In a quiet courtyard two blocks from Edgartown’s bustling Main street, a colonial garden is blooming under 21st-century skies.
Purple verbena blossoms dance in the breeze above raised beds of herbs and edible flowers outside the Cooke House, a 1742 home that formerly anchored the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.
“Each plant here was chosen for a reason,” said Nancy Vietor, a longtime Edgartown resident and passionate gardener, as she walked the courtyard’s gravel paths on a sunny September day.
Plants for cooking, dyeing fabrics and medicinal use are all a part of the colonial garden, said Nancy, who spearheaded the fundraising campaign to create a series of gardens on the Cooke House property after the museum moved to Vineyard Haven last year.
Tucked behind a fence at the rear of the house, the colonial garden also has a new shed to store tables, chairs and potting supplies, allowing for a panorama of craft and learning activities.
“We can make wreaths, we can make sailors’ valentines, we can make bouquet garni,” Nancy said.
Still to come, she added, is a horse trough with a pump where children visiting the garden can pump water by hand, the old-fashioned way.
The oldest house in Edgartown still standing on its original site, the Cooke House is named for original owner Thomas Cooke, the town’s customs agent at a time when the harbor teemed with commerce.
The museum, founded in 1922 as the Dukes County Historical Society, made the house at the corner of Cooke and School streets its headquarters from 1932 until last year’s move.
Buying and renovating the Vineyard Haven site, a former hospital for sailors built in 1895, was an expensive project and the museum no longer needed its Edgartown campus, so it sold some of the land along School street. Now, a newly-built house looms just over the fence.
Even more of the property might have been sold and developed, had it not been for Nancy’s determination not to let the current century overwhelm the historic Cooke House.
Her solution: Raise funds to not only keep the land, but transform the corner lot into an inviting resource for Islanders and visitors alike to learn more about the Vineyard’s natural and human history.
This was a tall order – about $1.5 million tall.
First, donors contributed $500,000 to protect the property from development and place it under permanent conservation restrictions.
The next challenge was how to handle the land itself, which sloped toward the house and leached water into the building.
Rather than raise the historic structure, contractors lowered the grade level around it by about two and a half feet – except for a wide circle around the Cooke House’s majestic pagoda tree.
Thought to have been planted as a cutting from the famous whaling-era pagoda tree on South Water street, the tree remains at the original grade level, surrounded by a low stone wall.
This fall, Nancy said, hundreds of daffodil bulbs will be planted at the base of the pagoda tree to bloom in a blaze of yellow next spring.
The pagoda tree garden and colonial garden are two in a series of Cooke House plantings envisioned as a “learning loop,” taking visitors from the Vineyard’s earliest landscapes to the present day.
A sand plain outwash garden, with little bluestem grass and other native plants, represents the Island of prehistoric times, complete with a glacial boulder. There’s also a grove of beetlebungs and a maple-shaded corner that, when completed, will provide a haven for the contemplative.
“It is going to be densely planted with thick, beautiful shrubs and lots of trees,” Nancy said. Already installed, wooden benches surround a planned millstone fountain at the garden’s center.
As part of the grading process, contractors also moved the property’s electrical systems underground.
“That was a huge expense,” Nancy said, but it means that no overhead lines will intrude on the view.
While the colonial garden is essentially completed, other elements of the plan – formally titled the Cooke House Legacy Gardens – are still underway, including an eight-foot square of granite that will be laser-etched with an 1850 birds-eye street map of the town.
While Nancy is heading the fundraising campaign, she emphasized that many other people have been working hard on the Cooke House project.
“Cheryl Doble really led it,” she said, also crediting Tim Boland, executive director of Polly Hill Arboretum, arborist Bob Hagerty and garden designer Lil Province. Landscape contractor Mark Crossland was one of the stars of the project, particularly when it came to saving the pagoda tree, Nancy added.
“He really broke his back over this,” she said.
While the gardens and house restoration continue, the Cooke House property is open to the public. Nancy also continues to seek donations for work still to be done, from a stand of medicinal shrubs to a perennial border along the edge of the property.
For more information about the Cooke House Legacy Gardens, or to make a donation, visit mvmuseum.org.
Louisa Hufstader is a reporter for the Vineyard Gazette.