NORTH HAVEN — Down a long dirt driveway on North Haven’s South Shore road, flanked by Mullen’s Head Park, hides Islandscape, an established garden design and plant retail business owned by Eileen O’Connor.
“I had been, in graduate school, unhappy. I worked with this great British landscaper Claire Ackroyd for a year and she said go do it,” O’Connor said, explaining the origin of her business, which, 31 years later, employs nine and maintains gardens for approximately 40 clients.
“There were a few mainland places that would come out but they could never do the maintenance part. If you don’t do maintenance things fall apart quickly,” O’Connor said. “We had to start the greenhouse for the plant material. Because of Claire’s influence we wanted a more eclectic choice in plants so we decided to get them on our own.”
Missy Parkerton, now the greenhouse manager, said while the greenhouses were originally established to supply the gardens O’Connor designed, they’ve evolved into a stand-alone retail business.
The Greenhouse, as the retail business is referred to, resides in two large hoop houses packed with annuals, perennials, vegetables and herbs. Flowering trees wait outside the structures. Chickens, some sporting elaborate feathers on their heads, scratch in the dirt alongside prehistoric-looking guinea fowl. O’Connor’s dogs, Digger and O’Malley, greet customers enthusiastically.
The Islandscape crew spends winters researching plants to stock in The Greenhouse, gathering a few times each week to peruse catalogues and keep abreast of current trends. May and June are spent digging in gardens, O’Connor said, while July and August are devoted to maintenance.
“Fall we put things to bed, we buy big things of compost and spread it on. There’s not a lot of soil on North Haven so we have trucked I don’t know how many tons of organic matter onto the island to make great gardens,” said O’Connor. “And we do make great gardens.”
Tiring of the physical labor after three decades leading her all-female crew, O’Connor is passing the garden design reins to Christina Vincent, a recent graduate of Leadership for Local Change and the Island Institute’s Island Sustainability through Leadership and Entrepreneurship (ISLE) program. Vincent, with O’Connor’s guidance, will continue the tradition of creative garden design under her new business, Northshore Designs.
Vincent moved to North Haven eight years ago with her now-husband, and began working for an island contractor as a carpenter.
“That was creative in a way, but it wasn’t creative in the way that I’d like to have and doing that for seven solid years I was just tired,” she said.
O’Connor saw an opportunity. “So I brought it up to Christina, who was getting a little tired of her job. She wanted something of her own, to grow,” she said. “The deal is I’m giving Christina the business.”
Vincent will buy plants and bagged products from The Greenhouse and will use the Islandscape crew, O’Connor said.
“Eileen will still be designing on all these projects for years, she’ll be around to help with the layouts,” said Vincent.
In addition to gardens, Vincent uses Northshore Designs as an outlet for her artistic and carpentry skills.
“Art’s always been a large portion of my studies and I also knew that I enjoyed carpentry and I enjoy being a woman and being able to do that; not many women get that opportunity. I didn’t want those skills and talents to just evaporate,” she said. So far Vincent has created mostly outdoor furniture and pieces to integrate into her gardens.
Under Vincent’s leadership, Northshore Designs will continue to create unique garden environments and special occasion flowers on North Haven. For O’Connor, Parkerton and Vincent, the business represents an opportunity to engage in work they love with a great group of women.
“I’m a designer and a plant geek, I get to do these things that make me happy,” O’Connor said. “Missy’s a grower and she can grow anything.”
“We’re all pretty much a team, everyone’s enjoyable to work with and we inspire each other,” said Vincent.
O’Connor agreed. “I feel like we’ve wound up with this great group of friends who have worked together forever,” she said.