Edging Into Autumn
I’ve recently moved into a charming little neighborhood in the heart of this island’s main town. It consists of fifty mobile homes, most unassuming, some aging, some brand new and spiffy, all interwoven with towering trees. Most are firs, with a few cedars and maples, some mountain ash, and flowering fruit trees. Sadly, some of the largest evergreens are damaged or failing, thanks to weather events and past and ongoing construction. Over the years, as large branches dropped on roofs and questing roots buckled driveways and knocked house underpinnings askew, some trees were topped or removed while others were limbed up high or cut into tall stumps for wildlife habitat.
Sadly again, a number of the remaining trees will be removed over the next few years on the advice of certified arborists who do an annual tree health review for the mobile home park. In order to avoid creating future problems, I’ve been working on a list of appropriately sized replacement trees and large shrubs that can offer screening, shade, flowers and fruit without outgrowing their positions. I’m considering not only ultimate size but brittleness of limbs, messiness of dropping fruit and foliage (often falling in neighboring yards), benefits to wildlife, toxicity of seeds for kids and pets, and so forth. I’m also thinking about food security, so dwarf and compact fruit trees are high on the list. It’s quite pleasant to ponder over tree catalogs, choosing beauties that will be lastingly delightful to have in the neighborhood.
Taking Down Trees When The World Is Burning
But. While making these lists, I’m also grieving that still more of these mature trees must come down. I know that, however pretty, the appropriately sized new trees will take years to mature, and won’t ever replace the environmental benefits that even damaged big trees offer. Maybe it’s not too surprising that I haven’t been sleeping well lately and it’s not only because of raccoons dancing on the roof at 3:00 am. When I do sleep, my dreams are full of dying trees, blazing in the Amazon and Alaska, drowning in the Bahamas and Texas, drying out to death locally; millions of trees suffering all around the world. Water swirls through my dreams, polluted and full of dying fish, trash, and human waste as clean water regulations are ignored or withdrawn. The dreamy air is dim with smoke and smog as clean air regulations are withdrawn. Frogs, insects and birds vanish, along with polar bears, whales, giraffes, rhinos, turtles, tigers, gorillas, elephants, and hundreds of smaller creatures. When I wake up, it’s all horribly true. How can we not despair?
I have to remind myself forcibly that despair is exactly what the current regime and others like it around the world intend; despair is notoriously debilitating, as are depression and anxiety. People without hope are easily overwhelmed and tend to hunker down rather than stand and fight. As people of color everywhere have known forever, it’s hard to keep on fighting through many weary years. So what helps? Well, for me, trees do. Plants do. When I weed my tiny yard, I notice hundred of seedlings, sown with a lavish hand as nature works to replenish what humans destroy. The world-wide strikes for climate change fill me with hope, even though the kids are clear that they want our help, not our hope. I still offer my hope, because I’m not hoping that the kids will magically “figure it all out” and repair our battered, broken world. My hope is that their clarity, energy, courage and strength continues to revitalize those of us who have felt derailed or despairing.
We Are The Hope Of The World
As gardeners, we can actually do a lot to help, starting in our own gardens and properties. We can (ok sometimes) lead by example, helping neighbors make wiser choices about plants and pesticides and showing them how to better care for the plants they are stewarding. Personally, I’m not above buying and planting appropriate trees and shrubs for elderly and infirm neighbors, or those who like gardening but can’t afford to buy plants. Yes, it’s kind, but it also benefits me directly as I get to enjoy and safeguard the well-being of plants I love. I’m not above checking in with local schools, public and private, and helping organize and manage pollinator gardening programs and tree plantings. Sure, it’s nice, but it also lets me influence another generation of kiddos to discover the remarkable richness and wonders of plants and pollinators. Meddling for good, right?
I often hear gardeners (like me) complain that their properties are too small to hold all the amazing plants they want to grow. Great! That gives us the perfect excuse to look around and find nearby parking strips and roundabouts to colonize with beautiful plants, thoughtfully choosing those that won’t get out of hand and invite removal by city crews. We can always approach libraries and underfunded parks, where volunteer labor and free plants may be warmly and gratefully embraced. It’s worth checking out the grounds of local faith communities too, especially smaller denominational churches (I’ve had good luck with open and affirming churches like the UCC), which often combine an aging congregation and dwindling budgets. Would they like some free garden assistance? Quite often, that’s a yes.
Planting Time Is Here
There are many opportunities for sharing our love of plants and the natural world through public gardening. Will it always go well? Probably not. Almost certainly not; there are bumps in every road I’ve ever taken, especially when our own human fallibility smacks into the foibles of others. But. If we are looking for hope in the face of all that’s dreadful, there’s no better place to start than in making gardens that nurture people, pollinators, and wildlife; in building community through public gardening; in offering our knowledge and practical help wherever there’s a need.
And there’s no better time than this. Autumn seemed to arrive a little early this year, bringing with it softer rains that saturate soils deeply. Already, I can dig a tree-sized hole without uncovering a layer of dusty dry dirt. To get ready for fall planting, I’m amending soils with mature compost and alfalfa pellets (not the medicated animal feed kind), and mulching weedy patches generously with coarse arborist’s chips. Next stop, the nurseries! Best of all, anything we plant now will get at least six months of cool, rainy weather, or so say the NOAA climatologists, who are calling a 75% chance of our long-time “normal” Northwestern winter weather pattern. If cold weather does come, it may come early, so have woven row cover on hand to swaddle the newly planted for the duration of any freezes. Remove any such protections during mild spells to prevent molds and mildews. So c’mon. Let’s plant trees, and let hope renew our energy and zest for action. Onward!
Richard Power’s “The Overstory” is good reading.
I am over the moon to have found your blog. As a novice gardener, your books—Naturalistic Gardening, Seasonal Bulbs, The Year in Bloom, and others—are both chock-full of knowledge and written in an engaging, accessible style. I live and garden in Port Townsend. What advice would you recommend someone just signing on to their first big garden job?
Definitely do great soil prep, emphasis on drainage and compost. Then look to maritime plants that tolerate wind, salt spray, heat and drought. Many bulbs will do well, as will the toughest perennials, including many newer hybrids that bloom longer and attract pollinators. Hardy herbs, rugged evergreens from the Manzanita and Ceanothus clans, beach plants like samphires and sea kale, shore pines, Arbutus unedo…