Garden Notes: Winter comforts

And some approaches to our new abundance of rainfall.


The Island had a taste of snow. It was just enough for a 3-year-old, visiting from the South, to get his first experience of winter’s beauty. Snowscape lights up objects and landscape differently, revealing this faintly glittery praying mantis egg case, pasted onto fencing wire until hatching time arrives.

However, in many parts of the U.S., rather than the snow days of yesteryear, school closings are now due to flood risk. Torrential downpours instead of blizzards characterized Island weather lately, with accompanying flooding in all the usual places, and some not so usual.

So-called sponge gardening and landscaping techniques are more useful than ever under these conditions. Visit the West Tisbury library garden as an example.

The idea is to slow or prevent runoff, and to promote these precious water resources’ infiltration down into the water table.

Read here about Copenhagen’s efforts to become a sponge city after disastrous flooding became a regular occurrence: Read here for Ecological Landscaping Alliance suggestions for bioswale creation and planting:

Creating swales and planting “thirsty,” or wetland, plants in them where water pools are some of the best methods to manage excess water. Also, reduce or eliminate hardscape, or use permeable materials. Reduce cleared, brush-cut, or lawn areas to enable water to follow pathways created by roots and abundant soil biota. These are routes water follows to infiltrate and go down, not sideways.

Thinking of the devastating losses due to floods, tornadoes, and storms, it would be a wonderful thing if people could be convinced to see the connection between resilient environments and our own health and survival, instead of the norm, which is the transitory connection between wallet and survival.

Garden assets
Gardens, and the houses and people within them, benefit from a mixture of plants, so that at every season there is something worth the gardener’s attention and closer inspection. Appreciating the variety, and even anticipation of the plants’ performance, are benign and harmless pastimes, and forms of mindfulness and being present. It is suggested we need more of these, in times fraught with so many tensions and escalating fears.

Now that the Island is in winter’s grip — or what may pass for it now — broad-leaved evergreens are not only interesting, but also comforting. Gardens that have a feeling of enclosure, with shelter from cutting winds for birds and other wildlife, will also feel that way for people — do I dare say, maybe even cozy?

Broad-leaved evergreens
Visit Polly Hill Arboretum to view a wide array of broad-leaved evergreens, among the hundreds of plant species there, both native and exotic. Some of my favorites are Polly’s camellias and her decades-old, burgeoning native hollies.

To native holly and inkberry (both Ilex), add North American natives Pieris floribunda and Mahonia aquifolium. These are all deer-resistant and evergreen. While not rare, nonetheless mahonia seems to be underutilized, and not well-known, in Island gardens. There are a number of species from both North America and also from Asia, as well as hybrid forms.

The broad-leaved evergreen Mahonia (Mahonia aquifolium, in the Berberidaceae) turns a leathery looking cordovan or burgundy in wintertime, which adds to its features as a garden asset. Sometimes called Oregon grape-holly, this plant, which is neither grape nor holly, is a native of the Western and Northwestern parts of North America, and flowers in late winter or early spring.

Once established, mahonia produces clusters of fragrant pollen and nectar-rich yellow flowers that are followed by edible, dusky blue fruits; they are very pollinator- and bird-friendly plants. Foliage is spiny, green, similar to that of holly, with varying amounts of bright fall color, and unappealing to deer. Plants en masse can be hedged, and provide a fairly good barrier or privacy screen.

In addition to Mahonia aquifolium, there are several other Western species

described in this link: These are generally water-wise plants that are great for furnishing year-round interest in gardens.

I viewed the video at this link ( to see what else I could learn about broad-leaved evergreens from Tony Avent of Plant Delights Nursery in North Carolina. Although Tony Avent is growing in a different part of the country, and hardiness zone, from ours, the broad-leaved evergreen video showcases examples of interest, and weird or surprising plant hardiness.

Among other things, Avent asserts we are growing boxwood all wrong. According to him, it is a woodland plant, and prefers shade; “if that were better understood, there would be fewer issues with boxwood,” according to him.

Big questions

The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) reports on its members’ inquiries over the past year.  According to its newsletter, biodiversity and wildlife gardening were on members’ minds, with enquiries about these topics up by 28 percent: “Letting the grass grow long and allowing wildflowers to bloom in your lawn is now a far more popular question than how to get lawn stripes.”

And “there’s an increased interest in supporting birds, pollinating insects, invertebrates, and other wildlife, by growing plants that offer food from pollen, nectar, and berries, and provide shelter.”