Belfast Garden Club’s annual Open Garden series continues at Russell-Oakley garden

Jun 20, 2014
Photo by: Nancy C. Hauswald ​One of two young River Birch trees that frame the view of Penobscot Bay

Intimate paths and terraced levels lead to sweeping dramatic views of Penobscot Bay at the Belfast garden created by Bruce Russell and Andy Oakley, which will be open to the public on Friday, June 27, as part of the Belfast Garden Club’s annual Open Garden series.

Because the Russell-Oakley property slopes downward from the street and parking area to the main house and the sea beyond, their first challenge was to integrate the walk from the parking area, and its adjacent two-story guest house/studio, to the house.

“There were a lot of good things to work with here,” Andy says, “but the huge ledge between the studio and the house was the starting point. That inspired us to create levels and walls to divide spaces and improve circulation. We wanted to create a series of small paintings to enjoy as we walked from our car to our house.”

A large oak tree, complete with an old tree house that’s a replica of the main house, is a dominant presence and provides shade and natural structure to the plantings around it.

The owners have completely redesigned the transition space with beautiful granite steps, walkways and stone walls that both embrace and frame an elegant and intimate series of plantings. Each area of the now-terraced landscape looks as if it has been there forever, a delicate balance of natural and man-made beauty. In dappled sunlight, the space is serene and restful, reminiscent of the Asticou Gardens in Northeast Harbor, which both men freely acknowledge influenced their design. Plantings include rhododendron, astilbe, heuchera and hostas, which are accented with annuals. Several Japanese maples are an important design element here and throughout the property. They have planted numerous varieties, including Crimson Queen, Tamukeyama, Baldsmith, Waterfall, Orange Dream and Autumn Moon.

Andy and Bruce place a lot of importance on long-term planning and have a clear, shared vision of what they want to accomplish on their quarter-acre waterfront property.

“We don’t want the plantings to feel haphazard,” Andy says.

Given that both have had careers as civil engineers and Andy has worked in residential design, it’s perhaps not surprising that they’ve both worked hard to get a structure in place that flows seamlessly from the street to the sea.

When the property was purchased in 2008, some necessary renovation work meant that they had to remove some evergreens, including a cedar that had grown too close to the foundation.

“The trees had served their time, and it was time for them to go,” Bruce explained. “Our goal was to create a ‘nestled in’ feeling that those evergreens had helped to create and, although we’re not there yet, we’re headed in the right direction.”

After three summers Andy says, “it really feels like all of our plans are finally falling into place and the gardens are starting to mature.”

The largest garden area is on the south side of the house, the only place that receives full sun. After removing the existing cedars there, the men were presented with a blank canvas. Inspired by the Children’s Garden at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay Harbor, they planted three tall Weeping Norway Spruce at the back of the bed, along the house, to help create the “nestled in” look, and to create a dramatic backdrop for smaller plants toward the front of the bed, which include heather, a Boursault rhododendron, and a variety of annuals.

Approaching the south side of the house, with its wide-open expanse to the water, two beautiful, young River Birch trees provide a delicate frame for the view. The trees’ exfoliating, cinnamon-colored bark and delicate, lustrous leaves shimmer in the sunlight, reflecting the sparkling sea beyond.

New this summer is a small kitchen garden planted in four wooden tubs and three small raised beds. Tomatoes, basil, parsley and cilantro are now just outside the door for the picking.

The Russell-Oakley garden, like all gardens, is a work in progress. As the beds and plantings mature, they will be adding more deciduous, native plants, including azaleas, a plant that Andy is especially fond of — as a child, learning to propagate them was his introduction to gardening.

“We love buying plants from Carol Yee (Carol’s Collectibles Nursery in Swanville) — she has things that no one else around here does, including unusual native plants. She encourages us to try varieties and plants that are entirely new to us,” Bruce says.

The Russell-Oakley garden, at 14 North Ocean Street in Belfast, will be open on Friday, June 27, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. From Northport Avenue, turn onto Condon Street, toward the water. At the end of Condon Street, turn left on Ocean. This end of Ocean Street is very narrow and a dead-end; parking is extremely limited. Ample on-street parking is available on Condon Street and along the south side of Ocean Street.

This is the second of eight Open Gardens, all of which are on Fridays, rain or shine.

The next, on July18, is the Chase Family Farm in Freedom. The Chase family has been farming this land since 1972, growing the vegetables used in their family restaurant and indoor farmers’ market in Belfast.

All Open Gardens can be visited by purchasing a $25 season pass with eight garden admissions (available at The Good Table or Brambles on Main St. in Belfast, or at Scallions in Reny’s Plaza, or at Aubuchon Hardware on Route 1) or by making a $4 donation at each garden. For a complete schedule, visit belfastgardenclub.org or pick up a brochure at numerous retail businesses in and around Belfast. For more information about Open Gardens, call Martha Laitin (948-2815) or email marthalaitin@yahoo.com.

​One of the many Japanese maples at the Russell-Oakley seaside garden. (Photo by: Nancy C. Hauswald)
​The old oak tree provides shade and structure in the Russell-Oakley garden. (Photo by: Nancy C. Hauswald)
A beautifully planted terraced, shade garden. (Photo by: Nancy C. Hauswald)
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