Nina Lisa Marie purchased a piece of property in Vineyard Haven in 2007, built a modular house there in 2008, and created her garden in 2009. Thankful that the topsoil removed for the building site was saved, Nina moved dirt wheelbarrow by wheelbarrow to fill over the sandy soil for her garden, along a steep sloping border of her property. Gardening led to beekeeping about five years ago. Beekeeping led to a pond and the pond led to mosquitos, which led to needing hungry koi to stay healthy. For Nina, one thing has always led to another. Perhaps you’ve met Nina Lisa Marie selling her paintings and her local Kulture Club MV Kombucha at the Chilmark Flea Market, or tasted her kombucha available at many Island markets? Maybe she’s been your house painter? She fly fishes, forages for mushrooms and other local ingredients, and is always teaching herself something new. Renaissance woman: check.
There are not many gardeners who allow me to visit in late February, but on a warm winter day with temps in the mid-50s I first visited Nina’s garden. It was me and buzzing bees. Nina told me, “I don’t even have to open the door; if I see the bees flying I know it’s a warm day.” One place the bees particularly liked visiting were the pots on her front deck that have potting soil she purchased “impregnated with mycorrhizae; fungus makes a symbiotic relationship with plant roots, letting them absorb nutrients that way.” Also it can help the bees fight off the viruses mites carry. Nina explains that bees live as long as five or six months in the winter since “all they’re doing is clustering and vibrating to keep warm, going to get honey, or some of [her] emergency sugar feed if the honey runs out. In the summertime since they’re flying and foraging, their bodies get beat up, their wings get tattered, they face predators, so their lifespan is only two to three weeks.” Nina continues explaining, after my shock at their short lifespan, that bees begin by cleaning out the area where they were born, then move up the ranks, becoming attendants to the queen, or they become foragers, guard bees, or mortuary bees; there’s a job for every bee. Too much rain or too little can lead to colony collapse if they can’t fly or pollinate in the warm weather. Nina says last summer was good for the garden, but when she looked at how much honey the bees had collected, she realized the rain was affecting their health. She says, “I’ve had about two or three colonies die, that’s not bad for the North.” She adds that she’s only harvested honey once. Besides their own honey needs, Nina has “seen other bees trying to rob their honey, because the wild bees are starving. In the fall yellow jackets not only go after the honey, but also the brood.”
Luckily I returned for a July visit. Nina’s garden is mostly terraced along a steep hillside, where she feeds the soil fresh horse manure from her friend’s horses plus harvested seaweed. She points out, “the horse manure comes with weeds and the seaweed is great for suppressing the weeds. Planting seedlings is fine, but I have to be careful planting seeds and marking them, which I’m not always great about.”
Despite being born in New York City, Nina says her first love was gardening. Her dad moved their family to Long Island while doing his medical residency, though he subsequently got a job at Mount Sinai. When she was 7 her family moved to Indiana. Though she says her dad “was crazy busy, he still liked to garden. It was like a science experiment: What’ll happen if you don’t do it the way you’re supposed to do it?” Nina says, “My mom loved roses, so he’d plant rose bushes. Anything he’d plant I loved.” Like leeks, which he didn’t pick but would let turn into “those great balls of flowers.”
Nina really got into gardening after having kids: “It was a way for me to teach them, entertain them, and feed them. My son would crawl over to the lettuce and cherry tomatoes and graze, and I had to teach my daughter to only pick sugar snaps when they were ripe, and not their pretty flowers. The irony is I did end up growing and learning to eat veggies that I thought I didn’t like, and not be afraid of spiders and other creepy crawlies, to set a good example for my kids. Even though I never grew to like potatoes, I used to grow them so my kids could dig them up, and I’d cook the potatoes for them.” I found potatoes growing again because her son is living at home presently and loves to make french fries.
Originally Nina wanted her garden “naturally nestled into the woods” until she found out the reason people don’t do that is because of squirrels, bunnies, and deer. Her former West Tisbury garden was planted where a horse paddock had been, meaning hard clay (not ideal soil). Her new garden has sandy soil and good drainage, making her feel like she “could grow everything.” She has learned that the problem with sandy soil is that you have to fertilize and water a lot. One South-facing hill has the remains of this season’s strawberries. She showed me her White Soul alpine strawberries, insisting I taste one. Yes, delicious! Nina combated previous years’ strawberry losses with high-net fencing, hardware cloth dug into the ground to keep the bunnies out, and chicken wire to keep the deer out. She had incorporated driftwood into her fencing only to find it a useful conduit for the squirrels. After a couple of years of enjoying hundreds of peaches from her two peach trees (thanks to her honeybees), the squirrels ate them all, so the driftwood was removed.
“My backyard has tons of wild blackberries and creeping thyme,” she says, and the one year she harvested honey, she had “the most amazing honey,” according to her brother. From reading she learned a prized honey from Greece tastes so good because of wild blackberries and thyme. Nina mostly grows what she wants to eat. “It has changed a little now that [she] has the kombucha business and grows more of what [she] wants to put in the kombucha.” She grows strawberries and peaches, as well as buying some since she makes so much kombucha. She grows basil, mint, and has planted wild wineberries. Nina admits she loves weeding. She used to work for a couple of local landscapers getting to weed gardens and leave only the native plants, like wineberry which she continued to rave about. She also learned seaweed is not completely seed-free, as she points out a few larger plants that came from seaweed. In the shadier areas of her garden she plants tender greens, peas, kale, and Brussels sprouts. The tomatoes get the sunny spot.
Nina says she does a lot of companion planting, “so each bed is not a single crop.” She learned a lot she employs in her own practice from buying the book “Carrots Love Tomatoes: Secrets of Companion Planting for Successful Gardening.” Nina has her favorites and tends not to experiment with new varieties. Wild mint and rosa rugosa (rose hips/beach plum) that she uses in her kombucha grow on one side of her property. She forages for wild blueberries, sumac, and more. She saves a lot of seeds, and buys some flowers she doesn’t have, such as bee balm. She put soaker hoses in her beds and still has to water sometimes. She has fruit trees she planted, including Asian pear, apple, and the aforementioned peach trees. Her cilantro and kale were doing great after the winter.
Though she does not use many annuals, she loves bulbs and how they help her tell what season it is. She loves her tree peonies and daylilies. During her college years Nina kept potted plants and says most of her plants are rescues and have been gifted to her by friends. In February her home was filled with green, plants are everywhere filling the windows, including ivy winding through the second floor railing. She has a banana tree, raised a bird of paradise that has never flowered from seed, a calamansi tree — a popular native of the Philippines, where her family comes from. There’s a ficus, a rubber tree, assorted succulents, basil she cloned from the grocery store, and so many more. Nina scaled back her seedlings from an entire dining table covered with flats and grow lights to a manageable number of flats stacked on shelving by the window near the front door.
She gave up on growing herbs inside through the winter thanks to mealybugs. One year when Nina was active on a Facebook plant group, she could dig up a flat of creeping thyme in exchange for something she was looking for —like pepper seedlings— for a variety she’d never grown, and also enjoyed visiting so many gardens and trading secrets. She says, “Last year I got to see Thomas Hodgson’s garden. We became gardening friends on Facebook and actually get our horse manure from the same people. He gave me some horseradish and a mulberry bush.”
Nina says, “I decided to only plant tomatoes that I actually eat, like sungolds and Italian.” She usually plants varieties she cannot purchase locally, like purple carrots and white eggplants. She also grows sugar snaps, asparagus, basil (growing everywhere), borage, cauliflower, butterfly pea, cabbage, husk cherries (a variety of tomatillos), five kinds of arugula, garlic, leeks, hops, sweet and hot peppers, zucchini, and edible flowers like micro marigolds, nasturtium. There’s a sizable bed in front of the house that includes blueberries, witch hazel, yucca, plus perennial flowers like mallo and orange trumpet vine. Surrounding it is a big white magnolia tree, Rose of Sharon (a cutting taken from her dad in Indiana), lilacs, and fruit trees. Her deck displays all her potted miniature succulents that wintered indoors, a picnic table loaded with potted strawberry plants, and her assorted collection of potted plants from indoors.
Enjoy Nina’s garden bounty used in her MV Kulture Club kombucha. Keep up with her latest flavors on her Facebook page or at kultureclubmv.simdif.com.