Gardens of Love: Judith Fielder Leggett

Re-establishing family roots.


Every year on August 6, Cleaveland House Poets join Dionis Coffin Riggs’ family members for a poetry reading at the West Tisbury library on her birthday. I asked her niece Dionis Montrowl if she knew a good candidate for my garden column, and she mentioned her sister, Judith Fielder. A few weeks later I ran into Judith Fielder Leggett at the West Tisbury Farmers Market.

Her table was much smaller than everyone selling around her, however the presentation with tablecloth and her elegant, handmade bent-branch baskets filled with assorted tomatoes, peppers, squash, potatoes, and marigold flowers drew more than my gaze. I told her she’d been on my mind, and after meeting in person I absolutely wanted to learn what she was up to. One thing I learned was she grows marigolds because the petals aid in preventing eye aging and macular degeneration, thanks to lutein and zeaxanthin in their leaves.

Sadly, during my first interview, all my voice memo files, I learned too late, were not really on my phone, so when my well-meaning son disconnected me from the Apple Cloud, all my interviews disappeared. Judith kindly allowed me to return for a second visit. I learned she does both illuminated botanical illustration (gold leaf and gouache watercolor) as well as stippling botanical images (using dots and dashes to create detail and shading). When I ask why, Judith says, “To stay sane. It took about seven years to find which acorns and oak leaves go together, because the leaves are all slightly different and the acorns are different” from tree to tree. I wondered, now that we’re in the off-season, how the Saturday Farmers Market had gone for her. Judith said, “I sold another basket. Last year I made a bunch of baskets for displays at the market.” She couldn’t sell her own sturdy work baskets, and because they are treated like other produce, she made some to sell this year. Judith tells me, “On the first day of the farmers market this year, my tent blew away. A couple of [other vendors] helped stake down, fasten down my poles. Another vendor said he had an extra tent he’d never used, and I could have it for $45. That’s the one I’m using now. I wasn’t expecting that level of support.”

Judith, who grew up with both parents in the CIA, lived in Turkey, Taiwan, the U.S., and Turkey again. Her parents regularly took their five kids camping and exploring. When she finally applied to college in the U.S., only the University of Idaho would take her because her records from Turkey no longer existed. There she majored in Plant Science, then transferred to UMass Amherst for her final two years. As Judith put it, “I have a bunch of master’s in gardening.” Judith moved to Virginia when she married, ran her own business for 15 years “before getting suckered into computers; it wasn’t my first love, but gardening kept me sane.” She had a 16- by 16-foot plot for 30 years in the Reston community garden that she and her husband Nick Leggett tended.

As we walk toward her fenced garden, Judith says, “I’m following the advice of the garlic people, the New England garlic growers, to plant bulbs eight inches deep, and we’ll see what happens.” A bed that had radishes on my last visit is now prepped with organic horse manure for spring planting. Judith explains, “I’ll plant on the outside part, which will get fed by the inside part.” Through her plant soil science lens, Judith thinks of everything as holistically whole. “When this got dug up, it was primarily sandy. Fresh horse manure has some problems you don’t want to introduce to where plants are growing, which tend to mineralize the nutrients and hold it back from the plants,” Judith says. “However, when it starts breaking down, it adds organic matter. Compost does not break down in a year — it breaks down organic molecules in about a year, but lasts two years in the soil.” She notes the importance of adding a little more fertilizer for the plants the first year, then by the second year you’re in “Nirvana” soil-wise and plant-wise. “That’s why I have so many problems with the strawberries this year. I fed them when I planted them a year and a half ago in the spring, and fed them manure,” she says. Now she has to thin out and remove them, because those are June-bearers versus everbearers, which produce strawberries all growing season round.

It’s too bad squirrels were able to breach the garden and eat all the strawberries growing in her protected area. Now Judith is building a mahogany bed with a top that can be lifted off to keep those pesky critters out of her beds. She has two varieties of everbearer strawberries, the “standard, and a Dutch one with purple pink flowers.” Judith’s garden to-do list is an ever-growing one. She has a plethora of volunteer veggies, including the ‘Sungold’ tomatoes we stop to taste.

Back in the 1970s, Judith’s “mom and dad [Ann and Bill Fielder] were [selling] asparagus and raspberries at the farmers market.” Judith has had a garden or gardened anywhere she’s ever lived. It certainly helped that she and her siblings were sent to the Vineyard to live with their grandparents in the summers. Her “grandad put [them] to work in their garden.” And to this day any visiting family will be put to work in the garden.

She has lots of Swiss chard; peppers, including long red cayenne, sweet peppers, and more; carrots; curly and flat parsley; overproducing Asian and standard eggplants; globe eggplants, which she will not plant again because she was disappointed with the growth behavior; basil, a couple of kinds of oregano, and regular and creeping rosemary; bush cherries (her plant should grow to four feet tall and four feet wide); assorted lettuce, now glowing green; haricot verts beans; a pie cherry tree, and a sour cherry one. Judith will be making her own tomato cages for next season with her brother Evan’s help, since the cone supports she used proved “not up to the task.”

As far as her peppers, Judith explained, “Based on last year, I created the spacing, but I’m not going to place them this close ’cause it’s like a hedge.” Rather than filling out more with vegetables, Judith’s concern is “the pollinators would have had an easier time.” Next year the peppers will be spaced zigzag at least 24 inches apart, and they’ll be planted on the other side of her garden. This year her ‘Red Pontiac’ potatoes did better than her fingerlings, and she’ll be planting both again next season, with the majority remaining the reds. The potatoes will move to a bed that hasn’t had any manure added for two years.

At the back of the garden is a series of genetic dwarf peach trees Judith brought as slips from her Virginia garden when she moved back to the Island to help care for her mother. The peaches will be full-size, and when “the plants are fully mature, they should produce about a half bushel” apiece. She’s pleased they’re doing so well, even through the past two winters. She will dig up her bay trees, cut them back, and put them in pots to winter indoors under lights. One unexpected gift from rototilling and bobcatting to make the garden is that plants her parents used to grow have reappeared, like the irises she was pointing out. She had not seen “any of these plants living here, because they’d been choked out and untended for years.” Judith continues, “My dad was somewhat of the same tendency as I am, he put flowers in the garden for the pollinators to create general health for the garden.”

You might be wondering why her farmstand table is called Fielder Family Farms. Although Judith grows most of what is sold at the West Tisbury Farmers Market, her brothers, David and his wife, Libby, Evan and her sister Dionis, contribute as well, with hopes a nephew or two will add to their family farm’s bounty. Any leftovers from her or other family members’ gardens go to Cottles, the free pick-up at Howes House, or are added to the food prepared at the high school. One thing Judith likes to make is liqueur using 100-proof vodka and her sour cherries (pitted to avoid adding cyanide). She will be adding a 50- by 50-foot fruit garden alongside her existing garden, doubling the size of her planting area for next year. She’ll be moving the strawberry beds and raspberries there. Her brother David and Libby are moving on from blueberries, which will all be transplanted to the new garden so they can concentrate on fruit trees. Judith maintains wide paths between her beds, and likes to add flowers in the middle. Her white strawberries (which appear to be pink) are gifts from someone who had too many. Judith will be “heeling them in,” which she explained means “putting the plants into the ground at an angle. The more upright, the more vigorous the plant is. When you put them in at an angle, it slows down their growth, so you can put them in a temporary holding place over winter and when you have a place for them set up, you can plant them erect.”

As we walk next door to get a peek at the workshop being built alongside Judith’s home, I learn she and her late husband developed “controlled environmental life support systems”; in fact, the space station is growing plants via methods they’d suggested often at the American Civil Engineers conferences where they were regular presenters. The workshop looks large, and Judith explains half is for her jewelry (she’s an accomplished silversmith, and cuts her own gemstones), and the other is for woodworking, primarily hand-carving. The builder promised she’ll be celebrating the end of this year in her own home, but she’s not holding her breath. Over the winter she’ll be making baskets (which she learned to do at her Virginia lapidary school) and when her studio is ready, lots more, besides tending plants, growing next year’s plants from seeds, and her botanical artwork. Judith is one of those people who will never run out of topics — she is deeply knowledgeable and passionate about finally having the opportunity to grow food for the community where she lives. Is she a Renaissance woman? Definitely.