Magazine

Your Home: Gardens

Rooted in history, a garden design for the ages in Maine

At a home built by the state’s first governor, today’s owner has designed a haven inspired by the past.

A tiered birdbath and raised dovecote at the top of the garden overlook a riding arena.
Stacey Cramp
A tiered birdbath and raised dovecote at the top of the garden overlook a riding arena.

TO VISIT Milena Banks’s garden, which meanders down a hill overlooking Maine’s smallest city, is to wander through the mind of an artist, author, and world traveler who studied flower arranging in Japan and drew inspiration from the landscapes of England’s literary masters.

Banks and her husband, Erik, bought the 60-acre Bath farm, complete with 1812 granite house, in 2004. The land around the house “was just an empty space surrounded by trees and swamp,” she says, standing in the pea-stone driveway at the top of the tranquil hillside. “There was a little puddle at the bottom.”

The couple, who previously lived in Greenwich, Connecticut, were shopping for a home near a city but with space to rehabilitate an increasing number of rescue animals — another of Banks’s interests. They found the farm on the Internet, but the house was a disaster. She made an offer so low she was sure the seller would refuse. Instead, she and Erik became the new owners.

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With 20-inch-thick fortress-like walls and two-story pointed arch windows, their home is among the oldest Gothic Revival structures in New England. It was built by General William King, Maine’s first governor, and is on the National Register of Historic Places. The couple restored the house, but the grounds were a longer project. The most notable features? An overgrown yew hedge lining the driveway and a dying apple tree — the last of many once planted by King.

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Banks designed the garden around an axis that begins at the front door, heads downhill through an 80-foot-long pergola, and ends at a statue of Neptune. “If you want a structured space, you need an axis line off of which everything is balanced,” she says. “Because of the slope, I had to make a lot of strange offsets to deceive the viewer into not noticing.”

The lush hillside swirls with color. Daffodils, iris, lilies, daisies, phlox, and peonies flank the pergola, itself covered with wisteria and hung with crystal chandeliers. A fieldstone path runs down the center. Banks dug the bordering beds 15 feet wide at the top and narrowed them to 8 at the bottom to make them appear longer.

“I read books on the old English philosophies of gardening and learned what looks best,” Banks explains, touring the garden. “The point is to have a continual symphony, so when one [plant] fades, another carries the tune.”

What the books didn’t explain was how to maintain it. “Those houses had 20 serfs!” she says with a laugh. The energetic Banks once single-handedly put in 75 hydrangeas, all of which she eventually moved. “If I do something,” says Banks, “I do it over the top.”

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Five larger-than-life statues, including Neptune with his trident and a pair of sitting toads, add interest and whimsy. “Some people think they’re tacky,” Banks admits, strolling past a concrete copy of Michelangelo’s David, a.k.a ‘‘the nude dude.’’

“My husband jokes we’re one short of a pizza parlor, but a Gothic garden would have had statues. It’s an element of fantasy, and they serve as a counterpoint to all the greenery.”

English and Asian influences abound — from a rose-covered archway to a low bridge joining twin lily ponds near a miniature stone pagoda. Banks says she was influenced by seeing famous writers’ gardens, including those of Rudyard Kipling and Jane Austen. “I created this garden so I could pretend I was living 200 years ago.”

A sheltering magnolia offers a prime spot to curl up with a book on the thick carpet of grass. Nearby, a path winds through evergreens and day lilies toward the bridge, which Banks found at a local garden shop. For years it sat on the front lawn until she could afford to dig and landscape the ponds. A landscape architect bid $80,000. Instead, Banks bought the materials and hired two crews — one that was repairing the house’s septic system — for $2,000 each to do the job.

“When you have a vision, you know how it’s going to work. So you just keep plugging away,” she says.

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Thickly mulched rhododendrons and hydrangeas form the periphery of the garden, which is fenced by a stone wall and lattice. A dirt lane leads to the barns, where Banks cares for 19 rescue horses, two donkeys, sheep, goats, turkeys, a scattering of chickens, geese, and even an abandoned peacock.

Walkers crane their necks to see what’s going on, and drivers occasionally park along the pine-forested road and amble through the iron gate, mistaking the farm for a public park — something Banks discourages because of her 14 rescue dogs.

In a nod to the former governor, she has planted eight apple trees. Owning such a historically significant property carries responsibility, Banks says. “I don’t want to fail the people who came before me.” She climbs past a bird fountain on her way to feed the animals. “I don’t feel like we own it,” she says. “We’re just caretakers.”

Meadow Rue Merrill is a writer in Maine. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.