Mr. Leonardo’s life-long garden

Inspired by his Portuguese grandmother, Frank Leonardo has been tending his Oak Bluffs garden for over 30 years. — Photo by Jeff Glasser

One of the great pleasures of residing in the town of Oak Bluffs is the up-close overlook of neighbors’ gardens, so many of them charming. Through my front windows beneath the mansard roof-lines of the old library, now renovated into apartments and an apothecary, I enjoy the trellises and mature shrubs of Good Dog Goods’ afternoon yard for Gordon Setter Mulligan and Airedale Dinah. Diagonally across the street is the stylishly renovated and landscaped Yoga Center. And in the northeast quadrant of my view lies the splendid garden of Frank Leonardo.

Frank was brought home as a newborn in 1957 to this house on Penacook and Circuit. He has always lived here, and the garden that sits on a full-sized lot is his creation — right down to the prize wisteria winding through the chain-link fence, and the bird-feeder that attracts a constant flutter of feathers and dash of fur, like a scene out of Disney’s “Snow White.”

One assumes that a person who has never moved from place to place, as so many of us restless humans tend to do, might be lacking in sophistication. One would be wrong. For while Frank has always lived at the same address, he has kept up a constant hegira. His first trip to Europe occurred as a young boy, and he now numbers his trips abroad at 58 and counting. Last year, for instance, his usual winter getaway to Hawaii was put on hold by minor surgery. Frank booked a less demanding trip on a cruise ship from San Juan to Southampton.

“I spent three days in the city I love — London, then flew home.”

When I learned that Frank had inherited his childhood home, purchased by his folks in 1952, another assumption was made, that at least one of his parents had created the small but magnificent garden, and that the grown child merely curated and maintained it. Wrong again.

“Except for that oak tree out front [pegged at 100 years of age], this yard was pretty plain during my growing up years,” he says, glancing beyond his porch with its complement of wicker furniture, an ornate brass platter as a side-table, geraniums slung in pots between ivy-covered white wood pillars, and with a clutch of potted flowers adorning the steps.

It turned out his grandmother, in her house across from Viera Park, taught Frank the joys of the green thumb. “I was given a plot out back of her house for raising strawberries. We’d go picking blueberries along Farm Pond. They were so big back then! Every spring, out came the seeds, and we’d just see what came up. We had walnuts. I learned all about herbs. My grandmother taught me the names in Portuguese so, for instance, mint was ‘ortolano,’ and that was the only name I knew for it. I thought, growing up, that everyone was Portuguese which, in Oak Bluffs in those days, virtually everyone was!”

Frank’s father died when the boy was 14. As an only child, this forced on him a sense of responsibility, of needing to stay close at hand for his mother.

“I had to think fast,” he says in describing his decision to plan for a future that would pay off faster than a conventional college education.

He attended the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park in New York from 1975 to ’77. Back on the Island, he found work as a pastry chef for Bob Carroll in his enterprises at the Kelley House, The Seafood Shanty, and the Harbor View. For the last many years, Frank has flourished as pastry chef and caterer for all the big, under-the-tent events at Farm Neck Golf Club.

On a recent tour around the grey-shingled and purple-and-white-trimmed exterior walls of his home, Frank points out a virtual rain forest of flora: “Here’s feverfew; it’s good as a tea for headaches, that’s passionflower, lots of tomatoes — too many tomatoes — it’s that time of year — and the Amaryllis will need time out for its bulb to regroup. The nasturtiums are mixed with morning glory, here are strawberries and zucchini…”

(And to think all this running commentary describes merely the unremarkable side of his house, chock-by-jowl with his neighbor!)

In the yard proper, the oasis that one might think of as Frank Leonardo’s Secret Garden, a giant rhododendron, planted in 1981, and now the size of a small mobile home, forms the centerpiece of the garden. Dahlias, boxwood, and roses spill out from there, alongside pots of sedum, geraniums, and plumbago.

Like all avid gardeners, Frank makes certain that a major flowering tree or shrub is always in play. In June a cherry tree had its annual debut of white blossoms, followed by the astonishing lavender spill of wisteria over the fence, then backed up by the pink petals of the monster rhodo. After these solo turns, of course, the fullness of the summer garden yields a display of all the other featured players — black-stemmed pink hydrangeas, roses, dahlias, calla lilies, and clematis.

Frank’s other great garden hobby, clearly as strongly enjoyed as his passion for plants, is the bird life.

“I name my birds,” he says with clear-cut delight. “There’s Christopher Wren and Peter Finch, and the Mourning Doves are Lawrence and Vivian.”

Regarding the squirrels, he resists calling the critters by name: They’re simply “the gang,” but he’s distinctly aware of the personality of each arriviste. “That’s the one with a bit of red on his tail. He’s a whacko,” he adds as it spins around the trunk of the oak tree.

“If they eat the millet that drops from the bird feeder, that’s fine with me. If you feed them outside, they won’t be bothering your house.”

As if to contradict this statement, a squirrel darts from a high branch of the ancient oak, and swizzles across the steepled roof-line.

Frank explains, “The tree is hollowed out. They live in there. They think of the roof as part of the tree.”

I tell him I’d noticed squirrel faces appearing in the circle of an amputated branch. “It’s kind of a squirrel condominium,” I observe, and he nods in reluctant agreement.

The wonderful part of Frank Leonardo’s garden is that, while he loves it, and has created a place of beauty for himself, his guests, and all passersby, his approach is non-fastidious. No O.C.D. attaches itself to his days-off ministrations. A passing drought makes him sad for the toll it takes on his hydrangeas, but he knows it’s part of nature’s narrative. He mows his grass when time allows, but he’s unconcerned about the bald spots here and there. It’s an established spread of grass, it can take care of itself. In late fall, he transfers some of his potted plants inside, but not all the specimens make the cut.

“I do what I can,” he says with a shrug.

As we prepare to part, another squirrel swings from above, looping twice around a bored-out oak branch. For an instant, it freezes. Tiny black eyes cast a quick, speculative peek at Frank.

“I’m Mr. Foodbag,” he says with a chuckle as his glance sweeps to the bird-feeder. Half-full.

Mr. Foodbag can retire for the morning.