You may think I’m stretching it to include the garden at Chilmark’s Martha’s Vineyard Bank, but I’ve watched over the past seven years as the garden beds flourished into a showcase of color, beauty, and seasonal splendor. Garden designer Connie Hyde and I finally connected in early September 2023, during an unusually hot week. Connie tells me, “I thought, What do I want to tell Valerie about the garden? It goes hand in hand with the evolution of the gardener. It started out when the bank changed hands [about seven years ago]. This was so wildly overgrown. The perimeter bed was all brambles, vines, bittersweet. The trees were encroaching into the parking area. This ink hedge was about eight feet into the asphalt zone, where people drive through. The first step was to bring it back to bones.”
Connie continues, “We actually did logging in here.” She works with Chris DeMello of American Property Care, who handles the lawn. They took “about seven truckloads out, just of wood.” Chris processed the wood and donated it for people to heat their homes. From there, Connie says, “We were under a little bit of pressure to get it looking good before the grand opening, which was well before gardening season. So it had some anchors like dwarf andromeda and dwarf cherry laurel.” Connie laughs and says, “I remember other local gardeners approaching me and asking what I was doing there. Why do I have a popcorn of shrubs in the main entrance high-profile zone? It looks so erratic. I was like, Just wait. It’ll come, just wait.” Connie explains that she designed so that “around June graduation time for the high schoolers, there was a lot of white and purple, like white immortality irises, purple salvias, nepeta, and it would segue into popcorn eclectic for the time summer folks are here.”
As Connie evolved as a gardener, so did the gardens she worked on. She “learned about naturalizing plants, and scattering sowing seeds instead of going to the nursery and buying more plants.” I stop her so she can explain what “naturalizing plants” means. “So the plant becomes part of the space without too much influence from the gardener, so it can both seed in the area and also grow,” she says. At this point we’re still standing next to the weeping crabapple tree in the center of the parking area. Connie tells me that the tree was in intensive care for about four years. Connie believes that was due to being surrounded by pavement — it was an inappropriate planting. She then points out the cracks in the pavement radiating from the planted area, explaining, “I think the roots are really struggling, but it’s been here for a long time.” I admit I remember the blossoms on the dwarf crabapple tree in the spring, but don’t recall the abundance of apples I’m seeing. Connie says, “It would blossom, and then we’d have leaf fall, and no apples.” So she’s added fertilizer regularly, “pruning to aerate so it has an aesthetic trunkline and so the air can flow. [And] spraying it with tea tree and geranium oil, and all sorts of essential oils to keep the pests from forming colonies in that beautiful lichen that’s growing.”
Connie’s approach is “always organic, but sometimes a little intensive, to rescue what’s always been here. Over the course of the years I realized poppies really love Chilmark, so I’d let the poppies go to seed, pinch the heads and scatter them all around. Or I would bring home baskets of poppy seedheads, and then have jars I carry around with me when I’m driving and scatter them around all over the place, sort of like Miss Rumphius. Did you ever read that children’s story?” No, in fact, I had never heard of it, despite my two years working as a children’s librarian in the Nyack, N.Y., library. It was written in 1982 by Maine author Barbara Cooney. Connie loved it because the protagonist “would scatter lupine seeds all over.” I notice a lot of echinacea, which Connie allows to “go to seed because the goldfinches love it.” Connie admits, “I’m in a constant dialogue between allowing things to go to seed. This is a very regenerative and sustainable garden, so I’m allowing the Queen Anne’s lace to go to seed; the birds love it. The birds love the echinacea. The birds love the anise hyssop. And particularly the yellow goldfinches. I plant in my gardens so that there’s pollinator attraction, and so that there’s medicine just in case the boats stop running some day.”
Back to allowing things to go to seed, Connie says it “is fantastic for ecology, the environment, and biodiversity, but it’s not fantastic for the cocktail party on the lawn. So it’s been discourse around how can I plump it up a little bit, but not cut everything down and keep everybody happy.” I wonder about the black seed pods I see, and Connie tells me it’s baptisia that won’t self-sow, and she can “collect those pods and grow the seeds in a greenhouse.” She doesn’t do that because she “likes the way the seeds look.” Then she shows me the crocosmia with bright red flowers, whose seeds will just drop and “maybe more bulbs will form.” The roses and salvias continue to bloom.
Connie says, “Another thing I’ve experimented with here is not cultivating to weed. We have Asian jumping worms here, which are an invasive species. They decimate the upper six inches of biomass, and their fecal matter is compared to glass shards on a molecular structure.” I learn they’ve been here for “about 15 years.” Connie continues, “In the past three years or so, they’ve really made their presence known. They make it hard for the plants to uptake nutrients because of the form of their fecal matter. And the nature of their movement is serpentine, like a snake, creating upheaval in the root systems, popping out, struggling to get established, and then struggling to uptake nutrients. They’re really a demonic plague of worms. So I’m not fertilizing, I’m not cultivating. Where you see some grass in here, or weeds, I’m not plucking, I’ll clip. It holds the ground and provides carbon sequestering, so there’s another element of a regenerative, sustainable practice instead of old-school cultivate and fertilize — just leave it as is, and clip what you don’t want.”
Connie is one of the most informative gardeners I’ve ever met. She grew up “shoveling cow manure” in Queensbury, N.Y., with her father. “I grew up organic farming, not knowing that’s actually what I was doing,” she says. “Being forced to do it, crying and hating it.” She went to school for art, and says, “When I found myself as a single mom having to support my family, someone suggested I might just want to try gardening.” Sure, she thought she could grow some vegetables for other people, but it ended up being “fine gardening.” She did “a little apprenticeship,” and realized “this is the marriage of all I love and know.” She started out creating gardens through a “visual aesthetic.” As she continued, she says, “I learned about the habit of plants,” and the importance of regenerative practices. The bank’s garden is her first garden design on her own. This year she’s studying under master gardener Roxanne Kapitan (read my column about her garden here: bit.ly/MVT_Kapitan), saving some seeds from her garden to grow in a friend’s Chilmark greenhouse. And then Connie will be looking for a piece of land to start a perennial vegetable, herb, flower, and fruit tree food forest that is open to the public, designed according to fine garden design elements, where people can pick, can learn to process, and bring seeds home to start their own home food forest. During the pandemic, Connie had a small plot of garden at Native Earth Teaching Farm to grow food for clients, and donated the surplus to the Island Food Pantry.
As we continue to walk the outer beds of the property, Connie fills me in on how she manages the plants, keeping the high-profile ones “tidy” while not worrying about others. She leaves goldenrod, panicum. She’s putting essential oils on the asclepia, and still hopes to see some monarch butterflies, besides helping to ward off the deer. She also planted ornamental onions because the bees love them, and they deter deer. At the beginning of spring, the garden is subtle. There are vitex (a great medicinal for hormone balancing in women), St. John’s wort, monarda, spirea, butterfly bushes, and wild multifloral roses. Connie is also learning how to make tinctures from gardener Laurisa Rich (her garden story is here: bit.ly/MVT_LRich). Connie says, “I’m constantly reading about what to do with plants.” There are wild strawberries and other groundcovers happening because Connie has not cultivated the perimeter beds. The first year “focused on design and garden installation, followed by two years of filling in, seeing what works, what makes it through our arctic blasts, and then it’s hands-off, and I just watch.”
Connie uses irrigation systems for the first few years so the garden can get established, and then she weans them off. She says, “The same is true for fish emulsion or seaweed emulsion. The rule of thumb is if it’s green, give it some nitrogen; if it blooms, give it some fish.” She explains that the nurseries are giving plants so many extra nutrients, and watering them all day, “it’s like they’re on steroids.”
This year there’s been so much rain, the irrigation system could mostly be shut off. She shows me a few hollys “that sort of just showed up and will create a lovely screen, especially in the winter.” Connie mentions harbingers of winter, like all the already fallen samara seeds from the maple trees, acorns, and pinecones. She also tells me to check out the October full moon’s halo to determine the depth of coming snows. As we finish our walk, she mentions that both panicled hydrangeas were here, as well as the mophead hydrangeas she moved to the perimeter. The one plant I’d never seen was Japanese forest grass, fantastic for shade. Then she points out the monkshood, which will turn blue in October. And as we close, I wonder if she’s seen the film about Dutch landscape designer Piet Oudolf, who turns out to be the inspiration for this very garden, besides British garden designer Noel Kingsbury. I have appreciated the immense beauty of this particular garden in the heart of Chilmark, and it’s available for all to enjoy.
If you have a lead on land that can be turned into a public food forest, please contact Connie Hyde at email@example.com.