In late June, photographer Lynn Christoffers introduced me to George Morgan on the ferry and suggested his garden for this column and I’m so glad she did. I grew up in Manhattan, and from the time I read “My Secret Garden” I would dream about gardens, something that was truly a rarity in my urban everyday. Though I was lucky to live within walking distance of Central Park, gardens have always had a magical hold on me.
George’s garden has many secrets. I visited him at the end of June and wished I could have stayed longer. His Island connection dates back to his mother’s childhood, enjoying family summers originally in West Chop, but with seven children her father decided to build a house in Chilmark in the 1920s. He bought 100 acres of grazing land, most still family-owned. George’s father was an archeologist and he grew up partly in Athens, Greece, living on the campus of the school his father ran, always returning to Chilmark in the summers. After George’s father took a teaching job at Amherst College the family continued to come for their summers. When his father served in the armed services, George’s mother drove them from Amherst “with a goat, a dog, and many cats all piled in the station wagon.” George has many fond memories of summers on-Island. He began working in the theater in New York City and came to the Island between jobs. He says, “My father was a great gardener and I picked up what little I know from him.”
His father put most of the family property into conservation. Before George built his home in 1997, he had a three-walled cabin for about 25 years and he wishes he still had it. George says,”I always liked gardening, the effort, the work, the soil.” He grows a few tomatoes but his gardens are primarily flower gardens with herbs growing in the back. There are clearly delineated garden “rooms” situated all around the property. George even has an outdoor sleeping room. When I ask about a tall pink flower he admits, “I’m color blind,” a fact I have to let sink in.
George says, “I think that’s an obedient plant,” also known as false dragonhead, with the flowers resembling snapdragons, a tough plant that can grow up to 48 inches, and high preferring full sun. I had to ask, “If you’re color blind, how did you choose which flowers to plant?” By this point George and I are both laughing and he answers, “By guess and by gosh.” George planted all the full-bodied rhododendrons edging his property, and they are clearly “very happy,” and healthily sheltered from ocean winds.
I ask about other flowers and since George is an unusual gardener, he can’t remember a single flower’s name. Each of the three garden rooms has clear walking paths of wood chips or crushed oyster shells. His home is constructed of American chestnut, and every garden room is framed by a section of his home. I am struck by the overall scale of his garden, which makes me feel like a child on a treasure hunt. Although the rhodies stand guard at the edges, most plants and flowers are below the knee. All the unique gates were handmade from salvaged wood by a woodworker who worked on his house. There is a purple weeping beech George adores, and I would agree that the slow-growing tree with draped branches makes a great centerpiece. He mixes potted plants and trees within and around his garden beds. He integrates architectural details, sculptures, salvaged objects, stone, shells, tiles, historical finds, fountains, and birdbaths throughout his magical garden rooms. You may be greeted by a sandstone lion brandishing a coat of arms or find yourself resting alongside a fountain and minimalist reflecting pool. “I should have fish in there,” George says, “but the raccoons will get them.”
When I asked how he picks out the flowers for his garden, he goes on to tell me: “Being color blind during World War II, they used us as spies because camouflage doesn’t fool us. We identify things by shape, not by color.”
“So what colors do you see?” I ask.
George answers, “I can see some green and I’m very good with yellow, which is why I have so much yellow in the garden.”
Each garden room feels as though you are time traveling. There are apple trees. He has a 21-year-old cat inherited from an old friend, appropriately named Kitty, who thoroughly enjoys the garden and is stretched out asleep in one green bed. “False lupine is my favorite plant in the world,” George tells me, “because when the wind blows it’s like moving candles.” In one garden room, there is a barrier of honeysuckle smelling divine, nearby is a spectacular clematis, straight back is a weeping hemlock — an interesting sculptural evergreen. George then points out an evening primrose, well-known for the medicinal uses of its oil. He has plenty of edible elegant nasturtiums, of which there are 80 or so species. All the herbs are growing in one garden room. Besides the apple trees, George also planted blackberries.
George can’t help but create a truly magical universe around him, each garden room a unique realm. He is an inventive and mysterious soul, with a gift for mixing the historical and the found into his own newly formed world.