This Q&A originally appeared in the June 2021 issue of Nantucket Today magazine.
Lucy Leske’s garden was the best it has ever been last year. There are many lessons to be learned from the lockdown year of the Covid-19 pandemic, but that one is as optimistic as any.
“They say the best fertilizer is a gardener’s footsteps,” she said.
Leske is known locally as a gardening writer, but for the last three decades she has worked for a global executive search firm called Witt Kieffer, recruiting executives for jobs running hospitals and at places of higher education. She is now a senior partner.
“I was generally on the road two to three days a week, 12 months a year,” she said. “But that all came to a screeching halt in March. I was able to be around the garden all the time and pay attention to what was going on there.”
Leske’s grandmother had a cottage near Surfside Beach and the Star of the Sea youth hostel. The family visited summers since she was a child. In her 20s she took a job working at Capt. Tobey’s Chowder House.
“I started dating my boss,” she said. “The rest is history.”
She married the late Tobey Leske, whose family owned the business and who used to write the “On the Water” column for The Inquirer and Mirror. She has two sons, Colin and Wyatt.
Asked if working in her garden is an escape from the world of corporate headhunters, Leske quoted the author Jamaica Kinkaid, who once said she gardens because it vexes her.
“I agree with that,” she said. “There are problems to solve out there in the garden. It can be like meditation.”
Q: You’ve been the I&M’s Gardening by the Sea columnist for – how many years now?
A: “Thirty-three years! It is not my first foray into garden writing. I had purchased the New England Gardener from Bob Kaldenbach, who had been publishing the newsletter out of his home on West Chester Street. Once I realized I liked it, I approached Marianne (Stanton) and asked if the I&M would be interested in a gardening column. It has been a great run. I have also written for Nantucket Today and a number of national gardening magazines over the years.
Q: How did you get interested in gardening?
A: “I got started in gardening as a child when my parents had a vegetable garden. One of my earliest memories is of them growing seedlings in the little sun porch off their bedroom.
In college I majored in environmental biology with a focus on plants, and then after moving to Nantucket in 1979, one of my earliest jobs was working for Alice Erickson in the garden center at Marine Lumber.
I have had a vegetable garden on Nantucket since 1982. After my children were born, I dabbled in landscape design and installation, and was often called by friends for advice. I was also a member of the Nantucket Garden Club for many years and loved connecting with my friends there around plants, gardens, and wildflower protection.
Q: What are the iconic Nantucket plants in a summer garden here?
A: “Roses, hydrangeas, geraniums, lilies and daylilies, Echinacea, peonies, phlox, mallow, sunflowers, and annuals. Best native plant ever for the perennial garden? Native Joe Pye weed, my favorite.”
Q: June seems to be the month when roses come into bloom and the ‘Sconset cottages are covered with them. Why do roses do so well on Nantucket?
A: “Roses seem to do well here because our winters are mild, we have plenty of wind to promote air circulation, and the light is so bright. Lots of sun, plus reflected light, really sets their colors off well.”
Q: Are there special challenges to growing roses? One hears how difficult they are to care for.
A: “Roses are heavy feeders and need very good soil. Most are grafted, so the graft needs protecting from frost in winter with mulch. The plants must also be heavily fortified with fencing to keep deer and rabbits away.”
Roses are susceptible to diseases like mildew and blackspot because of our droughty summers and high humidity, and they are attacked by a variety of insects including Japanese beetle, aphids, and rose slugs which riddle the foliage, weakening the plant and both spreading if not encouraging disease.
Keeping insects and disease under control used to mean spraying with all kinds of nasty chemicals. These days with new products like insecticidal soap, growing roses organically is possible as long as you don’t mind less than perfect foliage. Pruning is required in winter to encourage the next year’s blooms.”
Q: What are the varieties called that we typically see climbing up trellises and over the roofs of cottages?
A: “Ramblers – Dorothy Perkins (pink), Excelsior (red), American pillar (red with white eye), and other hybrids. These are all hybrids created from non-native plants. On Nantucket, you can also find a healthy population of wild native roses. Rosa rugosa is not native but naturalized along our beaches; their highly fragrant blooms and shrubby growth habit fit in perfectly with other wild plants. Native roses include Rosa carolina and Rosa virginiana, both fragrant, suckering and spreading types that do best buried in wild shrub borders, not as cultivated garden plants.
Q: What are your favorite varieties to grow? And what are the best varieties for Nantucket.
A: “I grow two, both climbing roses – Constance Spry, a highly fragrant climbing David Austin rose that blooms for about two weeks in June. Great as a cut flower, although lots of thorns.
I also grow the iconic New Dawn rose, a great rose for Nantucket because its shell pink flowers complement well the typical gray shingle facades. They tend to start blooming late on very shiny foliage that rarely gets powdery mildew, the scourge of most roses, although it can get blackspot. That said, will often produce sporadic secondary blooms. Less fragrant than other roses.
The new Knock Out series of shrub roses are terrific for Nantucket. While the flowers are not terribly fragrant, they bloom all summer on compact plants that are fairly disease free.”
Q: If someone wanted to grow roses in a cutting garden, what three pieces of advice would you give them?
A: “Most roses that are grown for or known for fragrance are actually not very attractive plants as landscaping centerpieces. Thus, the cutting garden is actually a great place for them.
So, choose roses that will naturally develop long stems and fragrant flowers (David Austin roses are good for this), plant them in the cutting garden, and don’t worry about what the plants look like. More advice: keep the air circulation high, water with soaker hoses, and use plenty of compost on planting.
Q: Where do you get inspiration for your gardens?
A: “That has evolved over the years. When I was first gardening, I was more impressed by highly designed, cultivated gardens full of color and foliage. These days I am more drawn to creative use of native plants.
Sure, I might see a plant at a garden center that I have to have, but my garden is so stuffed that always means getting rid of something else to find room. As I get older, I am leaning towards simple is better.
My garden is not such a jungle anymore; the hardest part of gardening is editing and eliminating!
Q: Periodicals, travels?
A: “I am inspired by Fine Gardening Magazine, Garden Design, and definitely my travels. Actually, walking through wild landscapes inspires me most”
Q: Any special gardens you’ve visited over the years that you’d recommend?
A: “High Line garden in NYC, NY Botanical Garden, Brooklyn Botanical Garden, NE Wildflower Garden, Hollister House, Versailles in winter, Sissinghurst, and one I’d like to visit: Les Quatres Vents in Quebec, the late Frank Cabot’s masterpiece.”
Q: Once you’ve cut roses to bring inside for an arrangement, what’s the best thing you can do to keep them long lasting?
A: “Change water and recut stems daily and keep them out of the sun as cool as possible.”
Q: f you could have lunch with any six notables from the gardening world, past or present, who would they be and why?
A: “I am really drawn to women whose profound influence on gardening, landscape design, and garden writing cannot be understated. Cut off from most careers or positions of influence for centuries, this is one place they could not only make their mark but were also generally respected. Their contributions were more than accepted during their time; they were emulated and admired.
They include Gertrude Jekyll (1840-1932), English garden designer and writer, whose artist’s eye defined the English flower garden for more than a century.
Beatrix Farrand (1872–1959), the only female founder of the American Society of Landscape Architects, designed for the White House, the Rockefellers and her family’s estate in Bar Harbor Maine.
Louise Beebe Wilder (1878–1938) of Baltimore, garden designer and exquisite writer.
English poet, journalist and garden designer Vita-Sackville West (1892–1962) whose exquisite garden rooms at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent, England, are now part of the National Trust.
Ruth Bancroft (1908-2017) whose five-acre garden and collection of drought-tolerant plants in California is considered the finest in the world.
Jamaica Kinkaid, novelist, writer, and gardener, still living, whose memoir “(My) Garden Book” includes memories from her youth in the Caribbean, and inspires me to this day.