My typing fingers are ringed with dirt after the first gardening day of the year. Island gardens aren’t that different from what I’m used to—apart from the layer of seaweed I spread last fall and the mussel shells that inexplicably keep rising to the surface.

I’m also not used to having to keep all plants in maximum-security-prison mode. I left the netted gate open late last August and returned to find a vacant brown pit and a few beets with raccoon tooth marks.

The island deer gang also plays a fun role. The Internet informs me that your average deer, when threatened, can clear an 8-foot fence. I can’t imagine a situation in which anything would startle a deer enough to make it think landing in the middle of my 5-foot by 6-foot garden is a great idea—but hey—famous last words, right?

I rely on a couple of raised beds to keep vegetables off the rocky soil. My part of the island isn’t great for growing things, though it’s certainly done here. Those familiar with Swan’s Island will know about the curiously different environments in its three main regions.

Swan’s Island Village and Minturn can be mired in fog and gloom or wind and rain while folks in Atlantic sip lemonade on sunny porches. Atlantic’s known for its better soil conditions and currently holds the island’s largest garden. Sue Wheaton churns out enough vegetables to supply neighbors and visitors out of her farm stand, which can be reached by following the yellow road lines until they stop.

There’s a long tradition of gardening and farming on Swan’s Island, though fewer people rely on their own crops now that the ferry can get you to Ellsworth in an hour. Carolyn Martin told me how it used to be:

“When we moved here, believe it or not, there was eight stores. And you could get the necessities but you couldn’t buy your vegetables—your fresh vegetables and anything like that. And they didn’t have too many meats ’cause the time we moved here there was no refrigeration.” I’ve since learned that at one point a “meat man” made deliveries around the island.

Carloyn’s family used to have a farm in Gorham. They moved to Swan’s Island in the mid 1940s, and her father brought the farming spirit with him. 

“He always was a believer in a garden,” Carolyn explained. “He always had a big garden, and when I got married I had a big garden. And I canned and froze enough vegetables to take us all winter. And then you could get a deer or two—what you needed to eat.

“Of course, on the mainland we would have probably three acres of just vegetables. Here, there wasn’t enough room for that. But we had vegetables and our own fresh milk and everything. And when my mother wanted to make short cake, she had a pan that set in the milk room. She’d go out and flip that cream off of there and come in and whip that up. You don’t buy whipped cream like that anymore.

“I didn’t have a garden myself for years and then there was an old man down the road, his name was Clyde Torrey. You’ve probably heard of him. He come up one day and he says, ‘Why haven’t you got a garden for these kids?’ Well I said, ‘How do you expect me to plow it up, stick my nose in the ground?’ Up he come the next day with his ox and his horse and his plow and his harrow and all the seeds. And he made my garden.

“Anyway, that was my first garden. And I beat him in the size of my beets, and wasn’t he mad with me! But he come up every year after that, as long as he lived, and plowed my garden.”

Well, hearing that I can’t get too proud of my few tomatoes and handful of beans. But boy, will they taste good.

Kaitlin Webber is an Island Fellow on Swan’s Island through AmeriCorps and the Island Institute.