Up on the roof, hospital goes green

The Martha's Vineyard Hospital roof garden provides a restful place to sit and look out over the Lagoon. — Photo by Susan Safford

I learned of the recent death of James van Sweden, the renowned landscape architect, as I planned to visit the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital’s roof garden. Beginning in the 1970s, van Sweden, along with Wolfgang Oehme, partner in the landscape design firm Oehme, van Sweden & Associates, radically changed the look of American gardens. Abandoning fussy, constrained conventions then current, they used “broad sweeps of long, flowering perennials and ornamental grasses…. It [the firm’s design idiom] presaged today’s emphasis in landscape architecture on naturalistic and ecologically sensitive design…” (obituary by Adrian Higgins, The Washington Post).

An entire generation of landscape architects, American and international, is esthetically indebted to the late partners’ work. They were game changers: gardens such as the beautiful second-floor one at the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, designed by Horiuchi & Solien, reflect their influence.

The hospital’s quest to build its facility greener in every way possible led to the incorporation of a roof garden, in addition to many other features supporting its LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification. Our hospital has achieved the highest LEED hospital rating in Massachusetts, according to Rachel Vanderhoop, who showed me around.

It is easy to appreciate how the garden could be by turns exhilarating or calming. With its fresh air, sunset exposure, and lofty panorama of the Lagoon and Vineyard Haven outer harbor, the roof garden is secluded and intended to support patients’ healing. However, it also supports the building’s heating and cooling processes and helps in the management of rainwater run-off. Altogether the garden area is 9,704 square feet and helps to extend the life of the roof membrane.

Reminiscent of Oehme, van Sweden’s work, the garden’s striking ribbon of white pavers, forming the hardscape, appears to meander and flow, a broad creek through a sweep of prairie. The plant palette and layout, too, is arranged to enhance the spacious, flowing feeling.

Now, with the floral aspect of the roof garden almost past, the blond swath of the feather reed grass backdrop, speckled by dark seed heads of rudbeckia, predominates. The grasses respond dynamically to the breezes off the water. The rest of the planting, deepened in tone and consisting of perovskia, rudbeckia, salvia, agastache, and several varieties of sedum, has gone dark, apart from some perovskia and agastache, but nonetheless retains interest.

The plants occupy clever pre-planted modular units, supplied by GreenGrid, square or rectangular, shallow or deep, according to plant type. They may be removed and entirely replaced for maintenance and are supplied with irrigation, but the species planted have all been chosen for their ability to flourish under challenging conditions.

Groupings of comfortable seating furnish hardscape spaces, both in the open and under a porch through which one enters the garden. Although the hospital rooftop is a secret garden, its patients and the entire Island community are its beneficiaries.


Rich autumn color is erupting wherever one looks, and the native witch hazel, Hamamelis virginiana, is beginning to bloom. When buying a cultivar of this small native tree, for maximum impact look for one that sheds its leaves before flowering.

Now is when I overwhelmingly want to be in my own garden, there is so much to do, to think about, to start. It can be at times overwhelming when there are daily details to juggle; yet these garden tasks are emphatically calling too.

The decided lack of rain locally — soils are dry ten inches down — has put on hold some of the jobs one would like to be doing before dark, chilly November: for instance, transplanting biennial seedlings, such as hesperis and foxglove, and settling in perennial divisions.

Leaf harvest is ongoing and seemingly never-ending; acorn collection provides top-notch treats for hogs. Top-dressing with hydroscopic compost assists plants going into winter as it attracts moisture but needs screening out from rough piles. Thinking about bulb orders, placing bulb orders, and then planting bulb orders — energy-intensive creative work, hard to do on the fly.

Transplanted trees and shrubs need to be watered if “sky delivery” is not happening; if possible, put it off while it remains dry. Without a watering schedule the plants’ survival and subsequent good establishment is not assured.

There comes a time when imposing order on the garden takes precedence over some other factors, and one needs to be able to see what one is doing. Admittedly we often perform cutdowns just to get it done, especially when the plants are in need of division, even though plants’ leaves are clearly still photosynthesizing. Ideally, one would leave foliage of all herbaceous perennials until it was worn out, to insure that the crowns were as fortified as possible.

Oakleaf hydrangea

Thinking about plants my garden lacked, and to celebrate autumn more colorfully, several years ago I declared my intention in Garden Notes to plant oakleaf hydrangeas here at our place. This has now been accomplished, and three of the straight species H. quercifolia, one ‘Snow Queen’ and three ‘Amethyst,’ are ripening their foliage from deep green into shades of pink, red, and burgundy.

I have always found it surprising that I do not see more oakleaf hydrangeas in gardens. The plant seems well adapted to Island conditions, and with moisture-retentive soil is comfortable in sun or shade. Its coarse-textured foliage does indeed resemble large oak leaves and supplies welcome contrast to finer textured shrubs. The species grows to about eight feet by eight; compact forms are available.

Agricultural Hall

Homegrown, the vegetable gardeners’ collaborative, has its first meeting of the season October 20, 4–6 pm at Agricultural Hall. Meetings take place on the third Sunday of the winter months and during Eastern Standard Time, from 3 to 5 pm.

The West Tisbury Winter Farmers’ Market hours are 10 am to 1 pm. It will be held October 26th as well as three November and December Saturdays.