The grounds of the governor’s home in Maine returns to its roots

Courtesy of Fieldstone Gardens.
After the site was stripped clean in 2006, the soil was amended, new turfgrass sod put down, and bulbs were installed infour écorner_ planting beds in the New England Garden.

Blaine House, the official residence for the governor of Maine, looks just as you might expect a historic New England home to look like: large, white and stately. Thanks to recent restoration, the same can be said of the surrounding landscape.

The grounds at the Blaine House (www.blainehouse.org) were designed by the Olmstead Brothers, famed landscape architects based near Boston, in 1920. The firm created three landscape settings, including the Shrub Garden, the Lawn and The New England Garden. They also created complementary outdoor spaces at the adjacent Maine State House.

One important part of the plans—the garden area beside the Blaine House—was never installed. As the years passed, it was mostly Mother Nature, not the Olmstead plans, that dictated the look of the area. In the late 1980s, when a restoration of the Blaine House itself was undertaken, work was also done to rehab the grounds. It wasn’t until 2006, however, that attention was finally turned to installing the formal area known as The New England Garden, which now occupies a position of prominence immediately adjacent to the mansion.

Courtesy of the Blaine House.
The completed gardens lend a formal look in keeping withthe important and historic Blaine House property.

Much work was needed to bring the space back to life after many years of overgrowth and underappreciation. The effort was led by Maine’s first lady, Karen Baldacci, a devoted gardener. “She actually found the original plans in a closet,” explains Steve Jones of Fieldstone Gardens, Inc. (www.fieldstonegardens.com), a perennial nursery and landscaping firm that was contracted to handle the installation of the New England Garden, and the company that continues to maintain the space.

Courtesy of Fieldstone Gardens.
While the installation of the New England Garden followed the historic Olmstead plans,the plants benefit from a modern irrigation system comprised of pop-up heads in the turfand interior garden, as well as drip irrigation installed throughout the perennial bedsaround the perimeter.

Marion Pressley of Pressley Associates in Cambridge, Mass. (www.pressleyinc.com), landscape architect and noted Olmstead expert, was commissioned to “adapt the 1920 Olmstead Brothers plan to existing site conditions and construction codes while remaining true to the Olmstead’s original design intent.”

This was no small task, says Gary Paul Forst of Pressley Associates, who assisted on the project. “It was believed that there may have been only one plant—a pepper viburnum—original to the property, but that was about it,” he explains. Still, Pressley Associates had the original plans. “We tried to put it back as closely as possible to the original design,” says Forst. “The original footprint of the site had changed a bit, but the part that we concentrated on is fairly accurate.”

The New England Garden is a rare example of an Olmstead work that puts a priority on “showy areas,” says Forst. “Most of Olmstead’s work was more natural, especially areas such as The Emerald Necklace [in Boston]. The garden at the Blaine House had some areas featuring tulips built into the original design. We tried to be as true as possible.”

Courtesy of The Blaine House.
The Maine state capitol building towers over the Blaine House property.

As in any historic landscape restoration project, some of the plant species called for in the original plans at the Blaine House weren’t available anymore, so recommendations for suitable alternatives were provided.

To create the New England Garden, the entire site—all existing plantings and turfgrass—were first stripped away. “At one time on this site, long ago, there had been a home. That was removed and the foundation filled in. After that, the area was mostly a blank slate of a lawn,” says Jones. The top 8 or 10 inches of soil was amended with new topsoil and compost prior to installation of a new sod lawn and the planting beds.

“We grew the plants. What plants that were called for that we didn’t grow, we were able to maintain,” says Jones. “A lot of it is pretty traditional to New England or cottage gardens—plants for cut flowers as well as color.” Johnny’s Selected Seeds (www.johnnyseeds.com), a Maine company, donated more than 500 daffodil and narcissus bulbs to the project.

The result of the annual and perennial beds, framed by walkways and surrounding a lush green courtyard of grass, is impressive. “There’s a walkway that goes around the courtyard area. On the perimeter of the outer garden, there are beds with some 2,000 to 3,000 sweet alyssum white plants that create quite a mass impact. It’s somewhat informal on the outer edges, and more formal on the interior,” describes Jones. “On the interior, there is a manicured lawn with four ‘mirror-imaged’ beds, made up mainly of annuals.” The plantings in these beds are chosen to showcase the changes in the plants’ appearance throughout each season. An arborvitae hedge screens the garden from the nearby street, creating a private effect.

On a whole, the grounds surrounding the Blaine House encompass roughly 2 acres, about 75 percent of which consists of turfgrass and landscape plantings (of that, about 75 percent is made up of the lawns and a vegetable/cutting garden; the rest is flower and landscape plantings).

Since the restoration, a maintenance program has been put in place to preserve the design. “For example, both annual and perennial plantings follow the Olmsted plans and are reviewed by the first lady, the Blaine House Commission and the Friends of the Blaine House,” explains Sue Plummer, residence director at the Blaine House. The Friends of the Blaine House, a nonprofit group that oversees the property and house, heads up all historic preservation efforts and also raises funds for such special projects.

Courtesy of The Blaine House.
The New England Garden recently installed at the Blaine House in Maine (the governor’s official residence) was the result of aneffort to finally put in place the original Olmstead plans drawn up in 1920.

The maintenance of the New England Garden, including the plantings and any fertilizer applications needed to the lawn area, is handled by Fieldstone Gardens, with the Maine’s Bureau of General Services providing mowing services. There is a garage facility on-site for storing maintenance equipment, and the crew is aided by an irrigation system—a vital tool that wasn’t available to the original groundskeepers. “We now have pop-up heads on the turf area and some of the garden areas, and the major perennial gardens on the perimeter have drip irrigation,” says Jones.

Of course, there are added challenges that wouldn’t have been as much of an issue decades ago. Today, the grounds around the Blaine House are open to the public on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, as well as for special events. “There are a number of special events, garden parties and teas that are held in the garden,” says Jones, so Fieldstone Gardens employees coordinate carefully to ensure that maintenance is scheduled at times that don’t interfere with those events. “We’re usually in there at least every couple of weeks. We plant the annuals, grow some of the annuals, and handle everything from weeding, dead-heading, pruning and shrub care, and fertilization,” he explains.

Jones says he gets great joy out of working on such a high-profile, historic property, and adds that Maine’s first lady is supportive of the gardens. “Mrs. Baldacci is great to work with,” he says. “She comes out frequently, and it’s nice to chat with someone who really understands plants and horticulture.”

The gardens, now entering their fourth growing season, are still relatively new, “so they’re just starting to fill in. Soon, we’ll need to do a little fine-tuning—some light-duty pruning, dividing and relocating,” says Jones. All part of keeping newly restored gardens looking the way the Olmstead Brothers intended.

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 13 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vt., and is always on the lookout for unusual stories.