Ever wonder how painters capture a landscape? Two artists created a magical garden in Maine as inspiration for their paintings.

By Sharon Lovejoy

Maine folks say that a country mile is longer than a city mile, and sometimes that mile leads to places that seem poised on the edge of centuries past.

When visitors to the 1750s York, Maine, home of artists/gardeners/gourmets Todd Bezold and Michael Walek look around, they may feel that they’ve arrived at a paradisical wrinkle in time and latitude. Tall bananas with satiny, bannerlike leaves; plumbago flowers the color of a blue summer sky; brilliant magenta bougainvillea; and fragrant trumpets of pink Brugmansia are all signs that this is anything but a typical New England garden.

For Michael, whose childhood years were spent working on the 200-acre New Jersey estate of Lucea Busche Ordish, and Todd, who grew up on a farm in Kentucky, finding the historic Chase House, which is nearly engulfed by the surrounding woods, was both a challenge and a feeling of coming home. The old farmhouse, the color of the inside of a ripe butternut squash, began life as a center-chimney Colonial, morphed into a Federal, and through the years settled comfortably into its identity as a historic Greek Revival.

Whether they’re remodeling or gardening, the couple’s mantra, “Do it a little bit at a time,” has helped them learn the temperament of their home and land. Through sweat equity, they’ve tamed and planted 2 of the 5 acres of their property. They’ve rebuilt rock walls, uncovered stone foundations of old mills, and cleared areas to accentuate the beauty of outcroppings. “I like to see the structure of the gardens,” Michael says, “and these elements are all a part of the total picture.”

Michael, who managed an arboretum in Portugal, and Todd, a molecular biologist, have a passion for exuberant color, texture, and travel—three of the elements obvious in a garden design that sometimes feels like the best of Britain, France, Portugal, and the tropics. “We plant for leaf shape and color,” Todd says. “But we also try to have things flowering all through the growing season,” Michael adds.

The procession of spring color begins with a multicolor tide of naturalized bulbs in shades of pink, blue, and white, followed by golden daffodils. As the season changes, the flowering bulbs relinquish their places in the sun to both tiny and towering perennials.

Although many of the borders are formal, Todd points out that the design flows into the neighboring woods, incorporating both plants and trees. “This extends our flowerbeds and also adds verticality,” he says.

A thriving, productive kitchen garden, fed by Todd’s favorite seafood compost, huddles against the old barn and is surrounded by a handmade twig fence that is practical yet also a work of art. From this tiny area, the couple pick gallons of raspberries, bushels of vegetables, and bouquets of herbs and edible flowers.

A thriving, productive kitchen garden, fed by Todd’s favorite seafood compost, huddles against the old barn and is surrounded by a handmade twig fence that is practical yet also a work of art. From this tiny area, the couple pick gallons of raspberries, bushels of vegetables, and bouquets of herbs and edible flowers.

At the Chase farm, the traditional setting of a dooryard garden is anything but traditional. Instead of the typical heirloom plants usually found near old homesteads, this area boasts a crazy quilt of exuberantly colored tropicals and rare plants in giant pots. The stalwart couple move the containers indoors each winter and back out in the spring. Every gardener needs a measure of patience to survive the challenging ups and downs of the year, but these two also add giant doses of stubbornness and devotion—ingredients necessary to grow so many diverse species in their Zone 5b location.

Tucked behind the house and down a flight of granite steps is a serene, formal garden (about 42×96 feet), which feels like a luminous green ballroom. The broad lawn is banked by billowing hydrangeas, thick stands of lilies, hosta, astilbe, foxglove, meadow rue, and an ever-changing parade of favorite woodland denizens. A granite obelisk, which is symbolic to Michael, an Egyptologist, sits atop a tall stacked-rock pedestal and is a striking focal point of the garden. “We’ve hosted large gatherings and weddings in this beautiful space. It is a wonderful setting for these celebrations,” Michael says.

Although the couple gathers many harvests from their gardens, surely the greatest one is what the poet Wordsworth termed “the harvest of a quiet eye.” From every vantage point and through every season, the two artists paint the immense beauty that surrounds them, the beauty they created one spadeful of soil at a time.

Stately old arborvitae, sculpted by homeowner Michael Walek, stand like sentries alongside the historic Chase House in York, Maine. The deep hues of green contrast beautifully with the pastel peach home exterior.  A huge maple tree somehow survives in a crevice atop a ledge of granite.

Michael and Todd have worked together since 1997 designing and planting a garden filled with unexpected treasures. Bananas, fuchsia, plumbago, and euphorbia nestle against a large olive oil container that Michael moved from his garden in Sintra, Portugal. Partner Todd Bezold paints the granite obelisk and the crabapple in the front of their home on canvas and focused on the myriad summer greens in the area. No color came directly from a tube; he custom mixes each one.

By day, the flamboyant dooryard garden brims with colors, textures, and exotic shapes, but by nightfall, fragrance claims center stage. Jasmine, four o’clocks, Nicotiana, honeysuckle, angel’s trumpets, and potted annuals fill the air with their sweet scents. Honeysuckle intertwines with a hardy ‘William Baffin’ rose and clambers over the doorway.

On a deck just outside the kitchen is an intimate seating area perfect for morning coffee. Two iron benches are surrounded by a troupe of tropicals in an ever-changing display of colors and scents. Banks of hydrangea, elderberries, and ferns give it the feeling of a secret garden.

Espaliered apple trees against the barn wall yield six different varieties. They’re grafted with Cortland, Gala, McIntosh, Honeycrisp, Jonagold, Gravenstein, and Braeburn. Peasant gardens in Portugal inspired Michael and Todd to use their trimmings to fence the kitchen garden with sculptural twigs and branches.

A border of ferns, Jack-in-the-pulpits, and hostas—all dug and transplanted by Todd—flank a serene perch for visitors. The bench of cast-iron faux twigs and ironwood came from Portugal. Massive granite stones once led to the old mill sites around the property.

Garden at a Glance

Walek & Bezold

  1. Formal garden
  2. Boxwood balls at entrances
  3. Obelisk surrounded with assorted lillies
  4. Hydrangeas
  5. Lower lawn
  6. Hydrangea embankment
  7. Studio
  8. Dahlia bed and summer deck
  9. House
  10. Arborvitae
  11. Kitchen garden
  12. Potted annuals
  13. Side yard
  14. Magnolia
  15. Lilac stand dating from 1800s
  16. Front wall flower beds
  17. Crabapple
  18. Carriage barn
  19. Espalier apple trees
  20. Vegetable garden with twig fence
  21. Raspberries
  22. Croquet Lawn

Plein Air Painting

In the last two decades, the French tradition of painting en plein air (“in the open air”), like Monet, Renoir, and Pissarro, has gained momentum and again assumed a place of prominence in the art world.

In lieu of doing sketches and finishing a landscape painting in a studio, the plein air artist accomplishes the entire painting outdoors. The beauty of this technique is the freshness and the fleeting impressions of changing light, colors, and atmosphere, which could never be captured in the confines and illumination of a studio setting.

The couple uses a palette as vivid as the flowers in their spring and summer gardens. The tall bottles hold high-quality acrylics for use on the big paintings. The small gouache pans are for smaller works. Standing at the kitchen window after a blizzard, Michael painted the small canvas and Todd the larger, capturing the remarkable light and dark colors that might otherwise have been overlooked. The silver of the water portrays the beginning of the Cape Neddick River.

Comments (1)

December 5, 2019
Beautiful! I have a question. How do the plants survive the Maine winters, especially the tropical ones?