Victory in the Garden

Renowned among Island gardeners, Paul Jackson has spent years working the soil in his Edgartown home garden, with awe-inspiring results.

It’s late autumn and dog walkers are strolling the Boulevard in Edgartown’s Ocean Heights neighborhood. They remark on the strong fishy smell coming off Sengekontacket Pond and wonder if there’s been some type of fish kill. “Oh wait, that’s not what it is,” one says. “It’s coming from my neighbor Paul Jackson’s garden. He’s had scallopers dump their shells again.”

He’s been called a nature wizard, a magician, and a legend – backyard farmer doesn’t begin to do him justice. Paul’s Edgartown property flourishes with flowers, fruit trees, and almost any imaginable vegetable, as every inch of his land is devoted to gardening. He’s been at this for more than sixty years, and each year brings new challenges and new discoveries.

Sprouting in Edgartown

Paul Jackson is a seventh-generation Islander whose relatives on his mother’s side were living on Chappaquiddick in the 1640s. His grandfather, fishing captain Levi Jackson, moved to Edgartown from Fairhaven and gained fame for his heroic rescue at a shipwreck: On January 23, 1910, the six-masted schooner Mertie B. Crowley, bound for Boston with a load of coal, ran aground and broke apart four miles offshore near Katama on the Wasque shoals.
Captain Jackson and four Edgartown fishermen boarded his thirty-seven-foot fishing vessel Priscilla and rescued Captain William Haskell, his wife, Ida, and thirteen crew members.

(Interestingly, the Mertie B. Crowley is still making news – last year, timbers thought to be from the schooner were washing up on Chappy beaches.) But Levi Jackson wasn’t the only family hero: His father, Hiram, died in 1893 attempting to rescue the crew of a ship wrecked off Cuttyhunk.

Growing up in Edgartown, Paul liked to spend time with fishermen. “I learned from the old people,” he says. “I followed them around to see what they did.” He started his career in gardening at fourteen at the Harborside Inn in Edgartown but most of his work was as a landscape gardener in private gardens.

The late Tony Fisher, who owned Blue Heron Farm in Chilmark, was a client. “We got along fine. He mostly came just on weekends and I’d have the vegetable garden just right for when he got here,” Paul says. “But then sometimes the day before, I’d find that the caretaker had helped himself – there was nothing left!” Paul retired from working on other people’s gardens two years ago, and now, at age seventy-seven, tending his own land is a full-time job.
Paul’s partner in life and gardening was his wife, Mary, until her death in 2010. Paul met Mary Kimball, also an Edgartown native, in elementary school, and they dated for six years before marrying in 1956. They bought a fixer-upper on Anthier’s Way in Ocean Heights in 1954 and worked on it for two years before moving in. At that time it was just a sixty-by-one-hundred-foot lot with a house on it. “Out front there was a dump by the side of the road with old beer bottles and tin cans from the whole neighborhood,” Paul says. He filled it with horse and cow manure and some of the dirt scrapings from roadwork being done on the Boulevard, and planted four apple trees. Soon he moved them out of the way to start a vegetable garden that was about thirty by thirty feet. “Each year I tilled it and it got a tiller or two wider.” Every year the garden grew a little bigger, until finally it had overtaken most of the front yard.

Over the years Paul and Mary acquired several adjacent lots and now the property is nearly one and a half acres. “She wanted to kill me every time I bought more,” he says, “although every inch is used for compost, fruit trees, and the garden.” Paul’s garden achieved nationwide fame of sorts when the gardening book The New Victory Garden (Little Brown & Company, 1987), based on PBS’s long-running show, included photos of his crops; the catch was the location wasn’t identified and he didn’t actually receive credit, but his hands do show up in one photo.

Paul’s experiments with organic gardening techniques pay off each year with an astounding amount of oversized, healthy, and productive plants – last season a twenty-four-pound New Guinea squash started to grow into the road.

“You can’t eat the food they sell in the stores today,” he says ruefully. “All that food comes from big farms that use commercial fertilizer. It’s unbelievable....I try to educate people about what food should taste like.”

The constant gardener

Starting with nothing but sand, Paul amended the so-called soil in his yard with piles of leaf mold and tons of horse manure, tilling it into the soil several times a year and repeating the process annually, until he achieved the nutrient-rich, fluffy dirt he has now. But that process never ends: Three years ago he added forty-three tons of horse manure with seven tons more going in two years ago. This year he plans to add another seven to ten tons. But that manure sits for a couple of years to decompose while Paul pulls the weeds out of it. With seemingly boundless energy, he’ll take about two hundred barrels of weeds out of the entire garden annually.

When they were getting started, vegetables and fruit trees were Paul’s passion, but Mary wanted a flower garden – out came the tiller and compost so Paul could transform another section of land. Their daughter, Beverly Bergeron of West Tisbury, started selling flowers from a parcel of land at the corner of Anthier’s Way and Edgartown–Vineyard Haven Road and after a few years Mary joined her. Paul still grows the flowers that were Mary’s favorites but on a smaller scale – he uses them to decorate her grave in Edgartown.

Paul admits to being lonely since Mary died. His beagle, Lily, is a constant companion. A girl after her owner’s heart, Lily loves carrots, corn, cucumbers, and raspberries. She has also been known to grab Paul’s breakfast when he leaves the table to take a phone call and to help herself to a plate of pie now and then. Her bugling in pursuit of squirrels can be heard up and down the Boulevard as she and Paul take their daily walks.

Bev comes to the house every weekend to prepare a week’s worth of dinners and then stops by most days to serve them to her dad. As the deli manager at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School cafeteria, she sometimes takes her father’s vegetables to work with her. This winter, when Paul was harvesting sweet, fresh carrots from his garden, he sent some along for carrot soup but Bev said she put it out and nobody took any. “Kids know carrots from the store don’t have any taste,” Paul says. “I told her to put a sign on it that said they were mine, and it was all gone the next day.”

Bev has been part of the family gardening enterprise most of her life; she and her mother were in charge of watering plants in the greenhouse while Paul was at work but some days they’d forget until it was almost time for him to come home. Instead of a gentle sprinkling as Paul would do, they’d grab a hose and douse the plants with water. “We knew it wasn’t the right way – and he always knew what we’d done,” she says, laughing.

Not surprisingly, Bev describes Paul as quite set in his ways: He’s learned what works over years from trial and error. She explains, “I’m all ready to go to the beach for the day and he’ll call and say, ‘The peas can’t wait – we have to pick them now!’” Paul agrees, saying, “When I make up my mind, that’s it.” Though Bev adds, “I don’t do the picking but I will sit on the couch and do the shelling.”

Bev has also taken over Mary’s role in freezing and preserving the garden’s bounty. With a commercial vacuum-sealing machine, Paul and Bev fill three freezers with crops such as broccoli, peas, corn, cauliflower, peppers, and beans, which can easily stay frozen for two years and still retain their flavor. He says vegetables need to be frozen as quickly as possible after picking or they lose their nutrients. “When you pick corn, it needs to get to the freezer in two to three hours or the sugar turns to starch.” He’s already worn out two machines and, even though they cost $500 apiece, has an extra one in reserve. “You have to have it when you need it,” he says. Always moving, Paul spends the winter making jam and jelly from his strawberries, grapes, blueberries, and raspberries. Given that he’s harvested sixty-five pounds of raspberries in some years, there’s plenty to keep him busy.

Many people know the name Paul Jackson from the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society Livestock Show and Fair. Bev talked her parents into entering for the first time in 1980; she thought the quality of the entries wasn’t what it should be. “We thought we should show people what you can have if you want to put the effort into it,” Paul says. That first year brought six first-place and five second-place ribbons along with the State Ribbon special award. Not a bad start.

At last year’s fair, Paul took first place in special categories for home vegetable garden and home fruit garden. Judge Chris Riger told the Vineyard Gazette he had to put some distance between other entries and Paul’s, and to do so he chose not to award second place, describing Paul’s blue ribbons as “stratospheric blue.” He continued, “His plants are so healthy you just go, ‘Wow.’” Even Paul’s compost won a prize, second place.

Bev says her father loves to talk about his garden and share his knowledge with anyone who stops by. “And he gives them food to take home.”

Sowing and safeguarding

There are no fancy structures in Paul’s garden. There’s a small greenhouse that helps give a head start, a root cellar for potatoes, and a few cold frames that he only uses briefly to harden off some plants.

Paul carefully marks his plants so he can track their performance through the years and decide if he wants to plant those varieties again. (One year his system failed when two of his grandchildren decided to move all the labels around inside the greenhouse.) He favors seeds from Burpee, Harris, and Gurney’s, but will also save seeds from his own pumpkin and bean plants. “I buy all these seeds and sometimes I wonder – what did I buy all this stuff for?” he says, laughing at himself. This year a package claiming to have 100 broccoli seeds arrived but really had something closer to 150. “So of course I planted them all.”

Paul saves the plastic containers from garden centers that larger plants come in, cuts the bottoms out, and uses them like sleeves around the vegetables. That way the water goes straight to the plants’ roots and keeps them from being stressed in the summer heat. Underground pipes take the water to spigots in the fields where he can hook up hoses and water directly into those sleeves.

The tomatoes have a special contraption of their own: Cages made from wire sheets available at Island building supply stores are an inexpensive way to grow in bulk. He cuts the bottom horizontal bars off to make feet, buries the cages below ground level for stability, and wraps them with plastic halfway up to act as a greenhouse and protect the plants from wind. If there’s a threat of frost, five-gallon buckets go on top for complete protection.

Paul favors Supersonic and Jet Star hybrid tomatoes but has no interest in the heirloom varieties. “I can’t visualize their taste – it’s like looking at a purple carrot,” he says. “Psychologically, that’s not how I picture a tomato.”

Wood chips surround the tomato plants to control weeds and to keep the soil moist underneath, but the chips themselves are dry; they allow a fallen or overgrown tomato to rest on them without causing rot the way soil would. He’ll use the tomato cages for peppers this season after losing some plants last year to storm damage.

He’s also witnessed damage from heat, which cracked the tops of some of the tomatoes last year and turned them yellow. Paul claims the summers are getting hotter; a thermometer he keeps in full sun registered more than a hundred degrees several days and kept him extra busy watering. “When plants are stressed for food or water, the fibers in the vegetables are stressed and it makes them tougher,” he says.

Animals wreak their own havoc in the garden. He doesn’t have a compost heap for kitchen waste because it would attract rats and skunks, but he does have trouble with raccoons in the corn, skunks in the melons, and rabbits in the lettuce, carrots, and peas. Luckily there aren’t many deer in his neighborhood.
Paul has developed particular protection for the peas. At the base of the plastic mesh they need to grow on, he adds more mesh to form a triangular tent, closed on both ends, to keep out fluffy visitors. It’s only about eight inches tall because after that the peas grow to a height that’s inaccessible. He adds, “You can’t grow just one row of peas, you have to grow two....That way the tendrils intermingle and protect the plants from wind.”

For strawberry beds and other plantings that attract rabbits, he uses plastic mesh deer fencing to a height of about one foot, “high enough to keep them from jumping in.”

Preparing for 2012

It’s the end of one of the warmest winters in the Vineyard’s history, but to Paul it’s just another gardening challenge. “Things are always changing,” he says. “That’s why I’m always thinking and experimenting.”

In October, Paul plants rye as a cover crop, but because of the extended warm weather, it got so tall he plowed it under and replanted in November. “That never happened before,” he says. “It would have been waist high and I couldn’t have turned it under easily in spring.”

In late February, as wet snow mixes with rain coming down, Paul plants quince trees. By early March he has peas in the ground and starts onion seeds, lettuce, impatiens, and columbine in the greenhouse, bringing them into the house on especially cold nights.

He’ll probably plant a dozen more fruit trees this spring, all together at the edge of the front garden. “They’re easier to water if they’re all in the same place. I prune them when they’re young and starting to bush out.” Then he’ll move them to different locations in the garden. There are Asian pear, peach, and Empire apple trees of different ages all around the property. “You wouldn’t believe how juicy those pears are,” he says. He’ll remove about 75 percent of the fruit before it develops, to force more growth into the remaining ones – last year two trees produced twenty-five crates of apples. “Empire apples stay white in the freezer and make the best pies,” he says.

By mid-March, peas are sending up shoots and broccoli seedlings move into the cold frames, where they’ll stay even on chilly nights to slow growth and keep them from getting leggy in the weak sunlight. His seedlings start in his homemade mix of well-rotted horse manure, ground wood chips, and sand.

In the greenhouse, more vegetables – basil, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, kale, cabbage, parsley – and annual flowers like snapdragons and ageratum are sprouting. He even has some dahlia tubers going. “People wonder why my dahlias start to bloom in June when theirs don’t start till late summer but that’s why.” In another week, he’ll be starting carrots. With more tender crops, he heats the greenhouse to sixty-five degrees at night.

“People buy those kits with heat and start tomatoes in their houses but that doesn’t work. You can’t put them out until after the last frost and by that time they’re spindly from not getting enough sun inside.” Paul says the first good windstorm just knocks over these lanky seedlings.

“I love to experiment to see if I can make something better. Some people might say I’m psycho, but I know what you can do and what you can get out of it.”

How to garden like Paul Jackson

Paul is an energetic, wiry, and talkative guy who’s happy to share his gardening secrets – even with fellow competitors at the Ag Fair – because he’s got a special mix in his garden that’s hard to match: magical soil, decades of experience, and constant attention. Of course, timing is everything at the fair. Paul’s sequential plantings let him choose from a large variety of vegetables that are in different stages of growth. Too much rain? Not enough rain? Too hot? Too cold? Too much sun? Not enough sun? Paul generally plants in three-week intervals to be ready for anything. Here are some helpful pointers to help color your own green thumb.

Don’t water overhead if you have trees or other shade around. The sun comes up and creates steam under the plants’ leaves and causes mildew. And the leaves inhibit the water from getting to the roots.

Paul lines his driveway with crushed scallop shells. On a hot and dry summer day, the lime dust from the shells blows onto the garden and helps correct soil acidity. He also mounds the unwashed shells around fruit trees and lets the rain wash the nutrients into the ground.

Once his scalloping friends have dumped their shells, Paul fills a large barrel half full of shells and half full of water, leaves it alone for a week, then stirs it and pours it on his plants. “That juice with the scallop guts goes right to the root system of the fruit trees and the trees love it,” he says. “But it does smell.”
Plant peas in mid-March; it’s okay if there are still frosts to come. Freezing temperatures force the peas to grow a good root system so they are healthier plants when they do start to grow above ground.

Paul makes sequential plantings of carrots three or four times in late summer and into fall, lays mesh wire over the plantings to keep out mice and shrews, covers with leaves in late November or early December, and harvests all winter.

Spread wood-stove ashes on the garden. “It neutralizes the acid in the garden soil in three weeks’ time,” he says, adding that he recycles as much as he can. “Everything here is made with something else that nobody else wanted, including the house.”

A garden should be aesthetically pleasing, so neatness counts – and flowers help too. Here Bev Bergeron helps her father harvest sunflowers. Paul’s other advice: Frame your garden or its different sections with wood chips – they help with weeds and make a picture frame of sorts. Then stand back and enjoy the masterpiece you have created.