On Martha’s Vineyard, A Couple’s Passion for Gardening Blooms
If you ever find yourself searching for plants on Marthaʼs Vineyard, a stop at West Tisbury’s boutique nurseries is a must. Amidst a sea of reputable establishments like Middletown and Tea Lane, there’s one place in particular that’s earned renown amongst townsfolk and tourists alike – largely due to the charisma of one of its owners, a petite woman with a brisk step and a fluency in Spanish (outside of the family that runs the show, the shop’s staff are a mix of Brazilians and other Americans). Her name is Christine Wiley, and she is the reason why locals and countless other gardening, landscaping companies, and homeowners have singled out Vineyard Gardens as one of the area’s premiere gardening destinations.
A self-proclaimed “nature freak”, Christine – known to everyone as Chris – started Vineyard Gardens in 1981 with her husband Chuck, who she met while studying at University of Vermont. Initially established in Edgartown at Chuckʼs motherʼs house with four employees, the company began as an offshoot of Chuck’s landscaping business (which survives to this day), as a place where the duo could grow plants for their clients. Over time, their venture blossomed into a garden center and landscape division, which now employs over forty islanders and serves all six towns on Martha’s Vineyard. Today, Vineyard Gardens grows about half of their own annuals for sale from seed in their multiple greenhouses, and they also import stock from all over the country.
Wiley’s love of horticulture took off with her work alongside the late, legendary horticulturalist Polly Hill at her arboretum in West Tisbury. She remembers the time she spent there as educational and experimental, but also exceedingly fun. To this day, Wiley furthers her botanical education by reading gardening books en masse, taking annual recertifications and other classes, and attending lectures. Despite her travels with the Perennial Plant Association and her position as a trustee of the prestigious Holly Society of America, Wiley doesn’t have an ego in the least: she buys and sells what her clientele request, be it a homegrown apple tree or an exotic hibiscus.
When we asked Wiley to name her top sellers, she mentioned a rising demand for the exotic: unusual vegetables and fruits, tropical annuals and rare specialty cultivars– including heirloom varieties of flowers, which Wiley says are making a big comeback. Native Massachusetts specimens such as red maple and yarrow continue to perform strongly at the store, along with deer-resistant plants (the state is notorious for its abundance of garden-threatening deer). Wiley also says that Dahlias have become very popular, and that the garden sells them as bulbs or in pots that have been pre-started in a greenhouse. There’s also a growing thirst for knowledge– an imperative to which she’s responded by offering weekly educational lectures for the public, which are held at the nursery and focus on everything from starting vegetable seeds to the quirks of small fruits.
When the Wileys aren’t selling plants to eager customers from the Vineyard and beyond, they’re getting involved in the community. Recently, the couple started Gallery in the Gardens, a series that invites local artists to display their work amongst the nursery’s wares. In the spring, there are Easter Egg Hunts and Motherʼs Day celebrations; come autumn, a Harvest festival brings flocks of visitors who head home with pumpkins, heirloom seeds, and other Fall goodies. Most of the time, though, the Wiley can be found on site dishing wisdom and kindness in bushels– and actively fighting stereotypes of New England as anything other than a greenthumber’s paradise.