A Garden (Barely) Grows in Katama

A gardener finds that the land at Katama giveth, but mostly it taketh away.

My friend Jules doesn’t have a green thumb. He learned this trying to landscape his property in Katama. If you needed to attribute a color to Jules’s thumb, brown would do. Maybe even black. After several years of trying to coax living things to thrive in a hostile environment, he has given up. “I will never let a plant break my heart again,” he says.

Jules bought his house on the Great Plain of Katama back in the early 1990s, before the Clintons caused the real estate market to shoot up like crab grass. It was affordable as long as he rented it out during the few summers he had left till retirement. There was no extra money for landscaping. When he moved to the Island full time, gardening would be his hobby.

Before he bought the place, Jules worried that the pine and oak trees between the house and the ocean would grow to obstruct his view. The real-estate agent assured him they were as tall as they would get. “That’s why they call them scrub,” she said.

Jules didn’t believe her, but since most of the trees were on his lot, he figured he could top them if necessary. He’s owned the property for twelve years and they haven’t grown an inch. In a way, these trees symbolize the success he has had across most of the length and breadth of his yard.

When Jules retired and moved to the Vineyard, the first couple of years were devoted to the lawn. It looked like a minefield after he dug out all the crab grass, but eventually, after much weeding, feeding, seeding, and watering, Jules’s lawn could compete favorably with even the sodded specimens in the neighborhood.

With the lawn under control, Jules’s thoughts turned to flowering shrubs. His neighbors have a beautiful hydrangea bush. It stands six feet tall and is covered by cantaloupe-sized purple blooms all summer. Strolling through the West Tisbury Farmer’s Market one day, Jules stopped at a booth and bought a small hydrangea in an eight-inch pot. He took careful notes about how to plant and care for it. He coddled that plant like a baby in a neonatal unit, but it never put out more than a half-dozen leaves. “At least if it died,” said Jules, “I could replace it.” But year after year it sent up eight inches worth of beautiful green leaves. It never got any taller and it never flowered. In a fit of pique, due to unrequited attention, he ran over it with the lawn mower and threw grass seed on the bare spot.

Jules’s next project was a lilac bush. His wife remembered having a huge lilac in her backyard as a child, and longed to fill her home with fragrant bouquets. Another trip to the farmer’s market, another careful planting. The lilac did not thrive, but it does grow about an inch a year and puts out two or three thumb-sized blooms. Jules has allowed the runt to remain in the yard but he no longer speaks to it.

The climbing roses for the trellis grew like wildfire the first year. They bloomed precociously through November. Only one plant survived the winter and flowered sparsely during the summer. By the third year it, too, was dead. The forsythia, which in his garden off-Island had to be tamed with a machete, grew in spindly, anemic spikes. The rhododendron, which he was assured was hearty enough for Katama, looked dead all winter, but perked up briefly in the spring before withering completely, kind of like when Grandma opens her eyes and looks around the room just before she gasps her last.

Jules finally decided that a beautiful lawn would have to fulfill him. Early one spring, anticipating his summer lawn, he strolled the yard inspecting it for winter damage. Lo and behold, he came across what looked like a mole tunnel. He ran to the computer, and before you could say weed and feed, a mole trap was on the way via FedEx. By the time it arrived, the weather had warmed, the spring rains had come, and the lawn stigmata had disappeared. The mole trap went into the shed. This happens every spring (the tunneling, not the purchase of a mole trap). As long as it goes away, Jules neither knows nor cares what it is.

Jules has gotten used to the harsh, salt-laden fog and howling Katama winds that make it difficult to grow things in only one lifetime. He hasn’t given up though. Now his gardening consists of colorful annuals in pots on the deck. At least when they die, he doesn’t take it personally.