Pumpkin Pond Farm -September/October 2011

by: Lindsay Pykosz

photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger

When people hear about the little organic farm and nursery situated off the beaten path on Millbrook Road, one thing in particular comes to mind: Pumpkins. Rightly so, as the farm is named Pumpkin Pond Farm. But there is so much more to the farm than pumpkins, including myriad varieties of lettuce, beets, eggplants and herbs spread out on just 1.2 acres of the nine-acre piece of land.

The farm crops, laid out based on a painting by artist Paul Klee, whose Cubist Impressionism McGowan admires. Pumpkin Hill is visible in the background, of which parts can be found covered in pumpkins after Columbus Day

Pumpkin Pond is the brainchild of Sconset Gardener founder Marty McGowan, who opened the farm in 2009, and is a piece of property that, coincidentally, he has had his eye on for quite some time.

“I knew it was good land, I knew it was farmland and I live right over there and I looked out the back door, and as I looked out, there used to be this black horse with this golden mane out here and there were pheasants and deer and that black horse,” he said. “I mean, I look out my back door of my house and it was this idyllic, gorgeous scene.”

The Larrabee family, who formerly owned the land, approached McGowan to buy the property in 2003, and in 2005 a deal was completed and he began to assemble a number of greenhouses on the property. He began to organize his vision for the farm and nursery, and started to learn about what grows best in the soil, what the soil was like and what exactly he had to do to use the farm.

At the farm, situated next to Rotten Pumpkin Pond, visitors can meander down the mica Appian Way lined with the same slabs of silver stone used on historic Main Street, take a seat in Hydrangea Park surrounded by various Annabelle, Shamrock and Endless Summer hydrangeas of the deepest and lightest blues and pinks, and wander past Pumpkin Hill and the newly-installed herb garden to choose the best products designed to enhance your gardens or dishes.

“One of the first things I did was install this silver stone that you’ll still see when you walk down Main Street that’s still in front of some houses,” McGowan said. “When you walked down Main Street in the old days, you used to see these big silver slabs, but instead of cutting them into squares or having them harvested like that, I got them in their organic shapes.”

Petrochemical fertilizers are not used in the growing process. When you strip away all of the harmful stuff, what you’re left with are flavors that can sometimes be startling and unexpected: Basil with a hint of citrus and anise, 21 types of tomatoes in a variety of bright colors with sweet, candy-like tastes, and even edible flowers such as nasturtiums that start off sweet but finish with a bit of a spicy kick. The tropical hot house alone carries 30,000 perennials ideal for exciting the senses.

McGowan, who has owned the landscaping company Sconset Gardener for more than 35 years, is no stranger to gardening and landscaping, but organic farming is a whole different ballgame. The last few years have been about developing his knowledge, figuring out what the best crops are and designing the farm with his wife Holly.

“It was about getting something that was, for us, a good idea,” he continued. “We could make every decision, so we did. ”

The design of the farm’s fields are based on a painting by artist Paul Klee, whose Cubist Impressionism McGowan admires.

“There are all these different squares of different colors, and I have always loved his paintings, with the rolling hills and the ways he drew them and painted them,” he said. “So when you go up on the hill, you can see the Cubism and the layout of the different plants. The plans were part of the interpretation of this early 19th-century painting. That’s how I came up with that part of the layout.”

Why organic? The idea actually stems from McGowan’s childhood when he first learned from his grandfather about treating a garden the way it should be treated. Recalling the 10-acre piece of property on Lake Ontario that his family owned, he remembered the garden, orchard and grape vines that sat off an old dirt road, much like the one that runs through Pumpkin Pond Farm. The farm concept has essentially come full circle for him, and he said he still talks about his grandfather’s farm with his mother, Lucretia Chase.

“I started doing this farm because my grandpa used to make me work in his garden as a kid,” he said. “We would basically compost all of our materials on-site and then every year we would spread it out and plant on top of it and he would rotate the crops and do things like that. So I did that when I was a child, and I originally got my first job with Earl Coffin out in Sconset because I could cut hedges, and there were hedges at the house around the farm that he made me cut.”

It’s safe to say that gardening is in McGowan’s blood. But it’s also something he finds to be therapeutic and satisfying, and the whole organic-farm concept has turned into something much bigger than he originally anticipated. Staff meetings sometimes consist of weeding, where his crew of at least a dozen can talk and simultaneously work with their hands.

The balancing act has been learning how to “walk the walk and talk the talk” when it comes to being green, but the farm has been certified by California Certified Organic Farmers, and has to undergo yearly inspections. In the same vein, each day brings a new set of challenges to the table, but with those challenges come a new lesson

learned and a new set of skills each worker takes with them in order to continually improve the land and the business.

“We’ve had to train ourselves,” McGowan said. “We weren’t trained organic farmers. We had to teach ourselves to do everything the right way, and there’s a lot of rules and there’s a tremendous amount of paperwork. The CCOF will come out and inspect us every year, and we have to keep volumes of paperwork, and every time we harvest we have to record our harvest. All the materials have to be certified and then we keep track of what we grow and what we sell. So it’s quite a process and it’s quite a commitment.”

McGowan and his team also stay on top of informing their customers of the freshest, most recent produce they have, sending out a weekly e-mail newsletter, hosting private food-tastings and an annual tomato-tasting, where visitors can come to the farm and taste all of the available varieties of tomatoes while socializing with friends and enjoying a glass of wine.

“It’s all about the flavor and it’s really about the food,” he said. “That’s something that has to be constantly considered and it’s a big part of what we’re doing. We taste different beans and lettuces for crispness, sweetness, a nutty flavor. Some plants you grow because they are a little bitter.”

Although the organic-farming process can be taxing, McGowan said it makes a difference, and it’s fun to see the different kinds of people that organic farms attract. There is always going to be something new at the farm – the pumpkins will not be in the same spot on Pumpkin Hill, and the tomatoes will not always line the stone walkway that runs by the greenhouses – and over the next five, 10, 15 years, the land will continue to develop, but the same quality produce will remain. That’s a definite.

“We’re getting people that come here, and they’re here for their own solace,” McGowan said. “We get these sort of healthy, happy people, which is a really nice part of the farm that I hadn’t kind of anticipated: the wonderful people that come here and are knowledgeable. Nantucket is blessed with knowledgeable people. There are so many smart people on this island, and a big part of this whole process is trying to find what works well on Nantucket, because it has to be what does well here, not necessarily on this piece of land.” 

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