One Happy Garden

The Plauts take what they learn and start anew.

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Josh and Lori Plaut in their garden. — Photo by Lynn Christoffers

Rabbi Joshua and Lori Plaut have an intense reverence for trees, and have what may be the oldest white pine on our Island — 150 years old, according to local arborist Richard Manley. Every year since they moved to their West Tisbury home, they have planted trees and named them for their friends and family. Josh is in charge of the trees, along with what may be the largest privately owned heather garden on the Island, with 2,000 plants.

The Plauts built their home in 1995. Lori said to me, “In the spring of ’96, I handed my husband a two-page spread of a heather garden in Northern California that looked like a Monet painting, not realizing this isn’t the same zone, and I said, ‘I want this.’ After about 10 years I was almost ready to give up. Joshua has an amazing amount of persistence; he kept plugging away, and did it all himself. Everything here is planted by my husband and son Jonas.”

I wondered how the heather fared during this last harsh winter. Lori said, “The snow buried it, and the heather did well. Usually we lose about 10 percent, and I don’t think we lost anything this winter.” The heather garden, with 75 varieties, is purely eye candy, for the love of all the different colors — red, orange, purple, white with winter blooms, and serves no medicinal purpose, though Josh said he looks forward to becoming a beekeeper, and harvesting heather honey and lavender honey from his gardens. Turns out white pine needles are a natural fertilizer for the heather, making it one happy garden.

Lori and Joshua’s original garden was planted in a low-lying, low-light area of the property in 1996, and after much energy and money spent, produced only one pepper. Lori laughed and told me, “We called it the $500 pepper, and I wanted to have it gold-plated. And it became a sermon about failure [for her husband] and taking what you learn to start anew.”

Lori comes from a family of farmers in Connecticut; her grandfather on her father’s side was a land grant chicken farmer in Colchester, and her grandfather on her mother’s side settled all of the land grantees in Connecticut. Her uncle was the dean of agriculture at Iowa State; her father always grew things — Lori feels she inherited growing in her blood.

After Joshua’s mother died, the Plauts had some extra money, and he built raised beds in the new garden on higher ground, with better light. “There’s a lot of clay in the soil,” Lori said, “and I was able to control the soil better.” They built a path around the raised beds with a liner below, and do all the watering themselves; there is no irrigation system in place anywhere on the property. Their gardens are organic and hand-tended. Their 14-year-old son Jonas participates by bringing the necessary organic vegetative compost with some added chicken manure up the hill to the garden, usually in the range of 50 pounds per season.

The garden prep work begins after the last spring frost in May and runs until the beginning of June. Lori plants some seedlings from Morning Glory Farm, and the rest are seeds. “I truly believe the seedlings give inspiration to the seeds and everything grows,” she told me. Lori wakes with the birds, and starts weeding around 5 am with a cup of coffee nearby. By the second week in August, she can stop weeding and let the garden “do its own thing.” Lori added garlic this year, planting it in late March between snowfalls, as suggested by her uncle the agriculture dean. This year, Lori said, “We only have 40 tomato plants, though we’ve had as many as 65. Whether they’re early-, middle-, or late-season tomatoes, they all come in around the same time.” Although she does not can, she dries her tomatoes, and gives a lot away.

In the vegetable garden, Lori has had the chicken-wire fencing increased to a 6-foot height, which the deer cannot jump. She uses black plastic trays around roots to hold water for a drip system and to minimize weeds in a one-foot radius. She showed me the watermelon radishes she grew this year: plucked a ripe sample that she later sliced extremely thin so I could see the beautiful color inside. She has Hungarian hot wax peppers, cayenne, poblano, serrano, habanero, jalapeño, and other varieties.

Joshua came out of the house with a knife to cut the radish and carrying his fresh wild thimbleberry sorbet, made from his own berries and cassis, and we switched topics to the 40 fruit trees and 250 berry bushes he’d planted, starting 15 years ago. “My mother liked Santa Rosa plums,” he said, “so those are Santa Rosa plums. The whole property is enveloped with blackberries and raspberries.” Their fruit trees include persimmons, apricots, peaches, pears, apples, cherries, figs, and even a pluot — a cross between a plum and an apricot. They have two small peach trees with about 100 peaches, which all got eaten by the deer this year, but another tree has borne fruit they’ve gotten to enjoy. “It’s nature,” Josh said. “That’s Lori’s attitude. Last night when we came home from the beach, there was a deer there eating all the white roses.” In fact, they planted the roses as a natural barrier around the garden perimeter just for the deer. I learned that using nematodes to get rid of Japanese beetle larvae also rids your green areas of grubs, and gets rid of skunks, though it is expensive at $50 a bag.

Josh plans to learn how to be a beekeeper so they can harvest their own honey from their lavender and heather. They’ll buy another 30 lavender plants to rebuild what they lost last winter. Dick Manley calls the forest in the area where they live “primary growth.”

“There is a spiritual component to this property for us,” Lori said. The ancient white pine is, she said, the heart of property. They also have beetlebung trees, as well as a smoke tree (indigenous to the Island), gingko, oak, and others.

Each fruit tree has been named for a family member or friend, and they know which is which without keeping a list. There is a flowering Japanese Cherry planted when their son Jonas was born. “We had this tradition of planting a fruit tree every year on Jonas’ birthday — July 8, so 13 or 14 trees were planted then,” Josh added. “There is a Jewish tradition of planting a tree for the newborn.” There is a Midrash [a gleaning from the Torah’s text], he said, “that if the Messiah comes and you are planting a sapling, What should you do? You should finish planting the tree and then greet the Messiah.”

I learned about Tu Be-shevat, the Jewish New Year for trees when the first almond blossoms appear in Israel. That foretells spring; it has become a sort of Passover hybrid, because the celebration now includes eating fruits and nuts, and drinking four different-colored wines or grape juices, eight weeks before Passover. It’s a 2,000-year-old tradition. Laughing, Josh said, “We celebrate Tu Be-shevat by snowshoeing around our property.”