Marie-Louise Rouff, now almost 90, moved to the Vineyard with her husband Paul Levine a decade ago from California. It wasn’t so easy finding a house with an art studio for her paintings, but finally, they found their home in West Tisbury off State Road near Chilmark Pottery.
It was early April when I stopped by Rouff’s garden on a brisk, gray day.
“First, I was in shock thinking, What am I going to show you?” Rouff said, referencing the early stages of spring in her garden, “But this has to happen. There’s a cycle, and this is the most important part of the cycle. The other is just the result.”
The best place for Rouff to plant her garden was on the northeast side of the house, conveniently right outside her back door. She pointed to a tree she said was half the size it is now, spreading its crown in the sun’s path. Rouff did everything herself: the digging areas, the raised beds, and the fencing. Rather than building the fence above chest level, she ran wire from posts at arm’s reach, and hung one or two ribbons over each section of fencing, to keep deer away. Rouff has never had to replace the ribbon, nor has a deer ever ventured into her garden.
The planting beds have risen each year with the addition of freshly composted soil. “The only problem was there was vinca growing,” Rouff said of one of the planting beds. “Beautiful blue flowers, but once it gets established, it has very dense roots and must be dug up.” She pointed to another raised bed that she surrendered to the vincas — daffodils and a hyacinth were the only surviving flowers. There were chives and rhubarb coming up in a nearby bed.
Rouff admitted she buys young tomato plants at Heather Gardens because she’s “lazy.” She already planted winter-tolerant radishes, spinach, and peas, because they can be planted six weeks before the last frost. She even had a cilantro survive the winter. Rouff recalls the first year she bought cow manure for the garden; after that she used hay from Fred Fischer, and sheep manure from a friend.
Rouff composts everything, including dairy, meat, and bones. Her compost is in the woods on top of years of accumulated oak leaves. She puts scrap meat outside so the animals can take it. She uses a garbage can, and just rolls it on the ground rather than mixing the compost with a fancy hand crank. Rouff said the crows know when the compost is coming. They call loudly when she opens the back door — they watch her deliver the goods before descending to scavenge.
Flowers grow in the ornamental beds surrounding the house and garden. There are poppies coming up. Rouff wants to dig up the vinca and plant daisies. She planted raspberries about nine years ago — their seeds were from a friend down the road who has since died. Rouff plants a variety of tomatoes, including ‘Early Girl’ and small yellow plants.
Rouff loves her bush beans and pole beans, which reach about seven feet tall. She arranged five plants around three poles, noting she will repaint the poles black for the season. Although Rouff does not do more than one official planting per season, she may add radishes or lettuce come late fall.
Rouff annually plants flathead parsley, thyme, oregano, chives, spinach, and carrots. She likes to plant a variety of lettuce, and prefers picking them as young plants. Sometimes she plants herbs in pots to have in the winter. This year, she decided to grow potatoes and peppers. She always keeps an aloe plant in the kitchen.
Rouff grew up with a big garden in Luxembourg. “For me, the garden was home,” she said. “My mother was the gardener, and not only that, she had five children and put them all to work. I loved it, it was wonderful. Only in the spring, a man came in and he dug the garden. There was a large asparagus bed.”
I wondered if they shaded them from the sun in order to grow white asparagus.
“Absolutely, what other color can asparagus be? Maybe a little purple tip?” Rouff replied. “I never met a green asparagus until I came to the United States.”
I asked if Rouff was in charge of anything in her childhood garden. She smiled, “I wasn’t in charge of anything. I was told, This is what you’re going to do. There was a brook, we had to fill buckets of water to bring up to the garden. And weeding. Wherever I had a house, I had a garden.”
Rouff said her gardens became crucial for survival during the war: “It was 1940 when the Germans came. I was 10 years old, and they didn’t leave until 1944. My father didn’t collaborate with the Germans, so he was kicked out of his job. We had a family of seven. We grew a lot of food. My mother got a lot of chickens. [First], she bought baby chicks, and they all turned into roosters. We had meat and eggs. The garden was the place where we got food.”
Marie-Louise Rouff cannot imagine a home without a garden, which has provided a lifelong balance in her daily life. The love she puts into her garden is returned in the bounty she enjoys annually — and if there is an abundance, she will leave freshly picked items at Howes House. It was pure joy to visit Marie-Louise Rouff and get to know another side of her. Be sure to stop by her studio, open by appointment, to enjoy her beautiful abstract art — and maybe get a glimpse of the garden in bloom.