In Print : Picturing Vineyard gardens
"A Garden Lover's Martha's Vineyard," by C.L. Fornari. Commonwealth Editions, 2008, 144 pgs, $34.95.
In researching "A Garden Lover's Martha's Vineyard," (Commonwealth Editions, 2008), writer/photographer C.L. Fornari traveled from her home in Hyannis to the Island weekly throughout a growing season to visit Vineyard gardens and meet the people who designed and tended them. She describes her process as "organic." One gardener introduced her to the next, and on and on. The resulting work, which might more accurately be titled "Martha's Vineyard Lovers' Gardens," reflects first their passionate love of the Island, and second the personal gardens they created in response to the Island's special challenges of climate, soil, and critters. The book is as much about the people as it is about the beautiful, and sometimes quirky, gardens they nurture.
C.L. Fornari is a noted garden writer and speaker who Vineyard readers will recognize from her articles and books, appearances on National Public Radio and lectures at the Martha's Vineyard Garden Club. With a wealth of experience about gardening on the Cape, she is knowledgeable, straightforward, and practical. She approaches her subject with a visitor's fresh eye, expectation of discovery, and willingness to be surprised - and her book is suffused with all of these. Clearly, she encountered what Islanders know: no one garden can define the Vineyard. With garden examples ranging from the intensely groomed to the near wild, surrounding all manner of architecture, and cultivated by an assortment of people who are natives and transplants themselves, there is far too much raw material. One can sympathize with the dilemma of how to organize it.
Ms. Fornari's choice is to treat the book like a series of conversations - a snippet here, a longer reflection there - that are loosely and perhaps arbitrarily grouped into sections. Chapters focus on private gardens large and small; our two glorious public gardens (Mytoi and Polly Hill Arboretum); Island gardening challenges; local and native plant choices; and locally grown food, flowers, and grapes (and the art they inspire). In a final section entitled "July and August," she explores the gardens that are planned and polished to shine for our seasonal residents and their guests. Here as everywhere, Ms. Fornari focuses on the designers and gardeners who create and sustain the formal plantings, poolside oases, and stone-enclosed retreats, rather than their owners. Along the way, she considers both the adventurers like Polly Hill who pushed the envelope of "suitability," and the stewards of native plant material, like Carlos Montoya and Kristen Henricksen. The text throughout is chatty and peppered with quotes. Generally, the author lets the gardeners speak rather than pressing any obvious agenda of her own.
Ms. Fornari did not intend her book as a primer on Vineyard gardening but rather an appreciation of the decisions real Vineyard gardeners have made. Given the many challenges a Vineyard gardener faces, one might ask for a little more how-to advice. In this regard, four sidebars - Susanne Clark's picks for sun-loving perennials, Polly Hill's plant introductions, a list of ornamental grasses, and a list of plants dependable for their late-summer glory - are particularly useful for those seeking inspiration on what will work here. Buried in the text (page 54) is a home brew recipe for deer repellent spray.
From the 200-plus color photographs Ms. Fornari includes in the book, it is evident that she obtained access to a wide range of settings. This could have been a book about iconic Edgartown picket fences billowing with New Dawn roses and the borders of the rich and famous. Instead, the author shares with us a sampling of special places viewed at the invitation of their creators. These places include everything from a zesty Vineyard Haven border planting flanking a clothesline to huge drifts of plants spilling toward an Aquinnah water view. Captions identify the designers and gardeners and often (helpfully) the plants as well.
While "A Garden Lover's Martha's Vineyard" could be enjoyed for its lovely photographs alone, a deeper look is rewarded by what amounts to a chat over the back fence with scores of Island neighbors who happen to be among our most accomplished gardeners.
Alice C. Early is an executive coach, consultant, and business writer who has gardened in Maine, on a New York City rooftop, in Virginia's Blue Ridge, and on Long Island before creating her current garden in Chilmark.