Carol Collins and Janet Woodcock live in Vineyard Haven. They have had a garden there since they moved to the Island full-time in 1995, albeit a primarily shade garden. When Island Grown Initiative (IGI) opened a Community Garden at Thimble Farm in 2014, Carol jumped at the opportunity for a sun-filled plot. Janet was not as thrilled at the idea of getting in the car to drive to their garden, but after one year, she was hooked.
The first summer was difficult. Carol described the soil as “hard-packed clay.” “I had the most embarrassing garden,” Carol said. But it didn’t take long to be won over by the difference of both the sun and wind on their growing bounty. Sure, there was a learning curve that came with clay soil, but once they dug bigger holes for their plants and added more compost and horse manure, they had it down. In fact, they quadrupled their original 12 x 20 plot to their now 1,000 square foot garden. They swear they can’t manage more.
Carol grew up in Mansfield where her grandparents were “big gladiola growers” and “grew fields of vegetables.” Carol’s family always had gardens; it may be the reason Carol has been a lifelong gardener and holds the honor of being IGI’s top gleaner with over 100 gleans to her credit.
The community garden offered the opportunity to grow things they’d never been able to grow at home. Carol spread to two plots by the second summer and remained gardener-in-chief “growing whatever [she] wanted and doing it [her] way.” By the third summer, Janet wanted in, so they got a third plot, dubbed “the annex,” which Janet could oversee doing things “her way.” No matter whose plot, all plants are grown from seed, and both Janet and Carol are conscious about harvesting seeds for future seasons using the Martha’s Vineyard Community Seed Sharing Library. “Every year, you grow plants from seeds that are more acclimated to our environment,” Janet said. “They become hardier because it is the environment they’re born into.”
Carol and Janet are growing watermelon, squash, sweet potatoes, and other plants that require a lot of room. So getting the fourth plot enabled them to stay on their growing track. Carol and her sister Joyce, another serious gardener who also lives on the Island, drove their pick-up trucks full of compost from their home to the community garden plots. Carol says manure, compost, coffee grounds, and her secret mix of powdered eggshells and epsom salts (magnesium and calcium) is what makes her soil so good. They have come to love the water holding properties of clay soil, and though they do water their sweet potatoes at first, they generally do not need to water. Potatoes are the only root vegetables they grow.
Carol and Janet grow onions and leeks that “stay in all winter and you pull as you need them,” Carol said. They grow roman peppers and other varieties of hot peppers, cilantro (re-seeded and made it through the winter), assorted okras (including a red burgundy which won a blue ribbon at this year’s Ag Fair), eggplants, and potatoes (both red and white).
Carol likes to make a curried okra dish, though she’s not a “fermentor or pickler.” We’ve probably got about 100 okras at home, picked in the last few days,” Carol said. The couple cooks a massive amount of food they can freeze and store for the winter. “All we have to do is go in the fridge and decide what we’re in the mood for,” Carol said. “Ribollita, squash chili, curried okra and eggplant. Open it up and you’ve got your meal.”
They checked on their sweet potatoes and were so excited to see how big they’re getting. They grew strawberries they enjoyed for a month before freezing 16 gallons worth. They left a kale plant and a root of a cabbage plant for seeds and got “second year plants.” What they didn’t know was how the seeds would cross. They call it “cabbakale” and it looks like white Russian kale. They both agreed it’s delicious.
Janet pointed to an eggplant bed. “To save eggplant seeds, you have to let them over-ripen on the vine. But this plant has put out all the new growth and has tons of flowers.”
Carol continued, “At home we have more kale, swiss chard, celery, and green beans. We’re growing cannellini beans for the first time.”
Janet grew haricot vert string beans for the first time this summer. Janet gestured toward the butternut squash, “we have a little greenhouse at home where I’m curing them in a really warm environment for about four to six weeks to toughen the skin so we can store them for the winter.”
Carol and Janet grew popcorn this year. They’re growing Everglades cherry tomatoes, a hardy perennial that gives you tiny grape size tomatoes. They planted a variety of cherry tomatoes at both their home and IGI garden. The IGI plants “gave and gave and gave” versus the “measly plant at home,” they reflected. Next, Janet pointed out a shishito pepper plant, “you just pick them, fry ’em up in a little oil and add a little salt,” she said. They grow many varieties of peppers, both hot and sweet, including many pepper crosses. This was also the first year they grew asparagus. Their celery is much thicker than any store bought and admittedly more flavorful.
I ask Janet if she grew up gardening. “No way,” she laughed. “We grew up on frozen food.”
Of the three new things they tried to grow: popcorn, asparagus and chickpeas, only the chickpeas were an “abysmal failure.” “Seven chickpeas,” Carol admitted, “I don’t want to tell you how many plants. They looked beautiful. And they died back real soon.”
The passion, joy, and peace Carol and Janet radiate from working their garden is contagious. Though they wished I could have seen their gardens at the height of their bounty, it was difficult not to be impressed by their continuing harvest. Clearly, this garden shows love wins the day and they win the harvest jackpot.
If you would like to rent a plot in the sun, contact IGI’s Emily Armstrong at email@example.com. Be sure to let me know how your first season goes. And of course, introduce yourselves to Carol and Janet.