Observe: In a field in Connecticut, once farmed for Christmas trees, Andrew “Andy” Brand used to watch the world go round. He focused not on the sky with its rolling clouds or the surrounding expanses. He focused on the small.
“I would spend hours out there just watching the butterflies and moths and insects. Making observations, taking notes,” said Brand, who serves as director of horticulture at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay. “That quickly became a passion for the interactions and for native plants and the insect world. Because they go hand in hand. Our insects have evolved with native plants.”
Brand has observed the natural world since youth, written for gardening magazines, delivered lectures, created and managed a Facebook and Instagram account, founded the Connecticut Butterfly Association, worked in commercial horticulture, and, now, has been involved at the Gardens since 2018, starting as curator of living collections.
Brand moved to Bristol from Connecticut that year, too – leaving behind a 20-year-old garden of shade plants and companion species. To tend a new one.
“I have this thing I put on all my posts, my little hashtag, it’s ‘#observeconnectexperience,’” he said.
Now, in Maine, his gaze lands on species native to this land. Like chickadees, excavating their nest holes from trees, one mouthful of sawdust at a time. “I could spend an hour watching them,” he said.
Or longer: A whole career.
Biodiversity – as represented by the butterflies and insects and birds – depends on native plants, said Brand. In essence, if you don’t have native plants, you won’t have diverse insect population, if you don’t have diverse insect population, you won’t have diverse birds … Brand trailed off.
The topic, which he has lectured on and posted about extensively, is never ending. A source of awe, excitement, loss, joy, gratitude, wonder. And discovery.
“My big thing is not just to see a butterfly and say ‘ok, that’s pretty’ and then move on. I watch it,” said Brand.
He pointed to local land trusts and conservation areas, in addition to places like the Gardens. Take a walk at Hidden Valley Nature Center in Jefferson, he suggested with enthusiasm.
“It’s getting people to slow down, and take the time to really see what’s around them. What are the birds and various forms of wildlife doing?” added Brand. “Even things as common as turkeys now. They are spectacular right now. I know they’re a dime a dozen. But they’re doing their courtship thing now, I mean, it’s amazing.
“You can see something. But then if you actually take the time, and look at it, and look at it from different angles and different lighting, you get different experiences from the same thing,” he said, searching for a post of a backlit dandelion seed head, silhouetted.
“Not that I’m encouraging people to go out and plant dandelions, but if you see one, look at it from a different perspective.”
Then look for the tiny insects, he said. Watch them, wonder, “What are they doing? Why did that bee do that? Where did it go? What is it doing here, in front of me, in my yard or in this park?”
Connect: Brand is a photographer, a writer, frequently taking photos at the Gardens. He has also been director of horticulture since late 2021. It’s not as much hands on work as he used to do. Still, he participates in group work days, at least for a few hours, with the other horticulturalists.
“People think I’m nuts when I tell them I love weeding,” he said. “It’s just very therapeutic for me.
“I find it very satisfying because you can see the progression,” said Brand, as if transported, in a kind of gardening reverie.
“I’ve always been drawn to shade plants, favorite is a genus called ‘epimedium,’” added Brand, who wrote an article on the topic for Fine Gardening.
He’s also always been drawn to the Midcoast.
After a tenure managing the Broken Arrow Nursery in Connecticut, Brand and his wife moved north.
“My commute went from five minutes in Connecticut to 35 minutes. But it’s an amazing 35 minutes,” he said. “I drive through Damariscotta twice a day. And I have such a history there.”
Brand and his family spent summer vacations on Damariscotta Lake as a child, where he explored the wild spaces and town haunts, many of which are gone now. He recalled penny candy and root beer floats, watching the tide rush under the Main Street bridge.
“I know the area inside and out,” said Brand, from seacoast to the woods. He now keeps a few recreational oyster growing sites with friends, and frequents the new businesses in town.
He also spent time in his grandfather’s vegetable garden as a child, where he learned to respect plants, their labor, and the human labor needed to usher them from seeds to food.
“I learned how to dig potatoes and pick hornworms off the tomato plants,” said Brand. He peddled strawberries around the neighborhood, too. It’s an experience he brought back to the Gardens, where an education team helps children learn to interact with plants as companions, as co-inhabiters, and as sustenance.
“To know where the food was coming from and the hard work that goes into making it. I think some people take that for granted, how hard it is,” said Brand. “It’s not just you put a seed in, you forget about it, and come back five or six weeks later and you pick it and it’s done. There’s lots of things that are going into growing that food.”
Children’s interest and excitement for growing food are perennial. But attention to native plants is newer, said Brand.
“There’s just been an explosion of interest” recently in native plants, he explained. Social media, new literature, more accessible information, and local education and advocacy efforts have all contributed.
Some of which are annuals.
“I’ve tried to learn their names. I can tell you woody plant names and perennials inside and out. But annuals, that’s now a new thing I’ve been trying to teach myself, besides the familiar ones,” said Brand.
Experience: The Gardens opened to the public in 2007.
“Shortly thereafter, I would start visiting,” said Brand.
“Something struck me about the Gardens, when I would walk through,” he said. It was appealing, there was a continuity, a sense of place, a five-minute walk from curated gardens to wild natural space like being in the Maine woods. He knew he would be involved working here somehow, even long before he would join the horticulture team.
“For me, the botanical gardens here, in coastal Maine, are different from, for example Longwood,” said Brand, referring to the highly curated Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania. He called them gorgeous, spectacular, but “you come here, and it’s just a completely different feel. You feel – it just kind of envelops you.”
Most people can’t have big fountains and elaborate hedges – but the goal, in his eyes, is that they could find something here that resonates with them. That inspires them. And, perhaps, try to replicate that environment – or the principles at work in that environment – at home. Brand referred to Douglas Tallamy’s “Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants,” a book elemental to his horticultural beliefs and practices.
As a horticulturist, Brand spoke of the continuity and flow to the Gardens, achieved in part by combining native plants and non-native non-invasive plants “in a way our visitors can relate to.”
It’s public horticulture, he said. A way to share his love of plants with others.
“We’re providing an opportunity for people to experience all of these plants, and how they grow together,” said Brand.
“A lot of people may never see some of these plants elsewhere. To expose them to the diversity of plants and teaching at the same time how to care for the plants properly, to do things like weeding, pruning, and deadheading. So hopefully they’re leaving here better gardeners,” said Brand, “and better stewards of the land.”
At the Gardens, interacting with visitors on a daily basis, questions are a given. Brand has asked and been asked, identifying plants, talking about medicinal and food-based uses, companion species, insects. He said he loves the reciprocal enthusiasm.
“They come here because they either love plants, or they’re coming to see our wooden friends the trolls, or they want to be outdoors and really connecting with nature,” he added.
During the pandemic, visitors could “set that chaos aside and come to the botanical gardens and just get immersed in this beauty.”
“I just love plants, I’m a plant nerd,” said Brand.
“Native plants themselves too … they are amazing. I can give a whole lecture on native plants, pointing out the aesthetic beauty of them, but also the ecological benefits,” said Brand, citing vibrant cardinal flowers. “Put that in your yard, and the hummingbirds are going to thank you,” said Brand.
Providing host plants for butterflies – and other species – means the creatures can complete their entire lifecycle in a person’s yard, not just come visit, said Brand.
And the popularity of native plants has grown immensely since Brand started working as a horticulturalist. People are realizing, he said. They’re noticing, too. He gave the example of insect decline.
“You used to see the grill in the front of your car covered with insects after driving,” said Brand. “Now there are very few.”
“We are losing species continuously,” he said. Over the next few months, migratory birds will fly north, following trees and shrubs that are leafing out. They do so for the caterpillars and insects that feed from those plants. Brand quoted E.O. Wilson on insects, pulled a few books off a library shelf in his office. Dried stalks of plants stood tall in a vase in the corner and a few cuttings with a sticky note lay on his desk.
“It all comes down to how we treat the earth, whether it’s pesticides, insecticides or mindful development, moving to different energy sources,” he said, listing food, conservation, connection to nature, too.
Under his guidance, the Gardens have brought in lecturers and connected with organizations like the Wild Seed Project, which focuses on native plant education and restoration.
“It’s not just us living here,” said Brand, “We’ve got all these other creatures that have got to live here, too, if we really want to do well and survive.”