In Which I Decide To Be Thankful

Carolyn’s Shade Gardens is a retail nursery located in Bryn Mawr, PA, specializing in showy, colorful, and unusual plants for shade.  The only plants that we ship are snowdrops and miniature hostas.  For catalogues and announcements of events, please send your full name, location, and phone number (for back up use only) to  Click here to get to the home page of our website for catalogues and information about our nursery and to subscribe to our blog.

All photos in this post were taken in and around Cliff Island, Maine, U.S., in summer or fall.  Click on any photo to enlarge.

This is my 2011 Thanksgiving essay.  Last year in My Thanksgiving Oak Forest, I described why my husband and I decided to transplant native red oak seedlings to a waste area filled with invasive plants.  If you haven’t had a chance to read it, I hope you will click here because I think it is my most important post. This year’s essay is a glass-half-empty, glass-half-full kind of story, which ends with me deciding to be thankful, always a good result at any time of year.

Frequent readers of this blog will know that I spend a lot of time on a small island seven miles off the coast of Maine called Cliff Island.  The island is a very special place for many reasons.  Physically, it is achingly beautiful, surrounded by rocky shores and ocean and with acres of woods, marshes, and beaches created by nature and for the most part preserved that way, although it is all private land. 

Our family has no vehicle so I walk three to four miles every day often to get places but predominantly for pleasure.  And while I walk I think.  In the midst of all this beauty I am often sad.  Aside from public land, few places remain in the eastern U.S. like Cliff Island where the ecology is not rapidly changing for the worse.

Surrounded by a close to pristine landscape, I mourn for what southeastern Pennsylvania, where I live, must have been like and how it has been changed beyond recognition and probably beyond redemption.  As Heather from Restoring the Landscape with Native Plants says: “Although many of our woodland landscapes have been invaded with invasive species and altered by humans, diminished representations of the former plant community still exist and provide us with a window of what the woodland used to be [emphasis added].”

I think about how most people don’t know, and many of them don’t care, what a real native landscape looks and feels like.  How will we preserve the precious areas that remain if people have no context within which to appreciate them?  Jill on Landscape Lover’s Blog describes a noted French landscape architect as pointing out that “most people prefer highly-managed places – pleasurable gardens and efficient landscapes – over raw nature, which is increasingly perceived as distant, unpleasant, almost repellent, with its insects, bacteria, and disorder [emphasis added].”  Is that true?  I am afraid so.

Even Cliff Island is under attack with invasive non-native plants making their way out from the mainland and displacing the island’s delicate native ecology.  We currently have a full scale battle going on with Japanese knotweed, purple loosestrife, oriental bittersweet, multiflora rose, Japanese barberry, burning bush euonymus, and Norway maple.  These plants have only started multiplying invasively on Cliff Island in the last 20 years or so and yet the rate of increase is exponential.

On better days, when my half-full attitude takes over, I am deliriously thankful that I get to spend time on Cliff Island.  I stare at the landscape trying to burn it into my memory for viewing during the rest of the year.  I find it so beautiful that it seems unreal, like a movie set.  I never get tired of it.  No designed garden can compare with what nature has created.

I am also eternally thankful that I am able to appreciate this natural beauty.  That I don’t prefer highly managed landscapes and that I love being outside.  I am grateful that my training enables me to understand how the plant communities on the island work and to appreciate the ornamental characteristics of the native plants.

I am thankful that Cliff Island’s balance has not been destroyed.  In Pennsylvania, any unplanted area is soon filled with invasives.  On the island, the regenerative power of the native plants remains in tact.  An area of abandoned lawn will quickly be re-colonized by blueberries, goldenrod, bayberry, asters, and other natives.

I am also thankful that, four years ago, I was able to launch a non-native invasive plant removal program on Cliff Island.  Volunteers from the community are working hard to remove invasives before they become established like they are on the mainland.  I am happy to report that the program is a huge success.  If you would like to know more about the program, please feel free to email me at  Nothing would make me happier than to help others preserve their native landscape.

Readers of my 2010 Thanksgiving post will be pleased to know that we are continuing what will now be our Thanksgiving tradition and have planted three more native red oaks at the bottom of our property.

Happy Thanksgiving, Carolyn

Notes: Every word that appears in orange on my blog is a link that you can click for more information.  If you want to return to my blog’s homepage to access the sidebar information (catalogues, previous articles, etc.) or to subscribe to my blog, just click here.

Nursery Happenings:
The nursery is closed for the year.  Look for the snowdrop catalogue (snowdrops are available mail order) in January 2012 and an exciting new hellebore offering in February 2012.  If you are within visiting distance and would like to receive catalogues and information about customer events, please send your full name and phone number to  Subscribing to my blog does not sign you up to receive this information.

54 Responses to “In Which I Decide To Be Thankful”

  1. You’re right, your island IS achingly beautiful! Kudos to you for stepping up to protect it. Also thanks for the shout-out for Heather’s post at Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. She’s an amazing member of our team and we’re thrilled to have her!

  2. Dear Carolyn I have tears in my eyes looking at the beauty of your island…you are indeed lucky. And you gave me even more resolve to continue my planting of natives…2 more bayberries and a few more blueberries went into my garden this fall…how sad to see these invasives coming but glad to know you have folks to help get rid of them. I am beginning to learn about native habitats in my area and groups. I also wish to see what the native habitat might have looked like here…I will check out last yrs post….and I can’t wait to read next yrs. Ps-I will continue to plant new natives every spring and fall in my little parcel!! I am thankful I can…

    • Donna, Heather’s post on Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens is about recreating successful native plant communities by taking cues from local woodlands. The islanders, both year round and summer, have been very receptive to finding out what the problem is and to fixing it. Nevertheless, our program has failed to persuade a small but vocal minority who feel there is no problem despite the evidence like the 400 Japanese barberry bushes we have removed. I am glad native plants have you in their corner. Carolyn

  3. Thanks for your nice post,really you are professional photograph er ,you post wonderfull pictures,i agree with you about keeping native landscape,
    happy thanks giving

    • Muna, Thanks for stopping by. I am glad you liked the photographs. Of course, I feel that they do not do justice to the beauty of the island. I also hope readers appreciate fall landscapes because I tend to take more photos on Cliff Island in the fall. I had to really hunt for summer photos. Carolyn

  4. Cliff Island sounds an absolutely delightful place and I agree with your thoughts about the destruction of native planting the world over.How wonderful that you have been able to set up a scheme whereby local volunteers can keep a check on invasive non-natives. Over here in the UK we are all battling the same Japanese knotweed, Himalayan balsam and others, all escaped from gardens and gone wild, us gardeners must be more careful what we plant and where we dispose of them when they are not wanted any more.

    • Pauline, Thanks for the reinforcement. I get so frustrated because often the response is “I have never seen any seedlings from my [insert name of highly invasive plant].” Gardeners do not generally understand that it doesn’t matter what is going on in their own gardens. These plants are seeding into and destroying our few remaining natural areas, which are landscapes much more vulnerable to attack than a highly managed home garden. From my point of few and experience working with invasives for over 20 years, it is irresponsible to plant or continue to grow any of the plants listed in my post in most of the eastern U.S. Cliff Island is tiny, maybe 300 acres, and we have probably removed over 400 Japanese barberry bushes in the last three years. Yet some people on the island still don’t understand why they shouldn’t continue to grow barberry. Carolyn

  5. Carolyn, thanks for the mention. I’m glad you’ve decided to be thankful despite the challenges facing this beautiful place. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.

    • Jill, This post was partially inspired by the thoughtful discussion on your blog. Although I am not an advocate of turning every garden into solid natives, I do think that thoughtful incorporation of as many natives as possible is the best course. At my family’s cottage on Cliff Island, I do not garden in the ground because what nature has provided is so much more beautiful than anything I could create. Most gardeners pay good money for what we have maintained by not disturbing the landscape: winterberry holly, various viburnums, blueberries, ferns, three kinds of birch, etc. Carolyn

  6. The red in the eighth picture above is low bush blueberry? You’ve shown it wonderfully and I agree nature did it perfectly. If more folks saw this beauty they wouldn’t be so willing to plant the pesky burning bush (hate it!). It’s so great you got involved and started the invasive plant removal program. With diligence this beauty will stay as nature intended for all to enjoy. Good job!!

    • Tina, I was afraid that someone would ask about that plant. I think it is in the blueberry family, but it is not lowbush blueberry (or highbush for that matter) which is all around it in the area pictured. For a while I thought it was cranberry, but decided it wasn’t because it’s growing on a dry rocky ledge. If anyone can identify that plant, I would love it.
      I can’t understand how nurseries can continue to sell burning bush and gardeners can continue to plant it. The woodlands around me in PA are full of it, especially noticeable right now when other understory plants (mostly invasives) have lost their leaves. Planting a plant is not just an aesthetic decison–the environmental consequences must be considered. I certainly do not advocate totally native gardens for everyone–I run a nursery that specializes in many non-natives. But I can’t condone the continued use of invasives, which are really a tiny part of the plants available to the home gardener. Carolyn

  7. Bonnie Devine Says:

    I am grateful for the excitement and energy you and Mike and Carolyn’s Shade Gardens have re-awakened in me. Working in my gardens, watching the cycles of life repeat, the beauty, is so important to me. On any given day, as long as the ground isn’t frozen or covered with snow, I can always find a task to calm me down, mellow me out. And on those rainy days, like today, I can appreciate the rain as a gift to help my tired old body recover from all I ask it to do.

    I’m so happy that you and Mike are in my creative life.

    Love, Bonnie

    • Bonnie, It is important to be grateful every day of the year, but I feel like Thanksgiving, a holiday with no strings attached, brings out the best in me. I am glad we have inspired you-—you are an enthusiastic and inspirational customer-—the kind that makes me want to do it all over again the next day. Carolyn

  8. I have also written several posts about Nature being my favorite designer , although like you I have to travel to unspoiled areas to see what Nature really did design.

    When I am asked to do landscape consultations I often find myself educating homeowners on which of the plants they have included in their gardens are in fact invasive here in the Pacific Northwest. They have never been included deliberately with intent to destroy native vegetation, always from ignorance. After all surely if local, reputable nurseries sell them they must be OK?????? (Therein lies a huge problem).

    • Karen, No one includes invasive plants intentionally to destroy native vegetation. But unfortunately I have run into a significant number of gardeners who don’t really care whether the plant is invasive or see no reason to remove it once its invasive nature is explained or even demonstrated. It is like all changes, each one of us needs to do the hard work and make the hard choices. Each gardener must take responsibility if the situation is ever going to change for the better. I agree that nurseries selling invasives are a huge part of the problem, and nurseries do have a higher level of responsibility. Many reputable nurseries would never sell an invasive plant. But nurseries are businesses and, as we know from other areas of American business, we cannot sit back and rely on them to do what’s right in a situation where money is involved, especially in this economy where they are desperate to sell anything they can. The only way invasive plants will disappear from nurseries is through lack of demand from consumers/gardeners. Carolyn

  9. Carolyn – Your essay and good work has given me food for thought especially … “No designed garden can compare with what nature has created.” I just wonder if the definition of native changes with time and climate change.

    • Bag, I am not one of those native fanatics that believes that any plant arriving after the last ice age is not native. In the eastern US, native plants that used to be limited to the south are moving north as the climate changes. Here in Pennsylvania, we haven’t reached our hardiness low of -10 degrees F in almost 20 years. I would consider those plants moving up from the south native.

      The plants I am talking about come predominantly from Asia (a few from Europe), arrived recently, and are spreading exponentially to change entire ecosystems in 20 years or so. I don’t think anyone would call them native. This is not evolution, this is a catastrophe, setting aside the issue of whether we can actually do anything about it. All I know is that on Cliff Island we can still stop them, and I am going to do everything I can to make this happen. In another 20 years, people might be visiting Cliff to see what native habitat used to look like—it’s sad. Carolyn

  10. Carolyn thanks for your essay. My thoughts strayed in that direction just the other day here in Kansas. I noticed Callery Pear seedlings in lowland areas as well as in the plains. Definitely not a native species. Also Silvery Maples all along the river valleys. Sad I suppose.

    • Greg, I never focused on Callery/Bradford pears but a quick internet search reveals that they are highly invasive. Respected organizations like the US Forest Service and the US Fish and Wildlife Service say don’t plant them and pull them out if you have them. They are terrible trees because of splitting so I don’t know why anyone would want one anyway. I am not sure what you mean by silvery maples. Silver maples, Acer saccharinum, are native to Kansas.

      This illustrates what I was talking about in other replies perfectly. If you are considering a plant for your garden, do a quick internet search. All the information about the potential invasiveness of the plant is just a click away. If it’s invasive in your area than don’t plant it. Carolyn

  11. It really is funny how people are so quick to malign certain plants, native or hybrid. I show a lot of natural gardens and do very much agree that it really is difficult to design better in many respects. There is so much to learn from nature and everyday think that I do in some small way. Your island is very beautiful and worth preserving, but like you mentioned with the species migrating to it, it really is an uphill battle. I commend you for your effort.

    • Donna, Obviously, my whole two acre display garden is designed, if haphazardly, so I do have a lot invested in designed gardens. My customers are not shopping at my nursery for solely native plants. But there is not much of an ethical dilemma here in southeastern PA because the native habitat is pretty much gone. We can still learn from nature, and incorporate what we have learned into our gardens. Other places natural habitat still exists and it is up to us to appreciate it and conserve it. Though we do have a fight on our hands on Cliff Island, it is a battle that can be won. I wish I could say that about most of the mainland. Carolyn

  12. I am thankful for a post after my own heart, and I know exactly how you feel though my “island” is somewhere else. I am rarely happier than when I am in the natural landscape, be it the mountains, on the shore or in the forest, and to thiink how many people don’t know or appreciate this pleasure.

  13. Happy Thanksgiving, Carolyn. We are blessed to have various types of gardens all around us–especially the untouched beauty of natural places. I’m thankful that I discovered your blog soon after I started blogging myself. Blessings to you and your family.

  14. Happy Thanksgiving Carolyn, nicely written.

  15. Thank you so much for sharing your story about Cliff Island. I also read your post about your oak grove. What a powerful story! It made me aware of so many things! While I naturally lean towards natives because I assume they do better in this area, and I knew about the importance of not planting any invasive plants, I never knew the detrimental effect on wildlife of planting non-natives as opposed to natives.

    I love gardening for wildlife, and now when choosing plants for my garden, I shall be much more aware of this issue. Thank you!

    • Indie, Your comment makes me so happy. Even though I am a pretty experienced horticulturalist, I was in the same place as you–natives are good for vague reasons and invasives are bad–until I read Doug Tallamy’s article and then his book, Bringing Nature Home. That was the first time I really understood the link between native plants, native fauna, and our survival, even though it seems so obvious now. Happy Thanksgiving. Carolyn

  16. Carolyn,
    What a beautiful landscape on the island. It so reminds me of northern Ontario with the bedrock outcroppings and similar plants. I am thankful for people like you who ‘see’ the landscape and have made a difference by organizing volunteers. I agree, it’s hard at times not to feel that the glass is half empty. We may not be able to change everyone’s perception but posts like this will certainly enlighten a few more of the urgency to stop our landscape degradation.
    Thanks for quoting my post.

    • Heather, I just read a post by Cambria on the blog re-nest–abundant designs for green homes called A Thanksgiving Thought: Why I Stopped Obsessing About Being Green that made me focus again on the “half-empty” part of my post. We can’t dwell on half-empty thoughts, but need to accept each moment as it comes and find joy in each small step–the “half-full” side of my post. Cambria quotes a commenter as pointing out that we are all on a journey and some of us are moving faster than others, people make changes when the changes are right for them and when they want to. We need to just put the information out there in a non-threatening way and stand back. Carolyn

  17. Hello Carolyn,
    A beautiful blog – both words and pictures. Such a shame that we in the UK just have “Bank” Holidays’. A “Thanksgiving” holiday might allow more people to reflect a bit more on the simple things in life and the beauty that surround us all in the natural world.
    It’s maybe not quite true, but a lot of ‘the best things in life are free’, and your blog illustrates many of them ….. natural landscapes, light, sunrises, friendships.
    An uplifting piece in these gloomy times. thanks again,

    PS Was inspired as well this week by finding another beautiful and informative blog from the other side of the pond….1003 Gardens from the National Arboretum. Do you know it? Some more inspiring autumnal scenes from the U.S.A.

    • Julian, Thanksgiving really is a special holiday with no strings attached. A time to be with family and friends, to eat delicious home cooked food, and to be thankful. I am so glad you found my post uplifting. I was afraid readers would find it too gloomy, and I wasn’t sure the half-full, half-empty metaphor worked. I found the quotes from Jill and Heather after I wrote the first draft. It is amazing how these things come together. I will be sure and check out the blog you recommended. Thanks, Carolyn

  18. Carolyn, Your photos of Cliff Island are beautiful. When Maine adopted the tourist slogan “The way life should be” a number of years ago, I felt that the subtext was “The way life used to be elsewhere,” that Maine still had vibrant local communities and lots of unspoiled natural beauty.

    But, like you, I worry that the natural treasures will be lost. When I drive into Auburn to do my grocery shopping and see how an area that was mostly open meadows a few years ago has now been turned into a series of big box stores and strip malls reminiscent of Maine Mall road in South Portland (I think of it as the ‘uglification of Auburn’), I want to weep. On the other hand, I think many Mainers have a commitment to preserving Maine’s special beauty. I am heartened by the popularity of the tax-supported ‘Land for Maine’s Future’ fund and by the fact that a proposal to do away with Maine’s billboard ban died for lack of support. And I’ll admit to cheering when someone stole the governor’s “Open for Business” sign from the entrance to the Maine turnpike.

    The work you are doing to educate yourself, educate others and take action to preserve our native natural beauty is important and something that we can all emulate and be thankful for. Happy Thanksgiving!

    • Jean, It is almost more worrisome when there is still some hope as there is in Maine. I am much calmer in PA: after everything is gone, you can stop worrying. Not that I can think of a better alternative, but it seems like our concept of private land ownership will eventually lead to the development of everything. The Native American concept of land manged for the good of the whole including future generations encourages preservation. It means a lot to me that the post resonates with you because you are a more-than-seasonal Mainer. Happy Thanksgiving. Carolyn

  19. Just beautiful and what a landscape to be thankful in! Happy thanksgiving and enjoy the tree planting…

  20. Dear Carolyn, It is so easy to be thankful on your beautiful island. I shared this post with my husband, who often obsesses about what his property, and the area surrounding it, was like in its natural state – before invasive plants and big-box stores took hold. We can only do ‘what we can do’ in our small corner and be thankful for it. Happy Thanksgiving. P. x

    • Pam, Your husband sounds like a great guy. I didn’t really realize what my post meant even after I wrote it. The very thoughtful comments I have received have helped me process my complicated thoughts about Cliff Island. I treasure each small step we take to preserve its natural beauty for future generations. After all, my family has been there for four generations. Carolyn

  21. I had no idea burning bush is invasive. What a beautiful post. It would be so hard for me to leave such an incredible place and return to the chemically dependent yards of suburbia. I love the idea of your invasive plant removal program. I asked the manager of our local nursey why he didn’t carry more natives and he told me his customers thought they weren’t pretty enough. I prefer native landscapes to anything manicured and was really saddened by his response. I’m so thankful for you!!

    • CM, Gardeners don’t generally know native plants, so they don’t ask for them or buy them at nurseries, so nurseries don’t carry them, so gardeners don’t see them, so gardeners don’t know native plants, …. It is a vicious circle. However, I disagree with what the nursery manager told you. With just a little bit of education, my customers are increasingly interested in natives, which we both know are just as if not more beautiful than non-natives. Carolyn

  22. I always get that bittersweet feeling when I spend time on Chebeague. Most of your photos look like they could have been taken there 🙂 I feel so appreciative of the beauty of nature there and yet aware of how precarious the balance is. Invasives, erosion, development all seem to threaten the island. But, yet, on glass half full days, I remind myself to appreciate what is still so beautiful …

    • Sheila, Being on the next island over from Cliff Island, Chebeague Island, Maine, you have perfectly captured my feeling. It all seems so precarious that it is often hard for me to exult in the beauty. I am trying to impress it into my memory because it could all be gone shortly. It is all the more upsetting to me because few people truly understand the urgency, however, I don’t blame them because their lives are focused in other areas. Carolyn

  23. A couple of years ago I was so upset over the blindness of many nearby homeowners to the precarious balance of the island that it almost made me sick (literally). Many years ago, a neighbor decided to drain his low-lying property by digging a ditch through the yard of an absentee homeowner. The ditch emptied out on a sandy bank. Each year the bank erodes by a couple of feet. And then there’s the rampant insecticide use by people within a hundred feet of the shore that teems with lobsters and fish and wading birds … And people who want to build garages 30 feet from the shoreline …. OK, I’m getting wound up again. When I had a spiritual awakening and regained my belief in God, I began to be able to let ago of my need to see the island be preserved. Now I try to be grateful that it came to be, and is still so beautiful. The destruction still bothers me, but I believe and hope in transformation …

  24. Carolyn, I’m so glad to see you planting more oaks. The red oak represents our province here yet they’re rare to see as most were cut down for timber. The first year in our garden we planted a red oak so that hopefully one day others will still get to see this wonderful tree.

  25. I like your new tradition of planting a red oak each year. Here, I do not have to do that, as the squirrels plant plenty for me.Your work on Cliff Island is important, and I hope it will not go unnoticed. I am still shocked at how many gardeners, including professionals, are careless about natives and the ecology they protect and nourish. I think we each have a responsibility to educate within the sphere of our influence. I appreciate your efforts!

  26. Cliff Island, so much to be thankful for and especially having the ability to do so. Such a beautiful place Carolyn. I am also thankful for the natural beauty in Scotland which is abundant and undamaged.

  27. what a peaceful Island, Caroyln. I was born on on an Island, Guernsey in the English Channel, soon to be featured in a movie, The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society. Guernsey can also be achingly beautiful. My father has a place perched above a wooded valley on the edge of the Island’s south coast cliffs. We have much to be thankful for, if only we look around us..

    • Ray, I read that book and can’t wait to see the movie. I hope that they actually filmed it on your gorgeous island. We are both very lucky to be blessed with places like Cliff and Guernsey–I spend much of my time on Cliff focusing on that. Thanks for your lovely comment. Carolyn

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