Walking up to the front of Fae Kontje Gibbs’ Tisbury home is magical. The painted green ivy vine invites me to wander, take a gander through the thick of October’s welcoming greens and follow the willowy bamboo towering above me, a shaded path to the back yard. I met Fae at an event at William Waterway’s Katama home nearly a decade ago, and had even studied with the same printmaker in New York City in the ’70s and ’80s, but this was my first visit. Fae’s garden shares her history, waning and waxing with the fullness of Fae’s life. Time at home with family meant more garden time; time with art and acupuncture meant less garden time.
Fae has lived in her home for more than 34 years. “I planted four shoots of bamboo 34 years ago,” she says, “and pretty much everything you see, but the leggy forsythia. When my children were little, I had a giant garden, the whole back yard was garden except the very back, where the bittersweet and or Chinaberries ruled. The garden was full of vegetables and flowers. I was married to an Englishman, and he was a fabulous gardener, using [bentwood] to make an arbor for the peas to climb up. We had a beautiful brick circle full of herbs. When I went to acupuncture school in 1999, I did not have time, and neglected my raised bed. My son was 12, and my daughter was 20 and on her own. It was not an easy adjustment letting go of my raised beds, but then I said I’ll just enjoy my farm stand friends.” She goes on, “The trees had grown so big and [were] shading so much of the yard, and I had a vision of grandchildren. My daughter was about to get married, and I decided to make grass. And they came.”
When Fae begins to talk about specific plants, you can follow her history and her friendships, beginning with the blackberries, now thickets, given to her by friend Carolyn Kildegaard. The daisy chrysanthemums were from Ruth Van Doren. I’m surprised to learn “the morning glories are all volunteers at this point,” as they are trained up strings growing outside a shed. They started out as blue-plate, then became “intricate purple ones. They drop their seeds and reseed. This year I emptied all the dirt out of all the containers; I have a giant tub and [mix] it in pieces ’cause it’s not really big enough. I add Plant-tone, compost, manure, seaweedy things. I mix all these plant boosters in with the dirt, then I put in some Happy Frog or Coast of Maine.”
Fae reminisces, “My very first garden helpers were Tom and Lisa Engly, who came over before they even had kids. I watched them and got the stuff they told me to get, like peat moss, lime, composted manure. They fluffed and fluffed the dirt and said, ‘It’s like tossing a salad.’ That’s been in my mind ever since then. My friend Carol Kent, a jeweler, taught me ‘no guilt gardening.’ Whatever you’re doing is good, and there’s always going to be more to do. So now I get my Sun Gold tomatoes from Susie Middleton. I really love the plants I got from Middletown [Nursery] this year, like the gazanias, and the ones in the corner over there,” she says, pointing. “I don’t even know what they’re called, they’re tall and spiky, tiny pink dragons.”
Fae barely takes a breath and continues, “I actually researched shade this year. At Middletown they have a shade house, and I picked up a couple of coleus. Every year I had volunteer impatiens from a pink impatiens plant from one of my acupuncture patients, who gave it to me 20 years ago. It just kept self-seeding, and I would winter it over in my art studio. Then it would get gigantic and make babies, and this year it was finally done, so I got the new impatiens. Every year I have lots of nasturtiums; they’re just so beautiful, and I love them in salads.” In the front of the house, Fae planted lacecap and blue hydrangeas that “were a trade for acupuncture treatments many years ago.”
Gooseneck loosestrife was given to her by Terry Henley, “and now it’s all moved to giant patches in the back yard. My daylilies were from Barb Friedman of Fat Tony’s. She dumped them in a pile in this corner of the [yard]. I never did anything to them, and they just rooted themselves there and spread themselves around. Now they fill up the front corner, that whole side, and in the back they grow all around the apple tree planted for my son Max. All the lily of the valley were from my mother’s garden in New Hampshire — the farm where my dad grew up. I gave a patch to my daughter Reed, who lives about three blocks away, and she has them spreading around too.”
Fae tells me she is “assiduous about watering. Everybody gets watered every day, and talked to.” She has begun to bring potted plants in for the winter. The Cape Cod ivy in a pot on the stone mantel in her living room was in the house when she bought it. Fae explains, “The first time I visited this house was when I was sharing a job with Patrie Grace, and the Cape Cod ivy was growing right where it is. Three years later I was living directly across the street when this house came on the market.” Fae bought it, and the ivy is still happily growing in the original pot. The other thing Fae is adamant about is deadheading and keeping her plants “pretty.”
Besides tomatoes, apples, and “emperor berries,” Fae grows herbs she uses regularly — pineapple sage (which winters in her studio, and came from Susie Middleton), rosemary, lemon verbena, and basil. Fae tells me she makes a smoothie with “a couple of oranges, lots of basil, baby sassafras leaves which are lemony, pineapple sage, lemon thyme, lemon verbena, parsley, and basil, with a handful of baby spring-mix greens, some coconut water and ice. Sometimes I spice it up with ginger.” Sounds like I’ll have to give it a try. She also “made a coconut oil with the lemon thyme for [her] face,” and is “still using it a year later.” Last year she enjoyed growing cucumbers, kale, and yellow squash in pots, but no time this year, so she let the “pretty weeds” take over those pots. And she’s learning to play the piano.
The garden is a living, breathing, giving creative outlet of life for Fae and her family. Honoring our life cycles and letting our gardens change with the rhythms in our lives is an important lesson for all of us. I know Fae’s garden will continue to change annually while providing her artistic inspiration and culinary satisfaction.