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Home » PEOPLE AND PLACES » MAINE » The Other Maine
Viola Cornuta, also known as “Jumping Jacks”
The Other Maine

Working the Earth

By Alex Seise | May 29, 2012

Previous Article in this Series

The first time David and I browsed online real estate listings for Northern Maine, we looked at each other and mouthed the same question: where, pray tell, are all the gardens?

The First Blossoms on a Dolgo Crabapple Tree

A quick look through many current listings begs the same question two years on. Most listed homes feature one of two landscaping styles: a seemingly eternal lawn punctuated by the odd tree, or a paved paradise totally encircling the home’s foundation.

But once you step foot in the Other Maine, it becomes readily apparent that those photos aren’t wholly representative of the area’s gardening philosophy.

Before delving deeper, a bit of background is helpful.

Many in-town homes in the Saint John Valley are situated close to the road. This is a practical throw-back to older times when many of the houses were first constructed. The benefits are three-fold.

First, a shorter driveway means less time spent shoveling snow. Second, by clustering houses together close to the road, winter winds are broken up and radiant heat keeps the neighborhood a degree or two warmer than outlying residential areas.

Third, smaller plots of land require less maintenance - freeing up more time to focus on work, family life and social activities.   It’s this third benefit that has transformed the way many Northern Mainers think about gardening.

Instead of large, sprawling landscaping, many gardens in Aroostook County are downsized to small, meticulous plots. Each plant is carefully selected for space and hardiness constraints. In true Acadian fashion, the plots are tended with care and kept free of weeds and other distasteful clutter. In tiny front yards, the beds are frequently raised. This adds aesthetic value, but more importantly, it protects perennials from an onslaught of salt seeping off thawing roadways during spring.

A Bleeding Heart Shrub Bursts Into Life

When driving along Route 1 through the many towns in Northern Aroostook, it’s strikingly obvious which plants grow well in the region. A handful of species dominate the lawns and tiny gardens along the road.

Many residents rely on tried-and-true favorites to impart bursts of color. Among the list: lilacs, arborvitae, barberry shrubs and bulb flowers like tulips and daffodils. Each year, these trustworthy plants return with exuberance and finesse to provide another season of colorful charm.

This year, David and I decided to transform our gardens from a long one-foot bed to a much larger effort. Our goal was to incorporate many of these trusted favorites while pushing the envelope with a few other species, including witch hazel, Haralred and yellow transparent apples and a snowball bush.

After clearing the beds and filling them with soil, we ran into our first snag: who sells good, hardy plants?

Our foray into the local K-Mart was marginal at best. Though they did have some florae, nothing quite matched what we planned to plant. Just as we resigned ourselves to ordering the trees online and buying shrubs at the Lowe’s in Presque Isle, a helpful neighbor dropped a tip about a nursery in Fort Kent.

Blueberry Buds Just Starting to Unravel

Off we went, past the downtown shops and the marker designating the terminus of Route 1. A few hundred feet later, we pulled into Pelletier Florist Greenhouses and Garden Center, an oasis among the land of hills and forests.

Unlike many of the big box stores, local operations like Pelletier stock products specific to their clients’ growing zones. In the case of the Saint John Valley, this is anywhere from zone 2 to zone 4 on the USDA plant hardiness map.

While the official word is somewhere around zone 3b, some locals insist it is a bit lower than that in the zone 2 area while others contend that encroaching warmth and eroding winters are pushing the region closer to zone 4.

After buying no less than six trees, five shrubs and a handful of other hanging baskets and urns across three separate trips, we finally got down to planting.

As in most of the northeast, the soil in Madawaska is rocky. Any holes deeper than a few inches are nearly impossible to till without machinery, and even then, there are no guarantees that boulders won’t turn up. We were lucky and only encountered a few small stones.

Even after finishing up our planting in mid-May, we still had to deal with the nightly chore of bringing all of the potted and hanging plants inside as temperatures dipped close to freezing. After all, in the Other Maine, the growing season is short and temperamental; but the rewards for those who tend the land are nothing short of spellbinding.

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