Gardens of Love: Nancy Kilson

A riot of lilies, a multi-color extravaganza.


“Love is all around” was the feeling I had when meeting Nancy Kilson for the first time in the garden of her West Tisbury home. Kilson grew up in Boston and summered in Edgartown. After marrying 32 years ago, Kilson began to garden in the backyard of their first home, a Fort Green brownstone in Brooklyn. She admits, “I’ve been a total addict ever since.” Kilson has also availed herself of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (BBG), their courses, and putting to work what she’s learned, gardening at her Park Slope brownstone and here.

Their Island home is a Japanese inspired design believed to have been a tea house in Vineyard Haven. After selling Kilson’s family home in Edgartown, they happily moved to their present location seven years ago. Kilson says there was primarily brush, scrub, briars and poison ivy when they moved in. She has transformed the property, and continues to do so, through her growing gardens, beginning with the walkway border to the front door which had “yellow yarrow, a lot of catmint, and a lot of daylilies,” she says. It is now a riot of lilies, a multi-color extravaganza. Kilson admits, “I’m a color freak.” Nowhere on Island I have seen lilies as tall as Kilson’s ranging up to ten feet in height.

Next, Kilson worked on a garden area in the back of her home off an existing zen garden that had a Japanese maple. “There was a little bit of coreopsis [great for cut flowers] and that was it,” says Kilson, referring to the border above the raised retaining wall. “The chipmunks ate the buds off all the lilies [in the back],” she tells me. There is an unusual full bodied clematis that catches my eye. 

Kilson realized she had to change the soil in order to grow flowers in the back, so she had someone dig it out and brought in healthy composted soil. “It makes all the difference in growing,” Kilson says. She gestures to white phlox, “It’s unbelievably tough and blooms forever,” she says before we move to the side cutting garden — a joy to behold from inside the house. When she moved in, she called it “the hell strip.” She wanted to make it more usable. 

Kilson has an area that is supposed to be her rose garden, but admits it’s a little weedy. The hostas, now large leafed and in assorted varieties, came with the house. There is abundant self-sown purple foxglove, something I wasn’t aware was biennial. There’s another purple flower that catches my eye — balloon flowers — long-lasting star-shaped flowers, also good for cutting. Her herb garden is in a raised trough on the side of the house. Kilson likes that a lot of plants are gifts from birds.

After gardening the front and back borders of the house, Kilson turned her attention to creating a peony garden area off the front of the house, with assorted colors and other plants to fill in. There is a huge shade section in the front of the house between their home and guest house, which was only finished three weeks ago, created to also help screen from the road which runs along two sides of the property where Russian olive and brush had taken over. Creating a healthy screen from the road is ongoing, though much has been planted. It is time that will add growth, and help diminish the sounds of traffic and cyclists.

Kilson continues to build a denser border, planting a lot of trees and shrubs including stewartia and assorted hydrangeas like oak leaf which has beautiful deep red foliage in the fall. Kilson retired from her law practice four years ago, allowing her to spend May through September on-Island. She looks forward to extending their stay once her husband retires next year.

“One of my favorite things I bet you’ve never seen before is Podophyllum,” Kilson says, commonly known as mayapple, a native Missouri wildflower. Hers is a “Chinese variety planted this year,” Kilson tells me. She’s still trying to figure out why they are not as full as the ones in her Brooklyn garden. “I’m trying to grow daylilies that are unusual, sort of exotic, that aren’t common,” Kilsen says. In this area, rather than the back daylily area, Kilson says, “the names have gotten a bit mixed up so I’m not really sure.” She points to some spider varieties while one of the tags I read says “Ocean Spirit.” What we cannot see this time of year is the “fruits of [their] back-braking work,” the bounty of daffodils. Kilson points to an area which will become a raised bed for tall bearded iris next month.

There are also big rhododendrons that remain from the previous owners. Kilson put in another area of rhodies to create screening, which will fill out in time. Sadly, the beech trees were eaten by the winter moth, so Kilson will have them sprayed this year. She did put in a Cornus mas dogwood, an edible commonly known as Cornelian Cherry, that flowers in early spring and has a wonderful fragrance. Kilson tells me she is putting in a “tapestry garden with different foliage, different shapes, and different colors.” There are beautiful Hakura, a form of willow, that’s really a tall shrub — something I was not familiar with.

Kilson shops for plants at all the Island nurseries, besides special ordering from off-Island. Kilson’s grandkids are not quite old enough to help out in the garden, but Kilson’s husband loves weeding and getting rid of the poison ivy. 

We reach the redbud trees. “They have a spectacular flower in the spring that forms along the edges of the branches before the leaves,” Kilson says. “They’re just beautiful, I adore them.” There are more oak leaf hydrangeas. “The flower heads are so heavy they droop on the ground. When they get more mature, they’ll hold themselves up and look spectacular,” she says. 

The high deer fence around the property was installed by Mitchell Posin of Allen Farm, and the entrance gate was made by the Dunkl brothers. “Another thing I adore and try to plant as often as possible is trillium,” Kilson says. “Whoever saw a trillium that kept going like this in August? I will keep planting them as long as I can breathe.”

Throughout our walk, Kilson repeatedly lamented about the need to weed, noting, “as soon as it cools off,” she’ll get to that, too. 

There are winterberry holly, native clethra, more oak leaf hydrangeas, rhodies, Pieris japonica, corelopsis, Polly Hill azaleas, cryptomeria, and high bush “blueberries for the grandkids to pick,” Kilson tells me.

Turns out, Kilson is most of the way towards her certificate of horticulture at BBG, “But I’ll probably never finish it because there are two or three courses only offered during [the summer],” she says. 

She proudly shows me a Katsura tree from Polly Hill she planted three years ago, because she had fallen in love with one at BBG. “It will become extremely big,” she notes.

Kilson makes a point to visit botanical gardens in her travels, like this year when she enjoyed the bloom at Joshua Tree. I had one last question: Where did her love of gardens begin? 

Kilson remembers visiting her paternal grandparents in Brockton, Massachusetts, where her father grew up. The aesthetic she most remembers is a patch in the backyard. “The pansies,” she said. “The colors. Purple, yellow and the combinations of colors — that’s where the seed was planted.” 

Though that seed may have been in hibernation until 32 years ago, it certainly is blooming now.