Monday, November 30, 2015

Province Lands: Plants, Dunes, and Shacks in the Backshore of Provincetown

There is a popular walk through the windswept dunes of the Province Lands, beginning at Snail Road off  Route 6,  just minutes from Provincetown's main drag, Commercial Street.  What starts out as a short path into the woods was once a road leading to the Peaked Hill Coast Guard Station, which no longer exists.  Soon you confront a surprisingly steep slope with almost no vegetation  --- some of the dunes in this ridge are 80 to 100 feet high-- and the trail takes you up a mountain of shifting sand. At the top are expansive views and a sense of the topography of the tip of Cape Cod.  

I walked this trail in mid-afternoon in September.  Unlike the summer months when the sand is scorching hot, the cooler fall weather means it's possible to go barefoot ( my shoes filled with sand in short order) on most of the trail.  

Looking south at Long Point lighthouse and the very tip of the Cape across Provincetown Harbor into Cape Cod Bay.  All those pockmarks are foot prints.

Looking in the opposite direction toward the Atlantic.  The walk continues in this direction.  You can just see a dune shack at the top of the ridge of dunes that overlooks the beach. 
Looking west into more dunes.  It almost seems like a desert landscape.
From the first high ridge the trail gently falls into an open valley with patches of scrubby pitch pine and oak, and in the lowest spots, cranberries, blueberries, mushrooms, sheep laurel, and cotton grass grow.  It is surprising to find the lushness of these mini bogs amidst so much sand, wide open sky and salty air but an underground aquifer supplies moisture to the low-lying depressions, sustaining the plant communities.   At one time locals farmed the cranberry bogs in the dunes, which were considerably bigger and the water more plentiful.  

Vaccinium macrocarpon, Cranberries
Wild Blueberries, tiny but sweet

Sheep Laurel, Kalmia angustifolia, growing among the cranberries, Looks like they had abundant bloom.

Cotton or  Bog Grass, Eriophorum angustifolium (not sure of the species) 
There are a number of interesting National Park Service publications about the Province Lands area, which is part of the Cape Cod National Seashore.  "Dwelling in the Dunes" is an ethnographic study, describing the cultural history of the the dune shacks, now on the National Register of Historic places.  They began as shelters for coastguard men who patrolled the beaches and attempted to save survivors of shipwrecks along the "backshore," the northern, outer coastline of the hook of Cape Cod, where shifting bars can make for treacherous navigation.  Think of a clenched hand and Provincetown Harbor is cradled within the hand on the opposite, more protected shore.

No longer privately owned, the dune shacks are still inhabited by ancestors of the originally families that used them.   

A restored dune shack and one of the more palatial ones
I think my route is more or less the small dotted line on the far right, next to "Peaked Hill Bar Historic District," which is the dune shack district.  
The same shack from a distance

Shacks in a hollow, protected from the worst winds

One of the more modest shacks, close to the beach.
A particularly poignant section of the "Dwelling in the Dunes" report is "Four Women from Provincetown" (chapter 7), the stories of  women who grew up visiting the dunes and Sunny Tasha's shack.  The dunes and Tasha were essential to the women's coming of age and the dune shack has continued to be a place of refuge, celebration and adventure for their children. At the same time, the women reveal sadness about their struggle to remain part of the Provincetown community, a community gentrified and transformed by tourism, rising real estate values and all that comes with it. 

Arrival at dune ridge above the beach, looking west 
Four-wheel drive vehicles are allowed on this road. 

After seeing few people all afternoon, with only the ocean wind in my ears, it was a bit of shock to see the road.   The dunes can still feel like a wild and solitary place even though they are heavily visited, especially in the summer.  

 Dune shack dwellers can drive all or part of the way to their shelters and the Park Service and dune tour operators use the road.  

The gray-leaved plant feels fleshy like a succulent.  Anyone know what it is?    The paths above are the way back towards Route 6 and P-town.

Cladonia rangiferina (?) , Reindeer Lichen

Ripe Beach Plums, Prunus maritima , another fruit P-towners harvested

Sickle-leaved Golden Aster, Chrysopsis falcata  growing in pure sand! 

Back to the high ridge of the parabolic dunes shaped by the winds

Back to the beginning.....

And back to the world of  Provincetown.  These guys are just starting out. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Garden Bloggers Bloom Day: October

Here's what's blooming in my garden.  I took the photographs on the 15th, but I haven't been able to do the post until now.  

It's endlessly entertaining to watch the bumble bees dive headfirst in these Gentian flowers.  They disappear completely as the flower petals close up around them and for several moments it's as if they aren't inside at all until the flowers begins to bulge and they come out, sometimes backwards and sometimes head first.  Here's a short video I made of the bee's pollinating routine, if you're interested.
Gentiana clausa, Closed Bottle Gentian 

Euonymous americanus, Hearts-a-Bustin'

Who could resist a plant with a name like this?  If there isn't a country song out there including the 'my hearts-a bustin' lament, then I'll eat my hat. But, I bet the songwriter doesn't know s/he was referring to a plant.     

My native Euonymous now fruits reliably, perhaps because it's matured?  I love the textured pink capsules when they bust open and dangle their red seed pods.  What vivid little ornaments--I'd put them on my Christmas tree if I had one!  It is a useful see-through plant, making a semi-transparent screening behind a stone wall adjacent to the sidewalk in my front garden.  And it's evergreen and upright.  
Callirhoe involucrata, Wine Cups
Only a few flowers are left on the Wine Cups, which I grow in my rock garden.

Magnolia virginiana, Sweet Bay Magnolia

The  nuts of Bottle Brush Buckeye, Aesculus parviflora

I collected some of the Buckeye nuts on a stepping stone to admire their shiny brown coat.  I'd love a pair of shoes this color.  My Buckeyes seemed unusually prolific this year;  I cut off some of the chains of nuts after a big rain storm because they weigh down the branches almost to the point of breaking them, and, I confess, I don't like the gaps in the foliage that results --they provide an essential screen from the street in my front garden. 

Calylophus serrulatus 'Prairie Lode', Prairie Lode Sundrops
I planted this in early summer and it's proven to be a tireless bloomer in my rock garden.  I've read it tolerates a wide range of conditions.  It was introduced by a Nebraska nursery.

Symphyotrichum oblongifolius 'October Skies', Aromatic Aster 
I'd never be without this Aster (though Raydon's Favorite is a close second) because it blooms so late and if you whack it back until about July 4th, it knits together into a nice mound that stands up on its own, no staking required.  Of course, you can cut back other asters this way too.

Cornus florida, Native Dogwood 

Edgeworthia chysantha ' Gold Finch'  Paper Bush 

Edgeworthia buds are almost more attractive than the flowers.  It may not come across in the photo, but they have an amazing soft sheen, like silvery jewels.  Something else I'd put on that phantom Christmas tree.....

Ligularia  dentata 'Desdamona,', Leopard Plant

Perrotia persica, Persian Ironwood 
Moving this Ironwood to a sunnier location seems to be producing better fall color, thankfully.

Go to May Dreams  to see what's blooming in other blogger's gardens.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Summer at Longwood

Longwood Gardens is the big shot among public gardens in the U.S.  They do everything with a big splash, sometimes literally.  It seems like it is the most expansive, showy, and probably the most expensive too.  I hadn't been in years, but when a friend and I were on the way to the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey, in mid August, we stopped.  Quite a contrast of environments, I know.  

Here are some shots of a long border composed of dynamic color progressions -- blues merge to purple, then pink to reds, to oranges, yellows and on and on it went.  

Photo above is my entry for the "Summer" themed Picture This contest at Gardening Gone Wild.

There's a lot more to see.  I'm only showing you a slice.  

The meadow below is one of the newest features at Longwood Gardens.  It was just starting to come alive with bloom when we were there, but must be glorious now that it's October.  The bridge looks like a ship floating in the midst of it all. They do things big, don't they?

Saturday, September 26, 2015

High Concept Design Meets Bureaucratic Park Maintenance

When gardening columnist Adrian Higgins wrote about landscape architect Ching-Fang Chen in an August feature article in The Washington Post, it immediately caught my attention. I had inside knowledge through a friend and colleague about Chen's struggle to keep intact a recently installed agricultural-inspired sculpture she had designed for Little Bennett Park in upper Montgomery County Maryland, located 30 miles northwest of Washington, DC.  The demise of her hay bale sculpture-cum-sound barrier, only a year after it had been built, was the jumping off point for Higgins's profile about her.
Hay Bales arriving at the park 
As Higgins notes, Chen went from more than a decade designing stylish private gardens for the acclaimed Washington, DC, design firm Oehme van Sweden & Associates to her current position, working for the Montgomery County Maryland Parks Department.  Despite working for the last six years in a culture with a "traditionally low-rent aesthetic,"  Chen has maintained  "her uncompromising  passion for imaginative design,"  says Higgins.  And, theoretically, Chen's switch from the private to public realm should offer many more people the chance to experience her work.

It seems promising that a forward-thinking landscape architect would focus her talent on the less revered design standard of suburban parks, no?   Well, when her "high concept" art installation met bureaucratic park maintenance, Chen's design was dismantled prematurely. Not a trace of it remains.

I'm betting I'm one of the few visitors to ever see the giant hay bale sculpture in Little Bennett, and I'm going to share some photos of it as it was being constructed and as well as views of it complete.  You can decide what you think.

As to the inside knowledge I mentioned earlier:  I know the talent that built the hay bale walls.  When Rob Page, a stone mason with an artist's sensibility whose work I've admired for years, mentioned he was working on the project, my curiosity was peaked.  It certainly wasn't his usual gig.  (He and his crew did build an elegant stone wall and some other stonework on the site.)  So I drove out to see what he was creating.

MD Rte 355 is the road on the left.  

Bales not yet put in place.  Picnic tables are now located under the oaks to the right. The stone wall delineates what is now a parking area where the hay bales sit.  

Looking south into the fields of Little Bennett

Yes, I climbed atop these pyramids to take pictures and all I could think was: wouldn't any kid (or adult for that matter) want to do the same? They seem to cry out to be climbed if only to get a better view of the surrounding landscape. (Those ladders are only temporary.) Yet we live in a culture of hyper-vigilance about the liability of any and all potential accidents waiting to happen, so I was surprised but impressed, and a little amused, that somehow this idea passed muster with the parks department. 

Any farm-raised kid knows the entertainment value of jumping off hay bales stacked in the barn. Could that be the point--fun?!  No fence or signage was planned to keep people off them, as far as I know.  It would be a relatively soft landing, however, if anyone fell as thick mulch was spread around the base.

The installation was by design an ephemeral piece -- the hay bales would gradually decay.  And sure enough they began to slump and grass grew on them in a relatively short time.  But here's the rub it seems -- maintenance wasn't on board with letting the hay bale wall decompose in place.  Unwanted critters showed up and they claimed the bales became unstable.

Granted, resources for public park maintenance are usually spread thinner than those for high-end private gardens.  As someone who maintains private gardens, I certainly appreciate concern for and investment in garden maintenance -- gardens are lost, literally, without it.  What was communicated to the maintenance crew in this case, I wonder?   The area was mown and tidied; the tall grass and weeds you see in many of my photos disappeared, so it definitely received some attention.   

Nevertheless, I was dismayed when I showed up in late July to find a blank slate where the round bales had been. I wanted to see the fine tuned finished product. Rob Page--no surprise--was disappointed when I told him what I'd discovered-- all that work erased!

Unfortunately, photographs by professional photographer Roger Foley didn't make it into The Post. But he graciously agreed to let me include a link to his gallery of shots showing the Day Use Area with both the hay bale installation still intact and the more recent addition of the spiky bamboo globes (pictured in The Post article). The effect was something special--the bamboo sculptures look like giant seed heads of ornamental onions (Allium christophii comes to mind) that alit on the ground near the picnic area and the hay bales like pastoral pyramids.

That's Ching-Fang and Rob Page down in front, with Rob's crew above
The outsize scale of these installations makes them visible from a distance and help create a sense of place, a little picnic refuge, out of what would otherwise be a a stark, nondescript parking area where few would want to linger.  If the hay bales weren't the most successful sound wall, they did  offer a satisfying visual barrier from the road.  Without their bold embrace, the picnic area feels decidedly less intimate.  Will something arrive to take their place?

Little Bennett Park is Montgomery County's largest park at 3,700 acres. Chen's plans for the park as outlined in Adrian Higgin's piece reveal some exciting an innovative features, sensitive to the area's natural assets.  Stay tuned and consider visiting the park's Day Use area in person.