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A Sense of Place: The Work of Garden Designer Caleb Davis in Maine

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A Sense of Place: The Work of Garden Designer Caleb Davis in Maine

August 12, 2022

Spending the summer in New England for the first time since moving away as a child, I have been struck by an extreme contrast in gardens: those that look on “old England” as the ideal, and another sort, which are seriously exciting. The latter don’t bother with neat mounds of clipped boxwood and straight paths, thrown like a grid over the landscape; instead they are more naturally in tune with the spirit of the place—as it is today—informed by layers of cultural history that stretch back much further than the colonists, while moving forward into the 21st century.

Creating a sense of place is the opposite of applying conventional wisdom; it has to do with immersion and a willingness to look and think. Caleb Davis of Songscape Gardens in Bar Harbor, Maine, works closely within his very particular location, drawing on a background in agro-ecology and stonework for his horticultural design focus. “This part of Maine has its unique attributes, which have a big role in how I’ve learned to use plants,” he explains. “The combination of the ecology and culture of the region is so central to how I approach my work that it would be challenging to take it and superimpose it somewhere else.”

It’s August—let’s visit Maine:

Photography by Caleb Davis.

Above: Views over Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island are a part of the everyday for people who live here year-round. The summer season sees a spike in visitors as well as plant growth, compressed into four months.

Caleb’s gardens have the effect of merging into the wilderness, with minimal intervention. “My ideal inhabited landscape does have plenty of gardening, but with more emphasis on the beauty found in process,” he says. “Gardening that is less about the finished product and more about the growing—of plants, communities of organisms, and ourselves.” Referencing the agricultural philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka, he continues: “We are often at more risk of doing too much than too little. I think there is a lot of truth to that in horticulture.”

Above: A tough community of plants including ‘Autumn Joy’ sedum, Echinacea purpurea, purple Agastache ‘Blue Fortune’, and green candelabras of budding Agastache nepetoides growing on heavy clay soil, with southern exposure and wind. There is no irrigation and nothing is staked. Caleb says he has long since moved on from fusspots like delphiniums that need to be propped up. “There are too many other things that do fine without staking, that are beautiful.”
Above: Self-sowers from the field that come into the garden include Erigeron annuus, Daucus carota (Queen Anne’s lace), Achillea millefolium (yarrow), Valerian officinalis, ox-eye daisy and goldenrod.
Above: A garden can be as simple as stone, trees and ground cover. When stone is part of the vernacular, it makes paving, low partitions, and animal drinking places.
Above: A waist-high wall and path made from granite pieces, left over from Maine’s once active granite industry.

“A big part of why I love stone work is because that is the one thing that people can enjoy, year round. People think of stone as a static element but when you have it in your landscape you start to realize that it’s dynamic in how it responds to weather. It’s fun to see the subtlety of changes throughout the seasons and as it ages. Seeing the rain and snow and frost interact with the stone is a really beautiful part of our winter landscape.”

Above: Round seed heads of Echinops ritro and purple spikes of Agastache ‘Blue Fortune contrast with golden Molinia caerulea subsp. arundinacea ‘Skyracer’ and feathered, silvery stems of Perovskia atriplicifolia.

Caleb does not adhere to the “Sisyphus endeavor” of forcing a design vision on to a place, that only works for the short window when summer people are in residence. “Our growing season is so short. It’s another reason why trying to superimpose more classical horticultural visions on to the landscape is really hard. It’s just such a unique place.”

Above: Either side of the fence. “‘I use these minimal stone and wooden elements to create a frame that people need.”

Caleb has planted robust, competitive garden cultivars such as Rudbeckia laciniata, Coreopsis tripteris, Filipendula rubra ‘Venusta’, and Eupatorium maculatum ‘Gateway’ beyond this garden’s perimeter, putting them straight into the surrounding vegetation, without doing a lot of digging. Newly unearthed soil is a magnet for weeds, and the permaculture method known as ‘chop and drop’ is useful here: “Instead of pulling out weeds that are competing with the plants you’re growing, you’re cutting them at their base and leaving the herbaceous material right there, as mulch. It’s a way of nudging back wild species; creating a bit of space for your planting and using it as a mulch in place.”

Above: A new dry stacked wall, made of field stone and granite pieces.

Caleb and his team like to mix granite with field stone, the irregular shaped rock associated with farm walls throughout New England. “It’s glacial till, a mix of types of stones, and a range of colours and shapes.” The above wall is a typical Songscape endeavor, a mix of field stone and blockier granite pieces. “When you use the dry stacked field stone with granite, there’s an informality—but it also adds a nice formal structure,” says Caleb. Informally formal is as formal as it gets.

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