Gardens of Love: Deborah Buress

Finally, a garden to call home.


Spring was in the air, and I was ready for flowers. Finally, on a chilly day in the car — without the dogs — I stopped at Vineyard Gardens, looking for deer-resistant flowers, and asked for help. The woman who helped me referenced an app on her phone to answer my questions; she was enthusiastic about all the plants and flowers, and let me know she was working there in her retirement. We talked a bit more, and by the end of our conversation, I was asking if I could visit her garden in Vineyard Haven. Within a week I was visiting Deborah Buress in late April. She has been in her present home for nine years, having lived on Main Street for 12 years prior. She and her husband moved to the Island from Annapolis, Md., a place she “couldn’t wait to leave.” When they began their search, it stretched from just south of New York to not much further north than Boston. Deborah is originally from Chagrin Falls, Ohio (20 minutes from Cleveland), well, really, the smaller community of Lake Lucerne, a place she credits for an idyllic childhood. Deborah did not garden as a child; in fact, she did not garden until moving to Annapolis, where two daughters graduated from high school. Her youngest daughter graduated from MVRHS about 25 years ago. Deborah adds, “She was not happy when I pulled her out of school in her junior year, and now she thanks me every day.”

In Annapolis, Deborah had a small garden that was regularly grazed by the local wildlife, so all she could grow there were some annuals. When they moved to the Island, she really began to garden, albeit on a particularly “minuscule lot.” You could say it was her learning garden. She says of her present home, “When we moved here, I went wild.” Deborah reclaimed every inch of earth available around her property, adding rows of evergreen shade trees, including Leyland cypresses, to create privacy from neighbors on three sides. In fact, she cleared six-foot-high brush from the entire backyard. Of course, they also had to fully renovate their home when they moved in; they added two large stone steps down to a stone patio they created in the back, continuing the stones as a walkway to compost and garbage, hidden in bins, as well as to the guest cottage they built on one side of their property, also with a row of evergreens to create two private areas with shared access to parking.

When I arrived, I’d noticed a turkey perfectly framed by the walk and stairs to the front door. I also noticed the stair railings were a set of oars pointing in different directions. Another set of oars flanks the back door of her home. No, she’s not a rower, but form and the play of shapes is prevalent throughout Deborah’s garden. It was hard to miss her attention to texture and form, from the added raw-edge wood planters she created around the mechanicals on one side of her home to setting a circular footed birdbath in the center of a diamond-shaped raised planter on the back patio. She loves planters; there’s a metal tub with a dwarf evergreen by the back door, an oval terracotta planter down one step, then a larger round planter; there are barrel planters and an angled corner planter. Even before the garden has really begun to show itself, one’s eye easily wanders and moves around the garden, drawn by contrasting textures, colors, shapes, and forms.

We head to the guest side of the property, where she mulched and planted hydrangeas, as well as created a central walk accented by daffodils and lilies on one side, and when I ask about the evergreen flowering bushes opposite, Deborah says, “I can’t remember.” A refrain I sadly adhere to about many things at this juncture in life. Bob, the Westie, comes trotting out the dog door on the side of the main house, and joins us. 

Due to the property being fenced on all sides, Deborah says she does not have to worry about deer eating her plants. In fact she moved all the lilies from the driveway to the back garden, where they are safe. There’s a holly tree that will have to come down when her solar panels get added, since it’s blocking most of the sunlight. Deborah said, “It’s got needles, it’s beautiful, but horrible,” then turning and pointing, she adds, “This is a really nice holly, an American holly.” She forgot the name of the holly she doesn’t like. Back to the hydrangeas, Deborah asks me if I know the difference between mopheads and panicles; I don’t. She explains, “Panicles are whatever color they are and won’t change; they’re spectacular. I just cut them down about five feet, and they’re gonna get back to 10 feet high. Panicles grow on new wood, whereas mopheaps grow on old wood.” Then we’re onto the peonies, and Deborah continues, “Peonies need a lot of sun. It’s the reason many people have problems with their flower gardens. They plant things that need sun in too much shade, and they can’t figure out why it died. It’s because it wants sun, not shade.”

When Deborah moved to the house she presently lives in, she was on the verge of retiring from working for the TSA at the airport for three years, a job she admits hating, as it turned out her coworkers did as well. She said she’d had many jobs, but spent a lot of time sailing with her husband, 25 years her senior, who passed away four years ago. She has worked as a volunteer one day a week for a few years at Chicken Alley, where she scores finds for her garden. Now that she’s forgetting more plant names than she can keep in her head, she may place markers with names. I suggested using old cutlery to write on. She had an irrigation system put in for the entire garden, something she said “I need to work on today.”

We pass something “flowering for Easter, a Japanese quince. It used to be huge, and I cut it down last fall.” I notice a patch of something coming in. It takes Deborah a few seconds, and she remembers, “It’s foxglove.” Since she has two daughters and their families on-Island, I ask if her grandkids come over. She explains, “Every Thursday after school it’s ‘Gran Day,’” and the 12-, 10-, and 9-year-old grandkids arrive, and always help in the garden. In one back corner of the garden is a raised planter for her tomatoes, which she admits “do really well.” Deborah cannot imagine not being busy. She plays croquet three times a week in the summers in Edgartown (behind the Boys and Girls Club), plays ukulele on Wednesdays at various Island libraries, and loves working with plants, learning more about them and making new discoveries during the three part-time days she works at Vineyard Gardens.

There are viburnum, lilacs, a newly started climbing rose. Next Deborah is steering me to the front of her home, having reclaimed the entire front lawn. Deborah pays her 10-year-old grandson to cut her grass with a push mower. The white flowers accenting the front walkway edging are candytufts, a ground-hugging perennial that only needs full to partial sun, and does well in gravelly areas or well-drained ones. Not only do candytufts flower in late spring through summer, they can bloom again in the fall too. Deborah mostly grows flowering plants, and lots of flowers for cutting. She makes new arrangements for every room in her guest cottage, as well as her own home. Her vegetables are limited to tomatoes, onions, peas, lettuce, plus herbs, including parsley and thyme. She doesn’t have fruit trees.

When I ask if Deborah has taken any gardening classes, she tells me, “I went to Baltimore this year [for an event that] all the nurseries around the East Coast go to. That was fun.” No, she hasn’t taken classes, and when I wonder if she heads off-Island to visit any gardens, Deborah says, “Actually, I’m going to my daughter’s graduation in Philadelphia, and when I’m there I’m going to meet my sister and [visit] Longwood Gardens in the middle of May. If I am somewhere there are gardens, I’ll always visit.” 

It’s clear that Deborah’s home is her forever home — as she says, “I’m not going anywhere.” And now she has her forever garden as well.