I wanted to visit an Oak Bluffs garden and asked Shelley Christiansen if she might recommend someone, which is how I connected with Steven Auerbach who has been tending the corner of Nashawena and Uncas avenues since 1986 when he and his wife Phyllis purchased their home after renting places for a few years. Like many, they began by spending summers and moved full-time to the Island in 2005 for their retirement. Plants extend the entire length in front of Steve’s home on a border that was created when the town put in a sidewalk and left something only green can heal. Mostly I visit gardens that lean towards produce, but this long-tended piece of land grows from a distinct relationship with form, color, texture, and hardiness. The curb buffer feels as though I’d just stepped into Arizona or New Mexico, precisely due to the succulents readying themselves to flower, “really nice yellow flowers one month from now,” according to Steve. Most of the cactus curbside are Opuntia, specifically prickly pear, which are very hardy.
Steve had been busy weeding and readying the garden for friends coming in a few weeks for a memorial celebration of his wife (who had recently passed away) when I arrived, and I’ll admit it was clean, an absolute pleasure of weeping evergreens and newly planted flowers, and popping colors. Steve pointed out the foundational buffer around the house planted a couple of years after they bought, and now mature, bold, and flowing forms. Steve says “this property was barren, there was nothing here at all,” when they first purchased it. “I took my father up here with me around 1988. For my business I had a van and packed it with small plants” for the trip. He continued, “I’ve added and added because I hate mowing lawns.” Steve let me know his business had been “interior landscaping” for hospitals, hotels, medical organizations, restaurants and more. I thought I was looking at cactus along the curb, (yes, there are some) but Steve lets me know it’s “euphorbia, the African equivalent of cacti,” and it does not flower. “I started collecting house plants after college and loved the diversity of plants, the variety and way they manage to survive. And I like the flowers,” Steve admits. “I’m the ornamental gardener” and Steve’s wife was the vegetable gardener.
The plantings are largely perennial. Steve adds with a laugh, “I buy mostly things I like and enjoy figuring out where I’m going to put them.” There’s a row of potted tuberous begonias edging the porch, and many other potted succulents enjoying the shade on the other side of the front porch. Steve adds compost and manure to improve the quality of his soil. He has a few tree peonies where the roots stay above the ground all winter and then get big pink flowers in late spring. In the opposite bed of the front walkway there are vibrant yellow peonies, a herbaceous variety (requiring cold to bloom). Steve is driven by the color and shape of his plants, adding “scent is a nice bonus when you get it.” As Steve leads me around to the side garden he says, “I love iris, over the years I’ve tried to collect different kinds of irises. I love evergreens because they’re beautiful all year [like] this weeping Norway spruce, it’s just a great tree. Zinnias, I’m a big fan of benary giant zinnias which are easy to start from seed, have a long blooming period from mid-July until frost and are very disease resistant.” Steve tagged all the colors, yellow, orange, red, white and so on. “By mid-July they’re going to be beautiful.” He notes, “Those alliums I just put in last fall.”
In one area, Steve says, “I don’t care about my lawn, but this was particularly bad, so I decided let’s put in sedums and euphorbias, drought-resistant plants.” There’s some bridal wreath spirea which Steve says is the easiest plant. “A week ago it was covered with white blossoms then you just shear it back.” As we continue, he points out oakleaf hydrangea. About four years ago the March wind storms took down his 40-foot pine tree, all the shade tolerant plants below seem to have done really well. There’s a stewartia (one of the main tree genus at Polly Hill). He has beautiful gold thread cypress and hinoki cypress, both varieties of chamaecyparis. He likes his coral bark maple for its “very pronounced color in the winter.” Then we get to a “group of plants known as sweet shrub” or calycanthus, but the big ones don’t really smell even though that’s what they’re known for.
We pass another oakleaf hydrangea with “more double flowers,” and then Steve points out “epimedium, the best ground cover, it’s very slow, it can take drought and it’s not invasive like myrtle or pachysandra.” He says, “In early spring it has a kind of orange tint to the leaves. I saw it [at Jardin Mahoney] and said, ‘I gotta have that,’ and then I figured out where to put it.” I like that epimedium is also known as barrenwort, bishop’s hat, fairy wings or goat weed.
They had a good run of strawberries for about 10 years, but that seems to have dried up. Now Steve has planted a “mimosa tree there, a gift” he didn’t know what to do with. Also newly planted is a paulownia tree from his neighbor down the street, Annie Mechur. “Her paulownia tree is 40 feet tall and blooming right now.” I love the paperbark maple he pointed out next and thought it might be good for hand papermaking. “Here’s one of my favorites,” Steve says, “a weeping blue atlas cedar.” Near that is a weeping white pine. Steve explains, “most weeping plants are like freaks of nature, mutants that just happen and then someone says this would look good in a garden, let’s propagate that and then they become more available.” There’s a couple of asparagus areas, Steve says offered “a good crop this year.” Then there’s a raspberry patch which spreads to the asparagus bed, but the asparagus also spreads.
In the vegetable garden, there’s snap peas and tomatoes from COMSOG. Nearby are zinnias and bush beans. We pass weigela, named for a German scientist, a nice shrub from the honeysuckle family. We get to Steve’s “main perennial bed.” There’s purple salvia and baptisia also known as false indigo because it was used to make blue dye. Steve has a couple of Deodar cedars, he says, “I love the needles and great color.” Deodar being Sanskrit for “timber of the gods” according to arborday.org. There’s a weeping Alaskan cedar and a beautiful lilac in tree form he bought for his wife Phyllis. It is unusual to see a tree form lilac, Steve says “one trunk” denotes a tree, though gardeningknowhow.com adds it must also be a minimum of 13 feet high. Like many are experiencing, Steve says this year’s blooms are the largest he has seen. After we pass another hinoki cypress there’s a smoke bush contrasting its soft reddish-pink foliage against the wavy green needles. Moving onto a low conifer, a bird’s nest spruce, from 1988, a “slow grower, but happy,” near a weeping hemlock. Steve notes, “there are several larger examples at Polly Hill.” Another Asian evergreen growing is cryptomeria. Steve remarks, “There are some fine examples on our Island that are 30 to 40 feet tall and some beautiful ones at Polly Hill.” Another one of Steve’s favorites is the Japanese umbrella pine, also at Polly Hill. His kousa dogwood smells good and will offer abundant white blooms after the leaves come out, unlike the Florida dogwood which blooms before the leaves come out.
Steve picked up a shredded umbrella plant about three years ago at Polly Hill. I’ll admit this was one of my favorites in his garden. One perk this year is the irrigation system being installed so he no longer has to water. We stand at the rhododendrons and butterfly bush. When I ask if Steve has made trips just to visit gardens he says, “Not yet, I’ve aspired to do so.” I hope he will find the time to enjoy visiting some of those special places and know that his garden is an oasis of comfort for those passing by and anyone lucky enough to get a tour.