Garden Notes: Fall is here

And a look at Edgartown’s beautiful trees.


The Gardener Says: “Gardening involves the incredibly complicated alchemy of life, involving not just plants and animals, but the entire cosmos and the microcosm.”  –Wolf D. Storl, Princeton Architectural Press


The above quote evokes aspects of “The Biggest Little Farm,” the film by John and Molly Chester, a wildlife filmmaker and a chef. It has sparked much comment and thinking about its subject: their farm and trials in making it a productive agricultural environment.

This was Moorpark, Calif., where the famous apricot, the ‘Moorpark’ apricot, was originated and grown. When their dog advised them (not kidding — watch the film) to get a farm, John and Molly connected with a guru for guidance.

After years of conventional chemical agriculture, the tapped-out Moorpark land they had purchased looked like a lunar landscape. “Diversity” and “diversify” was their guru’s mantra, the opposite philosophy from the intensive orchard monoculture that had created the eroded, lifeless soil.

The guru (and the dog) advised them how to proceed, and helped them to keep going forward, as each success seemed to produce knock-on problems. Inevitable setbacks and quandaries seemingly crushed their goals. However, they kept thinking things through to better outcomes.

This is a lovely film, with expert photography of both farm life and nature. It is a hopeful storyline in these times of climate concern. We can “rewind the film and start again,” learning new ways to live on earth; leaving things better than we found them.


In the garden

Not summer anymore. Haws have colored. Suddenly, the dramatic black-and-white garden spiders appear. Smaller, less obvious spiders are present everywhere too, their webs dew-laden and, if they are orb weavers, target-like in the morning sunshine. Ground-dwelling arachnids produce webs that are more clothlike, with a round one-way door to doom in the bottom.

Fungal fruiting bodies are exploding through soil and mulch: Fall is high mushroom season. Some are fantastical-looking beyond belief, like the tiny “bird’s nests” complete with micro-eggs. If you feel confident in identification and know what you are doing, go for it, but leave roadside fungi. Mycologists cite high levels of heavy metals and pollutants on them from exhaust emissions.

The season’s aggregate carpenter bee damage is becoming wholly obvious. This has occurred on painted wood as well as bare wood; we must put a stop to the galleries and chewing! The message of John and Molly Chester and their guru — that problems contain the seeds of their solution — eludes me at the moment. I haven’t made one of these carpenter bee traps ( yet, but it looks as if this DIY model has the right idea.


Trees of Edgartown

Edgartown’s in-town streets are lined with beautiful mature trees, which shade and frame them attractively. The many stately lindens, elm-like zelkovas, catalpas, and oaks, to name but a few, adorn and enhance Edgartown like no other Island town. Purple-leaved forms of European beech (Fagus sylvatica) stand prominently on some properties. The famous Pagoda Tree (now Styphnolobium japonicum, formerly Sophora japonica) is a point-of-interest tourist attraction, and is itself a species worth planting.

I cannot help but visualize the many species of landscape-appropriate trees that could be used to enhance Edgartown. Planting a tree is an ode to the future, and an opportunity to embrace in an enduring way our land- and townscapes: truly, the opposite of the throwaway culture.

Therefore, it is disappointing to read the account of the Norway maple, an invasive species from the Prohibited Plant List — of all the suitable trees that exist! — being proposed for planting on an Edgartown lot. Respectfully and not knowing the particulars of this case, I must say it is thin gruel indeed for a professional to choose this species, when there is such a rich variety of other, far superior ones.

Criteria for street trees, such as falling nuts or low branching, are more restrictive than for residential shade trees, where there is wider latitude. Every planting site has its own level of compaction and set of variables.

Choosing and planting a tree, especially when done by professionals, entails due diligence. “The Tree Book” (Timber Press, 2019), the comprehensive manual for trees and their cultivars by Michael Dirr and Keith Warren, was written expressly to inform these decisions. Every reputable landscaper should own a copy.

Dirr and Warren’s entries for trees they deem worthy can be downright poetic. “The Tree Book’s” Norway maple entry is not all harsh criticism, but faint enough praise to be damning.

Additionally, numerous Internet articles point to the deficiencies of the Norway maple (Acer platanoides) including sewer line invasion; prolific seeding; poor injury healing, leading to rot; and lackluster fall color. Here’s one from Penn State U: “Norway Maple — Invasive Plant in Sheep’s Clothing.” 

Norway maple produces dense shade and a shallow root system. This challenges and starves lawns, and humps up sidewalks and other forms of hardscape. Another factor that makes Norway maple a poor choice for in-town settings near streetlights is its high sensitivity to artificial light pollution, which makes it likelier to fail than less light-sensitive species. 

Consider these for smaller spaces: magnolia, hop hornbeam, mountain ash, laburnum, or carpinus. For fall color, the following five: kousa dogwood and doublefile viburnum, also functioning as good screening without great height; differing species of stewartia in differing size sites; parrotia and beetlebung offer strong form.

Moreover, many excellent tree species’ cultivars are available in different habits: e.g., narrow/fastigiate; spreading/vase shape; or pendulous. European beech, cultivars of linden or zelkova, honey locust, London plane, oaks, Kentucky coffeetree — many are supplied at about the same price point and size as comparable Norway maples, but are choice and more interesting.

 When it comes to tree planting, choosing vanilla may have its place, but not from the Prohibited Plant List.