Moved to Giving Thanks

Tisbury residents can now dispose of leaves, grass, and garden clippings for free at the LDO. — Photo by Susan Safford

Trees are one of the things that move me to giving thanks. How is it that with the amount of concern about drought, wild weather, flooding, possible food shortages, and hotter conditions, we continue to blind ourselves to what trees contribute to our living world?

The world’s forests are its terrestrial treasure, its lungs. The following is a short quote from “The Letters,” by the early 19th century English artist and poet William Blake:

The tree which moves some to tears of joy

is in the Eyes of others

only a Green thing that stands in the way.

I plucked it from a book I am reading, “The Lost Language of Plants” (Stephen Harrod Buhner, 2006), recommended by a young phycologist friend, an intermittent garden crewmember. The quote sums up the deadened response of many people to the natural world. The modern paradigm in which we exist is: Clear, clean, control. “The Lost Language” brings such issues to the fore, and addresses itself to our relationship to and with the rest of life. I recommend it.

“Carbon follows water follows carbon” is a well-known trope that is described in the Wikipedia entry for the carbon cycle ( On the garden level, it means that carbon is the brown component of your compost pile; nitrogen is the green component. This brings me to the carpet of autumn leaves falling all around us. Not only are trees the lungs of earth, giving off the oxygen all terrestrial life needs, but native plants are the foundation of all terrestrial ecosystems. Without leaves and hardwood forests, there is no topsoil. Without topsoil, and the life of that soil, there would be no food for anything terrestrial and, consequently, no life of any sort. Soil is our only true capital.

I love winter, when gardens are dormant. We are leaving the leafy, fluttery, fluffy, flowery gardening cycle behind for a while, to re-encounter each other in spring. That fluffiness is replaced with winter’s quiet austerity. The garden (and the landscape) calms down — visually and aesthetically. There are fewer colors, fewer distractions. How can the island’s topography, laid bare, and the patterned beauty of trees not pierce one’s eyes and heart?

The New England Wild Flower Society makes a plea: “Stop Raking! Your neighbors might disapprove, but there are myriad reasons not to ‘clean up’ your garden this fall. Many pollinators, and some amphibians, overwinter in leaf litter and dry perennial stems. Cleaning up your leaves destroys their habitat and kills any who have already bedded down. Let your garden work for nature this winter and save the cleanup work for spring!”

I can anticipate much disagreement with the foregoing appeal. In fact, our own garden work in client gardens requires a great deal of cleanup and orderly putting-away-for-winter. It all depends. Clearly, there are some gardens better designed to handle a naturalistic scene of decay and debris (rich in busy decay detritivores, while the garden seemingly “sleeps”) than are others. Perhaps these gardens belong to owners who place a premium on care for the natural world — and let the leaves blow where they may.

Some gardens, however, belong to owners who scrupulously compost every scrap of organic matter possible, in order to produce superior flowers and vegetables. Other gardeners may want as much leaf mold as possible, for future use as mulch or soil conditioner. Perhaps the diktat should be that gardeners know and understand why they follow their practices, and are not simply blindly conforming to a set of empty, rote ones.

Spring bulbs

For me, the jury is still out on remontant irises. I have a very vigorous clump of I. ‘Harvest of Golden Memories’ covered in big, yellow iris flowers. This plant also blooms along with the tall bearded irises in June. Maybe iris in November fail to thrill? Maybe the light is wrong?

I have scarcely concerned myself with what are going to be the cheerful and welcoming signs of spring in 2016, an oversight that makes me say, What was I thinking? I did follow my own advice to tuck crocus bulbs into small empty spots in perennial beds. It is not too late to plant tulip bulbs here on the Island, although generally speaking, the supplies and selection of all bulbs, local as well as mail-order or specialist, plummet as the weeks of autumn go by.

I continue to recommend Brent and Becky’s and John Scheepers Inc. as quality suppliers of a wide range of spring bulbs. For those who want to specialize, or to find more exotic material, joining plant societies, such as the North American Lily Society and the American Daffodil Society, and searching the Internet are good ways to widen one’s choices.

Wayside planting

I had been looking for certain shrubs here on the Island during the fall, and finally succeeded in acquiring what I needed to fill a small area. Three Ilex verticillata ‘Red Sprite’ and three Fothergilla gardenii were enough to round out a tangled (i.e., “naturalistic”) area alongside the road where I already have witch hazels, Colorado blue spruce, Stewartia monadelpha, and a few daylilies and narcissus.

As often happens with disturbed ground, years of brought-in fill and road repair have given this spot bittersweet and multiflora rose in addition to wild grapes, sassafras, and viburnum, which are all part of the native plant palette. I would be an old lady if I waited until the invasives were completely eliminated; I have been slowly grubbing out the junk as I add what I like.

That is all a wordy way of saying: A carefully drawn plan is not always necessary in order to make an informal planting that will work. It does require time and continued observation.