Down East 2013 ©
By Virginia M. Wright
Photographs by Brian Vanden Brink
Debby and Mark Masterson planned to look at four or five properties when they went house hunting on Maine’s midcoast ten years ago, but there was only one serious candidate: a 1875 Greek Revival near Rockport Harbor that they’d found in an online listing. Given their anticipation of the house visit, they were as surprised as their real estate agent when they had to be prodded to go inside the door. It’s not that there was anything wrong with the house; it’s just that the yard commanded their attention.
It was a hidden pastoral retreat, entirely unexpected in the compact neighborhood of big old homes within strolling distance of Rockport village. At the bottom of the ledgy, steeply sloping half-acre yard was a broad meadow ringed by trees ablaze with fall color. In the middle of the meadow, a small pond sprouted wood duck houses from its banks.
“We stood in the yard for more than ten minutes and just oohed and aahed,” Debby recalls. Less than a week later, the house — and the view — was theirs.
In the years since, the Mastersons have made a good thing even better. The yard has been molded into an outdoor room whose boundaries are defined by a cascade of flowerbeds filled with waves of purple, pink, and yellow blooms. The granite outcropping that could have stymied plans for a dining area near the house has instead been leveraged to create an informal patio that presides over the garden like the bridge of a ship. The landscape manages to accomplish two seemingly conflicting goals at once: it immerses the beholder in the beauty close at hand (or underfoot, as is the case of the mossy carpets of pink creeping thyme and yellow sedum), while emphasizing that gorgeous meadow in the near distance (consider, for example, the frame-like arrangement of shrubs and trees).
“The big bonus we’ve had in the last couple of years is the entire field has been covered in buttercups,” Debby says. “It’s kind of the concept of the Japanese garden, which depends on borrowed views. Behind us is the field, which is owned by our neighbor, and behind that is Megunticook Golf Club, which we can’t see in summer because of the trees, but which is quite wonderful in winter when there is snow.”
The Mastersons’ decision to retire to Maine was made on the strength of their impressions from two short vacations on the coast. They had lived in exotic locales like Panama, Venezuela, Holland, and Saudi Arabia as Mark’s Air Force career took them around the world. More recently they had been living near Seattle, where they acquired their green thumbs transforming a small yard into a lush garden. Eager to leave the Seattle area, they looked up and down the West Coast for a new home, but nothing tugged at their hearts, so they set their sights on Maine. “We figured, ‘We’re used to moving. If it doesn’t work, we’ll move,’” Debby recalls. That hasn’t been necessary. “Maine is where we want to be,” she says.
The Mastersons did nothing to the property during their first year in Rockport. “We were just concentrating on settling into the house and watching to see what plants came up and what the light was like,” Debby says. “Then one day we walked outside onto the ledge and said, ‘This is where the patio goes.’”
They hired Tom Jackson of Jackson Landscape Services in Camden to design and build the patio and to take down a stand of cedars that cloaked the yard in shade, forcing some pretty birches to bend and twist to find sunlight. Jackson then brought in tons of large rocks (many of them from nearby Aldermere Farm, a local icon for its “oreo cows,” or Belted Galloways) and truckloads of fertile soil to create a series of informal, gently curving terraced garden beds that tame the yard’s slope. “The ledge was the inspiration,” Debby says. “We wanted to keep with the scale of what was already here — we couldn’t use small step stones; we needed boulders.”
There was no rigid blueprint for either the terraces or the shrubs, trees, and flowers that would eventually be planted on them. “To me, a landscape is ever-evolving,” Debby explains. “I don’t sit down and draw things on paper, saying ‘I’m going to plant this here and plant that there.’ It’s a much wider vision, and it’s always changing.”
The tasks of planting and maintaining the gardens fell to the Mastersons, who have created an oasis that blooms from spring thaw to first frost. They loved the birches that were already there, so they planted more, their slender white trunks providing vertical accents and their foliage dappled shade. Early spring color comes from masses of yellow and yellow-white daffodils, which then give way in late May and June to varying shades of pink courtesy of the enormous blooms of peonies and rhododendrons, the flower-heavy stems of weigela shrubs, and the delicate clusters of bell-shaped blossoms that dangle from several large enkianthus. Mixed in are purples and blues — Debby is partial to the spiky flowers of salvia and veronica and to cat mint, whose airy flush of lavender-blue is not only long lasting, but also has a second life, reappearing in August. July brings cone flowers, bee balm, Shasta daisies, and hydrangeas. To vary the visual texture, she and Mark have planted Knock Out roses — an especially hardy brand — as well as daylilies and Siberian irises.
“It’s an interesting combination of shrubs, trees, evergreens, and a lot of perennials,” Debby says. “We have a lot of sedum and thyme, and we just let them go because they plant themselves in the ledge and have really softened it. That’s the most amazing thing — to see what shows up that we didn’t plant at all.” Moss, too, resides in the ledge, turning a brilliant green after a rainfall.
The Mastersons use annuals to fill in gaps and add pops of contrasting color. They don’t do a lot of transplanting of perennials, but, like all gardens, theirs is ever-changing — plants get bigger, they require division, sometimes they die. “If it can’t make it, it doesn’t get invited back,” says Debby, who shuns plants that are not suited for a Maine climate, even those that were favorites in the couple’s Washington garden. “We don’t baby anything. We don’t put out hay. We don’t wrap anything. It has to make it on its own.”