It is the end of September when I visit Wendy Weldon and James Langlois, artists, life partners and mostly vegetarians who live on a picturesque property overlooking ponds and the ocean in Chilmark. James grew up “in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, in an ethnic neighborhood with Italians, Portuguese, and Polish” where he was fascinated by his neighbors’ gardens. At age 7 he dug up his family’s backyard and planted bean, corn, and tomato seeds. His dad was none too happy until actual vegetables began to appear. James has been an avid gardener ever since, crediting his childhood neighbors for teaching him how to garden. He doesn’t read as much as experiment to figure out what works. Wendy admits she’s James’s assistant when it comes to the garden. James began tending to their garden in 2003.
Wendy Weldon’s dad planted the garden originally in 1960 on land he and his wife purchased in 1958. Her mom designed their home and her dad focused on the garden. Wendy fondly remembers gardening with her dad growing up in Indiana adding, “He always thought his Indiana tomatoes were better tasting so he’d bring a suitcase with his tomatoes from home to the Vineyard. In the old days [the Vineyard] didn’t have enough heat [for growing tasty tomatoes] while Indiana is hot, humid. The weather has changed.” She continues, “We always had a garden here. We had raspberries, (and pointing) those are his rhubarb from 1960, the Niagara and Concord grapes he planted. We had asparagus too.” Horseradish from Onnie Palmer (a childhood friend since they were 7) grows along one fence.
James enlarged the growing area of the garden by cutting down some unhealthy fruit trees, reclaiming fertile ground. As we walk, it feels like planting rooms rather than beds because everything is so big and bountiful. I notice a large dahlia area when James interjects, “That’s nothing. You should have seen it when it was outside the garden.” But the deer ate them and spraying took a lot of time, so they moved the dahlias inside the fence. Wendy’s dad grew dahlias with Ozzie Fischer, who wintered his bulbs in her family’s basement. There’s even a Jack Weldon dahlia that Ozzie Fischer named after Wendy’s dad, she says, “because he had so many of them. The big ones are Dick Burt’s (of West Tisbury). All the colored plastics you see, that’s me marking the colors.”
Wendy admits not knowing names for the numerous palate of dahlia varieties, and even though they are not intending to propagate new varieties, Wendy is sure it happens. They dig up every one of their dahlias to winter in old Coca-Cola cases where it’s dry and cool with air-flow. Wendy said, “One year we did a trade with a guy who was care-taking the Kennedy property. I gave him two bags with 100 dahlias. Hopefully they kept them, at least I like to think they’re growing there.”
James planted “five or six kinds of lettuce, and once that was cleared out [he] dug in a third planting of summer squash and beans.” Three fences had cucumbers, including marketmore (an ideal slicing cucumber), a white pickling variety, and a deep jade known as China or tasty jade relished for being sweet, crisp, and thin-skinned. Wendy continues to enjoy making her dad’s recipe for bread-and-butter pickles with a twist — she adds her hot Thai chilis to them. “I add them whole so you can choose not to eat them,” she says. “They do spice it up, giving them a little bit of a zip.”
After the “hundreds of cucumbers,” James planted Roma pole beans. Although he’s not sure how they’ll do this late in the season. Wendy adds, “We just got a crop of French [haricot vert] beans I’ve been picking.” Along the back fence are the Concord and Niagara grapes her dad planted, both varieties originate in North America. Though Wendy is “not a jelly person,” she enjoys making grape and apple chutney, and last year she made grape juice for the first time. Friends who receive grapes often give them jelly. She makes a lot of pickles and fermented peppers. They grow Italian roasting, Hungarian wax (really hot), Portuguese hot peppers, padrons, and some Thai peppers (there are 79 super-spicy varieties). James adds, “She likes them hot.” Wendy smiles and says, “I freeze a lot of them and make a lot of Thai food.” So there are plenty of varieties for every palate, including shishitos which are flowering again. Also abundant are their flathead parsley and cilantro plants that James says “love this kind of weather,” though their plants never survive winter.
James starts everything in the garden (except the dahlias) from seed, some saved and some bought. Their Brussels sprouts are growing, but not producing the small heads of miniature cabbage. Over the winter they decide what to grow. New this year are the Hungarian wax peppers and different squashes like midnight zucchini. James said, “I planted 82 tomato plants.” They’re letting their beans go to seed. James started his “jewel corn from seed in the greenhouse back in March,” moving them into larger pots and then moving them to the garden when it was warm enough. They grew into strong, healthy plants, but they were sadly all ravaged by rats. James says, “Once one rat gets caught, none will come back.” Bed borders of French marigolds, zinnias, and cosmos are still in bloom. James shows me the soybean plants from which they’ve enjoyed a bounty of edamame, however, the rats ravaged these plants as well. James explains that having the compost next to this area of the garden makes it an easy target. Next year the compost area will not abut the garden and hopefully the distance will discourage rodent raids.
Besides giving away garden goodies to their tenants and friends, they also sell, for example, their heirloom tomatoes to North Tisbury Farm. Wendy says they used “to sell more to restaurants and the Chilmark General Store.” As we walk onto a patch of soft earth, James explains, “It’s a mole. As soon as you step on this you know he’s here.” James uses coffee grinds down the mole holes to deter them. He says, “I’ll find a hole and dig and put the grinds in, again and again and again all over the garden.” Both Wendy and James “don’t like rules” but will look up an organic strategy for dealing with issues that arise, then they’ll “buy it and try it.” He says, “everything changes organically every year,” when talking about where he plants what. I ask about herbs, whether there are more here or in pots around their home. Just the cilantro and parsley plus a lot of basil, but they want to put in raised beds around their home to enjoy “a cutting garden, with lettuce, kale and herbs” for next year.
“Everything has to be cut back, the grapes, and everything pruned. We’re putting in a new garden fence by the guys who did the fence at North Tisbury Farm.” Wendy and James explain, “We want the garden to be a little smaller, more manageable so if we travel in the summer we can just put in a good ground cover crop.”
Next we’re walking past giant stalks belonging to green onions, like giant scallions. James pulls off the dried seeds from a basil stalk. Tossing them, he says he’ll look for the “volunteers next year.” Although James has grown “monster broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower” other seasons, he didn’t plant them this year, mostly he says, “Because you have to have hoop houses and keep the cabbage moths away and I don’t like to spray chemicals.” The broccoli needs a lot of water. Wendy adds, “We have drip water irrigation as well as overhead.” She continues, “I think that’s what happened this summer. Our crops got dry and became more susceptible to blight and disease, because we didn’t realize how serious the drought was.” James says, “Once I get this whole garden turned over, I have to get the rye grass in here to hold this down. Its deep root structure holds the soil” so they don’t lose their top soil to wind. After it grows you turn it over, “It’s green manure, sometimes you even have to mow it first, it looks like a golf course,” says Wendy.
James pulls seeds from dill plants and throws them. Wendy says, “the dill and cosmos come back every year.” They use “some seaweed for mulching.” When I turn, James shows me seeds from cleome, sometimes called spider-leg or spider flower. The only edible flowers are nasturtium growing in pots outside their home. They have tithonia, a Mexican sunflower. James says, “This year wherever these came up, they were all volunteers.” They leave this year’s sunflower seeds for the birds. Then James says this year’s fall spinach planting “is really, really, really good.”
They start their seeds in flats in the small greenhouse attached to their home. Then he plants into a six-pack that becomes a 24 and he keeps “stacking it up and stacking it up.” James makes sure to throw carrot seeds all over the garden so Lily (the dog) has to hunt them down, since digging up carrots is her favorite garden pastime.
They have zinnias and snapdragons too. Neither has ever entered anything in the Ag Fair, though Wendy’s nieces and nephews used to “pick blueberries and sell them at the Farmers Market.” They have three varieties of blueberries. Wendy adds, “Susan Murphy taught me how to prune” them in February. Wendy says, “Hugh Taylor used to mow the blueberry orchard for my dad.” The blueberries come not from bushes but from what now resemble small trees we pass on the way back to their home.
All gardens demand love, commitment, and facing challenges from nature. Wendy and James clearly devote enormous energy to this special piece of land they have tended as partners for the last 17 years. Wendy says when she’s working in an area and looks up toward the dahlias she can even see her dad at work. Though she may complain about how much time is devoted to their garden, I can tell she loves sharing, cooking, and enjoying the fruits of their labor. I look forward to seeing their new smaller garden next growing season.