Wild Side: Nature fills the green thumb void

Arriving on the Vineyard some 13 years ago, I was thrilled to have a yard of my own to garden in, for the first time in my life. I bought a few tools and got to work, with my initial plans shaped by conventional, mainland-America notions about gardens: a nice lawn, a patch of veggies, and well-defined beds and borders full of showy flowers. But on our little patch of Oak Bluffs, the land had other ideas.

First to go were my aspirations for something resembling a lawn. I tried for a few years, watering during drought and even fertilizing once or twice. But it finally dawned on me that the soil simply hated the idea of lawn, and I finally stopped trying to persuade it. These days, I mow it from time to time, pull a few of the more obnoxious weeds, seed in a few native wildflowers, but mostly let the various species work things out among themselves. A mess, maybe, but low-maintenance and nitrogen-free.

Or take vegetables. To be sure, I sometimes displayed a knack for greens, eggplants, beans, and jalapeno peppers. But powdery mildew wrecked my squash plants reliably just as the fruit were starting to form. And the typical result from year’s array of tomato plants was a dozen or two misshapen berries with black spots on them. If not a rainy June, then a July drought; if not the bean beetles, the squash stem borer. It was with a huge relief that I turned my vegetable production over to Whippoorwill Farm.

Yet for every failure, other things have flourished. Coreopsis and yarrow in a border have invited themselves into the lawn-that-was — significantly, both plants of dry prairies in their native form — and their blossoms buzz with bees for much of the summer. Indeed, the variety and abundance of insects that turn up in my yard make me think I’m not really gardening at all: I’m a bee rancher.

High-bush blueberries were slow to get established but now produce enough to keep even the catbirds happy. Little bluestem grass found its way on its own. Lavenders grow waist-high for us. Stiff aster, a native late-season aster, happily seeds itself. These plants are welcome; I like them, they like me, and their fruits and flowers keep our wild neighbors happy. I haven’t quite figured out what the land is saying it wants to be — what do coreopsis, blueberry, little bluestem, and lavender add up to? But the answer certainly isn’t lawn.

On a few square feet of garden, we lavish seeds, transplants, water, and compost; we skew the species mix by yanking weeds; we keep tidy the borders between lawn and garden, or between yard and surroundings. But gardening is also the study of how far you are willing to go to exert your will on your surroundings. A piece of land has its own natural trajectory: Certain things do well there, and certain things don’t. And the more we seek to bend that trajectory, the harder we must work. I still assert myself, experimenting with new ornamentals, fending insect pests off a few vulnerable favorites, keeping beds and borders vaguely defined. But my garden has turned out to be a way to learn what the land likes to do. I compromise and back away from impractical goals while happily accepting the surprises that the natural environment brings our way.

Those surprises are sometimes unpleasant ones (I’ll never forget how disappointed I was when the beautiful red leaf-beetle I found turned out to be a lily beetle). But others are welcome, like the lengthy list of butterfly species (44 at last count) that have visited over the years. Like it or not, the boundary between the Wild Side and our domesticated habitats is a permeable one; your garden is just another piece of habitat from the bug’s perspective. And the land itself has a say in the matter, soil types and climate steering a landscape, over and over again, in a particular direction. You can fight back, but you’ll never win.

I gave up trying. The boundaries are blurring in my garden, and ornamentals that can’t take care of themselves give way to something that can. A garden won’t tell you everything about the wildlife on the Vineyard. But it’s a good laboratory for learning the limitations of your soil, what plants approve of our climate, and which insects and birds see in our gardens a resource. In short, it teaches you the character of a place. If you already have a garden, I wish you a productive season, a few insights, and a few surprising visitors. And if you don’t have a garden — well, get out and there and dig.