December 8, 2014

Christmas for a Worthy Cause


This past week I had the opportunity to see three garden clubs in action.  Each put on an ‘event’ designed to raise thousands of dollars from the public.  Each involved dozens of club members working toward a common goal and each was, in my estimation, a class act.  The remarkable thing is that in each case the money raised will go right back into the community.

* * * * *

For the Easton Garden Club, the event was a Festival of Trees.  The venue was the Governor Ames Estate, a Trustees of Reservations property in the town some 25 miles south of Boston. 

‘Festivals of Trees’ have been around for more than two decades.  Money is raised through a modest admission plus the lure of winning one of the trees on display.  Typically, a sheet of 25 chances costs roughly $8.  The more imaginative the tree, the more tickets it will draw. 

All of the trees at Easton's Festival of
Trees will be raffled off December 14
Easton held its first Festival of Trees in 2011.  The club is fortunate to have a number of gifted designers, chief among them a diminutive bundle of energy by the name of Gloria Freitas-Steidinger.  I have had the pleasure to know Gloria for several years now and she is not only an internationally recognized floral designer; she also decorates a mean Christmas tree.

This year’s Easton Festival of Trees features 45 trees, each one sponsored by a local business or a family.  The event opened November 28 and runs through December 14.  Last Sunday I had the pleasure to talk with Nancy Cohenno, the club member who organized this year’s and last year’s Festival, and who ‘wrangles’ several dozen club members who do everything from decorate trees for sponsoring businesses to selling tickets and being docents during every hour the event is open.

Nancy began working on the 2014 event even as the 2013 edition was concluding its run.  She has spent the intervening year devising a series of special events designed to bring people to the Ames Estate who might not otherwise gravitate to a garden club event.  These include a ‘Kids Day’ that drew hundreds of families, a ‘Walk Back in Time’ featuring antique cars, and a ‘Jazz Night’.

What will the club do with the proceeds?  For one thing, the club will pay for the installation of 174 planters, urns, hanging baskets and window boxes along Easton’s Main Street in 2015.  That is in addition to the ten public sites currently maintained by the club.

* * * * *

For the Garden Club of Hingham, the special event was a ‘holiday hour tour and boutique’ called ‘Deck the Halls’.  That cursory description does not do justice to what was going on in the town on the south shore of Boston last Saturday.

Part of the Holiday Boutique at
Hingham's 'Deck the Halls' tour
Hingham, in the interest of full disclosure, is an affluent town rich in history.  Its garden club is a good match for the community it serves.  The club maintains a sunken parterre garden at The Old Ordinary, a 1688 house museum; as well as multiple showcase gardens at the town library and other historic sites; plus traffic islands in Hingham Centre.  This year, the club donated greenhouse equipment for a new greenhouse at the town’s high school and a ginkgo tree to an elementary school.  It puts up Christmas wreaths at civic sites as well as weekly flower arrangements at the Hingham Library.  You get the idea.  The Holiday House Tour and Boutique – held on the first Saturday in December – pays for all this and much more. 

I have been on many garden club house tours.  They range from frankly poorly planned to quite good.  Hingham’s effort is first class in every regard.  The homes are a mixture of modern and historic and range from a pair of seaside manses to large suburban homes miles inland.  Each home gets a team of decorators.  Up to seven club members choose a theme in consultation with the homeowner and then go to work for several days to turn as many as seven rooms into festive holiday showcases.

The Garden Club of Hingham
decorating team responsible
for the 'snow bears' vignette
If I had to choose one vignette to represent the effort that goes into making the tour it would be a scene of polar bears.  An annoying feature of many new houses is a leftover space where architects have placed massive windows, typically over the front entry, to allow natural sunlight into grand foyers.  In many such homes the windows create ledges six to eight feet long and often two to three feet wide.  Their sole purpose seems to be to gather dust bunnies.  But the decorating team that went to work on a Bel Air Road home had a different kind of animal in mind.  They created a scene of polar bears frolicking in a glen of cottony snow.  The all-white creation was equal parts whimsy and great use of space. 


Andrea Wilson, at left, managed the
Holiday Boutique this year
My true appreciation for the club’s effort, though, came at the Boutique.  When I walked into the sprawling South Shore Baptist Church, I saw a long table where tour tickets were being sold, and another table with boxwood trees for sale.  I thought to myself, ‘Holiday Boutique, check.’  Instead, I was informed that the Boutique was upstairs. 

Sure enough, there were several vendors in the corridor.  But these turned out to be the overflow.  The Boutique was housed in a cavernous assembly room:  18 extremely handsome booths selling everything from hand-thrown pots to miniature Christmas trees made from mussel shells.

I asked who was in charge of this and was directed to Andrea Wilson.  Andrea was in the church kitchen baking cookies.  Yes, she had assembled these vendors, one of whom was her husband whose post-banking retirement enterprise is handcrafting lamps from antique brass fire hoses.  She has spent the past year going to other markets, looking for vendors that would ‘fit’ with the tone the club wants to set.  In this case, ‘fit’ meant personable, chatty, quick to hand out samples, and selling things that no one would mistake as having been imported from China.

* * * * *

I have a personal connection to that third and final holiday fund raiser.  The Medfield Garden Club has been running a Holiday Greens Sale for so long than no one in the club can remember when there wasn’t one.

When the doors open at 10 a.m., the
Greens Sale is a madhouse.
The Greens Sale runs for two hours.  The planning for it takes months and utilizes the skills of most of the club’s able-bodied members.  There’s a bow-making workshop and this year’s November meeting was devoted to teaching members how to make candle rings, boxwood trees and basket arrangements.  There are expeditions to cut cedar, juniper and other evergreens in the town watershed, old state hospital and other open lands.

Beginning Tuesday morning, the basement of the First Parish Church becomes an assembly line that is as much about catching up with garden club friends as it is making baskets and centerpieces.  Betty was the anointed ‘Basket Queen’ for many years, overseeing the production of as many as 130 gorgeous arrangements.  She taught me the basics and, this year, I turned out fifteen or twenty pretty good arrangements incorporating pine, spruce, cedar, and arborvitae that, when augmented with a Santa or a bow, would sell for $12 to $25. 

Proceeds from the sale pay
for decorations at
Medfield's Town Hall
What does the Medfield Garden Club do with the money it raises?  It goes right back into the community.  The club has an ambitious program of creating and maintaining more than twenty wayside gardens around the town.  Proceeds of the sale help purchase the annuals, perennials and shrubs that make the roadside gardens a prominent feature of the community.  It also pays for large wreaths for Town Hall, decorations for a gazebo in a town park, and many other touches that, in other municipalities might be done at town expense.

The Holiday Greens Sale is part of the fabric of Medfield.  Saturday morning dawned cold, raw, and rainy; yet a line began forming outside the First Parish Church 45 minutes before the 10 a.m. opening.  Once the doors opened, people grabbed paper trays (the bottoms of beer cases, actually) and began filling them with candle rings, boxwood trees and anything else that caught their eye.  Before 11 a.m. the ‘inventory’ would fit on two tables.  At noon, everything was gone.

* * * * *
Three events.  Three garden clubs.  Thousands of hours of planning.  All targeted at serving the community.  Call it Christmas for a Worthy Cause.

December 1, 2014

The Fine Art of Moving a Garden




Moving furniture from one house to another is a snap.  You call a moving company, you sign a check, and experts do the rest.  On the appointed time and day, your furniture shows up at your new home.

Moving plants is a little more difficult.  To be completely accurate it is a lot more difficult.

The house - and garden - we will be
leaving behind.  Beautiful, but too
large for two people.
Last July I wrote of our plans to downsize; to leave the beautiful house we have called home for fifteen years in favor of a smaller abode in which we can (attention euphemism police!) ‘age in place gracefully’.  But this would be no ordinary home.  Its garden would be front and center in the planning process.

Our new home... maybe this month?
The house is now rising quite nicely on an acre and a half of land.  We optimistically think we’ll have an occupancy permit some time in December.  Our current home is on the market and we are equally optimistic that the right buyer will walk through the door any day now.

In preparation for our move we spent more than a hundred hours this autumn digging up and dividing plants – in addition to the hours Betty spent during the spring and summer doing exactly the same thing.  More than a hundred hosta divisions went into one- and two-gallon pots as did numerous Siberian iris.  Plugs of ginger and ground covers found their way into quart-size pots.

We have been dividing plants for the
past year.  Then the pace stepped up.
When we ran out of things to put plants in, we put out a plea to gardening friends who responded with an avalanche of pots – some of them gigantic.  Cuttings Betty made in the spring of climbing hydrangea had, by early October, formed strong root systems.  We now have an entire tub of climbing hydrangea, ready to cling to our new porch.  The largest containers became the home for grasses, peonies, epimedium and astilbe, all of which had migrated from their original planting sites and needed to be culled in order to restore order to the garden. 

By mid-October our portable garden – with pots spread out to allow leaves to soak up sun and water – had outgrown the fifteen-foot-by-forty-foot transplant bed and was spilling out into the walkways beyond.  We went to our neighbors and asked if they could take in the overflow.  When they agreed the potting continued. 

In the meantime, Betty created a dual tracking system for the plants.  Each pot bears a small wooden stick on which is written the name of the plant.  It also gets a second stick with nothing but a number on it.  In Betty’s computer is a growing list of what numbers correspond to which cultivars of plants.

The overflowing trench for the plants
that will be a small part of the
new garden.
In late November we began transporting our plants to their new home.  A Bobcat was being used to fill the trench created to bring in our water and sewer.  I cajoled its driver into carving out an eighteen-inch-deep hole ten feet wide and thirty feet long.  Four truckloads of plants later – and even pushing round pots so tightly they became squares – I had to hand-dig a second plant repository.

Next came the loads of leaf mold and pine needles.  This is to provide additional insulation against the winter wind and temperatures.  Then came soil to fill in any holes between pots.  Then more leaves. 

You should keep in mind that, while we’re lavishing this attention on our plants, we have not yet chosen colors for rooms in the actual house.

With the ground now beginning to freeze, the garden work at our current home is done.  We realize we are doing its next owners a huge favor:  for at least a year, there will be little need to do anything beyond routine garden maintenance.  Perennials will have room to stretch out their roots.  Shrubs will find less competition for light and nutrients.

For the past two months, the soil
around our new home has been
contacted into lifelessness.
Conversely, the work at our new home is just beginning.  All those plants now in their protective trenches need to find permanent homes come March or April.  The top two feet of our homesite’s soil has been compacted into an oxygen-free brick by a succession of cranes, trucks and bulldozers.  It will need to be coaxed back into life through aeration and augmentation. 

And, of course, the contents of those trenches are just a small fraction of what will be needed to fill a new garden.  Come the spring of 2015, the real work begins.
 

November 7, 2014

They Pulled Down a Parking Lot and Put Up Paradise

This post originally appeared on November 17, 2012.  I reprint it today because I learned that the Norman B. Leventhal Park at Post Office Square, the subject of this essay, was just chosen as the 2014 national winner of the Landmark Award from the American Society of Landscape Architects.  The prize is given for "a distinguished landscape architecture project completed between 15 and 50 years ago that retains its original design integrity and contributes significantly to the public realm of the community."  In my humble opinion, no park I have ever visited so perfectly matches that description as does this one.

The pedestrian entrance to the garage


Yesterday morning, Betty and I went to brunch at Cafe Fleuri in the Langham Hotel in Boston. Just across the street, two tourists were puzzling over a map. I stopped and offered to help. They pointed to the escalators behind them, leading to something underneath the Norman B. Leventhal Park, a 1.7 acre oasis in the center of Boston’s Financial District. "We can't figure out which subway station this is," one of them explained. I straightened them out. "It's the pedestrian entrance to the garage underneath the park. It goes down seven levels." They blinked. I'm not sure they believed me.
 
Post Office Square Park
seen from above
For more than 30 years, one of the ugliest buildings in North America stood on this site. It was a four-story, city-owned garage; an eyesore of monumental proportions endured only because it offered relatively cheap parking in the center of town. It made a mockery of the Beaux Arts Federal Reserve Bank across from it (today the aforementioned Langham) as well as the art deco New England Telephone Building.  For the past 20 years, the site has been a park.  If the Rose Kennedy Greenway is Boston’s most disappointing public space, the Norman B. Leventhal Park at Post Office Square (to give the park its full title) is, in my opinion, the most successful. 

Designed by Craig Halvorson of the Halvorson Partnership, the park may well be the most popular spot in Boston for office workers. The intelligence behind the design, plantings choice, and maintenance zeal show in every square foot. It has a fountain where you can get your feet wet, lots of places to sit, a cafe, ample shade, and terrific views. It is, in short, inviting - everything that the Rose Kennedy Greenway is not.

The Post Office that lent its name to
Post Office Square in 1887
What most people can’t believe (in addition to the 1400-space parking garage underneath) is that the park is just 20 years old because it looks like it has always been there.  It’s a site with a documented history going back to the 18th century, when it was where riggers made rope for the ships in adjacent Boston Harbor.  In the early 19th Century it was a prized residential area.  By the 1850’s, though, warehouses and tenements had replaced the prestigious homes. By 1866, the area was generally considered a slum.

The Great Fire of 1872 allowed the area to be redeveloped, centering on the new Boston Post Office (see photo above).  Streets were widened and extended and, in 1874, the majestic Mutual Life Insurance Company building opened on the site of what is now the park.  That building was demolished in 1945.  Nine years later, the instant eyesore that was the Post Office Square Garage was opened. 

The garage (1954-1988) that occupied
the site of the park
I came to Boston in 1980 and my first foray into the city took me to an annual meeting held at an office building cater-corner from the garage.  I was struck by the trash-strewn parking structure’s consummate ugliness and lack of anything even remotely resembling maintenance or landscaping.  Directly across from the garage was a newly opened hotel, carved out of the 1922 Federal Reserve Bank (the photo at left would have been taken after 1980 because the bank building, visible at top right, sports the three additional 'glass' floors added when the building was converted).  The juxtaposition of something so beautiful with something so awful stuck in my mind.

It also stuck in the mind of Norman B. Leventhal, Chairman of the Beacon Companies, who had developed the hotel site and built a 40-story office tower next door.  In 1982, Leventhal created Friends of Post Office Square, Inc., with nineteen firms collectively donating more than $1 million of the initial funding needed to acquire the existing garage site and redevelop it as a park.  The garage was demolished in 1988; the new, underground garage was completed in 1990.  The park atop the garage was completed in June of 1992 at a total project cost - the park above with parking below - of $82 million.

There are three ways to look at and appreciate the park.  The first is financial, the second is engineering, the third is horticultural.

Financial

The 143-foot-long trellis sports
seven varieties of vines
The economics of Post Office Square park are not unique to Boston, but they are complex. On the one hand, Boston was given, for free, a beautiful new park.  On the other hand, allowing the park to be built meant Boston 'lost' tax revenue that would have been collected had the site become a skyscraper (at one point, a 70-story building was proposed for the site). However, it's a reasonable conclusion that the value of the buildings, shops, and hotels on and near the park has risen because of the park's presence.  It may also have kept businesses in Boston that might have otherwise decamped for the suburbs.

Although open 24 hours a day to the public, the park is private.  Revenue is driven by the garage.  In 2008 (the last year for which I can find figures), the garage generated $8.6 million of revenue, which pays debt service on the $82 million cost, a $1 million annual property tax bill, and $2.9 million annual operating budget.  That operating budget includes horticulturalists, park maintenance, security, universal wifi, and a year-round schedule of events, all of which are free to the public.  Those events range from weekly classical music concerts to daily exercise classes.

Engineering


The park in fall.  If you look carefully
(double-click to see at full size)
you can see one of the air vents -
hidden in plain sight on the right.
The garage is an engineering marvel and hiding its ramps and ventilation apparatus is a feat of legerdemain.  Apart from the escalators that lead down into the garage – the ones that were mistaken for a subway entrance by the couple I encountered – there is no surface evidence that a garage is below.  Ticketing and payments are all handled underground, as is all garage administration.  Although nominally a landscape design firm, the Halvorson Partnership was given responsibility as general contractor, with the result that what would be visible above ground drove key below-ground decisions. 

The auto ramps into the garage, two up and two down, were among the greatest challenge to the park’s design. For one thing, they occupy 14% of the site. Moreover, because they squeeze the park in the middle, the ramps made it hard to unify the north and south plazas. Viewed from above, they are jarringly visible, but from within the park they almost disappear, thanks to layers of natural screening – grasses, bushes, flowers, and trees – and an ornamental iron fence.

One of the Halvorson Company’s subtlest but most satisfying solutions came about in response to the air vent challenge. A half-million-square-foot garage generates a lot of pollution and requires a continuous supply of clean air. Two vents, each 24 feet in circumference would be required to meet code, and would have to be at least eight feet tall. In short, what amounted to a pair of giant smokestacks had to be hidden in the park.  Halvorson placed them in a corner and hid them with a circle of thick evergreens. Further, instead of round holes, they are long and narrow, and fit in the space between the up and down auto ramps. Double-click on the photo above and look at the right-hand side of the park.  Even though they are eight feet high, the vents are functionally invisible; they're hiding in plain sight. 

Horticulture

An October Glory maple.
Trees sit in 42 inches of
rich loam.
Post Office Square is surrounded by shadow-casting tall buildings.  Also, it's a park on top of a garage - an enormous raised-bed garden.  Craig Halvorson specified 42 inches of topsoil over the whole site, a requirement that would allow trees to sink their roots into deep loam, but that would affect both the depth and the load-bearing capacity of the garage. The luxurious topsoil now supports scores of trees, some of them nearly 30 feet tall – one of the factors that makes the park seem so mature, broken in, and familiar. To make maximum use of available sunlight, Halvorson did solar studies and placed the Great Lawn and the perennial flower garden in the two sunniest locations.

The park's fountain on a spring day.
The park’s centerpiece is a walk-through sculptural fountain so whimsically user-friendly that, in summertime, office workers eating lunch often kick off their shoes to dip their feet in the fountain. A couple of yards away is a 143-foot-long formal garden trellis, supported by granite columns, draped with seven species of vines. The jewel-like Great Lawn is raised above the walkways by a granite curb, providing a relaxed retreat. There are seating styles to fit even the most finicky visitor – stately teak benches, curving steel settees, movable cast-iron cafĂ© chairs with tables, hundreds of linear feet of inviting polished granite wall, and half an acre of lawn. In summer, cushions are provided for those who want to sit on the lawn.  Here is a video about the cushions program.

Music in the park.
Post Office Square is a garden for four seasons and there are 125 species of plants, flowers, bushes, and trees in 1.7 acres. Halvorson's cultivar selection ensures that the park exhibits color every month: witch hazel blossoms in March, saucer magnolia petals and bright yellow forsythia sprigs in April, numerous flowers all spring and summer, red maple leaves in October, and deep green Norway spruce needles and red holly berries in the snows of January.

Interestingly, four of the park’s largest and most beautiful trees are ‘on loan’ from the Arnold Arboretum, where they were considered ‘excess specimens’ that did not quite meet the botanical garden’s exacting standards. These trees, some of which had grown at the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain for forty years, include a Hybrid Red Oak, an Eastern Arborvitae, and two Giant Western Arborvitae.  Here is a link to complete descriptions of those trees.
 
If I haven't made it sufficiently clear, The Norman B. Leventhal Park at Post Office Square is on my list of favorite parks in the world.  I think highly enough of it that I made it a clue to solving the mystery in 'Murder Imperfect'.  If you've never seen the park, you owe it to yourself to pay a visit.  If you live or work in Boston and don't use the park regularly, you're missing something wonderful.

November 2, 2014

November Mix


The November nor'easter.
The patch of blue in
the middle is snow.
A nor’easter blew through southern New England overnight.  The wind stripped the leaves off of many deciduous trees – not that leaves were exactly in abundance before the storm – leaving the landscape what I call ‘winter ready’: just add snow.  And, in fact, at about 9 a.m., the steady rain has shifted to that the meteorologists call a “wintry mix”.

            I enjoyed this autumn.  After a summer with mild temperatures but little rain, September came in with galoshes full of the stuff.  Despite temperatures dipping into the mid-thirties several times, we never experienced the hard frost that turns annuals black and causes perennials to cry out to be pruned to stubble.  In fact, we took apart the last half dozen container gardens last week; not because the annuals in them had died but, rather, because their coleus and calibrochoa had become leggy due to the days having grown so short.  There’s even lettuce in garden.

 
A view out the window.  The
snow is just visible.
          
It’s a good time to be outdoors. It’s just warm enough to take long walks and cool enough to appreciate being back inside when the walk is over.  On those walks your eye is attuned to catch the small things.  Winterberry grows in the edge of the woods on our property and, until November, I don’t notice it’s there.  This week, bare of leaves, the bright red berries stood out again the muted colors around it. 

This is what fothergilla 'Mt. Airy'
looked like yesterday morning.
November beings a sense of closure to the season.  We have multiple native shrubs in our garden – itea, devil’s ninebark, and several cultivars of fothergilla – that are putting on a final show of late autumn color this week.  But by the end of the month they, too, will succumb to the inevitable.  Then, all that is left to close out the season is a final mowing to mulch the season's leaves into the lawn to provide next spring's nutrients.

I grew up in a land that had no ‘autumn’; in Miami, November was just another month. It has taken decades to understand how important it is to see, feel and experience the changing of the seasons.  Winter will be here in a few weeks.  For now, I’m quite content to put off that inevitability.

 

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
leaves?
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
containers
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.