In the Valley of the Jolly, Ho Ho Ho, Green Joe!

Chilmark’s Joe Chapman is not your average home gardener.

Joseph “Joe” Chapman has always been happy on, and in, the sea. A longtime surfer and diver and a boat owner who’s fished both commercially and for the joy of it, he’s just the sort of Vineyarder you expect to see on the water spring, summer, and fall.

So why isn’t he out there? It turns out that the land – one particular piece of land on Martha’s Vineyard – has a hold on Chapman as well. For nearly three decades he’s been carefully landscaping the three-and-a-half-acre property around the gray-shingled home he and his wife, Susan, built on Pease’s Point Way in Chilmark.

“The yard just got bigger and bigger and bigger,” he said, surveying the expanse of high-mown grass studded here and there with weathered, lichen-patched Island boulders. The property was all woods when the couple – he co-owns Doyle Construction Corp. in West Tisbury, she owns the hair salon Bouclé in Edgartown – bought the land in 1992.

They began by deciding which trees to keep, choosing the shapeliest beetlebungs, oaks, and maples to set off the views from both inside and outside the house they would build a few years later.

Joe Chapman’s building experience and eye for design is evident throughout the garden – of course, he’s no slouch at growing apples either.
Nina Bramhall

“You go through and look at which one’s going to be the nicest,” Chapman said. “That was hard, because sometimes you’ll come one day and you’ll see one; the next day you won’t see it or you’ll see another one that’s better.”

The couple also had to answer some tough questions, such as, “This beetlebung and maple don’t work together, so which one do I save?”

Taking their time paid off for the Chapmans. After the rest of the timber was cleared and stumped, the remaining trees grace their lawn like living sculptures, a tribute to Chapman’s spirit of collaboration with the natural landscape.

“I didn’t make the terrain. God did that, right?” he said.

“I just enunciate it by exposing the beetlebungs, the swamp azalea, some of the blueberries – trying to expose some of the beauty, what the white oaks can look like.”

Nina Bramhall

He also highlighted a big black oak on the property, but it met an untimely end that still saddens him.

“That was a beautiful, nice black oak and then the gall wasps got it,” Chapman said. “The black and red oak, they’re susceptible – why, I don’t know. They don’t touch the white oak.”

The couple has added trees as well: a handsome blue spruce, a Sargent crab apple, and a white fringetree among them. Always scouting for handsome additions, Chapman picked the Sargent crab apple after spotting one at Donaroma’s in Edgartown and chose a fringetree like the one growing at Brookside Farm in Chilmark.

“I’ve got more trees to plant,” he said. “I’m starting to realize as a landscaper that the hardscape is the most important part – all the flowers are just fluff. It’s what this terrain looks like, and then dabbling with a few trees here and there.”

It took a couple of years for the lawn to emerge. Chapman seeds the grass liberally with clover and waters by hand only when conditions are very dry.

An antique sink and showerhead has both form and function; Chapman uses it to wash freshly picked fruit.
Nina Bramhall

“If I leave it tall, I don’t have to water it. I think I might have cut it three times all year. I leave the clover to flower so the bees can have it,” he said, gesturing to the honey-producing hives he keeps near the family’s chicken coop.

The job of tree removal, however, is never-ending in the woods along the edge of the lawn. While the gall wasp is a voracious pest, tent caterpillars are a particular scourge.

“When the black oaks and red oaks get them, it kills them. They don’t seem to bother the white oaks as much,” he said.

Early each year, Chapman cuts any diseased or rotten timber and burns it during the period when open burning is permitted in Massachusetts (January 15 to May 1).

He uses organic methods to care for the lawn, which doubles as a pasture for close to 100 laying hens that live in their own multiroom coop when they’re not out foraging in the grass.

Dahlias in bloom.
Nina Bramhall

Designed and constructed with the same care Chapman has been putting into human dwellings since he first came to the Vineyard to help build Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s Aquinnah estate (“I used to sit down and have tea with her,” he said), the hen house has its own electricity and water supply.

He added a lamp-warmed nursery for chicks and devised a way for his family and friends to collect eggs without soiling their shoes: the egg-laying boxes are stacked vertically behind their own exterior door, so all a human needs to do is open it and reach in.

What stays off the shoes goes into his nearby compost heap: a rich mix of sand, straw, and chicken poop, combined with grass clippings from the lawn. He swears this is the secret to his abundant food garden.

“The reason I have a hundred hens is because of this compost pile,” he said. “It’s the way to go.”

When he cleans the chicken coop, Chapman lines the bottom with about six inches of fresh, clean sand and then a layer of straw.

Nina Bramhall

“As they poop, I put more and more straw on,” he said. When he’s ready to harvest the manure-rich contents, “I go in with a pitchfork and it comes out in layers.”

The mixture is so rich that he can skip the compost heap and take it directly to his vegetable garden on the other side of the property.

“I put it in the garden, green like this, and I till it over,” he said. “A lot of it stays intact, and the worms will then attack it.”

Chapman’s construction skills and eye for design are evident throughout the well-tended, fenced-in food garden, with its handmade gate.

“Design and build, that’s what I do,” he said.

Nina Bramhall

He also has a flair for the useful accent, adding vintage elements, such as a troughlike metal sink, unearthed at the Brimfield Antique Show, that he fitted with a showerhead from a remodeling job. It’s just the thing for rinsing pears, apples, peaches, and nectarines from the small but spreading orchard he planted nearly a decade ago.

“I decided I wanted a few fruit trees,” he said.

That’s how it started. Now, the orchard is producing so much fruit that he’s been selling some at retail through Morning Glory Farm in Edgartown.

“Everything just leads to more,” he confessed.

First to ripen are the nectarines, which he planted from whips, and then the Elberta peaches. Later on come the pears and apples, including a Fuji apple that produced massive fruit in large quantities one year and barely fruited the next – from sheer exhaustion, he reckoned.

Nina Bramhall

When the trees are bearing, Chapman is a generous host, picking the freshest fruit for his guests. He also invites friends to harvest from the produce garden, where kale grows for most of the year, and he plants his favorite vegetables – cucumbers, hot peppers, honeynut squash, pumpkins – for seasonal harvests. As with the lawn, he uses organic gardening methods.

A multicolored wildflower meadow links the garden and lawn, and Chapman also grows dahlias and other cutting flowers for bouquets. Again, he shares his bounty generously – he’s even provided flowers for a friend’s wedding.

Guests to the Chapman home are welcomed through a walkway that wends through lush plantings of perennial shrubs and flowers, fenced in to keep at bay the deer that like nothing better than to dine on the couple’s hydrangeas.

Like the lawn and garden, this area was heavily treed when the couple bought the land. Chapman created a pathway in an English garden style where something is almost always in bloom. “That was a lot of work,” he recalled. “I talked to a bunch of different people about landscaping and what grows, and then – trial and error.

“I designed all of it, and still I want to rip it apart,” he added. “What landscaper doesn’t? Especially when it’s their own.”

And it is very much his own. Chapman does all the labor himself. Being his own boss at Doyle’s gives him an advantage: “I can get the guys busy, and I can take off whenever I want.

“I do all of this stuff, so I don’t get to surf as much, I don’t get to dive and all the fun activities I used to do,” he said.

“But I still love this. I love it.”