Women who garden

Longtime Vineyard gardeners share their experience and points of view.


There was nothing flowery about the recent event “The Perennial Women of Island Gardening” at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. The panel discussion featured five accomplished women who have designed, dug, planted, and tended some of the most beautiful gardens on the Island over the past 50 years.

Speaking about why she planned the event, Laurel Redington, moderator and director of programs and audience engagement at the museum, said, “It seems like this Island is known for its gardens, and it felt apropos from a women’s history standpoint, and looking at how things have changed historically in Vineyard landscaping.”

The evening was filled with stories, wisdom, and quite a few humorous moments. It began with Redington asking everyone to share a bit about how they came to gardening.

Peggy Schwier, owner of Peggy Schwier Gardens, arrived full-time on the Vineyard in 1980, not knowing anything about gardening. When she and her husband built their house, Schwier learned a lot by trial and error, and from experts around her. She believes, too, that attending art school had an impact. “I was a sculpture major in a studio for interrelated media, basically performance art and moving. With gardening, it’s about looking and moving through space.”

Carly Look, owner of Carly Look Design, came to live here in 1976. While she always loved gardening, Look continued to work professionally as an architectural designer. “During that time, I began seeing that we were just building houses that were left with nothing going on outside. People would spread loam, plant seed, and that was it.” At a friend’s recommendation, she went to school for landscape design, and studied plant material, design, and history.

Mary Wirtz, owner of Wild Violets and general manager of Middletown Nursery, shared that there wasn’t much variety where she grew up on the Jersey Shore: “Roses or junipers and ‘rhodies’ were your landscaping.” Captivated by the beautiful garden of the lady next door, Wirtz recalls, “As a child, I would peek over the fence, and she had all this beautiful color. She asked me to come over one day. I was fascinated by dragonflies and little bees flying in and out. And I just loved gardening ever since.”

Lynne Irons, who writes about gardening for the Vineyard Gazette, came for a weekend visit in 1970 and never left. As a single mother with three kids, she worked many jobs. When she started raking at the Campgrounds, Irons realized that not only did she like being outside, but she wanted to grow her own food. “I had that back-to-the-land hippie thing going on, and had to feed all these children. I didn’t know anything about gardening, so I would search through the trash at the Vineyard Haven Post Office for seed catalogs, which I would read every night, and literally, that’s how I learned how to garden.”

Phyllis McMorrow’s early experiences were in her father’s vegetable garden, and seeing those of her uncles during the family’s trips to Ireland, where everyone had a garden.

When working in a hospital in Boston, McMorrow discovered it relaxing to get her hands in the dirt. Coming to live here, she learned from working with others and taking some classes off-Island” “But I’m not a paper person. It’s more intuitive. The thing about gardening is that there is always something to learn — to improve what you’re doing, and figure out different ways to do it. I really like the education you can have while you’re gardening.”

Having worked here for many decades, the women spoke about the changes they have witnessed. “It was rural in nature, and no one irrigated or landscaped,” Schwier recalls. “Caretakers did a little bit of gardening, whatever that was.” Wirtz noted an abrupt shift in the mid-1990s with people building big houses. Having spent all that money, they desired landscaping to match. “They wanted to bring New York or Connecticut or New Jersey landscaping with them because they didn’t know about Island landscaping,” she states.

These women are dedicated to educating their clients — for instance, if the client’s vision far exceeds their stated desire to have a low-maintenance garden. Look finds she has to remind clients to be patient. “When the house is done, it will probably never look better, but with a garden, it takes a long time.” Irons shared a related proverb: Plant a tree under whose shade you do not expect to sit. “I try to think about it in those terms. There is always time.”

Perhaps what came through most strongly throughout was their passion and love for what they do.

“If I lived in my hometown at my age, even though I have a college education, the only job available for me would be greeting people in a Walmart for $7 an hour,” Irons reflected. “I’ve been able to put a couple of kids through college, pay off the house, get some trucks, and have people who work for me. Every time I go out, I love it. I don’t ever want to do anything else. These jobs that I have gardening allow me to have the lifestyle that I have. What could be bad?”

McMorrow spoke about the essence of gardening: “It’s a lot about the senses. Being able to smell things, touch them, and see the colors.”

And a client once told Look, “‘Carly, it really looks like you’re communicating with the plants before figuring out where they are to go.’ That made me think about how we really are doing that. We’re in conscious connection with the plant material. That spirit of plant communication is where I’m moving now. We want people to have a deeper connection with nature, and that it is deeper than just what it looks like. For them to realize that is key.”