Garden Notes : Nature knows best
Farewell to summer and onward to autumn, with just one backward glance to recollect how well everything grew and how bountiful was the yield of field, thicket, and garden. "Kousa dogwoods" have now become "cornelian cherries," their branches an Arts and Crafts brocade of leaf and fruit. Lush tangles of goldenrod and aster decorate roadsides; sometimes nature's gardening is simply breathtaking.
Living Local/Harvest Festival
Things are changing rapidly in 21st century America, whether we live on a small Atlantic island or the vast mainland. Can we "game" climate change, recession, inflation, and sustainability, even one by one, let alone simultaneously and together? Please join Island Grown Initiative, Martha's Vineyard Agricultural Society, Vineyard Conservation Society, Vineyard Energy Project, friends, neighbors, visitors, and others like ourselves, who want to readjust to shifting realities, at this weekend's Living Local/Harvest Festival. Visit vineyardvoice.org or consult the ad in this paper for full schedule and details.
The evident losses in Island woodlands are mounting weekly and are probably corrections, in the ecological sense. The caterpillar outbreaks can be seen as agents, thinning crowded trees on poor soil or otherwise problematic locations. More and more oaks, in clinging dead foliage, have wearily succumbed at summer's end to the effects of the recent years' infestations. The appearance of fungal fruiting bodies like turkey tails (Trametes versicolor) on them occurs quickly after death. The hairy and downy woodpeckers that populate my neighborhood are having a great time foraging busily up and down the trunks.
I practice triage to a certain extent at home. In my own garden and landscape, I justify the somewhat naturalistic style as a cost of my business, that of caring for others' gardens. I have neither the time nor the energy to be immaculate in all respects. I have begun to find in my own process that there is actually more to it than that.
If we had a place in town I would undoubtedly strive to make every square foot work as hard as possible and look good, presentable: one's place is on display. Furthermore, the property would have been much altered from its original state by generations of previous owners; there would be no division of loyalties between nature and nurture.
Photo by Susan Safford
But I live in one of the areas of Martha's Vineyard that has come to its ecological identity through benign neglect for much of the 19th and 20th centuries. I have come to feel that it is not "mine to do with as I want," because so much else lives here too. It is not wilderness, of course, but habitat: enough seclusion and cover for plenty of wildlife. Each bit of clearing, every tree felled, gives me pause and a certain amount of contrition. Who lives here? Whose cozy little dwelling am I breaking apart? Even briar patches and the small amount of poison ivy are hospitable to some creature that belongs here as much as I do.
So I am heartened by a comment from the revered plantsman Dan Hinkley in a 2005 interview with him in Gardens Illustrated. The founder of Heronswood Nursery said: "I find the most inspiration and satisfaction by looking at plants in the wild - is that a natural progression for gardeners?"
I now perceive plans intently drawn to bring into existence some gardenesque achievement, or even passing notions I once had, as strangely unsuitable to the place where I abide. I have progressed to liking it the way it is. I am no longer sure that I can improve on nature. I can only make small additions here and there around the house.
I am letting the borders pretty much go. My interest in trees has grown much more than my interest in "color in the garden." A small shade garden exists in which introduced woodlanders - shrubs and trees as well as herbaceous material - mingle with the natives and where I practice population control by designating some as weeds, then pulling them. "Color" is close to the house, in a dooryard garden. My most intensive gardening efforts are reserved for the fenced vegetable garden, where I also have dahlias and other flowers for cutting.
Dept. of Plant Lust: Disanthus
How does the foregoing thinking co-exist with a weakness like plant lust? I don't know - why would a usually sane person lust after a multi-stemmed small tree in the first place? I spent a lot of money on a beautiful, specimen Disanthus cercidifolius in late March: irrational plant-driven lunacy. I felt more than mildly rueful to see a dozen beautiful young propagated disanthus plants priced at a mere fraction of my tree at the Polly Hill Arboretum plant sale. Luckily, there was such a good selection of other great plants that I quickly distracted myself with their purchase - more plant-inspired madness - and overcame my chagrin.
Maybe you are wondering how an Asian relative of the witch hazels, called Disanthus cercidifolius (Hamamelidaceae), could do that, so let me try to convey why having one's own disanthus is worthwhile. The mature plant is small, six to ten feet tall and bit wider, making it a good fit in smaller gardens. It likes slightly acid, moist, humus soil - drier once established - and performs well in shade, making it ideal for the long-established garden. The spectacular autumn color, brought out best in open shade, starts early in the season, becoming more and more intense until the beautifully arranged leaves are entirely, brilliantly, red. It is hardy from zones five to eight.
A common name, redbud hazel, refers to the clean, heart-shaped blue-green foliage, whose shape resembles that of a redbud (Cercis) or katsura (Cercidiphyllum), both alluring plants in their own right. The habit is typically multi-stemmed, although it can be trained to a single stem. Disanthus has a refined appearance, with some branches gracefully horizontal or arching, and is rare and unusual.