Alison Shaw


Emily Post, in Her Garden

“Dahlias really make me sick!” Could the etiquette author, known for her Edgartown garden of shoulder-high dahlias, really have written these words? Even Emily Post couldn’t make the Vineyard’s weather behave.

Famous for her book on manners first published in 1922, Emily Post was also a radio show host, newspaper columnist, and magazine contributor, who did much of her work from her home at 34 Fuller Street in Edgartown, where she summered from 1927 until shortly before her death in 1960.

In 1933 she described Edgartown to Vogue as “the haven of delectable tranquility that all my life I have been searching for....It is here I write my daily newspaper syndicated articles during the summer months and store up enough vitality to carry me through a strenuous winter of writing and broadcasting in far-away New York.”

After she and one of her two sons – Bruce, an architect – reworked the floor plan of the 1778 cottage and renovated it, Emily had time to attend to the gardening. She had little experience but threw herself into it from the first year, evaluating plants and color schemes and recording successes and failures in minute detail in a garden log.

Other records help create a picture of the beds around the house and her cutting garden in an adjacent lot. The border around the house had bright yellow hollyhocks, light blue delphiniums, and white platycodon; the picket fence garden held more hollyhocks, foxgloves, lupines, columbines, phlox, gladioluses, and dahlias; the side and back beds were planted with irises, snapdragons, and zinnias. She also grew peonies, Canterbury bells, sweet williams, roses, baptisia, scabiosa, pyrethrum, statice, and salvia.

 “The dahlias grow as large as pie plates and for size and intensity of hue, I have never seen anywhere such roses and delphiniums,” Emily is quoted as saying in a 1929 uncredited article in the collection of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. While most of the specific varieties of plants Emily chose are no longer available, a gardener can still find a ‘Miss Lingard’ phlox, a ‘Loreley’ iris, and a ‘Festiva Maxima’ peony for sale today.

Along with her garden log, orders from seed stores survive, as well as detailed, hand-colored diagrams of the beds with notes about sun exposure:
• Dahlias really make me sick!...Little feeble looking shoots look like NOTHING. Two plants from Dreers spindly little whisps that look ready to shrivel and die before morning.

• Rain & Cold & Rain & Cyclones! Flowers stunted & beaten down. Rust, black spot & mildew on hollyhocks.
• Set back one week of rain, wind, fog alternating with close to freezing weather. Annuals tiny and leafless and others blackened.
• Am leaving tomorrow. Unless blighted by winter or “lifted” by passers-by, should really have a garden next year. Have spent a fortune and put in several thousand plants.

Weather woes aside, the garden was a success and attracted plenty of attention – tour buses made the Post house one of their stops and Emily often surprised the tourists by inviting them in for tea.

Many Vineyarders remember Emily’s love for red shoes; she had a similar love for the color in home décor, papering her bedroom walls in dark crimson damask. But she couldn’t abide it in her garden. Laura Claridge’s biography Emily Post (Random House, 2008) quotes Emily’s reaction while looking over her garden: “I am drawn to a window – and there is a red flower standing out like a gash! Then out I go and pull it up.” And in a letter to a seed store she wrote, “I HATE crimsons and the red of scarlet sage.” So aware of color was she that she would match the pink of her parasol to her phlox and sweet williams.

Emily didn’t do the garden work herself, since she was busy with her writing, but occasionally enjoyed “digging about.” Her first official gardener was a man named John Enos. A 1971 Boston Globe article describes a strange contraption Emily created to keep him cool on summer days. It was a “weird harness and parasol get-up” that he wore until the day a tour bus went by and the occupants burst out laughing when they saw him. After that he was no longer expected to wear it.

After Emily’s death, her family scaled the garden back to a more modest size. John Enos’s successor was landscaper Tony Bettencourt, who lives in Edgartown and started working for the family in the late 1960s. He recalls working on Emily’s cutting garden for the first few years before the family sold that adjoining property.

Tony continues to tend the garden since Debbie and Al Kyle bought the house from the Post estate in 2001; part of his responsibility is caring for two rare dahlias that remain from Emily’s day. He was still using Emily’s root cellar to store dahlias over the winter until last year when the Kyles needed the space for a new heating unit.

Although the tour buses may not flock to the house the way they used to, there are still plenty of visitors to the garden. The Kyles continue Emily’s tradition of opening the garden for fundraisers – they do it every so often for the Edgartown School – and it continues to be a backdrop for visitors’ pictures. Al says, “We have one couple that stops by every year for a photo on their wedding anniversary.”

Emily’s gardening tips

In her 1930 book The Personality of a House: The Blue Book of Home Charm (Funk & Wagnalls), Emily also offered various landscaping and garden tips while inserting her own brand of humor.

Where to start. “To those who without experience are themselves going to do some planting that will decorate a fairly average house, the simplest and best suggestion that I know of is to go out and really look at it! Look at it as though it were a room to furnish, a child to buy clothes for, or a hat to trim.”

Trees and shrubs. Emily recommended cypress, arborvitae, cedar, privet, and white pine, eschewing the popular use of only conifers as, “beautiful in a moderate assortment, but all collected together suggest a group of strangers waiting for the parade to go by, or for a conveyance to take them on their way.”

Water interest. She encouraged adding a shallow, flower-bordered reflecting pool. “For those who have no fear of babies tumbling into the water, or of mosquitoes being born by the million, the pool that is brought close to the house, lends itself to unending possibilities.”

Faux finishing fences. Disappointed by the early season view from her living room, when the garden showed only a few shoots against the “dazzling perpendicular stripes of a white picket fence,” Emily described how she created her own greenery: “Finally, in desperation, I took a pail of dark leaf-green paint and a pail of Nile-green paint, two old sponges wired to the end of flower stakes, and a pointed brush.

Dipping the sponges alternately into the light and dark, I made big splashes of green – light, dark, and mixed – behind each clump of bloom. Back of the iris and lilies I painted (very roughly) a thicket of long-pointed leaves. Returning to the house, I looked out upon a garden that had suddenly burst into glorious masses of bloom!”

Plant exchanges. Emily warned against accepting gift plants from friends unless they share your eye for garden color. “To have a devoted neighbor rob her own garden to give you plants that shriek at your own plants and devastate your scheme of decoration, is about as unhappy a garden situation as can be found.