BROOKLIN — At the seasonal Brooklin residence where Annie Smith works as estate gardener, she grows sky-high sunflowers and lush, oversized blooms in tidy rows.
Dahlias, zinnias, cosmos, lilies, foxgloves, bachelor buttons, sweet peas — both annual and an unscented perennial variety — are just a few of the flowers found.
“I think this is one of my favorite cutting gardens this year,” Smith said. “It’s just fun.”
Twice a week during the summer season, Smith and her assistants will create 10 to 12 bouquets for the summer cottage. That’s two dozen bouquets a week, all with flowers and greens grown on site.
When Smith ends up with a surplus of blooms, she arranges them into bouquets sold at a roadside flower stand located at her family homestead at 892 Bay Road.
Passers-by can stop and choose a bouquet and put some cash in a tin. Smith usually charges $3.50 per arrangement. For transport, she offers a wad of paper towels and water to wet the towels in to wrap around the base of the bouquet for the ride home.
But, in spring, Smith offers perennials at the stand. These might be plants that are either “volunteering” in areas she doesn’t want them. Or, they might be perennials that Smith has divided. Spares end up on her roadside stand, waiting for a good home.
The perennials might include astilbe, phlox, lady’s mantle, lily of the valley, rose campion, Jacob’s ladder, joe-pye weed and catnip. She also may have herbs including chives, oregano, fennel and lemon balm.
If your garden isn’t as welcoming for plants as Smith’s is, you might grab a bag of “pony poop,” while you’re at the stand, also available for just a few dollars.
The manure currently comes from a miniature Mediterranean donkey named Mabel that Smith has owned for 33 years. The gardener lost her beloved American Quarter Horse, Rebel, after 29 years, earlier this year.
In late fall and early winter, especially before the holidays, Smith will have wreaths for sale as she uses the greenhouse for crafts as well. In addition to wreaths, Smith makes ornaments sold at the Sleigh Bell Shoppe in Blue Hill.
Smith has been gardening for 44 years. The Brooklin native learned from one of the most exacting gardeners — the late Martha Hubbard — who had a seasonal residence nearby.
Just how exacting was Hubbard?
Smith recalled being tasked with deadheading Hubbard’s prized geranium kept in a greenhouse.
“When I deadheaded, she made me keep track of the blossoms,” Smith said. She recalled culling up to 35,000 or 40,000 spent blooms.
“When I would do the deadheading, I would write down the month and year and the number of spent blossoms so it was easy to keep a tally,” Smith recalled. She can’t remember what variety the geranium was, but described it as “a beautiful pink color.” Smith said the plant was probably about 15 years old when Hubbard died.
Smith inherited the job working for Hubbard and her husband from her older brother who had gotten another job.
“She [Hubbard] came down one day and said, ‘want a job?” Smith related. “I was just 13 when I started working for her and her husband.”
Hubbard was a lifelong member of the Maine Organic Farmers and Growers Association. She and her geranium were known outside of Brooklin. When she passed away in 1998 at age 92, the late Russell Libby, MOGFA’s former executive director, wrote about her.
“Anyone who visited Martha Hubbard at her home in Brooklin quickly learned two things: first, she had a tremendously inquisitive mind, thinking about the environment around her and connections to the larger world; second, her greenhouse geranium was the largest you’ll ever see, producing more than 30,000 blossoms over the years,” Libby wrote.
“One of MOFGA’s life members, she spent large parts of the time since 1932 at her home on the shore of Blue Hill Bay,” Libby wrote. “When Molly Birdsall and I visited with her last spring, she’d just finished a book on the potential for hemp as a substitute for paper and wondered about the long-term impact of hemp on clear-cutting in the Maine woods. She offered the field by her house for a trial plot. She also experimented with a windmill, which worked well until an ice storm.”
Hubbard, who had no children of her own, remembered Smith in her will. Smith used her inheritance to build a greenhouse, which features a cement planter the length of the greenhouse-about 16-feet long — just like one Hubbard had built in her own greenhouse.
The planter is 3 feet deep and Smith keeps rocks at the bottom with 6 to 8 inches of growing medium on top. “I just keep adding Promix to the top,” Smith said.
The cement has held well.
“This is 19 years old,” Smith said. “There’s hardly a crack in it anywhere.”
She grows vegetables, including swiss chard, lettuce, spinach and tomatoes in the planter. The greenhouse is heated with wood and kerosene.
That first gardening job for the couple set Smith on a course she continues today, albeit for another family.
“I like being outside,” Smith said. “There’s a lot of freedom.”
For that family, Smith manages the lawn and gardens, which include perennial beds as well as the aforementioned annual cutting garden.
“We buy almost all of the annuals …,” she said. “We need a lot to get the job done and have found over the years that it is easier to buy them already started.”
However, for Smith’s personal gardening, she starts some plants from seed.
“I like a company called Pine Tree Garden Seeds,” Smith said. “They offer small packages for low prices. If you like to experiment and try new and different things, that’s a good way to do it.”
When Smith and her assistants craft the bouquets for the summer cottage, they work at a picnic table.
After they prep the flowers by stripping off the lower leaves on each stem, “we try to keep each kind of flower separate and start creating from there,” Smith said.
“Quite often a specific flower goes in a specific vase for a specific place; it’s kind of tradition that sweet peas always go on the bar and zinnias always go on the fireplace mantel.
“We use a lot of greenery in the bouquets and we also have a lot of pruning to do, so we like to use cedar and rhodies [rhododendrons] greenery as a way of getting two things done at once,” she said.
Wintertime, you’ll find Smith working on wreaths and crafts with a cup of tea by the fire in her greenhouse or pet-sitting for people who go away.