May 21, 2018
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Hampden gardener shows off flair for the whimsical, beautiful

By Sara Breau, Special to the BDN

Walter Whitney’s Hampden backyard looks like a collection of clips from a gardening magazine, unique homemade creations interspersed with the bright splashes of color from the 22 “garden spots” scattered throughout the property.

At age 73, Whitney spends 20-30 hours each week working in his gardens planting, weeding, mulching and watering his treasures. His trim, white house sits at the front of a yard that is home to hundreds of impatiens, dahlias, begonias, lilies, petunias and many more flower varieties he has acquired throughout the past five years.

“This is supposedly a labor of love, but I think it’s more labor than it is love, as I’ve been seeing it so far,” Whitney said.

The majority of his flowers are perennials that, once planted, continue to come back on their own each spring. Lilies, peonies, bleeding hearts and roses are just a few of the hardy plants that Whitney expects to see blossom year after year.

“With your perennials, you’ll always get your money back,” he said.

Whitney is perhaps most proud of his trumpet flowers that grow over a white trellis leading into the backyard.

“They’re so lovely I didn’t even want to leave them to go to work this morning,” he said.

He also has a “California garden,” where he grows a variety of vegetables each summer. Across from that is a hedge of sunflowers, bright yellow heads nodding lazily from behind a short, rock wall.

“A sunflower is normally an ugly plant, but that isn’t ugly! It’s so pretty and just one plant can have as many as nine to 12 blossoms,” Whitney said.

The gardens are watered with an inexpensive irrigation system of tanks that collect rainwater coming from the gutters on the house. The water then passes through hoses that run underground and is dispersed through spigots to each of the different garden spots.

Some flowers, such as Whitney’s pink-and-white wave petunias, require more extensive care.

“You have to feed them, you have to water them and say good night to them. They’re a pain in the butt,” he said.

Whitney has gathered rocks from Hughes Brothers Inc. in Hampden to build borders and walls around his gardens. One such “pretty mess,” as he describes it, is filled with vibrant clusters of dahlias and geraniums, along with several peony and iris plants that already have reached their peak for the season and have begun to lose their luster.

“That’s such a sad part about this,” he said. “First of all, there’s no guarantees as to what the heck you’re going to get or not going to get, and then you have a beautiful flower and bingo — two weeks later, there it is, gone.”

Throughout the shrubs, flowers and vines are eye-catching fixtures such as a wishing well, a lighthouse and a birdhouse that is a miniature replica of Whitney’s own house. There also is a small white outbuilding next to the back door — complete with hurricane shingles on the roof and curtains made by Whitney’s wife, Patricia — that houses the couple’s barbecue grill.

Much of the material used to create his backyard points of interest have been salvaged from towns throughout Maine, including Castine, Searsport, Newburgh and Hampden.

“The operable word here to describe me, other than being nuts, is I’m not a landscaper, I’m a land-scraper because I don’t pay anything for the rocks I get, the boards, the plants, anything,” Whitney said.

One example of his recycled handiwork is a small building constructed from old barn boards from Castine, Winterport and Hampden, and a door that is held on with three rusty, mismatched hinges.

“This is not an outhouse, it’s an outdoor facility, because it’s very sophisticated,” Whitney said.

The “facility” has two holes — his and hers — with a 1908-edition Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog on the seat in between.

“That’s what they used for toilet paper, and there’s some tremendous buys in that thing,” Whitney said. “There are some ladies’ shoes for $2.50 and handguns were about $15. There are some awful good buys in this thing.”

He emphasized that the facility is more for decoration than use since there is no excavation system installed.

Along the far edge of the yard is a Civil War fence replica, held together entirely with rope, which Whitney made. Not far from that is a rustic “rum wagon” he has filled with brightly colored petunias and impatiens.

“Right after the Prohibition, they used to deliver rum to hotels, restaurants and stuff with that, and now I’ve made it into a hearse. That’s an original Amish wagon, it’s a treasure,” Whitney said.

Near the middle of the yard is a small rock garden filled with red-and-white dahlias, coordinating with the American flag that flies from a pole set in the center of the flowerbed. The most recent addition to Whitney’s scenic collection is a gift his children recently presented him with on his birthday: a flag screenprinted with an image of one of his lilies. “Welcome to the Garden” is printed along the top. He said it was a nice addition made all the more impressive because it displays a flower from one of his gardens.

In front of the house are clusters of cheerful yellow begonias and red geraniums flourishing in old whiskey barrels.

“Every year, one flower will do better than you expect, and some flowers will do worse. It goes right back to no guarantees; there are absolutely no guarantees at all with this,” Whitney said.

Underneath the shade trees along the far side of the property, Whitney has replaced marigolds with impatiens, which are easier to maintain and are able to thrive off just the light provided from the morning sun that reaches them in their otherwise shady area.

“These are just things that you get to know and no matter who you talk to, they don’t know it all either,” Whitney said. “But I have help from Sprague’s, Wiswell’s, Calkins — anyone who will listen to me. These are nurseries that have been in it for hundreds of years and I get good information from them.” A number of his plants are grown from seeds from Calkins Farm Stand in Hampden, a process he usually starts sometime in March.

“The one flower that I have a lot of, and I’m named after it, is called impatiens,” Whitney joked. “I’m named after this flower because you have to have such great patience, and I don’t. I would like to be able to plant a seed in the morning and have a bouquet two days later, but it just does not happen.”

Whitney’s efforts have not gone unnoticed in the community. This was his first year participating in the Hampden Garden Club summer tour that took place July 20, at the invitation of club president Anne Bennett.

“He has a beautiful garden, it’s just spectacular. Everyone really loved it,” Bennett said.

Whitney had neither attended nor participated in garden shows before this. While gardening has earned him some recognition within the community, he emphasized its importance to him simply as a hobby he has grown passionate about through the years.

“I never draw attention to myself,” Whitney said. “That’s just how I live.”

He shares the wealth from his gardens by giving vegetables and flowers to his neighbors. As the owner and operator of Hampden Window Co. for nearly 40 years, Whitney often has customers visit the workshop at his home and comment on the beauty his hard work has yielded.

“My customers come in and they always park right there and they’ll say to me, ‘Well who did that, your wife?’ And I say ‘No, I did that’ and I give them flowers and vegetables and they think I’m a hell of a guy,” Whitney said.

He isn’t sure how he got involved in gardening, or even how his hobby has evolved to the point it’s at today, but one thing he does know is that he’s not about to give it up anytime soon.

“Once you get into this, when do you stop? You don’t,” he said.

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