Arts & Leisure

Judith’s Garden: Garden jewels of Mount Desert Island

THE SAND GARDEN at Asticou evokes coastal islands in a shimmering sea. Photo by Dick Conrad

Every summer crowds of visitors flock to Maine’s Mount Desert Island to hike the beautiful windswept hills of Acadia National Park and enjoy the bustling seaside town of Bar Harbor.
But few are aware that, only 10 miles along the coast from Bar Harbor in the little village of Northeast Harbor, a trio of exquisite hidden gardens, now owned and maintained by the Land and Garden Preserve, await your discovery.
Two of these gardens, Asticou and Thuya, just two miles apart, were created in a one frenetic year by Charles Savage, a native of Northeast Harbor using the plants from the nearby property of the famous landscape architect, Beatrix Farrand. But the gardens could not be more different.
I have yet to visit the third garden, the Abbey Aldrich Rockefeller Garden. A study in formality it was originally designed by Beatrix Farrand between 1926 and 1930. Two years ago the Rockefeller family bequeathed it to the Land and Garden Preserve, and now it is open to the public three days a week although advance reservations are required.
Asticou Azalea Garden: meticulous and serene
In creating Asticou, Savage was inspired by the rugged Maine coast he loved, which he interpreted through Japanese design ideals.
The formal gateway to the garden marks the transition from the bustle of the outside world to the quiet serenity within, with a meticulously raked gravel pathway edged with magnificent carpets of pincushion moss. We watched, almost in disbelief, as an attendant gently brushed the soft green carpets to remove any stray pine needles that might have dropped the previous night.
Throughout the garden, raked sand paths, following the meandering brook strewn with weathered Maine boulders, took us past beautiful azaleas and rhododendrons.
Eventually we reached the Great Pond surrounded with mature azaleas and evergreens all reflecting in the water.
Finally, on our return, we discovered a traditional Japanese sand garden with carefully positioned rocks set in raked sand, symbolizing the Acadian islands set in a shimmering sea.
Thuya Garden
Thuya Garden is set high on an enclosed hilltop, surrounding Thuya Lodge that was the longtime home of Joseph Curtis, a Victorian landscape architect.
Visitors approach on foot, climbing the spectacular rocky staircase known as the Asticou Terraces.
At the top a pair of grand carved gates announce your arrival at Thuya Garden. (For people unable to make the climb, there is handicap parking available at the Lodge).
At the north end, formal beds filled with colorful perennials are reminiscent of the preeminent English designer, Gertrude Jekyll.
As you stroll south raised beds edged in massive blocks of local pink granite are home to more flowers, while a small pond evokes the wilder landscape of Acadia.
Finally at the southern tip of the garden look for the hidden gate in the wall. This leads to a rustic mountain path that takes you to Eliot Mountain with a spectacular view across the sea and nearby islands. I wonder — was this the view that inspired Charles Savage as he created the Japanese Sand Garden at Asticou?
Drawing back the curtain of time
Sometimes the story surrounding the creation of a garden adds immeasurably to our enjoyment of the garden itself. This is certainly the case with the gardens of Mount Desert Island. It is the story of Charles Savage and his three special friends, and the incredible events that connected them.
Charles Savage
Charles Savage was a life-long native of Northeast Harbor and innkeeper of the family-owned Asticou Inn. By all accounts he was a dapper man who mingled comfortably with the well-heeled visitors to Northeast Harbor — people who resided in Boston for most of the year but, during summer’s heat, retreated to Mount Desert Island.
Savage was also a self-taught but very skilled landscape designer. And among his very special summer friends he counted two well-known and respected landscape architects, Joseph Curtis and Beatrix Farrand.
Joseph Curtis
Back in 1880 Joseph Curtis purchased the steep rocky hillside across from Northeast Harbor known as the Asticou Terraces and created the Asticou Terrace Trail. This beautiful stone staircase interspersed with scenic pavilions, runs from sea level to the upper reaches of his property where he built a rustic retreat called Thuya Lodge (for Thuya occidentals, his beloved native white cedars).
Then, as a gift for future generations, in 1905 he bequeathed his entire property to become “a public preserve for the quiet recreation of the people of Northeast Harbor and their summer guests.”
Finally, to ensure his wishes would be honored, he created an endowment trust and named his great friend, Charles Savage, as sole trustee.
Beatrix Farrand
Beatrix Farrand was a pioneering woman landscape architect who, during her long career, designed an array of noteworthy properties, including the famous Dumbarton Oaks in Washington D.C.
Her parents owned a large estate on Mount Desert Island known as Reef Point, and it was here she would design her own extensive gardens. The gardens were designed in part to showcase many very special trees and shrubs given to her by Charles Sargent, her former teacher and mentor and director and plant breeder at Boston’s famous Arnold Arboretum.
John D. Rockefeller Jr.
John D. Rockefeller Jr., the only son of Standard Oil founder J.D. Rockefeller Sr. had a successful business career. At heart however he was a philanthropist who supported a vast array of social, scientific and artistic causes.
JDR Jr. and his wife Abby were also true garden lovers, and in 1926 commissioned their neighbor Beatrix Farrand to design a beautiful garden for their Mount Desert Island property.
Also it would not be long before Charles Savage also counted JDR Jr. as one of his special summer friends.
And, because of this relationship, as we shall see, he also financed the creation of both Asticou and Thuya Gardens.
Two gardens are born
Suddenly, in 1955, out of the blue, everything changed. A disastrous wildfire on the island resulted in a sudden increases in taxes.  Beatrix, realizing she no longer had the means to properly maintain her home, decided to sell Reef Point.
She also knew she could not bear to witness her beloved gardens descend into decline. So, in a single determined move, she resolved to destroy everything, including all the rare plants that had been given to her by Charles Sargent.
After hearing about Beatrix’s precipitous decision to destroy all her beautiful plants, Savage was utterly devastated.
Then his thinking side took over. He approached his good friend, JDR Jr., suggesting that he should purchase the entire Reef Point plant collection. Furthermore, Savage proposed transforming the swampy land he owned at the head of the Northeast Harbor inlet into a brand new garden as a home to these special plants.
Amazingly JDR Jr. agreed to finance everything.
For almost a year Savage worked obsessively on the mammoth undertaking that resulted in Asticou Azalea Garden. First he oversaw the extensive site preparation — draining the swampy land, creating rocky waterways and finally excavating what would become the Great Pond. Then he supervised as hundreds of full size trees and shrubs — evergreens, azaleas and more — were dug at the Farrand property and replanted at Asticou.
As the year wore on Savage realized that, with Farrand’s extensive perennial collection, he needed additional land. So he turned to the Curtis estate (where fortuitously he was the trustee), developed the new design and oversaw the remaining planting of what was to become the new Thuya Garden.
Thus the strange turn of events in 1955 resulted in the creation of two beautiful new gardens as a home for Farrand’s plant collection. And today, along with the personal garden she designed for John and Abby Rockefeller, all three gardens are now lovingly maintained by the Garden and Land Preserve,.
So, whenever you have occasion to visit the beautiful Maine coast, plan an extra day to visit the very special gardens of Mount Desert Island. You will not be disappointed.
Judith Irven and Dick Conrad live in Goshen where together they nurture a large garden.
Judith is a Vermont Certified Horticulturist and teaches Sustainable Home Landscaping for the Vermont Master Gardener program. You can subscribe to her blog about her Vermont gardening life at
Dick is a landscape and garden photographer; you can see more of his photographs at northcountryimpressions.

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