June 20, 2016

"A Gem Within a Gem"

The Centre School circa 1890.
the fire station in 1953
The first recorded use for the small piece of land in the heart of Chelmford, Massachusetts was as a blacksmith’s shop in the first decade of the 19th Century.  By 1851, the quarter-acre site housed Chelmsford’s central school.  The school was razed in the 1920s and, in the early 1950s, a fire station rose on the site.
But by 2014, the fire station was outdated and, worse, “glued together” to reinforce significant weakening and cracking of the structure, according to Patrick Maloney, co-chairman of the town’s Permanent Building Committee.  At the Chelmsford Town Meeting in November of that year, Maloney’s advice was, “We think it’s best to rip the building down, figure out the use at a future time. Make it another gem within a gem,”
The fire station was demolished in
April 2015
In April 2015, the fire station was torn down, leaving behind a forlorn, rubble-strewn lot. The 7 North Road Committee was established by the town to find the best use for the space.  Options considered were a parking lot, an information center, and the new site for a historic house. 
One community group presented another option: the Chelmsford Garden Club suggested a garden.  The club had done its homework.  While the triangular Town Green was across the street, that park was largely inaccessible because it was hemmed in by busy roads and had little seating or greenery beyond a scattering of trees.  The fire station site, on the other hand, offered the possibility of a more intimate, inviting, and tranquil space.
On September 28, 2015, Chelmsford’s Board of Selectmen unanimously voted in favor of the park idea, and turned over the project to the 79-member club for implementation.
It was about that time that I first heard about the project.  Betty received a phone call from Chelmsford Garden Club member Brenda Lovering, who chaired the committee that was charged with making the park a reality.  A few days later, Betty visited at the site.  She came home and described it as “weeds and rocks, but a terrific location”.  But she also spoke of the group’s determination to marshal the resources to turn that desolate site into a first-rate garden.
The new park was dedicated June 14
Last week - on June 14 - less than nine months after the garden club was handed responsibility for the project, I attended the dedication of the Chelmsford Public Garden.  More than a hundred people were on hand for the event.  The finished (or nearly finished) project is a testament to determination of what a group of “garden club ladies” can accomplish.
First there was the fundraising.  Even the best-endowed garden clubs have finite resources.  Building a park would require a substantial outlay of funds.  Chelmsford’s Town Preservation Committee supplied a portion of the seed money, but the Garden Club canvassed both families and businesses for a more substantial donor base.  The Club’s pitch: you could be a part of something that was beautiful and enduring, and with a positive impact on the community.
The park site highlighted in red.  As
recently as April, this is all there was.
Creating the park meant turning a lunar landscape of rocks and nutrient-free dirt into something hospitable to plants and trees.  Chelmsford’s Department of Public Works (DPW) and an excavation firm hauled away truckloads of compacted debris left over from the fire station, brought in loam, and re-graded the property.  The nearby Google Maps photo shows the site (outlined in red) in April.  The photo shows loam in place, but nothing else done.  That photo is less than two months old.
Before the first trees were planted, the infrastructure needed to be in place.  A fence was built around three sides of the site; and a patio and walkway built from pavers were installed; all done with the Town Preservation Committee providing funding, and local construction firms providing materials at cost.  An irrigation system was installed as was lighting.
Monica Kent
Ultimately, a park’s worth is in its design and its horticulture.  As Monica Kent, another member of the committee said at the dedication, “We were good at choosing eye-catching plants.  We sought expert advice to choose plants that would survive in this location.”
The “landscape design and tree consultant” for the project was Weston Nurseries, which in 2012 had established a satellite garden center in Chelmsford.  When the Mezitt family was approached about the project, they responded enthusiastically and encouraged the Chelmsford staff to be both generous and creative.  Weston’s Jim Connolly and Terry Duffy were the principal liaisons to the project.  Bypassing the standard retinue of park landscaping staples, they proposed a palette of trees and shrubs that would thrive in the site yet offer a bloom calendar that would attract the eye from early April through the last hard frost.
Weston's Terry Duffy (L)
and Jim Connolly, with
an unplanted blueberry
The plant list for the garden is as intelligent as it is a treat for the eye.  A not-too-tall blue spruce (Picea pungens) called 'Fat Albert' welcomes you at the front of the site, and a beautiful 'October Glory' red maple (Acer rubrum) will provide shade for generations of visitors.  A great, underused native, the Oxydendrum, will have showy white racemes of flowers in mid-summer.  There's even a Magnolia 'Elizabeth' to offer beautiful yellow blooms in early spring.  Among shrubs, Weston proposed several natives that should make the park a year-round bird magnet, including an Ilex verticillita 'Red Sprite' with its bright red winter fruit for avians; a Fothergilla 'Blue Shadow' with its vivid, blue-green foliage that turns (and holds well into autumn) to brilliant gold and reds with the change of season; and multiple specimens of highbush blueberries.
Club president
Carolyn Langevin
The dedication was a joyous affair - over-the-top hats were the order of the day -  and was capped not with a ribbon cutting but, rather, the severing of a garland made with greens and flowers.  Afterward, I spoke with Weston's Terry Duffy, who stresses that the park will be a work in progress, and who also credits the landscaping firm of Branches and Blooms for their more than 100 hours of work in planting the greenscape to meet a tight timetable.
“We’re taking a hiatus for the summer,” he said.  “We’ll carefully monitor the traffic the space generates and the patterns it creates, then go back in and add more perennial and ground covers.  This time next year, the space will be fuller and have even more variety.”
At the center of it all:
Committee Chair
Brenda Lovering
Which is to take nothing away from the park as it was on June 14.  What the Chelmsford Garden Club has created is a small wonder: a space that seems destined to be filled with people every day.  To echo those hopeful words of that town official uttered a year and a half ago, it is a gem within a gem.

My congratulations on a job well done.

May 26, 2016

The Coupon

In the first episode of the classic TV drama, “Mad Men”, department store heiress Rachael Mencken is listening to a presentation from Sterling Cooper, a Madison Avenue ad agency.  The year is 1960, an era of rampant sexism.  Pitchman Don Draper gives Ms. Mencken the agency’s best advice: a 10%-off coupon in select ladies’ magazines. 
The part of our property that is not
wetlands - roughly half an acre - is an
enormous planting bed for trees, shrubs
and perennials.  No grass!
Mencken explodes with outrage. “Our store is 60 years old,” she says.  “We share a wall with Tiffany’s.  Honestly, a coupon?”  Smooth-talking Don Draper responds, “Miss Mencken, coupons work.  I think your father would agree with the strategy.”  The equally suave Roger Sterling adds, “It’s not just research.  Housewives love coupons.”
We’re meant to recoil in horror even as we smile smugly from our 21st Century perch: the idea that women could be successfully manipulated by the simple expedient of offering them a coupon.  Today, such a heretical thought would never see the light of day.  Perish the idea!
Well, maybe not exactly or, maybe there has been some kind of role reversal.  Six weeks ago, I found a coupon in my inbox.  It came from one of my favorite nurseries and it offered $20 off of any delivery.  Not off of any plant or shrub… just twenty bucks off of a delivery.
The old mulch is peeled away
down to the underlying loam
Well, it just so happened that Betty and I had been discussing buying leaf mold – those finely chopped-up leaves that have aged a year or more and are perfect for mulching flower beds.  We have something better than flower beds at our new home:  an entire yard – half an acre – that is one enormous shrub, tree, and flower bed.  It consists of eighteen inches of screened loam topped by several inches of mulch and, since last October, a coating of chopped autumn leaves.  Our great idea was to put another inch or two of leaf mold on top of that parfait for even better future soil, impervious to weeds and grass.  We knew we were probably going to buy leaf mold, it was just a matter of where and when.
So, off we went to the nursery, my printed-out coupon in hand.  We went straight to the sample bin of leaf mold.  Great.  Exactly what we wanted.  Ready to order!
Not so fast.  Betty started looking at the other bins.  And especially at the aged leaf and grass compost.  It was jet black, crumbly, and smelled of the good earth. 
The old mulch comes away in
matted chunks that need to be
broken up
“We need this,” Betty told me, letting a handful of black gold trickle through her fingers.  “We have dozens of shrubs still to plant and hundreds of perennials.  This is perfect!”  And so we bought ten cubic yards of compost instead of ten cubic yards of leaf mold. I used my $20 coupon which brought our total purchase price down by about five percent.
Three days later, a truck delivered our ten cubic yards of compost.  Which is when we discovered our strategic error: compost and leaf mold are not the same thing.  Leaf mold is a great insulator; it’s like bark mulch except that it is fluffier and looks nicer.  Compost also looks very nice, but it is a nutrient-rich medium in which to grow things.
Had we purchased leaf mold, we could have raked it over the plantable part of our property, topping the loam and mulch with a fresh insulating layer that, in a year or so, would itself become part of the soil.  Time commitment?  About a day.   Compost, on the other hand, is like adding a layer of super-rich, ready-to-plant soil.  It would also take about a day to spread compost over our yard but, once in place, it would nurture each and every seed that fell on it, be that seed one of grass, weeds, poison ivy, strangler fig, kudzu, or maple trees.
The dark area represents what has been completed to date.
It's roughly five percent of the job.
To put it mildly, that would not be a smart thing to do.  Here’s what we did instead:
Over the course of four weeks, we used about three cubic yards of compost to plant those new shrubs, perennials, and annuals.  Which left us with just seven cubic yards of the stuff.
All the while, we contemplated an alternative – any alternative - to what in our hearts we knew all along was the only possible solution for the other seven cubic yards.
This week, I began what is without a doubt the hardest work I will do all summer.  In five-foot-by-ten-foot strips, I am raking off the top few inches of mulch from our yard… 
No.  That’s not right.  “Raking” is an inaccurate description.  A year after being put down, the bark mulch has begun breaking down into its own, soil-like texture.  It is, in short, now a solid, hard-pressed mat of material.  To remove it, I bang the tines of my steel rake into the mulch and pull up a piece a foot wide and a few inches long, which I then chop into bite-size pieces that resemble what was put down originally.
When the old mulch has been pulled into a pile and the loam below is exposed, I add tubs of compost and spread that compost out to an inch’s thickness.  When that is done I pull the reconstituted mulch back over the top of the compost and loam.  The compost lays atop the soil, gradually enriching it for the next round of shrubs and perennials we will plant.
As of this morning, I had completed work about 400 square feet of our yard.  I have another 8,000 square feet to go.  Gosh, I’ve done five percent of the project! 

Which is exactly what that coupon represented as a discount to the purchase price of the compost that got me into this situation.

April 30, 2016

If You Go to a Flower Show with a Gardener

(With profound apologies to Laura Numeroff)
The heucheras caught her attention
If you go to a flower show with a gardener, she’s going to suggest that the two of you return to the show on Sunday afternoon.  She’ll also suggest you fill the car with empty crates.
When you return to the flower show on Sunday, you’re going to find that she has made a sharp deal with one of the landscape exhibitors to purchase 125 of the heucheras and tiarellas that populated an exhibit she admired.  She’s going to ask you to carry the now-plant-filled crates back to the car.
Tiarellas come home
When you get home, she’ll ask for your help planting the heucheras and tiarellas.  But not right away because it's too cold.  So you'll move them in and out of the garage every day to give them light but protect them at night against frost.  Once they're planted, she’ll also notice that while they make a nice ground cover, she's going to need accent plants.  She’ll ask you to accompany her to a nursery. 
At the nursery, she’ll remember how much money she saved on those heucheras and tiarellas.  She’ll therefore decide that your landscape could also use some fothergilla, viburnum, itea, kalmia, and other native plants.  She’ll ask your advice on which ones look best.  She’ll also ask your help in planting them.
So we needed compost...
All these new plants and ground covers will require compost.  She will order ten cubic yards of compost which will be delivered to the front of your property.  She will ask you to move the eight unused cubic yards of compost to the back of the property.  You will require lots of ibuprofen.
When the new native plants are arrayed around the property, she’ll discover that certain other shrubs, planted the previous year, no longer look attractive in their original locations.  She will ask you to dig them up and re-plant them ten feet away.
Native plants going to a new home
When the new fothergilla, viburnum, itea, kalmia, heucheras, and tiarellas are in place, she will be exceptionally pleased.  She will be so pleased that she will go to a nursery specializing in native perennials and come back with a car laden with dozens of ferns and wildflowers.  She will ask your help in planting them in special locations.  Some of these locations will require digging through what seems like solid granite. 

When the new ferns and wildflowers are planted you will need a long nap.  While you nap, she will bake you a chocolate cake with raspberry filling.  When you awaken from your nap and enjoy a slice of the cake, chances are you will remember that the next flower show is just ten months away.

April 13, 2016

What Sandy McIntyre Saw

What happens at a presentation of "Gardening Is Murder"?  Yesterday I was at an event where garden clubs have the opportunity to meet with prospective speakers.  One club program chairman came up to my table and, with an arched eyebrow, said, "I've heard you're very funny, but what exactly do you do?"  I stammered out an answer and the the club officer made a note on her copy of my brochure.  The look on her face did not convey whether I'll be getting a call.

Last evening, an email arrived bearing a wonderful gift: a first-person account of my speaking at the Manchester (Mass.) Garden Club back in January.  Originally intended for the club's newsletter, it is so delightfully written that I am taking the opportunity to reprint it here.
                                     *  *  *  *  *  *  *
Men’s Night at the Manchester Garden Club
by Angus (Sandy) McIntyre
Hanging out before the meeting with
spouses of members of the MGC
(all photos by Sandy McIntyre)
Thursday evening, January 14, I had the great pleasure of attending the Garden Club Meeting as Jeannie McIntyre’s husband, charged with attending, observing, taking pictures(?!), and later, writing it up, as she was busy with another meeting that evening.  Not withstanding the difficulty in finding a parking spot in Manchester, I arrived at close to the appointed hour of 6:30 p.m. to find Trask House in full swing with a room full of lively conversation and a truly sumptuous spread of baked ham, cheeses, and many other treats.  Huddled in a corner by the wine table I also found a group of other husbands in their own conversation and occasionally glancing around somewhat furtively, as though uncertain who might recognize them and whether it was all right to be seen at a Garden Club meeting.
Signing books in Manchester.
That's Betty on the right.
At the end of the social hour, we were treated to an engaging presentation by Neal Sanders, husband of Betty Sanders, President of the Garden Club Federation of Massachusetts.  He regaled us with tales of his life as an assistant gardener, helping maintain two acres of suburban gardens at the Sanders home. Then somehow he managed to segue into his new career as a writer of murder mysteries.  He started off by getting the men engaged, asking who could come up with the Latin name for the Eastern Forest Redbud.  One of the men had the correct answer of “Cercis canadensis,” which elicited murmurs of surprise and approval from the ladies.  However suspicions were raised when a second question was again answered by one of the men, eliciting accusations from several of the ladies (befitting a Garden Club meeting) of, “he’s a plant!”
The Garden Club Gang
As Neal then laid out for us, it seems that the main role of an assistant gardener is to dig holes and move rocks.  As we all know, the New England soil is full of rocks, and furthermore, the small obstruction you hit with your shovel a few inches into the soil may only be “the tip of the iceberg.”  There was also “the rule of threes.”  Any new plant brought home will, in the course of finding a new spot for it in the garden, require that three other plants be relocated. We heard about how to sift through 5 million responses to a Google search when seeking gardening advice on the internet.  Finally, he talked about battles with varmints, including a slug infestation, and, of course, a battalion of squirrels attacking his composter, illustrated with a reconnaissance photo of a squirrel with an Army helmet, flack jacket, field binoculars, and a bazooka.
From this, Neal shifted into murder mysteries, his new career.  It was rather a leap, but he did point out that he got some of his best ideas from the garden (I hope not literally.)  We heard about some of the plots and the characters from “The Garden Club Gang” and “Murder in the Garden Club” and others.  I was so intrigued, I had to purchase one of his books, which he duly autographed for me.
Jeannie and Sandy McIntrye
So concluded a delightful evening.  I did manage to get a few pictures and my only regret is not getting more raffle tickets.  It was a wonderful way to spend a few hours and get a glimpse of what my wife is up to.  I gather that opening up the meeting to husbands was a first for the Garden Club.  I for one will be waiting for another invitation to attend, and I would encourage all other spouses out there, if the opportunity arises, not to miss it.  You might come home with a new novel, a recipe for iron phosphate to eliminate slugs, or even a raffle prize.
Angus McIntyre

                                * * * * * * *
I would add just one memorable moment to a very memorable evening.  Roughly the fourth time a male member of the audience correctly produced the correct Linnaean form for a shrub (Quercifolia angustifolia for the oak leaf hydrandgea), the man's wife said to him, quite loudly, "There's no way you know that!"  Immediately thereafter, a woman in the back the room said (accurately), "I think we've been punked."

April 11, 2016

Creative Synergy

Fitchburg, Massachusetts is one of those small New England cities that boomed with the first three-quarters of the 20th Century but has struggled in recent years.  Its largest employer decamped in 1998 for cheaper labor and taxes, taking 4,000 industrial jobs with it.  Too far (48 miles) from Boston to be a commuter suburb, Fitchburg – population 42,000 – has had to reinvent itself.
Fitchburg retains architectural charm
Reinvention is aided mightily when a town preserves the best of its architecture from its heyday.  It is beneficial when those industrial barons from a century ago were collectors of art and bequeathed their collections to local museums.  And it is a decided plus to have a garden club with a half-century-long illustrious history and a mission that is heavy on “giving back” to the community.
I saw these disparate elements come together on Friday evening, when I accompanied my wife, Betty, to the reception for the 18th “Art in Bloom” at the Fitchburg Art Museum.  There, 36 works of art – paintings, sculptures, tapestries, photographs – had been interpreted by members (and invited non-members) of the Laurelwood Garden Club.
It was a festive evening: 200 invited guests imbibed above-average wine and seriously good hors d’oeuvres while listening to a jazz band.  The mayor was there; Fitchburg’s state representative was in attendance as were a goodly number of the Museum’s Board of Trustees.  In short, this was a serious event.  Betty was there
A small part of the Art in Bloom reception
because she is President of the state Garden Club Federation (of which Laurelwood is a member) and, as an accredited floral design judge, she had been asked to select one entry for a “best in show” blue ribbon. 
The premise of an “Art in Bloom” is fairly well understood (I explored it last month in “Reaching Out”).  The “art” half of the equation can be anything from grade school drawings to the multimedia creation of an honors student or a Picasso blue nude.  The “bloom” side of the ledger is a garden club member being assigned (or choosing) a piece of art and creating a floral design inspired by it.  The two stand together for everyone to see for form their own judgement about whether the interpreter “got it”.
One of the Triiibe pieces.  The curly
willow branches in the floral
interpretation seem to flow into the
photo triptych
Two things set Fitchburg’s “Art in Bloom” apart from its peers.  The first was the art.  The museum is light on Picassos, blue or otherwise.  But it has an energetic and imaginative loan program.  One of exhibits, called “Triiibe: Same Difference” spans multiple galleries and employs life-size photos, videos, and props to make its frequently satirical points about equality, gender, and politics.  You might think that “garden club ladies” would steer well away from such topical art.  You would be wrong.  Museum Director Nick Capasso told me the 14 artworks chosen for interpretation in the Triiibe exhibit were the most coveted slots. 
Another of the Triiibe pieces.  The
floral design at left interprets the
visible artwork.  An interpretation
of a different work is at right.
Similarly, a photography gallery filled with both vintage and modern silver gelatin prints drew a rush for entries.  Black-and-white photos do not immediately lend themselves to floral interpretation.  Do you follow a monochrome palette?  Do you fall back on a pavé design that stays true to the image in front of you?  The short answer is that none of the designers played it safe.
The second thing that makes Fitchburg’s program noteworthy is synergy.  Last year’s “Art in Bloom” drew 1300 visitors to the museum, making it the highest attendance weekend of the year.  Director Capasso said he agreed only to “take a test drive” about the event when he arrived at the museum four years ago.  Today, he is fully on board.  “There is so much creative energy,” was his summing-up comment.

I’m in awe of what the Laurelwood Garden Club did, as well as the resources – people and organizational – devoted to the project by the Fitchburg Art Museum.  It is very rare for two institutions collaborating on a once-a-year project to have such a profound and tangibly beneficial effect on one another.  Kudos to both.

April 2, 2016

Why I Know It's Spring...

Gardeners determine the first day of spring in many ways.  Some see a robin or hear a woodpecker and think to themselves, “Spring is here”.  Others mark it by spotting crocus, dandelions, or daffodils.  The evening serenade of marsh peepers from the nearest vernal pool has its own cheering section.
Crocuses are one way...
I brook no argument with those milestones, but I have my own:  the first day of spring is when the fence goes up for our vegetable garden.  Last year, the Winter That Would Not End did not give way to spring until May 2.  This year, that date was March 26.  What a difference a year makes.
A good garden
needs a trench
While the process has changed, for us, putting up that fence is a tradition that goes back decades. Once upon a time, the fence raising was preceded by rototilling the garden plot – a day-long process in and of itself.  For the past ten years, though, our vegetables have been grown in one plot of an acre-size garden and the town has thoughtfully provided the tilling service as part of our community garden fee.
Anyone who thinks a fence is just hastily-put-up stakes and netting has never had the experience of coming out to see everything in their garden chewed to oblivion by burrowing varmints.  Our fence begins with wielding a sledge hammer to pound ten stakes 18 inches into the ground, and it followed by the digging of a trench at least six inches around the perimeter of the site.  In a 600-square-foot site, that one task consumes an hour or more. 
The first six inches of the fence
is below ground to deter varmints
Only when the trench is done does the four-foot, half-inch mesh fence get affixed to the posts.  Rocks are added along the fence line to further deter would-be subterranean intruders.  The top of the fence is secured to the steel stakes and tightened where needed.  Four hours after the process began, the gate is installed.
Betty’s seeds arrived months ago (she orders early every year to ensure getting everything she wants).  The seed packages, in turn, get arranged and re-arranged on the dining room table as the layout for the garden takes shape, and a few elements of the garden don’t wait for the fence.  Leek seeds went into egg-carton incubators in mid-March, for example.
The fence is up and peas are in
We also have the complication that we’ve created two small raised beds at our new home.  The beds total just 64 square feet, but we’re starting spinach and lettuce in them with the idea of making that our “kitchen” garden while leaving the community plot for corn, squash, and other space-hogging vegetables.
But as soon as the fence was up, Betty was planting a row of peas and otherwise working the soil inside our plot to make it ready for the onslaught of planting that will come as the month progresses.
Outside Farnham's on the Essex River
Five hours after we started, we had a fence, a gate, and our first crop in place.  We celebrated by driving up to the North Shore for our first plate of fried clams and onion rings of the season at J.T. Farnham’s. 

Which, of course, raises the possibility that the beginning of spring may also have something to do with eating beach food…

March 21, 2016

Reaching Out

March is a great month for garden club “outreach” – a time when clubs can tangibly point to their deep ties within the communities from which they draw their membership.  Outreach can take many forms, but the common factor is that a lot of people are drawn into an event where the club’s fingerprints are everywhere.  I’ve been to three such events so far this month.
On March 19, Betty and I journeyed up to Topsfield to see the third annual installment of the “Grow Spring! Expo”.  Here’s the top-level impression:  Holy Cow!
I was at the first Expo two years ago.  It was a fine undertaking organized by the Topsfield Garden Club: a dozen or so exhibits, mostly non-profits, built around environmental awareness and enhanced gardening knowledge.  It drew about 150 people.  The second installment coincided with the Winter That Would Not End and the 100 miles round trip was beyond our endurance on a snowy weekend.  We reluctantly took a pass.
Inside the Emerson Center.  Photo
credit: Eric Roth.  Double-click for
a full-screen slideshow.
I knew something was up this year when a professionally-produced flyer arrived announcing the event.  It promised “a celebration of local agriculture, horticulture, and environmental preservation.”  It would feature a farmers’ marketplace, wine and beer tastings, antique farm equipment, crafts, and horticultural experts.  Moreover, what had been an undertaking by the Topsfield Garden Club was now also sponsored by the Topsfield Historical Society and the Essex County Agricultural Society.  Previously confined to the historic Emerson Center on Topsfield’s town green, the event would now spill over to the nearby Gould Barn*. 
Want to grow a one-ton pumpkin?
These guys could tell you how.
(Photo credit: Eric Roth)
We arrived at 1 p.m. to find every conceivable parking space spoken for, a long array of antique tractors on display, and crowds moving between exhibits in the Emerson Center and food, craft beer, and local wine tasting in the barn.  The Grow Spring! Expo had gone big time.
Topsfield Garden Club President Martha Morrison told me that by bringing in the two co-sponsors, the Expo gained an added dimension.  The vintage tractor lineup came via a contact through the Historical Society, a group that grows giant pumpkins (and attracted a gaggle of children) is a member of the Essex Agricultural Society.  Each group ran an expansive campaign to turn out the public using social media, posters, and newspaper publicity.
Bees are essential to pollination.  The
Essex County Beekeepers Assn. was
represented at the Expo..  (Photo
credit: Eric Roth)
But while the event was colorful and fun, it was the unbridled expertise to be found in the individual exhibits that set the Expo apart.  For example, an unassuming man named Jim MacDougall seemed to inhabit both a Conservation Commission booth and an exhibit for an organic farm.  He held court on the subject of invasive plants; a subject that normally flies under the radar of people not already attuned to their threat. His explanations were crisp and compelling.  I later learned he is a highly respected biodiversity consultant, lending his expertise for the morning to a worthy cause.
Another person drawing a crowd was Edith Ventimiglia.  She spoke on environmental education to adults, then offered on-the-spot mini-lessons to children.  It should come as no surprise that she is an area science teacher, and that she also helped create the curriculum for the Massachusetts Audubon Society’s Ipswich River Nature Pre-School in Wenham.  That’s just a sampling of the level of professionalism that was on display.
Outside, there were vintage tractors
The Expo drew more than 675 adults during its five-hour run, plus what seemed like every child within a twenty-mile radius of Topsfield.  The organizers have already been given suggestions for next year’s event, including a tractor-drawn hay wagon to ferry visitors between buildings.
Trying to find the one person – or even one organization - to whom to give principal credit for the event turned into a finger-pointing exercise.  Martha Morrison pointed to Topsfield Garden Club Vice President Kindra Clineff (who at least acknowledged that she created the poster).  I now have an inbox full of names of people and ancillary organizations (including Green Topsfield), each of which seem to have been instrumental to the event’s success.
* * * * * *
Needham Art in Bloom
paired floral designers
with gifted high school
art students
 “Art in Bloom” programs have become staples among Boston area clubs over the past two decades.  The “ur” event of this type is held at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts where, four decades ago, a group of garden club members were invited to pair their floral designing talents with selected pieces from the MFA’s permanent collection.  The event (opening this year on April 30) had become a three-day extravaganza of high-profile speakers and master-class workshops (you can learn more about it here). 
Being asked to participate is an honor.  Those chosen have no voice in the artwork they will interpret.  A wonderful older lady of my acquaintance – with a strong Catholic school upbringing – was presented with a famed Picasso “Two Blue Nudes”.  In her words, she “made it work”.
Floral designers
captured the color and
rhythm of artwork
The success of MFA’s Art in Bloom has spawned dozens of similarly named events across the region. A few, such as Fitchburg, tie their programs to local art museums.  Most look to the art programs in area schools.  In early March, I attended Needham’s “Art in Bloom 2016” at the Needham Public Library.
The Needham event, now in its eighth year, is sponsored by Beth Shalom Garden Club but draws designers from multiple clubs.  The art – 59 pieces in all - is provided by Needham High School and showcases the breadth of art education in the town.  Needham High offers AP-level classes in drawing and painting, photography, ceramics, computer graphics and animation, and crafts. It requires at least an hour to see and appreciate the range of projects created by the students, and to take in the floral designs that accompany them. 
In Canton, floral
designers interpreted
art from all grades.
A week later, we were at Canton’s Pequitside Farm to see “Artists in Bloom”.  There, the Canton Garden Club and Canton Public Schools have collaborated on a very different project. Instead of drawing solely from high school students, there were more than 250 pieces of artwork from more than 150 students representing every grade level.  Thirty pieces were selected at random to be interpreted by Canton Garden Club members.
I had the opportunity to spend time with Joyce Stenmon, Visual Arts Program Coordinator for Canton Public Schools.  She told me “Artists in Bloom” is an opportunity to visually demonstrate that art is universal.  The art is placed cheek by jowl in four rooms, with the interpreted pieces spaced every few feet.  The effect is joyous and raucous, made all the more so by the fact that the building was full of children and adults there to see their creations on display.  The event drew more than 300 adults (who paid a nominal admission fee) and more children than anyone could count.  I came away with a keener sense of the value of art’s role in 21st Century education.
* * * * * *
Suffice it to say that garden clubs are the sum of their parts (meaning their members), but those “parts” are often extraordinary.  People join garden clubs because of an interest in gardening or floral design or horticulture, but they bring with them a wealth of skills, plus the skills of spouses or partners.  The skills may be creative (photography, design), business (finance, management), educational (teaching, consulting), or technical (science, engineering).  Pulling off a feat like the two Art in Bloom programs or Grow Spring! Expo requires multiple talents and extraordinary coordination. 
Each club deserves all the accolades they have undoubtedly received.  Great work!
*  As a purely personal side note, walking into the Gould Barn was a step back into my own history.  It was the place where, in September 2013, I gave my first presentation of 'Gardening Is Murder'.  What an incredible journey!

February 29, 2016

Spring Ahead

The scene exactly one year ago.  We
had run out of places to put snow.
What a difference a year makes.  In early March of 2015 we were desperately looking for places to put snow around our house and driveway.  Our roof groaned under more than three feet of solidly packed snow (our skylights would reap our failure to take action).  Meanwhile, alongside the Convention Center in South Boston, a snow mountain 70 feet tall had taken up residence. Its lease would not expire until the middle of July. 
This year the ground
is bare and we are
days away from
having crocuses.
On the last days of February 2016, Betty and I created a stupendous pile of broken pine and oak branches from the month’s twin storms – rain- and wind-driven rather than snow – while treading carefully to avoid sinking into mud on the paths around our home.  In picking one branch I uncovered the dark green of crocus foliage; with flowers to follow by mid-month.  Snow?   Yes, we remember it snowing this winter.  Vaguely. 
This El Niño winter is giving us a much-needed head start on completing the landscaping we began last summer.  Then, the later-than-expected completion of our home and unplanned requirement for replacing a quarry’s worth of loose rock with usable topsoil meant that, by the time we were ready to start landscaping, the “good” trees we wanted were out of stock.  Rather than put in second-choice saplings, we left empty spaces.
You can still see the carnage caused
by a mid-February storm.  This is
our neighbor's property.
Now the problem, naturally, is that the nurseries we favor won’t have in their stock of trees and shrubs until mid-March.  We have a shopping list.  (Boy, do we have a shopping list.)  Betty spent the winter reading up on recent introductions of native plant cultivars.  As a result, what was once a quest for the perfect forest pansy redbud (cercis canadensis) has broadened into wanting to inspect a gold-leafed variation on that hardy native tree before settling on the one that will occupy a place of honor in front of our house.  Multiply that example by four trees, 40 shrubs, and an army of perennials, and you get a sense of what is our future by way of choices – and work once the choices are made.
Our "lawn" is a parfait of
chopped leaves and mulch.
There is also a “small” question about what surrounds those trees and shrubs.  The default choice at most homes is, of course, a grass lawn.  We’re holding fast to our principled decision regarding a lawn-free property.  Last summer we spread a thick covering of bark mulch over our topsoil, with packed-soil pathways separating beds.  At the end of autumn, we begged fifty bags of leaves from our neighbors and mowed those leaves into a fine mulch.  This spring, we’ll rototill those two mulches into the top few inches of soil, then top that parfait with leaf mold.  This is what comes from adhering to principles.

But early spring is also for dreaming.  If you're reading this and you live in New England, your best way of kick-starting those dreams is to head for the Boston Flower & Garden Show.  If I’ve learned one thing over the years, it is that no two editions of the Flower Show are alike.  Each one brings new ideas, new gadgets, new things to gawk at.  You'll come away with some new vision of how to make your garden a more interesting place.
Oh, and if you're at the show on Friday, March 18th, I'll be speaking at 11:30 a.m. on the lecture stage with 'Gardening Will Kill You'.  Betty follows at 1:30 p.m. with her 'Dirt on Your Hands, Soil in Your Garden' talk.

February 2, 2016

Seeds of Expectation

Before I get carried away, let me be clear about one thing.  We’re talking about packets of seeds.  Seeds that cost about a buck fifty for a paper packet containing somewhere between a dozen and 500 seeds.  Starbucks would not swap you a tall decaf mocha latte for four packets of seeds, no matter how you declaim their virtues.
Our 2016 seed order arrived last week.
Double-click for a full-screen view.
But virtues they are.  After you consume that latte, all you’ll have to show for it is an empty cup.  Plant those seeds and you can harvest a season’s worth of Parisian carrots or Tom Thumb butterhead lettuce.  And, talk about bargains, the value of that $1.50 seed package multiplies tenfold, or even a hundredfold.  Case in point: Butternut squash is going for $1.59 a pound at my local supermarket this week.  We’ve been eating our 2015 crop of squash since October and still have a dozen specimens in the basement with a current retail value of more than thirty dollars.
I offer that prologue because, last week, two boxes arrived in our mailbox.  They contained our vegetable and flower seeds for the spring of 2016. 
Betty began poring over seed catalogs in late November (their arrival coincided with the last turkey sandwich made from our Thanksgiving dinner).  We receive more than a dozen such catalogs each year; the ones from which she might order is a small subset of what arrives in the mailbox.  What the semifinalists have in common is that their seeds are grown for a northern climate.  “One size fits all” seed companies need not apply.
The mark-up of the seed
catalogs is a wonder to behold
Betty’s markup of these catalogs is a wonder to behold.  There are bold “X” marks through descriptions that, to my untutored eye, look like great choices.  What, exactly, is wrong with Crosby Egyptian beets?  Some varieties are circled once; others, like Maximillian sunflowers, have multiple bold rings.
Looking through the seed packets now on hand (there are more than 50), there are a few surprises.  For example, we will grow five kinds of beets this year.  Why five?  Flavor, days to maturity, and an interest in trying some new introductions without jeopardizing the main crop.
This year will also mark a momentous turn in our gardening practices.  For more than a decade we have been part of a community garden in our town.  We have had a 600 square foot plot, tilled by the town and overspread with composted manure.  All we had to do was fence and plant our little bit of horticultural heaven.
Our new raised beds give us the option
of gardening at home.
We’ll still have that community garden space but, this year, we’ll augment our real estate by ten percent.  This past autumn I built a pair of raised-bed gardens in the sunniest part of our property.  Each is four feet by eight feet for a total of 64 square feet.  The nifty part of the beds is that when I say ‘raised bed’ I mean beds where the soil line is 30 inches above the surrounding ground.  Most raised beds are up about a foot.  Ours can be worked while sitting on the wooden rail around the garden – or even standing.
And the beauty of a raised bed is that there is not a square inch of wasted space.  There are no ‘aisles’ with a raised bed.  We will plant from board to board and start as soon as the soil is warm enough to germinate early spring crops.  We can even artificially warm the soil with row covers.  Perhaps best of all, picking lettuce for a lunch or dinner salad now will mean a quick walk outside rather than a two-mile drive.
Those seeds are a harbinger of the coming season.  The days are lengthening.  Those seeds are tangible proof that winter’s end is within sight. 

Well, at least it’s a glow on the horizon.  

January 2, 2016

Oh, Useful Christmas Tree

At our old home, trees soared
to fouteen fee
I believe in Christmas trees with a zeal only a convert can possess.  Having grown up in South Florida in an era when the idea of flying in fresh-cut Nova Scotia firs was the stuff of science fiction, my family made do with Scotch pines that had already lost half their needles before they appeared the day after Thanksgiving at the Lions Club lot.
Since migrating to New England some 35 years ago, I have become a connoisseur of fresh-cut trees, able to discuss the particular merits of Frasers and concolor firs, balsams, and spruces.  I believed in soaring trees: for 16 years, our trees rose as high as our cathedral ceiling would allow; some years more than 14 feet.  Whatever their height, our trees fill our home with the wonderful scent that only a Christmas tree can bring.
This year's tree had to fit under an 8'
ceiling, but what it lacked in height
it made up for in girth
This Christmas was our first in our new home.  The vaulted ceiling of our old home has been supplanted by an energy-efficient eight-foot one.  So, naturally, we traded height for girth.  The Fraser fir that came into our home on December 18 had branches that stretched an improbable four feet from the trunk at it base, giving the tree an eye-popping circumference of 25 feet.  It took seven strings - 900 lights - to satisfy Betty that there were no gaps in its brilliance.
Our trees are the history of our lives, from my baby shoes and delicate ornaments from the 1930s handed down from Betty’s family, to a wealth of travel mementos repurposed as decorations.  Boxes bearing tiny bells and crystal icicles still bear the name of long-vanished stores - B. Altmans, Woodward & Lothrop - where they were purchased decades ago at prices that seem to be missing a digit.
But a Christmas tree is an ephemeral visitor.  Some friends, especially those with young children, keep their tree lighted beyond Twelfth Night.  In our home, the tree goes up a week before Christmas and comes down on New Year’s Day.  Regardless of the duration, though, the tree must eventually make its exit.
The lower boughs now protect a
slumbering hosta garden, among
other places
For our trees, those two weeks of glory are just a stage in a longer journey.  On the appointed morning after our tree has been ‘de-consecrated’ of its ornamentation but still in its stand in our home, I bring in a pair of sturdy loppers and begin cutting off those lower branches (an enormous sheet of plastic is a necessity). 
The branches are dispersed to insulate perennials and low-growing shrubs.  They offer a layer of protection from unwanted sun and its resulting harmful freeze-thaw cycles.  They lessen the impact of frost heaves and unwelcome animal visitors.  This year, the lower four feet of our tree yielded some 30 branches that were deployed to all corners of our property.  At our old home, we scavenged trees from up and down our street to cover our extensive perennial beds.  As our new garden grows, so may we return to that tradition.
The upper four feet will provide
an avian wind break and shelter
After the lower boughs were removed there remained another lush four feet of tree with thick branches.  We left those on the still-eight-foot trunk and placed the tree at the edge of the wetlands behind us.  Almost all of the trees in our wetlands are deciduous; the lone evergreens are thin white pines.  Our Christmas tree will serve as a refuge for birds seeking shelter from wind, rain, and snow. 

In April, we will collect the fir boughs and take them to our town’s transfer station where they will be chipped into mulch.  A month later, as the remaining fir loses its needles, that remnant, too, will begin its final journey.