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After the storm: A gardener learns acceptance

The Garden Coach

This is not the column that’s been rattling around my head for the past couple weeks. Somehow the finer points of woodland editing seem less relevant in the wake of the devastation wrought by heavy snow on fully leafed-out trees. It’s time to deal with nature’s major edit instead.

I’ve always somewhat skeptically admired people who, after losing a magnificent tree that shaded the entire yard, dusted themselves off and said, “Well, now I have a sunny place for all the plants I couldn’t grow before.”

It must be a process. I’m not there yet. The memory of a night with little sound but that of breaking trees is hard to shake. Big old trees in my yard have been a beloved presence for many years. I have pruned them, taken the axe to competing trees and kept bittersweet vines away, stood in their shelter to enjoy a summer rain, raked their leaves from the lawn and returned them to earth as compost.

Until sometime Saturday night, an ancient apple tree shaded the southeast side of my house. From the kitchen sink I looked up into its flowery branches full of warblers every spring.

In winter, the low sun sent flickering shadows of bare twigs and flitting chickadees dancing across the walls. My son’s first spoken commentary about his world was, “Tree. Apple tree. Apple tree home.” My sentiments exactly.

On Saturday morning, hearing that, improbable as it seemed just weeks after my last outdoor swim, it was going to snow, I put “pick flowers” at the top of my to-do list.

Then I puttered around in the yard, thinking how great the gardens were going to look this winter. Clumps of northern sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) were becoming the masses I sought, winterberries (Ilex verticillata) were tall enough to be out of deer’s reach, I’d added more chokeberries (Aronia arbutifolia ‘Brilliantissima’).

When snow started accumulating in my weed bucket I put away my tools, figuring that I’d pot up the new fig tree and carry on with fall cleanup in a couple days when it all melted. Then I headed into town for essential storm supplies ­— fresh organic vegetables from Marble Valley Farm, a nice chunk of wild sockeye salmon, chocolate, wine and a good library book.

Heavy snow came on so fast that I barely made it home. I parked at the bottom of my steep driveway, below the wild cherry tree tilting over the wires. CL&P had come out to look at it but refused to cut it until it actually fell. The clocks stopped at 5 p.m., so I enjoyed a lovely candlelit dinner of salmon cooked with dill, peppery nasturtium seedpods and Jerusalem artichokes followed by cracking and crashing that sent me out into the darkness with a broom.

After the third round of whacking snow off bent-over shrubs with the broom and shaking small trees to free them of their icy weight, it began to feel futile and dangerous. There was nothing more to be done but put another log in the woodstove and pull the covers over my head until morning.

It’s hard enough getting used to a green world turning white overnight when it’s supposed to be winter, but usually the beauty of new-fallen snow urges joy over grumbling. Not this time. Sunday morning brought the saddest sight I’ve seen in ages. How could a house full of newly picked nasturtiums and marigolds have a yard full of broken snow-covered trees and crushed gardens? It was too big a disconnect.

After loving and nurturing a landscape and shaping it with a particular sense of order, there’s no getting around a feeling of loss. Our immediate world has been rearranged in a way that will confront us for quite awhile.

Storms certainly do remind us that we are but a small part of a larger order. At Sunday’s sunrise, cedar waxwings and robins were feasting on juniper berries outside my window. A red-tailed hawk nailed a gray squirrel scampering up the cherry tree that, sure enough, fell on the wires over my driveway, and flew off to feast in private. They all had to get on with life. Me too.

It’s a whole lot easier to celebrate the life a dead tree supports out in the forest, where it’s not so personal. But I’m grateful that nothing fell on my house or car. The toppled catalpa tree will resprout and become a multi-stemmed smaller tree. A hickory that I planned to cut, to make room for my Carolina silverbell, snapped in two — but unfortunately, so did the silverbell.

I won’t know if there’s enough left to reshape until after my arborist removes the broken parts. The hickory trunk can stay, for woodpeckers. Many shrubs that were bent to the ground now look like nothing happened; others are leaning at peculiar angles; some will need staking. Smashed buddleias and caryopteris are cutback shrubs anyway, though you’re not supposed to cut them back until spring. Time will tell.

It’s challenging to garden with nature when the wreckage is so large. I want it to look pretty again, but I’m trying to look at the fallen trees and branches the same way I do fallen leaves: as a resource rather than a disposal problem. How much sense does it make in a world of diminishing resources, and how big a carbon footprint does it create, to have petroleum-driven, pollution-emitting machines cut it down, grind it up and take it away, only to then go out and buy mulch that has been created the same way and trucked here from far away, and to buy firewood (possibly infested with emerald ash borers or Asian longhorn beetles) from somewhere else?

If it’s true that a dead tree supports more life than a living one — birds and the insects they eat, squirrels, salamanders and millions of microorganisms that recycle nutrients and make them available to plants, which sprout on rotting logs — how can I employ the processes to sequester carbon and encourage new life in my home landscape?

In an effort to garden sustainably — and make lemonade out of a yard full of lemons — here’s my new “to-do” list:

• Review homeowner’s insurance policy

• Inventory what I can clean up myself, what requires brawn and power tools and what requires an arborist

• Call arborist to get on the long list of people who need estimates

• Start cleaning up the small things; it will make me feel better

• Look up and note where branches have broken but not yet fallen, and stay clear

• Get used to imperfection

• Prepare a place to pile next year’s firewood

• Read up on the cultivation of mushrooms in wood-chip beds

• Drag branches up into the woods. Coarse woody debris — branches less than 2 inches in diameter are the most biologically active — is crucial to forest health.

• Make some new brush piles to shelter wildlife

• Lay branches across the slope to slow water runoff and encourage infiltration

• Stockpile logs to build raised beds, edge paths

• Trim branches for garden stakes and trellises

• Make a stump garden

Save some of the most treasured trees to make something special — a walking stick, towel racks, curtain rods, shelves — and heat my home with gratitude next winter.

Karen Bussolini is an eco-friendly garden coach, a NOFA Accredited Organic Land Care Professional and garden communicator. She may be reached at kbgarden@charter.net” or 860-927-4122.
© Karen Bussolini 2011
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