Nina’s Beauty

A glimpse of the West Tisbury garden tended by Nina Schneider until her death last year.

At the end of a West Tisbury dirt lane, on the edge of a silver-gold pond, grows Nina’s Garden. It has been there nearly three decades now, designed by an artist whose three-dimensional work was never finished, because each day when she rose and looked at it, she would see a new shape or color that it needed. But to the hundreds of viewers who have traveled to the end of the road to admire it, Nina’s Garden is a complete masterwork. It soothes. It inspires.

Nina Zimet Schneider died last year at the age of ninety-four, but her garden still grows, lovingly tended by Chilmarker Zada Clarke. Now Nina’s masterpiece – and the abutting cottage, which was once a shed and a barn before Nina’s artistry transformed it into a fairy-tale dwelling – is in new hands. The owners, James and Holly Coyne from Langley, Virginia, and Chilmark visitors for more than thirty years, are wise collectors. The house and garden are to remain largely as Nina had wanted them to be.

Nina’s Garden was always open – by invitation – to her friends, but since her death, even garden lovers she did not know have been welcome to see the property. Now that the new owners are settling in, visits are again by invitation only. For those who have seen it and would like to remember, and for those who have not but would like to know more, this is the story of how Nina came to plant the garden she so loved.

Creating a vision

Nina and her husband, Herman, who died in 2003, discovered the Island in the early 1970s, through their friendship with Chilmark seasonal residents Jacob and Nikki Weissman. Herman was the supervisor of science in the school system in New York, and he and Nina had collaborated in writing more than eighty science books for children. Nina was also a poet and writer in her own right, with poems published in The New American Review and The Nation, and a novel, The Woman Who Lived in a Prologue, published in 1980 by Houghton Mifflin.

While still living in Greenwich Village, New York, the Schneiders began frequenting the Island in the summers. At first they rented a place in Chilmark, on a pond where Nina was delighted to find swans gracefully swimming. Soon, thanks to Nina’s ministrations, the grounds had an effulgent garden. When their daughter-in-law Toby Armour bought a house on Edgartown Great Pond, their Island visits shifted to her home. Despite the sandy, windswept location, Nina soon had a flower garden growing and vegetables flourishing there too.

When Nina and Herman learned that Lucy (Bideau) Abbot was selling the land with the barn house, on Look’s Pond in West Tisbury, they decided they had been renters on the Vineyard long enough. They bought the property in 1980, sold the Greenwich Village brownstone they’d had for decades, and became year-round Vineyarders. When Nina and Herman took possession of the property, there was a field of tall grass with only a grove of black locusts and a maple to recommend it. As for the barn house – though it had living quarters in it – it was distinctly rustic.

Earlier in the century, the property had been a part of the extensive Harry West Farm. Harry had first built a poultry house, and later enlarged the structure to be a dairy barn. The farm’s next owner was Seven Gates Farm superintendent Percy Burt, who parceled off some of the land in the 1950s. The picturesque little pond had formed around 1665 when Captain Benjamin Church dammed up the Tiasquam River above it so he could have a power source for a grist mill. Percy had the pond dredged in 1957 to create swimming holes for the children of riparian owners, and in so doing the island that remains part of the garden today was created.

As his predecessor Harry West had done, Percy Burt stored hay in the barn. Tom Hodgson and Johnny Athearn recall being youngsters (along with Jimmy Athearn, Johnny Scannell, Pat Mitchell, and Jackie Mayhew) creeping into the barn when no one was there to build tunnels and forts in the hay. If one of them heard footsteps outside, there would be a “Percy Alert,” and the boys would scamper away. In time, Percy began renting the property – first to his newlywed son Otis and his bride, Ann, then to summer renters, before selling it in 1969 to the Abbot family.

With her designer’s eye, Nina quickly saw the possibilities in the three-quarter-acre field, the pond setting, and the weathered, shingled barn-shed. Over the next two years, the rustic abode became a cozy, inviting, low-slung dwelling with much of the look of an English country cottage. Windows were put in across its back so that, eventually, the couple could look out onto what would become Nina’s Garden.

Gardening lineage

Born in Antwerp, Belgium, Nina had come to New York as a child. To avoid the polio outbreak that was rampant in the city in the 1920s, she and her siblings were taken to the country. There, in Thomaston, New York, her mother began a garden that teenaged Nina helped plan and plant and nurture. Relatives now speculate that it may have been then that her love affair with gardens began. Or it may simply have been her love of all things beautiful that inspired her gardens. Art and poetry and flowers were always in her life. Even as a very young woman, when she lived for a time in New Jersey, she had a garden. She also had a garden in the backyard of her Greenwich Village home, and at a summer home in Pound Ridge, New York.

To assist with the new Vineyard garden she was envisioning, she enlisted the help of twenty-year-old University of Vermont horticultural student Chuck Wylie, then working a summer job at Donaroma’s Nursery and Landscape Services in Edgartown. (Today he and his wife, Chris, are owners and managers of Vineyard Gardens in West Tisbury.)

Under her direction, Chuck moved everything he could from Nina’s Edgartown Great Pond garden to her new West Tisbury home. There were mugo pines and juniper trees, dwarf pear, apple, and peach trees. At the entrance to the garden, Chuck built an arbor of cedar and planted honeysuckle to climb over it. Birches sheltered a weathered bench and table near the front door. Impatient Nina wanted a finished garden from the beginning, Chuck remembers. She simply couldn’t wait to see it all in perfect order and in bloom.

“I told her that the plants should be given space to grow. She said she didn’t have long enough to live to wait for that,” he says. (It turned out she surely did. Nina Schneider was in her seventies then and was still gardening – several strokes notwithstanding – just months before her death two decades later.)

In winter, she would make small sketches of what she wanted her garden to be in summer. “She would say,” Chuck recollects, “‘This is where I want a path. This is where I want a wall.’ If she wasn’t happy with something when it was done, she would move it.”

She found the best of workers. Expert stone mason Lew French of Edgartown worked for her. So did woodworkers Robbie MacGregor of West Tisbury and Scott Simkin, formerly of West Tisbury, now of Camden, Maine. Nina’s brother, Julian, lived in Italy and she had frequently visited him there and loved Italian terrace gardens, so she created one outside her back door. But she also had an affinity for English cottage gardens, and she managed to blend the two.

A tour of the garden by season

On the terrace and in the perennial garden, she had meandering paths laid of bluestone and fieldstone, and bricks salvaged from the remains of the old Makonikey Brickworks building. For seating, she had two small terra cotta chairs from Sicily. They came from cemeteries there where they served as resting places for the spirits of the deceased. She edged her flower beds with miniature boxwood hedges behind which she planted soft gray lamb’s ear and fragrant lavender. Along the house itself she grew roses. Pink and blue were her favorite colors, and the roses that she planted were dark pink, peachy pink, apricot pink.

In spring, her gardeners say, the riot of color she had created in her garden would take your breath away. In the perennial garden, there were the roses, pink and apricot impression tulips, dwarf blue spruce, yellow daffodils, purple crocuses, grape hyacinth, violets, blue and purple Johnny jump-ups, as well as the lavender. Flowering thyme would spring up along the walkways and paths. The apple and peach and pear trees at the garden entrance would be in bloom.

“You could only say, ‘Wow,’” Zada Clarke recalls. Nina’s other gardeners, Chuck Wylie, Avi Lev, Terri Young, and John Hoff (now the owner of Oakleaf Landscape in West Tisbury), echo her comment.

In summer, in the part of the garden near the house, grew pink dahlias with yellow centers, blue campanula, blue balloon flowers, pink and white spirea, pink phlox and foxglove, snowball viburnum, golden Stella d’Oro day lilies, and orange tiger lilies.

And there was her greater garden beyond. In spring, there would be the sweet scent of pink and lavender lilacs. Then, the white kousa dogwood would be out. Pink azaleas would burgeon. Next the Yoshino cherry trees (like those that grow in Washington, D.C.) near the pond would bloom – first, a pale pink, then turning to a white cloud.

During Hurricane Bob in 1991, all but one of the locusts in the grove near the pond had been blown down. Nina planted the cherry trees to replace them. Beneath them and in an area nearby, she planted dwarf evergreens – weeping pines and junipers, hollies and cedars. She created garden rooms with a stone bench here, an iron bench, an urn there. She nestled a statue of a unicorn among fairy roses and barberry, ilex hollies and crab apples. Her gardeners say these were Nina’s places of tranquility in midsummer after her eyes and her nose had been exhausted by the colors and fragrances of spring. It was under the cherry trees that she and her granddaughter, Daisy, would have long, thoughtful talks when Daisy came east from California.

In fall, dwarf Japanese maples would turn dark red and then copper-colored. Nina had English boxwoods pruned to a globe-shape and they contributed a soothing green.

To reach the island Percy Burt had created (by then it was being called “Nina’s Folly”), she had a wooden bridge constructed with a carved railing from the old barn house; it became yet another part of her garden, where she grew blueberries and grapes and had a weeping cherry planted. Softness came to the island with dark green and blue-green dwarf junipers. Color came with rhododendrons and azaleas and swamp maples. She had dolman-shaped stone structures and a stone landing built by Eben Armer of Contact Stone in West Tisbury, and benches put beneath the grape arbor.

A blue boat that bore Nina’s name bobbed in the pond waters and, every so often in the evening, she and Herman would row around the three-acre pond. Scientist that he was, Herman was always interested in its denizens. There were pinkletinks and muskrats, snapping turtles, eels, and snakes. Nina, however, was never partial to wildlife. Rabbits, deer, and muskrats boldly nibbled at what she had planted.

Winter, Zada believes, was Nina’s favorite season in the garden, though the awakening of spring came as a close second. In winter, when the leaves were largely gone from the trees that she had positioned with her artist’s eye, Nina could see just why she had placed them as she had. When their boughs were white with snow, she could admire their exquisite shapes. In the starkness of winter, she found calm. It was soothing to look out from her cozy cottage into the garden framed in snow.

The future of an icon

The new owners of Nina’s Garden have always had gardens of their own – though they were not, Jim Coyne quickly says, “masterpieces like Nina’s. We plan to keep that masterpiece as Nina left it.”

When she died last September, Jim and Holly Coyne were not yet acquainted with the garden but Nina’s good friend, Chilmark poet Margaret Freydberg was and wrote about the enduring beauty:

“If ever there was a visible expression of immortality, it isin the splendor of this garden of Nina’s she created so lovingly and attentively.She is, and will continue to be, eternally in the climbing roses, the espaliered apples, in the three trees that flower in the spring like pale pink clouds....Few were ever given grace to stay on earth in such demonstrable beauty.”

The Coynes are looking forward to preserving that demonstrable beauty.