A few years ago, Maine's First Lady Karen Baldacci was searching for paper in the photocopying room at the Blaine House when she came upon a rolled-up scroll tucked into the back of a drawer. "You know how it is, in these old houses," she says. She unwrapped it a little and, even in the dim light, could see it contained a garden plan of some sort. Another person might have shrugged and put the curled papers back where she found them. But more than any other First Lady in recent memory, Mrs. Baldacci's passions [For ideas on other things to do in the capital, click here . For the rest of this story, see the April 2008 issue of Down East.]
incline toward the land and everything that sprouts from it. An avid gardener, she has during the last seven years been not only an effective advocate for sustainable agriculture in Maine, but also taken a leadership role in improving the grounds around the governor's mansion.
But what were these plans she'd stumbled upon? A call to Earle Shettleworth, director of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission just across the street from the Blaine House, illuminated the mystery. She had stumbled upon the original 1920 planting plans for the New England Garden, created by Carl Rust Parker as part of the Olmsted brothers' design for the Blaine House grounds, a project commissioned by Governor Milliken.
Once brimming with flowers and defined by paths, the garden to the house's left was now no more than a grassy lawn with a few straggly cedar shrubs. Over the decades it had served as a private area for the First Family of Maine, housing such kid-friendly essentials as a swing set. At one time it had even, according to Eleanor Ames of the Maine Olmsted Alliance, been home to a sandy pit for a teenager aspiring to master the long jump.
In the early 1990s, a major rehabilitation of the Blaine House grounds had been successfully undertaken to more closely reflect the famous landscape firm's intentions. But in an era of budget crisis, the final piece, the New England Garden, hadn't made the cut.
Once she knew what the plans represented, Mrs. Baldacci eagerly headed up the effort to complete the project and bring the garden back to its former glory. Marian Pressley, of Pressley Associates in Boston, who is the leading authority on historic Olmsted landscapes, was the natural choice to execute the rehabilitation. A committee was formed. The Friends of Blaine House and Mrs. Baldacci worked to raise $55,000 and establish an endowment through donations and grants, while eighty thousand dollars in public money underwrote the cost of the hardscape. Finally, in June 2007, two years after the First Lady's discovery, the garden was officially opened.
But the First Lady realized that rehabilitating the garden was only the first step. Concerned about its long-term sustainability, she is forging a public-private partnership with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Master Gardener Program and the Kennebec Garden Club for volunteers to work as future stewards.
The New England Garden was intended to be a garden of plants that thrived in New England, and our aim was to return it to that character," says Pressley. But this didn't mean slavishly reproducing the original plans; hence it is a "rehabilitation" rather than a "restoration." Pathways were modified to reflect new stairs leading into the house, and the arborvitae hedge planted years later to provide privacy from busy Capitol Street had to be retained, as well as fencing for security reasons.
"One issue with Olmsted gardens in general," Pressley explains, "is that they weren't aware that plants hardy in Philadelphia or Long Island might not be so in northern New England." Profiting from eighty years' worth of advances in plant science, Pressley chose hardy, disease-resistant varieties, while trying to keep to species included on the Olmsted brothers' original list.
The resulting garden has the flavor of the twenties and reflects the Olmsteds' design principles. The square lawn in the middle, with beds symmetrically anchoring the four corners, gives an enlarged sense of space, while perimeter plantings define the area and reduce distraction from the other parts of the grounds. The corner beds are planted at the height of the summer with more modern varieties of old-fashioned annuals. Tall, multi-colored snapdragons, blue heliotrope, white cosmos, and fragrant, palest pink nicotiana, are all edged with delicate white alyssum. In the spring, tulips, daffodils, and crocus herald the sunshine and warmer weather, while in fall, tawny mums fill these beds. On the outside of the crushed stone pathways, beds are filled with perennial flowering plants and shrubs familiar to any Maine gardener: garden phlox and fragrant peonies in pinks and white; achillea and baptisia; azaleas, lilac, spirea, and summersweet.
One can easily imagine maidens in summer voile floating along these paths, yet Mrs. Baldacci, a thoroughly modern twenty-first-century woman - energetic, knowledgeable, and eminently accessible - is equally at home in these surroundings. As she shows a visitor around, the family dogs, Mia and Sam, bound across the lawn, one carrying a well-chewed stuffed toy, the other a slimy tennis ball. Sam lifts a leg on a spirea and chases Mia, while the First Lady points out a spreading pepper viburnum, thought to be the only surviving alumnus of the 1920 installation. It is still a family garden, yet one elegant enough to suit a governor's mansion and one that can also be shared with any visitor (by prior appointment).
The New England Garden is but one of Mrs. Baldacci's contributions to the Blaine House gardens. In addition to adding a Victorian greenhouse, fully funded by private donations, which extends the growing season substantially, she has developed a huge vegetable garden behind the tennis court installed by Governor McKernan. She continues to can and dry food, and much of the provender provides refreshments for groups of every stripe - from the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance to the United Bikers of Maine - who gather for the famous Blaine House Teas. "We feed a tremendous number of people here," she explains.
Along with the governor's re-election in 2004 came improvements to her garden. "I told the buildings and grounds people that if we were re-elected, they owed me raised beds," she says, laughing. "They've really made a huge difference."
Standing in the middle of rows of beans and peppers, she says thoughtfully, "John goes to the golf course to relax. I come here. You could call this my secret garden." Which corresponds perfectly with one of the great designer Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr.'s beliefs: that scenery and plants can work on the unconscious mind to "unbend faculties" made tense by the strains of modern life - not to mention the strains of life in the public eye.
Future governors may well agree with Karen Baldacci when she muses, "Perhaps these gardens will turn out to be my legacy to the state."