November 4, 2012

Maine Gardener: New horticulture director keeping his hands dirty at Coastal Maine

By TOM ATWELL

This story was updated at 10:15 a.m. 11/4 to clarify a quote by Rodney Eason.

click image to enlarge

Rodney Eason arrived in October at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay.

Courtesy photo

When he was working on the horticulture staff at Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania, people kept telling Rodney Eason about the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay.

Last summer, when Eason and his family were planning a summer vacation to New England (they had visited Maine several times before), he decided to check out the gardens' website before the trip.

"I ended up seeing an advertisement for the director of horticulture position that used to be Bill Cullina's position," Eason said. "I didn't know Bill, but I called him up and asked him if he had filled the position. He said, 'No, I never found the right person.' So I sent him a resume, and the rest is history."

In early October, Eason took over the job that Cullina held from 2008 to 2011 before becoming the gardens' executive director.

"I had a wonderful job in a fantastic place, a garden unlike any other," Eason said of Longwood. "In that way, it is just like Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens. But my job was mostly overseeing other people and doing some design."

He missed getting out and actually doing hands-on work in the gardens, and at Coastal Maine, he is getting to do that kind of work again.

In his job at Coastal Maine, Eason is in charge of the plants and plantings throughout the 248-acre site. He oversees seven full-time employees on the horticulture staff, as well as some seasonal employees and interns.

"We're thrilled to welcome someone of Rodney's caliber to the gardens," Cullina said in announcing the hiring. "His talents and experience are a tremendous asset to the gardens, and we are all looking forward to working with him."

Eason has a few projects that he knows he is going to do right off.

"When I first started work, Bill told me to look around with fresh eyes, record the things I see and make notes of things that don't work," Eason said. "Two things came to mind immediately."

The first is the Great Lawn, which is right outside the gardens' visitor center. The lawn suffered a lot of compaction when the construction of the visitor center and gardens took place, and there are some drainage issues. He expects that those issues will be taken care of by next summer.

He also wants to make some improvements to the rose and perennial garden on the far side of the Great Lawn from the visitor center.

"That is one of the first things people see" after they buy their tickets, he said. "I want them to look over there and see something that says 'Wow!' They don't get that now."

Eason would also like to emphasize the design more in some of the gardens.

"I would like to add some theatrical composition, adding height differences, texture difference and color differences," he said, "using the gardens to show people how they can mix plants and display them better through design."

But Eason loves most things about Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens.

"The best thing about the gardens is the staff and board and everybody here," he said. "Everyone here is passionate about it.

"This garden is all about a dream that people had, and they worked together to make it come true, unlike most other gardens that had a foundation or a big, wealthy individual who owned the land and gardens and donated it so it became a botanical garden."

He also likes the way the design of the gardens is integrated with an extraordinary coastal site, which has a lot of ledge and rock along the waterfront.

"It is great how the garden has grown thus far and has continued to grow organically," Eason said. ""People have realized that it doesn't have to be a formal garden inspired by classical, European designs."

Another major duty, and one that Eason is looking forward to, is to help create the next phase of the master plan for the gardens.

All the gardens and buildings that were planned before the garden's grand opening in 2007 have been completed, and the board and staff now have to decide what to do next.

Eason said the climate of Longwood and Coastal Maine are similar -- Longwood is a Zone 7, while Coastal Maine is Zone 6a -- so there will not be much of an adjustment.

But Eason grew up in North Carolina, and before he went to Longwood Gardens, he worked for Plant Delights Nursery, which was owned by Tony Avent, a colorful, hard-working plantsman and plant collector.

Eason said he is pretty much a generalist, having worked with annuals, perennials and woodies in his career, and that he goes through phases where he uses a lot of one plant over a period of time. But he wants to learn more about using magnolias, hydrangeas and viburnums in the gardens.

"The staff at Longwood kidded me about trying to find out which crape myrtle would survive in that climate," he said. "I guarantee I won't be using any crape myrtle here."

Eason and his wife, a landscape architect and artist, have four children, and are living in East Boothbay.

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: tomatwell@me.com

 

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