The Taming of the Ledge
A Bar Harbor landscape architect has developed an intimate relationship with the stones that make up the Maine coast.
- By: Rebecca Martin Evarts
Portrait by Leslie Bowman
Lobster? Blueberries? Timber?
Despite anything you may have heard, these are not Maine’s most abundant natural resource. Rock is what we have the most of. Granite, actually.
Our official online voice, Maine.gov., addresses the issue with admirable directness: “Bedrock underlies the entire state of Maine.” This doesn’t make us special — have you ever met a continent that wasn’t perched on bedrock? — nor does it earn much revenue these days, but it definitely makes for intimacy. Rock is not just underlying things, it’s sunbathing in our backyards as ledge, impeding our access to the ocean in crags, and providing a reliable income for excavators and well-drillers.
That doesn’t mean you can’t love the stuff, though generations of Maine farmers might disagree. Just listen to Bar Harbor landscape architect Bruce Riddell, recipient of the prestigious American Horticultural Society’s 2010 Landscape Design Award, as he contemplates the first tread of granite steps he’s installed in a garden overlooking Somes Sound. “Now, that’s what I call a sexy stone,” he says, smiling fondly at a curvaceous piece of pink granite reclining between an Ellsworth schist boulder and a poof of silvery Snow-in-Summer.
For the last fifteen years, Riddell has been making the most of our rocky relationship in over fifty gardens scattered around Mount Desert Island and eastern Maine, as well as at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay. Stone speaks to him. He knows the colors and the quarries: the red granite from Winter Harbor, the unusual salmony-pink from Hall Quarry, Heritage Stone’s gray schist with white quartz swirls. He’ll tell you, for example, that each boulder resembles an animal, a cloud, or a sculpture, and that each one has a face. Asked if even years later he can recognize and recall by name boulders (“the alligator,” “the sphinx”) he has placed in gardens, he says, “Absolutely.” Even the quarrymen he deals with have started to use the same language. “They used to look at me funny,” he says, “but now they say, ‘Oh, yeah, the one that looks like a ram’s head, right, I know which one you’re talking about.’ ”
An Ellsworth native, Riddell earned a master’s degree in landscape architecture from the University of Pennsylvania, then worked eight years for Oehme, van Sweden & Associates of Washington, D.C., on major urban projects such as the Nelson A. Rockefeller Park in Manhattan’s Battery Park City. Site challenges and large-scale installations prepared him for dealing with bedrock and stringent shoreline restrictions. Need to transform a scrubby waterfront cliff into a handsome, stable retaining wall studded with boulders and native plants? No problem. Call in Prock Marine’s barge, get permission from the Department of Environmental Protection, ship a load of granite in the winter, and begin at the bottom.
The first part of Riddell’s work might be called the taming of the ledge. “I always try to be inspired by what I find on a site,” he says. It’s a good thing he responds to rock, since many of Maine’s desirable waterfront sites begin as moonscapes with a dash of pine. Arguing that too many landscape architects manipulate rather than recreate, Riddell removes ledge to create breathing room around a house, or introduces it through artful arrangements of boulders.
Granite’s unique forms — its color, grain, texture, and shape — then lead the way. The “live edge,” the natural fissures along which it cracks, provides shape for stone benches and steps, as well as guiding the paving of terrace and walkways. “I try to create a lot of motion and flow to the paving pattern,” he says, by combining this edge with granite pavers cut in curves, something only made possible by improved cutting technology. Eccentric pieces of granite placed upright stand sentinel at entrances: “I call them the guardians of the garden.”
A single slab of granite makes an easy step over Japanese-inspired drainage moats of round river stone planted with blueberry sod to divert run-off in steeply sloped sites. Quarry tailings make a low retaining wall.
Once plants, trees, and shrubs are added, stone becomes a quiet participant and the garden takes on that desirable air of inevitability, as if the hand of man had merely awakened nature to its own possibilities. Riddell, 50, knits boulders together with fern sod — “the vinca of the north,” he calls it — and soft fronds of hay-scented ferns, then adds an array of native plants like bearberry, pink turtleheads, and bog rosemary.
Multicolored day lilies and specimen plants such as creamy stalks of Cimicifuga racemosa (black snakeroot) combine with deep magenta bigroot wild geranium and annuals like blue scaevola (Hawaiian fan flower) to brighten the whole. Deep red leaves of ‘Crimson Glory’ vine twine around lacy white climbing hydrangea. “I try not to have a set look,” he says. “I’ll use different stone, different plantings, reflecting the owner’s wishes. But I like to execute a complete vision for each garden,” which means that he designs architectural elements — gates, benches, metal lights, tuteurs, and even a bicycle rack — that complement the whole.
He calls his work Land Art, describing it as “a Celtic sensibility combined with a Japanese garden ethic that produces a mixture of plants, stone, water, and spirit, what a truly Maine garden should possess.” It is a grand vision, well suited to this tall, indefatigable man with bright blue eyes and a wide white grin who walks slightly tilted forward as though anxious to reach his next destination sooner. It is also one that places him squarely in the Maine tradition of estate gardening, where inspired landscape architects like Beatrix Farrand created Mount Desert Island gardens that endure to this day. This link, as it turns out, is not entirely accidental. As Riddell puts it, “My past is as important to me as my future.”
That story begins with his grandfather, John “Jock” Riddell, the “son of a son of a son of a caretaker,” who grew up in Scotland on the grounds of ancient Culzean Castle. Ambitious and adventurous, traits he would hand on to his grandson, he studied at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh in the 1920s. Offered the choice of jobs in South Africa or Mount Desert Island, he hopped a steamer to the New World. In those days of deep pockets and enormous estates, a Scottish gardener was the status accessory. Jock Riddell ultimately ended up working many years as head gardener for the Anson family at the Turrets, living on the estate that later became the centerpiece of the campus of College of the Atlantic. He raised four sons there, none of whom showed the slightest interest in horticulture. Kenneth, Bruce Riddell’s father, became a teacher and school principal in Ellsworth, and as his son puts it, “My father might have grown a tomato plant or two, but that was it.”
Riddell didn’t discover horticultural tendencies in himself until 1981 when he chanced to meet with Miss Mildred Day McCormick at her estate, the Farm. He had graduated that June from the University of Maine with a degree in English and, faced with nebulous job prospects, had taken a summer job with a landscaping company. One morning, he was assigned to deliver and plant two apple trees at the McCormick place only because he knew where it was located. (His grandfather had worked there in semi-retirement.) On the way over, it began to rain. Undaunted, he set to work digging holes while Miss McCormick’s two regular gardeners watched him from the shelter of a porch. The elderly woman observed the scene from a window. Evidently experienced in spying useful industriousness from afar, she called Riddell into the house and hired him on the spot, dismissing the other gardeners.
“I knew nothing about plants,” he says. “I’d go to the nursery and read the labels, then try to figure out what to do with them. But I found I liked it.” The garden had originally been designed by Beatrix Farrand — this was his first exposure to her work, which made an impression so deep that subsequently he gave his daughter Farrand as a middle name. During the summer Miss McCormick talked to him about the profession of landscape architect, something he’d barely heard of, let alone considered, and ultimately the McCormick-Collier family helped make a master’s degree financially possible for him.
After living away from Maine for over a decade, tired of urban life and eager to create his own gardens rather than receiving minimal credit while executing a large firm’s contracts, Riddell and his wife, Alicia, moved back north.
“It’s hard to break into the Northeast Harbor gardening world,” he says with mild understatement. A small cottage in Bar Harbor owned by his grandfather allowed them to live rent-free, but the first year was tough. Although he had lots of photographs of the big projects he’d worked on, potential clients would ask, “But where are your gardens?” He waited tables at night, showed his slides to any one who’d watch, and only landed two clients, one of whom was his third-grade teacher. To keep himself occupied, he designed two gardens for free: the Veterans of Southwest Harbor Park, a shoestring project financed by selling lupine seeds and dog scarves, among other inventive fund-raisers, and the Charlotte Rhoades Park Butterfly Garden. Both would later earn him Merit Design awards from the Boston Society of Landscape Architects. And he continued to try to scale the fortress known as the Mount Desert Garden Club.
“I’d offer to show my slides any time for free, and they’d say, ‘Well, we’ve got Penelope Hobhouse [acclaimed garden writer] flying in this month, so maybe another time.’ ” Then the classic lucky break: a last minute cancellation, and they rang Riddell. The day after, he had two new clients and things began to change.
Today, he numbers CEOs, dot-com winners, politicians, and old-money families among his clients, in the modern version of estate gardening. These days, though, lower-maintenance native plants and by-the-hour help have replaced the annuals bedded out by a small army of full-time gardeners. While the scale may be smaller, Riddell cautions, no garden is ever maintenance-free. “If you don’t weed your hay-scented ferns, you’re going to end up with a tangle of poison ivy.”
Still operating as a one-man firm, he doesn’t even employ an assistant. “I like it that way. I’d rather put my soul into a project and do fewer of them.”
“I’m a fossil,” he admits. He draws everything out by hand rather than using computer-aided design since he feels CAD makes for lifeless gardens. “I don’t think in bubble diagrams, I think in details. By drawing it out, I’m familiarizing myself more with the site.” Over the years he has developed a close working relationship with contractor Gordon Robb and his team of David Murray and Ryan Tinker, but as a single operator he has more flexibility to shift the location of a tree or plantings as he views the landscape live. This is especially important in Maine. “If you’re digging down and suddenly hit ledge, you’ve got to let the land and site dictate what you’re doing.”
Of course, he adds, “I’m never afraid of moving things for the perfect stone.”
- By: Rebecca Martin Evarts