In the Gardens of Edgartown

A rose is not just a rose, and other surprises.

A rose is a rose is a rose,” I said to my husband as we inched our way toward downtown Edgartown last summer, past Donaroma’s display of roses on Upper Main Street.

Gertrude Stein is supposed to have said that, but she probably knew more about life in Paris than she did about roses.

“Unless, of course, they’re Rosa rugosas that can withstand salt spray and Island weather. Growing roses here can be a real challenge,” I added.

I sounded like the garden authority I’m not.

“Finding a place to park is a greater challenge,” he replied. But we were lucky that afternoon. We found a space quickly, and were free to stroll the streets, past the elegant gardens that are the admiration and envy of visitors who come to Edgartown.

As we walked down North Water Street, past the homes of whaling captains and whaleship owners, I could imagine the wife of the whaling master watching from the widow’s walk, seeing his ship near the harbor under her topsails. The wife puts down her spyglass, sweeps down the stairs, and repairs to the flower garden to put fresh flowers around the house.

Truth be told, it wasn’t so!

First, widow’s walks were built as platforms to put out chimney fires; whaling wives – those who didn’t go to sea with their husbands – did what little watching they had time for from an upper-story window, just like anybody else. Second, according to landscape designer Jeff Verner of Edgartown, in the early days of the village, lilacs and honeysuckle surrounded the doorways of houses, but the land around the home was likely devoted to herbs, medicinal plants, and the growing of vegetables for the family table. A vegetable garden was a necessity – and a challenging one: In summer, heat and humidity, and too much rain or not enough, could destroy the fruits of a kitchen garden – problems that plague today’s gardeners too. Flowers were a luxury few families had time for.

But science has taught modern-day gardeners about better soil management and better garden practices for vegetable and flower gardens alike. Today there’s better equipment, sturdier stock, and a far greater variety of plants. So as the visitor walks along North or South Water streets, or Davis or Pierce lanes, he or she admires what they see, and probably only a few wonder very much about gardening history. Edgartown gardens today are famous for their beauty, and that’s what the out-of-towner comes to look at. The gardeners of the town – professional and home – are happy to create the perfect picture.

As I walked the narrow streets and lanes of Edgartown, I wondered whether plants and styles had changed dramatically even in our own time: Is there a trend away from the stately gardens pictured in coffee-table books and garden magazines? Are the famed Edgartown gardens becoming more casual, less formal? There is no one answer. Just as Edgartown has a variety of residents, year-round and seasonal, there are many sorts of gardens.

Cammie Naylor, a certified landscape designer at Donaroma’s, meets or speaks with many of her clients in the spring to go over their requests. Do they want brighter colors? More pastels? Are their children or grandchildren allergic to certain plants? Should they avoid roses because of the thorns? For some summer homeowners, the most important thing is that the garden be verdant when the family is in residence. Landscapers and home gardeners can choose from a variety of geraniums, tuberous begonias, impatiens, and many other plants that are showy and resistant to drought and disease. Annuals are part of a nationwide trend. They answer a desire for low-maintenance, efficient plants that are still colorful in August, and for plants that can fill in empty spaces as the perennials slow down. Annuals are a more economical way to achieve the look of a perfect summer garden, without asking too much of the gardener.

Decisions made, a crew from Donaroma’s takes over, putting in the plants in June, soon after Memorial Day. Flowers bloom almost from the Fourth of July through Labor Day. Plants that don’t respond are yanked out and replaced. Returning to the Island later for Thanksgiving? Autumn’s mums will welcome you. Coming back for Christmas? Swags and wreaths await your arrival. One quick phone call or e-mail and it’s done.

Nowadays, of course, yards are growing smaller as additions grow larger – with some additions more or less taking over the house itself. Many new and rebuilt homes have swimming pools, around which landscapers design gardens. To make up for the loss of space in the yard, owners use window boxes and put pots on the steps, filling them with plants such as the new miniature petunias or hybridized tuberous begonias, which can take bright sun and are more drought-resistant.

There are Edgartown gardeners who enjoy gardening as well as the garden, of course. Alison Cannon, a former president of the Martha’s Vineyard Garden Club, moved into a house on Pierce Lane with her husband James about twenty-five years ago. She took out the hedges, cleared away the bittersweet, and walked around the property getting ideas about its possibilities, an exercise she loved. As we talked, Alison remembered some of her favorites: lilies and Siberian iris, delphinium, Lunaria annua (money plant), and other perennials, planted around the foundation stones of the old house and in the flower beds she designed. Back then, her neighbors knew each other better; they lived year-round in their homes, and the Cannons shared the fruits of their efforts from the pear and apple trees and the mimosa seedlings that grew on the property.

When the family no longer needed the large house on Pierce Lane, Alison and Jim moved to a cottage on Planting Field Way, where the grounds lend themselves to more natural planting. Now it’s Queen Anne’s lace and other natives or wildflowers that surround her grandmother’s birdbath. Each season brings its joys: azaleas from the Polly Hill Arboretum in West Tisbury in late spring; Tea Lane hollies, viburnum, and hinoki cypress – among others – provide winter interest and color.

Still, despite a downtown population that comes and goes more than it once did – and despite the radical changes made to some properties – the traditional Edgartown garden survives in many places. Sometimes referred to as an English cottage garden, these bounteous gardens are a labor of love. It takes time and labor to re-stake tall, showy dahlias when they fall victim to a high wind, to deadhead the hollyhocks, to cut back and spray the roses, to defy the powdery mildew that humidity visits on the phlox. Far easier to put in impatiens in the spring, or rely on the new super petunias in ever increasing rainbows of pastel colors that will bloom throughout the summer.

As they walk around Edgartown on a mild summer evening, admiring the gardens, visitors stop by Trudy Goff’s garden on Davis Lane. Hers is one of those labors of love. The camellias and azaleas that she knew from home in Houston weren’t suitable for Edgartown winters, so she learned through the years what worked – and what didn’t. “Big clumps of flowers in the summer – lilies, Shasta daisies, dahlias, hydrangeas – and bulbs in the spring give the garden the full look I like, and provide flowers for the table,” she told me.

To help traditionalists achieve the old-fashioned Edgartown style, Jeff Verner, the landscape designer, reintroduces plants from the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He also looks for disease-resistant varieties, such as porcelain-pink new dawn roses; stately plants such as yarrow and agastache; hollyhocks that are resistant to a fungus that creates disfiguring, rust-colored splotches on the underside of the leaves. And, to the ever-popular Nikko blue hydrangea, he sometimes adds a pink Pia hydrangea that is reliably pink, no matter the acidity or alkalinity of the soil. The idea is to use the old favorites, but seek out new varieties that are easier to care for.

Fifty years ago, Hope Whipple bought a house on North Water Street whose previous owner had planted primarily purple and lavender flowers. “Fine if you like that,” she said, but in the years since she has expanded her color palette considerably. Hope came to the Island from a New York apartment, so gardens and gardening were a new experience for her, and she depended on the expertise of landscapers Jim and Jane Klingensmith to make it into the showplace it is.

 When the Klingensmiths retired, Hope turned to Jeff Verner, and her garden education continued. Every year Jeff presents her with a mystery plant that she must identify. In the spring of 2005, she consulted her books and catalogues and successfully solved the puzzle (it was a crinodonna – a pink, slightly fragrant perennial). The year before, she correctly identified a rare old-fashioned tigridia (a Mexican shell flower). Enjoying her garden herself, she wants it to be visible to the street so others can enjoy it also.

“Is there a competition among Edgartown’s famed gardens?” I asked. “Are gardeners jealous of each other?”

“I’m jealous of people who don’t have black spot on their roses,” Hope said.

In the smaller gardens of today there is less space for trees, so there are more shrubs. Gardeners are putting in hedges, which provide privacy, but in among the hedgerows the imaginative gardener plants rambler roses and clematis, which bloom at different times and bring in color.  

As I walked around Edgartown, admiring the houses and plantings, I told my husband that there are no garden-variety gardens here. Small or large, the gardens of Edgartown are an inspiration. “I’m going home and put in a few plants that I’ve just seen. Perhaps a rose or maybe a tigridia.
If not this summer, surely next.”