Gardening is big business all over Martha’s Vineyard. Vacation property owners want manicured flower beds, aging Island residents hire professionals for the garden tasks they used to delight in doing themselves, and busy homeowners outsource their vegetable and herb patches.

To meet this demand, the Vineyard’s long-established landscape and garden companies have been joined in recent years by a wave of younger gardeners. We caught up with six of them. Ranging in age from 27 to 37, these Islanders are taking advantage of a big opportunity to carve out a spot for themselves in the Island economy.

By all accounts, there is no shortage of work.

Make no mistake, the hours are long and the job is physically demanding (see "A Day in the Gardening Life...," below). But the pay is good and winters off allow for traveling. There’s job growth, as well, if the entrepreneurial spirit takes hold; each of the gardeners we talked to has apprenticed with an established Island gardener, and many are starting or plan to start their own businesses.

“There’s almost too much work. It’s mind-blowing,” said Ryan White, 32, whose company The Avant Gardener specializes in formal English and Parisian-style gardens, many in Edgartown.

Tara Gayle, also 32, and the owner of her own company in Chilmark, agreed. “I think there is plenty of work here for everyone,” said Gayle, a former art student who founded Gayle Gardens in 2014 and tends both ornamental and edible gardens, mostly up-Island.

“It was really scary when I first got started, because I didn’t know if I would sink or swim,” Gayle admitted. “I put an ad in the paper, I came up with a logo, I put up cards and I just went with it.”

Her gamble paid off: Gayle acquired enough garden accounts in her first year to keep going, and business has increased yearly since, allowing her to hire assistants to help with the workload.

“We’re still small, but we’re growing,” says Gayle, who also raises vegetables for her own use and flowers for her floral design company, Hunter’s Bend. This year, in her own garden, she is experimenting with planting heirloom grains—Scottish bere barley, red bearded upland rice and Tartary buckwheat — all of which, she said, were cultivated on the Vineyard during the Colonial era.

Ruby Hoy (left) of Wild Violets, and Tara Gayle (right) of Gayle Gardens Jeanna Shepard

When she was growing up in New York, Gayle recalled, her botanically-minded father filled the family home with “billions of plants” and tended extensive gardens around the property. But, she added, “I never thought of it as a career path” until she began working for Arnie Fischer at Moonlight Gardening in West Tisbury.

“He was a great teacher,” Gayle said. “He trusted you to use your creativity and your instincts. He let me design pots and gardens, and I learned very quickly because of him.”

Art meets science

Vineyard native Ruby Hoy, 27, also got her start with Mr. Fischer and now works for Mary Wirtz, owner of Wild Violets. “She’s the mastermind, but she does allow me a lot of freedom in designing pots and different gardens,” said Ms. Hoy, who is also a photographer and assists with the company website.

For Hoy, the work of garden design and maintenance falls comfortably between her talent for visual art and the gift for sciences that earned her a scholarship to the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.

“Being a gardener feels like it brings together the creative and scientific aspects of my personality,” she said. “It’s a seasonal job, but that’s also a nice thing because you can travel for a couple of months.” When she’s not traveling—this year she visited Spain and Italy during the winter—Hoy lives at her family’s home in West Tisbury.

Love and roses

Being a gardener can also lead to romance. (Who knew?) Emmy Sharkey, 26, and Elliott Tholen, 28, met on the job with Chase and Wood, a gardening service based in Edgartown. Now they’re planning a November wedding.

Elliott Tholen and Emmy Sharkey met on the job Jeanna Shepard

They both said they love the work they do, hers chiefly with containers and gardens and his with heavier landscaping tasks. “There’s always something to do. It’s never-ending, which is great,” Tholen said.

Sharkey added that although she enjoys designing planters and gardens, this is likely to become more of a hobby in the future. She recently accepted a part-time job at the Edgartown Public Library and is looking to establish a library career. For his part, Tholen sees a promising future. “It’s a great paying job,” he said, and there’s the possibility of starting his own company in time — if, he said, he can find a location to base it.

Strictly edible

While Gayle Gardens, Wild Violets and Chase and Wood handle a variety of gardens and The Avant Gardener specializes in formal European designs, Leia French focuses strictly on the edible. After working for two seasons at Morning Glory Farm, French has designed and maintained private food gardens up-Island since 2012, recently naming her West Tisbury-based company Turnips and Thyme Vegetable Gardening.

Leia French manages edible gardens Jeanna Shepard

Like others who have entered the Vineyard gardening industry over the past five years or so, French, now 37, got a boost from an established gardener.

“The person I was working for in 2012 asked if I wanted to take over,” she said. “I inherited a lot of gardens.”

A new mom with a baby daughter, French is scaling back her work this year. In 2016, she cared for 11 vegetable gardens, down from 15 at her busiest. This season she has referred all but four to other gardeners.

Demand for edible gardening services continues to increase, said French. “I’ve turned people away every year,” she said. “So far it hasn’t been slowing down at all. I feel there’s momentum forward.”

Short list, long on service

Another gardener who got his start with a longtime Vineyard firm is Ryan White, whose company was founded before he was born. He took over The Avant Gardener five years ago at the request of owner Mike Faraca, who was dying of cancer. With a degree in business from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, White had been working in the pharmaceutical industry. But he had also apprenticed with Faraca, whom the late Bailey Norton dubbed “the steward of North Water Street,” almost every season since he was a 13-year-old summer kid.

Ryan White of The Avant Gardener Jeanna Shepard

When Faraca told him The Avant Gardener would fold if he didn’t take it over, “I took a leap of faith and left my corporate existence and came back to the job I love the most,” White said.

Now Faraca’s son Lee is apprenticing with Mr. White during the high season, while he completes his studies in landscape architecture and environmental engineering at Cal Poly during the school year.

“I’m very proud of him and I know his dad would be too, if he was still here,” White said. “He always has a job with me.”

If the younger Faraca should decide to strike out on his own one day, there’s plenty of precedent — and plenty of customers. The Avant Gardener serves only seven families, by choice.

“We have a small, highly select client portfolio and a concierge level of service,” said White, who has been known to send an employee home for violating the company dress code of tucked-in polo shirts from Vineyard Vines and a clean-shaven appearance.

“I turn work away frequently,” White added. “That sacrifice is necessary to keep the quality high. You can’t get greedy in this line of work. There’s so much work available.”

Keeping it real

But while demand for gardeners remains plentiful, starting—or expanding—almost any business on the Vineyard means confronting the Island’s intractable housing problem. “There is just nothing for Islanders,” Gayle said, herself a renter who performs the twice-a-year “Island shuffle” between summer and winter tenancies.

“A lot of my friends and I are having trouble finding people to work for us,” Gayle added. “I’d like to hire people who live here. It’s a good job, it’s good money and it’s a great way to make a living—you’re outside all day playing in the dirt.”

But, she said, “They have to have a place to live.”

The Vineyard’s pro gardeners also must contend with seasonal traffic woes, weather extremes, and managing both customers’ expectations and the anxiety they can cause.

“It’s just the nature of the Island,” Hoy said. “It’s very polar and it just gets crazy so quickly.”

“Your work totally depends on the weather,” Gayle said. And Vineyard weather is not friendly to some of the plants that customers want to see in their gardens.

“Tomatoes are the number one request of most people, which is difficult because they don’t grow well here,” laments French. She’s also battled downy mildew in basil plants, and lost.

“I really like to do a good job, so sometimes I’m under a lot of stress,” she added. “Clients have very specific expectations.”

But no matter how hectic the job can get in high season, autumn always arrives. For many gardeners, it’s their favorite time of year.

“All the pressure’s off,” Mr. Tholen said. “Everybody’s gone home.”


A Day in the (Gardening) Life of Tara Gayle

Tara Gayle of Gayle Gardens Jeanna Shepard

And so it begins

5 a.m. Wake up with every intention of getting to the gym by 6. Snooze until 5:20 and then rush out the door to speed to the (Crossfit) gym for the 6 a.m. class. Very shortly thereafter, I eat an irresponsibly large breakfast (hopefully this includes a gluten-free cupcake from the Scottish Bakehouse), change, and head to West Tisbury to a vegetable garden I’ll tend for an hour.

Meet the crew

8 a.m. I meet my crew at 7a Foods around 8 and hope no one has quit because of, you know, Lyme disease. I buy a large coffee and stare longingly at the bulletin board for a year-round rental situation, even though those don’t exist because we have a housing crisis out here. Around 8:30 a.m., we head to the first client of the day for a few hours. It’s a grab bag of mosquito, tick, or poison ivy infested locations, but every property is beautiful. Ten points if there’s an intolerable dog. I will either stay and work alongside my amazing crew, or move on to a different property.

Pausing (not) at midday

11 a.m. I perpetuate my non-removable and horribly unattractive shorts tan while working in the morning sun. Around 12:30, if we’re in the area, we swing back by 7a for lunch. Preferably a tuna melt; it’s amazing.

1 p.m. I send the crew to the second property of the day while I head to the nursery; schedule orders, deliveries, and meetings; and contemplate what I’m doing with my life, all while trying not to clip my client’s mailbox.

Reality, checking in

1:30 p.m. I fantasize about what a day in a pencil skirt with a decent mani cure must be like, seeing how I am eternally dressed in a tattered flannel.

2 p.m. I realize that I have the best life ever as I try to ignore the time-crunch of our short season and the stress that comes with it, while driving back upIsland past the Allen Farm and the Atlantic ocean.

I split the next five hours between a couple different properties—weeding, pruning, planting pots, and watering everything in—and repeat a few of the same kinds of tasks I did in the morning.

Sleep, Repeat

8:30 p.m. I finish my day well after the sun goes down, with just enough energy to make dinner, which might be a sweet potato that I eat standing up, over the stove. #bachelormeals

In the morning, I will get up and do it again. During a typical season, I tend to work seven days a week, having to force a few Sundays off to keep my sanity. But despite the high demands and the short season, I feel lucky to live a life I love in such a beautiful place.

— Tara Gayle