Garden by the Sea
FEATURE – June 2014
By Debra Spark | Photography Jeff Roberts
A decades-long love story featuring two painters and a dream landscape
Carlton and Joan Plummer’s garden in East Boothbay is a showstopper. Built on multiple levels, on land with an abrupt 100-foot vertical drop to the sea, it consists of 19 distinct gardens, half a mile of stone walls, staircases, a bridge, a manmade dry river bed, blue stone walkways, wood chip pathways, a lily pond, a large vegetable garden, berry bushes, a dwarf fruit tree orchard, a solarium, and a potting shed, all integrated with the natural forest. Of the gardens within the garden, Joan says, “I look at these spaces as small rooms and each one has its own importance and focal point.” A few gardens have sculptures made by their son, Gerry; one has a birdbath, another an elevated large blue container that is filled with annuals. “I don’t name every garden,” says Joan. “I can’t.” Yet she does refer to her lily garden, her rose garden, her hosta garden, and her gazing ball garden. A gazing ball, she explains, is a reflecting ball that sits on a cement pedestal. Hers is blue and reflects her roses. She also mentions “Kevin’s garden,” designed and planted by their son Kevin. He arranged roses and lilies in descending height around three large fieldstones that he found in the woods. “That’s the garden where I go to meditate,” Joan says. “I am able to close my eyes, hear the sounds, feel the soil, smell everything. That garden helped me through chemotherapy.”
A battle with cancer is a low point in a life that has been filled with many pleasures and much love. Joan and Carlton, 83 and 84 respectively, met over 60 years ago, on their first day of art school in Boston. “I took her to lunch,” Carlton says. “She was going with someone else, and I was going with someone else. But everything changed immediately.” They married, had four children, and continued their artistic lives in various forms, first as a magazine illustrator (in the case of Carlton) and a greeting card designer (in the case of Joan), then–on different schedules, with further education, and to varying degrees–as fine art painters and teachers.
Though they lived in Massachusetts for decades, Maine was always part of their lives. Carlton was born in Brunswick and raised on a farm in Augusta. His teaching schedule at the University of Massachusetts–Lowell, where he eventually became a full professor, meant that the whole family could spend long summers here. In the early 60s, Carlton and Joan opened a seasonal Maine gallery that showed Carlton’s work. In 1981, they built their East Boothbay home, and in 1985 they were able to move into it full-time. The top level became the Plummer Gallery, where Carlton and Joan now show their paintings and where Gerry exhibits his sculptures.
“Initially,” says Carlton, “the landscaping was like a painting. First of all, we roughed it in.” By this he means he cleared the land, but also that he “pushed the land around into different levels,” not only because he and Joan wanted the gardens to be terraced, but also because they were constrained by existing stone ledge. “The walls needed to be established so Joan could have her gardens. But we had to develop the gardens in an artistic way.” Carlton built curving walls with rock unearthed from the property. “I put all the stones in myself over 30 years,” he says. “I used crowbars and levers for some of the heavier rocks. Meanwhile people were coming through the gallery. I’d be in my dirty clothes, I’d come up and sell a painting, and go back down.”
Joan planted with an eye to color, shape, height, and bloom times, as a master gardener must. She was mindful of the colors in the existing landscape and of where to blend and where to contrast the colors of each new planting. When she describes the way in which ten containers of annuals are arranged along a vertical slope that ends at her deck, she talks just as a painter might, speaking of “bringing a person’s eye down with color and shape.” There are appealing tableaus everywhere. Look in one direction and the grays, blues, and browns of the solarium and bridge are contrasted with the green of the shrubbery and the bright pop of purple astilbe. In another area, a white-gray sculpture sits on the ground by the greens and purples of sedum and Nikko Blue hydrangea. Red impatiens peek out behind a stone wall, highlighting the rust in what is otherwise blue-gray rock. Coreopsis spills playfully onto the bluestone pathway. The light that strikes the leaves of the mayapple falls on a nearby yellow lily and seems to create an ode to sunshine.
Joan and Carlton work on their garden constantly. They also work in it, setting up their easels to paint. “Sometimes,” says Gerry, “I go over there, and my father is grubbing away in the dirt, and he looks up all sweaty, and I think, ‘Is he really going to be 85?’” Gerry knows both of his parents find their work—the painting and the garden—to be a creative outlet. And they aren’t exactly people who ever sat still. In their younger days, they travelled together to Alaska, Europe, Kenya, Morocco, New Zealand, Tanzania, and Tahiti. Carlton was in Germany during the Korean War and worked as a civilian artist for the military in Thailand during Vietnam. The two painted wherever they went and exhibited when they came home. They managed to fit in (alone or together) various other activities, mountain climbing, running a lobster pound, and writing an art textbook among them. Even now, they go back and forth between East Boothbay and a winter home in Tequesta, Florida. This doesn’t mean that they don’t, on occasion, sit down and enjoy what they have created. A summer’s evening might find them having a cocktail and appreciating the view over the ocean towards Monhegan Island. On a sunny afternoon, they might be on a settee in a particular peaceful part of the garden. Years ago, Carlton swapped a painting for it.
Carlton and Joan seem to have passed the “keep busy” gene on to their children. Although their sons have their own children and successful careers, each has participated in the garden. As already noted, Kevin (who is a psychologist) fashioned a garden around large fieldstones, and Gerry’s sculptures dot the property. Gerry also happens to be a landscape designer, so he has been making regular contributions for decades. Early on, he built a 20-step stairway that leads from the driveway down into the garden. It was no easy task since some of the 700- or 800-pound slabs that were used for the steps needed to be placed into the existing stone ledge, a feat that required relief cuts into the rock. Bruce, who is chief financial officer of a HMO in Worcester, put down flat rock on the garden’s crushed stone. As for oldest son Barry, a psychologist, he offered moral support and gift certificates and those, Joan says, “are very important.” According to Gerry, all the brothers also have the task of looking at the garden and saying, “Wow. This is awesome.”
Of course, you don’t need to be a relation to tell the Plummers how wonderful their gardens are. The gardens are featured on home and garden tours run by Boothbay’s Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, as well as organizations farther afield like the Pennsylvania chapter of the Herb Society of America. Plus, anyone who comes to see the gallery is welcome. “You can’t miss it,” Carlton says, since the bridge that leads to the gallery also brings one into the garden. “People wander all over.”