Camden Riverhouse Hotel garden is true self-starter
CAMDEN — Tucked in on the north side of town, the Camden Riverhouse Hotel may be best known by locals for its arresting gardens. Owner David Dickey, who said the hotel was constructed 22 years ago, derives great pleasure from baskets, beds, window boxes, and various container plantings that color the guest parking lot in front of his establishment.
The wild and colorful plantings also deck the footbridge over the nearby Megunticook River, which is owned and maintained by Dickey and his team.
Dickey said the garden virtually started itself in those early days, more than two decades ago.
"I had Laite Construction haul in the loam for the parking lot and suddenly I had tomato plants, sunflowers, you name it, growing from the loam," Dickey said. He added that the loam had been exposed to chickens —and their manure — thus its richness and fertility.
He said that the "volunteer" plants that grew from that loam inspired him to continue to cultivate garden space. Though Dickey hails from a family of gardeners, he says he does things differently.
"My mother and grandmother, maybe three generations back... had English rock gardens," he said, noting that their gardening style is much more planned and organized. His style, he said, involves planning what he will plant each year — though not necessarily where it will go.
Dickey said that he finds places to sow seeds, and often he'll plant his sunflowers a little too early.
"I say the first crop is for the chipmunks, the second is for the slugs, and the third is the one we're looking at now," he said.
Sometimes he will plant his trademark sunflowers as early as February if the notoriously unpredictable Maine winter weather permits.
The garden is not the only “green” feature of the Camden Riverhouse Hotel. Dickey said he plans to continue to embrace green methods and technologies in the operation of the Riverhouse. He currently uses solar power, and often has enough hot water stored to provide showers for every guest.
Though a jar of traditional candies isn't too far away, the lobby counter instead boasts a tray of freshly picked cherry tomatoes.
"I had one guest take one, then another, before saying, 'this is way better than candy,'" Dickey recalled.
Riverhouse Hotel guests are free to snack on the bounty of the garden at will; however, Dickey and Marketing Director Ann Cole said there have been issues with others helping themselves to the garden. They recalled catching people with grocery bags, filling them to the brim. Dickey said that while he appreciates that the community enjoys his garden, it is on private property and only guests and staff are authorized to harvest.
In addition to the highly visible areas of the garden which is enjoyed by guests and pedestrians walking by, the Riverhouse Hotel property extends behind the brick building, offering a fire pit and ample seating for guests. Of course, there are flowers and hanging baskets in the rear of the hotel.
"We're really lucky to have the land to do the garden and have the fire pit,” said. Cole. “It really shows what you can do with a parking lot.”
She said that the staff all pitch in to maintain the garden, though some have a true penchant for gardening.
"Everybody pitches in here, we all do a little bit of everything," Cole said, glancing at Dickey, and they both nodded and chuckled. "You find out what people like and what they are good at."
Dickey said a particular member of his staff that has become a true green thumb.
"She's really quite a gardener," he remarked, appreciatively.
The parking lot garden comprises seven timed “zones” and receives nutrients and water in cycles beginning around 4:30 a.m. daily.
Dickey uses a Dosatron nutrient delivery machine, which is popular in many greenhouses, he said. The property has a well, which supplies all of the water used outdoors.
Dickey orders seeds each spring and has figured out what works best, though he is constantly trying new varieties and crops. This year, Keryn Annis of Goose River Farm in Rockport, convinced him to plant sun gold and chocolate cherry tomato varieties — both are small, sweet, colorful, and early to ripen.
Since the season is a little late due to a cold start, following the advice of an old friend and seasoned farmer has paid off.
"I wouldn't have had any tomatoes if I hadn't planted those," Dickey noted. He said that he believes the beds and planters situated on asphalt tend to be ahead of those on the rest of the property.
"It's almost like a Connecticut climate [in the paved parking lot]," he said.
Dickey also noted that he has not experienced any issues with Japanese Beetles in 2017. He credits their absence to planting dill and mint, two herbs that another gardener told him would help repel beetles.
The garden is a work of excellent planning — spring perennials, including lilacs and peonies are visible, but surrounded by late summer annuals in their full glory. In characteristic fashion, Dickey doesn't take the credit. He said that he is "just friggin' lucky" that his plantings have come together in a way that provides a full season of flowers and vegetables.
Dickey said it has been a good season for his business, and that guests often remark on the garden. On a hot Tuesday afternoon, several people could be seen photographing the garden, both at the Riverhouse, and on the footbridge which is beloved and utilized freely by the community.
While Dickey has placed some signage around the garden deterring people from letting their pets soil it, even the signs themselves maintain Dickey's sense of tongue-and-cheek humor.
Dickey said he doesn't have specific plans for the evolution of his garden, it's clear that he keeps open mind about future possibilities.
"I keep saying 'I'm not going to add another garden,'" he said as he raised his arms and gestured around his parking lot, a wide grin breaking across his face.
Jenna Lookner can be reached at email@example.com