McLaughlin Garden & Homestead in South Paris has some new property, a new director and the results of a new survey to guide its future.

The garden’s most important purpose remains the same.

“One thing everyone identifies as an important value for the McLaughlin Garden is a place of beauty and tranquility in what is a very busy town,” said Donna Anderson, who came on board Jan. 2 as executive director of the garden, which is run by a nonprofit foundation. “We want to retain that.”

Starting her new job at a time the garden was dormant worked out well, Anderson said. It gave her time to get oriented and to review the results of a survey and a series of dialogues paid for by the Maine Community Foundation. The survey and community conversations sought input from residents of South Paris and surrounding communities on how best to tend the original property and the adjacent Curtis House, which the garden purchased in 2013 (threatened when a big box store bid on the home).

A little background:

Bernard McLaughlin, who died in 1995 at age 98, spent 60 years creating a beautiful 2.5-acre garden at his homestead in the heart of downtown South Paris.

He made no plans for the garden to be preserved, saying the property should be sold to the highest bidder, with proceeds benefiting three orphanages. Shaw’s was interested in the site as a potential supermarket.

But a group of local residents raised money to purchase the property and save the garden, even though McLaughlin’s son moved many of the lilacs to his home in Greenwood.

Today, the public garden is on the National Register of Historic Places.

And admission is free – although the garden does accept donations.

The garden is appreciated for more than its beauty and tranquility, Anderson said.

The survey shows that people also like it as a space to create art, whether photographs, paintings or prose; a place to learn about gardening and the environment, through classes and exhibits; and a place to create family memories.

The Curtis House property will be integral to the nonprofit’s efforts to expand those offerings. Initially, the McLaughlin Foundation intended to use the house as a visitor center and as a place where educational programs could be held year-round.

But a new, intriguing idea is that the property could be the site of an antique greenhouse – the Curtis property is sunnier than the original site. A member with an old dismantled greenhouse has offered it to McLaughlin Garden. The challenge is making an older greenhouse energy efficient and accessible.

“The greenhouse would be great if used for education,” Anderson said. “It would give us a year-round profile, not just with lectures and bus trips, but with some major horticultural education.”

Survey respondents said they would like to have a place to gather on the property and to have something to eat. Anderson is contemplating a cafe at Curtis House, if it could be profitable.

Anderson, who is in her mid-50s, said the McLaughlin job came open just as she and her husband were looking for a new chapter in their lives.

She grew up in New Jersey and spent 24 years in upstate New York working with museums, libraries and similar organizations while employed by the Exhibition Alliance, an organization that assists museums.

Since 2007, she was coordinator of the Yager Museum of Art and Culture at Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York.

“We have family in Falmouth and a cottage in Livermore,” she said, “and we thought it was time to make the big change to live in Maine, a place we’ve loved coming to for years and years.”

McLaughlin Garden’s biggest event of the year is its Lilac Festival, this year held May 23 to 25, when the lilacs are expected to be near their peak bloom.

Kristin Perry, the garden’s longtime director of horticulture, told Anderson that although the cool spring delayed the lilacs, the recent warm weather has helped them catch up, and they should be in great shape for the festival.

The festival will include tours of the garden, horticulture lectures, a plant sale and – in response to the idea of having food at the garden – a tent set up at the Curtis House offering picnic lunches.

It will give visitors some lilac memories for Memorial Day weekend.

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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