MANY GARDENERS would be dismayed to find that birds had plucked their blueberry bushes bare. Not Joan Griswold. “We don’t get to eat any of the berries because the birds get to them,” she says, “but that’s OK with me.”
Birds, butterflies, and bees are among the primary joys that Joan and her husband, Peter, derive from their garden. In fact, it was recently certified as a Wildlife Habitat by the National Wildlife Federation, thanks to its abundance of plants that attract animals and insects, its protective hedges, and its birdbaths and birdhouses. Located on the Marginal Way, a 1¼-mile paved path along the rocky coast of Ogunquit, Maine, the Griswolds’ garden is the carefully planned result of a gardener’s long-lived relationship with her surroundings.
Joan first came to the tiny vacation town as a child. “We stopped here for lunch, saw a sign for a place to rent on the beach, and haven’t vacationed anywhere else since,” she says of her family’s abiding connection to the place. She and Peter, who live in Massachusetts, visited in the 1970s when they lived abroad, renting the same apartment her parents had rented. Eventually Joan and Peter bought their own house, just three doors up, and kept it for 30 years. In 2004, they purchased and renovated their current beach home.
Save for the dense hedge of honeysuckle that separates their spit of land from the Marginal Way, providing both privacy from the well-traveled path and cover for the birds, the land was “a terrible mess,” says Joan. The yard consisted of brambles and bittersweet. Peter pulled up the invasives while Joan sketched out her ideas for the garden.
Friends urged them to hire a landscaper, but Joan, who had always tended her own gardens, was determined to do it herself. Though she’d never created a garden from scratch, she knew just what she wanted: a landscape with a natural, wind-swept feel that looked as though it had sprung up on its own. “The Maine coast is not the English countryside,” she says. “It shouldn’t have a carefully cultivated look. It’s wild, intermingled, and rough.”
Joan drew inspiration from the work of Dutch garden and landscape designer Piet Oudolf, whose work graces the High Line in New York City, among other outdoor spaces around the world. After poring over the designer’s books and spreading truckloads of compost to boost the sandy soil, Joan and Peter got to work.
First they put in the tall grasses and clusters of towering joe-pye weed (a favorite of butterflies), which provided the backbone around which the rest of the plantings would evolve.
Next came the flowers; Joan raided the beds of her Massachusetts home and her plot in her community garden. In just a year, the four or five dozen plugs she had transplanted of each species had multiplied into masses of blooms. Thick swaths of brilliantly colored rudbeckia and echinacea settled right in, along with drifts of Nepeta, sedum, and hydrangea. In concert with the native landscape, the garden peaks in late summer or early fall.
Now that the garden has matured, the Griswolds’ focus has shifted to enjoying what they’ve created and keeping the plants in check. That’s no small task, given the vigor with which green things are growing and creeping, “thug-like,” beyond their designated borders. Absolutely everything (or “everyone,” as Joan puts it) is thriving — an achievement, given that plants must be salt-tolerant and hardy enough to withstand nor’easter winds. “There are no fussy babies here!” says Joan. “It’s survival of the fittest.”
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