Roxanne Kapitan is a regenerative backyard garden goddess in “that carpe diem phase of life.” She is landscape manager at Oakleaf Landscape, where she has worked with clients for the past 10 years to help them love their yards. Roxanne lived for many years in Vineyard Haven before moving to her Oak Bluffs property. She bought her Tisbury home while she worked for 19 years as a science education specialist for the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI). Though her regional office was in Andover, she oversaw a region including New England, New York, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. Roxanne grew up in the Bronx, and says, “My grandmother and my father, on the Greek side of my family, were very into gardening. My grandmother had a hunting lodge in upstate New York where we’d go for a week in the summer. I remember she had this enormous vegetable garden.” After they moved from the Bronx when Roxanne was in grade school, she remembers having “gardening chores in Northport,” on Long Island.
During high school she had a vegetable garden, and participated in a community garden. After high school followed a period of trying out “a lot of communes and spiritual communities, and I really started getting into the earth.” She graduated from Cornell with a degree in nutrition, and moved with some girlfriends to Boston and “stumbled into [her OERI] job.
“I really got into farming when my godmother passed away,” she explains. “Right before she died, she said something very important to me, ‘Before you know it you’re going to be dying, and don’t go to your deathbed like I am, with all these regrets. When it’s time to go to your grave, have no regrets.’” That’s when Roxanne quit her job and became a farmer at 40 years old. She farmed at what is now Native Earth Teaching Farm for three years, growing two tons of salad greens a year, and selling them to local Island chefs. She, along with Jason Ben David, turned her Summer Street home into an organic nursery, Vineyard Organic Perennials. She was the first Island organic nursery, only open Saturdays.
It took the pandemic and not being able to return to work for her to turn her focus to her own dreams and gardenscapes. When she moved 14 years ago, the O.B. property had “very little privacy” and mostly consisted of lawn. She began by planting conifers for privacy screening, explaining, “I believe your garden is a room, an extension of your house. A bowl for your intentions. You start at the perimeter and work in. Using compost from my other house, I planted a kitchen garden with perennials and posts I found on the road. So repurposing everything is important.”
Last year Roxanne added a wine cap mushroom garden. She explains, “You place aged oak chips mixed with some maple underneath an [oak] tree, because it needs dappled light.” In this case, 40 wheelbarrows of wood chips. I wondered if I’d been seeing wine cap mushrooms on my walks. Roxanne explained, “They start the color of wine with little white dots, then they have a flat top and have one distinct feature: They’re dark underneath.”
Roxanne collects “manure from friends’ chicken houses” and mixes it with “anything green [she’s] cutting back.” She continues, “When leaf season is over, I take all that and layer it” with the manure. Using her hand, she shows me how high the pile starts; it is filled with worms, and it shrinks to half the size by May, when she’s ready to start using it in her garden. Using manure, Roxanne confirms, breaks down the compost in 50 percent of the time it would take without it. As we move around her garden, Roxanne says, “I started defining this food forest by collecting cardboard, along with three huge trees that fell down, and putting wood chips on top to do the paths. I also decided to create these fruit tree guilds.” I interrupt to ask what a “guild” is. “Each fruit tree has plants around it, each serves a particular purpose,” she explains. As she gently sweeps her arm over “This total area was covered with weeds, thorny stuff and all kinds of poison ivy. So I took my choppers and had Randy Ben David brush-cut it. Then I created five circles, each with three layers of cardboard and a foot of wood chips. Three apple trees, a pear tree, and a mulberry tree. There are no straight lines. Each circle, the guild, has plants that suppress aggressive vines.”
I learned that “some of the best plants for this are plants that have bulbs, like narcissus, iris, or that spread on the bottom.” She continues, “You also need repellers, so over there is a patch of oregano. It has a strong smell and it repels the moths and other things that could lay eggs and eat leaves. Then you need pollinators, I have a couple over here; valerian, oxeye daisy, that attract an inordinate amount of bees. You also need plants you chop down and use as mulch, like lemon balm, that can add nitrogen back into the soil. Another repeller are chives, which have a strong smell. And finally, you also need plants that’ll draw the nutrients from deep in the soil, those are dynamic accumulators. Comfrey is a perfect example; it has a very long taproot. All of this is so you don’t have to go out and buy granulated fertilizer. This is about using plants that are available and that you could trade with someone, and helping the fruit tree to perform without any fertilizers or sprays whatsoever.”
Then Roxanne shows me the size of the apples she harvested this year from her new trees, cupping her hands together, and they’re big. There’s some Helianthus, Roxanne says, “a late season pollinator, like a sunchoke, and I also have native blue vervain in there. The three apples pollinated each other, but the pear did not have a friend, and she just had hundreds of flowers and no pears.” Next season Roxanne will be adding a “friend” for the pear tree and another apple variety. She adds, “The mulberry is self-pollinating, and was filled with mulberries for the first time [last] year.” Although she will keep some areas wild, there is an area we walk to where Roxanne experiments with wild perennials. She begins to list them, “I have two kinds of sorel [one red-veined and the other a green French variety], perennial garlic, sea kale, self-seeding Shiso green and red [Asian basil], and a couple of other things. I will never have to plant garlic again. You can just cut back the garlic 10 times and it will keep growing and producing.” I had questions, and it turns out Roxanne plants her garlic scapes, which then produce a slim leaf that can be added to salads and more.
Rather than buying straw, Roxanne cuts back her Misscanthus grasses and uses that instead. She shows me her “suppressor patch with different types of lilies and iris” she’s “collected over the years, that will get plugged into new guilds.” And there’s another area where Roxanne finished a stunning pond with cascading water, another room, fitting into the bowl of land that “gets the correct amount of sun, not full sun.” Past that is the “berry bramble,” which includes plants from her property and those she propagated, including thornless blackberries, wineberries, and raspberries (which I enjoyed off the plant last November).
In another area, Roxanne explains she collected eel grass and is conditioning the soil and suppressing all the undergrowth of the vines and invasives so in the spring she’ll just be able to plug in her asparagus. Past that is privet, which she prunes “all by hand,” creating an enclosed, screened-in barrier. Everything she cuts back annually is used as posts in her garden or as kindling for her fire. On one side of the yard are tall trees, all native: a dogwood, a beech, a witch hazel, and an American cranberry. Roxanne describes the once near-leafless saplings she knew one day would flourish, and they certainly are doing just that.
Roxanne says, “I’m happier than I’ve ever been. I wake up every morning so excited, I’m completely in love with life, the plants and teaching [regenerative gardening] classes.” She is able to offer her classes free through Island Grown in exchange for a farm share, which she further shares with those in need. Roxanne says, “I’m fulfilled. I’m so grateful,” as she turns, exclaiming,”This shrub is filled with blackcurrants, and they are so delicious.” What she finds “so cool about them is that they have an old world taste. On a cellular level, I feel like I ate them in some other incarnation. And you don’t find them anymore, just red ones.” Then we’re passing “perennial scallions; they’ll come back every year, and are active nine months of the year.” I notice sage in a herb area with oregano, rosemary, and winter sage. She has first-year hops, of which she says, “Next year I’ll actually get some hops. You dry the flowers and make a tea at night if you’re an insomniac.”
Finally we make it to Roxanne’s cozy greenhouse. There is a blooming orange calendula. I ask Roxanne, “Do you have a favorite color?” She replies, “Orange, can’t you tell from what I’m wearing?” Roxanne has dill growing to use “as a repeller” in the greenhouse, and to prevent moths from laying eggs on the kale. She points out bags where she is collecting seeds, and says, “It’s been so much fun sharing them with friends.” She has butterfly weed, Asclepias, deer-resistant and drought-tolerant, from the milkweed family. There’s zebra grass, and as we turn, Roxanne mentions not using conifer clippings in compost due to their high acidity and very sticky gum. She has two different wood piles, a mixed one for the fireplace, and fruitwood and applewood for her grill. A couple of once 80-foot-tall pitch pines lay rotting. Roxanne watches and learns from their transformative process. She explains, “You can tell when they’re dying because they have a big flare at their root, at the trunk, and the earth starts coming up around them.” She has a lot of pitch pine, mentioning “they are very shallow-rooted.” She notes the great variety of oak trees on her property.
In an area she let go wild, more goldenrod and miscanthus spread, and peonies and lavender also do well. I have known Roxanne many years, but it’s clear how different she feels having more time to focus on her garden world. She says, “I feel like I was born again. I don’t believe in tomorrow, only now, and it’s so rewarding to let go of all the stuff that doesn’t matter.” One last thing that’s important to Roxanne is the view from her office when she’s on her computer; she’s extended her garden to a near four-season one, so when she looks up from her desk she can see spring bulbs; summer-flowering annuals, marigolds, ‘Purple Haze’ anise hyssop. In February there are crocuses, in March the hellebores (winter roses), in April it’s all daffodils, in May it’s the tulips and some early-flowering geums or avens (bright salmon, orange, deep gold colors in the rose family). Daylilies in June, digitalis foxglove in July, astilbe in August, flowering ornamental and native grasses as well as the native asters and goldenrods in September, perennial mums in October. “Gardens should not be cleaned up; the stalks, the old flowerheads are a harbor for all the beneficial insects that go into hibernation in the winter,” she says. I look forward to seeing Roxanne’s garden transition into spring blooms and growth.