Garden Notes: Skills for the New Year

And looking at winter trees.

January’s austerity: pallid winter sun and bare branches. – Susan Safford

Welcome to 2018, and Happy New Year! Gardens and plants are all well and good, but with lines being drawn and attitudes hardening in society, I stray out of horticultural territory to revisit a set of useful resolutions that I encountered more than 35 years ago, and have attempted to incorporate into my thinking:

  • No one will ever get out of this world alive. Resolve therefore to maintain a reasonable sense of values.
  • Take care of yourself. Good health is everyone’s major source of wealth. Without it, happiness is almost impossible.
  • Resolve to be cheerful and helpful. People will repay you in kind.
  • Avoid angry, abrasive persons. They are generally vengeful.
  • Avoid zealots. They are generally humorless.
  • Resolve to listen more and to talk less. No one ever learns anything by talking.
  • Be chary of giving advice. Wise men don’t need it and fools won’t heed it.
  • Resolve to be tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant of the weak and wrong. Sometime in life you will have been all of these.
  • Do not equate money with success. There are many successful money-makers who are miserable failures as human beings. What counts most about success is how a person achieves it.


Trees in winter

Winter is the time to appreciate the beauty of deciduous trees, now leafless in our landscape. And beautiful they are. One does not have to be, like me, a tree geek to register the aesthetic pleasure that their shapes and traceries, silhouetted against a wintry blue sky or sunset, give us: The vision is something elemental and profoundly inspiring.

In 2018 I would like to focus on trees, as they are a part of gardens as much as any other element. Beautiful large trees give us so much. Good ones, well chosen and sited, make the difference between wonderful and indifferent places. The response evoked by the former is one of awe, calm, and wonder. Over and over one hears the grandeur of mature trees and woods referred to as “cathedral-like.”

A special insider-Islanders’ quiz could be not about the North Tisbury white oak, which is pointed out to every busload of tourists, but, “Do you remember the Vineyard Haven Main Street linden tree?” It would produce close to 100 percent recognition of the lovely, now gone tree. That beautiful linden was more than a tree; it became a place that imprinted the streetscape and everyone who knew it.

Although two of my pole stars in this tree interest are the works of Donald Culross Peattie and Michael Dirr, one of my most valued books about trees, although undoubtedly outdated by now, is a 1939 edition of “Trees in Winter: Their Study, Planting, Care, and Identification,” by Jarvis and Blakeslee. In it the subjects are photographed bare, along with samples of their twigs and bark, as well. It is a real aid in gauging and comparing the overall texture of a mature tree in the landscape, in addition to being a guide to identification. Based on silhouette, there is no confusing a bur oak with a white oak, nor their acorns.

Another, more up-to-date guide in a familiar style, similar to his bird guide, is David Allen Sibley’s “Sibley Guide to Trees.” This guide, although an indispensable volume, places emphasis more on trees in leaf, so is not my winter companion. (See the box for more, quirky tree reading.)

Here on the Vineyard one is less likely to come across rare or unusual trees in woodland that might require identification with the help of a guide (although not never). Our native mesic woodland is pretty much oak, oak, oak, beetlebung, and red maple, with sassafras and the occasional native holly or white pine sprinkled in. The oaks superficially resemble each other, and this is where a guide is helpful, to compare acorn cups and bud intervals and scales.

However, many of these “commonplace” native trees deserve a closer look. Many, in fact, are masterpieces. The areas of old pasture at the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank’s Waskosim’s Rock preserve, for example, showcase numerous oaks, mostly Quercus alba, that are among the most perfectly proportioned objects in the Vineyard landscape; but there are lots of other places to go to appreciate trees.

In-town Edgartown, for instance, is a tree lover’s delight, with many majestic, mature specimen lindens, catalpas, beeches, sycamores, zelkovas, and remnant elms, as well as the more run-of-the-mill maples and oaks. The town streetscape affords a stage for admiring these trees, which set off the historic and reproduction houses.
Go also to those pasture areas at Waskosim’s Rock to appreciate specimen red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) and native holly (Ilex opaca), while in the woodlands, beetlebungs (Nyssa sylvatica) proliferate, whose habit and texture contrast markedly with the numerous swamp maples and black and white oaks.

Holly midge

The mature female native holly close by our house is a dependable fruiter. She has lots of nearby male companionship, and forms a refuge for numerous birds, which visit the feeders, hung inside its evergreen foliage, in safety from predator hawks.

Normally, flocks of robins sweep through, much later — January — and take almost every single berry. This year the bountiful crop had been consumed by Thanksgiving, way early! However, some are left, and they are green. What does this mean?

According to Bug of the Week (, this tree is harboring holly berry midges, which are responsible for teaming with a fungus to produce green berries that are less likely to be noticed and eaten by a bird or squirrel, thus allowing their larvae to hatch, survive, and reproduce. Clever, no?

Control is painstaking: Rake up and destroy green berries.

More good, quirky tree reading

“The Untouchable Tree,” Peter C. Stone

“The Hidden Life of Trees,” Peter Wohlleben

“The Tree,” Colin Tudge

“A Natural History of Western Trees,” “A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America,” Donald Culross Peattie

“The American Woodland Garden,” Rick Darke

“Stokes Guide to Nature in Winter,” Donald Stokes

“Lost Country Life,” Dorothy Hartley

“Manual of Woody Landscape Plants,” Michael Dirr