Emily's Garden

Emily Bramhall’s flower garden in Chilmark may call to mind a painting by Monet, but it is better likened to a moving picture than to a still image.

Although it is sixteen years old and most of the plants in it are perennials that reemerge year after year, Emily’s garden is hardly static.

“It’s had a dynamic, organic evolution,” says Emily. The way it looks any given year “depends on what lives or dies and what happens to be available in the nurseries when I have to replace something.”
There were no nurseries on Martha’s Vineyard when Emily first started her garden at her home off North Road, not far from the town fire station – or at least none with anything like the plant selection now available on the Island. So in year one, Emily took out her White Flower Farm catalog and ordered some perennials, spending what she thought was an exorbitant amount of money – $180, which of course went further sixteen years ago than it does now.
But not, she soon discovered, nearly far enough.

“The order arrived in a cardboard box the size of my sink,” says Emily, the disbelief still evident on her face. “So I planted a lot of annuals. In the beginning, the whole top level was big, tall cosmos, and the whole front section was zinnias.”

The garden comprises several amoeba-shaped terraces covering a large hill that sits across from Emily’s kitchen, and it is best seen from the window above the sink. (“Where,” Emily asks, “do we spend more time than at the kitchen sink?”) The hill was not always a gently sloping mound; when Emily built her house, wanting to avoid setting it right on top of her property’s highest peak,   she dug it into a hillside so it would be level with the approach of the driveway and nestle comfortably
into the surrounding countryside. Consequently, the original view from her kitchen window was of
“an eleven-foot-tall sand cliff.”

“It was a landscaping challenge,” she says, but clearly one she was equal to. She’s been gardening for much of her life, beginning when she was a child. Her maternal grandmother, who lived in Greenville, Delaware, was a serious gardener, says Emily. “If I wanted to hang out with her, I went to the garden. She’d give me a pair of shears or some clippers and a basket, show me how to weed and to deadhead, and we’d spend the afternoon together.” But while Emily may have learned the fundamentals from her grandmother, the rest of her gardening knowledge came from “winging it.”
When she was sixteen, she undertook her first major solo project, removing an old swing set
at her parents’ Edgartown house and replacing it with a vegetable patch. From then on, she says, wherever she’s lived, she’s had a garden.

She always intended for her Chilmark garden to consist mainly of perennial flowers, but it took five
or six years to get it there. And even now, she still puts in a few annuals every year, both for the specific colors she loves, such as the pale green of her favorite nicotiana, and also to make sure that there’s something blooming in August. “This garden is fantastic in early June,” she says, “but the end of July, early August, is just a disaster for most perennial beds.”

The layout of Emily’s plantings is neither random nor formally ordered. At one end, the garden is delineated by a grove of three full-bodied crab- apple trees with what Emily calls “great structure.” At the other end, a dwarf peach and a few viburnum bushes stop the eye. In between, three separate clusters of large, plump Korean box bushes serve to draw the whole garden together through their repetition, size, and solid green color. Beyond these elements, the garden is a wide-ranging mélange of colors, textures, and shapes – “a great mash of stuff,” in Emily’s words.

“I love the riot of it all,” she says.

“I love that it all just blends together.” Inspired by English country gardens, she knew when she started that what she didn’t want was “dirt…plant… dirt…plant” – the sort of arrangement you might find in a median strip at a shopping mall. Rather, she says, “I wanted a palette, colors and textures mixed together. It’s not about an individual plant to me, but about the whole picture.”

And as beautiful as that whole picture is, there’s nothing precious about Emily’s garden. When she started it, she says, she had young children and puppies, so it had to be a garden that could withstand some abuse. The dogs buried bones in it, and the children made tunnels through the eighty-year-old peonies Emily brought from her grandmother’s house, and all of that was fine.

“I wanted them all to be in the garden, to appreciate it,” she says. “I wanted it to be a natural place, a part of family life.”                

As for the deer, though, Emily would be happier if they didn’t feel quite so at home. Like many other Vineyard gardeners, she believes that the deer problem has worsened over the past few years. While she’s tried various sprays and some unobtrusive fencing, she doesn’t want her garden to become a fortress. “It’s really, really frustrating,” she says, “but you just have to learn to love the things the deer hate.” Every year, she says, her tall rudbeckia tries valiantly to bloom, and every year, the deer eat all the buds off it just before they open.

“You can’t go losing a whole pile of sleep over it,” she says, “because you can’t win. You have to find a balance so you don’t get up every morning angry. That’s not how I want to start my day.”

“Live and let live” is Emily’s philosophy, and so the garden continues to evolve. Something gets eaten by the deer, and she replaces it; another plant reseeds itself into a different part of the garden, and she lets it grow there. “I like to let the garden take its own course,” she says. “I give it guidelines, but in the end, I’m not exactly managing it; it’s more like we have a partnership.”