Vineyard Gardens grows green thumbs with series of garden talks

Roger and Juliana Rogers from V.H., Lex Mercier from Edgartown, Alan Perna visiting from Greenwich Village, and Steven Clark from Chilmark and Lexington listen as Kathy James discusses best soils and flower selection for container gardening. — Susan Safford

June was already busting out all over at Vineyard Gardens Saturday morning, even though it was still Memorial Day weekend. Customers arriving at the West Tisbury nursery on their quest to buy supplies for weekend gardening projects were greeted by an expanse of blooms and lush greenery.

Lilac bushes scented the air with perfume; flowering perennials and bright-bloomed annuals filled tables and greenhouses, ready to pop into gardens, windowboxes, and planters. Herb and vegetable seedlings awaited customers with horticultural dreams of harvesting and eating their own produce.

The scheduled Saturday-morning talk, “Container Gardens,” was perfectly geared to the early planting season. It was part of a nine-week series of garden talks, packed with useful information for novice and experienced gardeners alike.

About half a dozen gardening enthusiasts gathered by the ornate herb plantings and greenhouses to hear Kathy James explain the essentials. With plenty of horticultural tips, scientific information, and how-to demonstrations, Ms. James provided everything her students needed to know to design and assemble their planters.

A longtime Vineyard Gardens staff member, Ms. James oversees perennials. She has broad practical knowledge, and plenty of personal plant experience and wisdom to share.

As the class continued, employees pulled watering hoses from display to display, keeping the delicate young plants healthy and hydrated under the hot sun. Shoppers pulled carts filled with plants, heading for the checkout.

With two tall, empty terra cotta pots before her, and several already planted containers nearby, Ms. James offered a step-by-step outline to creating one’s own mini-garden. Her first step was to drop a small stone into the pot, to cover the drainage hole so soil would not drain out during watering. “It’s like a stopper,” she said.

Working as she talked, Ms. James deftly filled the pot with soil and plunked in plants — a tall yellow daisy, verbena with tiny white and red flowers, mission bells bearing delicate lavender blooms.

“The old saying is fillers, thrillers, and spillers,” Ms. James said, explaining that planters should combine eye-catching accents, some less dramatic “filler” plants, and some that will cascade over the edges as they mature.

“There you go. Voilà!” she said with a smile and a flourish as the group admired her handiwork.

Choosing containers, soil, and plants themselves is purely a matter of personal taste, Ms. James reassured her listeners. But she did make recommendations, including to use a deep pot “so the roots can spread.” Soil in a shallow container will dry out quickly, needing frequent watering.

“Anything with holes in it” can serve as a planter, Ms. James said. Clay, concrete, plastic, glazed pottery, and even wood or metal are possibilities. “Plastic holds water longer, but some people don’t use it because it may be toxic,” she said.

Picking which soil to use depends on preference too. But Ms. James suggested organic soil for growing vegetables, herbs, or other edibles. A prefertilized planting blend can be a good choice for flowers.

While Ms. James encouraged her listeners that any plants can be used in a container garden, she said arrangement and spacing must be considered. A tall plant in the middle creates a pleasing feeling of height. “You can stuff as much as you want in a planter, but eventually they’ll start choking each other out,” she cautioned.

Even if young plants aren’t in bloom, be aware of what color the flowers will be to create harmonious design, Ms. James advised. Choose plants depending on whether the container will be located in sun or shade. And remember that as plants mature they will get taller.

Inspired by the class, encouraged by the support of fellow gardeners, and motivated by the 20 percent discount they received for attending, class members headed off to buy materials for their own container gardens.

Nearby, herbalist Irene Fox wielded a watering wand and tended young plants. Ms. Fox joined Vineyard Gardens this summer as resident herbalist, bringing long experience in that field. She is also the founder of Island’s Own herbal products, and the new natural skin-care product line Simple Joy Herbals.

Ms. Fox will speak about medicinal herbs this Saturday, June 4, explaining and demonstrating techniques for making natural remedies from a number of common herbs available at the nursery or in the wild. She will be available to answer questions on growing herbs and related subjects.

This summer’s garden talks will continue through June. Upcoming topics include “Don’t Eat That!” (June 11), an informative discussion of what is safely edible and what is not, in the garden, the yard, and the woods and meadows beyond.

On June 18, “The Wild Garden” explores an historic form of gardening popularized by William Robinson in the 1800s, with an emphasis on natural style and native plants. Beekeeper Monica Miller wraps up on June 25 with a program about bees and how to safeguard them from various threats. Talks begin at 10 am and are free.

“The talks tend to be based on questions people ask when they come in,” explained staffer Keith Kurman, who began organizing the series this year. “I think, if a subject interests me, it would probably interest the general public.”

Owner Chris Wiley instituted the summer talks some 30 years ago, and planned them until Mr. Kurman took over this year. Speakers include experienced nursery staff, and occasionally guest professionals with specialized knowledge.

Along with a 20 percent discount for lecture attendees on purchases related to that day’s topic, the nursery offers 20 percent off on selected items for Senior, Ladies’, and Men’s Days (Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, respectively). Their Gallery in the Garden event will take place in August, a gracious way to relax when the gardening chores are done.

For more information on Vineyard Gardens’ talks, see MV Times event listings, call 508-693-8511, or visit