I have wanted to visit Nancy Weaver’s garden since I first went to her Vineyard Haven home in spring 2014 to write about her glass-eye collection. I recently met with Nancy just after she’d returned from the first of a two-day sedge workshop at Polly Hill, which was taught by the curator of Living Collections at Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum.
Nancy tells me that a sedge is a grasslike, drought-tolerant evergreen plant; Martha’s Vineyard has about 80 native varieties. Nancy grew up gardening with her mother, and tells me a story about getting seeds from a lady at the school crosswalk with her father when she was a child growing up in North Carolina, and she points out breadseed poppies in her garden that originated from those very first seeds. They are bright red with lettucelike leaves, and appear as accents in most of the 3,500 square feet of planted garden beds that Nancy tends. She and her husband Dave, a former Steamship captain, moved to their present home about 30 years ago, and there was no garden to speak of then.
Nancy has worked as a professional gardener at Lisa Fisher’s certified organic farm, Stannard Farms in West Tisbury, for as long as she has lived in Vineyard Haven. Because she helps to grow the vegetables there, she has quit growing her own except for a line of containers on her deck planted with tomatoes, which she says mostly get eaten by the squirrels. There are a few sugar and snap peas planted in the garden, but creatures have already begun to chew down some of their stems. Nancy admits that between the deer and our rocky and sandy soil, vegetable growing at home isn’t worth it. I should add that Nancy also worked at Polly Hill Arboretum as their volunteer coordinator and plant recorder for nearly 20 years, retiring two years ago. She tells me how much she adored being the plant recorder, and shows me her garden calendar, a handmade grid where she writes down first blooms, keeps planting information, plot charts where she adds and erases as necessary, and can find all the vital information she needs dating back to 2006, at least on this particular clipboard. Older pages are kept inside her home. She thinks she loves plant data “maybe from growing up with [her] dad a scientist.”
Nancy leads me past a bigleaf magnolia — Magnolia macrophylla — which she says is “probably the most popular plant at Polly Hill, native to Alabama,” and something she really wanted when she first started working there, so got one of her own. “Bigleaf plants don’t do well here,” she says. “Polly tried and tried again before succeeding.” We continue through her garden, and she explains, pointing to a Welsh poppy, “Most plants here have a story. See that? My dad brought the seeds back from Great Dixter garden in England, Christopher Lloyd’s garden.” If you’re an Anglophile, you may already be familiar with gardening legend and writer Christopher Lloyd, who devoted his life to gardening at Great Dixter, two hours outside of London, putting it on the international map.
Nancy loves seed catalogs and ordering new varieties. She has three species of foxgloves at present, ranging in color from purple to yellow. She has also worked for Peggy Schwier Gardens, a job she greatly enjoyed, getting to create what she calls “insta-gardens,” basically making a robust, well-tended garden appear where there was none. Some of you may know Peggy as the president of Sail MV, a position she has held since 2006.
When they first moved to their Vineyard Haven property, Nancy and Dave received spruce tree saplings, which they planted along one of their property lines. Now those trees provide a clear line of green and shade. You can find all sorts of things in Nancy’s garden — elegant rusting wingback garden chairs; upside-down antique bottles on rods to delineate a freshly-planted area; wild strawberries hiding under plants, and other surprises. Most of the flowers beginning to bloom are new to me. Nancy points out love-in-a-mist, an old-fashioned light-blue annual in the buttercup family. It’s another bloom she can use in the flower bouquets she sells on Saturdays at the West Tisbury Farmers Market (be sure to get there early, as they sell out quickly). Nancy loves making her bouquets; some weeks there may only be a handful and other weeks will afford more choices. She cuts her blooms on Friday night and Saturday morning before heading out to the Farmers Market.
I ask about composting, which Nancy has been engaged in since childhood. She now follows hugelkultur, a German term meaning “mound culture,” according to permaculturenews.org. This composting method, used for centuries in Eastern Europe and Germany, Nancy says, “starts with laying cardboard down over cut grass, then adding rotten firewood, wood chips, grass clippings, then compost, a vital piece if you don’t have animals.” Nancy likes to use horse manure, which she enjoys shoveling herself: “It’s good exercise.” She lets the manure sit for at least one year before using it on flower beds. Also, she only mows twice annually. She shows me cutting shears she uses if any grass on her garden paths grows too high, though she also has a push mower. She even sifts her compost on occasion; if she’s bored during the winter, she’ll turn the pile. We continue walking by a patch of tall yellow flowers that I learn are loosestrife, a wetland plant, considered invasive.
We arrive at a tropical-looking tree, one of the last to leaf out in the spring, a pawpaw, which provides the largest edible fruit native to America, and in fact is native, Nancy tells me, to southern New England. She proudly shows off two babies that will be ripe in September. Nancy explains that she trades pawpaw pollen with a friend in Chilmark so she can grow fruit on it. She admits she broke down and bought sprinklers this year. She points out a Chinese chestnut tree; though a native of China and Korea, it is the main provider of chestnuts in the U.S. She loves coreopsis, a daisylike flower with a long bloom period that’s easy to grow, and reseeds itself.
During the winter months, Nancy enjoys the low-lying Mediterranean White heather in bloom, which came from her neighbor’s garden. When she first moved in, her neighbor invited her to pick and take cuttings of anything she wanted. That neighbor was Marian Halperin, then vice chairman of the William Street Historic District Commission and formerly a director of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. Marian would come over to Nancy’s on Friday nights at 5 pm, and they would start picking flowers, eat dinner when they got hungry, and continue picking until dark, then bunch 30 or so bouquets for the Farmers Market.
Nancy worked alongside Polly Hill, and was given seeds for a pink azalea that Polly named for her grandson Michael Hill. “Polly named flowers after her family members,” she tells me, “to get them interested in plants.” These were a spectacular soft pink with a darker center. Nancy tells me she loves weeding — something many people do not, but in her case, she says, “it’s so much easier than my childhood weeding in the North Carolina red clay soil, which was no fun at all.”
Hurricane Bob took out the zinnias on either side of the road going through her property, but she planted hearty beach plums in their stead. There is a large patch of lady’s mantle, which Nancy loves because they “look great in bouquets; it blooms for a long time, increases on its own, grows in the shade, and is a beautiful chartreuse.”
We pass a Japanese paper bush, grown from seed given to her by her dad. Her garden routine mostly focuses on “the bouquets in summer, keeping ahead of weeding, and a little watering.” Another reason she loves weeding is finding small plants and moving them to more suitable locations. She still loves buying plants — anywhere from local garden clubs and garden centers to any plant sales. She tells me if she’s in the wild looking for plants, she now wears ExOfficio BugsAway clothing, like when she volunteered with Dick Johnson, an Island biologist, last year for a Lyme study in the Mill Brook.
Nancy has interesting varieties of mountain laurel, gorgeous ‘Ayesha’ hydrangeas, spectacular yucca-leaved sea holly, and so much more. Of course, no Island garden is complete without a patch of wild blueberry and huckleberry bushes. Nancy’s garden is an inspiration, and clearly she is a devoted gardener who never stops learning, trying new things, planting new seeds, and sharing her colorful and unique bouquets at the Farmers Market. Remember to go early if you want one of her flower creations.