To call Ken Cleaves a dedicated gardener would be an understatement. He worked at gardening, caring for an extensive estate near Camden for years. He’s also put his hands to a number of trades: Weaving, running a warehouse, working as a longshoreman in California, shearing Maine island sheep and carpentry.

Ken Cleaves at home in Shleppinghurs. Photo by Lynette Walther

And, for the past two decades, Cleaves has labored to transform an old granite quarry in Lincolnville into a place of wonder, beauty and harmony. Lucky for you, Cleaves loves to share that accomplishment with visitors.

A native of Cape Cod, Cleaves estimates he’s spent most of his life gardening, noting his childhood penchant for pruning. “I found out I enjoy the process of pruning,” he said of an activity that foretold his interest in Japanese gardens where 85% of the live components are usually evergreens that have been trimmed and trained. His childhood included summer visits to Maine, and he moved here full-time in 1975.

Though he says he’s “retired” now, Cleaves stretched that term to include a full-week’s worth of work, every week, of designing, building, tending, pruning, maintaining and even mowing his sublime Japanese-style gardens called Shleppinghurst, that sprawl across several acres on the site of an old black granite quarry. And it is that quarry, though smaller in scope than many that dot the state, and the ledges that surround it, that are the dominant features of his garden.

Using the granite “tailings,” leftovers from years of quarrying granite, and working alone Cleaves has paved more than a mile of pathways that lead from ledge to ledge, wooded glade to rocky vignette, to open field to the quarry itself with its deep pool of water that, today, serves not to carve up slabs of stone destined for graveyard headstones, but more likely to provide a private pond for a host of bullfrogs. Along the way, and over the years, his garden has evolved, grown in size and scope as elements have been added or existing ones enhanced.

“It started out as a flower garden,” Cleaves relates. That flower garden has morphed into a well-tended Japanese garden that includes hundreds, if not thousands, of trees, shrubs and perennials — many native — that this gardener molded into a calm and serene Japanese-style garden tucked into a bit of rural Maine. And he has done it all “by hand,” with a come-along or levers and a wheel barrow.

That last revelation about Shleppinghurst may come as a surprise to those who visit the garden, because some of the elements are huge, and all qualify as heavy. And, in truth, the gardens themselves were done on what many would call a “shoestring.” Cleaves has divided, rooted by layering branches, grown from seed and otherwise propagated most of the growing stock that make the setting so special. Years of tending, pruning and training have resulted in stunningly-beautiful specimen trees and shrubs that blend with and enhance the stone structures and ledges.

“At first I bought plants, but now I don’t buy many plants,” he admits. “I have concentrated on things that are not invasive, and we’re a Zone 4 or 5 here. So I choose Zone 3 plants when possible.” And the plant matter must also be at least somewhat deer-resistant because they and many other wild animals have the run of the property.

A huge old tree snag provides nesting for owls, and eagles are frequent visitors to Shleppinghurst, as are the deer, rabbits, chipmunks, bobcats and other wildlife. The extensive use of native trees and shrubs in particular enhance the experience for all who visit. Some of the native specimens are uncommon and found in few places in the state, like the glade of Atlantic white cedars Cleaves protects and nurtures, and which now are slowly spreading on their own.

He cites a “strength” he has brought to light in that rolling piece of land, and over the years he thinks it has spoken to him. “I’m the right piece of land, are you the right guy?” Go see for yourself if indeed he has lived up that promise.

Using what was on hand, Cleaves paved a mile or more of walkways in the Japanese fashion throughout the expansive garden. Photo by Lynette Walther

Reservations are required, and there is a two-person minimum for a visit which includes a personal tour by Ken Cleaves himself. During the hour to hour-and-a half tour, Cleaves will point out special elements and describe and identify plants and trees.

Forested areas contain understory trees like mountain and moose maple and native perennials, many seasonally-flowering plants as well. Walkways are stone, brick or wood and visitors should wear sturdy walking shoes and insect repellent is recommended because, depending on the time of year, there will likely be black flies and/or mosquitos. A donation of $10 per person is recommended. For reservations, call 207-763-4019.

Lynette L. Walther is the GardenComm Gold medal winner for writing and a five-time recipient of the GardenComm Silver Medal of Achievement, the National Garden Bureau’s Exemplary Journalism Award. She is a member of GardenComm and the National Garden Bureau. Her gardens are in Camden.