“I grew up spending summers in a little Cape cottage my parents bought in 1956,” says Sue Sargent. Her mother, an avid gardener, planted perennials the family could enjoy during their Orleans vacation days. “My mother always gardened, she was a very natural gardener, and a great fan of Rachel Carson’s,” says Sargent, referring to the early environmentalist and author of Silent Spring. “I would watch her work. Later, when I married, I would come to visit the Cape with my husband and our daughters. After my parents died, my family continued to come to the cottage and in 1999, a fabulous gardener friend of ours designed and helped in planting the first meadow garden along our driveway.”
Today, the original cottage’s meadow garden is filled to overflowing with huge grasses—Miscanthus “Adagio” and Pennisetum “Hameln.” “I’ve divided them an awful lot over the years, I’ve even had to take some out,” says Sargent. She has under planted the grasses with multiple layers of Sedum “Autumn Joy” and Sedum “Matrona.” The Sedums’ succulent erect stems and fleshy leaves provide a great contrast to the billowing mounds and linear spikes of the ornamental grasses. When the Sedum come into bloom, the meadow is transformed with flushes of pink.
Pink accents show up again in a stunning Marsh Mallow (Hibiscus) with large ornamental flowers, planted near the house. “I love Marsh Mallows, they remind me of my mother; in fact, two of her Mallows survive to this day,” says Sargent. Her mother’s Mallows sit on a rise above the home Sue and her husband, John, built in 2001 on the same site as the original cottage. “John and I knew we wanted to retire here and realized our summer home, filled with memories, was not sufficient to meet our year-round needs,” Sargent explains. “We couldn’t bear the thought of tearing the house down and were fortunate to find someone willing to take the cottage and move it. For awhile we had what we called Tippy Village, a shanty town in our backyard—our old summer home cut into quarters—waiting for the movers to take it to a new site in North Eastham.”
Before the original cottage was moved from its foundation, Sargent dug up her mother’s garden and healed in roses, Hydrangeas, Phlox, and “Black-Eyed Susan” (Rudbeckia) in a safe place far from the construction. The plants have all found their way into the many beds and borders surrounding the new home. Soft pink “Fairy” roses her mother had planted now edge a pull-in place off the crushed shell driveway. “After the house was built, meadow number two was planted and then I kept expanding,” says Sargent.
Meadow “two” lines the other side of the drive. Birds flutter in and out of the grasses—Panicum “Shenandoah”, the reed grass Calamagrostis “Karl Foerster,” and the graceful Japanese silver grass Miscanthus sinensis “Morning Light.” She added a punch of color to the mix when she replanted original red “Knockout” shrub roses.
Both meadows are anchored by a blue spruce, adding structure and color. There are also blueberry bushes and colorful butterfly bushes. Sargent has planted various coneflowers (Echinacea) a great meadow plant; also, native goldenrod has snuck in and been allowed to stay. “Russian Sage” (Perovskia) adds dashes of purple as does the Nepeta “Six Hills Giant” (catmint). Adding a whimsical touch, Gaura lindheimeri “Belleza” weaves its way through grasses with small dancing blossoms, brightened by yellow splashes of “Black-eyed Susan.” A Kousa dogwood adds grace when four-petaled, white blossoms open out in late spring. “May Queen” Shasta daisies (Leucanthemum x superbum) bounce in the breeze. American native “Joe Pye” (Eupatorium purpurea) has done very well and is a little too happy, says Sargent, who has no qualms about ripping out any plants that become invasive.
“I have lots of ‘Stella d’ Oro’ daylilies (Hemerocallis) and I like another daylily called ‘Hemero Pink,’” Sargent notes. When she needs new plants, she never buys just one—rarely three—but usually five to seven of the same variety—the bigger the pot size, the better. “I’m impatient and I’m what I’d call a frothing gardener,” says Sargent. “There are very few empty spaces, the plants run into each other. It is very informal. I like a natural look.”
Spring is spent tidying up the garden as most plants are left for winter interest. “We leave the leaves in the garden as a winter mulch,” Sargent explains. “In the spring, John weed-whacks the meadow gardens back almost to the ground.” The Sargents do bring in outside help when getting the gardens ready in the spring for a day of weeding, edging the garden, moving John’s cuttings to the compost heap, and laying down 20 yards of mulch.
“Our biggest work time is in April, May, and June,” says Sargent. “I spend a lot of time in the garden, certainly every day, sometimes for five hours, sometimes for two. Then it eases off. In the hot weather, I’m not totally anxious to be out there, but will head out a couple times a week to deadhead.”
Beyond the meadow gardens, graceful borders swing round the house. Sargent has filled the beds with pink “Gumpo” Azalea, the compact Japanese holly Ilex crenata, various Rhododendron, blue Ageratum, autumn-bright Leucothoe fontanesiana shrubs, “Cranesbill” perennial geranium, delicate “Lace Cap” Hydrangea, more Sedum, and lots of “Lady’s Mantle” (Alchemilla mollis) that Sargent cuts for house bouquets. “I love its fragrance and as a cut flower the ‘Lady’s Mantle’ is beautiful,” she says.
The oldest survivors in the garden are the huge Rhododendron. “My mother and father planted those back in the early 60s,” says Sargent, noting that she looks forward to the display of blossoms each spring. New additions to the garden have been added by her son-in-law, David Hawk, president of the landscape architecture firm, Hawk Design. “He is really talented and the nicest guy in the world,” says the proud mother-in-law. “His sense of design is unbelievable. He designed a beautiful rock wall for us and a circle garden filled with annuals.” Sargent is also partial to a planting David created with matching beds of Hydrangea paniculata, under planted with round balls of boxwood and a feathery pink Coreopsis perennial.
Although a bad back has slowed her down a bit, this gardener says she still finds time in the summer to swim and swing golf clubs or a tennis racket. There is no stopping this busy, multi-talented woman.
Julie Olsen’s hair flutters in the wind as she drives a huge John Deere 5520 tractor. As farm manager at The FARM Institute on Martha’s Vineyard, Olsen is still pursuing a passion for agriculture that she has nurtured since growing up on the Cape in Dennis. After graduating from Sterling College in 2007 with a degree in sustainable agriculture and then traveling around the world to find her dream farm, she found herself working as a farm hand at The FARM Institute in 2008. “The executive director would ask me to do these super-human things,” she recalls joyfully. Apparently, her boss thought her strength was on par with that of the much-larger lead farm hand, and once asked her to “reorganize” a collection of cut telephone poles. She stuck it out and moved up to farm manager last fall. “When I first came here, it just didn’t feel like work,” Olsen says. “I can’t believe I get paid to do this.”
Down a winding dirt road in the island community of Katama, past tourists sporting brand new Martha’s Vineyard sweatshirts and gripping melting ice cream cones, The FARM Institute sits on 162 acres of emerald pastures speckled with Belted Galloways, the FARM’s signature cattle. Surrounded by the lively animals as well as bountiful vegetable and herb gardens, and farm workers tending to daily tasks, students of all ages pull carrots out of the ground for the first time, watch cows give birth, and learn about preserving the Vineyard’s natural resources. It’s a working and teaching farm that provides an atmosphere of total immersion, instilling a new generation with a love of the land like the one that took hold of Olsen in her childhood. The hope is that in the coming years, the FARM Institute could be a prototype for agricultural education throughout the country.
The FARM Institute’s origins can be traced to a 1999 chance encounter at the West Tisbury Farmer’s Market. Vineyard resident Sam Feldman struck up a conversation with agriculturist and teacher Glenn Hearn about his dream of starting an educational island farm. Hearn shared similar conversations with islanders Mike Kidder and John Curelli, and brought all the parties together. Though they were “just four guys without any expertise,” Feldman says, “we just hit it off. We all had a common dream about establishing a farm school.”
A year later, the seeds of the FARM—which stands for Food, Agriculture and Resource Management—were sown with the intention of extending the island’s agricultural legacy. “Through this working farm and through teaching children in the community about sustainable agriculture, we are trying to educate and empower the future leaders of our community,” says former executive director Matthew Goldfarb. Every educational program offered at the FARM teaches the elements of sustainable farming, creating emotional and lifetime connections between children, the land, and its resources.
A key element of the institute’s sustainable agriculture program is its method of grass-based farming. From April to December, the FARM’s cows, sheep, pigs, goats, and chickens eat around 75 percent of the grass in a pasture before being rotated to a fresh one, ensuring the grass is evenly used and will come back bountifully the following year. The FARM also cultivates hay every June or July to sustain the animals during winter months. The same principle is applied to crops, and the corn, eggplant, kale, squashes, and other vegetables are rotated every season to maintain the soil’s exceptional health. The FARM grows this wide variety of produce thanks to the abundance of “Katama loam”—soil that is extremely fertile as a result of glacial silt deposits from the island’s formation thousands of years ago. All of the crops are organically grown, without pesticides or chemicals.
On most summer days, the FARM sees around 100 students learning the secrets of sustainable farming. While children as young as two participate in the Wee Farmers program, older children can sign up for all-day programs that revolve around Concepts of the Week, a set of changing, farm-wide educational themes that range from land preservation to the culture and history of Vineyard farming. The institute also offers several classes for more seasoned agriculturists, with topics like composting, alternative energy, and even beer brewing.
FARM students are involved with the island’s community supported agriculture (CSA) program, which directly links farmers with consumers and reduces goods brought in from off-island sources. “For the FARM Institute, the purchase of our food helps to brand us as both an educational facility and a working farm that grows food for our community,” says Development Assistant Cathy Verost. In addition to selling shares of the FARM’s produce, the Institute recently established a meat CSA program, which provides cuts of FARM-raised beef, chicken, turkey, pork, and lamb.
Julie Olsen, a self-described “conscious omnivore,” who prefers to eat meat raised by herself or a friend, proposed and established the new CSA after learning about a similar venture in Hardwick, Mass., at an organic farming conference in 2009. The community’s positive response has been staggering, even off the island: The FARM had to double the number of CSA shares offered to Falmouth residents, and 27 people are still on the waiting list.
In the future, Olsen would like the FARM to be completely self-sustaining. Education, however, remains the FARM’s highest priority: When students learn about the benefits of practicing local and sustainable agriculture, they take those lessons to heart. Awareness—just like kale or squash—is the product of a hard day’s work.