Creative cottage garden in the country

By Nancy C. Hauswald | Aug 01, 2014
Audrey Muir's garden.

Brooks — A country garden bursting at the seams with color, combined with stunningly beautiful new hardscapes, and an astonishing variety of perennials, annuals, herbs and vegetables awaits visitors at Audrey and Paul Muir’s garden on Friday, Aug. 8. Their enchanting garden in Brooks is part of the Belfast Garden Club’s annual Open Garden series, and one that no gardener — novice or master — should miss.

Audrey’s zest for life is infectious and reflected in the joyous environment she has created with Paul. There is something to amuse, intrigue, delight or simply enjoy at every turn. Their collective talents have not gone unnoticed by local and national press. The garden gate that Audrey made, on which she spelled out “HERBS” in twigs, was the September photograph in the 2012 Maine Gardens calendar. The Muir’s ingenuity was the subject of a cover story — “The Frugal Gardener: Make It, Don’t Buy It” — in a 2005 issue of Garden Ideas & Outdoor Living. The charming potting shed that serves as a focal point in the landscape was featured in the book Potting Places (Teri Dunn). And finally, Gardens Maine Style (2001), by Rebecca Sawyer with photographs by Lynn Karlin, features the Muir garden on three different pages.

The front yard of the Muir’s house presages the abundance of flowers that lie beyond the garden gate. Daisies, Echinacea, lupine, astilbe, buddleia, snapdragons and baptisia spill over the picket fence and the stone path that leads to the front door of their saltbox. But it’s the path to the right of the house — the one that leads to “Audrey’s Garden,” as a hand painted sign notes — that pulls visitors into the secret garden that lies beyond.

A brand new large stone patio, just completed in late July, is the centerpiece of the garden.

“We had a lot of water damage over the years because so much of our property slopes down hill toward the house," Audrey said. "The poor drainage eventually took its toll and, this year, we knew we had to undertake a major renovation. Once they started digging, we realized the problem was even worse than we thought. But in the end, we’ve doubled the size of our patio, rebuilt and widened all of the garden paths, have a beautiful new stone wall and terraces, and best of all, I don’t have to ice skate to the hot tub any more!”

Audrey and the landscape designer worked together to fashion the shape of the new patio and its “circle of stones” in the center that serves as a focal point for an antique iron stand and bean pot that spills over with petunias and sweet potato vines. Several stone paths lead from the patio, each overflowing with delightful surprises. Hollyhocks bloom against the backdrop of the potting shed and a rusted, long-ago abandoned bicycle leans against a tree. Cucumbers thrive in a hollowed-out tree trunk near a trellised bed of tomatoes. Bright red sour cherries bloom on a young tree next to a raised bed of garlic, their scapes creating mobile-like sculptures in the faintest breeze.

Shortly after Audrey and Paul moved to Brooks from Massachusetts in 1991, they met Kate Nadeau, a professional gardener who then owned Stone Soup Farm in Monroe. Audrey and Kate became good friends and, as Audrey says, “Kate taught me so much. From the start, she was instrumental in helping me create the overall feel and design here. Above all, she taught me that every season has its beauty and that, ideally, a garden in Maine should reflect that.”

Summer, of course, is the crown jewel of the Maine year and when the Muir garden is at its peak. Beyond the numerous beds of perennials and annuals is a series of raised beds and fenced in plots where Paul and Audrey have planted tomatoes, blueberry bushes, potatoes, rhubarb, pole beans, sugar snap peas and more. “Raised beds work, very, very, well for us,” Audrey says. “It’s so much easier to keep the weeds down.”

The Muir garden isn’t “just” about flowers, however. On one side of the house they’ve established a linear series of trees and shrubbery that provides a green and gold backdrop for under plantings. One of Audrey’s most cherished trees there is a Fernleaf Buckhorn that was a birthday gift from Kate Nadeau many years ago. The line of plantings culminates in a lush grouping of evergreens that frames an open field beyond.

Audrey is at work in her gardens by 5 a.m. most summer mornings, and counts herself as extremely lucky to be doing this work she so dearly loves. Two years ago, she was felled by a sudden and serious illness. Today, smiling at her beloved hollyhocks she says, “I’m lucky to be here.” Visitors to the Muir garden on Aug. 8 will also count themselves lucky to experience such a beautiful and creative garden.

This is the sixth of eight Open Gardens, all of which are on Fridays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., rain or shine. The next, on Aug. 15, is The Maine Garden in Waldo, which showcases the thousands of daylilies that Bill Warman has hybridized. Through his tireless efforts, he has created lilies with increased color saturation in petals, ruffled petals and new color combinations.

All Open Gardens can be visited 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 at 948-2815 or email marthalaitin@yahoo.com.

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