West Tisbury Library’s habitat garden

The added beauty is below the surface.

The gardens surrounding the West Tisbury Library have been designed to collect runoff from cars to protect the Mill Brook watershed.

As befits the “Athens of Martha’s Vineyard,” the town of West Tisbury is in possession of a small-town library that is world-class. Its phoenix-like renaissance from the previous facility’s building (in its time, no slouch itself) and site is due to loads of collaboration, hard work, and thought on the part of the town’s citizenry.

Planning for the garden began in 2014. Part of the remit in the new library’s creation was site improvement, and minimizing the impact of the built environment — costs were always a factor. Therefore it was critically important to create something not dependent upon energy inputs (fertilizers and pesticides) or intensive management strategies.

The entire site sits squarely above the watershed of the Mill Brook, which drains into Tisbury Great Pond, and could potentially introduce contaminants from vehicles and other sources to a productive shellfish resource. Managing storm water runoff was a goal vital to the plans. The old parking lot, shared by the Howes House, was to be enlarged; continually potholed, smallish, and cramped, it was a maintenance nuisance and a danger to seniors.

Another desired element was the landscape’s need to be in step with the new building’s LEED certification, and to demonstrate “the benefits of natural landscape plantings for water quality, energy conservation, wildlife benefits, and habitat enhancement.” In other words, a teaching garden.

Dedicated library patrons had contributed to the library’s plantings ever since it moved in 1993 from the tiny jewel-box building over on Music Street, but the new project was a quantum leap. It benefited greatly from the pro bono professional contributions of Linda Hearn’s landscape committee: Lil Province, Cheryl Doble, Tim Boland of Polly Hill Arboretum (PHA), and John Hoff of Oakleaf Landscape. Laura Coit of the library staff designed the signature central walkway garden.

West Tisbury and the larger Island community have an abundance of talented plantspeople and designers, and while a different small town might not have been able to tap into such an A list of talent, all municipalities can aspire to the goal of marrying landscape and built environment, and matching scale, location, and function in their projects.

Perhaps the most complicated and critical part of the library landscape is unseen. Discreet signage, however, helps a visitor to understand the hows and whys of the engineering. The water-management structure of the site is what is happening below ground around the nicely planted parking areas and along that central walkway, screened by permeable pavers, bioswales, grading, and planting that accommodate not only the water movement, but tanks for fire suppression and infrastructure.

To stay within budget, it was necessary to scale back the scope of the committee’s goals for runoff management: Annoyingly, these environmentally necessary safeguards are what make costs soar, instead of being made available at budget-friendly — not to mention environment-friendly! — prices. Maybe eventually the entire parking area can be done with permeable pavers.

I recently met with Laura Coit and Tim Boland (plant geek spouses, incidentally, who each contributed significantly to the garden) at the library. Although you and I can walk through and enjoy it, as can anyone, due to its easy physical and aesthetic accessibility, their combined perspectives on the scope and value of the project helped to inform me about more of the process.

Ms. Coit, who is assistant director of the library designed the central walkway and is generally pleased with the design. The dynamic feel of a North American eastern prairie transforms the mundane scene of cars, traffic, and parking lot. Strong repeats throughout the length of the walk add rhythm and draw the pedestrian toward the library entrance. She mentioned many library patrons eagerly expressing delight in the walkway and the approaches to the building.

Summertime billows of rich gold, blues, and lavenders, with contrasting green and gray foliage forms, have now retreated to a subtler range of tan grasses and prominent gray bayberry. Small-flowered asters bloom in the low light to the very end. This garden, and indeed the entire library planting, may be duplicated in smaller-scale home gardens. Plant lists are available at the library.

The restrictions on the design and plant material imposed by the tanks (whose red pipes and inspection plates are clearly visible in the planting bed) were an additional challenge, Ms. Coit related, but one that she met and worked around. Refining the planting comes next, and the pennisetum, an ornamental grass, will be replaced. It had been sourced as a semidwarf variety, but was unexpectedly full-size. The other signature walkway grass, Panicum virgatum ‘Shenadoah,’ a wonderful selection with late-summer winey-red coloration, will remain.

Tim Boland expressed suspense on behalf of the beetlebungs (Nyssa sylvatica), a tree that is known to be difficult to transplant and establish in landscape-size specimens. He is particularly gratified with the long, low embankment planting of native comptonia along the walkway to the natural habitat area. PHA cooperated in the production of suitable native plants.

Could a homeowner with a modest budget duplicate this planting? Yes, and especially if attention is given to recognizing and propagating seedling volunteers.

On the Mill Brook side of the building extends the long east-west addition that enlarged the new space so greatly. The landscape committee’s intention here is to link the library and its landscape to the adjacent Mill Pond and Mill Brook watershed. Everything in this planting will look familiar to Island residents, because it is what we see on a daily basis in normal, uncultivated Island byways and fields.

The result is the native plant and pollinator garden, sited along a winding path banked with plantings of comptonia, native grasses, goldenrods, and asters. The PHA MV Wildtype program, using native Island seed stock, produced the plants. This garden is dedicated, very appropriately, to the memory of Bob and Jeanne Woods, longtime part-time West Tisbury residents and benefactors of the town.

What Adrian Higgins (esteemed garden writer of the Washington Post; no relation) calls “neatniks” harm the population of countless beneficial insects by their garden cleaning and adherence to meaningless practices: overwintering places for bees, fireflies, spiders, and more are ruthlessly cleared away in the observation of these meaningless rituals of tidying. (Read more about some of the principles governing the West Tisbury library landscape here: bit.ly/WTfallcleanup.)

The slope back up toward the building is glorious with the tawny haze of switchgrass. Around on the south side of the library, and with direct access to the Children’s Library and its spacious deck, lies the butterfly garden, a small bed intended to attract these small animals everyone loves, but to whom children respond especially strongly.

Sitting gardens flank the library’s main entrance and wrap around the attractively laid-out access ramp. These plantings adhere less strictly to native plant ethics, but have less need to, lying as they do in close proximity to the manmade building, outdoor furniture, lighting, and ramp. Oakleaf hydrangeas, dogwood, stewartia, nepetas, caryopteris, and other ground-hugging perennials feature prominently here.

The library grounds encompass numerous alfresco seating options and combos. They add to the ambiance, and function as quiet reading spaces, impromptu meeting areas, or perhaps merely daydreaming spots for gazing off into the middle distance. Included are child-size chairs and an entire child-size building, a replica of Alley’s Store, adjacent to the butterfly garden. For seating in a more sheltered area, the generous south-facing deck provides the amenity of a porch roof off the children’s room.

This library landscape was not cheap, to be frank. The West Tisbury Library Foundation vigorously raised funds to produce the satisfying ecological result for the townspeople and Island-wide reading public. One of the objectives of the plantings is that once established and refined, there will be little or no need for incurring those costs again.

It is heartwarming to peruse the memorial bricks in the walkway and to recall past experiences and friends no longer with us. Naming opportunities continue, and it is a fine testament to the living and dead to honor their names in the “Athens of Martha’s Vineyard,” at the West Tisbury Free Public Library.