Gardens of Love: Margaret Knight

Margaret Knight in the garden at her Chappaquiddick home. —Valerie Sonnenthal

I visited dancer, clothing upcycler, gardener, and Renaissance woman Margaret Knight at her Chappaquiddick home to see what she grows in the winter in her greenhouse. She lives on property owned by her family since the 1950s, and built, along with her husband Sidney Morris, their first home, 20 feet by 20 feet, in 1973. They had dreamed of an addition to their original home, but were not able to afford to add it until the passing of Morris’ mother. They added both additional living space and the greenhouse on the side of their home. One nice thing about the greenhouse is that they can leave the doors into their home open from about 9:30 am until 5 pm, getting extra heat thanks to passive solar. The floor of the greenhouse is dirt and feels wonderful, giving one an indoor/outdoor experience. The planting bed along the outside glass wall is about three feet deep, and has a built-in irrigation system that uses both rainwater and well water. Margaret has future plans for a floor, but can’t say when she’ll be getting to that project.

Many potted plants, like the geraniums, live in the greenhouse all year; some of the bigger pots move out to the patio in spring, and there is the built-in planting area along the glass exterior wall. Knight starts her seeds in the spring along the bench, she says. Many of the plants growing in the fixed bed are self-seeding, including parsley and kale. She has a 10-year-old kale plant that stretches across the entire length of the greenhouse that supplies fresh, year-round leaves for eating. There are nasturtiums growing, rosemary, another kale plant, a wild mallow, and chicory (which Knight likes in her salad mix or green smoothie; only the root is good for coffee, I learn). Pointing to the back of the growing area, Knight shows me New Zealand spinach, which she says “is a big self-seeder and is a little hardier.” She points out lemongrass she mostly uses in teas, and says, “It won’t last through the winter.” The New Zealand spinach resembles more of an elephant ear leaf. Knight likes to sauté them with butter and garlic. There are a couple of sorrel plants as well.

The greenhouse roof is eGlass, so it is reflective and does not get as hot as it could. There are vents into the house, so when the doors are open in the summer, there is a breeze that moves through the entire house. There are some succulents, a salvia that Knight has never returned to the ground, as well as nettle volunteers, plus a nettle patch. She enjoys nettle tea, and the leaves are also added to her greens. She has a few amaryllises “that bloom every now and then.” Knight adds, “They do about the same as when I kept them in the dark, cutting them back, and did all that work.” Knight lets me know if I put seaweed or hay around the parsley bed I have at home, it will keep it going through part of the winter, and reseed in the spring. Then she’s showing me her Mexican hat plant, a succulent plant native to Madagascar, on which little leaves grow from the edge of the larger leaf. Knight says, “See these little leaves? They fall off and start new ones. They grow all over the place.”

Originally Knight and Morris were going to put a hot tub in the corner of the greenhouse, but it was too hot for that. She tells me they also planned to put a chimney in, and a root cellar, but “it turns out it’s not a good idea to put a root cellar below a greenhouse because there’s too much heat.” She’s growing dandelion greens, and last fall she put in a couple of pepper plants that have given her peppers all winter long, and made more pepper plants all summer and fall. The greenhouse is Margaret’s alone, versus a field she shares with her daughter. What she likes is that she waters, but that’s about it, and the plants mostly take care of themselves. Also, Knight notes, “we never have too much moisture in the house.”

I notice the wonderful hand-wrought wooden door handle on the greenhouse door to the yard, which Knight tells me was made by “Pat Brown, an amazing woodworker and gardener, who did the framing and a lot of the work on this addition.” I’m still stunned by the largest kale plant I’ve ever seen. Knight laughs and says, “Maybe the largest in the universe.” She says, “The best part is the heat. You just open these doors and the whole house heats up.” Knight also has some little strawberries, and admits, “They’re sweet and delicious.”

I wonder what critters have been in the greenhouse, and Knight says, “I’ve had snakes. I had a peeper, a tree frog, living in here for awhile. After I visited Trudy Taylor’s greenhouse, I got some geckos. She had geckos, and they’d hang around the house near the sink. Mine disappeared, and then a year later I found one, but then they really disappeared. They eat insects like the flies. I’ve had a mouse problem, where they get in and eat the seedlings of my new peas. There have been crickets, snakes, and frogs. One lived here all winter until I caught it and put it out in the spring.” From the greenhouse I can see a garden patch where Knight lets perennials rule, due to “the past couple of years between the voles and rats, and the sandy soil no matter how much dirt you add.” She says, “I have onions that seed themselves, berries. I just put a peach tree in, fig trees, Jerusalem artichokes in the back. Tons of wild arugula, asparagus.”

It is a winter joy to walk into a warm greenhouse, and pick fresh greens and other delights to be enjoyed by all at the family table. Margaret Knight is an inspiration in not fussing about what grows or when to weed, and keeps it simple; as long as there is regular watering, the greenhouse gives. I may just have to return in the warmer weather to see what happens outside.