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Berkshire Garden Style: White Guy Gardens and Standing Deadwood

Snow on the nursery, defined by deadwood-esque structure.

Here’s what’s happening on the Japanese calendar of microseasons throughout March. Clearly Japan’s seasons are a bit ahead of ours, but this glimpse will prove familiar: Grass sprouts, trees bud (March 1st - 5th); Hibernating insects surface (March 6th - 10th); First peach blossoms (March 11th - 15th); Caterpillars become butterflies (March 16th - 20th); Sparrows start to nest (March 21st - 25th); First cherry blossoms (March 26th - 30th); Distant thunder (March 31st - April 4th)

There is not much that can be done in the garden right now. Like everybody else, I’m waiting for the snow to melt. At least the time of writing. By the time this blog post is published, it might be 70 degrees and full swing garden season, for all I know! But practically speaking, I can’t do much if I can’t see the ground.

As soon as the ground is dry we’ll start edging and mulching and doing cleanup from the fall. And we are still pruning here and there. There’s one unattended Wisteria that’s been growing on an arbor that I’ve held off on pruning in the depths of winter; this week, we’ll prune it back really hard to start giving it a legible structure.

So, my gardeners and I find ourselves still in a bit of a holding pattern. I do find myself doing quite a bit: ordering, planning, houseplant care, acquiring Pansies and Violas to plant at the beginning of April, and assessing which dead things to leave and which to take down during the spring cleanup. And speaking of assessing dead things, with over two feet of wet snow in the last snow storm, many tree limbs and trees came down and in some cases the tops of trees snapped cleanly off leaving the trunks standing, blunt and splintered where the branches used to be. Tree trunks that are left standing are referred to as standing deadwood, and it’s a subject I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, namely what to do (or not do) with it.

The spruce poles after the big snow.

I like standing deadwood. There, I said it. Not only do I like it in nature, but I like to make it. I like to limb up and top trees but not cut them down all the way. It’s a design statement. I stumbled upon this preference when Russell and I were having some spruce cut in our yard here in Becket recently. I came home one day and the arborist had completely limbed and topped the trees and was taking a break before finishing them off. They were perfectly arranged standing poles. I said, “Stop there.” I don’t know if I would have thought of it before, but seeing it then I wanted them to stay. We had been taking them down because they got too tall and had outgrown their space, but seeing them like this I realized they didn’t need to completely disappear from the landscape.

A tree decays in the forest supporting and participating in the complex systems and wisdom

we continually seek to understand.

Russell said they looked gruesome, like corpses. But I don’t think of them that way. To me, to leave them is to celebrate those trees. I still want their presence. They are still serving me. And so I left them as an experiment. The previous designer placed them well, and I want to retain those spaces for when I decide to replant trees on my property.

The spruce poles not long after they were cut.

I’m considering leaving some standing tree trunks at a client’s house and planting some climbing hydrangea below and letting it use the trees as their support. Decades ago, someone planted a lot of little spruce trees, but they developed fungal issues and are declining rapidly. The client doesn’t like the idea of cutting them down and leaving the space so open and barren, and so I’m suggesting we leave spruce poles so they can define the space. We could plant new trees, and we may, but if we leave the deadwood, it will provide more structure than a bunch of doinky new trees will. I have been unable to convince one arborist I work with that this is a good idea. It simply doesn’t speak to his sensibilities as to what a good arborist does. I get that. At the same time, I think there’s a time and place to challenge presiding sensibilities, and this, to me, is one of them.

What is it about leaving standing deadwood that’s appalling to some people? One consideration is the danger – standing deadwood will eventually decay and could fall over, could easily blow over in a storm. So obviously, any dead trees left standing would need to be well out of the way so as to not fall onto potential property or, worse, beings. They would have to be cut at a height where they could retain a strong structure. Aside from safety concerns, I think the reaction against leaving standing dead tree trunks is mostly an aesthetic one. To pull it off would require that we go through some awkward phases, as we do with any transition. It’s hard to get used to a tree that now has no limbs and no top. They look a little funny. Yet – it’s not that different from getting used to the empty gap a tree leaves in the landscape when it’s removed completely. Why couldn’t we simply get used to this, too?

This wolf pine had to come down. What remains is a memorial to a beloved neighbor

and woodsman who has passed on.

Why would we want to get used to this? Well, there’s the structure for one, the homage to the trees past for two, and, thirdly, there are so many ecological benefits. It’s what would happen to these trees without human interference, the wind or heavy spring snow topping the trees eventually, and, as most things that happen at nature’s own pace, they would provide habitat for fungus and insects, particularly the larvae of moths and beetles, and from there cascades out a whole range of benefits like woodpeckers and squirrels and chipmunks, and on up the food chain. This deadwood supports life, so why not make a gardening choice that mimics what happens in nature?

The wolf pine is home to what could be an owl.

This kinship with standing deadwood might have made the perfect example, had I thought of it, to share at a birthday brunch recently. One of the brunch guests – a friend of a friend – struck up a conversation with me. I mentioned I had a gardening company and he asked what kind of gardens I made. I could have said “naturalistic” or “eco-oriented with horticultural flair,” or a number of other descriptors that fit the ready-made peg holes most people have for the different kinds of gardening out there. But, seeing an opportunity to really articulate how Berkshire Garden Style is unique, I decided to give it a whirl. Dear Reader, I’m sorry to say that I failed miserably. Instead of articulately rolling out exactly how and why BGS is a different beast from all those other Berkshire gardens, I found myself rambling and fishing around for the right words. I wanted to get it just right, but couldn’t quite do it. He finally interrupted me and said,

“So, basically you make elitist gardens for Aryans?”

“Yeah, you got it,” I said. “You figured it out.” And I left it at that.

A black locust in NY State, fallen many years ago.

I was really disappointed. I imagine he didn’t mean to be so rude in his attempt to play provocateur. And yet, he pinned BGS as its very antithesis. Had I failed so miserably? Or maybe not antithesis exactly. (See? Articulating this is hard!) But he pinned me in a style that I’ve conscientiously been working against for the past decade or so. Berkshire Garden Style – despite having a name that makes you think of cliché ornamental perennial beds you find at any number of historic or private gardens throughout the Berkshires – isn’t Naumkeag or Chesterwood or the private equivalent of either of those. We don’t make show gardens. We do make beautiful gardens that we want people to see, but not solely for someone to have something big and expensive to show off. I don’t know. Maybe I tried too hard, and all he could do was fish around for something he recognized. How much, I wonder, did he look at me and make this assumption?

This man, who is white, is maybe 70. He has short white hair. He’s aging in a handsome kind of way. He was wearing all black and had on little round sunglasses with red-tinted lenses. He is a death doula. He looked a little like the devil. I give this description because maybe he couldn’t see himself, his very whiteness, his very white-guy way of interrupting me and – though I don’t think he was being intentionally hurtful – slighting my work by suggesting I pander to the whims of the established elite.

Let me be clear: we don't need more elitist white guy gardens. What I’m trying to do with BGS is to show how Berkshire gardens (which is why I use the name Berkshire Garden Style) are not just that stereotype of prim perfection. I’m always trying to push against that. With BGS, it’s about the people doing the gardening as much as the people enjoying the view of the garden. It’s about the little patch of woods beyond the garden where the little woodland creatures live who benefit – and benefit from – the garden.

In our Becket garden it can be hard to tell what we created from Nature.

The aesthetic choices I make aren’t always predictable, don’t fit the mold, are even sometimes a little jarring for people – not because they’re bad ideas, but they’re just so not what people are expecting. So, maybe what I should have said to the brunching death doula is that BGS is about wanting the landscape to remain a little bit uncultivated, or at least not heavily cultivated. That when I cultivate it is with sensitivity and humility. BGS is about challenging predominant notions of aesthetics as well as what’s “sensible.” It’s about not being doctrinaire. It’s not about white guys and the Aryan elite – in fact, it’s not really about whom the garden is for, but, if I may, who the garden is. It’s about utility and gut-feeling as much as it is about beauty and following recommendations. It’s about trial and error and not being afraid to experiment, because there is no one right way to tend to the land, and I need to remain open and creative. I think I’ve earned that after nearly 30 years of gardening.

A log fallen years ago supporting the life that supports other life.


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