Planting in the Old Camp Ground

In the heart of Oak Bluffs, a myriad of tiny plots and planters merge to create a single grand and infinitely strollable garden.

Any Islander, Vineyarder (and they are not the same thing), or visitor to Martha’s Vineyard soon learns the pleasures of random strolling. Flâner, the French call it – aimless wandering with no specific goal or purpose other than observing and savoring the sights. If one lives in Oak Bluffs, the prime spot for any flâneur or flâneuse is the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Ground because it offers not only relative quiet and calm, and some of the town’s most picturesque sights, but also some of the town’s best small gardens.

Alison Shaw

Decades ago, when I first arrived on the Island, the Camp Ground was a maze into which I did not venture, fearing that unless like Theseus I had a ball of twine (or the help of the gods) I would never find my way out. Now I have learned to simply relax and stroll; continued walking in any one direction will eventually lead to a familiar landmark. This new relationship with the spot has resulted in almost daily walks that have allowed me to appreciate the beauty of the place. I now recognize how the tightly packed houses with the side-by-side intimacy of centuries past speak eloquently of the civility of another age when neighborly manners were an accepted norm and not an exception. I marvel at the harmony that emerges from the seeming randomness of color and form, and I especially delight in the care with which the inhabitants maintain and curate their small garden plots. The gardens of the Camp Ground are not the vast, rolling sheep-may-safely-graze landscapes of up-Island or the manicured hydrangeas of Edgartown; rather, they are quirky pockets of delight that are crafted from pie-slice backyards and narrow alleyways. Porches are also engaged and festooned with overflowing hanging pots and climbing vines celebrating the glory of the season.

It starts in late May and early June with planting and trips to Mahoney’s, Donarama’s, and other Island nurseries, but begins in earnest in July when some houses celebrate the Fourth with a patriotic array of red impatiens or a mix of crimson petunias, white daisies, and blue cornflowers. The season bursts forth with the litmus pinks and blues of massed hydrangeas that range from Schiaparelli shocking pink to deep blue-violet. Then, I delight almost as much as the bees in the multiple hues and types of lavender and often cannot resist a small bud-pinch to perfume my hands. I remain mystified by how speckled pink Oriental lilies with their heady fragrance seem to survive red-bug pests in the Tabernacle’s confines better than they do in my own garden on the other side of Circuit Avenue. Perhaps it’s just a part of the Camp Ground magic.

Alison Shaw

My walks develop over the summer as July morphs into August, and I enjoy watching how individual gardens grow and change: early summer roses give way to daylilies and then to plants that signal the coming of fall. I don’t always watch just plants; I also keep an eye out for the accompanying decorations that can range from multihued whirligigs circling in summer breezes and cheery window boxes to color-coordinated cushion covers on venerable rocking chairs. Even rump-sprung chairs are recycled as planters.

By mid-August there’s always another wave of tidying and freshening up as the Camp Ground prepares for its big night: Grand Illumination. A few new plantings are seen here and there as porch and garden décor are transformed with the addition of Chinese lanterns. I always walk through on the afternoon before Illumination Night to watch as the cottage owners put up the lanterns and organize them. I’m old enough to remember when the big night was at the same time more casual and more magical than today’s festivities. The last night of Community Sing was a bittersweet moment that signaled the impending end of the season. The lighting of the first lantern was also a harbinger of my return to off-Island life and fall’s concerns.

Alison Shaw

My post–lantern lighting strolls of years past have turned into a crowded regimented walk. A part of me regrets the loss of those years when there were mainly candle-lit lanterns and the volunteer fire department had its truck parked nearby in prophylaxis against sparks and conflagrations, but I bow to the future and allow myself to be caught up in the magic that remains for a new generation. So there’s always a late-evening Illumination Night stroll amidst the few hangers-on. The giddy children with their glow sticks have been trundled off to bed, the day trippers have taken the last boat back to America, and the Camp Ground is still basking in the mellow afterglow of its annual holiday. Most of the lanterns are dormant, awaiting the next day when they will be packed up and relegated to their attic spaces for yet another year, but the warm feeling of the Camp Ground’s unique celebration is palpable as non-residents bid their last goodbyes and head home from parties at friends’ cottages.

By mid-September the season winds down and progresses toward the time when the first shutters go up, signaling that the residents have left for annual journeys to their winter homes. An autumnal quiet begins to hang over the area’s gingerbread houses. Slowly, the leaves begin to turn and drop, and it is time for me to pack up and return to my winter abode, mindful of the joys of the postage stamp–sized gardens of the Camp Ground and the pleasures of my summer strolls, and anticipating the changes and delights that the next year’s strolls will bring.

Comments (1)

Rodrigo Mafra
Boca Raton, FL
Hello Mrs. Harris, What beautiful poetry you express in your writing. I’ve visited the very spots you described, how joyous one feels at the sites of the Vineyard. Your article brought a golden sparkle to my heart!
July 20, 2018 - 7:32am