The New New England
PROFILE – JUNE 2008
By Joshua Bodwell
Photography Darren Setlow
A Gardener of Earthly Delights
Even in early April—the trees just beginning to bud, the grass more brown than green, and the ground still soggy—a tourist with Pennsylvania plates has pulled to the shoulder of Route 9 in Kennebunk to take a closer look at Snug Harbor Farm.
Dressed in chinos, windbreaker, and wool fedora, the man trains his little camera on the scene: a handful of sheep and miniature horses mixing in a rambling paddock alongside a small, granite-lined pond full of quacking ducks. A massive weeping willow, its serpentine roots exposed at the pond’s edge, droops over the menagerie of beasts.
Beyond the paddock and the low-slung, Cape-style white farmhouse and attached barn, Snug Harbor’s modest three acres are teaming with activity. Five greenhouses overflow with annuals, perennials, tropicals, trees, shrubs, and topiaries. Herbs and flowers bake in cold frames. And countless birds scurry about, crisscrossing the crushed-stone and slate-slab walkways: chickens, ducks, swans, peacocks, pheasants, and on this day—as the retiree from Pennsylvania snaps away—one angry, head-bobbing turkey and a raft of fluffy brown week-old ducklings.
With a chocolate-colored standard poodle named Albert bounding along beside him, Tony Elliot walks his property, stopping occasionally to collect a blown-down twig from the ground. Dressed in jeans and boots, the hood of his sweatshirt pulled tight over his head of thick white hair, Elliot has a laid-back air about him as he points out the dovecote built on rugged granite stilts and the privet hedges shaped to look like flying buttresses along the sides of an outbuilding. But ever since purchasing the circa-1870 farm seventeen years ago, Elliot has been anything but casual. He has expended copious amounts of sweat equity to create an oasis for plant connoisseurs and lovers of terra-cotta—it is a thriving model of what Elliot is capable of creating at the properties he landscapes.
A child of the Midwest, Elliot arrived in Maine in 1981. “When I got here, I knew I was home,” he says, using a rock to wedge open a greenhouse door. Leaning on his degree in agronomy—the science of raising plants for food—from Ohio State University, he spent years working in nurseries. “But I was always more interested in landscaping,” says Elliot. “Instead of feeding the world, I wanted to make it pretty.”
Though he is known for his devilish smile and irreverent sense of humor, Elliot is often overly humble about his work. Like Beatrix Farrand, the grande dame of American landscaping, Elliot prefers the term “landscape gardener” to the more common “landscape architect.” With no formal design training, he has developed a characteristic style that integrates seamlessly with Maine’s topography. “When I was working toward my own style, I got a bit too obsessed with English gardens,” admits Elliot, as he restacks terra-cotta pots blown over by the wind. “Then one day a friend said to me, ‘Tony, what about New England,’ and it just clicked.”
To Elliot, New England is synonymous with hardscapes—“Stone walls and granite slabs first, right? That’s what Maine is all about,” he says. Elliot’s designs often begin with highly structured elements located near a house—such as a patio or courtyard—that become increasingly less ordered and more organic as they move way from home and blend into the wild. Elliot believes that landscaping should be functional, but always maintain a respect for local history and the natural world. “Since I love history,” says Elliot, “I try to make landscapes that look like they have always been there.” True to this mission, Elliot’s work often carries a deceptive patina of age.
Snug Harbor Farm exemplifies each of Elliot’s design tenets. Although the landscape could have easily degenerated into a maze of haphazard spaces as Elliot added new greenhouses, gardens, and outbuildings over the years, the farm has instead developed into a cohesive collection of outdoor corridors and sweeping vistas. Elliot appears to possess an instinctual design sense—the kind that couldn’t have been taught even if he had multiple graduate degrees in landscape architecture. Today, a crew of twelve helps him execute his designs throughout Maine.
As the wind picks up, Elliot heads back to his office to sketch a flight of granite stairs for a stone mason who has dropped by looking for plans. A converted chicken coop, the office is full of large wooden cages in which tiny birds are perpetually flitting and squeaking. An outdated charity calendar hangs on one wall, open to a black-and-white photo of Elliot wearing nothing but a strategically placed topiary shrub. A rusted tin sign near the door reads “Beware Pickpockets and Loose Women.”
Although Elliot is an extraordinarily gifted artist, he is not content to play the artist/designer who stands aside and works only on paper. Elliot gets his hands dirty.
He finishes the sketch quickly, throws his hood up, and heads back out into the blustery spring day. The angry turkey is still skulking about, waiting for someone to gobble at. Elliot laughs at the turkey’s antics and starts for the greenhouse with Albert trotting beside him. The two of them are in search of the dozen or so ducklings. “It’s never a bad day when you get to hold a baby duck,” quips Elliot.