Gardens of Love: Rebecca Gilbert prepares for spring in the hoop house

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Rebecca Gilbert showed off a tray of pineapple sage starts in her greenhouse at Native Earth Teaching Farm. – Photo by Sam Moore

I can’t remember when I first met Rebecca Gilbert, who owns Native Earth Teaching Farm in Chilmark, but she has always surprised me with the depth of her knowledge, her passion for life, and her giving soul. I stopped by to visit in March and see how Rebecca was preparing for her garden. We sat in the warmth of the hoop house attached to her kitchen. There were geraniums in flower, a winter herb garden, and trays of seedlings readying for planting.

Valerie Sonnenthal: There is a baby pool next to me with what looks like spinach; can you tell me what you have growing inside it?

Rebecca Gilbert: That’s a medicinal flower called calendula, and things I dug up from the fall garden; some scallions, garlic, celery, and parsley. All of these things were able to live over the winter, and are very nice snipped into [meals] to give food a little fresh green flavor in the winter.

VS: In the spring, will these be planted outdoors?

RG: Probably not, as they’ll be pretty worn out by then.

VS: Do you plant different things over the winter each year?

RG: Yes, I experiment further and refine it. I found out if you bring in kale from outside, it gets eaten by aphids in the warmth of the hoop house. Onions and garlic don’t have that problem.

VS: How do you use the calendula?

RG: It is used for skin problems, but is also a culinary herb. My mother put calendula petals in rice with parsley when she made pilaf, to make it colorful. The flower is the part you use, and it’s a bright orange.

VS: You also have herbs in here.

RG: Yes, I have a bay tree, and chickweed, a common weed found in everyone’s garden. It’s a weed I like to eat in the winter because it’s green, crunchy, and juicy. Also it is soothing for your insides.

VS: So the chickweed is on the bottom.

RG: Yes, and that’s a lavender plant; there are rosemary and mint. Another really invasive weed you don’t want in your garden — but you may occasionally want in your medicinal teapot — is mugwort. It should not be used too strong or too often, but has excellent medicinal uses, especially for elders.

VS: And anyone who likes Harry Potter. [laughs]

RG: There is a winter tonic made in northern Europe called mugwort kvass. They also make beet kvass; it’s a fermented drink that is probiotic. It’s kind of an acquired taste, but it’s very good for you, even in small amounts.

VS: It looks like you have just enough growing to meet your winter needs, and in the entry area there are a lot of seedlings.

RG: Yes. Some seedlings prefer a cooler area, and others warmer, so that determines where I put the flat, on the floor where it’s cooler, or in the middle or the top where it’s warmest. What I have sprouting right now are things that take a long time to grow, like some of the flowers and herbs. Parsley takes a long time to get started.

VS: What else is growing in the entry area?

RG: I have a favorite type of broccoli called piracicaba broccoli, developed in Brazil at an agricultural school to be a good variety in the face of climate change. It is much more tolerant of high temperatures and shifts in conditions than most broccolis. It forms spears perfect for dipping or stir-frys, and doesn’t have the slight bitterness that broccoli rabe has. Little kids eat it raw right out of the garden — it’s very sweet. Starting your own seeds [means] that you can have favorites which are not common or everybody’s favorites. There are some crops [for which] I have not found my favorite yet.

VS: Give me an example.

RG: Red cherry tomatoes: I’ve grown a lot of good red ones, but haven’t found what I would consider a truly great red one for our conditions. I get a few new ones every year to try.

VS: What size is your personal garden? Has it been bigger some years and you decided you didn’t need that much growing?

RG: I either have to reduce it more or I have to reduce something else to give me more time to spend there. I want to plant acres of everything. It’s a balancing act.

VS: I know you have some very special blueberry bushes here from your grandmother that are about 100 years old.

RG: Yup, from about the ’30s or late ’20s. They each have a different personality, a different flavor, size, and color berry, because they’re all wild intermixes between blueberries and blackberries and huckleberries. Some years one bush will have more, some years another. There’s one bush that starts later than all the rest and goes further into the fall.

VS: Have you planted other fruit trees or fruit-bearing plants?

RG: I try to add a few new ones every year. I graft fruit trees as well.

VS: Have you ever led workshops in that?

RG: Yes, it’s sort of like cloning; it’s not the offspring of that tree, it’s an extension of that tree. If you have a favorite apple or pear tree, you can get it grafted and make younger trees, especially here on the Island because apple trees are very picky about their conditions, and not all varieties do well here.

VS: Can anyone call you for a consultation if they wanted to do this?

RG: Yes, but it’s actually too late for this year.

VS: What’s the optimum time to contact you?

RG: You need to decide in January; that’s when we cut the wood from the parent tree, and order the rootstocks. We actually do it in April, it’s a long-term process, but not that long-term in terms of growing a tree.

VS: They say this is the warmest winter on record.

RG: It feels like time to start everything now, though usually I don’t do it until mid-March, but you can’t go by the calendar. Dandelions are a very good indicator of soil temperature 6 to 10 inches down. When they start to bloom, that means the soil is warming up down there.

VS: So what do you do when the dandelions bloom?

RG: Plant potatoes.

VS: How many varieties of potatoes do you plant?

RG: There again I’ve been cutting back.

VS: What are your favorites right now?

RG: I think the hardiest solution is growing a variety, because each year is going to be different. I really like to have new potatoes of different colors roasted together; that’s one of my favorite dishes every year. I like the blue potatoes. We grew some last year that were pink inside, really flavorful, and you would love even if you had a blindfold on, plus they made interesting mashed potatoes. I’m very fond of a German potato that’s yellow called Carola. A good Carola on a good year is the best-flavored potato I’ve ever eaten. But they’re a little finicky, so I’m torn. They’re not easy, and I know I’m not always going to be up to date on picking the potato bugs off them, so I want good disease-resistant variety, but I also want to go for flavor.

VS: When you plant potatoes, are they mixed in the plot?

RG: I like to mix ’em. And where potatoes come from, like the indigenous people since prehistory, they tended to grow them in mixed patches and have very diverse genetics in their potatoes compared with what we grow.

VS: As far as your vegetables …

RG: One thing I’d like to say about the seedlings over there, because this is about Gardens of Love, is that I have Welsh ancestry, which I value, so one of my crops that I do for love is I raise leeks. They are the first thing that I start, around St. Bridget’s Day, an important Celtic holiday on Feb 2. Leeks are the national vegetable [or emblem] of Wales; I am able to grow some of the rare varieties, like an old French leek called Blue Solaise that has a lot of flavor; it’s tough. There’s an Italian one I’m experimenting with this year that I haven’t grown before called Porro D’Inverno, a good winter leek. I have a couple other heirloom varieties too.

VS: Are there other seeds you want to mention?

RG: I also start onions, and they’re similar. They spend a month being just like a little thread sticking out of seedless potting mix, and they have time to get to a size where they can compete with weeds before you put them out. That’s about what I have now, except for some herbs. I’ll be planting pretty much everything else soon. Like all the tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants, that’s sort of the bulk of the seedlings. When it’s almost all warm out is when you would start hot-weather crops like cucumbers and melons. They also like a nice warm start in the hoop house, but they need to be planted out just as soon as they get big enough, otherwise they’ll never get big.

VS: What about squash?

RG: Squash I usually plant right out in the garden, because it comes up really fast and doesn’t have to be weeded before it shows itself. Whereas things that take a long time to germinate, like carrots, parsley, you have to weed where you think you planted it.

VS: What about raspberries? I just want an overview of the fruits you have.

RG: I have raspberries and strawberries out in the garden under mulch, and they will sprout on their own. Every year I get to go out and dig up some babies to sell at our plant sale.

VS: You don’t really sell produce.

RG: We used to grow vegetables for market, and then I had a bad few years with Lyme disease and just wasn’t up to it. The first couple of years I got it all planted, and I couldn’t take care of it. It was very frustrating. I made the decision to stop trying to do that, and just try to grow for my household. That was a big relief. I still overplant for the household. Because we had so many nice gardens up and running that were fertile, organic, fenced with water, we turned them into community gardens.

VS: How many people avail themselves of the community garden? And is there room in the forthcoming season?

RG: Right now we have two families who have gardens here — repeat customers, so they have been able to cover their plot for the winter and come back to their same spot, which is really nice. We have an area we are considering opening up to further gardens; if there is interest, people can call me and we can see how that works out. There are also community garden opportunities for groups — if they’re really willing to commit, I would host gardens for special needs, or a group that wants to grow food for the homeless or hungry, or foods that would be preserved for the winter and given to the Food Pantry. There’s all kinds of things that can be done with community gardens that serve the community.

VS: Anything else you want to share that’s really important to you about your garden?

RG: Yes. My garden is one of the key factors in the improvement of my health.

VS: From Lyme?

RG: From several things. When I was younger, I was not as healthy as I am now. I had a struggle with depression, and then when I got Lyme, that made the depression worse, plus adding on a bunch of physical problems. The garden is one of my most powerful tools in combating all sorts of things that bring me down. It works in several ways that I recognize and several ways I don’t understand. One thing is that scientists recently discovered that when you touch dirt, it makes you happier. I can just go out there and sometimes I actually don’t accomplish anything; I just sit out there and pull a couple of weeds, eat a couple of leaves, and look at bees on flowers, and after a while I feel better. Other times I pull a few weeds and before you know I’ve done a whole row, I’m hungry, and I’ve forgotten what was bothering me. I find that even when I make all sorts of horrible mistakes, drop the ball, don’t weed anything, there’s still an amazing amount of food out there between the things that grow anyway, the edible weeds, and things that come back from last year, and the perennials. Even when I’m having a bad year as a gardener, the garden gives me a lot of food high in fiber, high in vitamins, full of vitality.

VS: It’s hard for me to imagine you not in a garden. At what age did you start gardening? Did you have a garden growing up?

RG: Yes, I was plopped in the garden in my diaper, I’m sure. My earliest memory of the Island is my grandmother handing me leaves, sitting in her garden, and saying, “Taste this.”

VS: How wonderful! And you are living on the same land your grandmother lived on, and get to have this very special connection.

RG: In Russia, I recently learned from one of my kvass ladies on Facebook, if you have plants your grandmother planted, that is supposed to give them special power. It’s supposed to amplify the power of herbs, for example. They call it an ancestral garden.

VS: This is a garden of love from the time you got here. Even though you may have had to clean things up and change things, they’re still things that have been ongoing for generations.

RG: Including having plant swaps and competitions amongst the neighbors. That’s been going on for generations, too, in a very fun way. We trade seeds and things, and might end up competing with each other in the fair.

VS; I hope this summer your garden will do that for you in many ways, giving you abundance.

RG: Thank you, and you too.

Plants for sale from Rebecca will be available on the porch of Native Earth Teaching Farm beginning in May through mid-June.

Tip from Rebecca: Keep paper wasps away from your house and greenhouse

You will need newspaper, balloons, and string. Blow up the balloon no bigger than a paper wasp nest, and using a flour paste, papier-mâché newspaper over the balloon with a string on the wider end, so you make what appears to be a paper wasp nest. Hang it point down. Wasps will see the fake nest hanging, and because they are territorial, they’ll think that place is already taken and move on. Rebecca says, “It works like a charm.”