A breath of spring coming to the library for next Friday Night Dialogues

Winter may still have us in its tight grasp, but Tim Purtell will be giving us a glimpse of spring on Friday, Jan. 24, at 7 p.m. when he speaks on “Gardening for Life: How to Create a Haven for the Birds and Bees” at the next of the library’s Friday Night Dialogues.

 An avid amateur gardener who tends a small plot in the Heights, Mr. Purtell likes to use his garden as an educational tool, encouraging other homeowners to expand their landscaping palette beyond grassy (and water hungry) lawns, typical foundation plantings and the tried and true northeast perennial options of roses and hydrangeas. He advocates adding plants to the landscape that attract beneficial wildlife, particularly birds, bees and butterflies and that also expand the biodiversity of the area. Using photos, Mr. Purtell will talk about how he has created his garden and what he has learned -— and continues to learn — in tending it. “I don’t have a lot of land so the idea was to pack in as many plants as possible to supply food for insects. Because of the insects, berries and nuts…we also have lots of birds. And aside from being a rich, diverse environment, the garden also needed to be a pleasure to look at and live with.”

In choosing his plants, he literally started at ground level, favoring those that worked well in his wind-buffeted plot with its sandy, fast-draining soil, rather than trying to make major amendments to the terrain. His choices included species such as shadbush trees, beach plum, bayberry, sweetfern, native grasses, butterfly weed, mountain mints, asters and prickly pear. “Many of these plants are fine with drought and most are deer-resistant,” two key attributes on Shelter Island. “I envy homeowners with ‘better’ soil, but I fortunately happen to like scrubby, tough ecosystems,” he said. An example of such a “scrubby” area can be found along the first Ram Island causeway which abounds in prickly pear cacti. “Occasionally I’m tempted to plant something that needs coddling but it usually doesn’t work out,” he admits.

Aside from marrying plants to their habitats, Mr. Purtell is passionate about maintaining and expanding our biodiversity. This is a particularly fraught issue on Shelter Island, where, due to the heavy deer predation, homeowners have narrowed their selection of landscaping plants to the few that are mostly immune to grazing. “We live in a world of shrinking habitats,” he said, “which is as serious a problem as climate change. We can be concerned about the destruction of rainforests but ignore how our common landscape choices diminish diversity where we live.”

Like most passionate gardeners, Mr. Purtell has his share of “muses” who have influenced and inspired him over the years. He particularly credits Sara Stein, the author of “Noah’s Garden” in helping him rethink the purpose of a garden as something more than just decorative. “As it happens, Stein summered on Vinalhaven, Maine, an island I’ve visited for years,” he recalled. As a result of this book, he found himself attracted to native shrubs, grasses and flowering perennials, particularly in the wild areas and preserves of Maine, Long Island and Florida. Other key influences have been Manhattan’s High Line and its designer, Piet Oudolf; Doug Tallamy, an entomologist who promotes the importance of native plants to insects, and the designer Ken Druse, among others.

Mr. Purtell is a former journalist who now lives full time on the Island. He is president of the Shelter Island Friends of Trees, serves on two town committees and writes a periodic column on trees and shrubs in the Reporter. 

Come learn how you can make small changes in your landscape to increase our biodiversity and appeal to bees, butterflies and birds. The event starts at 7 p.m. in the library’s community room. Reservations are appreciated, as are donations, though the talk is free. For more information on this program and others, stop by or call the library at 631-749-0042.

Next up: Friday, Feb. 14, at 7 p.m. Katherine and John Moore will be reading short pieces on a Valentine’s Day theme as part of a Readers Theater Program.