The Coast Walk Project

Interview: Mary Roper at the Asticou Azalea Garden

I caught up with Mary Roper, Head Gardener for the Asticou Azalea Garden in Northeast Harbor, on October 11, 2017. It was 59ºF, sunny, and a brisk, cheerful sort of fall morning. Mary and I are old friends and fellow landscape professionals (in an alternate timeline I’m a landscape architect), so our conversation included a lot of abbreviated botanical names, local people, and the philosophical underpinnings of Japanese garden design. Rather than trying to explain everything in the middle of the conversation, I’m going to give you a short glossary right here:

Thomas Hall was vice-president of the Island Foundation (the organization that manages the Azalea Garden, now the Land & Garden Preserve) and chair of the Asticou Azalea Garden Committee in the 1980s.

Beth Strauss was vice-president of the Island Foundation and chair of the Garden Committee in the 1990s.

Patrick Chasse is a landscape architect specializing in historic preservation and an expert on the work of Beatrix Farrand.

Beatrix Farrand. (from Baldwin, Letitia S., Thuya Garden.)

Beatrix Farrand was an early-20th century landscape designer. Many of the Azalea Garden’s original plantings came from her Bar Harbor estate, Reef Point.

Charles Savage, the third generation of the Savage family to own the Asticou Inn, designed and installed the Azalea Garden beginning in 1957. For information on the history of the Azalea Garden, see the link or the Works Cited section below.

COA: College of the Atlantic.

Mirei Shigemori, garden designer, 1896–1975. Expert on historic Japanese garden design who worked to blend traditional design with modern ideas.

Traditional Japanese garden design goes back at least to the Sakuteiki, (“Records of Garden-Making”), an 11th-century manual on garden design. The setting of stones within a garden had a spiritual component and was so integral to the design that ‘stone setting’ and ‘garden making’ were at times used interchangeably. An enormous amount has been written on the subject, but Bowdoin College has a good, short, online primer.


All right, let’s start the interview!

Jenn:     [Let’s start with] ‘how did you end up here?’

Mary:   At the time that I joined, Tom Hall was the person overseeing the garden … . He was a very interesting person, a part-time poet …, and he had taken on this garden along with Pat Chasse [to] restore it from a semi-neglected state. … He died in the spring of ‘90, so I only overlapped with him for one fall. When his prior head gardener … was no longer available … he happened to ask my boss at the time who he should hire, and … John Smith said, “You should hire Mary.”

Jenn:     Were you working for the Azalea Garden?

Mary:   I was working for this tiny little nursery in Otter Creek, John Smith and Son. It’s been gone for a lot of years, but it had a long run of taking care of Northeast Harbor and Seal Harbor properties and providing plant material for them…. The nursery had increasingly declined, so it was actually really good timing. … Anyway, I came here in the fall of ’89, and I had a little bit of overlap with Amy Davis who was the prior head gardener. She had been here for three years, and at the time, I didn’t know so much about gardening. I had a lot to learn, but this was a really good place to do it … because the garden still had so many incredibly obvious needs. Paths that were in places they shouldn’t be and things that had grown in and dead wood that had never been taken out. …

My awareness of the garden’s needs grew along with the garden’s development. We sort of grew up together. Beth Straus became the … head of the garden committee, and … she and I had some lovely adventures, like heading down to New York City for a conference on Japanese gardens. She brought in Yuji Yoshimura, from the New York Botanical Garden, and he helped us take a much stronger approach towards the pruning. At points, it was a little too strong, so we actually backed off from his style over time, but he initiated that and helped us to develop our eye in terms of the strength of forms and how important that was.

Let’s see. What else? Beth [had a] strong interest in continuing to increase the Asian feeling of the garden, and her way was mostly through bringing in these pruners, which made a really big difference. We were able to increase the staffing enough during her time to start pruning the Mugos by hand [Ed. note: Pinus mugo]. The Mugo planting had really been designed by Tom Hall, with a little bit of help from Pat Chasse. We extended that and … gave it more strength and more ability to achieve its visual tie to the landscapes beyond … .

Beth Strauss also initiated the … effort to purchase … an old farmhouse [on the edge of the original garden] – it had always had this overbearing presence on the garden and it inhibited the garden’s Asian feeling because it was so colonial. … The farmhouse was taken down because we realized that we would be pouring money into the farmhouse rather than the garden … .

Right after that, the pond was dredged, and we put all the dredgings from the pond up in the area where the house had been, which allowed us to have the traditional berms that often [occur] near ponds … in Japanese gardens. You’ve got to have a certain depth to your pond, and [the sediment you remove] ends up creating hills nearby, and it works together rather beautifully. … This gave us a brand new canvas [that] by the feel of it, … doubles the size of the garden. … We were able to do that and to extend Charles Savage’s style and at many times also his elements.

We were able to go back to the same quarry where he had collected stones and pitch pines and re-collect again, which is amazing to me. It seems like the only place you could do that would be a place like Maine, … where you have family connections in place for 50 years that are still providing resources for artistic endeavors. It’s amazing.

Jenn:     Where is the quarry?

Mary:   We went to Hall Quarry, and we were able to draw from the MacQuinn pit up in there for the initial batch of pitch pines and for a lot of the stones. One of our committee members … had property that was adjacent to the quarry, so we were also able to bring stones from his property. [Ed. note: Pitch pines (Pinus rigida) are smallish, irregularly-shaped native pines that like thin, acidic, soils. They aren’t exactly rare, but  you see them mostly on ridges and mountaintops, or coastal ledges, and around here, those are mostly in Acadia National Park. You almost never find them commercially grown. Fortunately, quarry soils are thin and acidic, so Hall Quarry had a good population. Since some of the original Azalea Garden stones came from Hall Quarry, Mary’s crew was able to stock up on both materials to extend the garden seamlessly.]

Jenn:     That’s fantastic.

Mary:   It is. It’s amazing. I wasn’t willing to extend the garden with stone unless we could maintain the quality of stones that Savage had used, and because of these incredible, generous donors, yes, we could. … We had a lot of sources to draw from, and that gave us the feeling that we could continue as if it were still 1958. We didn’t want this garden to end up with two personalities, and we didn’t want the new garden to adopt that rather “I’m better than you” style that often happens when new pieces are built.

Jenn:     A lot of people think that a garden is designed [once] and then maintained, but this is a classic story of a garden … developing and growing with each group of people –

Mary:   Yes, maintaining its style.

Jenn:     … What are your favorite parts of what’s grown while you’ve been here?

Mary:   Well, it’s been a great learning curve for me. It really has. All of the new work has been under my guidance, so it’s my design work … . We brought in David Slawson for a week to help us think about things.

Jenn:     Who’s he?

Mary:   He’s been involved in Japanese gardens for a lot of years …, and it seemed to me at the time that he was the best fit for us because he was creating Japanese gardens through an American [plant] palette, and there weren’t very many people … doing that. There were a lot of people who were creating Japanese gardens, sort of transplanting them with all their plant material and everything to America, but there weren’t very many people who were doing it [with] an American palette. It turned out that, in [the] design process that we engaged with him, I actually learned that my [own] ideas were solid. …

Jenn:     What a great feeling.

Mary:   Yeah. It was. … We did need David Slawson very much for one thing – … at the time, I was almost too loyal to Mr. Savage because I admire his work so completely that … I was still resisting changing certain pieces. David Slawson came in and said, “You know, we’ve got to move these vaseyi azaleas.” [Ed. note: Rhododendron vaseyi.] At first, I thought, “Oh, no. This is historic. We shouldn’t, we really shouldn’t.” Then as I looked at it, I was like, “Oh my gosh. That’s exactly right.” We mapped out this section here [which] had a big row of vaseyi, and they were blocking access to the new side, and so we agreed that even though these plants were 50 years old that we would go ahead and find out how they would react to being moved. It turns out they reacted beautifully.

Jenn:     Oh good.

Mary:   We started them from seed at that time [too, because] we weren’t sure. We wanted to cover our bases, so we had some youngsters as well as the old guys. Now we have lots of vaseyi to play with. Anyway, I needed David Slawson for that push of where to respect historic [material] versus creating change …, and he helped to establish this linking section. … [One benefit of keeping the design work in-house] was it allowed us to move ahead as materials were available rather than being forced to do it when [a designer] was present; we could wait for the proper ingredients to appear, which has taken years [as] the stones have come in, 10, 12 at a time, and that’s how they get placed. That has all been really very much supported by having [the] designer on site.

Jenn:     Yeah, and also intimately involved with the day-to-day running of the place.

Mary:   … I’m able to design in a way that accommodates our maintenance needs. When I put in this new side, hidden in that design is a permanent access for dredging the pond.

Jenn:     No kidding?

Mary:   That’s another benefit that we achieved by keeping it local. Then also, there really may be something to this idea of ideas that originate from the site itself, this sort of historic notion of allowing the site to present its face over time … and then working with that. I feel like that’s another thing that comes from being on site all the time.

Jenn:     I completely agree. One of the things that I tell a lot of my clients who build new houses is just to put in a minimal landscape and wait.

Mary:   And wait until you really get the feel for it.

Jenn:     See how you live in it. See what you like out your windows, how the site, like you said, reveals itself over time.

Mary:   It does. The way the light falls and ways that you might want to work to enhance that, the features all reveal themselves through time. It’s a remarkable way to work, and truly all these gardens that we admire, the ones in Japan that took place before Shigemori, let’s say. He would sort of be a turning point in the history of Japanese gardens. He’s the modernizing influence where he is drawing from the past, but he’s also creating the new. The ones before him, … were not built in a short time period. They were built exactly in this manner, and because of that, they have a strength of place that is powerful. This garden has a magic of its own. In some regards, all of the work we do here is meant to allow that to express itself. …

Jenn:     The way people change as they get older.

Mary:   Yeah. … I hate to say it, but I’ve been here for many years, [and] my perspective says [this garden] has had its golden era … based on the Beatrix Farrand plant material. That golden era probably would have extended further, except that climate change is also coming in now, and … opening up the door for fungal diseases, [which] seem to be more important than insects at this point. It’s really changing what this garden is. … One of the things that the old garden taught us was that when Farrand propagated her own plant material from seeds and from cuttings she was handing us this torch, this burning torch that would last 50 to 75 years or more. … We realized we wanted to do that again for the next generation. [We started] a plant propagation program … now we’re growing azaleas from seed and from cuttings as needed, and also trees. I’ve been growing the Sargent crab apples [Malus sargentii] out in Lamoine at my place, and we’ve been bringing them in at an eight-foot completely branched size so that people who come to this garden don’t realize that we just replanted.

Jenn:     That’s amazing.

Mary:   That maintains the continuity of the plant material. It allows the plant material that’s lived here all those years to move ahead with its adaptation to the site … . The cuttings allow us to select specific forms that have particular talents that we want to engage, and then to multiply those plants. That’s gotten us into this whole bare root thing – we move our trees at the end of April. We move them bare root. … We put them right in the site, and they’ve got every single root still on them. … The plant material you buy through the nursery trade has about a 15, 20 year run, and then it collapses: … the biggest reason is sort of a delayed liability … because of the period where its roots were reduced to 20%. [Ed.note: nursery-grown trees often lose most of their root system when they are dug up for sale.] That leaves you with this hidden liability … when the regrowth of the roots suddenly choke each other out. … Anyway, I’ve been here long enough to see the collapse of commercial landscape material, but we had started the propagation program before we even realized that. We started it because of this cherry tree – they only last 50 years, and then they tend to give out, so we had started it for that, … [and] now we’re also growing pitch pines from seed because we’ve sort of tapped out [the quarry supply].

Jenn:     That’s a slow process.

Mary:   Yes, except that when we go back to those old 1958 photos [of the Azalea Garden installation], we see azaleas at a five-foot size and pitch pines at a four, so there’s precedent for this.

Jenn:     Yes.

Mary:   We know what to do. We can handle this. We really want that longevity, and as we move into climate change, let’s face it, we need plant material that has all of its immunity, all of its adaptation to the site. We need that local genetic base as well – grown properly and never abused, never traumatized. No hidden liability. It’s kind of like people in that regard. Kind of makes you think of that, doesn’t it?

Jenn:     You live longer if you’ve had a healthy childhood.

Mary:   Yeah, right. I guess it was very affirming too when I, in the middle of all that, I went back and was looking into Farrand’s work and then remembered she set up her own nurseries at Princeton and Yale. Why? Because she wanted really good quality plant material, so the problems that we’re dealing with were already there all those years ago back in the ’40s. The commercial tree business wasn’t much better than it is today. You know? They probably did use a little less Kool-Aid than they do today, [Ed.note: chemical fertilizers, rooting hormones, etc.] and they probably did have a little more diversity than today. They might have even been a little more aware of provenance than today, because a lot of the plants that came up here had great provenance. They were from the northern end of their ranges again and again and again because of the connection with the Arnold Arboretum. [Ed.note: The director at the time was a friend of Farrand’s and sent her a lot of newly introduced plants.] Farrand was at the end of a lot of plant exploration, and there was a real commitment at that time to staying in touch with where the plants were from and where they might be good to be used. We’ve lost that now in the commercial. You have no idea where something came from.

Jenn:     Yep, they’ll say it’s hardy to such and such a zone, but it was grown three zones farther south.

Mary:   Grown in Florida and then had all its roots cut off and fed on Kool-Aid its whole life – these are pretty powerful liabilities. All in all, that is one of the strengths of this garden is its ability to reveal to us what horticulture is outside of this commercial endeavor. What is horticulture really? Because of the generosity of the funding of the many people that contribute to the Land and Garden Preserve, we’re able to step outside of the commercial realm somewhat and to take matters into our own hands. And incredibly, propagating it actually ends up to be a financial benefit, at the end of all that.

Jenn:     Yeah, that makes sense.

Mary:   You’ve paid almost nothing for this incredible plant material.

Jenn:     You invested time.

Mary:   Meanwhile, the commercial trade has gone in the other direction. When I bought a vaseyi azalea from [a reputable nursery] about what, 10 years ago, I paid $100 for a four foot plant: I wanted to see how it would perform compared to the ones we were growing, and of course the ones we’re bringing back into the garden are five or six feet tall now, and we’ve brought in something like 30 or 40 of them, so you can just see right there what we’ve saved. We’ve put almost nothing financially into them.

Jenn:     I have to stop you for a sec. I’m embarrassed to say I had no idea how much of the design work here you had done. … It’s not in the narrative. The narrative that I’m familiar with is that Charles Savage designed it, Pat Chasse renovated it.

Mary:   I’m happy with that. … The way I see it is the less people think about who a designer was, the better. … I feel like that’s one of the advantages of working from the site is that … you don’t need to become a personality. You can simply connect to the work and let the site express itself. There are really several sources that are expressing themselves here. One is Charles Savage for sure. There are many elements of his work that I’ve brought into the new work directly. Then the second is Acadia. Working on sort of the wing of the garden … makes it easy and incredibly appropriate to draw in that Acadia feeling so that Japan is housed within Acadia.

Jenn:     Oh, I like that. That’s a beautiful way of putting it.

Mary:   It’s like an arm wrapping around and holding what’s a little bit more foreign, and this also fits within Savage’s [ideas]. In his writings he says he didn’t want a foreign note to be visible from the road …. In fact, we’re going a little bit beyond that, saying, “Let’s make it strongly Acadia from the road.” This is one of the reasons we haven’t installed a Japanese lantern that’s really prominent from the road. … I don’t feel like we’re quite there yet. We’re still working on that new side and there are 12 rather incredible stones that are coming in this fall.

Jenn:     Oh?

Mary:   Yeah. The way that I do this is … Well, first off, we went and collected the stones from Vittoria’s woods last fall. I’ve had a chance to sort of sit with them over the summer. As I work with each stone, I wait until it reveals its strongest aspect, and then I find a way to use it in the landscape where its strength is maximized. It’s like two strengths. It’s a strength when you see the stone itself, and then ‘how does it fit into the overall picture?’ So you sort of are trying to do both, and the 12 stones that are coming in – they are beautifully, effortlessly extending that Acadia feeling.

Jenn:     Looking forward to seeing that. Would you show me some of your stone groupings?

Mary:   Okay. The old garden is everything from this stone this way, and the new garden is everything this way. The huge row of vaseyi was right through here. A straight row that appeared to literally have been planted in the strip between tire tracks because the access point for bringing the plant material and all the equipment and everything had been right through here, and so the strip became ‘Vaseyi Row.’

Jenn:     Wow.

Mary:   In order to join the new side, you had to sort of squeeze down one side or the other. Neither was very comfortable, and so we took them out … . There were no stones in this direction at all.

Jenn:     Really?

Mary:   None. Everything we’ve placed. See the vaseyi sweeping up through here?

Jenn:     Yes.

Mary:   That’s them. They had [originally] been planted to be a backdrop for the garden, and they still are, and in fact, they’re even a better backdrop in their new location than prior, so it’s quite wonderful that they survived being moved at a 50-year-old point in their lives.

Jenn:     Yeah. Even people don’t like being uprooted at 50.

Mary:   No. Last year, we were able to add this stone lantern, and this year we’ll be adding a moss skirt to that.  …

Jenn:     Wow.

Mary:   This is the new side, and yes, all the stones we had to find and bring. One of our greatest donors actually [had] areas hidden in the woods near Thuya. … That was incredibly fortuitous because the energy that’s moving through this site in terms of stones really comes from Thuya. … Of course, what we really gain [from the expansion] is these views back to the original garden. We also put the stones in the pond.

Up and through here, we’ve been working on fall-color planting, and we’ve discovered that fall color is actually quite a bit less reliable than bloom, so this has been tough. Not only that, but trees that are in the trade for fall color have all been selected for southern areas, not for here. We’ve had to put extra time into working this out. There’s an azalea up in there that’s going to form this sort of mountainscape in the back … ..

Jenn:     Fantastic.

Mary:   Isn’t it nice to be this close to the water?

Jenn:     It really is.

Mary:   When I found this spot, we had three giant Norway maples that had to come out, but it just had absolutely the right feeling and didn’t seem to matter that the road was so nearby. … I don’t know if you can see it, but the moss that’s beyond the little peninsula-

Jenn:     At the base of the stones there?

Mary:   Yeah, so that is going to come over here.

Jenn:     Oh, that’s going to be gorgeous.

Mary:   Yeah, we’re excited about it.

Jenn:     How are you doing that? If it’s proprietary, don’t tell me, but-

Mary:   It’s not. … Well, what tends to happen on the edge of a pond is you get grasses, you get things that like a lot of nutrients and can handle the wet. … If we just put haircap moss there, it would get invaded. What we’ve done instead is we’ve built a rock base up and we’ve stopped that rock base at one inch below the surface of the water, and in that one inch, we put a sort of manipulated local clay, and then we plant our haircap onto that local clay.

Jenn:     Wow.

Mary:   We have got a piece of [landscape] fabric just under the clay. The clay acts like a capillary mat, constantly keeping the haircap beautifully damp, which it loves. It’s just the perfect amount of moisture for it, so it’s been working great. … Oh, and you can walk on it.

Jenn:     Carefully?

Mary:   Because of the stone that’s underneath. If we were just installing on top of [the pond edge], you might walk on it a few times, but it would [get compacted and] end up lower than the pond.

Jenn:     Right.

Mary:   You’d end up with problems, and then the weed seeds would come in, so [there are] a bunch of little things that we’re managing.

Jenn:     Clever. Very clever.

Mary:   … I’ve watched all this stuff for a lot of years. We wanted it to stay green in spite of dry weather, which that does, and we wanted it to be low maintenance, which that is, and we wanted to be able to walk on it, which we can, and we wanted the moss to be exceedingly happy, which it is.

Jenn:     Win-win.

Mary:   Yeah. And here’s where we’re not in the golden era anymore. We’ve lost David Rockefeller’s tree, and we’ve lost the giant Korean fir that was on the south lawn, so David’s tree was [planted in] ’97, but the Korean fir goes all the way back to ’56.

Jenn:     Wow.

Mary:   We knew we were going to lose both of them, we knew we were in trouble, especially the fir tree, so we knew this day was coming. We’ve got the pitch pines ready to go, and they’re at about a four-foot size, which is traditional. … We only started them in 2012, so that’s not that long.

Jenn:     No, that’s not. What are your plans for when this pine goes?

Mary:   Well, that would be one of the reasons that we want to replant a pitch pine here on Pebble Point – we anticipate that that one will give in. That one is one of the lessons from … a Bonsai style that was initiated at a late point in the plant’s life. This tree was double its height. Yuji Yoshimura cut it down by half, which left us with stubs at the top of the tree like this, and those stubs are of course now rotting, which we knew would take place. … The thing is now I know how to respond, and we’ve got the trees ready to go, so we’ll let the tree element be on this side.

That’s another thing that we’ve been developing here is [a plan for] ‘What do we do with the feature trees?’ Do we replant them in their exact location, or do we give them a 75-year rotation? I think we’re going to choose that 75-year rotation model because it allows the garden to show other strengths, for one thing, but it also gets around the changes in the soil that take place when a tree’s been in one place for a long time, so we would expect it to perform better in a new location. We’ve got some of those rotations going, and the Asticou cherry, the one over here … that sort of heralds spring every year, that guy when the white pine is no longer with us, he moves over to that location.

Jenn:     Oh wow. That is going to be so beautiful.

Mary:   Isn’t that exciting? I know. From here, from where we are right now, it’s pretty damn good, yeah.

Jenn:     The sunlight going through the petals is going to be unbelievable.  …

Mary:   Then over here in the place where the Korean fir was, I’ve planned a group of five pitch pines, which will help to really secure the Acadia feeling from the road again, and then it will also give us this incredible understory planting to allow the … azaleas [grown] from seed to come into the picture. They’re giving us slightly new colors and slightly new forms, and I’m excited about that because that’s one of the benefits of allowing them to outcross freely – they show us what they want to be, and then we get to enjoy that in a new location.

Jenn:     That’s so cool. When are you going to do the planting here?

Mary:   We have to be patient because the pines would prefer to be moved early spring, so what we do, we wait for that moment when the frost is all the way out of the ground, and we dive right in and move as many things as we can. It’s the musical chairs point of the season, and that’s when the five pitch pines will come over from our collection out back.

Jenn:     Well, I can’t wait to see that.

Mary:   I’ve actually got some drainage work to solve before that time, so that’s one of the benefits of being forced to wait on the trees’ timing – we can solve a few problems in advance. Fall season is fairly short, and we have a lot we have to get off the list.

Jenn:     I have to say, I’m looking at this garden in a whole different way – I was just here last week and it looks completely different to me now that [we’ve talked.]

Mary:   Interesting. Last week, you might’ve been seeing it through a historic lens, and now you’re seeing it more [as an] in-progress, living feature.

Jenn:     Exactly.

Mary:   Well, good. I’m glad that last week you weren’t aware. I prefer that.

Jenn:     It’s funny. You’ve made some huge changes while I’ve been here, and I tend to forget.

Mary:   Good.

Jenn:     I remember that house, and then I forgot that it was ever there. …

Mary:   How could there be any greater compliment? Yeah, like everything is meant to be here, and it has the strength of the old garden. … I try not to do anything in this garden until the design creates a certain sort of enthusiasm in me, and when I feel that, then I know, yeah, okay, we move ahead … Why install something that doesn’t have that? In time we will have to respond to the need to replace all the pitch pines, but right now, it’s just select areas.

Jenn:     I just love – I don’t quite know how to express it. I’ve got a sense of the garden as a changing creation, like things are going to morph and move and … Like the tree is going from one section to another. It’s beautiful. It’s just a beautiful way to think of it.

Mary:   Truthfully, you know and I know that within the landscape world, the strength of personalities involved in design work often inhibit the integrity of the site. … That’s kind of where we’ve been for a lot of years. From my perspective, allowing this sort of flexibility to co-evolve with my own thinking is a beautiful way to step forward with landscape in general. Why? Because these issues of ‘how do we bring the past forward into the future’ is a struggle in many gardens, and it doesn’t feel like a struggle here to me. I keep experiencing it as opportunities and as expression and as a chance to let Asticou be even more Asticou. That’s how I see it. When what was a Korean fir becomes five pitch pines, it’s actually stronger. … I get excited about that because it gives us a chance to let Asticou be itself and the visitors who come will have no idea … that there was any change or that it ever looked any other way, and how perfect.

Jenn:     Exactly. I trained in historic preservation, and dealing with historic landscapes, usually people pick an era. [You’re supposed to decide] ‘What’s the era of significance,’ and then you try and freeze it.

Mary:   That’s right. You try, yeah.

Jenn:     You can’t freeze a landscape.

Mary:   You can’t. … As a tree matures, yes, there may be a perfect 30, 40 years where it is optimum, sure, but as you get into that maturing process, there are new expressions that are as strong as the original expression, and you may be missing those. Conversely, you may have a tree that’s gotten to a size where it’s obliterating everything, and so you’ve got to be able to make those decisions on site and to [see] where the strength is and then doing everything you can to amplify and to enhance that.

You’ll end up choosing, maybe there’s a youthful era and then there’s a mid-age era and then there’s an old age era, so yeah, it doesn’t really make sense to get stuck in one of those because all three have strength to give, and there are assets within each phase that cannot be claimed in the other phases. … It’s when you’re on site and when you see something over time that you can do this. I would argue that all the old historic gardens, the ones that we really love all benefited from that process. They were not designed on paper in an office over a period of two months and then installed.

Photo by Charles K. Savage ca.1958, courtesy of the Mount Desert Historical Society via Maine Memory Net.      “This image shows an area of the garden, “Pebble Point”, which no longer exists. This original garden feature was created with pebbles brought in from Jasper Beach, near Machias. The feature washed away the following spring and the area became submerged into the pond.”

Jenn:     I think most good designers know that the work has to change, that what’s on paper is just the starting point, but the trouble comes when people 100 years later are trying to go back and decide what’s important, and a lot of people fixate on that paper plan.

Mary:   Yeah, I know it.

Jenn:     Because it’s documentation.

Mary:   Yeah, I know. … I’m not even sure I want things on paper because of that. Sometimes if you reveal too much of the process and the history, people will once again get fixated on one element of something and say, “Oh, well, it used to be this way. Well, it must’ve been better when it was like that,” and they weren’t there during the time to realize no, it was actually quite weak during that era. I see that. I see that potential is always there.

Jenn:     Do you have a set of guidelines that you [developed] … Like for the next person?

Mary:   Yeah, the next person. I don’t know.

Jenn:     How do you communicate this?

Mary:   I don’t know what to do about the next person. I would want them to learn the hard way, the way I did. You can have some missteps in those learning years. It would be nice to offer some freedom from the more dramatic learning process … and yet still engage their own senses in the site. The only thing I’ve been able to come up with as a solution to this is to write something that’s humorous, and in that way, engage. The strongest link is to talk about some of the design work and some of the processes and to help people secure for themselves that joyous interaction that they can also have here.

Jenn:     I would love to read that. Please write it.

Mary:   Okay. Let’s hope there comes the day when that does happen. … Maybe a garden’s never done, so maybe I’m fooling myself, but in my own work here, I’m looking for a certain measure of completion before I walk away, and we’re still outside of that. The other cool thing about this place for me, being a COA graduate and all, is it has been a very active ecosystem that also needs protecting … . When I first started here for instance, the pond was routinely breaking out in these algae blooms right in the middle of spring bloom, and we were able to get that under control. I know what the components are for that water management, and I learned them. The next person will have no clue of that, so that sort of thing actually is crucial to communicate because once again, the learning curve on that is horrible. Once you’ve put too much phosphorous in this system, you’ll spend five, six, seven years undoing the damage.

Jenn:     Things like your strategy for the moss along the pond side.

Mary:   Yeah, stuff like that. Actually, that would be fairly easy to make drawings and to provide for other people.

Jenn:     But I think it would be key to pass that on, because otherwise people are going to come in and just not know.

Mary:   Yeah, I know, and all arts are like that. Things that are difficult, when it becomes art appear effortless, and that’s what you’re looking for. You never want to be in a garden where you’re witnessing the gardeners struggle. … We always look for ways to avoid using signage, ways to avoid using anything that detracts from the experience here … so we’re subtle as much as possible. That’s gotten challenging, as you might imagine, because every year we have more visitors than the year before. …

The technologies that are needed will also shift because [we are moving] from a garden that saw an 80°F day only on occasion to one where we’re seeing 80° days over a two week period. … We can’t use the grass seed types we were using before. They all give in to red thread now, and the moss went through a horrible period of being decimated by a fungus, and now the scotch pines along the road are taking their turn with brown spot. I’m expecting that to be devastating.

There’s going to be a lot of learning that we’re still doing as we adapt, … and it’s going to take a certain amount of resolve to initiate the new design work that will be needed to have plantings that are more long-term. That’s the way the new work is, and in some ways, it just shines a light on the strength of the old work again.

Jenn:     Well, it’s an incredibly special place.

Mary:   Yes, it is. That’s one thing that’s amazing is the way that every day, … every single day it seems to me, somebody comes up to me and says, “You know this is my favorite place. … I’ve seen gardens all over the world and I still love this place the most.” I always feel that way, but when strangers come up and say that, that’s just incredible.

Jenn:     I think one of the reasons that the malleable strategy you’re using here [is so successful] is because the garden is almost more of a mood than a physical place. I’m not expressing it well. It’s like a mood made three-dimensional.

Mary:   Yeah. It is. Like I was saying before, there is a sort of naturally graceful yet energized reality here. I can’t tell you what that is. I know that it’s here and I know that everything that we do is meant to augment it, but I don’t really know what it is. … I experienced a couple of gardens in Japan that were generating more … perceived awareness than what the physical features would have suggested. … Somehow they are conveying more spirit than the elements present, and … I’m still trying to understand. Is that something that only comes from the site itself, or can designers create that? …

Jenn:     It would be interesting to look at those sites and see who is taking care of them.

Mary:   Who’s behind them, exactly.

Jenn:     I wonder if it isn’t an intense feeling on the part of the designers and the people who keep it going.

Mary:   Or it could be an engaged reverence emanating from the participation of spiritual persons, … because the two locations I’m thinking of, both were housed within an active spiritual tradition.

Jenn:     Which ones? I’m curious.

Mary:   One of the sites is Giōji, which on the surface appears to be a small temple with Buddhist statues and a large moss area adjacent, so in other words, there’s almost nothing there, and yet as you walk through that site, you just cannot believe what you are feeling.

The other one is the ‘South Sea’ of Daisen-in. … [It’s] nothing but an area of empty raked sand with a couple of sand mountains at the end, and somehow the empty raked sand [gives] this unbelievable spiritual experience. This is something I can’t explain. It’s this overwhelming sense – I’ve been to Japan three times [and] it might be that I’m only now receptive to engage at that level, and so the next step … the only way to begin to unravel that mystery would be to learn Japanese and to speak to the people engaged in those three sites and to trace that history back. Was this site sacred going back 1,000 years? The most likely answer is that it is a dual participation between humans and the site … but I don’t know because I don’t speak Japanese and I haven’t been able to find anyone else speaking about those elements in the way that I perceived them. Japan interests me in this other way, which is beyond the visuals. There’s something much stronger that’s beyond the visual work here, and what is it? This garden naturally contains aspects as well.

Jenn:     The only time I felt something like that in Japan – I visited a lot of the gardens in Kyoto … – but the one place where I really felt it was in the forest around Ise.

Mary:   I didn’t go to Ise. Oh, it makes complete sense that it would be at Ise.

Jenn:     It didn’t even matter that there were a thousand other people walking with me. … It’s the [ancient] forest around the shrine.

Mary:   And you can’t explain it. … There’s an inner sense that we don’t have language for that allows us to perceive the strength of a given landscape, and we, those who’ve been engaged in landscapes, can probably readily feel it, but even people who haven’t, people who’ve never paid any attention to gardens, they’re experiencing it too. We don’t have a language for it. I think that … what we really mean by genius loci [Ed.note: “spirit of the place”] is that the person who’s working on the site is in fact receptive to the energy that is there on the site, and not only that, the site is exceptional. Whether it has visual features that are exceptional or not apparently is almost irrelevant. … [It’s] an earthly gift of some kind, an earthly expression that cannot be seen, it can only be felt. … Well, that’s quite an in-depth talk here!

Jenn:     Thank you so much.

Mary:   We really, really dove in deep, which is really nice. I can’t think of any other, or very few situations where that really comprehensive perspective comes forward, so my appreciation to you to bring this opportunity.

Jenn:     Oh, well thanks.

Mary:   I’ll set you with a task.

Jenn:     Okay. …

Mary:   I’ve always been really curious about Chief Asticou’s interaction with Asticou and also with Native American traditions where this natural stream system meets the ocean down there. I don’t know enough about that, and I just, I figure that some of our strength goes all the way back to that period, so I have a curiosity about that, and if you uncovered anything in your journey, I would be really interested to find out.

Jenn:     It is definitely something I’m looking into. I’m trying to find the right people to talk to about it.

Mary:   It’s pretty nice where the stream exits there.

Jenn:     Yeah. I went down that path for the first time last week. Did I tell you I saw a seal?

Mary:   Oh, no kidding!

Jenn:     Yeah. It was kind of out in the harbor there.

Mary:   How completely rare. Oh my God, that’s awesome.

Jenn:     Made my day.

Mary:   We’ve had an otter that has showed up here on occasion, so we’re always happy about that. They don’t like to be here when there’s a lot of people, but early in the season and late in the season, they do show up.

Jenn:     I love otters.

Mary:   We still have the big freshwater mussels.

Jenn:     Really?

Mary:   They’re still here in the pond. …

Jenn:     Holy cow.

Mary:   I know. Isn’t that something? …

Jenn:     Wow. … That is huge. Where did you find that guy?

Mary:   It turned up … on the edge of the pond and we kept it because it’s a good indication. I think that was after the dredge, too, that we found that.

Jenn:     That’s really impressive.

Mary:   Yeah, it had survived that.  …

Jenn:     [Catching sight of the new stones.] Oooh!

Mary:   I know. Can you believe it? These are such high quality.

Jenn:     Wow.

Mary:   This is a type of stone – this is the earth’s crust that has been exposed for millennia and you cannot get this from stones that are deeper in the ground. There are a few hints in the Japanese literature. One is ‘don’t use a stone that’s dead,’ and I think what they mean is one that is from deep in the ground. You need living stones. These are definitely living. Then the second is ‘don’t install a horizontal stone vertically, nor a vertical stone horizontally,’ … people tend to take that to mean you want it to look a certain way aesthetically, but what I take it to mean instead is you use the stones the way the earth created them. [Ed. note: the way they weathered in their original positions.] [For] this stone, this was the top. [Pointing to the weathered upper surface.] You can see as you look at it that this was the connection. This is the root. [Pointing to the unweathered part that was buried.] This is the top. It will be installed in that way.

Jenn:     You can see right where it was buried. … On a technical note, how on earth did you move them without scraping or losing the moss?

Mary:   We did have help from Freshwater Stone. They used a boom truck, and it was in the snow. … It snowed the night before. Only … a couple inches, but it made it a challenging day!

Jenn:     I’ll bet. There’s not a single scrape mark.

Mary:   This guy is Dock, this guy is Boat, and this guy is Swan. Everybody gets a name. … Here’s our azalea nursery, these are all from seed, this group, and there’s our pitch pine nursery. They’re all from seed. The seed was collected by a squirrel. We found it in our boots and we planted it. The pine cones were literally stored in a boot and we were like, “Okay, it’s time to plant pitch pines,” and there they are.

Jenn:     Little pitch pines are the cutest things.

Mary:   I know. They all grow quickly. We’ve almost emptied out all our vaseyi. You can see the little bit that’s left, that whole bed was full. We did an invasives-to-natives project at the south gate where we took out Norway Maple, Barberry, Honeysuckle and Euonymus and replanted vaseyi.

Mary:   … I’m hoping that after these 12 [stones] come in that we can sort of switch gears away from the stone work and start bringing in the blueberry and the heath and the other things that will really make the stones have that mountaintop aspect. We’ve had to be patient. We’ve been waiting for enough [stones] to come to the site. …

We changed topics and talked about public access to the shoreline.

The beginning of the Asticou Stream Trail, Northeast Harbor

Jenn:     Yeah, and over here we’ve got Thuya Landing and the Asticou Stream. I’m very grateful for them.

Mary:   True, and are you aware that it used to be Azalea Garden property, but now it’s Land and Garden Preserve property … across the road and following the stream?

Jenn:     No, I didn’t. I thought it was Village Improvement Society.

Mary:   They’re the ones that have done the work on the trail, but it actually is owned by the Land and Garden Preserve. It literally follows the stream down, so it’s kind of narrow, but in Charles Savage’s writings back in 1958, he was proposing two more ponds leading down to the harbor.

Jenn:     Ambitious.

Mary:   Yeah, God. I’m almost glad they didn’t get built. We’ve got our hands full. … It’s an interesting perspective, isn’t it? To be not only engaged in a project that moves forward, but to also see what didn’t move forward.

Jenn:     Yeah, the ideas that were rejected or at least didn’t happen.

Mary:   Exactly. There’s this unfulfilled potential there. That’s kind of exciting. The Village Improvement Society, they just updated the trail system and the steps going down and the bridges … .

The Asticou Stream Trail, Northeast Harbor

Jenn:     It’s a really pretty trail. I can’t believe I’d never been down it before. …

Mary:    Oh, and the other thing it allows me to do is, oftentimes when I’m leading a tour here I can see that people are interested in what the site looked like before Mr. Savage started – I send them across the street because that is the native untouched site right there.

The Asticou Stream Trail, Northeast Harbor

Mary:   That’s incredibly helpful for people to understand what it takes to create a place like this. A garden like this, obviously we want [visitors] to think that it all happened because it wanted to, not because people were behind it. [It has] this naturalistic and yet beautifully formed style. It has the distinctness in the layering and it has a lot of the strength that would occur naturally on a mountaintop – that would’ve been provided by wind and shallow soils in that location but here is provided by people. [Visitors don’t] realize that pitch pines would not naturally occur here. It’s nice. It’s really lovely to have that contrast.

Jenn:     Well, it’s a fantastic place. Thank you for sharing it with me.

Mary:   Oh, thank you so much for coming to ask. What a treat. … I look forward to hearing all the stories.

Jenn:     Thanks! All right, I’d better get going.

Mary:   Onward with our day!



Baldwin, Letitia S. Asticou Azalea Garden. Mount Desert Land & Garden Preserve, 2008

Baldwin, Letitia S. Thuya Garden. Mount Desert Land & Garden Preserve, 2008

Lamb, Jane. The Grand Masters of Maine Gardening. Down East Books, 2004.

Takei, Jiro and Keane, Marc P. Sakuteiki Visions of the Japanese Garden: A Modern Translation of Japan’s Gardening Classic. Boston, Tuttle Publishing, 2001.


8 thoughts on “Interview: Mary Roper at the Asticou Azalea Garden

  1. Pingback: Asticou Azalea Garden – Jennifer Steen Booher, Quercus Design

  2. MJ Smith

    This is certainly a very thorough interview with Mary Roper and I am sure my Uncle Charlie would certainly be pleased with the Asticou
    Azalea Garden!

  3. joanna Crell-Arias

    Lovely article about a place that has been part of my life for 40+ years. I think my children learned to walk there. Remember meeting Mary at Don Smith’s little nursery in Otter Creek a lifetime ago. Glad to know she is still working in the Garden of Eden.

  4. Jim and Emily Fuchs

    Fabulous Interview. Learned a lot and continue to admire Mary (and you) for profound understanding of not only gardens but also environment. Best regards, Jim & Emily Fuchs

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