The Vineyard is lucky to be an Island full of commercial farms that produce the best of the bounty, supplying Islanders with fresh lettuce, potatoes, tomatoes and blueberries. But the backyard farmer is another part of the mix. While many people trek to farmers’ markets and grocery stores for their produce, other Islanders have only to walk a few yards from their doors.
Paul Jackson has been doing just that for the past 50 years. Mr. Jackson has been gardening for 60 years, the majority of those in his home Ocean Heights garden. Standing under the shade of his MacIntosh apple tree last week, he recalled that his garden started with a small patch that just kept growing — in both senses of the word.
“My wife was going to kill me every time I bought another piece of land,” he said smiling. “We just started gradually. Every time I’d plow it a little wider, and finally got to this.”
“This” is where Mr. Jackson grows everything you could want in a year-round harvest. Tomatoes, potatoes, string beans, carrots, peaches, pears, apples, raspberries, blueberries and strawberries — he grows just about everything possible in this zone.
He puts up applesauce, jams and jellies, apple juice and grape juice that last all year, and he vacuum seals and freezes fresh corn and peas straight from the garden.
“It’s the only type of corn I know that when you thaw it out it’s still crunchy,” he said. “It has a real unique flavor to it and it’s beautiful, it is beautiful.” Because he gets a jump on the season by starting the corn in his greenhouse, Mr. Jackson expects to be picking sweet, golden ears by the end of the month.
“I tell everybody, these vegetables here will cook in half the time than anything bought in the store,” he said of the vegetables he gives away to his lucky neighbors. “They don’t stress for food, they don’t stress for water, and the fibers are not stressed.”
He eats almost exclusively from his garden, supplementing his bountiful produce with a few trips to the grocery store for paper towels, milk and eggs. What he doesn’t eat, he gives away. “Everyone kind of works in a circle here. It works out great,” he said of his neighbors, adding, “I’m one to work alone.”
His growing method includes planting his beans, tomatoes, squash and peas encircled in recycled plastic planting containers; he cuts off the bottom of the planters and places them around the plant to create almost a protective shield. This way when he waters, the water reaches the root of the plant directly.
“The humidity will cause mildew, and then you have to spray with fungicide but with this method you don’t have to,” Mr. Jackson said. “The pot fills the whole thing up.”
And he uses scallop shells as natural fertilizer. His yard is full of them; they are around the base of his fruit trees as well as in the driveway. He fills a barrel with scallop shells, soaks them in water for a week, then distributes the mix among his vegetables and creates mounds around the apple, pear, and peach trees.
“I love to experiment,” he said, standing next to his chest-high tomato plants. “I’m going to continuously experiment with all different kinds of things . . . there’s no end to it.”
But for Mr. Jackson, the real secret is in the ground. “If you’re ground’s no good then your products no good,” he said, digging into his soft soil to show a reporter how two feet down is nothing but sand. He has built up his rich soil over the years, among other things adding literally tons and tons of horse manure.
“I want to make sure that everything is healthy and grown the way it should,” Mr. Jackson said. “Nobody’s got the feeling for the ground that I’ve got. You’ve got to have a feeling; if you don’t enjoy it, you don’t do it.”
Karen Overtoom is another backyard gardener with a passion for her vegetables, in this case at her West Tisbury home.
Ms. Overtoom started gardening when she was four in her grandfather’s garden, and hasn’t stopped since. Today, she balances the upkeep of her four gardens with a full-time real estate business.
“I love it, I love to garden and I love to grow my own food and I love to know where my food comes from,” she said, walking through her zucchini patch. “I think that it’s important for everybody to know where your food comes from. It feels great to grow something, go out and pick it and bring it in and eat it, and it tastes great too.”
This year she is growing brussels sprouts, squash, potatoes, eggplant, berries, herbs and peas to name a few, but her real treasure is her tomatoes for which she continuously wins top prize in the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Fair every year.
From her tomatoes, she makes sauce that she and her family eat throughout the year, along with pesto made from her own basil. She keeps butternut squash in the basement through the winter. And what she can’t grow she buys from local farms. Gardening and eating is a family affair; Ms. Overtoom receives help from her teenage girls Olivia, and Michelle, and her husband, Louis, makes the compost.
“If everybody planted their own gardens it’d be a great way to teach,” Ms. Overtoom said. “I’ve taught my children how to garden . . . because I think it’s a very good tool to know how to sustain yourself.”
Like Mr. Jackson, Ms. Overtoom in a tinkerer in the garden. This year she is using earth boxes to grow eggplant, cucumbers and melon. So far she’s harvested 12 cucumbers, and the melons are already a decent size. The earth box is a planter that holds a water reservoir in the bottom topped with soil and fertilizer and a vegetable of your choosing.
“You don’t need to have much space at all; you don’t need to dig it into the ground, you can put it on your back patio,” she suggested to new gardeners. “I planted them at the exact same time as I did my other [plants] and they’re doing beautifully.”
And for people who might not have the time to create an organic garden like Ms. Overtoom or Mr. Jackson, at least one Vineyard entrepreneur has a new business idea. Nick Azzollini’s Hands to Work Landscaping company is starting a venture this summer by creating organic vegetable gardens and helping clients maintain them through out the year.
“From a business point of view, we want to promote it as a need to eat the right foods,” Mr. Azzollini said. “A garden in your yard is self-contained . . . and you would have a resource of healthy foods.”
Mr. Azzollini and his team will clear an area, rototill, plant, water and weed while summer residents come and go. With inspiration from his wife Roberta Kern’s online nutrition class, he hopes the new business will take off later this summer and fall.
Before Mr. Jackson headed inside to cool off from last week’s heat wave, he was knee-deep in his carrot patch in his front yard. “Come out of there, what are do you doing down there, come on,” he said, coaching a bunch of carrots out of the ground. He then walked over to the hose, washed off the dirt and offered one to me. They snapped in my mouth with freshness.
“It’s so rewarding to see what you can get out of the ground . . . you have no idea how much you can get out it,” he said. “I’m not satisfied with just growing things. I want it a little bit different, and a little bit better.”
This column is meant to reflect all aspects of agricultural activity and farm life on the Vineyard. To get in touch with Remy Tumin, please call 508-627-4311, extension 116, or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.