A Recycled Garden

Through their work at Vineyard Gardens, Jeremiah Brown and Janice Haynes have gleaned plenty of plants headed to the compost pile. With a lot more labor at home, they’ve designed a lush enclave for their six-year-old West Tisbury colonial.

A hand-painted wood box with the words “Holly Lane” serves as an invitation not only to the road off Old County Road in West Tisbury, but to learn the story of Janice Haynes and Jeremiah Brown, who live in the house on that corner. The creative couple fashioned the street sign using recycled materials, which is emblematic of the inventive style that marks their home and yard.

Their story begins on the Island, as each was born on Martha’s Vineyard, though they never met until about eleven years ago. “Why would we meet?” Janice asks. “He lived in Vineyard Haven; I lived in West Tisbury.” That touch of provinciality is still a charming hallmark of Island life for many of its natives. The story of their meeting is a romantic one.

Janice worked at the former Biga Bakery (now Fella’s) across the street from Vineyard Gardens in West Tisbury, where Jeremiah had worked as a landscaper for eight years. He would cross State Road at lunchtime and order the exact same thing at Biga every day. Janice found this amusing, but he was quiet and shy and, behind his big beard and large hat, Janice couldn’t tell if he was twenty or forty. (He was actually twenty-six at the time.) He asked her out, but she was dating someone else. Soon she changed jobs and they saw each other very little, but more than a year later, when she broke up with her boyfriend, Janice’s friends told Jeremiah. One day he showed up at her work place with viburnum and daffodils, and the rest is history.

After marrying in 1999, Janice and Jeremiah spent their savings to purchase their own parcel of land and build a house for themselves. Completed in 2002, their two-story home stood proudly on a large rectangular lot. Faced with the landscape design challenge of both a rectangular house and rectangular lot, Janice and Jeremiah dreamed of curves of gardens on the property. But they had no money to begin.

“We had a housewarming party and asked all our friends to bring a plant cutting,” Janice says. “We had to start somewhere.”

Jeremiah also found some plants through his job at Vineyard Gardens – where Janice has now worked in the business office for about ten years. As he went to Island sites to help others design their own landscapes, he realized how many beautiful shrubs, trees, and plants were being discarded. Janice, too, mourned the demise of flats of lovely flowers that hadn’t been purchased by the end of the season and ended up going to the compost pile.

“‘We want to save these plants,’” Jeremiah says he told Chuck Wiley, owner of Vineyard Gardens, “and he replied that I could take off his hands some of those sorry plants that, other-wise, wouldn’t have found a home.” So, with lots of labor and little cost, Janice and Jeremiah began the recycled garden that marks their home site today – complete with outdoor speakers so they can garden to the sound of music.

“We took scraggly plants with only 10 percent of their leaves, sad little creatures, the misfits of the plant world. With better soil, sun, water, cutting back, and moving them away from the deer, many survived. If they didn’t, they were off to the compost pile. We threw some right into the compost pile from the start. A week or a month later, they’d come back to life,” says Jeremiah.

Their table-top pine tree is their proudest acquisition. Chomped by deer, nearly all the needles were gone from the miniature tree that came from a property in Aquinnah. Jeremiah confesses that he thought it might be a goner. “It was pathetic,” he says. “But we took it home, gave it lots of water, and just watched it for a couple of years, pruning it every now and then.” Today that table-top pine is full and vital and a highlight of the specimen garden that Janice and Jeremiah have begun.

“Polly Hill taught us how to do a specimen garden,” Janice says of their meadow garden where they grow only one of each variety of any given plant. “We realized that she started her planting work in her forties, that some plants took twenty years to mature, and it took fifty years for the site to become the landmark property it is today. That gave us hope. If she could do it, we could.”

A plan to build a brand new Chilmark Library on its old foundation brought an unexpected bonanza when the building project got underway, only a month after Janice and Jeremiah moved into their new home.

“We were hired to do the landscaping,” Jeremiah says. Suddenly, only a few days before the bulldozer was scheduled to come in, Jeremiah got a call from the general contractor who forewarned him that many of the mature plants would be destroyed. He offered the plants to Jeremiah, as long as he could remove them within three days.

“I’m on my way,” Jeremiah told the contractor. Then he hurried to call fellow workers and friends to help him remove all the plantings: “lilacs reaching to the sky, abundant forsythias, pink spirea, and a specimen burning bush and all its babies.” Under his care, the burning bush, originally six feet tall and eight feet wide, has grown to eight feet tall and twelve feet wide in only six years.

Little did Janice and Jeremiah know how many invasive plants they were introducing to their property. Years later, when they consulted a book about Massachusetts invasive plants, they were shocked to learn that they had more than fifteen growing in their yard. They admit that there are a few they wish they didn’t have, but Janice and Jeremiah love their autumn olive, tansy, purple loosestrife, multiflora rose, porcelain berry, yellow iris, dame’s rocket, and creeping jenny, a yellow-foliaged ground cover that surrounds their patio and outdoor shower and lines the edge of their driveway. “They are slowly trying to take over,” Janice says, “but as long as we are aware of them and rein them in, we can all coexist.”

Whether invasive or not, the plantings nurtured by Jeremiah and Janice have found a happy home-site. The forsythias that Jeremiah chopped to the ground, despite Janice’s pleas to spare them, were reborn fuller than ever. The lilacs, originally spindly with blooms only at the top, are now full and lush and the pride of the yard in late May.

The son of Vineyard Gazette garden columnist Lynne Irons, Jeremiah was no stranger to gardens, or to hard work. “If, as a child, I complained that I was cold,” he says, “Mom would say, ‘Then go chop some wood and bring it in so we can have a fire.’” Janice, on the other hand, knew little about plants. “When I was a child, all I knew of plants was that I hated weeding,” she says. So Jeremiah taught Janice to garden, and she learned to love it. Meanwhile, at her Vineyard Gardens job, she gradually learned the lingo, the scientific names for plants, the way to identify them.

“We had to have viburnum in our yard,” Jeremiah says, recalling the viburnum he had used to woo Janice. “We planted burk woody eye viburnum outside our bedroom window. The viburnum and fragrant abelia, white with pink dots, greets us every morning when we wake during the month of May.” Around the corner from the viburnum are the hostas, “I’m so proud of these,” Jeremiah boasts.

Every now and then, Janice or Jeremiah seek the help of an expert. “We use Michael Dirr’s book: Manual of Woody Landscape Plants [Stipes Publishing Company, 1975],” Jeremiah says. “It’s our bible, tells us everything we ever need to know.”

Their patio is another example of their resourcefulness with recycling. Built of used brick and chips of bluestone cleaned up from Jeremiah’s work at landscaping sites, the patio is still evolving. “We started with square and rectangular shapes,” Janice says, “but then we realized how interesting curved designs were, so the design changed as we added to it.” Janice, with a background at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, found a new way to apply her artistic bent. “Right in the middle of the patio we made a brick circle,” Janice explains. “We dream of making it a little pond one day, but for now, we just filled the circle with stone.”

A real pond, across from their specimen meadow, started out as a drainage ditch. Jeremiah explains how water ran off into the ditch from the higher elevation of the house. “One day we saw that weeds were growing around the ditch and frogs were in it. ‘This has the potential to become more than a ditch,’” Jeremiah says he exclaimed, “‘Let’s make it a pond.’” Abracadabra. Jeremiah lined it with rubber, and Janice creatively interspersed rocks, irises, hostas, and clethras around it. Today one of their eight cats, the tuxedo-clad Miss Piggy, prowls around the edge eyeing the frogs, and their dog Berman (named after ESPN sportscaster Chris Berman) bathes happily in the water nearly every day.

“Pick the season,” Janice says happily. “It’s always beautiful here. Lilacs in the spring, then pink spirea, day lilies in orange and every other color, and irises in the early summer. A six-foot Joe Pye, hibiscus, and black-eyed Susans bring the summer season to its end. In the fall, the hostas bloom, the pink daisy mums are everywhere, and, a day after the first frost, the giant red burning bush triumphs in a deep red-orange. In the winter, the plumes on the ornamental grasses remind us that the beauty is ongoing and spring isn’t far away.

“After work we pour ourselves a glass of wine and go out for our daily garden tour,” Janice reports. “We take notes on what needs pruning, dividing, replanting, fertilizing. We combine colors and textures as we realize what blooms simultaneously. Purple and orange here, reds and whites there, pinks around the corner. We’re so proud to have such a mature garden to go with our six-year-old house.”