The Garden Institute in Camden is seeking its niche.

The institute sits on the Mechanic Street site where Merry Gardens previously sold herbs, scented geraniums, ivy and more, beginning in 1946. Mary Ellen Ross wanted the property to become a horticultural education center, so she formed The Garden Institute. In 2002, she turned the property over to the nonprofit Garden Institute, and since Ross died a few years ago, the institute’s seven-member board of directors has been seeking a direction.

Currently, the institute subsists on about $2,000 per year raised through plant sales and small donations to pay for power, water and liability insurance.

Board member Jeanne Hollingsworth is overflowing with creative ideas, limited only by the lack of an endowment and the age of the existing glass greenhouses.

She has propagated masses of hens and chickens, noting their use as a roof garden plant. “Chicago, Boston and Minneapolis are considered green roof cities, with huge expanses,” she said. These roofs covered with plants “cut down on cooling expenses by 30 percent and heating by 10 percent,” as a rule of thumb. Hollingsworth suggested that people who keep poultry might try a green roof on their coops, to cool them in summer and warm them in winter.

Green roofs do need extra support, she said. Plants are grown in squares — “almost like plant flats, except that they’re square and about 6 inches deep” — that are anchored to the roof. “I think it would be fun to hook up with a place like the Shelter Institute” to do green roof workshops. “We could help supply the materials.”

Beautiful planters, raised beds and window boxes full of edibles are another interest. Hollingsworth used institute plants in window boxes for the Belmont Inn in Camden so that its customers could enjoy the edibles in salads — including lettuce and basil (Thai, lemon, window box basil — Ocimum basilicum “Pistou” — and the common sweet basil).

Likewise she’s planted an old colander — “a salad bowl,” she calls it — to lettuce, “just to show people — they’ll go for it because it’s cute, and then they’ll eat it.” About an inch of sphagnum moss lines the colander, which is then filled with potting soil and plants.

A hanging basket features mint, garlic chives, lemon thyme, golden lemon thyme, lady’s mantle (that just appeared) and marjoram. Like the colander, the wire basket was lined with a little sphagnum moss and filled with potting soil. This spring a bird nestled her young among the herbs in the center of the pot.

A raised bed planter is lush with crops. About 2 feet tall, 4 feet wide and 20 feet long — a size that could fit in just about any yard — it produces tomatoes, lettuce, Swiss chard, catnip, melons, beans, “Lemon Gem” marigolds, rosemary and more in a compost-enriched soil.

Hollingsworth has also planted a very productive demonstration vegetable garden on the site, using interplanting and succession planting. In good gardening years, extra produce from the garden has gone to the United Christian Church in Lincolnville, which distributes it to the homebound, and to food pantries. Hollingsworth also takes flowers to food pantries, because, “Everybody needs some flowers,” she said.

Holding workshops on the institute site is problematic because the glass houses are in disrepair. Hollingsworth envisions removing the glass and covering the structures, which have serviceable concrete hip walls, with hoops and plastic.

One house that is in fair shape has plastic over the glass. Here Hollingsworth and half a dozen others had a cooperative seedling venture this spring. They started plants on windowsills in their homes beginning in February, and then brought them to the greenhouse in March to take advantage of its light and space as the plants grew. On cold nights, the plants were set on a bench that has heat tape under gravel and was covered with Remay row cover, and a kerosene gun burner helped plants survive a couple of colder nights. The group shared power and water expenses.

A hot air oil furnace has been donated and needs to be installed. “If it were to go in the office or in the show house,” said Hollingsworth, “we could keep plants alive for the winter without great expense. It only has to be 40, 42 degrees.”

“It hasn’t been below freezing inside since February 8,” said Hollingsworth. “If you put things on the dirt floor, it’s a whole climate zone south. It’s like being on the Cape.” This enables her to keep potted, hardier perennials, such as lavenders and thymes, over winter so that she can propagate and sell them the following year. “That’s why the hens and chickens are so good, and the ivies,” she said.

“Mary Ellen was the president of the American Ivy Society and used to write for the society’s newsletter and had one of the biggest ivy collections around,” she said. Hollingsworth is keeping some of these plants going.

“I really would love to reestablish [Mary Ellen’s] thyme collection,” she added. “They’re beautiful and are such a natural crop for Maine — they want to grow, and they’re edible and decorative — and that’s my focus. I think that if people will start using edible foods where they think they have to have ornamental plants, then we’ll make one little step in the right direction.”

“Mary Ellen didn’t know it,” Hollingsworth said, “but she was headed in that direction 50 years ago. She used all the herbs in a decorative way and taught people how to dry them, use them in teas and salad dressings and everything else.”

Hollingsworth said the institute would be happy to entertain proposals from people who have ideas for using the land or refurbishing and using a greenhouse in a way that complements the institute’s work.

Meanwhile the institute sells herb and vegetable seedlings and other plants on outdoor benches on Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. To visit at other times, contact Hollingsworth at GrowingforTomorrow@starband.net. The Garden Institute is a good place to get vegetable starts not just in the spring but also later in the season, for succession planting. In late July, lettuce seedlings, late cabbage, basil, oregano, thyme, lavender and other plants were available.