Keri McLeod

Years ago, when Susan Feller lived in Alexandria, Virginia, her gardening hobby blossomed beyond her backyard. She decided to trade in a sputtering seventeen-year journalism career for a certificate in landscape design from the George Washington University. Then she started her own company.

That was more than twenty years – and countless gardens – ago, but the vegetable plot flanking the west side of her West Tisbury lawn is her first attempt at growing produce. After she and her husband, Lloyd, left Alexandria and bought their almost-two-acre Vineyard property five years ago, she envisioned a garden from which she and her family could eat regularly – though not exclusively. Living off the land wasn’t the intention, Susan says. “But if I could walk out my side door, go ten steps into my garden, and pick some vegetables for us to eat, that would be perfect.”

So that’s where it went – just a few paces from her flagstone patio in an area that soaks up plenty of midday sun. She sited the garden herself, etching the eighteen-by-twenty-eight-foot outline into the grass with a paintbrush. A landscaper dug and fenced the garden with staggered seven-foot wooden posts and crosshatched chicken wire that wraps around to a custom-built, rugged, barn-like double-door painted cobalt blue.

“I once saw a gate that color in Stinson Beach, California, and thought, ‘Someday I’m going to have a garden with a gate that color,’” she says. Its effect is both practical and whimsical, and the door’s bright hue more than hints at the colorful crop inside: hot pink-topped zinnias, coral nasturtiums, fiery cayenne chiles, bottle-green pickling cucumbers by the dozen, amber-stemmed Swiss chard, and ‘Sungold’ cherry tomatoes. At the center, a ring of smooth rocks borders a verdant herb patch.

Recently her vegetables outgrew the initial space; to accommodate, she expanded into a second garden, where she planted berry bushes and sprawling vegetables such as squash. When her daughter, Jennifer, and granddaughters, Grace and Eleanor, visit in the summer, the girls follow Susan barefoot out to the garden to pick out what they want for dinner. Susan says, “It’s a mother-gardener’s dream come true.”

That said, she also readily admits that not everything always works out perfectly the first time. She would rethink the original garden’s fence height, for instance, if she had it to do over again. “I went overboard,” she says. “The deer won’t jump that high into a space that small.” Conversely, she skipped fencing altogether on the second garden and regrets it.

She keeps mental notes like these about what works and what doesn’t, learning a lot by trial and error. But a walk through her well-tended, ever-improving plot is proof that some good advice, high-quality products, and a healthy bit of weeding – Susan spends roughly four hours per day tidying, clipping, watering, and redressing – can go a long way toward giving you a green thumb, not to mention getting a farmer’s-market-quality salad on the dinner table.

From the Ground Up

March is about the time when Susan starts “messing around in there,” picking up sticks and cleaning away a winter’s worth of fallen leaves. She and Lloyd split their time between the Vineyard and Manhattan, but as an active member of the Island’s Habitat for Humanity chapter – for which she does “green” landscape design featuring native plants with minimal lawn areas – Susan considers it her duty to come north for the monthly meetings. Conveniently, it also gives her an excuse to dust off her garden clogs. Around that time, the earth is just starting to become workable enough for her to pull out any plants from last season. Once she can get a blade into the ground, she’ll load on the cow manure and fork it around with compost.

Her own compost pile is a work in progress: a heap of weeds, some grass, and kitchen scraps (minus any meat and dairy) that she lets tend itself for the time being. Once the waste decomposes, it produces dark, rich compost, which she digs out from the lower reaches of the pile. Susan laments that though she’s used the compost on the vegetable garden and thinks it does work, her methods are “inefficient” and “unscientific.” Getting organized about compost is on her to-do list.

In the meantime, she relies on good-quality commercial compost – and lots of it – from John Keene Excavation in West Tisbury. In the early months, she dresses the beds with as much as fifty-to-sixty wheelbarrows’ worth to ensure that her plants are getting plenty of nutrients. “I plant very densely and I figure that depletes the soil of nutrients,” she says, “so early in the season, I add the compost to replace them.”

Seeds and seedlings especially need plenty of nitrogen-rich compost early on to grow full and tall, so she stocks up on organic fertilizers (Vermont Compost and North Country Organics are two of her favorite brands) and concocts her own nourishing mix of Keene’s compost enriched with composted cow manure – “a good source of nitrogen” – or the compost tea that Mitch Posin brews over at Allen Farm in Chilmark. Compost tea is made by steeping compost in water, then straining out the solids and using the “tea” as a surface spray on non-edible portions of plants or as a soil-drench. The liquid product works at least as effectively as traditional compost by saturating the plants with nutrients, and also as a natural pesticide, wiping out foliar diseases and toxins.

Sowing Seeds

After the frost has broken, it’s time to start planting. To keep them well-fed and well-protected, Susan dresses the beds every couple of weeks with fertilizer and blankets them with row covers to keep them warm; even early-season crops that thrive in cooler soil need some protection against temperature dips. And it’s a good idea to invest in superior seeds: Susan vouches for a brand called Johnny’s Selected Seeds, available at SBS in Vineyard Haven.

Lettuces, herbs, peas, and perennials such as asparagus and sorrel make up Susan’s early-planting roster. The latter’s distinct lemon-like tang works beautifully in salad or soup – probably its most popular preparations – but can also be creamed into a velvety sauce over salmon (see page 75). And as for fresh peas, her modest crop – “all two dinners’ worth” – adds springtime freshness to richly textured risotto, to the delight of her lucky dinner guests.

Come mid-May, the ground is primed for later-season crops like Brussels sprouts, broccoli, beans, fennel, flowers, peppers, and plenty of tomato plants. She and the girls wax poetic about pasta sauced with just-picked, barely cooked August ‘Sungold’ cherry tomatoes. “That is,” Jennifer points out, “if they make it to the table.” And if all of the hungry competition doesn’t get to the plants before Susan does. Even without the deer munching on her tomatoes, she is kept busy shooing out all the other Peter Rabbits that help themselves to her vegetables.

“Rabbits like the garden, and every bug in the world is in there,” she says. “In the second garden, I don’t have a fence, and every squash gets gnawed by smaller animals. I spray Bobbex [animal repellent] around the that when the rabbits come, they’ll think better of coming in.” (Though like Mr. McGregor, she admits to having thoughts of rabbit stew.)

Putting Down Roots

Siting, digging, planting, pruning, watering, weeding – if all this sounds like quite a bit of work, Susan would be the first to agree. Like any vegetable farmer, she’s up and treading through her yard while the grass is still cool and dewy, and she might poke around in the garden for the better part of the morning. But for those whose growing experience is in more embryonic stages – read: Chia Pets and AeroGardens – any expert will tell you that even a small, garden-variety patch is worth it. “There’s nothing like fresh broccoli,” Susan says. Not only is growing your own food enormously gratifying, but you won’t regret giving up a piece of your lawn when your granddaughter asks if she can be the one to wash the kale.

“It’s a busman’s holiday,” Susan says. “I did gardening – albeit not vegetable – for a living for so long for other people that it feels like a gift to have the time to do it for myself. Besides, I like getting dirty.”

The following recipes were originally published along with this article:

Japanese Cucumber Salad with Vinegar

Salmon with Sorrel Sauce

Middle Eastern Lamb with Mint Sauce and Pita

Field Notes: Tips to Get You Started

Plant a garden in a spot with a minimum of six hours of direct sunlight. There are very few food crops that don’t need at least that much.

Dig a ten-dollar hole for a five-dollar plant. “Make the hole big and deep, and add as much organic matter as you can afford,” Susan says. And make sure you start with the best. Use high-quality organic seeds, fertilizers, and potting soils whenever possible.

Don’t plant too early or you might get caught by a late frost. And don’t be in too much of a hurry – you need to be patient with new plantings.

Install a fence, or you will have your heart broken. Chicken wire attached to posts works well, as does plastic deer fencing.

Mist, don’t spray, seeds. They must be kept moist, so they should be watered twice a day, but gently enough so that the water pressure doesn’t move them around. A drip watering system is wonderful for young plants.