DescriptionChewonki is a non-profit environmental education center in Wiscasset, Maine, with a semester school for high school juniors, an Outdoor Classroom program for visiting school groups, and a summer camp for boys on its 400-acre saltwater peninsula, Chewonki Neck. Chewonki also leads a variety of wilderness programs for boys and girls elsewhere across the state and takes Traveling Natural History Programs to schools and community organizations throughout Maine. Founded in 1915 on the shores of Lake Champlain, the original boys camp moved to Maine in 1918. From the earliest days on Chewonki Neck, farming and gardening, along with natural history, have been part of our lives and our teaching.
In 1942, Kay Allen, the wife of Chewonki founder Clarence Allen, responding to the times, planted a Victory Garden on the site of the current tennis courts (which had been an agricultural field in the previous century) to support efforts toward food sustainability. Today, Salt Marsh Farm, part of Chewonki since the 1960s, grows produce and livestock for our dining hall, and harvests the 50 cords of wood we use annually to heat various buildings. Currently the farm produces 15,000 pounds of organic food, which is incorporated into about 86,000 meals, each year.
There have been perennial beds around the original Farm House for as long as anyone can remember. Over Chewonki’s almost 100-year stewardship of Chewonki Neck, new buildings have been added; old ones moved, renovated, or removed; and perennial gardens planted around each important structure. Margaret Ellis, the late wife of Chewonki’s second director, Tim Ellis, and for many years the director of health services here, was the mastermind behind the current gardens and is the inspiration for their ongoing development. Born in England, she had a Brit's sensibility for what a true English garden ought to be. She was practical and extravagant at the same time, abhorring unnecessary expense but lavishing time, energy, and love on her gardens. She made sure her soil was as rich as she could make it, with lots of compost. Her vision was broad, her attention focused and particular. She wanted the perennial beds at Chewonki to take the onlooker’s breath away.
Margaret felt anyone and everyone could—and should—learn to garden. She was a fierce weeder and ruler of rampant plants. She wanted every plant to have equal breathing space, but wasn’t afraid to incorporate those labeled “invasive” (yellow loosestrife, gooseneck loosestrife, phlox, to name a few) if she wanted to fill a space. Her adage was, “Waste not, want not,” and she loved to share and exchange plants. Her energy in the garden was boundless. Margaret tended her friendships just as lovingly as she tended her gardens, and she believed gardening could nurture that loyalty and commitment.
In the garden, Margaret found solace and connection to nature, endless information to learn, the satisfaction of meaningful labor, camaraderie, humor, and joy. She wanted Chewonki students to enjoy the same rewards, advocating strongly for their participation in taking care of the plants. Many students and campers enjoyed gardening with her and remember her lessons, which invariably ended with a tool-oiling session. She was disdainful of any suggestion that Chewonki pay for a professional gardener to help maintain the expanding beds.
A passel of passionate gardeners have worked the perennial beds at Chewonki since Margaret Ellis left in the early 1990s. Artist Phine Ewing, wife of former president Don Hudson, and Jenn Barton, wife of the current President, Willard Morgan, have made important contributions. Jenn can often be found hard at work planting or weeding with her baby daughter on her back. For a quarter-century, Semester School English teacher Amy Rogers has led student groups in weeding, pruning, and cultivating the perennials and art teacher Sue West has guided students as they tend the herbs. Semester School students often help with farm and garden chores during their work program two afternoons a week. Even campers lend a hand, working in the farm gardens as one of their activities if they show an interest.
The gardening philosophy exhibited at Chewonki is appropriate for novice gardeners, most of whom have never tended any sort of garden or farming bed. The plants have to be hardy and able to withstand the variable expertise of those tending them while simultaneously thriving and therefore encouraging confidence in the neophyte gardeners and farmers. The stewarding of the garden and farm gives students and campers an easy-to-access and direct experience of how their efforts matter to the natural world.
Beyond the campus are woods, fields, salt marshes, and salt water. Within the heart of campus, life is a bit more civilized and cultivated plants and flowers celebrate a feeling of wholeness and belonging. The most carefully tended gardens line three sides of the quadrangle formed by three key buildings and a small dirt road. These perennial beds are informal yet joyful and uplifting. They provide interest throughout the growing season. Herbs and medicinal plants are sited next to the dining hall and health center (the Wallace Center), wild flowers and brambles at the outer edges where the pine forests take over, fragrance and color near walkways and pathways in front of the main administrative building (the Farm House) and primary classroom building (the Allen Center), and bloom everywhere in sequence. Everything is orderly yet loose, tidy yet tangled and intermingled. Visitors marvel at the lushness of the gardens but may smile at their casual design. The magnificent beds are not perfectly controlled but they never fail to please the senses. Former campers, semester alumni, families, and friends visit often and the gardens help establish a strong sense of place.
As with all perennial gardens, the plantings have changed but the overall spirit has remained much the same throughout the decades. Daylilies (Hemerocallis), coneflower (Echinacea), globe thistle (Echinops), aster (Asteraceae), phlox, astible, wild ginger (Asarum europaeum), feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium), Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium), black-eyed Susan (Rudbekia), bachelor’s button (Centaurea Montana), columbine (Aquilegia), and sunflower (Helianthus) are some of the mainstays of the central garden, but gooseneck loosestrife (Lysimachea clethroides), hosta, Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum), and peonies (Paeonia) are sprinkled throughout various beds. Clematis vines climb with abandon up the arbor framing the Farm House front door. There is a glorious bed of black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa) that perfumes the quiet at the end of the summer camp session just before the fall semester students arrive.
The kitchen staff regularly uses the fresh herbs just outside the kitchen to spice the farm produce, lamb, pork, and beef raised on Chewonki’s nearby Salt Marsh Farm for meals. Echinacea, mint, borage, chamomile, hyssop, and calendula are also harvested for herbal teas and medicinal purposes. Last summer, self-seeded milkweed (Asclepias) was allowed to remain in the Margaret Ellis Garden because it attracts butterflies and so that campers could learn about its medicinal possibilities (as a skin salve, it is particularly good for treating warts).
Throughout the summer, community members of all ages enjoy the beds, sometimes to the detriment of the plants. The Ducklings, members of our day program for young children of staff, find it magical to hide under the curving boughs of the forsythia and don’t appreciate that their path of entrance and egress might trample the nearby delphinium, Jacob’s ladder, and columbine. Campers and counselors from Chewonki Camp for Boys engage in high-speed games of Frisbee and often are oblivious to the perennials on the periphery of the chosen field of play. Semester School students find it natural to cut the corner as they head from the dining hall back to class, walking absentmindedly on dormant or nascent plants. Because the gardens lie in close proximity to so many entire-community activities, the plantings cannot be delicate or fussy. When campers in the Nature Program activity survey the insects in the garden bed we teach them to respect the plants while also knowing that their studies and play will inevitably impact the plantings from time to time. These are meant to be hands-on teaching beds, allowing first-time gardeners to learn about perennials and the wonders of mucking in the dirt and watching things grow, blossom, and spread.
Chewonki gardens enjoy a loyal group of volunteers called the “Ladies of the Dirt,” who began their shared gardening pursuits at the Morris Farm, a nearby community farm, under the auspices of Margaret Ellis. The remaining members of this dedicated group, along with other volunteers who are eager to support the effort, arrive each spring on Margaret Ellis Day to “wake up” the gardens and give them a thorough weeding at the earliest stages of growth, remembering Margaret as they do.
Other Chewonki faculty members and year-round staff assist during spring and fall Chewonki Days, landscaping, pruning bushes, weeding beds, hauling debris, spreading manure and compost from the farm, and sometimes covering plants for the winter with salt marsh grass harvested by the students. Many students and campers have learned about gardening over the years here, from Margaret Ellis herself, from those whom she taught, and from others who bring their own knowledge.
The organization continually strives toward being completely off the grid. The summer of 2013 saw the installation of a much larger wood-burning furnace that could heat both the Wallace Center and the Allen Center. This improvement required a new pipe conduit between the two buildings and construction meant digging a huge trench through the Margaret Ellis Garden. In response, the Ladies of the Dirt are planning to divide perennials from their own beds in the spring to fill the gaps left from construction, continuing the community care that has shaped the Chewonki landscape. Perennials, by their nature, grow, multiply and spread, and one of the joys of gardening is dividing and sharing plants with friends, neighbors, and community members. These shared plants become the foundation in another garden or location, creating a connection between gardens, people, and communities.
One highlight of our gardens is the special daylily Hemerocallis ‘Chewonki’, hybridized in 1981 by Joseph Barth, a well-known daylily expert and Unitarian minister and the father of Joe, Jr., a counselor here in the late 1960s. Even when summer camp is in full swing, the lily’s beautiful red flowers harken to New England’s autumn maples and grace the garden along the Farm House.
We hope that many of the thousands of young people who have moved through Chewonki over its 99-year history have become passionate cultivators or at least appreciative onlookers of flower and vegetable gardens in part because of the days they spent here. That would truly be a living legacy.
-Written by Margy Foulk, with contributions from Deb Cook, Lucy Hull, Anne Leslie, Patti Mendes, Willard Morgan, Lisa Paige, Susie Stedman, and Sara Walbridge.