With the first glimpse of the swaths of blueberry shrubs and native ferns that welcome them as they turn in the drive of a rugged promontory along Penobscot Bay, 800 miles north of their home in Virginia, Kenny and Lynn Brown know they’ve arrived at their “Blue Ridge” summer cottage. The couple park and will momentarily ignore unpacking to savor the breathtaking ocean view that first attracted them to this 5-acre property in Castine, Maine, 16 years ago. They descend the massive granite steps that wrap around the side of the house. And as they land on the nautilus-shaped patio, they pause to take in the cool breeze, salty air, naturalized plantings, and stunning vista of the island-dotted waters.
“The first thing we do is not walk in the house but wander around outdoors and head to the back for the view and the sunset,” says Lynn. “We’re incredibly lucky to be here in eastern Maine and enjoy westerly sunset views.”
For more than a century, East Coast urbanites have been lured to the bouldered shores, fern-filled spruce lands, and blueberry barrens along Maine’s shores. It’s these spectacular landscapes that inspired the Browns’ Shingle Style cottage and its naturalistic gardens created by Maine’s masterful landscape architect Bruce John Riddell.
“Maine has an amazing history of gardening on the coast,” says Riddell, whose firm, Bruce John Riddell Landscape Architect, is in Boothbay, Maine. “It’s not just the grand-cottage era that started it all. It’s the beauty in the ferns and rocks that give us the bones to work around and the beauty of the ocean and topography to build wonderful transitions in the garden.”
The Browns started their home-and-garden project in 2003, but while the site offered stunning views, its steep terrain presented many challenges. Thankfully, Riddell, one of the key designers of acclaimed Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay, is a stone master and intimately familiar with the unique terrain of the state’s landscape.
“We wanted a combination of a few of our favorite plants from Virginia and plenty of Maine natives,” says Lynn. “Beyond that, we gave Bruce creative license.”
Creative license, indeed.
Riddell tackled the first challenge — siting the home along the rocky ledge — with an inventive solution. Working with architect Tim Mohr and designer Sherman Todd of Todd Mohr Design in Charlottesville, Virginia, Riddell directed some artful backhoeing and discovered ledges to ground the house on one side, allowing the views of Penobscot Bay to open on the other.
Next, Mohr and Todd proposed a cottage design to celebrate Castine’s coastal heritage and complement the site’s natural surroundings. Their horizontal Shingle Style plan features a gambrel roofline and broad, exaggerated peaks in the front and rear, reminiscent of architect Charles McKim’s iconic 1887 W.G. Low House in Bristol, Rhode Island. For the exterior finishes, they selected white cedar shingles, Buckland Blue trim paint by Benjamin Moore, granite foundation stones, and Marvin windows trimmed in cobalt blue. They finished the design with several stunning architectural details, such as an eyebrow hood above the front door, a three-story turret on the seaside corner, and double-stacked bay windows offering waterfront views from the main living areas.
The next challenge came in restoring the natural landscape on the stripped construction site. “Bruce designed a series of spaces dancing down the hill that’s quite effective,” says Mohr of Riddell’s solution.
To begin, Riddell strategically placed boulders and stone steps to hold soil and create planting pockets deep enough for trees and shrubs. These cascading terraced spaces begin at the top of the hill with a ledge garden. Here, a circular lawn is surrounded with trees, flowering shrubs, and conifers such as Bar Harbor juniper. At mid-level, near the driveway, a circular garden welcomes guests and serves as Lynn’s cutting garden, with plenty of phlox, hollyhocks, coneflowers, and hydrangeas. Near the front door, a wooden bridge crosses a moat of river stones framed in green with lowbush blueberry, hay-scented ferns, and wintergreen sod. The swale serves dual purposes, redirecting heavy spring rains away from the house and creating beauty with seasonal clumps of irises, delphiniums, and phlox along the brook-like edges.
On the ocean side of the house, a lawn extends from a stone patio and appears to merge with the bay, thanks to a ha-ha, a landscaping technique that gained prominence in England. Here, Riddell cleverly created a negative-edge lawn — much like an infinity pool — by placing a row of hidden boulders below the lawn’s far edge. A purple beech tree (Fagus sylvatica ‘Swat Magret’), planted to the side of the lawn, helps frame the ocean view and offers shade.
From the rear lawn and patio, Riddell’s stone artistry shines as a mix of broad granite steps wrap around the base of the turret, descend the slope to the impressive granite nautilus patio, then climb back up the hill to the front drive. “Clients are often overwhelmed by the scale of stones we bring in, but we try to mimic stones in nature,” says Riddell, who ordered nearly 20 tons of local granite for the project.
On the spiral patio, pink and woolly thymes emerge among buff, deep red, and gray stones. Additional boulders, unearthed during excavation, spill down the hillside in hommage to the area’s rich glacial legacy.
Beyond the stonework, Riddell’s plant knowledge is evident in his careful selection of species in these terraced gardens. The nautilus area alone features dozens of varieties, including many hard-working perennials such as lady’s mantle, Russian sage, and lavender.
“Maine’s climate, with its cool nights and warm days and more moderate coastal temperature extremes, allows us to push the limits on Northern and Southern planting zones,” says Riddell. Given this broad plant palette, he artfully layers trees, shrubs, annuals, and perennials, both wild and domesticated.
“I like to combine the best of both worlds,” says Riddell. “I use ornamentals near the house for color and bang, then as I move farther away, I combine them with native plants and shrubs.”
Riddell tied in plenty of the coastal natives that Lynn and her husband admired on their early Maine vacations and tours of local gardens. “We fell in love with the state’s native shrubs like rugosa roses and lowbush blueberries,” says Lynn, “and thankfully Bruce found plenty of ways to fit them into our design.”