum, Montauk daisies, and phlox provide a huge variety of blooms. Portulaca varieties are featured plants in one of the rock gardens because Gretchen admires the “brilliant colors” that those little succulents produce. Trees and large shrubs like hydrangea and white rose of Sharon provide structure and winter interest. “Large trees take a beating on the open shoreline, but I have been very impressed with the success I’ve had with magnolias and also my ginkgo tree; they seem to be solid and survive a great deal of weather,” Gretchen says.

Karlin Hartzog 1000In summer, Gretchen drives a classic 1954 five-window Chevy truck on plant hunting and shopping expeditions. The turquoise truck still sports its original paint color; it was purchased years ago from a rancher in Missouri.

The Hartzogs used to manage all the gardens by themselves, spending as much as six or more hours a day throughout most of the year on regular garden tasks. These days, however, Gretchen has the help of a housekeeper and local gardeners who visit regularly. Her helpers, who also garden for other properties in the region, have been heard to say that Gretchen’s tastes are different from the area’s abundant, summer-only residents. “Summer people just want pastel pink and blue, but I love all colors,” says Gretchen, who adores dinner-plate red dahlias. She fills spaces left by perennials that did not survive winter with a profusion of summer-blooming annuals. In this way, the colorful Hartzog garden is never the same as the previous year, and it always stands out from others in the area.

Gretchen likes to be outdoors year-round. Even in winter she stays outside more than 30 hours a week. She regularly goes lobstering and captains her own boat—Larry is not a boat lover—and brings in about 100 lobsters per year, just enough for family and friends. She takes plant-hunting trips in her vintage 1954 turquoise pickup truck, purchased years ago from a rancher in the Midwest, and fills it with garden store treasures. The temperate climate allows her to start gardening in March, when many of the local garden centers are still closed for the winter. She is not a mail-order shopper, so she sometimes drives far to find her favorite plants early in the season.

Living in this dramatic setting, Gretchen accepts that nature rules and that the tides are always changing. In spring, she starts her sweet peas early and waits and see what Mother Nature has up her sleeve.

Gretchen’s lobster tales

Karlin Hartzog 054Gretchen brings in just enough lobsters to feed family and guests through the summer.

“I’ve been involved in the lobster industry in one aspect or another for about 30 years,” Gretchen says. “I have personally been lobstering on our boat for about a dozen years. I have a traditional Maine lobster boat that is approximately 28 feet long. It is named Lawsuit, and Alan, a man who works for us, captains it. I am the stern man, who pulls the lobster traps up, takes out the lobsters, baits the traps, and throws them back in the water. The captain finds the lobster traps based on the colors of our lobster pots, which are connected to the trap on the floor of the ocean by a rope. The lobster pots float and have our colors on them. My colors are red, white, and blue. The captain is in charge of driving and maintaining the boat. He is a second-generation lobsterman and has taught me everything I know about lobstering.

“I have lots of stories. A few years back I got my foot caught in the rope that was on the deck of the boat and when I threw the trap overboard it almost pulled me in with it. Had it not been for the quick reflexes of Alan, I would have drowned. Lobstermen drown every year from accidents like this. If a lobster pinches you, you have to yank the claw off and it hurts like hell. When we have pulled all our traps, we scrub the boat and wash it down. Our lobsters are kept in a ‘car,’ which is a holding tank built into the float on our dock at our home. It is a wire cage submerged in the ocean that is accessed by a trap door in the float. Our season runs from the middle of May to the middle of October, and our traps are all within a mile range of the shore. When autumn comes, the lobsters move out into deeper water and I don’t follow them. In season, we pull the traps twice a week. The lobsters do like to be near rocks on the bottom of the ocean. All of our traps are in 40 to 50 feet of water. There are unwritten laws regarding lobstering in Maine. The most important one is that you do not under any circumstance invade another lobsterman’s territory. You are either grandfathered in or you get permission from the other lobsterman.”

Tags: seacoast, rock garden