Choosing a tree that fits in on Martha’s Vineyard

Fall garden yields, from left, New Zealand spinach, marigolds, radicchio 'Rossa di Verona,' (cover crop of field peas and oats), Portuguese kale, cannellini beans, cabbage, beets, lettuce. — Photo by Susan Safford

North-westerlies have been blowing in more frequently, and in frost-prone parts of the Island dahlias have been lost for the year. Berries are coloring on holly and viburnum.

Spent a sunny day last Friday harvesting the last of the ‘Kennebec’ potatoes, top-dressing the plot with compost and lime, broad-forking it in, readying for garlic planting. Found row space for the last few leek seedlings I had been unable to throw out; they should be usable by early spring. Weeded out several sowings of carrots; it astonishes how chickweed and grass proliferate in cooler weather with a little rain. Am still waiting on the cannelloni beans; they have to rattle in the pod to be harvestable. Am mulching with seaweed; codium is rich in trace elements.

Norway maples

The stir caused by the discussion about the Norway maples at the West Tisbury Library parking lot is well timed and fortunate, because this time for once it puts trees and their importance in the public spotlight.

More often news about trees is about abuse, which is ignored, occurring in silence, and prompts no outcry, and no one to defend them. Trees are mutilated, run into, cut down, badly planted in badly chosen locations, and left to grow in conditions of pollution that are intolerable for an organism that is living and breathing. Who knew or cared we get our oxygen from them?

In the debate arena, to be called a tree-hugger is usually pejorative. Many public officials — fortunately, not in West Tisbury — are ignorant about the ecosystem services and amenities delivered by these troublesome objects, “FHO’s” (fixed hazardous objects) which inconveniently and regularly shed leaves and branches. Trees are often treated like furniture or decoration on a stage set — “we need a vertical accent here” — and are plonked down in situations where they cannot thrive.

Island towns are fortunate that their tree wardens have as a resource a bona-fide plant science institution, the Polly Hill Arboretum, which has no financial interest in outcomes. Many Islanders are now aware that there is a tree question at the heart of downtown West Tisbury; that trees in West Tisbury are an amenity; that some trees are considered “weed trees;” that there is such a thing as the Prohibited Plant List of Massachusetts; and why that is.

Good street trees

Currently the news contains dire reports from Denmark, where a fungus, ash dieback, has decimated ninety percent of the economically important ash trees. This is a horrifying reprise of the die-off of elms across Europe and North America in the 20th century, and the fear is that it will be equally egregious in effect.

In the face of widespread loss of a single species, the only certain defense is supporting tree diversity. So — if Norway maples due to their invasive tendencies become the dominant tree of Island towns, what are the alternatives, and to whom do we turn for suggestions? How do we learn more about trees? We could start by turning to science-based professionals.

Internet searches of street tree lists could be a line of inquiry, then an authority such as Michael A. Dirr, to see what he has to say on the subject. Page 452 of his color-plate “Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs: an Illustrated Encyclopedia,” (Timber Press, Portland, 2002) contains a list of twenty-four trees recommended for Street and Urban Planting. Among them are some of my favorites, such as lacebark elm, linden in variety, and zelkova.

Many have their own favorites, and perhaps none of the trees on these lists remind us of West Tisbury. We could analyze our own spaces, as well as public ones, to achieve right plant/right place outcomes, to utilize the diversity of island trees. Surveying the different woodlands and trees of town could yield candidates for planting at the redesigned parking lot: perhaps a line of post oaks, red cedar, pignut hickory, beetlebung, or American holly? Perhaps some of each?

Go to the Arboretum, really look at the trees. Each one is identified, confirming what you are seeing. How big? How salt tolerant? Wind-resilient? For cross checking, have a guide to trees, at least the New England ones, on your bookshelf. When these kinds of discussions erupt, refer to a tree book for explanations: e.g., why are Norway maples disliked? When you see a tree you admire elsewhere, being able to identify it means you can duplicate the planting.

Tree guides include David Allen Sibley’s “The Sibley Guide to Trees,” (Knopf, New York, 427 ppg, 2009), a companion volume to his bird guide. National Audubon’s “Field Guide to Trees” comes in an eastern regional edition. I find another, older volume on my shelf, “Trees in Winter,” by A.F. Blakeslee and C. D. Jarvis, (MacMillan, New York, 1939) useful when there are no leaves for identification, using shape and habit of growth as visual guides. Used copies may be available on the Internet.

Being able to plant a tree correctly should not be assumed either. One has only to look around to see trees planted, pruned, and “cared for” incorrectly. A good tree-manual sets forth the principles and shoots down many tree myths. Any book by Dr. Alex Shigo, of which there are several, from tree basics to tree biology, supplies information helpful in countering misconceptions regarding trees and tree care. Look for “Tree Basics” and “Tree Pruning Basics.”


The past weekend’s Crop Walk raises our awareness of Island hunger and inadequate diet, but there is more. If you want to learn, or have expertise to share, about homegrown food production and vegetable gardens, you are welcome at Homegrown get-togethers. They start up on November 18 at Agricultural Hall, 3-5 pm, with a break for December, then resuming in January, on the third Sunday of each month. There is no charge.