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Maine Chance Tour
by Kathy Guest

Kathy Guest lives in East Aurora, NY just outside of Buffalo. She is the AIS RVP for Region 2 and she loves irises!  Kathy Guest may be reached by e-mail.  The Western New York Iris Society (WNYIS) made the trek to the state of Maine described below in July 1996.

The photographs of the Japanese irises in this article are from Ian Black of Great Britain. He may be reached by e-mail or you may wish to visit his webpage on gardening which contains among other things, many more photographs of Japanese irises.  

This article originally appeared in the October 1996 issue of the Canadian Iris Society Newsletter. The quarterly Newsletter is received by members of the Canadian Iris Society as part of their membership.  Click here to read how to join the CIS: CIS Membership

I can't believe that the MAINE CHANCE is over already... and I also can't believe that it went off without a hitch,  Hurricane Bertha notwithstanding!

Minowa-no-satoFor anyone who is not sure what I'm talking about, the MAINE CHANCE was a tour conceived by the WNY Iris Society. The idea was to gather a bunch of like-minded iris-type folk... and plan a trip that would ultimately land us in the fabulous japanese iris garden of Currier McEwen. What follows is a Kathy Guest summary of that mission - and (since it's reasonably fresh) this may get loooooooooong and boooooooring, so fair warning.

The WNY Iris Society has been doing this sort of trip for about 5 years. We invite everyone in Region 2,  but with few exceptions,  we find it mainly appeals to our local club. Our first trip was to Virginia Beach for a Region 4 spring regional.  Who WOULDN'T go to VA Beach in the spring when you live in Buffalo???  We've also done southern PA/Maryland (gardens of: Sterling Innerst, Kegerise sisters, George Bush, Carol Warner),  the Siberian Safari (gardens of: Hal Stahly, Anna Mae Miller, Ensata Gardens, Hollingworth) and we did the JI convention last year.  At the convention last year,  we spoke to Currier and his charming wife Elisabeth about the possibility of coming their way sometime.  They were enthusiastic - and the MAINE CHANCE was born!

Our tours consist of many stops and lots of variety - a reflection of the people who join us. I think that in both the iris and daylily groups, we are first of all GARDENERS, and after that, we may specialize. Anyway, we are fortunate to have two fabulous people, Don and Donna Lowry, who travel extensively and who are, therefore, expert at plotting out a trip - finding hotels, restaurants, gardens and points of interest...and generally planning the schedule so that we step off the bus at the prescribed time, and get back on with no-one feeling like they didn't have enough time. This was our longest trip ever...from Buffalo to S. Harpswell, Maine and back... a full 5 days! We worried that we would not get enough people... but we ended up with 24 happy "Chancers" - or 12 per van (15 passenger vans... leaving enough for suitcases and 'can't live without' plants). The biggest surprise is that John Coble and Bob Bauer of Ensata Gardens contacted us and said they wanted to come! We've always considered them a part of our group anyway, but now they're like one of the family. Shortly after that, Dorothy Stahly approached us at a convention and said that she'd like to go - and although Hal was not enthusiastic, she prevailed and he had a WONDERFUL time. Not long after Hal and Dorothy signed on, we got a message from John and Bob that they had a visitor from Australia who was interested in the trip, so we signed HIM too! A truly ecumenical group. Somewhere along the line, my friend Marilyn Harlow from San Jose said that the trip sounded like a good one to her, and we signed HER up! So, we ended up with 14 members of the WNY Iris Society, 2 daylily people, 2 hosta people (Ransom and Katie Lydell - commercial hosta growers), one Aussie and 5 'notables'.

The first person who arrived for the trip was Marilyn who flew in from San Jose on Tuesday. Marilyn and I have become friends through AIS Membership business, so I was especially thrilled to be able to spend time with her without the distraction of a convention going on around us. We had a lovely day in Chatauqua County...but she was not feeling terrific and by the next morning she felt lousy enough that she felt she had to back out of the trip.

Everyone else wandered into town on Wednesday and we started off the festivities with a Bon Voyage party at our Chairman's house. We decided that since we had some real 'heavies' joining us... and since many of our members are not able to go on trips or conventions - this would be a good opportunity to mingle! Peter served Buffalo cuisine - chicken wings and Roast Beef on kimmelwick and we handed out tour shirts. We decided early on that since this was a special trip, we should do tee shirts like the Grateful Dead do. Using a computer image of a handpainted japanese iris (antique), we had shirts made with MAINE CHANCE written above the image, the dates below, and a list of gardens on the back. The shirts were a big success and on the 'day in question' - the day at Currier's ... we all wore our shirts and looked like so many kiddos at camp!

Then we all went to our various homes or accommodations with instructions to be back at Peter's at 6:30 am!

At 6:30 am, all of us happy 'chancers' converged at Peter's.. piled into the vans and hit the road.

Sei-shonagonOur first garden stop was not until 2 pm in Massachusetts - Fox Brook Iris Farm. This is a wonderful garden tucked away on top of a hill and quite buried in the woods. The gardener is a 17 year old young man named Andy who is an avid JI grower and hybridizer. We were all very impressed by his garden and also by his seedlings! Andy was thrilled to have John and Bob and Hal in his garden ... and we spent a long time walking up and down the rows while they talked with him about his hybridizing. Andy also sells iris (bonus!) so there were soon folks perusing his list (JI's $6... siberians $4!) and placing their orders. Andy's Mom, meanwhile had fabulous munchies including a layered fresh fruit salad. We thought Andy DEFINITELY qualified as an honorary "Chancer", so we presented him with an official shirt and hit the road - or actually, the BRIDGE. Not far from Andy's was an attaction called the Bridge of Flowers. This is a bridge that someone long ago began to plant... and it is now covered with annuals, perennials, incredible wisteria and unusual shrubs. We walked back and forth and headed for the Smith Garden.

The Smith's garden was recently on tour for the siberian iris convention so we were happy to be able to visit it in calmer circumstances. The focal point of the garden is a stream that is dammed with field stone with a spillway into a lower stream with a bridge. The area around the stream was planted with siberians for the convention...but there were also plenty of JI's to keep us interested and occupied. Steve Smith has become interested in species ensata and is working with them. The species is interesting ... has the classic 3 fall JI look, but is VERY tall and so commands the eye. We looked at his seedlings and I'm wishing now I had approached him about buying one for the Guest garden.

By this time, it was getting late and after checking into our hotel, we had a quick meal at a franchise restaurant and fell into bed.

DAY 2 started at 9 am and was supposed to begin at York Hill Farm..but Darlyn (the owner) had been having troubles due to a serious lack of rain and begged off. She was thoughtful enough, however, to line up a different garden - and it was one of the high points of our trip! (Darlyn... please help me with these folks' names...)

This garden was to DIE for! The house is perched on a rise and the garden falls away below. The garden is laid out in exquisite islands separated by grass paths. The entire place has an oriental flavor... from the spare planting of JI's (grown to perfection), to the pond, hostas, daylilies and selected plants. This is one of those gardens with not a blade of grass out of place, and not a weed to be seen. Darlyn was there to greet us and we thanked her over and over for finding us such a gem!

Next stop was Shirley Pope's garden in Gorham, Maine. The garden was a surprise for me, because I never realized that she grew anything but irises! The JI's were looking very good and Shirley took the time to describe how she rotates the crops for optimum health. Shirley also grows quite a few hostas and I ended up with two of them in a great two chamber freeform concrete planter. This little indiscretion also got me in trouble with one of the tour directors who said that he had told everyone they could NOT buy anything because it was too early in the trip to take up room. I looked over an saw that Bob Bauer had an enormous hosta as well...so I asked him why HE didn't get in trouble- he said he guessed it was because he was a 'notable'... which doubled us both over with laughter! Love that man.

Don got over it... I got to keep my hostas and off we went to O'Donal's Nursery. This is a commercial nursery that Donna had located that she thought might be fun. I was still licking my wounds over the hosta ordeal when I found a INCREDIBLE iron gate that I absolutely could not leave without. But this time I got a little smarter... I schmoozed up Don before I made the purchase and the gate is now resting in the Guest garden!

That night Donna had planned a cruise for those interested. Everyone was, so we piled on the boat and watched the sunset.

Day 3 was SHOW DAY! Shirley Pope had asked some of us to judge their JI Show and we happily accepted. To my great surprise, I was one of the invitees - along with the 'notables' John Coble, Bob Bauer and Hal Stahly. The show was incredible! It was held in a music room of a school so that the irises were arranged on risers around the room - perfect height for viewing. Behind the irises were potted hostas - a perfect segue to a bonsai and cut leaf hosta exhibit. I was paired with Bob Bauer and John and Hal judged together. The quality of the show was VERY high, despite Hurricane Bertha, so the job was not an easy one. It was my honor to work with Bob and see first hand the difference between a novice (Kathy Guest) and an expert (everyone else). Bob could tell at a glance which irises were misnamed (verified by the registration book), which were grown to perfection (most of them) and which were not quite up to class. I was quite humbled, but I certainly learned a lot and I believe we did a good job. Queen, as you know, was Dappled Dragon, which was an imposing splashed flower - enormous and absolutely without flaw. First runner-up was Crystal Halo.. a hard choice to make. Best Seedling was won by ANDY! Who had several entries - the best of which was a navy blue with maroon veining. The veining was quite defined and very dramatic. The flower needs some work on form, but the color transcended everything and he was in heaven (and he was also wearing his shirt).

MiyoshinoAfter the show we headed for a hosta garden and for our own Ted White's. I met Ted at the show (it was like seeing an old friend!), and his garden was secondary only to Currier's in my mind and in my personal interest. Unfortunately, this is when Hurricane Bertha flexed her muscles and the thrill of finally being there was diminished somewhat by the buckets of rain falling all around! BUT... we're gardeners first and we've been wet before, so Carolyn and Peter and I sucked it up and enjoyed a wonderful wet tour with Ted! Ted is a bundle of kinetic energy and seems to go in 3 directions at once... we covered a lot of ground (mud?) and tried to imagine what the plants would look like if it weren't being pounded by oceans of rain. I felt sorry for John White who was thrilled to have the likes of John, Bob and Hal in his garden to evaluate his seedlings... and it was just impossible. So we got wet - had fun with Ted and realized that we would have to skip the last garden on the tour that night. We tried to go to a seafood restaurant but it was closed due to flooding, so we ended up in another where we encountered a local legend named "Madeline" with the most incredible hair I've ever seen - and that was the end of day 3. .. next - Currier's!

Day 4 was the day we were all waiting for... a visit with Currier McEwen. The day - incredibly - dawned clear and bright and we arrived at 10 am in brilliant sunshine! For those who don't know, Currier McEwen literally 'wrote the book' on Japanese Iris. He is a national treasure - 94 years young - sharper than I am now and a hybridizer of great skill and humor.

Currier's garden is on a peninsula (or maybe a spit) into that beautiful ocean so that there's ocean on both sides - and the crashing surf is the ongoing background sound. We arrived to find Elisabeth eagerly awaiting us, and Currier himself soon joined us. A more charming and precious couple does not exist. They both have a marvelous ability to focus on your conversation as though you were fascinating and brilliant and it's a pleasure to talk with them. They each received a shirt and they both but them on immediately!

Currier has two gardens on his property... his introduced cultivars and his seedling bed. Hurricane Bertha had pretty much shredded anything that had been open, but plenty of flowers opened through the day. One particularly interesting Japanese JI was torn to pieces...but not so much so that you couldn't see these fabulous feathered styles.. very much like the siberian style arms. His cultivar "Maine Chance" was, sadly, not open...but Japanese Pinwheel was putting on a display as was Popular Demand and a wonderful 6 fall pink seedling.

The point of our trip was to be able to appreciate Currier ... and that we did. He was all over the property, even though his arthritis causes him to require a guiding arm. He seemed to enjoy our company as much as we enjoyed the absolute joy of being with him.

We took a short trip to Earthart Gardens... operated by Sharon Whitney who introduces Currier's irises for him and helps out some in his own garden. Sharon is a joy and I was quite taken by a Japanese iris, Hekiun, with is a three fall blue - so full it appears to be a 6 fall. A star pattern radiates down the fall, but is stopped by a wide rim. The entire flower is crimped. Very handsome!

Back to Currier's where a clambake was underway. We were soon feasting on lobster and clams and homemade blueberry pie. The lobster and clams were cooked in a heap of kelp and nothing has ever tasted better!

We were able to stay at Currier's all day - from 10 am to 4 pm - under a cloudless sky and mesmerizing surf! He graciously autographed our books and seemed to really be having a fabulous time. Currier has a wonderful little house he calls the Chatterbox that Kathy Guest is aching to sleep in. It's perched on the very edge of the bluff overlooking the surf - and is only big enough to hold two chairs, a small table and a bed - all oriented toward large windows looking out on the sea. From Currier's, we spent a couple of hours in Freeport shopping and then fell into bed.

Day 5, yesterday, included a stop at the Shafer/Sachs garden (Joe Pye Weed's), which is another "to die for". Marty and Jan were a major garden for the siberian convention and they warned us they didn't have any JI's. But this is a gardener's garden and we were thrilled to be there. Marty and Jan grow cut flowers for the Boston market and so there was lots of neat things to see. But they also grow many specialty plants like mini astilbes, variegated corn (!!!!), sweet peas, and grasses. A surprise stop after that was to Blanchettes Nursery... an incredible specialty place where you can get plant material you could only mailorder otherwise (at $5 and $9!!)... then to Kimball's ice cream where we pigged out on $2 cones that were so loaded that you had to flip them into a bowl (while John Coble made barnyard noises). A fitting end to a wonderful trip. As we piled into the van for the long return trip... the rain came back. We took a short stop in Albany at Melanie Mason's, and back to Buffalo by 1 am.

We also took a test on the van - prepared by Donna Lowry - on Japanese Iris and AIS. I don't know who won on the other van, but Hal Stahly won on ours and received some stationary. As I told him, he SHOULD win, fergodsake.

I have to remark in closing that the best part of our trips is always the folks! We have a wonderful time... we laugh, we learn, we socialize and we grow. Everyone on the vans got along... and we ALL hated to see the trip end!


And just a little more… One of the visitees, Ted White of Minot, Maine adds:
Subject: "Maine Chance" Tour Group Continues Despite Monsoon Bertha

I got to meet three very special people today when Kathy Guest, Carolyn Schaffner, and Ellen Gallagher arrived in Maine as part of their "Maine Chance" tour. They were here principally to view Japanese iris gardens, but you can bet they had their eyes glued on some of the very early daylily bloom here, too. Kathy served as a judge at our Maine Iris Society's Japanese Iris Show held today in neighboring Auburn. Judging with Kathy were Hal Stahly, Bob Bauer, and John Coble (hope I haven't left someone out). Following the judging, Kathy, Carolyn, and Ellen, stopped by our garden with about 22 other members in their entourage. Torrential rains didn't stop these brave souls from trudging through the garden. It was a pleasure guiding them through the garden despite the deluge. We toured the John White JI seedling garden as sheets of rain fell. We even took in the Ted White daylily seedling garden. Before leaving, Kathy presented me with an official "Maine Chance" T-shirt with a large Japanese iris on the front, and on the back, a list of all the gardens their group was visiting while on tour.

As far as I was concerned, the best part of my day was just meeting Kathy, Carolyn, and Ellen, and at last being able to match at least three faces with names. As their vans were leaving, I finally realized that I was soaked to my skin. So much for that old military raincoat that I have found so dependable in the past. Rain saturated every part of it, and there wasn't an inch of clothing that escaped the downpour. I decided I best shed the soaking wet clothing, and while doing so, heard the doorbell ring. I couldn't answer it as a was headed for a warm shower. When I came out, I looked down into the JI seedling patch, and there was Dr. Currier McEwen, age 94, his wife Elisabeth, and a Maine Iris Society guide. I was stunned to see Currier sloshing around in the monsoon conditions to check on the latest John White seedlings. Just checking on the seedlings was not enough for the good doctor. He was gathering blooms which he would take back to South Harpswell to pollinate some JI's in his garden. Currier and my father are the best of friends, and they are constantly sharing pollen.

Dr. McEwen is an amazing person -- a man of many talents. He is a virtual living library of botanical information. We are all very fortunate that he has written and published his last two books on Siberian and Japanese irises, for they contain a wealth of information that otherwise might someday be lost forever. He did all this work when he was more than 90 years old --- incredible!! Click here to reach Timber Press, the publisher of these books.

Looking outside about 8:15 P.M., I noticed that one of my father's JI and Siberian iris seedling gardens was under several inches of water. On the opposite end of the property water is racing through the daylily seedling garden. Only the foolhardy would venture out now. The ground in the seedling areas is so soft it might pull a grown man right down through God's green earth. The daylilies, of course, are simply reveling in all this rain.

When Kathy, Carolyn, and Ellen return, they will give you all the details of their tour, so I'll stop right here. That's it for now.