Every gardener has a dirty secret

Writer Geraldine Brooks is one of several Islanders with dirty secrets (at least when it comes to their gardens).
Photo by Laura D. Roosevelt

Writer Geraldine Brooks is one of several Islanders with dirty secrets (at least when it comes to their gardens).

Most of us gardeners – whether amateurs or pros – have at least one dirty little secret about our gardening. My dirty secret is that I don’t know the names of at least half of the flowers in my flowerbeds, even though I bought most of them, and at the time of purchase presumably knew their names from reading the little plastic labels stuck into their pots. It doesn’t affect the beauty of my flower gardens that I can’t give the Latin name (or even the more common one that many plants have) of everything that’s growing around my house, but it is embarrassing when someone comes over and points at a plant, saying, “Gosh, that purple thing is gorgeous; what is it?” And I say, “Ummmm….”

I could fix this problem easily, by simply visiting my local nursery, finding specimens that I have in my garden, and memorizing the names. Maybe I’ll do that. Maybe.

Jamie Stringfellow’s (an editor at the MVTimes) dirty secret is that she’s a would-be gardener who’s terrified of gardening. Even though she wants to beautify her Oak Bluffs house with plantings, she doesn’t know where to start, and she’s afraid that if she buys something at a nursery and tries to plant it at home, she’ll break it while planting it, plant it improperly, or kill it with neglect later on. Jamie’s mother once remarked, on noticing her (lack of) care for her plants. “If you’re like this with your children,” she admonished, “they’ll die.”

“Who,” she says, “would engage in activities that could end in death?” I offered to help and went to her house, where she demonstrated her new watering can (“I got it at a yard sale for a buck”) with a couple of new succulents (don’t ask ME what they’re called!) that her husband had planted by the front door. Then I noticed two lupins, still in their plastic nursery pots, lying on their sides atop two cement planters that were sporting a healthy crop of grass. The lupins had clearly been in this locale and position for some time, as one had a bud growing at a 90 degree angle to its soil, seeking sun by taking a right hand turn.

First, we emptied out the planters. Soil in planters gets depleted after a few plantings and must either be enhanced with compost or completely replaced with new soil and compost. This being a complete replacement situation, we put a layer of compost in the bottom of the planter, dropped in a lupin, and filled in around the sides with more compost. Then we moved the planter to a sunny location, since the tag that came with the lupin noted that it likes full sun, or part shade, and the planter had been in full shade. Success!

West Tisbury farmer Debby Farber has a dirty gardening secret that won’t apply to home gardeners, but is so weird that it must be mentioned: She uses a home washing machine, on the spin cycle, to dry the salad greens that she sells at the Farmers’ Market and to local restaurants and supermarkets. “How else could I dry 100 bags worth of greens due the next day at Cronig’s?” she asks. Most of the rest of us use salad spinners, but for those without spinners, I discovered a great substitute one summer here on the Island, when I rented a house that didn’t have a salad spinner. After washing salad greens in a sinkful of water, place them onto a kitchen towel. Draw together the four corners of the towel to create a hobo’s bundle. Go outside. Holding the bundle by the tie ends, swing it around in big circles – water will fly out of the package, and when you get inside, you’ll have relatively dry salad greens.

West Tisbury videographer and farmer Joan Ames has two dirty secrets, both of which involve acquiring no-cost gardening materials. Joan uses grass clippings as mulch in her vegetable garden. When she lived in Indiana and had a lawn too small to provide sufficient clippings for her garden, she took to cruising nearby neighborhoods, looking for bags of clippings left by other lawn-mowing homeowners at curbside for the trash collectors. When she took her young children with her, they would hunker down in the back seat, mortified that their mother appeared to be a station wagon-driving bag lady, helping herself to other people’s trash.

Joanie’s second dirty secret is a tip she learned from Anna Edey, West Tisbury resident and author of “Solviva: How to Grow $500,000 on One Acre, and Peace on Earth.” It boils down to using human urine as a fertilizer. “Human urine contains the big three elements you find in packaged fertilizers,” Joan notes, “nitrogen, phosphate, and potassium.” Joan waters hers down — ten parts water to every one part pee — and waters her flowerbeds with it. “It’s a natural way of fertilizing,” says Joan, “and it’s free.”

Children’s book writer and illustrator Kate Feiffer’s dirty secret is that she’s overly ambitious. From a gardening perspective, she says, “my eyes are bigger than my stomach.” Every year, Kate takes a trip to the nursery and finds herself buying a lot of beautiful plants that she’s certain will enhance her Oak Bluffs gardens. She gets home with them and starts out with gusto, digging, planting, digging, planting. Then she’ll need to stop for a bit. Only, given how busy summer gets here on Martha’s Vineyard, “a bit” ends up becoming forever. The unplanted plants stay, for the rest of the season, in their plastic nursery pots, slowly dying.

One way to combat over-ambition in the garden is to make oneself swear never to buy anything unless one has a specific need, and a specific place, for a plant. I confess that I have done what Kate does many times. So has writer Geraldine Brooks of West Tisbury, who is also an avid gardener.

But Geraldine’s biggest dirty gardening secret is actually a wonderful shortcut — cardboard. When she wants to create a new bed, she avoids the strenuousness of double digging (a technique advised when creating a new bed); instead, she simply selects a spot on her lawn where she wants to put a bed, places a layer of cardboard box over the area she wishes to use (right on top of the grass), and then covers the cardboard in a few inches of topsoil and compost. This technique kills the grass below and creates additional compost from the dying grass and cardboard. In her first year of using a bed, Geraldine will plant something with roots that can spread outward, laterally, rather than straight down. But after the first year, once the cardboard and the grass below have turned to dirt, she can plant anything there — carrots, even. This year, she’s created a new bed for asparagus, which has roots that can spread laterally, and while I was visiting her, she began creating an adjacent bed for strawberries, which are shallow-rooted.

After visiting Geraldine, I went more or less across the street to Tiasquin Orchards, where I spoke with owner Eric Magnuson. “My dirty secret,” Eric confessed, “is that I don’t know what I’m doing.” This is an interesting statement coming from the Vineyard’s largest apple grower. He’s been growing apple trees for over thirty years, but still, he feels like a novice. “Every year is different,” he explains. “You never know what’s going to happen.” Two years ago, for example, he had a bumper crop — so many apples that he couldn’t manage them all. Last year, he had no apples at all. “I think the year before took too much out of the trees,” he says. It is true: Apple trees periodically take a year off.

“Tell her about the crows,” says Eric’s wife, Debbie, who runs a day-care center out of their home.

Eric grins. “Oh, the crows,” he says. One year, after reading that tying plastic bags of soap to the branches of his trees would keep the deer away, he found that crows evidently consider soap a delicacy. They ate all the soap and ripped the bags off the trees, but worse, while they were there, they also sampled the apples – never eating a whole apple, but rather, taking a peck out of dozens of apples, rendering them unsalable. “After that,” says Eric, “we stopped using the soap and decided we’d just share with the deer.” Even seasoned gardeners will always come across new challenges. With a little luck, we learn from them.