The Block Island Times

The Garden Report:  No wait — it’s The Book Report!

By Renee Meyer | Mar 31, 2014

The thermometer tells us that there is still time to curl up with a good book, so I recently decided to revisit one I read years ago. It was “Noah’s Garden: Restoring the Ecology of Our Own Back Yards,” by Sara Stein. This book, published in 1993, was donated to the Island Free Library by the late Jane Foster in 1997.

I learned a lot from this book when I first read it, especially about soil science: the role that voles, moles and earthworms play in it. I learned about compost, about mulch, about building up the impoverished soil that calls my hilltop home. Why did I return to it again, after all these years? For its suggested methodologies for returning our environments to more natural states, which, in turn, will hopefully support the return — or at least stop the diminishment — of our birds, butterflies, native bees and other insects.

As Stein writes:

“Yards and gardens patched with grass and stitched with hedges all across America constitute a vast, nearly continuous, and terribly impoverished ecosystem for which we ourselves, with our mowers, shears, and misguided choice of plants, are responsible. We cannot in fairness rail against those who destroy the rain forest or threaten the spotted owl when we have made our own yards uninhabitable. Yet how quickly we could grow this land, spangle it with blazing stars, stripe it with red winterberries and white summersweet, let it wave again with grass!” (p. 18-19)

I turned to it for its emphasis on using native plants in the landscape. Like many other gardeners, I’m easily seduced by the bright blooms at garden centers, and we have over the years often selected our plantings mainly for their resistance to grazing deer, or in the case of evergreens, for their resistance to invasive beetles — you know, the kind that have devoured entire forests, including Block Island’s own Enchanted Forest.

We kid ourselves into thinking that Block Island is a natural place — it is anything but, and hasn’t been since the first European settlers arrived in New England. Just as on the mainland, the forests disappeared, the land cleared to open fields, all in the name of productivity. As Stein explains, the native Indians depended on the land for sustenance. They took only what they needed. They had no concept of “owning” the land. Europeans on the other hand saw the abundant riches of the new world as something to be commoditized, to be exploited for gain.

“The very concept of land ownership was inseparable from improvement. Town decisions regarding the amount of land to be parceled out per family depended on how quickly the family could convert it from wild to cultivated land.” (p. 31)

And not only did the settlers clear the forests, clear the fields, but when they abandoned them the native flora did not necessarily just come back and resume their rightful places. We may pat our backs for the effusion of wildflowers that border our roads, fields and streams, but many of the ones we love the most, that seem to define that Block Island look, are not native to our area.

The common chicory we call Sailor’s Flag (Cichorium intybus) is European. Ditto for Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota). Sweet peas (Lathyrus latifolius) are native to Sicily and the Aegean Islands. Johnny-Jump-Ups (Viola cornuta) are native to Spain and the Pyrenees Mountains.

Having been lately introduced to the organization Rhody Native, I’m excited to have a source for learning just what is native. And I admit that I can hardly wait to visit some garden centers that carry the native plants that Rhody Native grows out in their greenhouses at the University of Rhode Island. I’ve printed out the lists of this year’s offerings from and am studying them, researching, making my own lists, and practically learning Latin. Carpe diem.

There’s much to like about this book, beginning with the premise of the first chapter, the anti-gardening stance. It’s titled “Unbecoming a gardener.” In it Stein argues that the very idea of gardening is antithetical to nature. Gardeners seek out exotic species, push the zones of plants’ tolerances, prune, plant, fuss and fertilize. When their plantings don’t do well, or are overcome by weeds and pests, they attack with chemicals, herbicides and pesticides, often exacerbating the very conditions they seek to improve. It is all a lot of work.

Consider the lawn. Stein devotes an entire section to it. Our suburban ideals favor large expanses of open space that contain nothing but green grass. Not just any grass, not just the native grasses that have self-selected for their particular environment, but Kentucky Blue Grass. Later we learn that this variety is suited, due to its photosynthesizing habits for far more northern climes than where it is usually planted. Thus the need for copious “feeding” and watering: it just naturally wants to go dormant in August.

This book is about the Stein’s adventures — and misadventures in turning their own six acre, meticulously planned and planted property in Pound Ridge New York back into a more natural state. On their homestead are woodlands, wetlands, slopes and rocky outcrops. Each of these areas get their rehab, and in the telling of it is a whole lot of history, science, sentiment and humor. This rehab is not the first the Steins attempted on this property and the mistakes they made the first time around are notable for the lessons they give in unintended consequences.

While upstate New York is vastly different than Block Island, Stein vacations on an island off the coast of Maine, and readers will find familiarities between that, unnamed island and Block Island.

Each fall, from our hilltop overlooking the hollow below, we see beyond the swamp a grove of native Black Gum trees (also called Tupelo and a great food source for honey-makers and birds) with their brilliant display of fall foliage. We don’t see this elsewhere on the island, and often joke that here, “it’s like living in Vermont.” For myself I long to bring that view closer. I’m in luck. Rhody Native has some Syssa sylvatica among their tree offerings.

“She’s as sweet as Tupelo honey/Just like the honey, baby, from the bee.” — Van Morrison




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