Brunswick in Bloom
A sparkling smorgasbord
Every year, an exuberant rainbow happens in Brunswick, Maine. To witness its slam-bang blast of colors, all you need to do is drive by the flower bed at the Favreau property on Pleasant Hill Road.
Artists set up their easels under umbrellas. Photographers come with their tripods and take pictures. Shoppers from the farmers market cross the street to take a look. And no wonder. The 130-foot-long strip bristling with 1,200 annuals in glorious color is bound to bring in the crowds. We are talking about a spectrum including solar-yellow black-eyed Susans beside deep, dark burgundy millet and copper Gomphrena dotted with a gazillion blossoms, paired with plumes of red celosia, all simultaneously synched. Dozens of zinnias have a blast between the sailor-blue spires of Salvia farinacea, while red amaranths form tassels alongside mauve annual Monarda punctata. Although Brunswick is not a fast-lane town, this border revs its motor in midsummer.
When Tamara Hunzicker first began with a few seedlings 18 years ago, she really had no major plans for the Brunswick garden. The marathon came later. Originally, Hunzicker was just being a good Samaritan. When an elderly client came to her veterinary clinic with a diabetic dog, she knew that the dog’s owner also needed help. A recent widower, he was having trouble coping. So she offered to coach the client in diabetic dog care. In return, he shared his knowledge of starting seedlings. At first, she just sowed the seeds to divert the mourning gentleman’s attention from his loss. But shortly thereafter, she was given a plot in the former vegetable garden of a Brunswick estate. The proposal seemed too generous to resist.
It started as a tentative strip in a larger garden on Peter Favreau’s property. But as Hunzicker mastered the art of transplanting, she began to flex her gardening muscles and longed to do more. She was blithely holding her own in a somewhat manageable parcel beside a larger vegetable-herb garden when suddenly, the full 130-foot expanse became available. Not only did Hunzicker agree to take it under her wing despite a busy full-time veterinary schedule, but she opted to increase the width by six feet to give the long, skinny strip more heft. That was 18 years ago, and she never looked back.
Hunzicker started with vegetables but quickly moved into flowers when she was wowed by their impact. “It just sort of happened, and then it became nutty,” she says. Planted in rows, always symmetrical, and packed with shimmering color, the display gets plenty of accolades from the drive-by audience. Given that motivation, she plays to the crowd, carefully planning heights so that taller plants, such as the six-foot-tall cleomes, ornamental grasses, and Verbena bonariensis stand in the center surrounded by an assemblage of smaller bedfellows to shore them up. That way, every plant is seen to best advantage. Meanwhile, the land naturally slopes down from the road, giving passing traffic a merry eyeful. It is all very carefully calibrated size-wise. But there is a practical aspect to the plot as well. Brisk off-shore winds can wreak potential havoc with the planting. “Sometimes things get blown down, and that just breaks my heart,” she says with a sigh. The staggered heights brace taller plants from the gusts.
The wind up for the grand slam begins in winter when Hunzicker pours over seed catalogs including Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Park Seed Company, Select Seeds, Pinetree Garden Seeds, and Harris Seeds. Because she gardens in a chilly region, sowing does not begin until April and May when she starts all of the seedlings under a bank of 26 fluorescent lightbulbs. As soon as the seedlings hit a couple of inches in height, they are moved to six-packs. “I have a transplanting marathon,” she says. Her favorite soil for the purpose is a combination of Pro-Mix and Coast of Maine potting soil (“Alone, the Pro-Mix tends to dry out,” she says), and acquiring properly stored soil is key. She makes certain that the bags of last year’s soils have been stored indoors rather than sitting outside exposed to the elements causing the soil to go anaerobic. “I’m really fussy about soils,” she admits, but the results are the payback.
When pulling together her rainbow, Hunzicker uses the “no hues barred” approach. “There’s no color that I don’t love,” she says. “I try to use as many colors as I can.” When she orders the seeds, she keeps tallies to make sure that every shade will be represented. True purple is the biggest challenge to find—salvia being her fallback flower to supply that ingredient. Although she has some tried-and-true favorites that she would not be without, she experiments annually. In her garden, you will find some of the finest novelties on the market.
The garden is laid out in a grid using string, following a basic drawing that provides a thumbnail plan. Before the exodus to the garden, the seedlings are brought from under the artificial lights into an unused greenhouse to harden off and experience buffered exposure to the elements. Then they are transferred outdoors in cloudy weather to further prepare for real life in the Great Outdoors. The soil is improved with Hunzicker’s own homemade compost of grass clippings and garden waste. When the Memorial Day parades are in the wings, it is planting time. Despite all her best-laid plans, once planting is underway, it is a “first ready, first served” relay of seedlings that are mature enough to set out, followed by the stragglers. She triangulates the rows to give each plant room to expand and thinks about color as she goes. Somehow, it all works.
After the marathon, which requires a couple of full-time weeks focused solely on the garden, it is an evening affair. Hunzicker calls herself “a militant weeder” and has developed her own tool (“A wire made into a little loop like a teeny, tiny scuffle hoe,” she says) to accomplish the chore. As the plants mature and expand, weeds are muscled out and upkeep time is diminished, leaving interludes to chat with enthusiastic viewers.
By the last week in July, the garden is prime. Throughout August, it remains a stunner. By the beginning of September, it has begun to decline. She lets frost put an end to the show. Then Peter Favreau goes through with a rototiller “because I hate to see frost-burned plants,” she explains. But the flower border has become a defining factor in her life and a legacy for the town. The neighborhood’s reaction is really what keeps Hunzicker going. “People stop by and say, ‘Thank you.’ Joggers, bikers, everyone just embraces it. It’s very touching,” she says. Being a local hero is ample reward for all the hard work. What began as a neighborly project has grown into a reason for community pride.