BOOTHBAY, Maine - In a grove of evergreens, two girls sit at the base of a tall white pine, propping twigs in front of a hollow between the roots. "This is a great place," says Ursula McPherson-Vitkus, 12, of Tallahassee. She brushes away some pine needles so that the "timbers" of the miniature lean-to poke into the forest floor. "I've never been here before."
Her friend Elizabeth Simonds, 11, who lives in nearby Newcastle, has been a regular visitor to the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens since it opened, in spring 2007. And when she comes, she heads to the Fairy House Village.
Judging from the dozens of little houses occupying this backyard-sized patch of forest, she has had plenty of company. Made of sticks and stones, birch bark, and pine cones, each miniature shelter is unique. Some are large enough for only Tinker Bell-sized fairies, while others could accommodate a portly garden gnome.
Built by children who leave them for elfin creatures, these structures are in varying states of repair. It's clear which are new and which are returning to the forest floor. The homes of fairies, it seems, last only a little longer than it takes to imagine them. But while they stand, their variety and ingenuity pay tribute to the power of play.
One girl, immersed in her own world, doesn't even look up when other kids laugh or call out. Meanwhile, Joshua Ovadia, 5, visiting from Brunswick, clutches a fistful of sticks as he zigzags through the sprawl of tiny buildings, inspecting them to see whether they need repairs. Plenty of them do, but alas, none of his twigs are the right size. He claps one hand to his forehead. "Mom," he calls out, "can I build my own house?"
His mother, who is chatting with a friend at a picnic table next to the trail, calls back: "Of course you can, honey." The boy's face brightens, and he starts scouting out a construction site.
Modeled on a similar Lilliputian community on Maine's Monhegan Island, Fairy House Village is but a small piece of the surrounding botanical gardens - 248 acres of sloping meadows, woodland, and growing horticultural displays that hold their own magic. With almost a mile of tidal waterfront on the Back River, the property lies on a scenic stretch of shoreline. Although the shore itself is discreetly fenced off, the river exerts a strong presence, shimmering beyond the screen of dark conifers and sending out an aroma of seaweed at low tide.
The looping path system, most of which is wide and smooth enough for wheelchairs and strollers, follows the terrain's ups and downs. Prominent stonework throughout the gardens ties the varied spaces together. One of the landscape architects who designed the gardens, Bruce Riddell of Bar Harbor, added chunks of granite to the natural outcroppings along the path. Some of the rough stones provide seating. Others make up the "ledges" of the waterfalls themselves. Fieldstone walls, new and old, speak to the land's farming history.
The journey through the gardens begins near the visitors center at the Great Lawn, an open oval of turf edged by perennials, with a silvery kinetic sculpture that whirls in the coastal breeze. To the right lies another popular kids' attraction: a compound of eight play gardens that contain intriguing structures and bright plants. These gardens are temporary - the institution will begin building the permanent Alfond Children's Garden on this spot next year - but they are a hit, judging from childrens' responses. On a steamy Saturday in July, boys escaped the sun in what looks like a giant straw cornucopia. Little girls pranced through a garden enclosed by a sky-blue fence daubed with white clouds. Other kids darted about a fantasy castle and a loose structure of sticks.
But the gardens aren't just for kids. Across the Great Lawn from the visitors center, an extensive arbor and a gazebo top an eye-grabbing ledge. Five gardens, a term used here to encompass all kinds of designed spaces, fan out behind the structures: a forest pond, a kitchen garden, a rose and perennial garden, a woodland garden, and another lawn, for events.
Beyond these gardens, paths meander downhill, concealing surprise destinations along the way through the artful use of switchbacks, plantings, and stone. Benches, salted all along the paths, provide respite from the sometimes demanding slope.
The Haney Hillside Garden comes next, a series of restful spots tucked along a densely planted section of path. Moss and an imposing urn accent stone benches on the Moss Landing, a waterfall greets visitors at the landing opposite, and a glittering glass orb catches the eye. After this, the water sparkles through the trees, and the path diverges.
To the left lies the meditation garden, which, at first glance, looks like a small-scale Stonehenge, with its tumble of vertical and horizontal slabs surrounding a ceremonial clearing.
The right-branching path, the Shoreland Trail, skirts the riverbank en route to the Fairy House Village, marked by a sign woven into a rustic twig fence. (From the visitors center to fairyland is 0.4 mile.) Farther down the trail, a clearing with benches marks the Shoreland Garden of Native Plants, offering one of the best views of the river.
Golf-cart shuttles stop where the Shoreland Trail meets the Birch Allée, a former road flanked by young birches and grass, to pick up anyone who wants to skip the uphill climb. Those who head downhill on the Allée can follow the trail for another quarter-mile to the Giles Rhododendron & Perennial Garden. This secluded spot, a shaded pool and waterfall at the base of a lushly planted knoll, is one of the most successful spaces on the property.
Jane Roy Brown can be reached at regan-brown.com.