Buffers, Verges and Roadsides

Buffers, Verges and Roadsides - The Look of Our Streetscape by Susan Dumaine
From the Weston Land Trust Newsletter March, 1998
I've lived in Weston long enough to watch our self appraisal of the town's character belatedly adjust from "rural" to a more realistic "semi-rural." Truthfully, that, too, is about 10 years behind the times, as our streetscapes become every day more suburban. We fence and hedge, creating endless dark canyons. We hire people to install the few plant species we know, all lovingly bedded in expanses of shredded bark mulch. We hire these same people to blow off and carry away all of the fallen leaves so that the bark mulch will look pristine and cared for. Where is the "semi-rural" in that?

Left to its own devices, nature is often too messy for comfort, but there are alternatives to look-alike roadside landscapes. These alternatives can offer the same screening and beautifying attributes we want and need between our homes and the road, while revealing the rugged qualities of our older stone walls where they exist. The alternatives may require that we support less lawn area in order to grow masses of screening shrubs of varying heights, or that we undertake the eradication of surplus quantities of prolific fast growing species such as ash or Norway maples that threaten to force asunder those walls. They do require that we open our minds to the utilitarian and ornamental possibilities of native trees, shrubs and ground covers. Many of these native species are not household words, but all are available in the trade and valuable for use in the right spot in residential landscapes.
Plants and Grass
Forrest Road
Since they are (or once were) highly disturbed sites, roadsides offer nature an open invitation for rapid colonization. There is usually reasonable sunlight and enough runoff water to support quick growth of whatever opportunistic seeds arrive. Sometimes this results in handsome plant communities appropriate to both their site and our region.

A personal favorite, seen along most of our major highways, is the dark spires of eastern red cedar within a groundcover of tall fescue or little bluestem. In wetter dips that picture is enlivened during the winter by stems of red twig dogwood. What makes this combination pleasing is the contrast between the dark, dominant conical forms and the sweeping carpet of winter tanned grasses. In residential situations, particularly newer subdivisions, this combination might be broadened to include low maintenance suckering shrubs such as 'Grow-Low' sumac, yellow root, Virginia rose, low bush blueberry or sweet fern. Planted in masses, each provides a different textural value at every season. As a bonus, the blueberry, sumac, rose and yellow root add brilliant fall color to the landscape. If evergreen groupings are wanted, we can again look to dry sites along our highways for successful models and add laurel and inkberry to the palette.

Using native plants along Weston roads is not a new concept. We still have the remnants of a highly distinctive and beautiful roadside planting of native trees and shrubs along the south side of the Post Road By-pass from Goldenball Road to School Street. Now overgrown with buckthorn, the site includes native species such as groves of laurel and massing of pink shell and flame azaleas, white flowering dogwood, and shadblow, all staged against a curtain of red maple. If you look, you can still catch vestiges of the parade of interest it once provided and perhaps get ideas for your own roadsides and property lines. I wonder if there once were irregular drifts of herbaceous ground covers such as ostrich fern, may apple or hayscented fern linking the major plantings, or perhaps massings of flowering and fruiting natives including heart leaf aster or false Solomon's seal. They would have supplied wonderful rhythms, something bark mulch, in whatever color, can never do.

I once read "We conserve what we love, we love what we understand, we understand what we are taught." Clearly, we love our lichen-encrusted fieldstone walls, our tree-shaded roadsides, the occasional expansive views into open fields. As a community, we need to teach each other to understand this "semi-rural" landscape and what is needed to preserve it.

Botanical names of plants in this article, in order of appearance in the text:
  • ash Fraxinus pennsylvanica
  • Norway maple Acer platinoides
  • eastern red cedar Juniperus virginiana
  • tall fescue Festuca elatior
  • little bluestem Schizachirium scopularum
  • red twig dogwood Fraxinus pennsylvanica
  • 'Gro-low' sumac Rhus aromatica
  • yellow root Xanthorhiza simplicissima
  • Virginia rose Rosa virginiana
  • low bush blueberry Vaccinium angustifolium
  • sweet fern Comptonia peregrina
  • laurel Kalmia latifolia
  • inkberry Ilex glabra
  • buckthorn Rhamnus sp.
  • pink shell azalea Rhododendron vaseyi
  • flame azalea Rhododendron calendulaceum
  • shadblow Amelanchier species
  • red maple Acer rubrum
  • ostrich fern Matteuccia struthiopteris
  • mayapple Podophyllum peltatum
  • hayscented fern Dennstaedtia punctilobula
  • heart leafed aster Aster cordifolius
  • false Solomon's seal Smilacena recemosa