Everything you need to know about gardening in Maine

Everything you need to know about gardening in Maine

Written by Virginia M. I saw
Illustrations by Kelsey Grass
From the May/June 2019 issue of Maine Bay Down East Homes

With its harsh weather and short summers, Maine can seem intimidating to novice gardeners, as green thumbs move in from warmer climates. The good news is that gardening in Maine is actually no more difficult than anywhere else. In fact, Bruce Riedel, a landscape architect in Boothbay, says gardeners in many parts of the state can choose from a larger selection than their southern counterparts, limited to species that can withstand months of extreme heat and drought. “We’re blessed in Maine with long, warm summer days and cool nights, and a lot of hardy perennials are here,” he says.

Helping them succeed is a matter of recognizing obstacles and developing strategies to deal with them. “Our growing season is limited — that’s the biggest challenge,” says Marjorie Peronto, a University of Maine Cooperative Extension professor in Hancock County and co-author with Reiser Manley. Year of the Gardener in New England And Life in your garden. “So you enjoy it as much as possible, and if you plan appropriately, you can have a wonderful garden.”

Know your area

Maine is divided into six USDA plant hardiness zones—zones defined by the average minimum annual temperature. (Find your zone here.) Knowing your zone helps you choose perennials, shrubs and trees that thrive in your climate. If you live in Kittery, for example, you’ll need plants labeled hardy to zone 6a, meaning they can withstand temperatures as low as -10 degrees. In contrast, Presque Isle is in Zone 4a, where it is not uncommon to see mid-winter temperatures as low as -25 to -30 degrees.

“I err on the conservative side,” says Peronto, who lives in Ellsworth. “We are zone 5b, but I recommend people get plants that are hardy to zone 4, which will likely survive through the winter.”

However, it can be fun to push the limits, especially since each property has microclimates, where conditions may be gentler or harsher than average. Why not try your luck with some beautiful buddhas that love a mild climate in a place protected from the wind? “At worst, they end up becoming expensive annuals,” Riddell says. His advice: “Make sure the base of your garden is filled with the toughest, toughest plants, then go ahead and spray your crazy perennials. Just know you might lose them.”

Set up your site

Before you start digging a bed, track the sun in your garden throughout the day, advises Tom Estabrook, owner of Estabrook Garden Center in Yarmouth. “Measure the number of hours of sunlight. Is it morning or afternoon sun? Is there direct sunlight, shade or partial shade? It makes a difference in helping you decide what to plant and where.”

Shovel into the soil

Use caution when selecting plants for locations exposed to cold winter winds. Azaleas, mountain laurel, rhododendrons and other evergreen plants are susceptible to winter burn, which turns the leaves brown and may kill the plants. Edge can also be a problem, especially along the coast where it may lie only a few inches below the soil, leading to poor drainage that kills plants. Deal with it by building raised beds or a retaining wall to retain extra soil.

Maine’s soil tends to be acidic, which plants like heather, hydrangeas and rhododendrons prefer, but most do best in a more neutral environment. This $18 Co-op soil test can tell you your soil’s pH — and much more. “I think the soil test is like a blood test,” Peronto says. “If you don’t, you don’t know what you’re working with.” The process is easy: fill the small collection box with soil, answer a few questions, then send it to the lab. Within a few weeks, you will receive a report listing your soil pH, organic matter levels, and nutrients, as well as specific recommendations for amendments, such as lime to reduce acidity or blood meal to raise nitrogen.

Mix it up

The most reliable plants are Maine native species and “native plants” (native-derived varieties) – perennials such as asters, pecan plants, button bushes, goldenrod, scented ferns, pagoda dogwoods, red maples and summer sweets. “These plants have proven themselves over a long period of time,” says Jennifer Dunlap, a horticulturist at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay. “They’re used to the climate and habitat, so they need less maintenance. Plus, they’re beautiful.”

A plant that grows from the soil

There are countless showy non-native species that do well here too, and as long as you care about hardiness, there’s no reason not to use them. Harder-to-kill options include astilbes, black-eyed Susans, coneflowers, mints, daylilies, delphiniums, hibiscus, hostas, sedum, and sage. For shrubs and trees, consider boxwoods, hydrangeas, dogwoods, lilacs, star magnolias, spireas and yews.

Although these plants are hardy, they still require nurturing as they grow. “You can’t just bury it in the ground and go on vacation,” Peronto says. “Any tree or shrub—and I’d say any perennial, too—needs 1 to 2 inches of water weekly above the root zone during the first year. This is so they can extend the root system into the soil and establish themselves well.

Avoid creating a monoculture, for example, by planting only elm trees on your property. All it takes is one pest—such as the emerald ash borer, a destructive beetle that infests ash trees—to wipe out your landscape, just as Dutch elm disease killed off millions of American ash trees and bare city streets and parks in the 1930s. Plant diseases and insect pests tend to be selective—what attacks ash won’t attack maple—so variety is your best protection against this devastation.


Don’t be too serious!

Gardening with wildlife is a fact of life in Maine, and it comes with its own set of problems. Deer, in particular, can be destructive, gobbling up balsams, daylilies, Fraser fir, hostas, tulips and more. You can get a dog, put up a fence — it should be at least 8 feet high — or choose deer-resistant plants. Even then, they may surprise you by ignoring Fido, finding a way around the fence, or nibbling on plants they are supposed to hate.

Deer eating grass

A comfortable position helps. “We have a fence around our vegetable garden, we have a dog, and we still have deer,” Peronto says. “I don’t really mind. It’s beautiful, and it doesn’t destroy my plants. My philosophy is to try to live with the creatures around us.”

This laid-back approach pretty much sums up the secret to successful gardening in Maine or elsewhere. “Gardening is learning about gardening and botany and plants and what lives and what doesn’t,” Riddell says. “Experience and have fun.”


Most likely to succeed

These Maine natives can turn even a black thumb green.

North Bayberry (Merica Pennsylvania): With glossy, dark green foliage and clusters of fragrant, waxy, greyish-white berries, mulberries form wonderful anchor shrubs throughout the garden.

Bearberry (Arctostaphylus bear grape): This evergreen groundcover has pinkish-white flowers that give way to red berries. It is very hardy and can tolerate full sun and periods of drought.

Dogwood Pagoda (Replacement cornea): This small tree bears white flowers in spring and bluish-black fruit in summer. The foliage turns red, yellow and orange in the fall.

Summersweet (Clythra nafolia)Summersweet provides habitat and food for birds and insects, and thrives in full sun, dappled shade, and even in swampy areas.

swamp milkweed (Asclepia personified): Monarchs and other butterflies love these perennials, with their dusty pink flowers.

You can find a complete list of Maine’s native plants and shrubs, as well as invasive species to avoid, here.

Downeast Magazine, March 2024 cover

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