Gardens of Love: Jennifer Bettencourt and Jason O’Donnell

It takes two to make their garden grow.

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When Jennifer Bettencourt and Jason O’Donnell bought their home in 2015 (just before they married) at the end of a road that used to be a horse farm, there was nothing growing besides some 50-year-old pine trees. The property is on a rolling hill. The one thing in place outdoors was a stone wall and small patio in the back of the house, with a stone area for grilling. They added an outdoor stone fireplace, explaining they bought it as a kit and had Teles Landscaping install it. Four years ago they added a buffer of four-foot Leyland cypress trees — now at least 12 to 15 feet tall — between the pines to create privacy on the back patio, which they also extended to the width of their home.

Jennifer’s family goes back at least five generations, and she was born on-Island, while Jason’s family moved to the Island when he was 5 to live near his mother’s twin sister, after his father got a job on-Island. Although they’d known one another for sometime, they got together seven years ago, dating before moving in together and then getting married six years ago (their anniversary was the day before our interview). Jason now works as a property manager, and by the looks of things, I guessed he’d also been a builder (true).

Growing up, Jason says, “My mother was a big gardener. We had flowers everywhere. She was always out in the garden doing stuff, and had a vegetable garden.” When I asked if he helped, Jason laughed and said, “I mowed the lawn a lot, and did some weeding here and there.” Although it was just him and a sister, three step and half-siblings joined his family, and he added, “Everyone loves gardens.” I ask when he started gardening, and Jason says, “When we bought this place.” He’s even added a garden for his mother at her home.

Jennifer’s grandparents, Aurelia and Manuel Francis, had gardens. In fact, her grandfather Manuel (Manny, yes the very same as the plaque honoring him by the Oak Bluffs Police Station) did all the plantings at Ocean Park, and they were all marigolds and petunias. Jennifer adds, “He did this all by himself until he was in his 80s.” Jennifer says she spent a lot of time as a child in her grandparents’ home: “My grandmother cooked and my grandfather gardened. I remember as a kid always being outside with him. I didn’t really start gardening until I got my own place when I was 19, and it was an epic fail.” Jennifer took horticulture in high school. She says, “I continued to garden every place I had,” but never vegetables until COVID. In 1999 Jennifer went to the Floral Design Institute in Seattle. She adds, “Cut flowers are my thing, I love cut flowers.” Although she has never worked as a floral designer, she did have a small gardening business on-Island until 2006, before starting her own bookkeeping business.

When I wonder about the division of labor, Jason says, “I build it, and she beautifies it.” Jennifer adds, “Color is my thing. The lilies are about to pop, and the baptisia [also known as blue false indigo] is gorgeous when it blooms and it expands. The same for my Joe Pye weed.” The outer border along the back patio is only flowers, though there’s a large planter close to the kitchen full of herbs, and they have a raised bed vegetable garden beside the hen house at one edge of their property, down the hill from their home. They also added a small stone wall with a planting area, and stone steps from the back parking area to the guest cottage above Jason’s workshop. When they bought the property, the cottage was just a shed. The stones look like they were from the same time as the stone wall out in back of their home, and that was intentional.

They have a couple of pots growing strawberries near their back slider that Jennifer says, “I plant for the chipmunks because they just devour them.” I noticed a clear jar brewing sun tea on the outdoor dining table. Jennifer is growing chamomile this year, though she wasn’t focused on growing her own tea. She starts her plants from seed in a small greenhouse located next to the chicken coop: “One year I made creams, toothpastes, and lots of things from the garden as presents. I’ve gotten into drying stuff, but we haven’t gotten into canning yet.” Jason and Jennifer love cooking together as well.

When I arrived I’d noticed a small parked caravan, which Jennifer and Jason recently bought and plan to turn into a farmstand to share their bounty with friends and family. It’s one of Jason’s winter projects — he bought it from a childhood friend who was moving. Jennifer planted her tomato seeds in February in the greenhouse, by April they’d taken off, and when she transplanted them into pots and raised beds, they weren’t as happy this season. There’s a netting-protected sunflower patch along one side of the raised-bed garden, which also is fenced for deer.

Last year Jennifer tells me the length of the back deck of the house was lined with planters and only tomatoes. “Every tomato growing this year self-seeded from last year,” Jennifer continues, “The only thing I planted was the marigolds, lettuce, and peppers.” I see a shishito pepper plant and admit the one I had last year from MV Grower (see her Facebook page) did better than any other plant I had. Jennifer adds, “She’s my idol.”

As we move on to the beds, Jennifer shows me the borage she grows. She said, “I use the flowers for salads, and freeze them in ice cubes and use them for cocktails when we entertain. You can eat the entire plant except for the roots, it’s kind of a cucumbery taste, but too texturey for me, so I don’t eat, it I just use the flowers.” On-Island they like to shop at Jardin Mahoney. Jennifer now collects “as many seeds as possible from [her] own flowers, and now vegetables too.” She loves nasturtium, and is growing catmint for the first time with purchased seeds. Her zinnias, sunflowers, and marigolds are all from her own seeds.

Although both Jennifer and Jason work full-time, she admits, “We spend every free moment out here. We come out at 5 o’clock and are out here until 7.” I wonder if they listen to music when they’re working in the garden; Jason favors classic rock, while Jennifer loves Christian music, simultaneously they both add, “and the Ed Sheeran channel.”

Perhaps their soil is so good because there were two horse barns and a horse pasture where their home is now. In fact, Jennifer says, “See that gate for my garden down there? When we built that garden, I actually dug the gate out of the woods, it was the gate to the horse pasture. I remember driving by here as a kid and always seeing the horses.” And yes, she had Jason free the gate from vines and overgrowth. Jennifer says, “There are so many different phases of this garden. My favorite time is the beginning of July, because my batisia, which is enormous, is a bright yellow bush of spiky flowers. And everything starts to pop during that time.”

There is one bed near a pine tree, where they believe due to the tree roots, nothing does well. “It’s the end of the garden that has never looked great. It’s prettiest when the lady’s mantle is in bloom,” says Jennifer. All the stone and /hardscape work they added was performed by Teles Landscaping. The morning glories growing up the railing outside the guest cottage have “reseeded themselves like crazy.” The bleeding hearts get a few blooms, and have reseeded themselves and are growing out of the stone walls, and they bloom. We walk down to their “COVID project.” Jennifer says, “When we bought the property this was a pile of junk, old Christmas trees, shrubbery, just a mess.” In this back corner is where Jason cleared and built the raised high bed vegetable garden, using corrugated metal with wooden framing. The chickens have their own raised bed garden in front of their coop next to the vegetable garden. The 16 chickens get fresh lettuce daily. They started with 13 chickens, a present from Jason’s mother, and then added another five chickens from a friend who was moving.

Over and over as we walked around, I noticed what a great team Jason and Jennifer are. When I said as much, they agreed, “We work really well together.” Jason “does all the grunt work,” but adds, “I do a lot of the planting too.” They also cook together, he’s the prep chef and she does the rest. Although everything is growing well this season, they agree it’s not as abundant as 2021. However, those self-seeding sunflowers did OK, the tallest topping 11 feet. There’s a wonderful Spanish lavender Jennifer started in the greenhouse that now looks like a miniature ornamental tree. They have no time to enter anything into the Ag Fair. Much of the dirt they use is from their compost, but they also use raised box mix for all their pots. There’s lots of basil for making pesto, flat-leaf parsley, squash, eggplant, onions, garlic, cucumbers, and artichoke for the first time from seed. Because they only use the raised beds for vegetables, their growing space is limited, and they’re thinking of adding another vegetable garden in a front corner of their property. They removed the benches from the greenhouse so they can grow plants in the summer. Jason’s upcoming winter project is to remove the overhead spray in the vegetable garden, replacing it with soaker hoses running through each bed and pot, hopefully alleviating fungus growth. With Jennifer’s mother living in the downstairs in-law apartment, and two teenage sons, this multigenerational family enjoys daily meals, and always being there for each other. It’s clear that Jason and Jennifer have cultivated a deep love through their home, their garden, and all they approach in life together.

 

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