Right after a rare Maine tornado ripped through the tall trees of Marietta Atienza’s Gorham garden five years ago, she was scheduled to go to Haiti to work with the Portland-based volunteer group Konbit Sante (“working together for health”).

Gone were the heavy limbs that made the long driveway to her house into a beautiful horticultural tunnel – whether covered by leaves or by snow. Those same branches kept sunlight off her hostas and other shade-loving plants. The storm also leveled a swath of trees past Atienza’s house, and it flattened some smaller plantings near the house.

Her house itself was undamaged, but she was devastated by the destruction of the grounds. Still, Atienza, a registered nurse, kept her commitment to work with earthquake victims on the impoverished island.

Her stint as a volunteer transformed her attitude.

“I saw that here, there is a way out,” Atienza said. “There is a plan for recovery and the possibility for improvement. In Haiti, the way out is questionable.”

When she got home, she got to work: She had the fallen trees removed from her 2.5 acres and the stumps ground down. She created a garden plan. Although she had no formal training, she’d learned to garden in her native Philippines with her father, who kept an extensive collection of orchids and other plants. Moreover, Atienza was a lifelong reader of gardening books.

She began ordering plants, most of them from O’Donal’s, Estabrook’s and Broadway Gardens, including many large plants – some already 16 feet tall when she planted them.

“I’m not young,” said Atienza, who is 60, “and I didn’t want to wait” for them to grow.

The garden includes four larger-than-lifesize statues representing summer, fall, winter and spring. She created many paths, so people can easily stroll among the plantings, finding a surprise when they turn the corner – an unusual contorted conifer, perhaps, or a rusty garden ornament.

The garden has the feel of an English cottage garden, purposely overcrowded and informal. Atienza leaves no vacant spaces. In between two flowering shrubs, for instance, she planted a tomato plant, which was bearing more big, ripe tomatoes in late August than she could manage to eat, she said. Although her property has subdivisions on three sides, the thickly planted trees and shrubs create a feeling of isolation and deaden the sound of passing traffic.

She planted boxwoods around some of the statues; another is surrounded by Knock Out roses, which Atienza describes as the best roses she has ever grown. She mixes shrubs together, because she likes a variety of colors and shapes all in one area. She has Japanese maples in several colors – she likes their architectural branching patterns.

She loves Oriental and Asiatic lilies and grows a lot of them, even though it means she has to go out every day to squish the red lily-leaf beetles. She likes antique peonies, as well.

The garden isn’t complete by any means. Atienza said she has concentrated on the front of the house.

In the back, there is a large lawn and a natural woodland that still shows damage from the tornado. Atienza is planning a gazebo and other structures and ornaments, as well as more gardens.

She proudly pointed out a 2-foot tall dry-laid stone wall in front of the house. When she ordered 25 pallets of stone to build the wall, the salesman told her it was too much. But she loves a challenge: She began the project in late summer and was finished in the fall.

Although she has planted hardy plants, she hasn’t done anything special to ensure her new plantings could withstand another tornado.

“I think that this is all just a test from whomever is testing me,” she said. “And I hope the test is over.”

Atienza, who was a nurse-midwife in the Philippines, came to the United States at age 20 and studied at Westbrook College (now part of the University of New England) to become a nurse. While going to school, she worked as a certified nurse assistant at Maine Medical Center, where she remained after earning her degree. In addition to volunteering with Konbit Sante, she has done volunteer nursing work in Africa and Southeast Asia.

Several times as we walked through her garden, Atienza said she was drawn to nursing because she cares about people and wants to take care of those in need. She shows the same devotion to her plants, which were robust and healthy despite a hot August.

And while her garden remains a work in progress, she’s eager to share it. She is hoping some charity groups – maybe related to nursing – will contact her, and add her garden to a tour raising money for worthwhile projects.

As if her job as a nurse, volunteer work and the garden aren’t enough to keep Atienza busy, she has started a company – Epic Scrubs by Marietta RN – as a retirement project.

She recently traveled in Southeast Asia to research companies to create the medical garments she hopes to sell.

How does she get so much done? Atienza works from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. Monday through Friday, comes home and gardens until 2 p.m., then goes to bed. Working the overnight shift gives her more daylight hours to work at home, she says.

And do you think she relaxes when she can’t garden in the winter?

Of course not. She makes jewelry.

Tom Atwell has been writing the Maine Gardener column since 2004. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at [email protected]

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