When I was three, we moved to a French Norman-style brick house with leaded glass windows situated on a level bit of land halfway up a hill. The house was surrounded by mature trees and long-abandoned gardens. My mother, though pregnant with my brother, took it upon herself to bring back the formal perennial beds and rock gardens as best she could. She weeded out low rock retaining walls revealing Hens and Chicks, Candytuft, and Creeping Phlox. Read more…
This well-known holiday symbol is actually one of the most diverse and intriguing members of the plant kingdom. Over the last 30 years, Cannon has managed to cultivate over 300 varieties of holly at his Brewster residence, and in the process has become known as Cape Cod’s Holly Man. Read more…
I’ve never been much of a walker, unless the journey included 18 holes featuring fairways, bunkers, and greens. When I did walk, I just about ran, as though the undertaking were something to endure-—think root canal surgery-—rather than to savor like a vintage wine. But exploring wonderful Cape Cod winter walks seemed like a fine idea, combining exercise, fresh air, and an opportunity for reflective isolation that is usually unavailable in these parts during peak summer season. Read more…
Cape Cod and the Islands are bountiful sources for holiday decorating with lots of natural materials right outside your back door. Let’s start with holly, which grows in such abundance on Cape Cod that we often rip it out like a weed. This is still slightly amazing to me, since we used to pamper, fertilize, and pray over our hard-to-please holly bushes when we lived in Central Massachusetts. The Cape is what’s known as a holly belt and the prickly native holly, Ilex opaca, flourishes here. I was astonished our first Cape Christmas at the sight of a giant holly tree completely covered with brilliant red berries. It looked as though a child had taken a red crayon and dotted the deep green foliage with thousands of berries. Read more…
One of the best things about gardening on the Cape and Islands is that just when you can’t stand another minute of watering, weeding, fertilizing, and replanting, the first frost comes . . . and your garden goes to sleep. You can put away all your garden tools, roll up those hoses that you’ve been wrestling with all summer long, close the door to that patio garden that just didn’t quite turn out right, and take a long winter nap from gardening.
As one of those obsessive gardeners who gets up two hours before work every morning from April to October to inspect the latest tiny tomato seedling’s health, to see whether that expensive new lily finally blossomed, to bemoan the decades-old hydrangea that got hammered in a thunderstorm the night before, Jack Frost can’t come soon enough for me. When the first snow falls, I feel as if a blanket of calm has fallen and I can crawl back under our down puff every morning, read trashy novels, and have two cups of coffee before I go to work, and not give a single thought to facing slugs, winter moths, and late tomato blight. I don’t know how anyone survives gardening in California where gardens need care all year-round.
Of course, as soon as the first January thaw begins to unlock winter’s icy fingers on Cape Cod, I’m up to my elbows in gardening books, cruising Fine Gardening magazine for ideas, and mooning over spring catalogs. But that’s only because I’ve had a few months off from slogging it out in the garden on a daily basis.
But since I am writing this in mid-summer when my trumpet lilies are in full glorious bloom, the tomatoes are rounding up perfectly, and the hydrangea are still having what has to be the most glorious year in history, I know that September and October will bring a whole different set of gardening tasks. Because before the perennial gardens go to sleep, they must be cleaned out, mulched, and basically prepared for that first marvelous day in late winter when the delicate white blossoms of the Snowdrops appear.
Winter on Cape Cod is just plain capricious—one day its so warm and balmy that golfers sprout up on Olde Barnstable’s wintry greens and the next day the temperature plummets down to single digits. Buds swell sometimes on rhododendron in late autumn above foliage that folds up in frigid temperatures a few days later. This kind of feast or famine environment is very tough on plants, trees, and shrubs. The truth is that winters with deep snow and constant cold are much better for gardens. Like humans, plants want to just lie still under the snowy puff and have a long undisturbed rest before they have to perform again next spring and summer.
I gave Chris Joyce, the owner of Marstons Mills’ well-known Joyce Landscaping, a call recently to ask for some inside info on putting Cape and Island perennial gardens to bed. “As soon as we get that first frost, our gardening staff cut back all the plants and leave a nice clean bed for the winter,” Joyce says. “Some people like to leave plant material there over the winter, but we like to cut everything down and mulch in the bed really well, or you are setting up an environment for plant diseases the next spring.”
Joyce’s crews use several inches of wood mulch on the beds, although he says seaweed can also be used as mulch. Sometime gardeners also use pine boughs, although as Joyce says, it is probably better to lay down a consistently thick layer of mulch to safeguard the plants. “It’s just so much better to keep everything frozen, because if you have a sudden thaw, the plants will start pushing up and you’ll end up having root damage,” he says, noting that moist springs encouraging plant growth too early can also wreak havoc on unmulched gardens.
Joyce says that his crews do not fertilize their customers’ perennial gardens in the fall, preferring to wait until spring to apply Coast of Maine fertilizer, perhaps lightened with vermiculite, depending on the horticultural needs of the individual bed. Still, Joyce says the most important thing to remember when putting your perennial garden to bed is that the plants need a good, long uninterrupted rest. “Basically, you want the garden to stay good and frozen all winter,” says Joyce. Sounds like great advice for all those gardeners who also want to curl up under their puffs and sleep on cold Cape and Islands mornings, come November and December.
For information on Joyce Landscaping, go to www.joycelandscaping.com.
Standing in the center courtyard of the Henry T. Wing School in Sandwich, landscape designer Paul Miskovsky is taking in the scent of flowers and herbs and the sight of butterflies flitting from one beautiful blossom to another. Miskovsky is recalling a very different time and place, though: In 1975, when he was a student here, this building was the town’s high school and the courtyard served as the smoking area for students and faculty. Then, it was little more than slabs of concrete pierced with weeds here and there, the air heavy with the smell of cigarettes.
A stroll through the Wellfleet Community Garden yields an array of sights. Mark Gabriel’s smiling Buddha, surrounded by pink and orange portulacas, seems to bless a barrel of herbs. Across the hay-strewn aisle, a tuba overflows with purple petunias. Across the way, a bit further up, horticultural therapist Bodil Drescher has planted raised beds constructed by her daughter, Nette. Maura Condrick opted for planting her crops in geometric patterns, with a bright red chair against the fence as a focal point. “We’ve been surprised at the creativity of the gardeners,” Wellfleetian Celeste Makely says. “People are expressing themselves in their own way. It’s kind of quirky. It’s Wellfleet.”
Makely, the garden’s project director, envisioned creating a community garden in Wellfleet where people from all walks of life could gather to grow vegetables and make friends. As she had her husband, John, spread the word, they found themselves surrounded by a circle of hands, all eager to dig into the soil of the football-field sized garden in front of the Council on Aging on Old Kings Highway. The garden is a fun place to be, full of imaginative decorations and 32 cleverly designed plots. The individual gardens are as varied as the folks who tend them. “When I garden, I garden with my ancestors, and when I cook, I cook with my mother,” says Makely, who began gardening with her father in a World War II Victory Garden. “It’s a nice feeling.”
Wellfleet’s first community garden in 50 years came to fruition when the town’s board of selectmen approved the Makelys’ proposal to use land in front of the Council on Aging facility for that purpose. “We started with a half-acre of scrub pines,” says Makely, whose enthusiasm and drive have steered this year-long effort. She was assisted by several local businesses: Dennis Murphy of Murphy-Nickerson, Inc. cleared land; Bartlett Tree conducted soil testing; Capello Well Drilling drilled a well; and many others donated their services to make the project a reality. “This is a community effort,” Makely says. “A lot of people donated their time, tools, and money to make this happen.”
The 32 gardeners lease their plots; a 20-by-20-foot plot is $30 a year, 10-by-20-foot plots are $15. One plot is set aside for seniors who want to garden from throughout the community and from the Council on Aging (COA). Gardeners planted blueberry bushes so those inside the COA building facing the garden have a pleasant view; soon gooseberry bushes will be planted. All of the available plots filled up immediately, and now there is a waiting list. The group is largely self-governed; five gardeners called the “Cabbage Heads” mediate disputes that arise. Some gardeners supplement their income with the vegetables they’ve grown. Others donate their surplus to the Mustard Seed Kitchen, the Wellfleet Food Bank, and the COA’s Iris’s Café.
Some plots have traditional rows while others plant in geometric patterns. One gardener sculpted a raised flower with petals that soon will bloom. Cedar and Ennie Cole, created a meandering path of log steps surrounded by sedum with driftwood adding vertical interest. Their scarecrow with a mannequin’s head stands guard with outstretched arms.
Further up the path, a gaggle of plastic dinosaurs circle Rich Sobol’s herbs. Sharyn Lindsay and her son, Caleb Potter, have built an elaborate driftwood arbor leading to a rustic bench surrounded by begonias and foxglove. A landscape designer, Sharon’s garden is a mix of flowers, lettuces, cabbages, tomatoes, and herbs. A Grecian urn filled with nasturtium and purple salvia flanks the bench while a stone birdbath beckons feathered visitors.
Claudia and Bruce Drucker have made a planter from a clam rake filled with moss, green beans, and thyme. Their garden has a criss-cross pattern with 48 varieties of plants. “I try to plant unusual varieties and different colors of plants,” said Claudia. She has yellow and purple peppers and tomatoes, golden beets, candy-striped radishes, and purple carrots. All the flowers are edible including nasturtium, calendula, pansies, and corn flowers. Claudia also has lovage, a perennial that she says “tastes like celery and smells beautiful.”
Gardening is an activity that benefits people of all interests and abilities. For more than 45 years, former horticultural therapist Bodil Drescher has helped the physically and mentally disabled garden. “Anybody can garden, you just need the right tools,” says Bodil. Her garden paths are wider for better accessibility and she has constructed special tools to accommodate the disabilities of her gardeners, She hopes to establish gardening programs at the senior centers in Wellfleet and Eastham.
This beautiful garden is generating a lot of interest in the community. The Makelys have given tours to people from all over who are interested in community gardening. The gardeners partnered with Wellfleet Preservation Hall for its June garden tour. As a master gardener, Celeste and other experienced gardeners are available to help beginners.
Perhaps the most gratifying aspect of the Wellfleet Community Garden for the Makelys has been the good friends they’ve made along the way. “This is a people place,” said Celeste. “You walk down that aisle and people are happy. Gardeners are nice people.”
“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.