September 3, 2014

Seeing Our Garden Through the Eyes of a Stranger

I spent much of Labor Day putting in a new faucet in our kitchen.  It isn’t that there was anything wrong with the old one; it certainly worked well enough.  But we are told by reliable sources that white is out and brushed nickel (or some such metal) is in and a prospective buyer may feel more favorably disposed toward our home if the faucet in our very nice kitchen keeps up the standard of the rest of the room. 

In early April, we have the same
verdant lawn as the ones in the videos
And so, on a day that was supposed to be devoted to celebrating our progress out of the darkness of sweatshops and inhumane working conditions, I spent five hours on my back staring at the underside of a sink cursing myself that I failed to take Shop in the eighth grade.  I am convinced that fourteen-year-old boys have a Home Repair gene surgically activated in that class.  I have never mastered the repair and replacement of plumbing and electrical items.  It is one of my many failings.  Instead, I got the job done with Betty’s admirable and patient assistance.  But it is a half a day my life I will never get back.

However, what is going on inside our home – which will formally go on the market at the end of September – pales by comparison to what is underway in our garden.  (Double-click on any of the photos to get a full-screen slideshow.)

By mid-summer, though,
there's no mistaking that
this is a 'serious' garden
We have been looking at on-line tours of homes in Medfield these last few days.  Each home in these videos is perfect.  There are pink frilly bedrooms for girls with names like Annabelle and triumphant at-home offices for high-achieving executives (a framed Tom Brady jersey is a staple in each one).  We are told that, while the actual rooms in each home are used, the furnishings are brought in to achieve a ‘feeling’ and ‘tell a story’ that will appeal to a certain kind of buyer.  Those ‘stories’ are entirely the product of the imagination of someone called a ‘stager’.  If there is a young girl living in the home, her name is not likely to be Annabelle, even though that name is stenciled on the wall.  The stencil, along with the Tom Brady jersey, will disappear into a van as soon as the photos are taken.

But along with those autographed jerseys, those home have one other standout feature in the videos:  large verdant lawns with meticulously clipped shrubs and a few standard-issue trees.  The grounds around the home are real, even if the contents inside it are ephemeral.  And they’re the kind of landscaping that a prospective buyer will take one look at and mouth the words, “easy care” as the video rolls on.

What's not to love about a
forest pansy redbud with
its red-green heart-shaped
The outside of our home looks nothing like those in the on-line tours.  We have unapologetic gardens.  Our landscaping is a 1.7-acre riot of color and texture.  It is beautiful, even at the beginning of September when New England gardens are quickly winding down.  It is filled with spectacular specimen trees and shrubs that deliver gratification in every season.

And the truth of the matter is that Betty has devoted the past half-dozen years to turning our property into a low-maintenance haven in keeping with her philosophy of having gardens that match the cycles of our lives.  The problem is that our garden doesn’t look low-maintenance.  Betty has done too good a job of keeping up that ‘wow’ factor while simultaneously reducing the hours per week required to keep the property in shape.

Meanwhile, I am scared half to death that a prospective buyer is going to take one look at our garden and say aloud, “Waaaaaay too much work.”   They’ll tell their Realtor to back out of the driveway, tout suite.  I’ll be running down the driveway, waving my arms, yelling that mowing a small lawn once a week is the most onerous part of caring for the place.

This chamaceyparis 'Snow' is now
seven feet tall.
So, these past few weeks we have started seeing our garden through the eyes of a stranger.  We’re trimming back the scary parts.  We aren’t taking out plants; we’re just cutting back things that we’ve allowed to grow unhindered all season.  On Sunday I filled a large barrel with more than half of the growth of three beautiful specimens of persicaria.  Lance Corporal, Painters Palette and Red Dragon are still in evidence in the inner sidewalk bed, but they’ve been subdued. 

To reinforce the low-maintenance message, we are taking care of the end-of-season maintenance promptly instead of waiting until the cool days of October.  Iris and daylilies that are showing yellow leaves are being cut.  Some hostas are being cut down because their leaves, too, have started to show yellow.  We can’t hide the fact that we have a ‘serious’ garden.  Our goal is show that taking care of it is quite manageable.

It took nearly ten years
to establish this leptinella
as a non-grass groundcover
As we do the work, we also are aware of what has happened at our previous homes.  Just weeks after we sold our home in Alexandria, Virginia, our next-door-neighbor called us in tears to tell us that dozens of bushes were piled up in the street.  The new owners wanted a fence and lawns, and our glorious shrub garden was an impediment to both goals. 

Well, we thought, they own the house; they can do with the garden what they want.

That will also be the option of whomever buys our home.  Few people have the time to care for an elaborate garden. We get that. It’s why we went largely to shrubs and trees from perennials and annuals.  But we also hope that the buyer looks at the property and sees the inherent beauty we’ve spent fifteen years creating.  But, if they don’t, there’s always lawn.

Our new garden will emphasize
the same philosophy as does our
 current one: low maintenance,
low water use, native-friendly
But if they do choose lawn, they’re throwing away some gems.  In Alexandria we didn’t have access to the plant material we incorporated into our Medfield garden.  There’s a chamaceyparis ‘Snow’ that turned out to be a mutant of the best kind.  The tips of new growth on the green shrub stay white until the next season’s new growth appears.  It has matured into a stunning specimen.  There’s a cercis Canadensis – forest pansy redbud – that is fifteen feet high and wide and gracefully arches over one corner of the garden with its red-green heart-shaped leaves.  Someone would cut that down?  I certainly hope not.  It has taken nearly ten years, but we’ve established a large colony of leptinella as a ground cover on a shaded slope behind out home that is as beautiful as it if effective. 

But moving is moving.  We have a new garden to create. Even though it will be just two miles away, it will be our new adventure.  We’ll work with the new homeowners to explain what’s there and what makes it all magical.  But in the end, we have to acknowledge that, once you no longer own it, it isn’t yours to control.

At out new garden, we’ll follow the same philosophy that guided us at our current home:  low-maintenance, low water use, and friendly to native insects and animals (well, except for a few herbivores that will remain nameless…).

August 28, 2014

September Stars

It is a truth universally acknowledged that an annual garden planted in May will, by the end of summer, be a sad-looking vestige of its spring glory. Insects, summer heat, drought, and weeds take their inevitable toll.  Even container gardens – groups of annuals in a rich growing medium planted with a density to keep out weeds and conserve moisture – look ragged come the end of August.

Shopping for annuals in early May
Sometimes, though, a lot of pruning and an inspired choice of plant material can yield a container that holds its own right into the autumn.  On this page is living proof that September can be a glory month for color in a New England container garden.

Every year Betty creates more than fifty containers that do everything from define the edge of our driveway to plug holes in beds where plants failed to thrive. Some of the plants in those containers are necessarily ephemeral: lobelia is going to disappear with the summer heat no matter how much water and shade it is given. Salvia is going to get leggy. Also, some plants are thugs and will take over a container, relentlessly pushing out less aggressive specimens.  These are things than come with the territory; the ‘territory’ being ‘gardening’.

But some containers come through the season looking terrific. These photos, taken on August 27, are of containers that have come through June, July and August looking, if not exactly like grown-up versions of their May incarnations, at least extremely attractive. They were kept well watered and were pinched back regularly. 

By the front steps, Magilla
Perilla Purple and torenia
Catalina Midnight Blue
We always cluster one or more groups of containers by the steps leading to our front door.  Usually, the standout mini-gardens are the ones in a pair of cast-iron pots by the front door.  This year, though, a container at the base of the steps stole the show.  The dominant plant rising above the containers is a perilla ‘Magilla Perilla Purple’, a plant with leaves so vividly purple and pink as to look like an op-art painting.  But cascading down the side of the container is a calming torenia ‘Catalina Midnight Blue’.  Torenia usually grows best in shade. This specimen, though in an ostensibly sunny location, gets a break courtesy of the aforementioned perilla (which is a member of the basil family of all things).  ‘Catalina Midnight Blue’ is in perpetual flower and is self-deadheading.  (Double-click on any photo to get a full-screen slideshow.)

Four containers have grown into
a symphony of blues
There is also always a cluster of containers by the junction of the sidewalk and our driveway.  This year, four pots have grown into an inseparable symphony of blues.  The trailing clusters of flowers in the low gray container are verbena Royale Chambray, the dark blue ones covering the top are calibrochoa Cabaret Deep Blue.  The black pot contains a thriving French lavender called ‘Blueberry Ruffle’, a diascia ‘Darla Rose’. The abundant pink flowering plant in the tall gray pot is a nemesia ‘Pink Innocence’.  In the rear pot are the towering spikes are of salvia ‘Mystic Sprite Blue’ and cleome ‘Senorita Rosita’.  You’ll also spot artemisia (better known as ‘Dusty Miller’) ‘Silver Cascade’ and a heuchera ‘Sugarberry Little Cutie’.  The latter two plants are perennials that will be rescued from their pots after the first frost.

Coleus and fuscia provide high and
low interest to this pair of
Coleus is a terrific annual and plant genetics have advanced to the point that a breeder can practically design a plant to order – picking out a leaf shape and color palette.  A pair of matching terra cotta containers are usually assigned a ‘Southwestern’ theme of yellows and golds but, this year, Betty elected to push the envelope.  A coleus ‘Mint Mocha’ has come to dominate the larger container, dwarfing the lantana ‘Peach Sunrise’ that was supposed to be the star.  Trailing down the side of both terra cotta pots is fuscia magellanica aurea with red flowers.  Rising above the smaller pot is salvia ‘Autumn Heatwave Sparkle’ and an agastache ‘Tango’.

A different angle on
the 'symphony in blue'
Taken together, these containers are table-pounding arguments in favor of clustering annuals in highly visible locations, watering them generously, and feeding them to keep up their displays from the first of the season to that inevitable hard frost.  Putting them together was an arduous process that occupied many, many hours (think one hour per large container; half an hour for a smaller one). 

When the rest of the garden has accepted the inevitability that the season is nearly over, containers loudly and vividly proclaim, ‘Not so fast…’.

August 1, 2014

The Greens of August

In our 600-square-foot vegetable garden this year we are growing corn, okra, lettuce, chard, dill, carrots, summer squash, eight kinds of tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, basil, leeks, beets, spinach, amaranth…. and green beans.

I have no argument with the first fifteen items on the list. There is nothing as flavorful as sweet corn eaten minutes after it was picked or a salad topped with tomatoes still warm from the vine. These are the reasons we garden. Even when there is excess (think zucchini), there are neighbors with whom to share the bounty or, if your friends begin avoiding you because they know you come bearing suitcases full of the stuff, you can foist the surplus on people who unsuspectingly leave their car windows rolled down in parking lots. We have disposed of zucchini in exactly that fashion on more than one occasion.

This is one day's haul of green beans
from our vegetable garden
But zucchini is a vegetable that must be eaten fresh. No one would ever think of canning or freezing summer squash because they’d find nothing but mush when they sampled it in January. Not so green beans. Green beans have pretty much the same taste and texture whether they’re eaten fresh or frozen.

For reasons I cannot fathom, this year Betty planted two ‘wide rows’ and one ‘standard’ row of green beans, with the idea that we’d freeze what we didn’t immediately eat. She apparently used varieties with names like ‘Maxi-Yield’ and ‘Garden-Glut’ because we began getting green beans at the beginning of July and are now picking – and I promise I am not making this up –five pounds or more of beans from of the garden every other day.

The first week was wonderful. The yield was maybe 20 or 30 long, luscious beans a day, perhaps ten minutes worth of picking in the cool late afternoon. Once home, we pinched off the ends, threw them in a dish, steamed them for three minutes and we had fresh, delicious green beans; high in vitamins and good for us to boot.

Then the yield bounced up to about 60 green beans a day. Fifteen minutes of picking and ten minutes of snipping ends. OK, we cooked half and froze half (two minutes in boiling water, then rinse under cold water to stop the cooking, arrange the beans on a tray, stick them in the freezer for an hour, then bag them and return them to the freezer until needed). I could cope with that.  One reason is that last year our green bean season lasted just two weeks.  Then, Mexican bean beetles discovered the garden and began chomping on everything in sight.  Seemingly overnight, the leaves were reduced to skeletons and the beans were half-eaten by voracious beetles.  But not this year:  Betty covered the beans with floating row covers in early June and the bean beetles have been effectively thwarted.  The beans, which are self-pollinating, thrive under the row covers.  Worse, the second double row is within a week of going into production.

This is what our green bean patch
looked like last year after the Mexican
bean beetles got through with it.
Soon we will be spending half an hour stooped over picking under a blazing sun with suffocating August humidity, pinching ends for another 45 minutes, and then lining up green beans on trays for half an hour. First, it was one double-decked tray of beans to blanch and freeze and then two double-decked trays. Did I mention we are running out of space in our freezer?

Dealing with the excess will require ingenuity. Fortunately, our new neighbors on one side are vegetarians, and one of them is a growing teenage boy.  Unfortunately, the paterfamilias of our now-year-old neighbors on the other side is a man whose disdain for vegetables in general (the exception is zucchini) is well known.  I will slip our surplus green beans to his wife and their two adorable children via some Vegan version of the Underground Railroad.

The last row of green beans, a standard-width one, was planted late, intended for September production, and had poor germination. It is currently surrounded by squares of corn and I intend to leave up that corn until the last ear is plucked.  With luck, by the time the green bean plants should be flowering, they’ll instead be shivering under cooling September nights. They will not be missed.

There is joy in seeing plants first emerging from the ground in May and early June. Alas, the mind does not contemplate the work that will be involved when, as in the ‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice’, the green beans keep maturing by the hundreds every day, demanding to be picked. The great gardening guru Roger Swain calls one of the joys of summer the ‘wretched excess’ from the garden. This July and August, being a grower of green beans makes it easy to understand the ‘wretched’ part of that statement.

July 29, 2014

Bruce Smith

The Massachusetts Horticultural Society lost an unsung hero this week.  He was a reluctant hero and a somewhat improbable one, but a hero all the same.  His name was Bruce Smith.

In 2008, Bruce was happily retired from a career in finance with Raytheon.  His wife, Linda Jean, was rising through the leadership of the Garden Club Federation of Massachusetts.  By custom, the Federation has a chair on Mass Hort’s Board of Trustees and, from 2007 to 2009 that chair was occupied by the Federation’s First Vice President, who happened to be Linda Jean.

2008 was the year Mass Hort imploded.  A venerable institution was found to be millions in debt and with an endowment that had been drained to pay everyday expenses.  The Executive Director resigned, three-quarters of the Society’s employees were let go and, in a move that sent shock waves through the region, Mass Hort announced the cancellation of the 2009 New England Spring Flower Show.

In hindsight, the implosion may have been inevitable.  The Executive Director who resigned was just the most recent of a line of hires with questionable management skills.  Mass Hort had already sold off its patrimony (Horticulture magazine and Horticultural Hall in Boston) to keep itself afloat.  As Boston magazine put it rather indelicately in an article a few months after the implosion, perhaps the Massachusetts Horticultural Society had simply outlived its usefulness.

A group of trustees and long-time volunteers thought strongly otherwise.  They dug into their own pockets and began a salvage operation.  They rallied every friend they could muster.

And into this storm stepped Bruce Smith. 

I know from personal experience what it is like to be married to an officer of the Garden Club Federation.  Your spouse’s causes become your causes.  Whatever skills you possess become available to the Federation and the causes your spouse supports.  It’s all there, tucked between the lines of your wedding vows.

Bruce possessed financial skills.  Moreover, he had no allegiances and no history.  There would be no sacred cows.  He held no formal title and certainly received no salary.  He did it for the challenge and, perhaps, because Linda Jean asked him to.

I knew Bruce because I, too, was drawn into Mass Hort by my wife, Betty.  She, too, was rising through the Federation ranks but she was also a Master Gardener who had done her training and internship at Mass Hort’s Elm Bank headquarters.  My contribution was to organize and run Mass Hort’s activities at the Boston Flower & Garden Show, a new venture that could bring badly needed cash to the Society.  Bruce and I got along because when he talked about ‘GAAP’ I knew he meant Generally Accepted Accounting Principles and not a place to buy jeans.  We also got along because I knew how to make a budget and stick to it.

Bruce faced ledgers that did not balance, drawers that were filled with unpaid bills, and a paucity of incoming cash.  He was not entirely alone; the trustees had found an organization that helped distressed non-profits and that group lent additional managerial expertise.  Another volunteer with an accounting background also stepped into the breach.

Bruce made decisions.  Many of them were unpopular and a few of them were bull-headed.  He doled out cash with an eye dropper and took a personal hand in collections.  But his actions stopped the hemorrhaging and, slowly, Mass Hort began to stabilize. 

Bruce was also blunt to a fault and spoke what he felt.  He had few friends at Mass Hort and he made enemies of those to whom he said ‘no’, most of whom were unaccustomed to hearing that word when they wanted to spend money on something.  More than once he stormed out Elm Bank vowing not to return.  There came a time when he finally kept that vow.

I am one of the many people who admired Bruce.  I firmly believe that, had he not stepped in when he did, the organization would have foundered and sank.  He was not a Man for All Seasons but, in Mass Hort’s season of dire need, he was there.

Bruce survived a bout of cancer last year but suffered a massive stroke on Saturday.  He died two days later.  He was 72.  He leaves behind his wife, Linda Jean; a son and two daughters and their families. 

June 30, 2014

Watch This Space

Two years ago, Betty and I came to the conclusion that our home was just too big for two people.  Like many aging Baby Boomers, we decided it was time to downsize. 

But being an avid gardener makes downsizing complicated.  Neither of us wanted anything to do with those ‘active adult communities’ where gardening is restricted to what you can put in a pot on your front porch, or where the ‘community garden’ is shared with, well, the community.  We needed some property to go along with that new home.  An acre at least.  And maybe two.

The old house we found.  Note that the
center of the roof is two feet lower
than the sides.
Have you gone looking for raw land in eastern Massachusetts recently?  Maybe we’re too picky, but after 18 months of looking at lots bisected by wetlands, lots sidled up to utility long-distance transmission lines, and lots where the roof peak would sit at eye level with the street, we made the reluctant determination that the lot we wanted probably already had a house on it.

Six months ago we found that perfect site.  A private acre and a half on a winding street.  A sad, 74-year-old house beyond repairing.  A neighborhood of attractive older homes of the same size we want to build.

We were, of course, promptly outbid for that property by a developer, who had in mind to erect a grand Starter Castle suitable for a family of ten.  But we persevered and in early June we found ourselves the proud owners of a now-vacant lot.  This autumn, our new ‘right-sized’ home will rise on the site.

What has happened since we signed the purchase and sale agreement says a lot about who we are.  Most people would throw themselves full-time into designing the perfect compact house, worrying about how furniture will fit into fewer rooms and pondering choices of paint colors.  We’ve done our share of that, but an equal amount of time has been devoted to siting a raised-bed vegetable garden, determining which if any trees on the property are worth keeping and positioning a porch that will provide three seasons of natural light for houseplants.

A very small part of the transplant
garden now taking shape along
one side of our house
Meanwhile, back at our current home, a vast project is underway to populate the new garden even before the adjacent house’s foundation has been dug.  We have already divided and conditioned upwards of a hundred hostas.  They sit in a special bed, potted and identified.  Other perennials have been divided or marked for division in the fall. 

The runners of favorite shrubs, once unceremoniously pulled up and composted, are now lovingly potted with the maximum amount of root.  One especially prized and uncommon shrub, a chamaecyparis ‘Snow’ that has grown to monumental proportions in our back garden, has a now-four-inch-high, well-rooted cutting. 

This peony Alfred's Crimson'
came with us to Medfield
from Alexandria.  It will follow
us to our new home.
Fifteen years ago, we did this on a much more modest scale.  A few favorite perennials were dug up and thrown into pots.  They rode from our home in Virginia to our new one in Massachusetts along with those household belongings (e.g., wine) we refused to entrust to movers.  The aquilegia (columbine) ‘Biedermeier’ and peony ‘Alfred’s Crimson’ we brought from Alexandria are still part of our landscape a decade and a half later, and will have honored locations at our new home.

This beautiful chamaecyparis
'Snow" and itea 'Henry
Garnet' stay with the house.
Cuttings and runners go
with us.
The satisfaction in going through this admittedly time-consuming process has little to do with saving money.  What is in our transplant bed is just a down payment on a landscape.  Betty all but stopped adding to our garden a year ago and, instead, started making lists of trees, shrubs and perennials she will purchase in the spring of 2015.  Populating a 60,000-square-foot property is going to make the owners of a few select nurseries and garden centers very, very happy.

This is what we will be leaving behind.
The good news is that it will look
just this good for the next owner.

No, the satisfaction is that we are doing a favor for whoever purchases our home.  For example, a wonderful patch of delicate blue Siberian iris is just now passing out of bloom.  That Siberian iris needs to be divided.  It is now eighteen inches in diameter and has a small but definitely ‘bald’ center.  This fall, we will take up the entire colony, clean out the center and break the resulting ring into three or four segments.  One of those segments will go with us to our new home. The remaining iris will be replanted with a fresh helping of compost.  Like the hostas we have already divided, the re-planting should be good to 2019 or 2020.

The best part is that when we begin planting that new garden in earnest next spring, we will intermix a group of familiar old friends with a larger cast of new ones.  Those old friends will be touchstones; a reminder of what we left behind.

June 23, 2014

The Summer Garden Tour

Back in February, I was invited by the Danvers Garden Club to present ‘Gardening Is Murder’ at the organization’s monthly meeting.  As frequently happens, I spoke at the end of the evening and so had the opportunity to sit through the club’s business session. 

Although the snow was piled high outside, the primary subject for the evening was planning for ‘Enchanted Gardens’, a tour of ten member gardens that would not take place for another four months.  This was not a new topic; rather, this was the final logistics session.  The tickets, garden descriptions and tour map had all been printed.  That evening’s discussion was about docents, refreshments, raffle items and ticket sales.

The tour program.  Double-click
to see at full size
As I listened, I was struck by both the level of planning for the event and for the assumption that the chosen date would bring good weather.  The back-and-forth went on for half an hour: a checklist with a list of responsibilities that ensured nearly every able-bodied member of the club would be pressed into service.

This past weekend, Betty and I had the opportunity to see what was wrought by the club.  It was beautiful, and was augmented by falling on one of those ‘ten perfect days of the year’ that never seem to fall on a Saturday or Sunday.

The Collins garden is all about color
Until the 18th Century, Danvers was part of neighboring Salem and, for the record, the ‘Salem’ witch trials took place in what is now Danvers (many of the historical homes of the period still stand).  It is a town of older, small houses on village-sized lots, but it also has its share of estate-sized properties.  ‘Enchanted Gardens’ focused on those small, intimate properties where homeowners creatively used shrubs and walls to create distinct ‘rooms’ that invited exploration.

Here are some notes on three of the ten gardens:

We started with a suburban garden, where the Collins family showed they believe in color and unusual plant selection to make a statement about gardening.  On the front porch was a chartreuse-color container overflowing with yellow, peach, pink and red calibrochoa.  By the garage was a plant stand with pots in colors of plum, orange, pike and chartreuse.  Though most contained simple petunias or New Guinea impatiens, the overall effect was to create an entire, memorable wall of color.  The garden also incorporates some cultivars with which I was unfamiliar, such as a Delphinium ‘Summer Blues’ that trades the larkspur’s usual stake-it-or-else flower spikes for a mound of beautiful blue flowers.

The Skane garden was about texture
Any garden that features a table laid out with freshly made mimosas gets a ‘thumbs up’ from me, but the small village garden of Ian Skane would have been memorable even without drinks.  The guide indicated this was the garden of “Melanie and Ian Skane” but Ian immediately acknowledged that he is the gardener and not his spouse. His co-gardener is his mother, who was also on hand to talk about the property.  She is English by birth and grew up with gardens; she transmitted that love of growing things to her son. 

Geometry plus color at the
Sanborn garden
The Skane garden uses a fence to divide one planting area visible from the street from other, more private places to the side and rear of the home.  Much of the rear garden is shades of green, but with textures and leaf size providing the drama.  The lone bright bursts of color come from clutches of yellow oenothera, which Ian gleefully says he pulls out by the armload after the bloom passes. 

At the foot of the verandah, a
vegetable garden
Kathy and David Sanborn have a home on the part of town that touches the Danvers River leading into Beverly Harbor.  The home is gracious and, down a glorious geometric stone and gravel walkway lined with hosta and hydrangea, there’s a wonderful verandah.  And what is at the base of the verandah is anything but the expected:  there’s a beautiful, working vegetable garden in raised beds.  There are also containers overflowing with flowers at every turn.  This is a home where every square foot of the property has been thought through.

Bright containers overflowing
There is a purpose to all the hard work that members of the garden club went through to make that day happen.  I learned that more than 300 tickets were sold (at $20 for advance purchases and $25 on the day of the tour).  Tours also incur expenses, but it would not be unreasonable to conclude that the club netted several thousand dollars for its considerable effort.

And what does the club do with that money?  Give it away, mostly, by re-investing it in the community.  The balance of that business meeting I sat through in February was about planting sites around the town, scholarships awarded, donations to garden-related causes, and garden therapy at area nursing homes.  I would guess that virtually every dime raised for the tour gets put back into making Danvers a more attractive place to live.

So the next time you see a clutch of balloons and a sign saying ‘garden tour this way’, take an hour or two out of your schedule and go help a worthy cause.  It’s a little beauty that may brighten your day.

May 23, 2014

The Mystery of the Plant Tags

The trench for the hoses has
dug and the hose laid in the
trench.  All that remains is
to cover the trench... and find
the plant markers
Every Spring about this time, I lay the soaker hoses for our hosta garden. There's a narrow window of time when all the hostas have emerged, but are not so large that I can't wend two hoses close enough to each hosta's roots to provide water for the inevitable summer dry spells.

It's a time-consuming process because the hoses are buried about an inch into the soil and mulch rather than just placed along the surface.  And, to answer the inevitable question, the hoses are taken up each fall because they'd rot after a year or two if they were left in the ground over the winter.  The hoses I buried yesterday are in their tenth season.  So, yes, it's worth a morning's labor to both make the hosta garden look great and to exercise some Yankee frugality by not having to replace $60 worth of hoses.

 But that's not the purpose of this essay.  Rather, I write this morning to wonder why on earth the animals in the woods around our property find our plant tags so fascinating.  You see, yesterday I engaged in not one but two spring rituals.  The first was the burying of the soaker hoses.  The second was the annual matching of hosta plant markers with the shoots coming out of the ground.

Our hosta walk in season.
Fact: No one has walked in the hosta garden since late October when our final task of the season in that part of the property was to firmly push the steel and aluminum markers into the soil next to the remnants of the plants. We were conscientious in our efforts because we have a lot of different hostas in our garden – more than a hundred named varieties. Each plant has a marker and each marker has one of those labels with the variety printed out on clear plastic tape. (I know what you’re thinking: I need a hobby. Well, this is my hobby.)

Exactly why we go to the trouble of making labels is unclear, except that now, when we visit a nursery, we can resist buying a hosta ‘Lakeside Cupcake’ because we already have one. We know we have one because we made a label for one last year. Except unless we think what we have back at home is ‘Lakeside Cupid’s Cup’ or ‘Lakeside Cup Up’. Which means we may well go home with the hosta anyway because it’s so darn cute.

This is what our tags are
supposed to look like.
Fact: Back in October, every hosta marker was in exactly the right spot. Fact: For much of this past winter, the hosta garden was under two or more feet of snow. So, please explain to me why, yesterday morning, there were dozens of plant markers lying loose in the hosta beds?

Betty says the rational explanation is that the ground freezes and thaws and pushes the markers out of the ground. I could buy that theory if the markers were adjacent to the plants to which they belong. I happen to know for a fact, though, that hosta ‘Mohegan’ is a giant brute of a plant that hugs the foundation of the house (and may yet push the house out of the way in order to accommodate its version of Manifest Destiny). Why, then, is the marker for hosta ‘Mohegan’ in among the ones for the cute little miniatures twenty feet away? And why is there a pile of five markers?

Personally, I blame the squirrels and the raccoons. (“Hey, neat plant marker. I think I’ll pull it out and put it in this pile.”) More likely, knowing the raccoons in our neighborhood, the markers are used in lieu of poker chips. (“I see your ‘Francee’ and raise you a ‘Kabitan’ and a ‘Whirlwind’.) That might explain the piles of them – raccoons abandoning poker night when they’re called home for dinner and to do their homework. Their homework being their endless but fruitless efforts to break into our composter.

We have not created a 'Golden
Tiara' tag in probably ten
years.  Yet one turned up in
the hosta walk yesterday.
There are also hosta markers that have either lost that clear plastic label over the course of the winter or – and this is the scary part – returned to our garden from some parallel universe. Once upon a time (when we had only twenty or so named hostas), we were content to identify our cultivars with a black pen on a metal tag. I would swear, though, on a thousand-page Hostas A-Z reference tome that every single marker has been ‘upgraded’ to clear plastic tape during the past two years.

Why, then, do I have two warped and mangled handwritten tags for hosta ‘Golden Tiara’? Betty ejected all of the ‘Golden Tiaras’ from the formal hosta garden four or five years ago because they multiply like rabbits and she hasn’t bothered to make a tag for one in the better part of a decade. Where did these tags come from?

Once again, Betty’s rational explanation is frost heaves. The tags were buried in the soil. The ground froze and thawed and, one day, belched up a ‘Golden Tiara’ tag or two. I like the parallel universe theory a lot better.

With the hoses now safely buried, my task now is to dig out our diagrams of the hosta beds and match loose tags with last known locations of plants. Now that’s what I call a spring ritual.

May 4, 2014

What I Did for Love

A neighbor took down a Norway maple last week.  Norway maples, for those who do not carefully follow environmental issues, is one of worst trees ever foisted on New Englanders.  For much of the second half of the 20th century it was a ‘developer’s tree’; a fast growing specimen that could go from a ‘whip’ to a thirty-foot behemoth in under ten years.  And it was a maple!  And Norwegian!

The remains of a Norway maple
Acer platanoides may be - however technically - a maple, although its native range runs more to Bulgaria and Russia than Scandanavia.  The ‘Norway’ name was appended to the tree in the 1950s to class it up a bit.  Norway maples are variously described as a ‘weed' tree, a ‘rat’ tree, and ‘trash’, and all for good reasons.  It has an unbelievably dense root system that chokes out anything around it.  It is a voracious consumer of water.  Its limbs can come crashing down for no particular reason other than to annoy you and put a dent in your car.  And don’t ever think about tapping it for maple syrup.  The sugar content is virtually non-existent and the sap is milky.

The sale of Norway maples is illegal in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, and other northeastern states rightly consider it invasive.  Unfortunately, those trees planted before the ban went into place can remain.  We took down the two Acer platanoides that were on our property (planted by the developer, naturally) years ago.  Betty gnashes her teeth as we drive down our street where half a dozen specimens remain.

But the sound of a chipper caught our attention and so I walked up the street to find a landscaper feeding the last limbs into the maw of a large, noisy machine.

The wood chips define a path between
two beds at the front of our property.
“Only thing a tree like that is good for,” I said, watching the chips fly into the back of a dump truck.

The landscaper nodded his agreement.  “I take out a couple of dozen of these every spring,” he said.  “Good riddance.”

Then came the fateful question.  “Got any plans for the chips?” I asked.

He shook his head.  “Take ‘em back to the lot, I guess.”

“I’ll take them,” I said, trying to sound like I did this three or four times a day.  “I live just up the street.”  I threw my thumb over my shoulder.

The landscaper squinted at me.  “Fifteen minutes,” he said.  “But you got to take the logs, too.”

I knew better than to bargain further.  I was about to get ten cubic yards of wood chips for free.  Of course, I was doing the landscaper a favor: most places where landscaping debris can be ‘tipped’ want a fee for doing so.  Perhaps these would have ‘gone back to the yard’.  But his readiness to give them to me indicates they were headed for a landfill.

25 cartloads went to create this
border behind one of
our perennial beds.
At this point we need to back up a few minutes and a few paragraphs to the point where I said that the sound of a chipper caught “our” attention.  That statement is true.  Both Betty and I heard it.  But, left to my own devices, I would have ignored the sound until it went away.  You see, getting a load of chips or mulch or anything like that means hard work lies ahead.  It isn’t that I avoid difficult projects; I just don’t go out of my way to start them.

But when we heard the chipper, it was Betty who said, “Why don’t you go up and see if it’s something we could use?”

These are the things we do for love.  We go bargain for ten cubic yards of wood chips knowing that we will be the one who actually moves them.  And then down Motrin by the handful.

Fifteen minutes later the dump truck rumbled down the cul-de-sac and I waved in into an area just outside of our driveway.  It was, in fact, six yards of chips and four cubic yards of logs.  I smiled as the truck pulled away.  It was one of those ‘bargains with a curveball’:  mulch I could use but logs that will need to age two to three years before they’re useful.

It took just three days to disperse the chips.  I loaded them into wheelbarrows and carts and dumped them around the woodland edges and paths on our property where Betty directed.  There, she spread them several inches thick to hold down weeds and define borders.  In the process I re-awakened arm and back muscles that that taken the winter off (except for shoveling snow).  The morning after my first day (seventeen loads) I was so sore I could hardly stand.  The morning after the second day (twenty-five loads), I took a couple of Motrin and shrugged it off.  At the third day (ten loads plus moving and stacking two dozen logs), I enjoyed a glass of Scotch.

The wood mulch will keep down
the weeds in this area of the
garden.  A fitting use for a 'weed' tree.
I sometime think we fear getting into projects more than we ache from doing them.  In the next week or so, we’ll need to order up ten-plus cubic yards of brown mulch for our multiple beds.  Before I took on the wood chip project, I had been dreading ordering the mulch.  It was a subject I simply would not bring up.  Now, with my arms starting to get back into shape, it has moved into the realm of ‘not a big deal’.

It’s so much not a big deal that, today, I casually asked Betty how soon we were likely to order the mulch and how many yards it would likely take.

That’s what I call progress.  It’s also what I call love of gardening and of those whom we work alongside as we garden.

April 28, 2014

Clover and Violets and Squill, Oh My!

I still have my copy
from high school
“God bless the lawn mower, he thought. Who was the fool who made January first New Year’s Day? No, they should set a man to watch the grasses across a million Illinois, Ohio, and Iowa lawns and, on that morning when it was long enough for cutting… there should be a great swelling symphony of lawn mowers… People should throw grass spray at each other on the day that really represents the Beginning.”

In Ray Bradbury’s wonderful autobiographical novel, Dandelion Wine, a character opines that it is the year’s first mowing of the lawn that ought to represent the changing of the year, rather than some arbitrary day set down by the Romans two millennia ago. Sadly, it’s one of those impractical sentiments that doesn’t stand up to a lot of scrutiny (were such a law enacted today, it would be 2014 in Georgia two months earlier than in Massachusetts, and California and Florida might be stuck in some twilight zone in which the year never changes).

In mid-April, we limed the lawn.
Soaking rains washed the lime into
the grass' roots.
Those obstacles aside, I have a soft spot for Bradbury’s view because, to me, there’s nothing like that first mowing to demonstrate that spring is unequivocally here to stay. Crocus and daffodils can be reduced to mush by a hard freeze. A late snow can turn the emergent leaves on a tree or shrub a dispiriting black. But when the grass – scratched into life with a spring rake and a dose of lime – gets to be three inches high, it means the new season has truly arrived.  The lime, by the way, is purely of the inexpensive crushed variety.  The notion of paying a premium for crushed limestone that has been clumped together with wood glue ("So that it won't blow in the wind") is anathema to both common sense and Yankee ingenuity.

I mow around the Scilla
We had our first mowing of the year this week. Instead of the typical quadrangles or up-and-down pattern of our neighbors (and their lawn services), we follow the sinuous contours of our perennial beds. It takes longer to mow such a pattern but the effect can be seen for a week afterwards: long swirls of repeating curves with the grass bent ever so slightly one way, then another in a yin-yang pattern that pleases the eye, especially from a second-story window.

Because our lawn is mixed with clover, we cannot (and choose not to) use the broad-leaf weed control products that are found on most lawns. Instead, as I mow, I am constantly on dandelion patrol. I carry a screwdriver in my back pocket and, when I find the tell-tale spiky leaves flat to the ground, I pounce and dig out the offending plant, root and all. I found perhaps two dozen dandelions that first mowing. They won’t be the last. Around here, dandelions rarely make it as far as a flower and never get to a seed head.

Dandelions are pulled out by hand
Taraxacum officinale, the botanical name for the dandelion (the common name is an Anglicization of the French dente-de-lion, or lion's tooth, so called because of the jagged shape of the leaf), is not allowed in the lawn. Yet, in addition to clover (encouraged and even overseeded), we tolerate violets (white and purple) so long as they don’t spread conspicuously, and we actively make room for an early spring wildflower, scilla siberica, which is attempting to colonize one corner of our lawn. Our tolerance for the scilla is such that I mow around the stems in order to ensure that adequate nutrition gets to the bulb for next spring’s bloom.

We converted to a cordless electric mower four years ago. It was as much a statement about my dislike of changing oil (and figuring out what to do with the gunk) as it was of ‘going green’. One overnight charge givers us the requisite power to mow the roughly 5,000 square feet of lawn than remain of the 10,000 square feet we inherited when we purchased this property in 1999.. The new mower makes a cheerful ‘hum’ rather than the clatter of its gasoline-powered cousin. I find I don’t miss the old one at all.

April 20, 2014

Uncovering the Rock Garden

We first viewed our home in Medfield fifteen years ago in February. A thick blanket of snow covered everything in sight and all was peaceful. All the snow had melted when we moved in on April 1, 1999. We realized the grim humor of an April Fools Day closing when we walked around to the back of the property that morning. The melting snow and intervening rains had gouged a series of Grand-Canyon-sized gullies, carrying everything in sight down the hill behind our property toward the pond we abutted.

One of the rock gardens,
looking down toward
Danielson Pond.
Thus began a civil engineering project that lasted five years and still requires periodic refinements. Several new downspouts were added to the inadequate number that had been installed with the house. A total of seven underground French drains were attached to those downspouts, allowing water to be carried a minimum of fifty feet from the house. Rock-lined trenches extended those drains into the surrounding woodlands.

The fifteen degree slope behind the house was deemed inherently unstable. After rejecting one contractor’s suggestion of a retaining wall, we set out to find a less ecologically intrusive solution. We wanted something that would hold the soil in place yet not interfere with our view of Danielson Pond. More important than just a view, Danielson Pond is part of a conservation district and watershed from which the town draws its drinking water.  Our goal was zero emissions - fertilizer, soil, plants - into that watershed.  We also wanted something that would provide visual interest from our back windows, deck and porch. We wanted something that would be low maintenance. We settled on a rock garden. And, as Meat Loaf opined, two out of three ain’t bad.

In its May and June glory,
the rock garden is awash
in color.
I was thinking of that history this weekend as we uncovered the rock garden from its winter slumber. There were just three, fair-sized rocks when we started. The rest – hundreds of one-, two-, and three-hundred pound stones - had to be brought in. There was little usable soil. Today it is rich and black with compost. The five gardens are interconnected by steps and paths, none of which existed fifteen years ago. The rock garden today is ninety feet long and forty feet deep at its apex. It contains more than a thousand bulbs, several dozen shrubs and more types of ground covers than I care to count.  We have added specimen trees: there is now a mature Cornelian cherry (cornus mas) anchoring one end of the garden, a blooming Carolina silverbell (Halesia carolina), and numerous rhododendron. 

These Siberian iris were in
bloom under the oak leaves.
Rock gardens attract oak leaves like a giant organic magnet. The top layer of leaves can be removed, gingerly, with a rake. The underlying leaves need to be removed by hand so as not to damage the plants, mosses, ground covers, low shrubs and emerging perennials that are showing green. Betty and I began on Saturday morning at nine. By three in the afternoon we had completed about seventy percent of the job. The balance was completed Sunday afternoon. Before it was over, I carried off three dozens bins of leaves to add to our overflowing compost piles.

The result of this labor is striking. On the Friday before we began uncovering the rock garden, the back of the property was a solid, undulating mass of brown. Even the basic contours of the garden were masked by the carpet of matted leaves. This morning, the rock garden is plainly visible, the intricate walls and terraces still in place despite a winter of frost heaves.  There were even surprises: blooming under the leaves were miniature iris and blue and yellow primrose.

An overview of rock gardens 1 and 2.
There is as of yet not a lot of green (the accompanying photos are from last May and June). A few of the ground covers retained their color over the winter but the true explosion of yellows, blues, and reds will come in May. And, this weekend was just the first of several forays into the rock garden.   Ferns have become too aggressive in one bed. And, there is a creeping ajuga that needs to be eradicated before it makes the leap from ‘nuisance’ to ‘serious problem’.
But those are issues for another weekend. For now, there is the contentment of a spring chore crossed off.