Thirty years later, COMSOG’s roots grow deeper

Thalia Scanlan, COMSOG president shows off the hearty Lacinto nero kale. — Photo by Lynn Christoffers

Thirty years after it was created, the Community Solar Greenhouse of Martha’s Vineyard in Oak Bluffs is blooming with greenery and flowers, buzzing with activity and enthusiasm, and opening its doors wider than ever to welcome visitors, customers, and new members.

It has come up to date with a colorful and informative website and is even changing its name. Long known familiarly as COMSOG, the all-volunteer organization that focuses around horticulture and sustainable living is becoming The Greenhouse of Martha’s Vineyard. It is part of the effort to let more folks know about what is going on at the welcoming headquarters tucked away among the trees off New York Avenue.

After a winter of dedicated planting, transplanting, and loving care by a group of active members, the greenhouse this month has the ambience of a lush summer garden. Muted sunlight shines through the two-layer plastic roof, shelves are filled to bursting with seedlings, and young plants all ready for the garden. From front door to back, rows of bright colored flowering plants are suspended in hanging pots – petunias, geraniums, nasturtiums, and more.

The rear section is bursting with mature plants from which members pick – leafy kale, chard, tomatoes covered with yellow blossoms.

A worktable is covered with pots and gardening tools, and nearby are two bins of dark, moist soil for transplanting. Outdoors, long tables display rows and rows of vegetable seedlings. Herb and flower seedlings are nearby.

Activity was at its height early this month as preparations were underway for the annual spring plant sale. Since Mother’s Day, the greenhouse is open for business daily through May. Sales continue through late summer, primarily on weekends, by appointment or whenever volunteer staff is on hand.

From peppers both hot and sweet to tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, herbs, and flowers, there is plenty here to get the most ambitious home gardener off to a good start. And these aren’t just any tomatoes: there are 35 varieties, most of them heirlooms.

“We have more varieties than any place on the Island” said COMSOG president Thalia Scanlan.

Everything is grown from seed or propagated right here in the greenhouse, making them especially robust and fresh, vice president Ken Eber stressed. “They’re all beautiful, healthy, and ready to go.”

COMSOG began three decades ago by Islanders as interested in sustainability as many are today. It is noteworthy that members themselves have kept the facility thriving, full of plants, learning, and camaraderie all these years.

In 2008, The Times quoted the late Linc Hanson, the first president of COMSOG, who was instrumental in beginning the organization: “Twenty-five years ago the COMSOG greenhouse was a place where people could get things started in the winter, and so we could expand Martha’s Vineyard’s growing season.”

Ms. Scanlan has worked tirelessly as president of the organization, following Mr. Hanson, since moving to Martha’s Vineyard 11 years ago. Retired from the advertising business in several major cities, she has always been passionate about gardening – “especially tomatoes!” – and received her training as a Master Gardener.

With equal enthusiasm, Mr. Eber has come on board as vice president and is making a concerted effort to build membership, increase community awareness, and grow funding, especially through bringing in more corporate sponsors.

“This place is great,” said Mr. Eber, who only recently discovered the greenhouse despite years of living on the Island. He and his wife, Alba, are happily active members. Mr. Eber admits to never planting a plant before joining the greenhouse but now takes delight in working here with other members and container gardening at home.

Ms. Scanlan said the greenhouse continues to fulfill its original purpose of supporting Islanders in growing their own gardens. The organization does this in many ways, she said. Not only does it provide opportunities to enjoy planting while gathering information and inspiration, but members are qualified and happy to offer suggestions about all aspects of home gardening from raised beds to pest control and which plant varieties are right for specific conditions and uses.

“We can advise, we can help,” she said.

In addition to all the informal hands-on learning and shared information that takes place around the potting table and in casual conversation, the organization sponsors occasional speakers and workshops. Its popular table at the Living Local festival has offered hands-on activities for kids and adults.

Chris Legge, the sole part-time staffer, keeps busy with countless chores, with watering high on the list. A good match for the job, Mr. Legge came to the Island from Virginia with experience in his family’s flower business.

Diane Sylvia is one of the organization’s very active members. While busy with weeding and transplanting in preparation for the sale, she spoke of the pleasures of membership. Members are welcome to participate in whatever way they wish. Some drop by when they have time to plant seeds or tend plants. Others simply visit to enjoy the atmosphere and pick some salad greens or herbs. Some gather on Wednesday mornings for a companionable chore party. Along with getting the work done more experienced gardeners share tips and lore with newer members, and everyone takes a break at noon for a potluck soup lunch.

“We pick our own salad from the greenhouse,” Ms. Sylvia added, a glowing enticement for membership.

Ms. Sylvia also writes a blog on the perky website, which was designed by Alison Kisselhoff. Along with updates on recent gardening activities it includes advice, photos, and occasional recipes for current crops.

After three decades, the greenhouse needs some serious loving care, Mr. Eber said. Topping the list is a new back-up furnace. The second furnace has broken and it is critical to have two working furnaces to protect the plants when temperatures plummet. A major project will be wiring the greenhouse for lighting so it can be used in the evening for projects and classes. Carpentry is needed and although the two-layer plastic siding was recently replaced, a new cover is needed every three to four years.

Mr. Eber estimated a $50,000 price tag for these necessities. He has high hopes of raising the money over the next two years though the list is daunting.

Funds have come from plant sales and the popular annual benefit concert by well-loved pianist David Crohan. Modest membership fees ($35/couple, $30/indiviual) add a small amount. Along with seeking out business donors, Mr. Eber plans a variety of community events to entice visitors and sell memberships and plants.

The operation is active through the summer. Many plants remain available in the greenhouse, a boon for late-arriving seasonal residents who want to decorate porches with hanging flowers or plant some tomatoes and herbs. There is also produce for sale from a small vegetable garden. A cut flower garden is the newest summer feature. Visitors may pick their own colorful bouquets for a modest price.

“This is the nicest place to be in the winter,” said Ms. Scanlan gesturing at the seedlings, flowers, and the sunlight coming through the plastic. “When it’s blowing and rainy and ugly out it’s nice to come over here. It’s very rejuvenating.”

Mr. Eber heartily agreed. “How many places do you walk into that bring a smile to your face?”

For more information, call 508-693-2019 or visit