Discovering a Treasure on Route 1 in Kittery, Maine – Green Art

A report on the ELA’s program at Green Art on July 13
by Cris Blackstone, NHCLP
August 2019

Green art copy
From his personal “Green Art Gardens” observations, plus reading information from other countries, Thomas Berger shared his reasons behind the new insect hotel, hoping some bees will nest in, with their seal of approval, during the coming year.

Interesting aspects of Thomas Berger’s landscape and fine garden design company were evident from the moment we got out of our cars and were greeted by Thomas. He purchased the property over twenty years ago, when it was left derelict by a previous owner, riddled with dilapidated appliances and piles of contractor garbage bags. Berger’s first task was to begin to clean it all up and start imagining where he would park his landscape business equipment and then visualize where his hoop houses for plant displays and sales would be situated.

During that first introduction to his thought process (and vast knowledge) we learned that he determined he’d need to plant a lot of holly bushes and rhododendrons, along with several types of pines, to be used fundamentally for their noise reduction properties. (To learn more about ways plants help reduce noise, check out the August Newsletter, sent free to members.) With their dense leafing they’d dissipate the sounds from Route 1 traffic, and from there, Thomas would create “Green Art,” his fine landscape design and specialty gardens business. Also on site, you’ll see his sculpture studio; many of his works are situated throughout the one and a half acre garden.

His initial years in business saw sales in plants commonly used at the time, and during this tour, the group learned how over a short period, his designs evolved to specializing in native plant uses. Touring the garden today, the visitor will see many types of native plants, but perhaps most striking during a tour is stopping by a plant to be asked to look closely to see what is living near, under, or above it, or what might be feeding on it. The garden is designed to be a “wildlife magnet” and that is evidenced by the way stones are placed or water features are laid out.

In one spot, a large (2’x4′) flat rock is perched at a 45-degree angle to the earth, to create a shady, moist area underneath to attract ground nesting bees. Thomas showed several places where he has intentionally brought in a fine soil, built over time in a corner of his garden, which he believes will be particularly attractive to ground-nesters. In another part of the garden, he pointed out an insect hotel he’s seen busy over the years, but after research and investigation, he built a newer model, with the holes bored in logs situated upright instead of the more usual horizontal placement. With patience and a quiet determination, he speculates it could take another year for the hotel to attract the bees he suspects it will attract. Once established there, he’ll conduct more of his research to follow their plant preferences.

milkweed copy
Milkweed, attractive to bees, can occasionally bog them down with heavy sappy nectar. Monarch butterflies are the more famous pollinators attracted to this plant. Thomas Berger’s “Green Art Garden” has multiple types of milkweed throughout the site, purely for pollinators. Berger encourages visitors to let some milkweed thrive in their gardens, too.

Leaving milkweed to pop up, even in the weeded and more manicured areas, is important for a true pollinator garden, and walking slowly on the meandering pathway around the site, the group was not disappointed. Thomas was able to explain several different ways the milkweed attracts, and detracts, insects – and at one plant, he “freed” a bee who was trapped in a blossom. There, the very sticky pollen masses had clung to the bee and severely restricted its ability to fly. With a steady, firm hand, Berger grasped the bee, and freed it from the small milkweed blossom and gave it time to dry off and recuperate, sitting in the sunlight on his thumb. With this type of incident, it is evident that any visit to the Green Art garden will offer a new experience and that Berger isn’t interested in trying to script a tour for each group to learn the exact same things about the garden.

Sharing freely, he explained that coming here from growing up along the Mosel River in Germany, he had a lot to learn about plants and even their names, differing from what he was used to as a child. He shared with us that Doug Tallamy’s work continues to be a major source of his own professional development and inspiration. He was lighthearted and genuinely enjoyed the opportunity to hear from each attendee who had some question about a plant along the pathways, notes about their own favorites or experiences starting a native in their own garden or that of a client, as he has.

Along the massed plantings and interspersed alongside the two water features, you’ll see sculptures he’s integrated in to his landscape. Thomas Berger’s work ranges from a small (8″ tall) mermaid sitting on a rock, carved to hold about a half gallon of water, to a several-ton whale (located in a park on Cape Ann, designed so that the flukes enable a child to climb up on the whale’s back.) He has displayed work in group shows, and notable commissioned work includes the Eustis Estate in Milton, MA. For the NHLA readership who may be most interested in his stone work, you can see his studio and learn more from him specifically about his equipment and cutting techniques, by arrangement.

Considerable time was spent during this tour to discuss garden restoration. He shared his thoughts on the importance of pruning and understanding your plants’ growth habits as you work on designing a garden that will last, but understand that it will also change over time. With an eye on sustainability and budgeting for a long-lasting garden with continued appeal over time, taking his advice about understanding how our plants want to grow, is even more valuable. “Don’t be afraid to dig it up, and move it somewhere else” was a reoccurring notion during this tour and discussion with Thomas.

Thank you – to the Ecological Landscape Association, for arranging this event with Green Art! A drive across the border is truly in order for anyone who wants to see how this unassuming acre and a half has been evolving over twenty years’ time, and will continue to serve as a naturalized habitat for pollinators and plant-lovers alike!