Grow with the pros at Vineyard Gardens

Chris Wiley, left, and Irene Hungerford. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

For the past 10 years, amateur gardeners on Martha’s Vineyard have enjoyed the opportunity to learn from the experts at Vineyard Gardens who conduct weekly lectures during the growing season. Covering a variety of topics, the talks have become a popular way to get some free advice, enjoy a hands-on experience, and even learn a little bit about the science of plants.

Last month, a small group of eager gardeners braved a wet Saturday morning, to literally dig into an early spring project at the West Tisbury nursery and garden center. The kickoff lecture of the 2012 series was on starting plants from seeds, and by the end of the hour, half a dozen gardening enthusiasts were heading home with containers of tiny seedlings or newly planted seeds.

Chris Wiley, co-owner of Vineyard Gardens, established the program and leads many of the lectures. Her husband, Chuck, who runs the landscape side of the business, handles the talks that deal with edibles, tree maintenance, and lawn care. The two met while attending the University of Vermont. Mr. Wiley has a degree in plant and soil science and is a trustee of the Holly Society of America. Ms. Wiley earned her degree in biochemistry and taught biology at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School for six years in the 1980s.

“They always say to market your strengths,” Ms. Wiley said. “Since my strength is education, that’s how I’ve marketed our business.” Aside from the weekly on-site lectures, Ms. Wiley has spoken to audiences at Featherstone Center for the Arts, local libraries, at the high school, and even at a private home. “I love giving talks,” she said. She also hosts occasional field trips for high school students and tries to include as much educational material around the nursery as possible. As well as extensive signage, Ms. Wiley has produced a large amount of printed material. “Give me a topic and I have a handout.

“Marketing my business through my strengths, people see me as knowledgeable and come to me with questions,” Ms. Wiley said.

The Wileys have teamed up with another organization with a focus on education, the Polly Hill Arboretum. Ms. Wiley has been working with the horticulture and botanical center since the eponymous founder was still alive. “She encouraged us to take cuttings from her place. She was tired of seeing the same varieties of cyprus and hydrangeas around the Island. There are so many different beautiful hydrangeas. She wanted to see more variety here and we wanted to be part of her mission. We have a lot of things from Polly Hill.”

Though they rely on plant distributors for the more common varieties, Ms. Wiley notes that the Vineyard Gardens staff does a lot of their own growing. “That’s how we get our variety. We pride ourselves on carrying a wide variety of plants.”

The Saturday lectures cover a wide range of topics. Some, like the very popular container-making talk, are repeated year after year, but Ms. Wiley tries to incorporate new talks each year, based on interest. “We are now getting more into edible ones,” she said.

Ms. Wiley often brings in outside experts for the lectures. For many years Susie Bowman of Felix Neck has done a talk on plants for birds. Other speakers are recruited from Polly Hill and other outside institutions, as well as from among the Vineyard Gardens staff. A talk on herb gardens, one of the most popular of the series, is led each year by 82-year-old Danga Gabis, who’s been working for the garden center since she retired from a career teaching German at the high school many years ago. Ms. Wiley refers to Ms. Gabis as their resident “herb guru.”

As well as offering tips and information on growing, Ms. Wiley makes an effort to impart a little basic biology into her lectures. At last month’s seed talk, she had participants dissect a lima bean to demonstrate the germination process. “I think that when you understand that there’s a little embryo in there you realize that it’s a really fragile thing that can dry out,” Ms. Wiley noted.

While stressing the importance of cleanliness to the assembled gardeners, she says, “It’s all about babies. If you get bacteria or fungi in there, you’re done.” She went through the other growing essentials — soil, water, drainage, and heat — and then distributed sectioned planting pots for the hands-on part of the lecture. Participants had an assortment of seeds and tiny seedlings to chose from.

Ten-year-old Marissa D’Antonio, who was attending with her mother, Jessica Miller, selected a variety of flowers and herbs. She has two raised beds of her own at home and is a gardening enthusiast. Last year she came to the lecture every Saturday, except when soccer practice interfered. Among other things, she said, “I learned how to weed and how far away to plant things.”

Mr. Wiley notes that the lectures attract a range of attendees — from kids to seniors and from dedicated gardeners to urban novices. “We see a lot of people from the city. It’s novel for them to grow things here.” At the other end of the gardening spectrum is the most frequent participant, Mr. Wiley’s mother, who never misses a talk. Mr. Wiley explains, “She was a hard-core vegetable gardener and she still really enjoys it.” She has two vegetable gardens at home which Mr. Wiley helps her to maintain.

Obviously, gardening is in the Wileys’ blood. Their oldest son, Alan, will graduate this year from his parents’ alma mater with a degree in sustainable landscape horticulture.

The Wileys boast a wealth of knowledge among them, but Ms. Wiley believes that anyone can successfully grow. “All it is in gardening is timing,” she said. “And putting things in the right spot. Dealing with living things is not difficult, but it’s a big commitment.”

Lectures are held every Saturday from 11 am to 12 noon. The talks are free and participants will receive a 20-percent off coupon for supplies pertaining to the lecture. Call 508-693-8511 for more information. The following is the schedule so far:

April 21 – Vegetable gardens. Learn which vegetables can be planted early, which are best sown directly, and which are best started ahead. Learn about organic fertilizers and cover crops, and enriching the soil for the best crops.

April 28 – Lawn care and maintenance. Learn from an expert when and why to lime and put down crab grass control. Includes a discussion of organic options.

May 5 – Everything you need to know about perennials, including ground covers.

May 12 – Herb gardens. Learn about the culinary herbs and how to plant and care for them.