Gardens of Love: Marie Larsen

Transforming Beetlebung Corner.

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It’s been four years since the Larsens, Dan of Edgartown Seafood and Marie, assistant to the director of the MV Charter School, moved to his family home at Beetlebung Corner in the center of Chilmark. Marie organized what she wanted to transplant from their Edgartown property of 30 years, including everything you can see now growing along their corner fences. Driving by and watching Marie plant those first bushes and small trees, then begin a vegetable garden last summer, which doubled in size this spring, I have seen an amazing transformation of the most visible corner in the heart of town. What was used as a spillover parking area for town events before the Larsens came home, has been transformed through love and sweat into an abundant vegetable and flower garden.

I often see Marie working in her garden when I’m heading to the beach to walk my dogs around 6 am, so it was no problem to meet one morning at 7:30, before her family descended for a 9 am socially distanced outdoor breakfast gathering.

Some gardeners have very clear beds, others, like Marie, enjoy a melange of plants growing side by side between beds and containers. Once you pass under the antlers and are inside the gated garden there is a large bed of sweet potatoes dwarfed by a humongous striped German tomato plant. Marie says, “Someone brought me this. It’s grafted; they take a strong root stalk and add a weaker tomato. You’re supposed to trim them. I didn’t do what I was supposed to.” She is growing two varieties of sweet potatoes from slips — shoots grown from a mature sweet potato, unlike other veggies grown from seeds.

Marie grew up outside Boston and says, “My mom was always interested in [gardening], but didn’t pursue it in the city. Then she got her dream house on Middle Road in Chilmark at age 60 and started to garden, mainly flowers, not vegetables. I wasn’t really into it until a friend was given an acre of land to garden where the top soil had been removed twice,” Marie continues. “She was starting fresh and I was interested, so I helped her and from there it took off. She still has that acre and I barely help her because I’m so busy here.” Although Marie does not participate in any of the plant-sharing groups on-Island, she does get a lot of plants from friends. “Just the other day I came home and there was a large box of tomatoes here from Albert Fischer.”

Originally it was one friend — Lynne Irons, Marie says, who “took me under her wing and gave me everything — tips, tricks, plus plants. She is my mentor and helps me.” Marie and Lynne have known each other for 30 years and talk daily. They have been close friends for 20 years.

In the spring Dan and Marie erected a tall deer fence around the garden. I noticed it when containers lined the outside length of the garden fence only to learn Marie planted white potatoes that were sadly all lost to some sort of blight. “Lynne came up to look at my potatoes and I had to dump them all. She always comes to troubleshoot.”

There’s a copper-colored ninebark (Physocarpus, member of the Rosaceae family) Marie grew from seed along the fence. Both she and Lynne have ninebarks they plan to collect seeds from and then plant at their own gardens and see what happens.

Marie has a couple of strawberry patches that were still producing in mid-August and grows both red and Alpine varieties. In another area she points out husk tomatoes, dill, and poppies, all volunteer plants that Marie chooses to leave rather than weed. There are gorgeous gladiolas and Nicotiana, a flowering form of tobacco. She grew lettuce from last year’s seeds, “ate it and ate it” and is now letting them go to seed to collect for next year. In another area there’s more lettuce Marie has grown from seed, some celery and more flowers in between. “This year,” Marie says, “I grew a lot of flowers from seed, like those zinnias, the amaranth, snapdragons.” She starts them in flats and then “flops the flats, taking them to a bed, overturning them, and letting them fall into place.” She begins pointing out areas saying, “This is a whole flat, that’s a whole flat, that’s a whole flat,” all the while suppressing a laugh. Of course, first you have to dig a flat-sized hole “to dump ‘em in.” She points out dahlias Lynne grew from seed, assuring me, “They’ll be better next year.” Grass Pea, more commonly known in Italian as Cicerchia and now in Spain as La Mancha, is drought-proof and considered toxic if it makes up more than 30 percent of a diet for two to six months, according to Clovegarden.com. She’s not planning on eating any. There are a few varieties of amaranth — Autumn’s Touch and New Mexico — she grows only for their “looks.” Moving on Marie explains, “These are poppies I’m saving for seed. They volunteer everywhere, scatter on their own.”

Herbs, including two types of basil, grow between other plants around the garden. Zucchini, onions, and chard are together in another area. Marie says, “If there’s a spot, I put something in it.” She created a permanent bed for asparagus Lynne grew from seed. In her onion bed she is multi-sowing, where you plant three or four seeds in one clump, then wiggle out the largest and let the others continue to grow. She learned this watching Charles Dowding of “No-Dig Organic Gardening” fame, on YouTube. There’s a garlic and flower bed, another area all foxgloves — “a biennial that self-seeds like crazy.” One bed has been donated to her future daughter-in-law. More dahlias that wintered indoors. There are more onions in the new garden area not multi-sown, and more lettuce, and turnips. I didn’t notice soaker hoses and Marie tells me, “I water every third day and water really well.”

There’s rhubarb and comfrey, which Marie says, “is really good to enrich the soil. I have the cuttings in a covered bucket, you leave for two weeks and it smells terrible.” There are more tomatoes, chives, and she’s saving fennel for seeds from last year. Marie uses tulle, which she prefers “because you can see through it,” to keep bugs off certain beds. She’s trying kalettes this year, a hybrid of kale and Brussels sprouts with a mild and nutty flavor she looks forward to eating. There are beans, scallions, and more lettuce grown from seed. Marie starts “a lot inside” and was even thinking of starting fall seeds the day I visited. She’s growing cardoon, also known as artichoke thistle, which she appreciates for its beauty in flower arrangements; you only eat the stems. Marie says, “It’s a big Italian thing.” There are beets, leeks, and basil, she learned the night before, are happier in partial shade and plans to move. Last year’s and this year’s flat Italian parsley are growing together and going to seed. She has Alpine and red strawberries, carrots, and lots of marigolds to “help keep pests away.” There are Brussels sprouts beside what Marie calls her “graveyard, where extra peppers and eggplants” are growing with sweet peas along the fence. Then parsnips, more leeks, tomatoes, ground cherries, kohlrabi, red cabbage, peas, haricot vert beans, melampodium (from the sunflower family), celosia (an edible ornamental from the amaranth family), mortgage-lifter tomatoes, yard-long red noodle beans, silver dollars, allium, and geraniums.

She shakes the dirt off geraniums and puts them upside down inside a paper bag for the winter in her attic. When she took them down in March they looked withered for good, so she threw them in her wheelbarrow, it rained a lot and then she noticed small green sprouts coming to life. Marie said Lynne’s grandmother called them “magic plants.” She’s growing broom-corn, a sorghum used for making brooms. After walking through her gardens, Marie points out the chickens she keeps for eggs behind the smaller house and her greenhouse beyond that which she uses all winter with room for 24 flats she starts in her home before they move to the greenhouse.

Marie is really excited about getting big beets this season. She loves learning and YouTube has been a regular source for developing her gardening knowledge. She’s growing currants she plans to give to Betsy Carnie who cooks at the Charter School. Marie makes dilly beans for her grandkids and freezes a lot from her garden. She said, “Now I understand why they tell you ‘grow what you like.’” She told me she hates turnips so they won’t be on next year’s growing list.

Being around Marie in her garden is an absolute delight; she takes pleasure in what works, and whatever is not working she takes in stride. I left inspired and admire Marie for falling more in love with gardening each year as she gets her fingers in that healing dirt.