How to plant like a pro

Local nurseries offer educational classes to get your garden in gear.

Chris Wiley, right, shows Donna Joyce the male/ and female properties in the Globe Flower. — Photo by Susan Safford

On April 25, I learned secrets of germinating seeds, and got my hands dirty digging in the soil. A week later I found out that annuals bloom all season, and that proper cutting back will lead to bushy, flower-filled plants. Recently I discovered mysteries of landscaping magic, how to easily expand a small space, or hide an unsightly object by careful and crafty plant placement.

And I uncovered all this with a group of new garden-loving acquaintances, in a big greenhouse bursting with lush new plants ready for the garden. Even on chilly, gray, early-spring mornings, the atmosphere convinced us that summer was on the way.

Along with taking home fresh information that I could put to use in my backyard, I left with my hands full of plants purchased at discount, and confidence that this year I had the knowledge to really help my gardens thrive.

Every Saturday morning during May and June, plant enthusiasts are invited to gather at Vineyard Gardens in West Tisbury for their annual spring lecture series. Beginning at 10 am, the hourlong Garden Talks cover a range of topics: vegetable gardening, landscape design, a survey of flowering annuals available to brighten the garden, and practical notes about how to outwit hungry deer and rabbits by choosing plants that may not suit their appetites.

Many of these free lecture-demonstrations offer hands-on learning as well as useful new information. Some include a tour of the extensive outdoor displays where spring flowers and shrubs are in full bloom, and where smaller greenhouses are filled with seedlings.

The “Grow Your Own Veggies” presentation on April 25 got the season off to an optimistic start, with information on soil preparation, composting, garden layout, plant selection, and planting and maintenance tips. Participants scooped out potting soil to fill containers, and chose from a wide array of seeds for early, cool-weather vegetables. With careful instruction, each student planted and carried home several containers, ready to germinate on a sunny windowsill.

Those who attended “The Wonderful World of Annuals” talk on May 9 learned about many unfamiliar flowering plants. They heard how annuals could be used in a cutting garden, or to bring color to a newly planted landscape area before shrubs and perennials mature.

Vineyard Gardens owner Chris Wylie provided an overview of plant evolution, and the amazing details of plant reproduction, scientific but still easy to understand. Who would have guessed that daisies are among the most evolved plants, California poppies the most primitive? And that deciduous trees are really flowering plants?

Last Saturday staffer Keith Kurman outlined fascinating principles of landscape design from practical, environmental, aesthetic, and philosophical perspectives. A professional garden designer, Mr. Kurman returned to the Vineyard Gardens staff after several years in California, where he taught landscape design at a community college.

On most Saturdays, participants receive a coupon good for a 20 percent discount on purchases related to that day’s lecture. Many programs feature a gift, usually a seedling to plant and tend at home.

Some participants agreed that the talks offer inspiration and motivation to get out and start gardening in the springtime, and that even when the topic is familiar, there is always something new to learn. Presentations are informal, with ample opportunity for asking questions and sharing personal gardening challenges and successes.

Vineyard Gardens owners Chris and Chuck Wylie are University of Vermont graduates. They began Vineyard Gardens in 1982, and have built it into a thriving nursery and landscaping business. Both are among the Saturday speakers. Ms. Wylie is especially fitted for that role since she taught biology, Island natural history, and other science classes at the Regional High School for six years. Ms. Wylie is also considering offering classes during the midwinter months, to cheer and educate garden lovers when snow covers the ground.

The lecture series has been offered every spring for many years. Subjects are chosen to provide useful information to both novice and experienced gardeners. Variety is important too, and Ms. Wylie said this year’s calendar includes some new topics for added appeal.

“Container Gardens” is the subject this Saturday, May 31, presented by longtime staff member Cathy James. Participants are invited to bring their own container to work on during the lecture, with potting soil and expert guidance close at hand. Small plants may be purchased before the talk.

“Herb Gardens,” always a customer favorite, kicks off next month’s lecture series on June 6. As she has for many seasons, herb expert Danguole Gabis will share her wisdom and experience with patrons who want to establish or improve their herb gardens and learn more about these unique plants.

Upcoming topics include “Deer and Rabbit Resistant Plants” (June 13) and “Low Maintenance Shrubs” (June 20). The series concludes on June 27 with “Butterfly Gardens,” a discussion of choosing the right plants to entice those pretty winged visitors to your summer yard.

Garden Talks, Saturdays through June, 10 am at Vineyard Gardens in West Tisbury. Free and open to the public. For more information, call 508-693-8511 or visit

Middletown Nursery 

Another place to brush up on your gardening skills this season is at Middletown Nursery on State Road in West Tisbury, where they’ve put the focus on edibles this spring. Through their classes the nursery has pledged to help participants learn how to plant and tend an organic garden, from choosing the right site and selecting plants, to tending the garden and putting it to bed in fall.

Classes began on April 25 with “Planting and Cooking with Herbs.” Organic gardener Roxanne Kapitan led the class, explaining how to build healthy soil with backyard composting, while food writer and private chef Catherine Walthers demonstrated how to use herbs in cooking, and shared a spring and kale salad with an herb vinaigrette recipe. Later that afternoon, nursery manager David Beck offered insights on fertilizers.

The following week another cookbook author, Susie Middleton, was on hand with Ms. Kapitan to inspire gardeners with a salad-cutting garden class and homemade salad dressing demo.

There were early-season talks on planting fruits, potatoes, onions, and beans. The Memorial Day Saturday session featured edible flowers, tea herbs, and weed-free mulching, followed by “Container Gardening and the Plants that Love Them.”