Most people are not so comfortable showing off their garden in late March, but it is a magic time, getting to see the bones, layout, and imagine all the bounty and beauty within a couple of months’ reach. Lynn Weber was on my mind ever since she left managing the Island Co-Housing garden in West Tisbury. When I reached out to this 80-year-old, she did not hesitate to let me visit her at the home she and her partner purchased and moved to in Oak Bluffs in 2015. In fact, they bought the home of the late Rev. Arlene Bodge and her partner Ginnie (Virginia) McClure. Upon driving onto the property there is a massive pile of wood chips, which will be spread over the garden paths, and a covered area with the remainder of harvested seaweed used for mulch. When Lynn arrived at the garden, a 9,000-square-foot fenced-in area was in need of love and repair. Lynn created 2,200 square feet of raised beds (25 beds total) inside the fencing, and added a 9- by 9-foot hexagonal, deer-resistant bed in an upper orchard, which started with garlic and is now growing rhubarb. In fact, the garden is what sold her on the property. It came with 18 assorted fruit trees, five grapevines, and two beach plums. The fencing was falling down, and the few raised beds that existed also needed tending.
Lynn likes to use shingles with the planting date and name of the crop at the ends of her raised beds. Her garlic beds, planted on Oct. 10, were covered with bright green shoots, spaced five inches apart, 150 cloves in one bed and 250 in the other. She likes to “sprinkle them with manure from time to time.” There is a little parsley coming up from last year that she’ll let go to seed. I ask if anything else is coming up, and Lynn takes me over to a couple of beds she has covered, first with plastic then a rug on top of that. She peels back the layers and digs with her hands into the dirt, and produces thick healthy carrots from one bed planted in August, and from the other turmeric, a new plant for Lynn she started indoors in April on top of a heat mat before transplanting it in May, which continues to be plentiful. There are a lot of 32-gallon garbage cans Lynn fills with chicken manure from cleaning out friends’ chicken coops, letting them age there for six to nine months before using them as an essential organic fertilizer, adding nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, besides increasing the water-holding capacity of the soil.
Fruit trees spread around the fenced garden and upper orchard include apple trees, apricot, one remaining cherry, peaches, and fig, as well as a long, covered grapevine walk along one border. A number of remaining old birdhouses sit on top of fence posts, all from Ginnie McClure, whose friends would add to her loved collection. Lynn grows buckwheat and oats to use as a cover crop; she prefers them to winter rye, “which doesn’t die over the winter, so you have to dig it in, wait a few weeks, dig it in again, to make sure it gets incorporated and dies.” The soil is more sandy here, versus at Co-Housing, so Lynn just waters differently. In fact, once they moved in she removed all the soaker hoses, preferring to water by hand, and only occasionally use a sprinkler. Although Lynn likes to grow edamame, and sent her seed order the day after the catalog arrived, there were none to be had.
As we approach the shed, Lynn points out a “mason bee house” newly attached under the eaves. Bees “will build their nests in little tunnels and cover them with mud, and have their babies in there.” Lynn adds, “I don’t know, I’ve never had one before, but bees are attracted to the narrow tunnel shape.” You can make your own or buy a kit or readymade. There’s sage outside the door to the “shedding house,” and a huge flowering potted thyme plant. On the inside of the shed door is a wooden sign that reads “Garden Fresh Vegetables and Plants” from Lynn’s Edgartown days that her ex-husband made after they settled there in 1972. She says friends and neighbors would stop by, and she’d pick them fresh offerings right from the garden. She moved from Southern California to Martha’s Vineyard, but had begun coming as a child when her parents, after their first visit with Gazette editor and writer William Caldwell, decided to buy a home in Katama. Lynn’s father, Karl Weber, an actor who did everything from commercials for Lyndon Johnson’s and Rockefeller’s campaigns for president to being president of the New York chapter of the Screen Actors Guild, is where she thinks she gets her knack for languages. She is fluent in five languages, and continues to work as a medical interpreter and with the schools on-Island. None of Lynn’s three kids, 11 grandchildren, or five great-grandchildren live on the Island.
She devised a sifter for the ashes left from heating the house, to remove nails and things left, so she can use the ash in her garden care mix. As we head toward the compost, we stop at a cold frame Lynn built for plants that need to be moved from the greenhouse but “aren’t ready to go into the ground because it’s too cold out.” She explains, “It’s covered right now for the winter. I put trays of pots on top of crates, and I can raise and lower it as I need to.” Just a few steps away is the compost bin, “a New Zealand Box; it’s 4 by 4 by 4 [feet], doesn’t have a top or bottom, just earth, [and is only two rather than three bays]. You can build a top, this one from the old compost just happened to fit. The front boards are all removable so you can clean it. When it’s full, I just dump it and cover it till I need it.” Learn how to make your own NZ Box here: bit.ly/NZBinInstrux, or as Lynn notes, “See the ‘Rodale Book of Composting,’ page 233.”
It was Arlene who built the studio and greenhouse around an existing shed, now stacked to the rafters with firewood, the main form of home heating used. Lynn adds, “Ginnie got tired of their kitchen sink always filled with dirt.” We’ve gone full circle and enter the greenhouse last, “a wonderful space.” Lynn shows me “celery, parsley, blue leeks, onions, more parsley, tomatoes, eggplants, peppers.” She says, “I start the leeks in January, and then the onions, parsley, celery, tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers in the middle of February.” The city of stacked pots, like high-rise buildings, fill the utility sink and are both collected by Lynn and gifted to her from friends. Harvested last fall, there are two “giant Danish squash ‘Karon Hill’” a neighbor and good friend gave Lynn that she doesn’t know what to do with, so they sit beside the utility sink.
In a 32-gallon garbage can is Lynn’s “manure tea.” She uses solid chunks of chicken manure, puts them in a bag and hangs them inside the garbage can filled with water. She says, “It stays out here all winter, and got a little skim of ice one morning, but doesn’t seem to freeze.” All the baskets still hanging from the ceiling were “Ginnie’s collection.” You might just say it’s transplanting season. Lynn says, “As soon as they get their second leaves, it’s time to transplant.” On second glance she notes, “It’s already that time.” She starts kale inside in June so she can “transplant them later after other things come out.”
Although Lynn does not plan to add new vegetables this season, she will increase the number of gilot, a Brazilian eggplant. She has a lot of Brazilian friends, plus the local Brazilian restaurants buy from her, so she transplanted about 100 gilot plants and kept only eight for her garden last summer. Lynn trades with one of the farms where she gets manure, and she recycles as much as possible through the garden. She makes her own sterile mix for the seedlings. Every year Lynn makes a new garden plan. From the leftovers she gets at the Food Pantry, Lynn uses corn syrup for shrubs, sprinkles sugar to sweeten rhubarb, oatmeal for replanting, and notes azaleas like three teaspoons of white vinegar per gallon for watering. More of her garden tips include: Epsom salts added to each planting hole for tomatoes and melons; use onions to help repel mosquitos; banana peels for roses; kill poison ivy by drenching it with dishwashing liquid and salt; and to protect your knees, duct tape sponges on them. When I ask if there’s anything Lynn wants to add, she says, “Yes, the garden saved me during the pandemic, listening to NPR and planting. Whether it’s carpentry or gardening, there’s always something to do, and that’s a savior for me.”