Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens

Rare and Extraordinary Plants in Boothbay Harbor


By Carol Papas ©2016
Penn State Master Gardener

“It’s a Maine day!” my neighbor would exclaim on perfect Pittsburgh days with crisp, cool air and impossibly blue skies. Work in the garden is a pleasure on days like that. There is no better way to experience such a day than visiting the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay Harbor.

n 1996, a group of residents purchased 128 acres of land with 3,600 feet of tidal shore frontage using their own homes as collateral. In 2007, the garden opened its doors to the public.


It's not just a place for plant nerds. A stroll through the colorful gardens is a treat for all. This year’s theme is “Rare and Extraordinary Plants,” a celebration of gems of the plant world.

Guests at the visitor center are greeted by a great lawn bordered by meadow plantings. Opposite the visitor center is Whale Rock, a formation of Bucksport schist that was wisely left in place by the garden’s designers. Perched atop Whale Rock, guests can take in the immense natural space they are about to enjoy.

Along ponds, streams and shorefront, visitors are treated to permanent plantings, changing displays and the natural beauty of the Maine coast.

“It’s not a cookie-cutter garden but one that speaks to Maine by virtue of the design, hardscape and plants,” writes Dr. Michael Dirr, arguably the dean of American horticulture. “I have visited many gardens. This one has a soul.”

Plants that can be a challenge to grow in our more humid climate thrive at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens. Gardeners who’ve attempted to grow lupines will see them growing like weeds in the climate they prefer.

Paths meander through the upper central gardens, which include the Lerner Garden of the Five Senses, Cleaver Event Lawn and Garden, Woodland Garden, Perennial and Rose Garden, the Bibby and Harold Alfond Children’s Garden and the Burpee Kitchen Garden.

The children’s garden is a place of whimsy and fun inspired by characters in classic children’s books. There is a sculpture of a bear from Robert McCloskey’s classic, “Blueberries for Sal,” a tree house with a rope walk and a maze. To enter the working vegetable garden, visitors walk through an archway comprised of vintage garden tools sprouting from enormous watering cans.

Leaving the upper gardens, guests make their way down the Haney Hillside Garden, a slope with several terraced areas featuring plants indigenous to the Maine coast. One thousand feet of switchback paths link the terraces.


The terminus of this winding path is the Vayo Meditation Garden, where large blocks of granite from historic Maine quarries are paired with plantings of fern, moss and woodland ephemerals. A massive stone basin carved by artist David Holmes is filled with water, reflecting the sky above. The view beyond the garden is a saltwater cover, part of the Back River.

Trails branch out from the meditation garden. A highlight is the Giles Rhododendron Garden with a massive man-made waterfall. The garden features 250 varieties of rhododendron and hellebores, bulbs, epimedium species and ferns.

Executive director Bill Cullina has written numerous books and articles on horticulture and is a nationally known speaker in the field. In the foreword to the book “Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens: A People’s Garden” he writes: “I for one am thankful every day that I can be involved with something that celebrates life, splendor and joy. Call me a dreamer, but I believe the world would be better off if we all spent a little more time in the garden.”