Rob and Robin Whitten create a peaceful, personal garden on Munjoy Hill.
Every morning at 6, Rob and Robin Whitten hit the “Green Gym.” “We do the classic stoop, bend, stretch,” Rob says of his and his wife’s 90-minute routine, although the exercise has some non-classic elements: the fitness studio is their garden and the activity consists of weeding, planting, digging, and laying stone.
“We’re a team,” says Rob. “She is the gardener; I’m the helper. Robin has a wonderful sense of color and texture. She spends hours with the bulb and seed catalogues, and garden books. I’m the spatial/structure guy who does the heavy lifting. I’m pulling weeds, turning the compost, and mulching the beds, while Robin is at her planting bench, labeling and tagging.”
It’s a workout with beauty as the afterburn.
Then it’s off to work in the Old Port, where Rob is the founder and principal of the award- winning firm Whitten Architects, and Robin is the founder and editor of AudioFile Magazine, which reviews and recommends audiobooks.
Largely open to the street, the Whittens’ Munjoy Hill garden consists of a flower-strewn mini-meadow, fruit trees, planted beds, and a stone dining terrace, all on property whose 20-foot grade forms multiple levels, thanks to two crescent-shaped retaining walls, built of broken fieldstone. (Tony Aceto of Maineway Landscaping and Excavating in Saco assisted with the stonework.)
It wasn’t always so lovely. For 35 years, the gardens were limited to the land immediately surrounding the Whittens’ circa-1847 house, which they bought in 1976 and which sits on a hill a few blocks away from Casco Bay. The Whittens’ longtime neighbor was a lobsterman and while a fence separated their properties, the house’s high perch meant that the immediate view was of an asphalt lot with a boat, traps, and other apparatus of the industry. At some point, the Whittens asked their neighbor to let them know if he ever decided to sell the lot and its accompanying shed. In 2012, he did so; the lot became part of the Whittens’ now extensive gardens and the shed became Rob’s workshop, subsequently updated with white cedar siding, forest green trim, sliding barn doors, and decorative asphalt roof tiles.
A newcomer experiences the gardens from right to left, downhill to uphill, public portion to private. A mown path leads through the meadow, planted with crocus, wind anemones, fritillaria, and scilla, and past fruit trees, before it meets stone steps: two of slab granite and a third comprised of half a millstone. On either side of the steps, stone walls create flat areas for planting beds, which are dominated by blues, purples, and whites in some areas, and yellows in another, thanks to creeping phlox, vinca, lavender, and daffodils. Once established, daffodils and grape hyacinths, planted in pots that frame the steps, are moved into the garden. The house overlooks all this, but is also surrounded by taller plantings, including lilacs, a dogwood, a stately old maple, magnolia, and two fruit-bearing apple trees, the latter of which (along with pine trees) were there when the Whittens bought the house. The newer garden is on the south (and water) side of the house. The north side is “the engine room,” Rob says. Here there are more planted beds, but also a brick walkway, greenhouse, potting shed, and an impressive row of compost bins, ending in a container with ready-to-use soil.
This schematic describes the larger elements of the garden, but hardly touches on the abundance of details that charm. A large slab of stone by the sidewalk is purposefully placed to serve as a bench for passersby. A profusion of Solomon’s seal edges the dining terrace. Robin describes the green ground plant with small bell-like flowers as reminding her of the fairy villages that “you see in those little English garden books with animals who live in the woodland.” In season, tulips, iris, daylilies, English bluebells, wisteria, peonies, clematis, and chrysanthemums all make an appearance. Triumphs and failures are noted in Robin’s extensive garden log, a fat diary that she keeps in the kitchen, which is stuffed with catalogue clippings, notes, instructions, and encouragement. On one page there will be a recorded disappointment, on another an exuberant, “Garden looks great!”
The garden is always evolving, and last summer’s changes extended to an architectural renovation. The kitchen and mudroom in the house’s back ell were reconfigured to include more windows and accommodate a new porch. This “last piece of the garden design,” Rob says, created more ways to enjoy the garden. “The house was designed around the garden space,” not, as is more often the case, vice versa.
Gardening is not a mere pleasure for the Whittens, but at times a matter of social action and even saving grace. Robin is a breast cancer survivor. In 2004, when she first got her diagnosis, her tulips were already planted for the season. To get her through “the dark days of chemo and radiation,” she says, she imagined her garden blooming in the spring. The next year, she spearheaded community plantings of pale pink tulips in public spaces, as a way to fundraise and create better awareness of breast cancer. At its height, the Pink Tulip Project had beds at 80 schools, hospitals, and parks in Maine alone and raised $380,000 for the Maine Cancer Foundation.
The Pink Tulip Project was purposefully timed for Mother Day’s blooms. Rob and Robin’s personal garden also has a spring focus, with masses of tulips and daffodils. Lily of the valley lines the wall of boulders at the back of the property. Columbine, mountain laurel, poppy, and scilla are arranged under an apple tree. Climbing hydrangea weaves through a low, curved iron fence that runs along the sidewalk and was fashioned by blacksmith Tim Greene of StandFast Works Forge in Parsonsfield. As the summer moves on, shade overtakes the garden, and “shade plants don’t interest me much,” says Robin. Though she does plant for later color, she says, “The garden’s big moment is spring. You wait so long for spring to come and are rewarded with all the lovely blooms.”