BELFAST, Maine — Ann Mullen — a slight, bespectacled octogenarian — was a familiar sight to lots of folks in Belfast, as she spent countless hours working to make the gardens at Post Office Square and Grove Cemetery a little more beautiful.
Mullen, 85, died earlier this week of a chronic heart condition, shortly after surmounting COVID-19, according to her family.
“Everybody knew her and saw her out there every single day, doing her thing,” her close friend and fellow gardener Carol Yee said. “What we want to do is celebrate Ann’s spunk and spirit. The energy that woman exuded was incredible.”
Mullen, who came to Belfast as a 70-year-old retiree, used some of that energy to leave her mark on the city. As she planted, weeded, watered and nurtured flowers and trees to make Belfast’s public spaces more colorful and vibrant, her efforts helped nurture the community. One midcoast resident said she was like Belfast’s own version of “Miss Rumphius,” the beloved children’s book character who planted lupines everywhere she went.
“She is an irreplaceable kind of person. Who is going to do what she did?” Mike Hurley, a longtime city councilor and downtown business owner, said. “A city is an illusion — it’s made up of things, and it’s made up of people. And Ann was a really unique piece of Belfast.”
In her earlier life, Mullen raised three children in the New York City suburb of Westfield, New Jersey. According to her obituary, she was a housewife who developed a strong voice in local Democratic politics and also cultured her talent for gardening. The family had a quarter-acre lot, where Mullen grew grapes, plums, raspberries, wildflowers and more.
After a divorce, she entered the workforce as a customer representative with Fisher Scientific Co., a laboratory supply and biotechnology company. After her retirement, she jumped into a new adventure by moving to Greenwich Village, New York City, where she immersed herself in the culture of the city, according to her obituary.
Mullen got a license to prune street trees, the obituary said, and she began to care for everything growing along the sidewalks within a mile radius of her home. Then, the New York City Parks Department hired her to be the gardener for Union Square Park and later Marcus Garvey Park.
“She showed me a picture of 10,000 yellow daffodils that she and her helper put in,” Yee said. “It’s like Johnny Appleseed. She made her mark all over the East Coast.”
Mullen moved to Belfast in 2006. She brought her rowboat and her gardening tools, Yee said, and quickly joined the Belfast Garden Club. Club members adopted various green spaces in the city and Mullen chose the Grove Cemetery Chapel.
Steve Boguen, the cemetery superintendent, wanted to turn the chapel area into something lovely, he said, but didn’t really know how.
“She understood what I wanted and she knew how to go about it,” he said. “I wanted a showplace you can see from the street. Ann developed flower plantings and tree plantings, and I’d say, ‘Ann, you’re the expert on this. Just do it.’”
In the growing season, Mullen would walk more than a mile to the cemetery every day from her home, pushing a little cart with her lunch, tools and watering cans. For the holidays, she put red bows on the trees, according to her friend Karna Olsson.
“That was her idea, to make the chapel more attractive,” Olsson said.
A few years ago, she decided that the chapel was too much for her and moved her attention to Post Office Square. There, Mullen planted more flowers, Yee said, and also installed whimsical metal statues of a bear and a moose that have become “quite famous” elements of downtown Belfast.
In addition to her garden work, Mullen also was a volunteer at the Belfast Farmers’ Market, where she helped manage the low-income food assistance program. Scootch Pankonin, who worked with her at the market, said Mullen was a dedicated advocate for the people the program served.
“It was always done with such thoughtfulness, to make the customer feel very comfortable. To make them have a good experience with the market,” Pankonin said. “She was committed to the concept of making the market inclusive.”
Recently, Mullen’s health took a turn for the worse, her friends said. She stopped gardening at Post Office Square, though she did put a face mask on the moose statue there earlier this year, Yee said. A few weeks ago, Mullen contracted COVID-19, and went to Portland for treatment. Although she recovered from the disease, according to her family, she died at Maine Medical Center in Portland of a chronic heart condition.
The city will long benefit from Mullen’s gift for making the world more beautiful, according to Olsson, who remembers Mullen browsing through her store, Old Stuff, in downtown Belfast.
“The items she fell in love with were things that had at one time been very lovely, but had suffered and been repaired,” Olsson said. “She saw the beauty in these things. She was charmed and delighted by them. That’s what I remember about Ann — that she just had this incredible eye for beauty.”
Correction: A previous version of this article included the wrong year of Mullen’s retirement and misstated the name of the store Old Stuff.