A Healing Garden
D r. Elsie Freeman first visited the Boothbay area in the 1970s as a medical student helping a friend open her family's summer compound for the season. She fell in love with the view from the terrace of that home, where a 150-foot-long perennial border bloomed along a stonewall and fields rolled down to the shore. The century-old garden had been created by her friend's great-grandmother. "She was a formidable lady gardening in a black silk dress with a high collar and mutton sleeves, something to which I could only aspire," Freeman says, laughing.Today, Dr. Freeman's own perennials bloom just a few miles away from the antique gardens that inspired them. Sweeping along a swath of lawn that curves down to the shore, Freeman's gardens inhabit the landscape with an elegant ease that suggests they've been flourishing here for generations.
That's no small feat on the wooded, ledgy land near Boothbay Harbor where Freeman and her late husband, Jonathan, built a summer home in 1978. After construction, they consulted with landscape architect Nancy Nelson, who designed the hardscape, including the stonework around the house, the shapes for the main gardens, and the entryway plantings. "We started with what was happening right around the house," Freeman says. From there, the gardens gradually expanded all the way down to the shore.
Over the next two decades, Freeman visited gardens around Maine and around the world, taking courses and collaborating with local landscapers and gardeners to bring her vision to life. She has created a landscape that reflects her passion for everything from the flowering profusion of English estate gardens to the spare serenity of the temple gardens of Japan.
"My gardens have to do with allusions and memories of things like the English novels I devoured as a girl," says Freeman, a self-described Anglophile who loves Jane Austen's heroines. Indeed, wandering along the main perennial border at the edge of the shore, one could almost imagine encountering Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy engaged in one of their famous spats.
Although Freeman's garden evokes the best traditions of a classic perennial border, modern varieties and native plants bloom alongside old favorites in a long blaze of color. Even in late summer, the main perennial bed along the shore dazzles the eye with shades that run from deep blue to pink, white, crimson, and strong, clear yellow. Fragrant drifts of garden phlox, including 'Bright Eyes', 'Fairest', and 'Starfire', mingle with blush-colored dahlias and purple coneflower. Fuzzy mauve heads of joe-pye weed flicker with monarch and cosmopolite butterflies. The yellow, daisy-like blossoms of rudbeckia 'Herbstone' tower on six-foot stems beside an orange-red helenium.
Freeman focuses more on creating striking color combinations than on collecting particular specimen plants, and she chooses varieties that can withstand pests, disease, and tough Maine winters. "I really like things that grow and that don't get eaten," she says. "I've learned not to get seduced by flowers we have to give up on. We've done the landscape thing much more than the finicky plant thing."
The "conservatory garden" outside the sunroom is a case in point. Here, Freeman and Gail MacPhee, who maintains and helps design her gardens, have brought the coral of the sunroom's walls outdoors. Delicate coral spikes of Agastache 'Firebird' glow like sparks above the cool blue geranium 'Roxanne', which, unlike many other varieties, blooms all summer. Coppery Coleus 'Sedona', silvery lambs' ears, a double, pale-peach hollyhock, and rust-hued Gaillardia 'Tokajer' complete the fresh and vibrant palette.
Over the years, Freeman has become an informal but enthusiastic student of the great garden designers and landscape architects. Particular favorites were Frederick Law Olmsted and famed British landscape designer Gertrude Jekyll, whose spirit is evoked in Freeman's lush perennial beds. But she's quick to add that she always finds inspiration close at hand in the gardens of Maine, particularly Thuya Garden in Northeast Harbor. She and her husband, Jonathan, first visited Thuya, which is surrounded by Acadia National Park, while cruising the Maine coast years ago. "Thuya is the quintessential Maine garden," she says. "The house is very modest, and the focus is on the garden and its relation to the forest."
Thuya's influences can be felt through the ease in which Freeman's gardens harmonize with the surrounding woodland. One garden flows into the other with an extraordinary grace, and several surprises wait along the way.
A few steps down from Freeman's conservatory garden, a short path winds through a birch grove carpeted with native hay-scented fern. Freeman says she and her husband loved hiking through the grove to a little beach in the years before they built their home. Today, stone and ceramic lanterns delight the eye along a walkway that leads to a Japanese dry garden inspired by Freeman's trips to the temple gardens of Kyoto. A dry streambed of smooth pebbles cascades down a wooded hillside, wending around native conifers and mossy boulders before spilling into a pebble pool composed of blue-gray river jacks surrounded by carefully placed boulders, Japanese maples, and a rhododendron hedge. A small wooden pavilion invites visitors to relax in the peace of the dry garden and the grove that surrounds it.
The dry garden flows into a small, elegant water garden tucked between the edge of the lawn and the woods. Created from a well overflow that was once "an utterly mucky place," the water garden is now a shady oasis that attracts tiny tan spring peepers and other species. A whimsical, human-sized copper frog perches on a bench, inviting visitors to sit beside him and ponder. Deep pink Chleone, or turtlehead, blooms at the water's edge, and curving white wands of fragrant Cimicifuga, or black cohosh, glow in the dappled shade.
"We grow frogs," Freeman jokes as she pauses to scan the water garden for amphibians basking among the lily pads. "As soon as we built the pond, we started seeing them everywhere." The peepers, along with the Chinese marble frogs the couple acquired years ago, and admiration for Frog and Toad in The Wind in the Willows, inspired Freeman to name the cottage. "My husband resisted it," she says, "but when I came up with 'Frogs Leap,' he thought it was kind of cool." The name stuck.
Sadly, Dr. Jonathan Freeman died unexpectedly in 2000. A short path from the main perennial bed now leads to a stone bench built in his memory on the rocky shore. "Right after my husband died, the garden was an essential part of my healing," Freeman says.
After years of traveling between her home in Boston and property in Maine, Freeman recently decided to settle into Frogs Leap year-round. A physician now working with the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, Freeman treasures the roots she and her late husband set down in this garden in the woods. "So much in this country is transient, but I think this is a permanent place. Maine does that to you," she says. "I can't imagine it just being a piece of property. It's sort of part of the family."