The Constant Gardener

by: Aidan Feeney

Gardening is an interesting choice for a hobby. We freely subject ourselves to untold hours of toil preparing soil and weeding beds. Strange behavior indeed. In an attempt to become a better grower, it is important to examine why we garden to begin with.

Famed biologist E.O. Wilson coined the term “biophilia” to describe his hypothesis for our inherited genetic attraction toward plants, animals and specific landscapes. According to Wilson, this is why we find green lawns and pastoral farm scenes so attractive, why we find so much relaxation in the garden.

In the garden, every square foot of space is valuable real estate. As such, you should only plant varieties that will be worth the space.

Wilson argues you are not only happier but more productive when immersed in a garden. You have less distractions, your senses are heightened and you become more observant and an overall better grower.

The success of a home garden is entirely dependent on its ability to mimic the natural ecology of the area. This is why we plant according to the seasons and why we scout for pests and diseases at specific times of the year. Ultimately, nature is entirely in control and it is our job as growers to be observant and ride the wave of the growing season.

With all that in mind, a few general strategies can increase production and add to our enjoyment of back-yard gardening.

Compost: Bring life to your soil

“We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.” – Joni Mitchell
Most gardeners should rely on their own senses to observe what is happening in their soil, rather than getting bogged down in all of the technical aspects of soil analysis and management. You can tell a lot about your soil by looking at it and feeling it with your hands.

We all have an innate understanding of what healthy, fertile soil looks like. Fertile ground is well-drained, typically dark in color (brown-black), with a crumbly texture and chock full of soil life. The problem is that the vast majority of native soil on Nantucket is sandy, low in organic matter and acidic. There is a relatively simple way to change this, however, and make your soil look rich, dark and full of life. Add compost.

Whenever establishing a new garden, start by adding three to six inches of finished compost to the entire surface of the garden. This may seem like a lot of work up front, but it is worth the investment. This amount of compost will smother weeds, improve the waterand nutrient-holding capacity, and provide enough fertility and organic matter to coast off of for years to come. In subsequent seasons, your garden will probably only require an inch or so of compost to keep the soil looking rich.

Farmers often seed their fields with a cover crop in the fall to protect the soil from winter erosion. While there are many benefits to cover-cropping, one of the most fundamental is mitigating erosion and nutrient leaching.

Home gardeners should protect their soils over winter as well. Instead of leaving your garden beds bare and exposed to winter rain, wind and snow, you should cover your soil. A cover crop is a great way to do this, but a simpler approach is to cover your garden with straw, leaves or even just a tarp or plywood. The idea is simply to protect bare, fallow soil from the elements.

Think vertically: Trellis tall crops

The biggest constrain for most home gardeners is bed space. It can be really difficult to have a consistent harvest from a small piece of ground. One way to save space is to put some forethought into trellising tall crops like tomatoes and cucumbers. Trellising allows crops to be planted closer together, saving valuable bed space.

For tomatoes, there are a number of ways to trellis the crop. The first step is to figure out if you are growing a determinate or indeterminate variety. Determinate varieties only produce a set amount of flower clusters before putting all their energy into fruit production. These varieties normally stay under four feet tall. Indeterminate plants, on the other hand, which include most heirloom varieties, will keep producing new flowers and fruit for as long as the plant stays healthy and well-fed. It is not uncommon for indeterminate varieties to grow over seven feet tall. When ordering seeds online, or buying plants locally, make sure you know what type of plants you are buying.

For determinate varieties, tall tomato cages will suffice for crop support. For indeterminate varieties, you will need something taller.

One method worth a try is the “stake and weave” technique. With this method, you plant a few tomato plants between tall posts driven into the ground (I use eight-foot steel tee posts). Tie twine from one post to the other on each side of the plant, essentially boxing the plants in and forcing them to grow upright. Every six inches, string up a new line to prevent the plants from flopping over.

Cucumbers are an easy crop to grow vertically. As the plants grow and vine out, they produce tendrils at every flower and growth point. These tendrils act like tentacles, reaching out for objects to wrap around to support the vines.

All you have to do is plant the cucumbers at the base of any lattice or net-like structure, and help the tendrils find their way up it. Before long, the plant will continue to grow up the trellis unassisted.

Deciding what to plant

In the garden, every square foot of space is valuable real estate. As such, you should only plant varieties that will be worth the space. Generally speaking, you want to plant crops that are fastgrowing and have a long harvest period.

Also, with fruiting crops like tomatoes, squash, peppers and eggplant, choose small-fruited varieties which generally ripen

In the garden, every square foot of space is valuable real estate. As such, you should only plant varieties that will be worth the space. faster and yield more fruit.

For peppers, try shishito, lunchbox and any type of hot peppers. These varieties are much more productive and easier to grow than large sweet peppers.

For tomatoes, consider planting cherry tomatoes instead of slicers. Cherry tomatoes are faster to ripen and will produce a crop for a longer period of time. Good varieties to start with are Sun Gold and Super Sweet 100.

For eggplants, instead of choosing a typical Italian variety, consider growing an Asian type. These plants are typically more productive and produce a delicate and versatile fruit. A good variety is Orient Express.

For summer squash, try patty-pan squash instead of your classic zucchini. These plants are incredibly productive and produce tons of small, round gourds that are great prepared the same way you would normal zucchini.

Instead of growing head lettuce, which can only be harvested once, try Tuscan kale. Kale is a versatile cooking and salad green that can sustain many harvests over the course of the season, instead of a single harvest like head lettuce. To keep your kale productive and pest-free, it is worth covering it with insect netting to keep cabbage loopers and flea beetles off the plants.

Spring on the island is hit or miss and lives in our memories mostly in rain and fog. Summer on Nantucket is beautiful. Take the time to unplug from modern life and find some of Wilson’s biophilia. It is worth all the work. ///

Aidan Feeney was raised on Nantucket. He owns and operates Fog Town Farm, a small market farm on the island, with the help of his wife Natasha. To learn more about Fog Town Farm, visit and follow it on Instagram @fogtownfarm.