Several volunteers are working to re-create the original gardens planted on Eagle Island, Admiral Robert E. Peary’s summer home in Casco Bay, off the coast of Harpswell. The gardens were created between 1912 and 1946 by three women in the famed Arctic explorer’s life. But because the island is a state historic site, restoring the gardens isn’t as simple as weed, till and plant.

The restoration effort is a joint project of the Friends of Peary’s Eagle Island, a volunteer group that provides support for the historic site, along with a group of Master Gardeners, who are coordinated by the Cumberland County Cooperative Extension.

Peary, who grew up in Portland, bought Eagle Island in 1881 when he was just 25 years old, long before he became famous. He’d become familiar with the 17-acre island from camping trips there while he was a student at Bowdoin, according to Park Manager Owen Blease. He didn’t start building a house on the island until 1904.  

The three historic gardens that are the focus of restoration efforts were planted after the house was completed and Peary had retired, spending summers on the island with his family. Today, the house is a museum that chronicles Peary’s life and his adventures at the North Pole. (He claimed to be the first white man to ever reach the North Pole, but that claim has been disputed.)

The earliest garden on the island was created by Josephine Diebitsch Peary, the admiral’s wife (and the first woman ever to take part in an Arctic expedition), in 1912. It includes a huge PeeGee hydrangea that survives today — I saw it, in gorgeous bloom, when I visited the gardens last month. It is about 15 feet tall and just as wide.

The second garden was planted in 1915 by Marie Ahnighito Peary, the admiral’s daughter. Marie was the first Caucasian ever born in the Arctic, in 1893, and became known around the world as the “Snow Baby”; her middle name honors an Inuit woman who sewed the infant a snowsuit.

The third historic garden was planted in 1946 by Inez Kelly Perry, wife of Robert E. Peary Jr.

While the idea to restore these gardens as close as possible to their original state was conceived last year, gardeners with the Friends group have been tending the plantings on Eagle Island for far longer than that. Barb Tucker and Nadia Harris of Brunswick, for example, have volunteered as gardeners on the island for 19 years.

“A lot of it was just hacking things back,” Tucker said.

A sign pictures the flowers that grew in the original gardens. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

But last year, the effort was made to undertake historic restoration.

“We did some research (including at Bowdoin College) and found a whole list of what was planted,” said Kim Payne, another volunteer. Among their findings? Detailed plant orders from Harmons in Portland, and a 1946-47 diagram of the vegetable garden near the caretaker’s cottage – complete with dates of planting, emergence and harvest, Payne said. They plan to expand on that research this coming winter, exploring material at the University of Southern New England and Saint Joseph’s College. They’re looking for photos of the garden, which so far have eluded them. Though no other plans of the gardens have yet been found, the volunteers have spent time digging to discover where their edges were.

No one is sure if any of the original plants, other than the hydrangea, are still growing in the current gardens or if they have been replanted over the years. In some cases, the current plants could be seedlings descended from the original plants. As an example, one of Josephine’s favorite flowers was foxglove, a biennial – meaning it will survive two years, producing flowers and seeds in the second year of its life.

Among other plants in the original gardens were roses, poppies, hollyhocks, sweet William, lupine, irises, bleeding heart and similar Victorian-era flowers. The gardeners may not add plants to the Peary gardens unless they are either native to the region or historic to the period of the gardens. At this early stage of restoration, they haven’t yet added many plants.

Brunswick resident Karon Salch weeds the 1912 garden that was originally created and planted by Admiral Peary’s wife, Josephine. The hydrangea, shown here in glorious bloom, is over 100 years old. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Other museums in Maine have also re-created, or created, historic gardens. At the Tate House in Portland, volunteers installed gardens intended to resemble those docents believe would have existed in Colonial times. At Garland Farm in Bar Harbor, The Beatrix Farrand Society is returning the gardens to their circa 1955 to 1959 design, when Farrand, a famed landscape architect, lived out the end of her life there. The garden at Longfellow House in Portland includes a couple of plants that belonged to the Longfellow family and is designed to fit the period when the family would have been living there.

But the volunteers at Eagle Island face some special challenges. Payne said that growing exact replicas of the individual gardens could be difficult because the island topography has changed. While there were trees on Eagle Island when Peary purchased the property, many of them were cut down to provide wood to build the house, Blease said. So when the early gardens were created, they would have been in full sun.

But about the same time the house was being built, the family brought more than 1,000 trees to Eagle Island by boat to create a forest. The seedlings included oaks, maples, birches and firs, and they have grown huge over the past century. Now the trees shade the original garden plots. Volunteer Karon Salch  of Brunswick explained that the gardeners need state permission merely to prune large branches from trees and have yet to ask permission to remove any trees entirely.

The trees aren’t the only problem plants for the gardens, Payne added. Some of the gardens and the nearby woods have been invaded by ramps, a wild onion that holds a treasured place on menus of high-end restaurants in the spring. Because ramps are considered a plant species of special concern in Maine, and even though Mainers forage for ramps, the garden weeders aren’t allowed to just pull them out to give the restored plants room to grow, Payne said.

Volunteers work on the gardens only one day every two or three weeks, and only from late May to mid-September. That time frame is when the docks are in place so that the boats transporting the volunteers can land (the docks are removed each fall to prevent damage from winter storms). In addition to weeding, deadheading and doing similar garden chores, the volunteer gardeners are also working to improve the soil – hauling in compost or carrying seaweed from the shores up to the garden plots.

Volunteer Barb Tucker of Brunswick works on a window box at the historic Peary home. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Although the historic gardens are now high on their agenda, the Friends gardeners work on other projects, too. They create and maintain container gardens that are placed on the steps and porches of the Peary home on Eagle Island, as well as some foundation plantings around the house.

Do you like to garden? The Friends would welcome others who’d like to join their restoration efforts. A perk? You’ll be weeding and gardening in one of the most beautiful spots in Maine.

Tom Atwell has been writing the Maine Gardener column since 2004. He is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth and can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:

[email protected]

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