Home & Garden

Red Mallow.

Abigail-HigginsThe sun is falling steadily lower in the sky. It signifies not summer’s end, but tells us that it is drawing nigh. This amazing season has given gardeners much to appreciate and be thankful for. The heat waves experienced elsewhere did not materialize, despite predictions, and there have been few Japanese beetles and mosquitoes. Nights have been cool. Rainfall has been sufficient and often at night.

Scene-stealers in the August garden are the hybrid hibiscus now in bloom. Those unfamiliar with the theatrical plants’ dinner-plate sized flowers and stature are literally stopped in their tracks by them. What a floral tour de force!

The question of the August garden has become more perplexing, with height-of-bloom times speeding up almost yearly: stars of high summer such as oriental lilies and some phlox cultivars are almost passé by the beginning of the month. Fortunately, hibiscus hybrids seem to have resisted this speeding-up process, and still reliably take center stage in mid-August.

According to “Herbaceous Perennial Plants,” Allan M. Armitage’s big book of perennials (Stipes Publishing LLC), many of the garden hybrids were bred from Hibiscus moscheutos (“mos-KEW-tas”) a North American native, along with other vigorous members of the genus. Islanders know the beautiful pink stands of them, along our brackish coves and salt ponds, as “marsh mallows.”

Hybrid hibiscus plants share the hardy nature of their wild ancestors and the brilliant colors of their tropical relatives. (Armitage mentions the outstanding work done by the three Fleming brothers of Lincoln, Nebraska, in this hybridizing.) Many are patented plants and not always available in small local nurseries, but finding and growing them is worth the effort for the show they put on. The color range is white through pinks/lavenders to red and beyond red, to an almost black; one, ‘Old Yella,’ is a buttery primrose.

Space them out

The heights of hardy hibiscus hybrids vary from compact to super-sized, but most require plenty of room and air space. Do not try to shoehorn a hardy hibiscus into that small blank space that “just cries out” to be filled. Hardy hibiscus hybrids prefer full sun and fertile, well-drained soil. They appreciate adequate moisture but, unlike our beautiful, Island “marsh mallow,” they do not need to be planted in a swamp! Figure two to three feet wide and about four feet high for spacing most, with some becoming one to two feet taller where happy.

Hibiscus plants are categorized as woody shrubs. They are one of the last perennials to break dormancy and emerge in the spring. In the gardens where we care for them, we leave the woody stems until next year’s growth is well up, to avoid disturbing new shoots by cultivating. These woody stems are sturdy enough to be pressed into service to support the current year’s growth, a sort of built-in, self-grown, staking system.

You may encourage sturdier, bushier growth by pinching hardy hibiscus when the shoots are about six to eight inches tall. They benefit from fertilization, but hold off after the third week of June, or you may encourage vegetative growth at the expense of blossoms. Excessive feeding by Japanese beetles or hibiscus sawfly may indicate plants that are stressed; step up efforts at soil improvement.

Turk’s cap lilies

An emblem of Island roadsides and quiet shaded spots in August, the turk’s cap lilies have shone in recent weeks. While there are some people whose aesthetic prevents them from welcoming these towers of elegant orange into their premises, most of us are enchanted with their bright presence, easiness, ability to reproduce and increase on their own, and general resistance to the red lily beetle. So I am dismayed to see that many — though not all — are suffering from browning and loss of lower leaves. Am hoping to learn the cause of this disfigurement.

In the garden

Check grafted trees and shrubs, such as roses, for suckers originating from below the graft union. If they are not removed, eventually the entire plant will revert to whatever species supplied the rootstock.

Watering is paramount now. The afternoon sun is especially hot. The sun’s wavelength shift towards the infrared causes solid matter to heat up and hold heat differently than when the wavelength is primarily ultraviolet. Pots and garden seedlings may need watering twice daily. Keep plants looking good with a liquid feed.

Lift and divide bearded iris. Choose young, strong sections of rhizome. Trim off foliage and roots by two thirds and one third, respectively, and replant about one foot apart, with rhizome just at soil level.

I have seeded beets, carrots, more zucchini ‘Romanesco,’ Swiss chard, sugar snap peas, radicchio, and Portuguese kale but could have done much more — nothing ventured, nothing gained. Continue to weed and cultivate in vegetable gardens. The uncultivated crust that forms accepts less water, including dew, than cultivated soil does. Reemay over my three seeded rows of carrots will, I hope, hold in the moisture the seedlings need to grow well and keep out the bunny that has wormed its way through my fencing.

Parts of well-established clematis vines have succumbed to clematis wilt in my garden, and in others too. It is always a disappointment: to go for years without wilt, and then, in an otherwise satisfying season, to have it appear — “for no good reason,” as we always say. (Well, there is a reason, probably, but it’s not apparent to the gardener.)

If there are empty spots in your vegetable garden, or if you are clearing it out preparatory to departure, mulch them or sow with a green manure (cover crop) of some sort. If nothing else, it occupies the space and prevents the blown-in seeds of weeds becoming established.

The Pedler house in West Tisbury is one of only one hundred certified passive homes in the US.

Daryl Owens, builder Farley Pedler and their daughter Kazmira at the kitchen counter/dining table of their new home.

Certified passive is not a psychological condition. It is the highest energy efficient standard used in home building today, according to Farley Pedler, owner of Farley Built, Inc. (formerly Drews Cove Builders). In May, Mr. Pedler, his wife, Daryl Owens, and their twenty-month-old daughter, Kazmira, moved into a finely appointed 800-square-foot, certified passive home he built on Doctor Fisher Road in West Tisbury. The home is one of one hundred certified passive homes in the United States.

“I have built seven homes on Martha’s Vineyard in the last couple of years that use energy efficient design and construction elements that far exceed the building code requirements,” Mr. Pedler said. “But our house is more energy efficient than any of those.”

Few cost saving measures were used in the modern looking interior of the architect-designed house. Mr. Pedler said the house would cost over $400,000 if he hadn’t built the house himself. He said the energy efficient aspects of the house added about ten to fifteen percent to the total cost.

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The Pedler’s new certified passive house has a fifteen foot high interior peak giving it a sense of being larger than its 800 square feet of floor space. — Photo courtesy Steven Baczek

The Pedler house has a large multipurpose room that incorporates a living room, kitchen, and dining area with a half bath. There is an expanse of windows on the south side, facing a large yard of new grass and woods beyond. The bedroom is a separate room with a full bath that takes up about a third of the total floor space. There is a loft area above the bedroom. The mechanicals are in the full, partially finished basement along with laundry and storage areas.

The house uses a energy recovery ventilator that is connected to a geothermal system. Tubing buried around the perimeter of the house maintains a constant exchange of air with little heat loss, but also conditions the air by removing excess moisture. The heating requirements for the house, even in the dead of winter, are so minimal that a water source heat pump designed to heat a small boat was used.

Mr. Pedler said that he expects to incur only about $1,600 in total energy expenses per year in the new house, while the owner of a conventional built house its size could expect to spend at least $4,000.

The house is wired and plumbed for solar panels that Mr. Pedler said he plans to add in the future. The panels could produce more energy than the house uses, eliminating energy costs.

A passive energy efficient home is built to optimize heat gain in the winter by locating the building so that the windows allow the most amount of sunlight possible. It is super-insulated to retain that heat for as long as possible. In the summer, when the sun is higher in the sky, less sunlight hits the windows and an awning system will be used to block the sun and keep the building cool.

To be certified passive, a house must meet standards set by the non-profit Passive House Institute US (PHIUS), a national organization committed to making high-performance passive building the mainstream market standard. “Only about 100 houses have been certified to date in the United States, and there are at least that many now under construction,” Michael Knezovich, PHIUS director of communications, told The Times.

Mr. Knezovich said PHIUS uses standards first developed in Germany, where thousands of houses have met the stringent requirements. They also use a German computer-modeling program to determine the design’s passive capabilities before construction begins.

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The upstairs loft of the house. — Photo courtesy Steven Baczek

In order to achieve the certified rating, Mr. Pedler was required to hire a PHIUS certified consultant who helped guide the process from design through construction, and a third party PHIUS certified inspector who made multiple inspections during the course of construction. The house plans had to meet minimum standards when cranked through the computer-modeling program. Four blower door tests, where a large exhaust fan is used to detect leaks, were conducted to test the efficiency of the construction at key points during construction.

Mr. Pedler hired an architect with certified passive design experience, Steven Baczek of Reading, who is now working on his fifth certified passive home design. Mr. Baczek told The Times, ”Mr. Pedler’s house is an energy efficient house on steroids.” He said there are four major areas of concern when designing passive homes that breed success or failure: the mechanical elements and materials, air sealing, windows and doors, and insulation.

Mr. Baczek said that meeting with the building team before the design is complete is an important step in getting everyone on the same page. “We try to keep our window of heat loss for the entire project to less than the size of a playing card. Any mistake during construction can open that window.” He said that he hopes his designs will not only help set a new standard for energy efficiency, but will produce homes that will still be relevant in 150 years.

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The house’s southern exposure has the most glass to increase the solar heat gain in the winter. The lower walls are 20 inches thick and filled with insulation. — Photo courtesy Steven Baczek

The Pedler family wanted to buy land in Chilmark, where they rented for four years, but real estate in Chilmark was more than they could afford, so they settled on four plus acres just north of the West Tisbury school in West Tisbury. “Our new house will become our guest house when we win the lottery and build our big house,” Mr. Pedler said, half joking. He said for him, the new house is as much a learning exercise for the future main house as it is a place for them to live. He hopes to begin on the main house in a couple of years.

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The chickens scratch up everything outside the bricked-in herb gardens, weeding and fertilizing as they go.

The huge oak that was the centerpiece of our Chappaquiddick front yard died from a gall wasp infestation a couple of years ago. The house was sited to be near this tree that was magnificent, even in its youth. It shaded our house and yard for 40 summers, and it held our children and friends’ children in its branches for the photos that show them growing older year by year. It was a hard loss to accept, but as a 17th century Japanese poet wrote: “The barn’s burnt down… now I can see the moon.” With the oak gone, our yard has entered a period of slow but exhilarating transformation.

The stump of the huge oak that once shaded the Chappaquiddick lawn.

The stump of the huge oak that once shaded the Chappaquiddick lawn. — Lily K. Morris

The biggest change was the amount of sunlight filling the yard. Some plants seemed happy with this, like the lilacs and shad that had been shaded for years by the oak’s long reach. Much more sun fell on the vegetables growing in the fenced garden, but large patches of the grass and moss that made up our lawn started dying. It didn’t take long for things to look pretty shabby. I was still mourning the oak when a visit to Island gardener Pat Brown’s yard last summer got me thinking more creatively about ours. His front yard is filled with vegetables, flowers, fruit trees, and vines, making a pleasant and riotously vibrant jungle of vegetation between the driveway and the front steps. I realized that while I like a bit of lawn, vegetables are much more interesting, and I’d rather grow food.

Since we didn’t want to fence in the whole yard — to deal with the deer, and occasional goat escapees — I decided to try to plant things they don’t like to eat. I’m not sure if there’s such a thing as a deer-proof plant, but from my years of gardening, I know there are some things they’re less likely to eat, for example, wild arugula, garlic, some herbs, and maybe raspberries. The challenge, though, was how to turn our sandy, rock-hard soil full of oak tree roots into a bed loose and fertile enough to plant anything.

Last July, I laid cardboard on the mostly dead grass next to the front wall of the house, between the chicken patio — so named because our chickens like to sun themselves there — and the front steps. I covered the cardboard with layers of hay from goat bedding and seaweed. Then I lay boards across it to keep the chickens from strewing it everywhere in their search for worms. By October, the soil was soft enough to dig up, and I transplanted herbs from my fenced garden. I surrounded each plant with old bricks to keep the chickens from digging it up. The chickens scratch up everything in between, weeding and fertilizing as they go.

Some plants in the old flower bed outside the fenced garden always get eaten by deer or rabbits, while others, like daffodils, are never bothered. In the fall, I moved the vulnerable plants inside the garden, and transferred a couple hundred daffodils to the edges of the yard, where I figured they could fend for themselves. In the newly freed up bed, I transplanted some raspberries suckers from the canes I’d dug  into a vegetable bed “temporarily” – about four years ago. I’m not sure if raspberries are on the deer’s list of likely edibles, but I’ll find out! Next to that bed, I laid some more layers of cardboard, hay, and seaweed, topped by dead oak branches for chicken protection, for future expansion. I cleaned out another old flower bed, added some compost, and planted garlic there. Next to it I added some more “lasagna” layers to widen it, too, after the cardboard and hay rots.

During this period of transformation, I heard about hugelkulture, a kind of raised bed made by piling up logs and other woody debris, and adding a layer of soil on top into which the plants are added. Permaculturists use it because its woody debris holds water and slowly releases nutrients over many years as the wood rots. It’s a good way to clean up the yard as well as add a growing bed without the work of digging. A good article on the Web is found at:  http://www.permaculture.co.uk/articles/many-benefits-hugelkultur.

I think it’s best to let the hugelkutlture pile settle for at least a few months, but I didn’t bother. Our yard had several piles of rotting logs from trees we’d taken down, and a pile of old fire wood from before we converted to a pellet stove. In the fall, I piled some of these up, added some goat bedding, dried stalks from the garden, and topped it with little dirt here and there. Into it I transplanted some gooseberries suckers, which are nice and thorny and so maybe deer-proof, a few poke and dandelion roots — weeds that I like to eat — and a couple of flowering bushes.

Unfortunately, our yard’s biggest crop in recent years has been voles. Last summer they ate every single green bean I planted, many tomatoes, potatoes, etc. Well, it seems that while I thought I’d built a hugelkulture mound, the voles were busy converting it into a vole condo. Tunnels appeared everywhere, and by spring, all the plants but the gooseberries were gone. Gardening is nothing if not full of disappointment and constant learning experiences!

In the spring, when I was ready to plant another hugelkulture bed that I’d made around the base of the big oak stump, I decided the plants needed to be vole-proof as well as deer and goat-proof. I have a small arugula business, so I was glad to have an extra area to put these plants that seem to be eaten only by humans. I transplanted about 50 from where they had seeded themselves in my fenced garden. They look happy enough so far.

Grass has its uses, such as at the edges of the yard where it can be mowed to limit the sassafras, honeysuckle, and bittersweet vines always invading from the surrounding woods. It’s also nice to walk on from one place to another, and to look at — where it’s growing really well. When I spent summers on Chappy as a kid, I don’t remember people having lawns. There was a little grass around the houses that got mowed at the beginning of the summer. Flower beds were rare, too. People were more interested in being at the beach or out on the water than taking care of a yard. That was before landscapers were doing the work. I like grass, but I see no reason to work at growing it where it clearly has decided it doesn’t want to grow — there are so many more interesting plants than grass!

Tina Miller's herbed potato salad.

Summer’s finally here, and after a very long winter (and spring.) spent warming ourselves and our food over hot stoves, it’s pretty nice to look forward to cool dishes we don’t have to cook. These are all great salads to make for company on the Vineyard. They can accompany anything — barbeque, luncheons, dinner for your family or just a treat for yourself.

quinoa.jpgQuinoa Salad with Black Beans, Corn and Edamame

Serves 8

You can be flexible with the dressing: if you don’t have cumin, just use chili powder or try adding a bit of cayenne for additional heat if you like it spicy. Dress the salad just before eating. The quinoa will absorb dressing as it sits, so you can add more lemon or lime juice as desired. This recipe makes enough for a crowd or can easily be cut in half. (Recipe from “Soups + Sides,” by Catherine Walthers.)

1 1/2 cups quinoa, rinsed well and drained

2 1/4 cups water

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup frozen edamame beans, without the pod

Kernels from 2 ears fresh corn (approximately 1 cup)

1 cup canned black beans, rinsed in hot water

1 red pepper, roasted, peeled, and diced

1/2 to 1 cup cilantro leaves, washed well, spun dry and loosely chopped

Dressing:  6 tablespoons fresh lime juice

6 tablespoons olive oil

1 garlic clove, finely minced

1/2 teaspoon each chili powder and ground cumin

3/4 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste

1.  Place the quinoa, water, and 1/2 teaspoon salt in a saucepan. Bring  to a boil, reduce heat, cover and cook on low for 13 to 15 minutes, until water is absorbed. Turn off heat and let rest for 10 minutes.  Fluff with fork, add to a large bowl and cool to room temperature.

2.  Bring another saucepan with water to a boil. Add edamame and boil for 2 minutes and then add corn, and continue boiling for 2 minutes longer. Drain the edamame and corn and run under cold water to stop the cooking and keep the color. Roast the red pepper. Add corn, edamame, red pepper and black beans to the quinoa.

3.  In a small bowl, whisk together the lime juice, olive oil, garlic, chili powder, cumin, and salt. When ready to serve, pour dressing over quinoa and vegetables and toss  gently to combine all ingredients.  Add cilantro and mix gently. Taste and add more salt and citrus if necessary.  Serve at room temperature.

Herbed Potato Salad

Serves 6

New potatoes are just young potatoes — they’re harvested early and are small in size. They are very sweet and tender, and do not need peeling, which makes them perfect for potato salad. This salad is made with a Dijon vinaigrette, and is best when it’s served warm or at room temperature. (Recipe adapted from “Vineyard Harvest: A Year of Good Food on Martha’s Vineyard” by Tina Miller.)

2 pounds new potatoes, such as fingerling, red, and/or purple

Dijon Vinaigrette

2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

1/4 cup olive oil

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

Salt and pepper

2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill

1. In a small bowl, whisk the vinegar, oil, mustard, and salt and pepper to taste, then add the chopped herbs.

2. Fill a large pot with cold water, add the potatoes and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and cook, uncovered, for 10 to 15 minutes, depending on the size of the potatoes, until they are tender and can be easily pierced with a knife. Remove pot from heat; drain. Set potatoes aside and let them cool just enough to handle, about 5 minutes. Slice the warm potatoes in half and place them in a serving bowl. Gently toss with the vinaigrette before serving.

Summer Peach and Baby Kale Salad

salad-square.jpgServes 4

This 3-ingredient salad is nice for company, especially with flavorful juicy peaches. Baby kale is available weekly at the West Tisbury Farmers Market and at Cronig’s. The salad also features fresh mozzarella marinated in lemon, garlic and basil. The marinade/dressing, along with the mozzarella, is then poured over the baby kale and sliced peaches. Easy and delicious. (Recipe from “Kale, Glorious Kale” by Catherine Walthers, coming out in August.)

5 to 6 cups baby kale, long stems removed, rinsed and spun dry

1 large or 2 medium juicy, ripe peaches (or nectarines)

1 (8-ounce) container small, fresh mozzarella balls, cut in half or quarters

Lemon Basil Marinade/Dressing

1 teaspoon lemon zest

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

4 tablespoons olive oil

1 garlic clove, finely minced

1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes

2 pinches kosher salt and black pepper

6-8 basil leaves, cut into thin slices

Make the marinade/dressing in a medium bowl by combining the zest, lemon, olive oil, garlic, red pepper flakes, salt and pepper.

Add the basil and mozzarella and let sit for 10-15 minutes (longer is okay too).

Place the baby kale in a wide salad bowl. Just before serving, pour the mozzarella and all the marinade dressing onto the kale salad and toss gently with tongs. Peel and slice the peaches, fairly thinly. (Nectarines don’t usually need to be peeled.) Add to the salad, and serve immediately.

Catherine Walthers is a private chef and the author of “Raising the Salad Bar,” “Soups + Sides,” and the upcoming “Kale, Glorious Kale,” all with photographs by Alison Shaw.

Crabgrass can creep over an entire lawn...but is that a bad thing?

Late June has come and Vineyarders, when they’re not madly serving the tourist economy, are snoozing in hammocks, hurling Frisbees, tending barbeques, and enjoying countless other recreational activities on the surface where summer fun gets done: the ubiquitous lawn. It’s about this time of year you may find something has begun to creep in amongst your precious blades of fescue, something pale and sinister. (Cue John Williams’ infamous two note progression). You may think it’s a trick of the light. Not your lawn! You baby your lawn. (Let’s hear that two note progression again). You take another look. One, just one — you reach down to rip it out. (Two-note progression with a little more tempo). Oh, it seems connected to another. That seems connected to — (let’s have maximum tempo) — dozens, no scores, of little green octopi. You, friend, are in the midst of a crabgrass invasion.

Of the two major theories on how crabgrass, an immigrant from the old world, came to our shores, the government introduction theory is fuzziest, as it seems to lack verifiable documentation. It purports that in the mid 19th century, prior to the establishment of the United States Department of Agriculture, the United States Patent Office imported crabgrass for use as a forage plant for livestock. The other theory is that crabgrass seeds contaminated one or more shipments of grain to England in the 19th Century. After it flourished there, it somehow leapt to North and South America.

However it arrived, crabgrass is now found in every US state except Alaska. Whether or not it was a forage plant well over a century ago, it certainly is now. As dismaying as it might sound, you can buy crabgrass seed in bulk. For the homeowner, such a purchase might seem like a prelude to madness. But for the rancher, a grass that’s packed with nutrition and flourishes in poor soils is smart choice.

In other parts of the world, particularly Africa, crabgrass is a food crop. In the late 20th Century, an engineer from Senegal named Sanoussi DiaKite developed a husking machine for a variety of African crabgrass called fonio. The previous method of husking had been tedious manual labor. Once husked, the fonio seeds, which happen to be gluten free, can be made into pasta, bread, porridge, beer, or couscous. So the next time you find yourself in certain regions of Africa, you can have sweet revenge on an old enemy by simply devouring it. Look at your lawn long enough and it may be motivation enough to plan a trip.

Here on the Vineyard, where the linguini potential of crabgrass has yet to be tapped (take note entrepreneurs), battles for homogeneous turf are ever-raging. What many homeowners may not know is that the enemy has almost certainly established a beachhead the preceding year. The two crabgrasses rife on the Island, large or hairy crabgrass (digitaria sanguinalis) and smooth crabgrass (digitaria ciliaris) can sew up one-hundred and fifty-thousand seeds per plant. According to the Penn State Extension, since crabgrass grows quite low — lower than your mower blade can safely cut — if upper growth is mowed off repeatedly, a single grass could produce two or three crops in a season (up to four-hundred and fifty-thousand seeds). In the decade of chemical innocence following the Second World War, cuddly compounds like potassium cyanate, and even tear gas, were used to sterilize crabgrass seed in residential lawns. Today, there are saner chemical controls. Like many nurseries and garden centers on the Island, Vineyard Gardens in West Tisbury sells many of them.

“Our best selling lawn product would have to be Jonathan Green crabgrass preventer,”  said Laura Stone, nursery manager at Vineyard Gardens. “No one likes crabgrass. We have one for established lawns, and another you can put down when seeding a new lawn.” For those who are chemical shy, skip Cross Fit for the week and slip on those gardening gloves to remove crabgrass manually. A rainy day is best as the grass pulls easier. Pulling must be repeated for several years in order to work, however. A single grass can bring you back to square one. If you’re planting a new lawn, and the area is small enough, consider solarizing the area by covering the soil with clear plastic, nuking seeds that may be hiding in there. Wait for the window between late August to the first day of October if you want a new lawn and fear old crabby. According to Thomas Kowalsick of the Cornell Cooperative Extension, grass grown at that time, when property selected and fertilized, will mesh densely and make penetration by crabgrasses more difficult.

If you do find yourself harboring more crabgrass than traditional turf, there are likely support groups available. In lieu of attending one, you can take solace in crabgrass’s ability to help hide all your dandelions, chickweed, and clover.

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Rain barrels collect rain that would otherwise be wasted, and provide water for thirsty plants, in an environmentally friendly way.

In the coming months, hot sunny days are likely to outnumber rainy ones. Plants and gardens around the Island will suffer if they don’t get the water they require, but water pumped from coastal ponds can be expensive, not to mention harmful to the Island’s natural resources. The Lagoon Pond Association (LPA) offers a solution to keep your plants thriving in an environmentally friendly way year-round: the Ivy Rain Barrel Program.

Rain barrels are large plastic containers that connect via downspouts to the exterior of a house, preferably near a garden. The LPA lists the following reasons as the top 5 for rain barrel use:

1.To protect rivers, streams, and ponds from runoff pollution

2.To divert water from the municipal storm drain system

3.To conserve a vital natural resource and reduce water bills

4.To use the nitrogen-rich rain water to grow healthy and lush plants

5.To control moisture levels around the foundation of your home

The 42’’H x 22’W x 18’’ L Ivy Rain Barrel, which is made from recycled plastic, sports a child- and bug-proof lid and holds up to 50 gallons of water. Valves toward the barrels’ underside can be fastened to hoses and irrigation drip systems, allowing for immediate reuse of the water collected during a storm that would otherwise soak into groundwater and cause nitrogen levels, and therefore algae, in local ponds to increase.

Ivy barrels, $81, are available for purchase at the Tisbury Farm Market or Middletown Nursery on State Road. For more information visit www.rainbarrel.org/lagoonpond.

Not too big, not too small…

In the home of Anna Edey, tendrils and blossoms fill the air with fragrance.

No two people are alike in their sense of the perfect-sized home. And over a lifetime, our needs change as families expand, then shrink. Sometimes the waist-band of a home is let out once again as an elderly parent is taken in or a post-graduate needs time to explore new options.

These days, for so many of us concerned about our poor besieged planet, our priorities have shifted from showing off to maintaining a decent, honorable, non-glacier-melting carbon footprint. This too dictates our sense of what defines a Just Right House.

The Too Big House — the trophy homes that dot our Island — are on their way, let us hope, to being sneered out of existence, much the way the seaside mansions of Newport, Rhode Island’s, gilded age were derided as white elephants.

On the other end of the house-sizing spectrum these days, an idealistic movement is afoot to patch together — usually it’s a DIY job — a house so conveniently tiny, one can place it on the back of a flatbed truck and move cross-country with it. This only works for individuals with zero degrees of claustrophobia, and this narrows (no pun intended!) the field considerably, although hats off to anybody giving it a try.

Three sets of householders on Martha’s Vineyard, out of a wide population of people who’ve found similar satisfaction here, shared their Just Right homes with the MV Times this month.

Anna Edey wanted to live in a greenhouse

The iconic Anna Edey, pioneer in the Island’s long march towards organic gardening with her greenhouse, Solviva, built her house on an expanse of dewy emerald acres in West Tisbury in 1980. She raised two daughters here, both of whom come back for visits with their children and, all the while, the home has breathed in and out around the original chatelaine without an inch of its indoor space being wasted.

The absolute miracle of this enchanting warren of skylit rooms is its total sustainability from solar panels to composting toilets.

The absolute miracle of this enchanting warren of skylit rooms is its total sustainability from solar panels to composting toilets. — Photo by Michael Cummo

“I especially wanted to live in a greenhouse,” she says under the pale morning light of a ceiling-length skylight. Indeed, everywhere one looks, tendrils and blossoms fill the air with spring fragrance. Originally she’d needed to prove she could grow fruits and vegetables indoors. “For four years I had the most persistent tomato plants, big around as tree trunks. There were avocado branches pressed up against the skylight as if they had fists trying to break higher. It was crazy!”

Eventually the cultivation of food transferred to the Solviva greenhouse on the acreage below. Nowadays Ms. Edey grows only flowers and herbs in her home. Her favorite spot is a claw-foot tub set into the far corner of her narrow solarium in an Eden’s bower of geraniums and begonias. The Swedish weaver has a positive libido for color and aesthetics and every cranny holds something exquisite — a rose-hued Tiffany lamp, a copper bowl of salmon-pink roses, paintings, stacks of coffee table books, and vibrant Persian tribal rugs strewn over hardwood floors.

Ms. Edey has added a studio and an office, but the domestic sphere by itself factors down to a cosy 1,500 square feet. The absolute miracle of this enchanting warren of skylit rooms is its total sustainability, from solar panels to composting toilets with a filtration system, to her beloved Nissan LEAF which she tops off herself at home.

And let us not end this discussion here: For more fascinating information on this way of life, pick up a copy of Ms. Edey’s book “Green Light At The End Of The Tunnel: Learning The Art of Living Well Without Causing Harm To Our Planet And Ourselves.” Included are designs for similar sanctuaries (as Ms. Edey calls them) of 600 to 800 square foot patterns.

Tom and Jaye Shelby wanted a just-right life

Jaye and Tom Shelby (aka The Dogfather) bought a snug house in the Campground with just enough room for them (and their dogs).

Jaye and Tom Shelby (aka The Dogfather) bought a snug house in the Campground with just enough room for them (and their dogs). — Photo by Michael Cummo

Educator Jaye Shelby and Tom Shelby (aka The Dogfather), with an empty nest in Manhattan and Rockland County after their three grown kids followed their bliss to other corners of the country, purchased a small Victorian cottage at the western edge of the Campground in Oak Bluffs.

“We bought it for the view,” says Mr. Shelby. Who wouldn’t? The two-bedroom cottage faces Sunset Lake across the street, with the commanding vista of Squash Meadow rising high and green beyond it. Adjust your head a mere 20 degrees and you’re staring at the glittering sweep of the Oak Bluffs harbor, arguably one of the world’s most alluring seaports.

Typically, the cottage had declined for decades in the hands of an elderly lady, a situation more congenial to cars than houses. Mr. Shelby explains, “It was falling apart. We had to open it out, insulate it, put in heating, rip out the orange shag carpeting — like that.”

Similar to Anna Edey’s house, the Shelby manse expands and contracts as needed for company. A small downstairs guest room is snugged up against the front parlor. Should all the Shelby crew come for a family reunion — grown kids, significant others, and significant pets as well — then the two upstairs offices — what the Shelbys call their “man cave” and “girl cave” have sofas that fold out to beds. At the rear of this upstairs second floor, Jaye & Tom have their master bedroom under a fairy tale steepled roofline.

An upstairs balcony and a downstairs porch, crammed with wicker rocking chairs, keep the ever-loving view in focus.

And there’s another element of this Just Right House: No mortgage. Tom and Jaye love to travel and, in fact, when you’re friends when them, it’s hard to catch them between trips to the Galapagos, the Turks and Caicos and, this month, the midnight sun of Iceland.

Hmm, must be a connection between the Just Right House and the Just Right Life?

Paul Mohair downsized year-round

Paul Mohair in his downsized kitchen.

Paul Mohair in his downsized kitchen. — Photo by Michael Cummo

New Jersey lawyer Paul Mohair, now director of Edgartown Council On Aging, has lived in houses big and small. His first house here, while not a trophy home, was nonetheless a glam spread, off Tea Lane Road in Chilmark. In the classic year-round Vineyard ritual, he made his nut by renting it out in the summer, and luxuriating in its spacious rooms during the off season.

In the last few years Mr. Mohair decided to settle more organically into Vineyard life. He sold the Chilmark home and took the hugely satisfying COA job. The transition was made smooth by the adorable two-story cottage he found off a rural road in West Tisbury; close to the business district, yet “private and quiet” — his top priorities.

Sometimes a dwelling is designed with perfect feng shui, calculated or otherwise. The cottage is set back from a minimally-landscaped front yard, and a commodious stone patio behind for all of one’s entertaining needs. Indoors the small living space is divided by a long deep gourmet-friendly kitchen, a dining area to seat up to eight people, and a nook with over-stuffed cushions around a low coffee table. The single bathroom is sited downstairs, along with a bedroom.

The piece de resistance lies up a spiral staircase: a second-floor turret room with windows open to every point of the compass. Full disclosure: I lived here myself in the spring of 2010, and I did more writing, reading, meditating, wind-watching and star-gazing from this room than I’d done in the whole of my 23 years of living on the Vineyard (a slight exaggeration, but you get the idea; this room is a creativity-incubator).

Does Mr. Mohair use this tower room for dream-weaving?

Not so much; he’s an outdoor guy, in the sun and rain pedaling his bike the 12 miles into his office in Edgartown (“It’s 8 miles to my girlfriend’s house,” he cheerfully adds.) And what does he do on his days of leisure, you might ask? He makes a concerted effort to cycle 40 miles a day.

Still, the house perfectly suits his own requirements for privacy, charm, comfort and, ah, that quintessential, sublime sense of being home.

The wooden bowls of Jeremiah Brown.

Talk to someone in construction about the properties of different types of wood and they’re likely to comment on things like weight, density and endurance. Talk to someone who creates art with wood and you’re likely to get a completely different story.

When selecting tree trunks and branches for use in lathe projects, woodworkers invariably look for interesting patterns and variation in color. You’ll hear them enthuse about the grain a lot. It’s what can be found once you look beyond the surface that interests a woodworker. The things that reveal themselves once an artisan starts turning a hunk of wood is all part of the process of creation.

Luckily for those who love the look of natural wood, there are a handful of Vineyard woodworkers creating unique bowls, platters and vessels which show off both the artist’s skill and imagination, and the beauty that nature herself has wrought throughout the life of a tree.

Fred Hancock has a shed and a basement full of logs. He creates beautiful, unique wooden bowls and lidded containers using a variety of wood species. Part of the process involves preparing the wood which can only be accomplished with time. “Wood has to dry or season,” says Mr. Hancock. “It takes a lot of time and trouble.  If it’s not seasoned first, the piece can crack or warp as it dries.”

Hunks of wood make their way from the woodshed to the basement where Mr. Hancock keeps a dehumidifier for finishing the drying process.

He gets much of his wood from felled tree woodpiles and from a local lumberyard. Other pieces come from friends off Island who know of his hobby and from ebay, where Mr. Hancock sometimes finds exotic woods or unusually patterned pieces.

The wood itself often dictates the finished product. “The interesting thing is you can have an idea when you start working on a piece of wood. Then as you start turning it you see different things in the grain and the way it feels. You might just change what your intent was as you take it down.”

Many of Mr. Hancock’s pieces end up on bookshelves and end tables, as opposed to in the kitchen.

“For a lot of the work it’s really used more as a piece of art and less as an object of utility.”

Wooden Bowls.jpgTom Lowe finds inspiration not only from the wood, but also from other natural sources. “A lot of my inspiration comes from organic ocean shapes,” he says. Mr. Lowe’s designs include bowls in the shapes of scallop and clam shells. Other more abstract pieces benefit from interesting curvilinear shapes. Mr. Lowe also creates unique vertical sculptures, some with the ruffled, ribbonlike look of a variety of seaweed found on the Vineyard. Like Mr. Hancock, Mr. Lowe has a fascination with the mathematical properties of wood grain. He talks a lot about crotch wood – the area where a branch joins the trunk – and effect of the confluence of patterns.

Mr. Lowe finds his woodworking to be a very collaborative process between material and creation. “It’s amazing to see that with some of these types of wood just a slight curve coming up the side really brings up the grain.”

The former wooden sign maker uses power tools in a variety of ways to create his work. He is always experimenting with different techniques to increase his efficiency and keep his work affordable. But, despite any time saving methods, patience is still key to any woodworking project. The seasoning and finishing are all important parts of the process. “I get locked in to seven months where I have to baby all these bowls,” says Mr. Lowe.

Mr. Lowe lives in Virginia in the winter but will be spending summers on the Vineyard, where he hopes to eventually relocate full time. His work can be found at the Tuesday Featherstone Flea Market and on Wednesdays and Saturdays at the Chilmark Flea. Pieces sell from $16 for a spreader to $2000 for a large sculpture.

West creates his bowls from scavenged wood.

Brown creates his bowls from scavenged wood. — Photo by Kristofer Rabasca

Jeremiah Brown came into woodworking through his job as a landscaper, where he was introduced to different types of wood. He scavenges chunks from firewood piles and asks woodworkers for leftovers. Many of his bowls are constructed from multiple scraps of wood which he laboriously grooves together to create patterns. Using more than one type of wood for a piece requires a good deal of time and skill.

Mr. Brown considers his artwork a hobby as opposed to a profession and says that keeping his work affordable would not be possible if he was actually charging according to the amount of work involved. The payoff comes from the pleasure of creating. “It’s more a labor of love than for money.”

“I look for anything with variegated patterns. I love the burls – the stuff that’s hard to find. I never have a plan until I put the lumber on the lathe.”

Mr. Brown showed a dozen bowls at the Family Planning show earlier this month and sold out very quickly. He will be selling his work this summer at the weekly August Art Shows at Vineyard Gardens where he works.

Paul Adler

Paul Adler — Photo by Michael Cummo

Alternative energy generation on Martha’s Vineyard has been confined primarily to windmills and stationary solar panels.

West Tisbury builder Paul Adler researched the latest innovations in solar technology and chose to install two fully automatic devices mounted on separate posts that use computers and motors to keep them pointing directly at the sun.

The systems sit on Mr. Adler’s grassy, landscaped, south-facing hillside front yard, above his design-award winning tennis court, and give the appearance of a set from a James Bond movie. Mr. Adler says the two systems are among the most advanced systems on the Island.

One is a 15-foot-diameter reflective parabolic dish that he installed three years ago. It sits atop a 12-foot post supported by a concrete footing 3 feet square and 9 feet deep. The dish concentrates the sun’s energy on a small box and generates temperatures of up to 1,500 degrees. It heats water circulating through a radiator in the box to about 200 degrees, providing all of his hot water needs for his home and his swimming pool.

The second system is a 22- by 24-foot array of photovoltaic panels, mounted on a similar post with a similar footing, that tracks the sun on two axes. Mr. Adler said that it was designed as a commercial system and he was told by the manufacturer that his was the first in the state.

“I feel the tracking principle is paramount,” he said. “I am able to gain an extra 30 to 40 percent more sun hours than with any stationary panel system.” He said they are ideal for small locations like his, without a lot of land, for a large array of panels.

“The solar panels produce all of my monthly electrical needs, which cost me almost $300 before and I sell almost $200 of electricity per month. That’s a $500 per month savings,” he said. The installation cost $28,000. A combination of state and federal tax credits brought the out-of-pocket cost down below $18,000 so he expects to have it paid for in about three years.

“The results are stunning,” Mr. Adler said. So stunning that he received a letter from the Massachusetts CEC (Clean Energy Center) suggesting he was cheating, that his system could not be producing as much as he was claiming. The CEC is a state run office that manages the program that tracks and pays for solar energy credits. Mr. Adler provided proof that his system was providing 40 percent more electricity than the CEC expected and he was exonerated.

Mr. Adler said the payback period for active solar was too long to be worth the investment, until recently. “If a clean energy system can pay for itself in seven years or less, it becomes viable and marketable,” he said. “In the recent past, the average life of active systems was 10 to 14 years, and the payback period was 10 to 20 years. When the system paid for itself, it was time to replace it.” He said that active systems today have a life expectancy of 20 to 25 years, and cost half as much as the older systems and, with government rebate programs, the payback can be from two to seven years.

Mr. Adler said that his interest in alternative energy began as a student at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in the late 1960s. “I have incorporated passive energy saving concepts into houses I have built for several decades,” he said. “My first active alternative energy project was a large water heating panel array I installed to heat the water in my swimming pool.” He replaced that system with the concentrator.

Mr. Adler, who has a distribution arrangement with the manufacturer of the solar concentrator, has sold several to foreign countries. “It’s ironic; the biggest buyers of the concentrators are the middle-eastern countries, who have the most oil,” he said. “They claim they want to conserve their oil by using solar energy, and then sell their oil to us westerners for high profits. It sure makes you wonder about our energy policy when Arabs are buying our energy products.”

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The Emily Post House in Edgartown has an old-fashioned cottage garden.

Gardening is easy. For gardeners. For the rest of us — a plot overflowing with flowers, or a bed full of tomatoes come summer  (or, let’s face it — even a few shrubs around the foundation) is, well, like some far-off dream. And the longer we go garden-free, the more anxious and insecure we become. Where do you start if your thumbs aren’t green? We invite gardening questions, large or small at onisland@mvtimes.com. Our gardening columnist, Abigail Higgins, will do her best to answer. Happy tomatoes…

Dear Abigail,

I have a great old cottage on Farm Pond, across from Hart Haven. I’ve done lots of work on it over the years, and am quite proud of it, except for one thing: the only “garden” I have is one that came with the house, a patch of daylilies that bloom in a tangled mess, with a single annual poppy in the middle. Other than that, no hedges, no veggies, no flowers. My house looks naked.

The problem, as you might have guessed, is that I’m an idiot when it comes to gardening. Not only do I not know what to do to get a garden started, I swear that plants die just being near me.

So, here’s my question: How could I begin to garden this spring? I’d love a small vegetable patch, some flowers or plantings around part of the house, and maybe a small additional flower garden.

My house gets sun all day in certain areas, but it is whipped by breezes and sea air much of the time as well.

What’s an idiot-proof way to start a garden, and then keep it growing?

Thank you!

Fear of Gardening, Oak Bluffs

Dear Fear of Gardening,

Luckily for you, gardening is one of the few activities where everyone starts out at the same level. No one was born knowing how to garden, and, as with many things, our mistakes are often our best teachers.

If I were you, I would first ask myself what kind of garden I want. Flowerbeds with colorful perennials? Cutting garden of annuals to provide flowers for the house? Mixed flowers and vegetables: the old-fashioned “cottage garden”? Curbside garden for public enjoyment, or screening garden to provide privacy in a built-up neighborhood? Are rabbits going to become a problem?

Then, visit the library to look at garden books liberally illustrated with color photographs, to see what takes your eye. Keep in mind that as a novice a small garden is more manageable and initially better; you can always expand.

The next step is to locate the garden site on your lot to take a soil sample, once you have clarified what kind of garden you would like. A colorful flowerbed, vegetables, or cutting garden requires all the sunlight you can provide. Site accordingly.

Take the soil sample according to directions on the web site soiltest.umass.edu, and send in to the UMass Soil Testing lab ASAP noting how you intend to use the garden.

Depending upon the results of your soil test, prepare and amend the soil as suggested in a shape that pleases you. Beds sited next to buildings may receive shelter from wind; they are often rectilinear and angular. Free-standing islands may be more exposed, but freeform and flowing shapes suit them. Consider lattice panels to provide windbreaks.

Or, build a raised bed right on top of the existing soil level, using the best topsoil/compost you can obtain. (Quality topsoil and composts may be accompanied by a soil analysis, analogous to a soil test.) If possible, lay down a base layer of manure, but not so that roots come into contact with it. Raised beds may be contained by structures of wood or masonry, or created by building up the soil to a bed with sloping sides as high as you want it. These are likely to be rectangular. Again, keep size in mind: expect the plant cost to be at least $20/per square foot, and quality topsoil upwards of $60/yd. Anything you start yourself is usually more economical however.

Perennial plants come back each year, such as daylilies and phlox. The existing daylilies may be mowed or clipped down next fall and covered with mulch (if they are not up too high they can be mulched this season, making a neat outline). The following year the “tangled mess” will be neater and you could add other perennials to it. Annual plants grow and die all in one season, such as zinnias and cosmos, leaving the bed able to be totally cleared out in the fall. If perennials and annuals are mixed together it is called a mixed bed. Choose what you like; some will undoubtedly displease you eventually, but this cannot be planned for. Gardening friends will inevitably have divisions of their own perennials to share with you. Accept all gratefully, but remember to ask if it spreads!

Tools good to have include a comfortable, sturdy trowel; secateurs (garden clippers) for pruning/dead-heading; a narrow shovel or spade — long-handled is best for avoid back-stress — for digging in close quarters; a spading fork; and a collapsible rake, for raking out wide/tight spots. A ball of twine and a sleeve of bamboo stakes may become useful eventually for staking plants. Nice to have are a claw and stirrup hoe for cultivating and weeding. A trash barrel can serve as a receptacle for debris, which may be composted in a pile in a concealed spot. Compost pile surrounds may be made from five shipping pallets (free at several places) lashed together with wire or baling twine: one to form the base, and four to create the four walls.

Happy gardening!