Gardens of Love: Max Eagan and Taylor Armer

Taylor, Charlee, and Max. —Stacey Rupolo

I have known Max Eagan for 10 years, since his younger brother was my older son’s best friend in high school. Max has always loved food, and worked as a chef at Lambert’s Cove Inn, Isola, and other Island eateries. He told me he has grown herbs in pots no matter where he has lived, but moving to Tashmoo Avenue in Vineyard Haven in January 2017 with his partner Taylor Armer and her 5-year-old daughter Charlee meant they could have their first garden.

They cleared the brush, bushes, leaves, vines, and garbage, and four 20-foot dump trailer loads later, they were ready to begin. There are two covered workspace/storage areas; one of them is Max’s shop space. Taylor grew up in Louisiana and in Tisbury (where she went to the Tisbury School), and never had a garden at either home. Max grew up on Mill Street in Edgartown with not only his mother’s garden, but with a whole lot next door with a field of sunflowers. Max and Taylor met when working together at a restaurant four years ago, though it was a year before they started seeing each other. Max found that as their relationship blossomed, a chef’s life was not for him, so he moved into carpentry. He has been a fisherman and forager for many years.

This wooden heart came from a pile of wood scrap Max found while he was making the fence. —Stacey Rupolo

But back to their newly created garden. After rototilling, they cordoned off a 500- to 600-square-foot wildflower garden, with stones outlining an organic curve, on one back corner of their rental property, put a fenced garden with raised beds in the other back corner, and added garden beds along one side of their 600-square-foot home. What they have left over is grapes, wineberry (something Max has been making brandy from for the past eight years), and sassafras.

The garden bed alongside the house has some wood planters Max made from leftovers on a job, and a half-inch-thick by two-and-a-half-foot-wide stone cut into the shape of the Island. In fact, this was Max’s first time cutting stone, and that was only a couple of weeks ago. He used an assortment of old bluestone from another job on the side bed.

I wondered when this property had last enjoyed a garden. Max explained that they are renting what had been Robert Hickey’s grandmother’s home, and cousins and other family live not only on all sides of their home, but up and down the street. Heading back, I see a wall of honeysuckle they had no idea was hiding behind all the overgrowth of the backyard. The location of their small fenced garden happened “organically,” after clearing and seeing what they had to work with. Max called a buddy arborist to see if he had some spare wood to use for railings that wouldn’t rot out in the ground. He ended up getting locust and other hardwoods, enough forked pieces of wood to work with, and a fallen birch tree from Taylor’s parents’ property; the rest of the wood came from their property. Taylor and Max worked together on the design of their rectangular vegetable garden. Max adds, “I told her I wanted to do a giant ‘E’ for the raised beds, and she thought I was being totally egotistical since my name begins with the same letter.” (Taylor laughs.)

Taylor Eagen waters the shade garden on the side of the house. —Stacey Rupolo

Taylor wasn’t sure how the beds were going to work from their drawings, but once Max had them in place, she loved the flow around them. There are wonderful details all over the vegetable garden, thanks to their finds on the property, ingenuity, and artistic sensibilities. Specifically, Max used a found wire basket along one railing to hold garden tools. He would bring his coffee into the garden, set it on the raised bed’s edge, and inevitably knock it over, so he made a cup holder from branches along another railing. Of course there are flowers, like his mother Laurie Schreiber’s favorites — morning glories, now planted to grow over the arched entryway into the garden from a planter box attached to the decorative arch, with some other decorative varieties which will soon be “cascading” alongside. In front of the vegetable garden is a found antique wheelbarrow planted with assorted edible flowers. Max and Taylor had permission to use anything they found, which they have done beautifully, including an old wooden pulley and an antique come-along winch.

Max and Taylor turned salvaged metal pieces into garden decorations. —Stacey Rupolo

Taylor’s friends offered starter plants, dropping off unexpected gifts for their virgin garden. Max transplanted a large healthy thyme bush by running over to the house of a friend who was digging up a backyard. They salvaged a cedar tree that fell at a neighbor’s home, and Max made a bench for alongside the garden. He hadn’t noticed until the end of the day that one piece he cut off looked just like a heart, and that was added on the front gate. As far as what’s planted: “It’s total teamwork on that one.” After the planters and initial plants were in, they needed to get their fence up in a hurry. Taylor points out where “two bunnies ate a whole row of lettuce.” Now it would be hard to tell, when looking at the two-foot-tall green longleaf lettuce plants and other varieties, all with lush, fresh leaves. They have radishes, parsnips, and sunflowers together in another raised bed. Max salvaged some scallions from a flower box at a job site; they are probably the largest ones I’ve ever seen. We pass fennel, then Max points out a “random box” with cilantro they’re “letting go to seed so [they] can harvest the coriander.” He points out a vine that’s a black rind watermelon before pointing out the variety of edible flowers they’re growing, including nasturtium, bachelor buttons, calendula, and borage. There’s jilo (or gilo), a green Brazilian eggplant that’s firm inside and does not need to be salted prior to cooking. One planter bed has a variety of tomatoes, and flowers to help keep the bugs away. Eventually Max will build a structure to support the tomato plants from above, with string coming down, but for now four-foot-high wire cones will have to suffice.

Max admits, “Every day after work, we can’t wait to get to the garden.” They are growing loofah plants —yes, like the sponges — which though similar to squashes are really part of the cucumber family. The back row of this bed holds a variety of at least eight kinds of hot peppers that Max annually pickles for gifts to family and friends. There’s an impressive scrap-cedar trellis Max assembled to grow white cucumbers, Chinese cucumbers, regular pickling cucumbers, and Mexican sour gherkin cucumbers (something I enjoyed last summer from Ghost Farm for the first time in my life), grown from a friend’s seeds. They look like miniature watermelons, and are the size of large grapes, with a citrusy tang to them. In Mexico they’re enjoyed with chili powder, salt, and lime juice. There’s purple, regular, and Thai basil. Then there’s a variety of squash, including pumpkin, zucchini, summer squash, and Lebanese.

They don’t yet know if any of the trees are fruit-bearing. They tried to plant a bunch of strawberries, but “the two evil, bright white red-eyed rabbits” ate them all. Max says they rule the neighborhood.

Marigolds and other flowers are sprinkled throughout the garden to attract bees. —Stacey Rupolo

Taylor is very happy to let Max do the cooking at home: “Why compete?” In fact, Max and his younger brother Evan, a graphic designer living in Brooklyn, will be working on a cookbook together this summer, with lots of foraging and “coastal New England cuisine.” Max says his favorite cookbook at the moment is “Prune” by forager extraordinaire Gabrielle Hamilton, who owns a small restaurant by the same name in Manhattan.
The couple’s garden gets seven hours of sun, but they lost some plants due to the rain. Max adds, “Some of the peppers aren’t doing so well; too much rain for some of the peas.” In their original garden plan they had potatoes, but just haven’t got around to them this year. In one bed, Max plans a fall planting of his Wisconsin cousin’s garlic to harvest in spring 2018. Max says one his best garlic-eating experiences is thanks to his “buddy Kevin Brennan, who never picked the scapes, but let them go to seed, took the filled-out balls and then lactofermented them and gave them to [Max] pickled.” Then he tells me he just made garlic scape pesto!

They hope to have a chicken coop and little farm in the backyard next summer.

In the meantime, the takeaway from these two is to start small, and get your fence up before you plant.