Garden Diary: More light, more life …

“It can be heartbreaking to see the natural landscape ravaged, or, as a designer, to watch something you have created be destroyed. It can even be difficult to see it change before your eyes into something you had not imagined. Perhaps for these very understandable reasons, conventional landscaping resists change …

The disruption of Hurricane Sandy may have long-term ecological benefits

An ecologically designed landscape is, necessarily, a successional landscape growing in a disturbance regime. It is prepared for flood or fire, if these are likely events. It grows one thing and then another and then another. It is amenable to alteration and midcourse correction. In fact, it takes advantage of the natural processes of change to assemble and adjust itself.” – from Principles of Ecological Landscape Design by Travis Beck

Trees on the windward slope fell en masse. These were cut only to clear the road, not in preparation for removal.

I took these pictures of the destruction along Federal Twist Road about a week ago. These are the remains of only a few of the trees that fell on our windward slope in that terrific storm in late October 2012. The trees were cut to clear the road. What you see will likely remain in place for over a century.

They will remain for many decades, protecting new growth from voracious deer predation.

I’m not an ecologist so I only speculate that these trees may, in part at least, be the salvation of our forest.


Huge numbers of deer are destroying the forest by preventing its regeneration. They eat almost everything, certainly tree seedlings. But they won’t be able to get to seedlings that grow up protected by the piles of fallen trees. These pockets of refuge may enable the forest to begin to regenerate in these areas of destruction. The increase in light (the far ridge across the valley was virtually invisible before the storm thinned the trees) and disturbed soil will encourage new plants to seed and grow.


I draw a parallel between this forest of destruction and my garden, which, like the forest, is subject to massive disturbance, though in the case of the garden, an annual disturbance …

fire featured

… because I burn it, then cut what won’t burn.

Burning keeps down undesirable weeds and seedlings (the garden wants to return to forest, and would on its own), especially invasive Multiflora rose and other woody undesirables. And, of course, it’s a much less labor-intensive way of removing several hundred pounds of dead grasses and perennials.

What’s left forms a natural mulch that gradually increases the organic matter in the soil and, I’ve discovered, encourages self-seeding of many desirable plants into soil exposed by the annual cleanup …

0322 pond & early look 082

… like these sepulchral  leaden brown characters, skeletons of Inula racemosa ‘Sonnenspeer’, for me a most serendipitous consequence of random seeding.

Fed Twist after storm and snow 101

Unlike the natural ecosystem of the forest, the garden is an artificial ecosystem, made of both native and non-native plants, but plants that thrive in the existing conditions. It consists of many competing and cooperating plant communities, and has built-in resilience to adjust to change–with minimal intervention on my part.

Just how resilient, I’ll see this summer. The garden now must adjust to the consequences of a massive fall of white pines along its south border. (This is a separate tree fall area, not the one shown along Federal Twist Road above.)


Those long, low piles of tree trunks, root plates, and tangled growth are an aesthetic challenge certainly, but with time I can adapt the garden to that visual alteration, probably even organize the mess and use it to pedagogical purpose. Much more significant, I think, will be the ecological effects in the garden proper–much more light from the new southern exposure, higher temperatures, changed aspect. What will be the effect on the existing plants used to afternoon shade, on soil moisture, on the frogs and other critters around the pond, on algae growth? Questions, questions …

This summer will begin to tell that story. I’ll have to be observant, patient, and prepared to adapt.

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12 thoughts on “Garden Diary: More light, more life …

  1. I am sure that whatever the consequences are of the fallen trees you will embrace it. I remember when many large gardens here, including Kew, lost large trees and shelter belts in the hurricanes we had back in the 90s. After the initial shock people realised the new opportunities and unexpected things germinated due to the new light. As someone who is interested in ecology as well as design I am sue you will find it a fascinating experience.

    I did smile when I saw the fallen trees as my eldest son would want to collect them for wood turning.

  2. Surely all evolution is about ‘disturbance’! Without which there can be no tomorrow. I find your comment ‘more light , more life’ to be a rather odd un though…there is probably just as much ‘life happening in shade situations than in full sun..we just either cannot see it or indeed recognize it!

  3. As you burn and cut so dramatically your garden is already a result of ‘what happens after..’ the extra light will be interesting; I would be most worried by decreased temperatures if the trees were protecting you from cold winds. I speak as someone who has to contend with cold winds from the north and northeast in winter and potentially more damaging hot winds from the west in summer. Certainly whatever happens will be interesting. Christina

  4. Since the exposure is southern, I don’t think the cold will be a problem. But heat may be. The south side of the garden is used to afternoon shade. The light and heat may change soil moisture conditions, and I can’t predict what effects that might have. Probably manageable if we don’t have a drought.

  5. One of the many reasons I left Charleston after Hurricane Hugo was the fact I could barely stomach what the storm had done to the landscape. Before the storm I felt that the natural landscape still contained some original magic, afterwards the magic seemed to have fled. I was not capable of looking at the long term, which is why when I returned 10 years later I was pleased to see the land back as it should be.

    1. I wish I didn’t have to look at the long term but I can’t see any economic incentive for the anyone to ever remove the trees–now that the road is clear. The destruction is so extensive I think the cost would be prohibitive. So I MUST hope for some kind of ecological miracle–well, not a miracle, but quick regrowth.

  6. I know nothing about creative destruction as it applies to economics, but it is everywhere in nature. Our poor garden-making hearts get bruised, but there’s always some upstart species or new ecosystem to take advantage of the upheaval. I’m looking forward to hearing the story as it unfolds.

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