Garden Notes: Garden tour takes in five fine gardens on Martha’s Vineyard

David Geiger's garden offers richly planted borders around two pools connected by a stream.
Photo by Ralph Stewart

David Geiger's garden offers richly planted borders around two pools connected by a stream.

Those who bought tickets to the West Tisbury First Congregational Church’s garden tour Saturday, May 26, were rewarded by the beauty and stimulation the five gardens provided: word count does not permit giving them due justice.

The gardens are varied and uniquely personal, and the highlights numerous. Each one had its overwhelming aspect. At plantsman David Geiger’s garden, the very wide variety of interesting plant material and technical expertise in culture, infrastructure, and hardscape is immediately apparent.

The well-maintained landscape welcomes with beautiful walls, pleasant lawns, and specimen trees, such as labernum, purple cotinus, and bigleaf magnolia, protected by tough, neatly constructed tree guards clasping the trunks. It contains — among many, many features — two richly planted pool gardens connected by a stream, complete with a planted miniature floating island; extensive mixed shrubberies planted with woodlanders and shade-tolerant material such as trilliums, hellebores, arisaemas, and hostas; herb, vegetable, and fruit gardens; a dry garden with cacti; a collection of fig varieties in containers; and numerous nooks and vignettes. This is the place for the seldom-seen and unique! Guests left laden with gift plants.

The tour guests all gasped upon glimpsing Trudy Taylor’s sunny, windswept site behind Stonewall Beach. The deep blue ribbon of ocean frames all, and being in this place was exhilarating for every guest.

The garden entrance is through an unpretentious fence that has become like driftwood itself in this exposed location. The garden hugs a gentle slope behind and to the side of the clean-lined house, which is fronted by an immaculate bed of Juniperus procumbens nana. Wonderful glazed ceramic seats, bonsai, and sculptural objects decorate this garden.

A line of rugged apples and pears straddles the crest of the slope, underplanted with crambe, silene, and irises. Paths are deep in seaweed, and who knows what else, safely tucked under by Ms. Taylor to compost away. Iris and thalictrum appear and re-appear; a large number of healthy tomato plants have been scattered among the flowers. Everywhere sedums, limonium, chrysanthemum, lychnis, and Siberian iris weave together. Folding bamboo pyramids placed throughout the beds support climbing crops. Milkweed romps unrestrained in the fence border, a magnet for pollinators.

Away from the ocean and wind a small walkway leads to a sheltered garden between two ells. Red and yellow North American wild columbine congregate with lily of the valley, and share this space with an imposing rain barrel. The raised walkway is retained surprisingly — creative recycling — on one side by a soldier course of dark green beer bottles. It continues around the corner of the house through a shady woodland revealing another marvel of composting: the eye-opening “retaining wall” is an arrangement of posts and wire stuffed with seaweed and other organic matter, a living-decaying digester of biomass. Round the back, more composting happens in green cones; enter through the kitchen door to view the greenhouse, which houses a venerable fig tree, agapanthus, plumbago, geraniums, and living birds.

Arriving at the Norris property it is apparent they means business concerning deer, as a ranch cattle guard gate has been installed in the perimeter fence. Peter Norris’s collection is focused primarily on rhododendrons and Japanese maples. He collects Dexter hybrid rhododendrons and accepts the challenge of many half-hardy species as well. Enclosed nursery areas are integral to the proving and management of acquisitions.

The site is damp and shaded and opens as a cooling glade filled with head-turning rhododendrons in an overwhelming array. The native hollies and osmunda ferns shelter beneath stately beetlebungs. The high water table has necessitated the planting of the collection in mounded beds, well mulched with bark and showing the plants to good advantage. The Norris garden also contains two ponds, one close to the house and the other, larger one forming a mirrored contrast to the rhododendron and maple mounds. Plantings of ferns, epimediums, and spring ephemerals face down lovely old walls. A river of skunk cabbage “flows” nearby.

Close to the terrace of the house is a lovely perennial garden anchored by two wonderful big apple trees. Not showing much color now, the garden is undoubtedly glorious by midsummer.

The garden of the late Herman and Nina Schneider, now nurtured by Holly and Jim Coyne, has the timelessness and serenity that is a goal of gardeners everywhere. It looks out over Look’s Pond in West Tisbury and has, matching its house, a low, broad aspect. Well screened from nearby neighbors, it features large plantings of single plants underplanted with another single species. Close to the house, however, is a knot-influenced garden with clipped boxwoods in mounds and low hedges containing well-grown roses and iris, and a narrow brick maintenance path threading through. An inviting terrace furnished with charmingly planted containers creates a vantage point for viewing espaliered apples clothing the house front and other well-tended, mature fruit trees figuring prominently in the formal areas. The small island reached by a footbridge displays an arbor, a blueberry orchard, rhododendrons, and waterside plantings.

Susan Leland describes her stunning garden as a pocket garden. She has planted sinuous, curvy, built-up beds densely. The broadleaved evergreens, conifers, deciduous trees and shrubs, underplanted with hakonechloa, Corydalis lutea, and epimedium, among others, create lawn-carpeted rooms and cul-de-sacs. They create the illusion of spaciousness in what is actually a small lot. A great sense of privacy and quiet pervades the spaces. Their flow gives the impression of being taken on a small journey. Centered close behind the house is the enclosed pool garden and deck, half barrels stuffed with sensitive fern, pruned standard trees, climbers, and a playful mosaic walk picked out in blue glass. A striking garden on the house’s west side features elevated basket standards.

What to do in the garden

Last call for pinching perennials such as garden mums, phlox, Montauk daisies, and asters that will bush out, require less staking, and retard their bloom. Hardneck garlic is forming scapes now, the earliest in my experience yet. Pinch them out to maximize bulb size. Seed crops to replace the early spring ones: kales, carrots, more beets, successional bush beans, heat-tolerant lettuces and greens. Plant seed of next fall’s radicchio crop. Direct-sow culinary fennel; it does not bulb well when transplanted. Either stake, with bamboo and twine, or place “pea brush” (dead, brushy growth of any sort cut to length) to support annuals and perennials. Transplant seedlings of biennials, such as digitalis, lunaria, hesperis, into desired locations for next year. Cover strawberries against birds. Deadhead iris to reduce the weight of the stems in rainy weather. Slug patrol: pick and drown in beer; lay slug pellets. When planting annuals from modules, pinch out the flower bud to get a strong, bushier plant.