Garden Continuum: A Bar Harbor Garden Ages Gracefully
How an insightful steward held true to the past while gracefully embracing the changing environment
Betsy Mills did her homework, and then some. Even before she inherited the Farm House garden in Bar Harbor, Maine, from her aunt, Mildred Day McCormick, in 1981, she was dutifully getting up to speed. Fond of all things that connect with the land and a staunch preservationist, Mills wanted to do the property’s legacy and pedigree proud when the time came to take it under her wing. She laid the groundwork by studying landscape architecture at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. She traveled the world investigating gardens. “It was important to see history,” she says. Forty years later, the result is a dreamy landscape of past and present flowing around the modest “little dollhouse-like” cottage.
Walking the line between eras is never easy, and it was particularly daunting in a prominent garden originally orchestrated by Beatrix Farrand (1872–1959), a groundbreaking designer and founding member of the American Society of Landscape Architects. For Mills, doing it right meant bringing the garden up to date. Originally laid out in 1928, it was far from its prime when Mills inherited the cottage and seven acres. In her later years, McCormick, who was 96 when she died, had left garden maintenance to a local nursery, which didn’t strictly adhere to the blueprint, sometimes replacing carefully selected original plants with quick-fix annuals.
Determined to restore the garden to its former glory, Mills traveled to the Environmental Design Archives at the University of California, Berkeley, where Farrand had bequeathed the original plans for all her projects. There Mills obtained plant lists and detailed drawings of the Farm House garden and studied plans from other gardens by Farrand, who in the early 20th century had designed more than 70 landscapes in Bar Harbor and adjacent Mount Desert.
In addition, Mills researched the era, studied period books, and visited gardens. “Each house and garden has a spirit,” she says. “To capture that spirit, you have to adopt the eye of the people who came before you.” Fellow gardeners applauded her efforts. “People brought me shoeboxes of pictures from parties held in Aunt Mildred’s garden,” she says. “Everyone was excited about the restoration.” Aiding and advising her efforts was Mount Desert–based landscape architect Patrick Chassé, an authority on Farrand’s landscapes and teacher at the Arnold Arboretum and Harvard Graduate School of Design. Part of the frisson was the knowledge that this garden is one of only a few to survive the massive 1947 fire that destroyed hundreds of homes in Mount Desert and Bar Harbor, including Mizzentop, the McCormick family estate adjacent to the Farm House.
Especially challenging was locating appropriate plant material. “You’ve got to get the plants right,” says Mills. Frustrated by the cycles of fashion in gardening and how plant availability changes with time, Mills was hitting a wall in her attempts to replicate varieties when she discovered a compost pile on the property with sprigs of discarded perennials poking through the rubble. Apparently, the caretaking nursery had tossed the plants and replaced them with the afore-mentioned annuals. Unearthed and reinserted into the landscape were varieties not easily found in today’s market, making the garden particularly exceptional.
Mills realized that remaining totally in the past would be the undoing of the Farm House garden. Much had changed since the landscape was originally conceived, and a successful plan would need to incorporate current horticultural practices. For Mills this meant adding pollinator plants and the drama of contemporary dahlias. Given 80-foot perennial beds, she had plenty of space to make that happen while remaining faithful to the layering that was the “spirit” of the place. Where prudent, she substituted plants that would survive the climate better than original selections. She incorporated a pergola based on a 1906 design installed in a nearby garden and added to the collection of period-authentic landscape ornaments. Like Mildred McCormick, Mills loves to arrange cut flowers for the house, a pursuit that demands a variety of shapes, heights, and densities of form, which she weaves into the borders. Mills’s savvy stewardship has created another era in the continuity of love lavished on the land.
Every garden should be this lucky.
Aging Gracefully: The Garden Version
As a steward, Betsy Mills had to make some hard choices, but those decisions steered her inherited garden into its current level of perfection while addressing the practicalities of caring for the property. The Farm House garden is no longer tended by the army of gardeners that fussed over its flowers in Aunt Mildred’s day. Instead, Mills is aided by local gardener Ray Turner. Coastal gardeners can learn from revelations gathered during the renovation process.
- Not only do gardens evolve with maturity, but climates change. For example, plants such as delphiniums that looked spectacular in vintage photos fail to perform in the current microclimate. Reassessing for current conditions is critical.
- Although Mills benefited from researching the original plant list, she found that the phlox that was once an important player in the garden was too often riddled with powdery mildew. Finding improved varieties such as Phlox ‘David’ proved essential.
- When selecting stand-ins for plants that were a pivotal part of the scheme, she carefully sought close substitutes that provided the same color, texture, and height as original selections.
- She studied the original plans for structures that were never installed, such as the hexagonal teahouse added under her stewardship.
- Continuity is everything and Mills was respectful of the original plan, but, she says, “I also called in the experts to help keep the history intact.” Like many modern gardeners, Mills has come to realize that pollinators are critical to the greater gardening scheme and added flowers that attract beneficial insects.
- Expanding the garden is valid. “I wanted more destinations,” says Mills, “so I made more garden rooms, knowing that Beatrix Farrand’s style was based on creating intimate destinations.”