It Was a Jungle Out There

The buyers of a historic – but wildly overgrown – home on Vineyard Haven harbor discover a waterfront garden waiting to take root, expand, and grow.

The realtor said, “You’ve got to see this one. You’ll love it!” We’d heard that several times during the previous weeks. Driving down the long, narrow driveway in Vineyard Haven, we barely noticed a garage and small outbuilding to the left. It was what we saw through the porch on the right side of the old house – the blue skies and white sails skimming the blue waters of Vineyard Sound – that caught our attention. This time he was right. It was love at first sight! On the day that we first viewed the house and property twenty years ago, we did not give a thought as to what lay between house and view. During the first summer we concentrated on furnishing the house, built in the 1820s, and that was enough for the year.

But when we arrived in early June of the second summer and took a serious look at the property, we discovered we had three potential gardens on the landscape. All were in need of rehabilitation. A friend who is a serious gardener suggested old-fashioned plants from the time when the house was built; another suggested plants native to the Island. We thought about all of this as we went to work. The garden that would occupy our attention for the first year was the one between the house and beach. Picture a long, narrow tract of land sloping gently toward the harbor, completely overgrown. Imagine a tunnel through this growth – a tunnel of trumpet vine, forsythia, and honeysuckle overlaid with grape, and finally, in season, a frosting of white autumn clematis.
We began to face choices and make decisions. I’d like to say that I created a garden on graph paper, filling in the small squares with plants according to height, color, texture, and blooming time, as the gardening manuals advise. I intended to. But I did not. The garden began to change and grow without a master plan.

Beginning that summer we declared war on the trumpet vine, which had invaded the center of the property from both sides and created the tunnel. (Almost twenty years later, there are still battles as roots creep out into the lawn if we fail to cut them back severely.) As we fought and thinned and mastered the thicket – the north side of which borders Owen Park – we planted a row of arborvitae. At the bottom of the garden, we kept twenty feet or so of “jungle” for privacy from beach and park; as a bonus, the jungle acts as windscreen, protecting the plantings in front from northeast winds.

Digging and reclaiming what we thought should be ours, we discovered a small concrete block buried deep in what might have been a lawn years back. More digging farther down the slope, and the shovel hit concrete blocks about twelve inches apart. A path! It led down to a guesthouse that, we learned, had doubled as a boathouse. We knew that the house had been built by Thomas Harlock Smith, a whaleman. Sadly, we do not know anything about the subsequent owners, or the gardeners and what they may have originally planted. I imagined the ladies of the house tending the garden lovingly, their wide-brimmed hats protecting delicate faces from the bright sun of summer. (Never mind that this might not be historically accurate. I’d read novels and seen movies.)

As we dug up and dug out what we didn’t want, we could begin to put in what we did want. On the north side, we now had a narrow but defined bed approximately twelve feet wide and twenty feet long, sloping down toward a crescent-shaped planting area. Over the years we have filled the slender bed with tall buddleia, perennials such as phlox, cleome, nicotiana, and salvia to flower in the summer, and vitex and caryopteris to bloom in the early fall. This bed at the lowest part of the garden was the first home of a stewartia tree, supposed to bloom in summer. We hoped for stewartia branches laden with dainty white blossoms, and below this a variety of Oriental lilies, which would flower throughout the summer.

Five years later, lily beetles had destroyed that aspect of the picture – and the lilies as well. (A welcome wanderer – Queen Anne’s lace – has taken up residence instead.) The stewartia made its needs known by refusing to bloom. It was moved to a location along the top of the garden, between two newly planted lilacs, where it seems more content.

Along the south side we thinned out the overgrown vines and shrubs between our neighbor and us, but kept his grapevines on our side, since they produce a generous crop of Concord grapes. At the highest part of the garden on the south, a line of rusty-red smoke bush (cotinus) grows tall and wide to provide more privacy from our neighbor’s house. In front of the cotinus, there’s space for dahlias, and in some years self-seeding datura. Along the property line at the lower edge of the garden we put in four blue-princess holly bushes.

Since there was no master plan, we gave way to whim. Vineyard Gardens in West Tisbury has so many beautiful plants, and the offerings at the West Tisbury Farmer’s Market are so tempting on our Saturday visits, that over the years we have put in “impulse plants,” some of which have become part of our garden scene. After all, I reasoned, we had worked hard to achieve this space; we deserved to fill it with interesting, beautiful plants. My husband reminded me that we wanted a garden we could enjoy and that would not overwhelm us with demands for watering, deadheading, pruning, and spraying. (We do not spray.) This was supposed to be a family-vacation home, and we wanted time for beach and boat as well as flowers.   

During the third or fourth summer, friend and garden guru Keith Kurman moved into the guesthouse at the bottom of the garden on the south side. We had known Keith from his years at Vineyard Gardens. He needed a place to live, and we welcomed his help with the garden. It was a happy arrangement. His plant decisions were based on knowledge and experience about selecting and siting plants – not on impulse. When decisions were to be made about foundation planting around the house, we listened to Keith: well-shaped chamaecyparis stands on either side of the front steps, and low-growing hepticodium was planted in front of the porch – there is a continuous need to prune – with viburnum beneath the front windows. Fifteen years later, they have each proved to be a hardy addition, unique enough so that guests ask us to identify them.

It was Keith, with his interest in unusual plants, who found a Himalayan musk rose that he planted on the park side of the house. It blooms in early July. Some time later, he sent us to Haskell Gardens in New Bedford to select a claradendron, which grows in a sunny spot on the south side of our narrow garden and blooms in the summer.

About ten years ago, Keith brought in two large terra-cotta planters, which he placed at the bottom of the steps leading to the lawn. In each planter stood a tall, slender tree topped with a mass of soft, green leaves. In early August, there was a profusion of exceptionally beautiful deep-purple and blue flowers that bloomed through late September; thus we came to know and love tibouchina. In the same way, Keith brought in two more large pots, each home to a brugmansia – a plant approximately four feet tall, which put out large trumpet-shaped flowers edged in salmon pink in the morning, and by noon had become a soft, muted echo of itself.

More surprises were to come. Just below the porch on the south side, there was just enough bare ground to put in something different. Mysterious shoots four to five feet tall gave no hint as to what they might be. “Wait and see,” said Keith. In mid-August the first ginger slowly flowered – not the kind used in exotic recipes but that are enjoyed in the garden and as a sweet-scented bouquet in the house. These ginger plants are semi-tropical. Several years ago, Keith decided on a change of scenery and climate and moved to California. Oakleaf Landscape of West Tisbury took over the care and feeding of our garden. Our tender perennials spend the cold-weather months in the Oakleaf greenhouse, a nursery within a nursery, tenderly transported there in late fall by Marcos Arado, who communicates with them in Portuguese. Judging by the increase in blossoms the following season, they understand and respond.
Twenty years later, the garden and we have matured. We still battle the trumpet vine; a garden is like children: both need supervision and discipline. I still impulsively buy and plant new daylilies, dahlias, and different varieties of hosta on the shady side, and still shop by catalogue for new semitropicals in our non-tropical garden by the sea.

We have seen the view from the porch in every season, from the peace of blue skies in summer to the fury of northeasters lashing branches and bending tree trunks in fall and winter. We have looked out to see the glow of the harvest moon on the waters of the Sound and on the patterns and shadows made by bare branches on blankets of snow. We have picked early-spring daffodils and crocuses blooming below a forsythia, and in the fall watched monarch butterflies linger on the purple butterfly bushes. The garden has given us unexpected delights and experiences (and problems), and brought us new friends. Such are some of the benefits of not having a master plan.