SOUTH PARIS, Maine - For the better part of 60 years, the gate, left ajar, signaled that Bernard McLaughlin welcomed visitors into his backyard garden. On average, about 2,000 people a year took him up on the unspoken invitation, wandering in to see what magic this bank teller and grocery clerk had worked since their last visit.
It must have seemed like magic indeed to watch this two-acre garden grow over the decades, from a few flower beds and ornamental trees into a series of outdoor rooms linked by ribbons of mown grass. Though it is horticulturally sophisticated, it also evokes a sense of place and a Victorian sensibility that lingered in rural Maine throughout the 20th century. The plants should be familiar to New Englanders, even if they don't know them by name. Lilacs and azaleas, irises and peonies, roses and daylilies, sedums, asters, and dozens of other species of flowering plants bloom in sequence. Not only did the seasons provide changing scenes, the gardens themselves changed over the years as the landscape matured, and the gardener's knowledge and tastes expanded.
When the pines, oaks, and maples behind the barn grew tall and shaded the ground beneath them, for instance, McLaughlin created a shade garden where foliage of many colors and textures took center stage: hostas and ferns, sweet woodruff, native ginger, violets, lady's mantle, astilbe. In a sunnier spot, he planted more than 200 lilac cultivars and an even greater number of lilac bushes, the state's largest private collection. When he died, at 98, McLaughlin was known locally as the Dean of Maine Gardeners.
Today his garden draws 10,000 visitors a year, making it one of the largest cultural heritage attractions in western Maine, according to Michael Desplaines, executive director of the McLaughlin Foundation, which operates the property as a public garden. After McLaughlin's death in 1995, neighbors who could not bear to see the property sold formed this nonprofit charitable organization to rescue it. Ten years after opening to the public, the foundation paid off the mortgage, and the property is Maine's first landscape to achieve preservation status as a historic cultural resource.
Judging by its surroundings, the land almost certainly would have been subdivided, the house and gardens razed to make room for another fast-food joint or muffler shop in what has become a sprawling commercial strip on Route 26, the main road through South Paris. Instead, the white-clapboard farmhouse is a welcome oasis for the eyes amid the garish signs clamoring for attention.
Desplaines sees a silver lining in the sprawl. "When people say to me, 'What a shame this has happened all around you,' I tell them that if we didn't have this amount of traffic flowing by, we wouldn't get the number of visitors we need to keep going," he says.
Because the garden charges no admission - following McLaughlin's open-gate tradition - the foundation relies on donations and sales from a small plant nursery and the garden's extraordinary gift shop, which fills several downstairs rooms in the 150-year-old farmhouse. A seasonal cafe serves lunch on the screened porch and in an ell off the house. On nice days, the staff sets up a few tables in the driveway as well.
The garden's entrance, at the end of a tunnel-like barn, is one of its most compelling moments. As visitors walk toward the rectangle of light visible through the open door at the end, an enticing picture comes into focus: a shady patch of lawn, lined with hostas. In hot weather, the pool of shade lapping at the end of the vista exerts an especially strong pull. On a recent visit, two little girls, touring the garden with their father on a muggy day, clapped their hands in delight as they emerged into the verdant space.
For adults, the entry garden is more likely to conjure a feeling of tranquillity. Benches, on the edges under the high canopy of old trees, invite repose. Broad hosta leaves, some with a bluish cast, others striped with cream or olive or chartreuse, spread out into beds of lady's mantle, astilbe, and may apple. In spring, Desplaines says, this space is filled with Maine's fleeting woodland wildflowers: jack-in-the-pulpit, lady's slipper, bloodroot, and trillium. Dogwood blossoms seem to float against the forested backdrop.
Behind this space, the shadows deepen. A fieldstone wall leads the eye to a trail disappearing uphill into the woods. The sound of traffic, the heat of the pavement, fade away. This is not a garden of ornaments and structures. Here, the plants provide the "architecture" and direct the eye. After the curving beds of shade-loving perennials, the mown path gives way to several narrow trails, each leading to a separate space. Around the side of the house grow crabapple trees, striped maple and magnolia trees, sedums, more daylilies, lilacs, and other trees and shrubs McLaughlin prized for their ornamental qualities.
Another path leads into the expansive collection of lilacs, their twining trunks thinned to allow light to pass through. Beyond the lilacs the trail opens into a sunny patch of lawn inset with flower beds. The fresh mulch and the crisp edges of the beds attest to the hours of labor that go into maintaining the garden, making it hard to grasp that one man created and tended it alone.
"People come here from all over the world," Desplaines says. "It's remarkable. So we're trying to keep the spirit of the garden intact."
Jane Roy Brown can be reached at regan-brown.com.