Gardens of Love: The Duck Inn and Elise LeBovit

A gardener at one with her garden.

This photo of Elise Lebovit, owner of the Duck Inn in Chilmark, won an award in the NENPA contest, as did the section it appeared in — The Local. – Stacey Rupolo

It’s been a while since I last drove down the long dirt road to Aquinnah’s Duck Inn, a B & B begun in 1980, and the home of Elise LeBovit, a woman who has worn many hats. This sunny August Sunday morning, she greets me as I pull up, no hat, no sunglasses, and still a woman of the land. As soon as I close my car door, Elise is singing and leading me down a slope to her stone-walled vegetable garden. When she moved to the property, the garden had asparagus growing. “Every year it’s kinda different, the garden just comes up on its own, 90 percent of the things I don’t plant,” Elise tells me while opening the chicken-wire gate so we can step in. She says, “My big secret — well, I have a lot of secrets — but the mulch, the eelgrass, puts all the minerals in and keeps it moist. I hardly ever water.”

Though it’s hard to tell what’s growing in some of the greener areas, Elise points to a “kind of spinach,” and says, “You know spinach doesn’t make it through the summer, but this spinach stays for three or four months.” I see kale, and what looks like Swiss chard leaves turn out to be beet greens. Elise makes a point of shading “things that don’t do well in the sun.” So she reveals potted celery hiding in the greens in the midst of the sea of green.

In another bed, Elise says, “It’s all calendulas coming up. Last year it was nasturtiums, and this year I can make salves and ointments for the skin with all the bright orange and yellow calendula flowers.” She picks the flowers early in the morning, soaks them in oil, and then keeps them in the fridge. Lemon balm, a member of the mint family, is good for many things, but Elise likes to use it for sore throats, and dries some to use in her cooking. Elise, who lived in Washington, D.C., in high school, and in Europe before that, has been making remedies since she was a teenager.

After a stint in San Francisco, she worked in New York City as a performer with Meredith Monk and as a fabric designer, and then moved to Virginia, where she could get her hands back into the dirt and “experiment with herbs and make a lot of concoctions.” One area of the garden is covered in a low, ground-hugging, succulent-looking plant that Elise was happy to discover, though it’s considered a common weed — purslane. It’s an omega-3 supergreen, and to Elise’s delight, the plant is “also called duckweed and pigweed [they once had a pet pig there].” When I read more about purslane online at home, it is clearly a wonder plant with six times more vitamin E than spinach and seven times more beta carotene than carrots, and that’s not even the half of it. Elisa adds it to her green smoothies daily.

When Elise wonders if I know the books about Anastasia, otherwise known as “The Ringing Cedars” series, it’s not until I get home that I remember someone telling me that I should read these books a few years ago: Maybe I even bought them then, I’ll have to check.

“Before Anastasia planted, she would soak the seed in her mouth,” Elise said, “and then the vibration of what you need is in all your plants, so that’s what I do.”

“Next I’m learning about ‘moon gardening,’” said Elise. There’s a calendar you can get in the “Farmer’s Almanac”which provides planting advice that gardeners have followed for centuries. Elise tells me that Tuesday, August 9, will be a good day for her second plantings. As she continues, she points out chives and tall globe-flowered leeks, something she “uses in everything.” When I ask if she saves seeds, Elise replies, “Everything saves itself. It’s unusual if I have to plant. Even things they say are annuals [she points] — that’s my potato field, and there are a million babies in there.” Turning and pointing, she continues, “That’s my garlic field I just harvested, and I have a ton.” Elise also likes it “when things go to seed. I like the seed almost better than the plant.”

We head to the back of the garden, where some bright yellow zucchini of varying shapes and sizes can be seen resting under floppy green shade leaves. Next to them is a large strawberry patch. Moving along, Elise breaks off a green thin bean-like thing, hands me one, and we both start chewing as she explains, “When things go to seed, they taste just like the plant they are.” Wow, it’s radish.

She continues to point out plants, including celery and self-planting tomatoes, before telling me, “I’m a dowser. I do it for everything. In the garden, I ask my PH — and I can always check it by scientific measurement.” Dowsing, an ancient skill used to find water, is also used to get yes/no answers, whether it’s water you’re looking for, or any other aspect of gardening.

We’re passing Brussels sprouts when Elise tells me she’s been raising a baby skunk, Bernie. Raising a motherless animal has become an annual rite for Elise: “I bring him into the garden early in the morning and show him how to eat slugs, how to get the potato bugs, how to dig; this is his learning ground.” Bernie has his own quarters, and is free to come and go as he pleases not far from the garden.

Our garden walk continues as Elise explains, “Certain things protect other things, like I’ll take the garlic and put it in the roses where there are bugs.” Again she mentions the help she gets from dousing: “This year my peas didn’t come up, and I planted them all the way around the garden, but I didn’t ask. Then I asked why they didn’t come up and got that I had planted them too early.”

There is a patch of seven-or-so-foot-tall sunflowers along one edge of the garden, another reseeder, so Elise can enjoy the hummingbirds and other winged friends while she works in the garden. She tries to keep up with deadheading because “it’s so much better for the bees, and part of the reseeding process too.” It’s time for her second planting so she can enjoy a fall crop. Her favorite fall berries include rosehips (early this year) and beach plums (coming in late), which she uses to make lots of jellies to serve to her guests. She’s hoping for more string beans.

As we pass a large mullein plant, Elise says she uses it as an antiseptic; as with calendula, she picks the flowers, drops them in oil, and stores them in her fridge. I first learned about mullein when my son took an herb course with Holly Bellebuono. It was native to Eurasia and brought to North America for its medicinal benefits. Elise tells me its fiber is even used for socks since it is waterproof, a bit like jewelweed, which she uses in ice cubes as a skin treatment for poison ivy. Our native American forbears used jewelweed for poison ivy as well. Elise adds, “I had the goats here goatscaping this year, and if you drink their milk or eat their cheese, you get immunity to the poison ivy.” That would be true for sheep as well.

Her wisteria helps cover a gateway from the garden area to a larger lawn and walkway to the main house. Flowers grow along a curved stone wall and a hot tub below the main level of the house. In the front to the left of the entrance is an espalier apple tree she planted, espalier meaning a dwarf species a gardener trains into a desired shape through selective pruning. There are just a few apples this year, unlike most years’ plentiful bounty, which Elise describes as looking like a heavily laden Christmas tree.

Unfortunately, all the fruit trees planted by Elise have fallen victim to the deer, except for the lone espalier apple tree, which had “five different types of apples when it was first planted.” Elise tries “to be an artist with what [she] already has growing.” Nearby in the front bed is something from the chamomile family; Elise explains, “I think things come up when they’re needed, like coltsfoot in February when you need it for the lungs.”

She has placed containers right into her flower beds with herbs she uses regularly in her kitchen, pointing out parsley, rosemary, and one of her favorites, comfrey. “It’s high in vitamin A,” she said, “it’s good for the intestines … I walk by every day and eat a leaf.” As she refers to her garden as a mishmash of things she planted and didn’t plant, we come upon a patch of euphorbia, which looks a lot like baby’s breath.

Elise LeBovit makes up her own homeopathic remedies, and likes to get as much as she can from her own garden. As we look out from her hilltop perch, she remarks, “I’m trying to let more fields go to wildflower fields,” something she feels is important for the wildlife habitat, rather than mowing the fields the way she used to. From where we are standing she used to be able to see the ocean and the lighthouse, but now the trees and brush have grown too high. It was all grazing sheep back in the day.

I’m still wondering about when Elise first began gardening. The property was once the Blaine Farm, consisting of 45 acres. Every year Elise plants her fir Christmas trees, some now nearly 20 feet tall.

During her D.C. years, she and her mother had a plot at the Unitarian Universalist church community garden. “Both my grandfathers were gardeners,” she said, “one lived in Newark and had a secret garden you couldn’t see unless you went through a locked metal gate. He grew these wonderful sour cherries that my Hungarian grandmother used in her traditional cooking.”

Her other grandfather was French and German, and also lived in New Jersey, although in a more suburban area. He had fruit trees, and tomatoes were “his big thing.” So clearly, Elise has her roots in gardening. But her connection to gardening is also in the stars: “I’m a Capricorn; I need to get my hands in dirt.”

If you are interested in studying dousing with Elise LeBovit, you can contact her at 508-645-9018.