May 4, 2015

One Potato, Two Potato...

The landscaper didn’t bother to reach down and pick up a handful of dirt to assess its merits.  Not that he could have.  Instead, he just tried unsuccessfully to loosen a clod with his heel.  After three attempts he shook his head.

At our new home all we have
is 'builder's crud' - rock and
more rock
“I see this all the time,” he said.  “Builder’s crud.  There’s nothing you can do with it.”

Fifty feet away from where we were standing was a silent testament to the truth of his statement: a large pile of stones and a few square feet of brownish-gray ground where, a week earlier, I had used our ancient, wheezing rototiller.  Every few feet the rototiller would go ‘clunk’ as it struck more ‘potatoes’, as Rocks Of A Certain Size are known in the parlance of the landscaping industry.  Three hours with my EconoHorse convinced me this was not a do-it-yourself project.

He was not the first landscaper we contacted and he would not be the last.  We spoke with four in all, each one delivering the same message:  we have a very expensive problem on our hands.

The problem is that, at our new home, we want a garden, not a lawn.  If all we wanted was a lawn, ‘builder’s crud’ would be fine as a base.  Just add six inches of top soil and spray on grass seed.  If we wanted a lawn with a few trees, we need only whack a hole through the rocks with a pickax and add a little compost.

Digging a simple foot-deep
trench to lay an electrical
line produced this much rock
When we explained that there would be no grass on the property, the landscapers’ mouths would form a little ‘oh’.  That’s when kicking the ground would begin.

The solution was a variant on this:  dig out the top eighteen inches of crud.  Truck it off or use it to create berms, walls, and other topographical features on the property.  Next, bring in two feet of good, screened loam, plus peat moss, plus compost.  Top it off with mulch. Then, plant anything you want.

How much loam will it take to create this garden?  Let’s do the math:  Let’s say the property has 120 front feet and all but ten feet of that width (the driveway) will be garden.  The house is set back 75 feet from the street.  So, the front garden is 8,250 square feet.  Multiply that by two feet of loam for a requirement of 16,500 cubic feet of loam.  Translate that into cubic yards: 611.

Our garden on Wild Holly
Lane was beautiful, but
required a lot of work
And that’s the front part of the property. There’s also the back and the side, though it is a little less daunting in size.  Does anyone want to venture a guess as to the cost of a cubic yard of screened loam?

As one of the landscapers delicately put it, “the cost of my crew for three or four days will be a minor component of this job.”

So, why are we doing this?  The reason is simple.  Over a period of sixteen years, Betty created a stunningly beautiful garden at our home on Wild Holly Lane.  We opened it for the Garden Conservancy among other charitable organizations, and the Wall Street Journal did a very nice piece on it.  But the garden ultimately became a maintenance burden.  The new garden will retain the beauty of Wild Holly Lane while making low maintenance a key factor in the choice of plant material and overall design.  It will emphasize (though not be limited to) native plants, and will put into practice all of the things that Betty has emphasized in her garden talks and writing.

My job will continue to be to move rocks and dig holes.  The ‘builder’s crud’, I’m leaving to the experts with their heavy machinery.

April 8, 2015

Tabula Rasa

What on earth have I gotten myself into?

Back at our old home, the snow is quickly melting off the lawn and gardens, revealing grass that awaits only a light raking to spring to new life.  Daffodils, warmed by the house’s foundation, are heading up for a mid-April bloom.  The buds, too, are swelling on hundreds of mature flowering trees and shrubs.

The house is finished, but now it
needs a garden....
This morning, I gazed out the window of our new home where, also, the snow is receding.  But what is revealed is… mud.  Nothing but mud.  Gray mud that last fall was compressed into the consistency of concrete by trucks, trailers and cranes parked for weeks at a time.

This is the site of our new garden. 

 Let us backtrack a few months.  Last year we found the ideal location for the home we plan to reside in until we are carried out, feet first.  It was a wonderful site but sitting on it was a dilapidated house.  Around that house was a forest of aging pines, a thicket of invasive barberry and burning bush, plus a lush garden of poisonous black swallowwort.

We had the house torn down and a wide area of trees and undergrowth removed.  Betty began planning a low-maintenance garden.  Then winter set in and our gardening plans were played in abeyance.

Now, we are ready to begin turning that tabula rasa into a garden, or at least begin gardening when the ground thaws.

To turn that concrete-like dirt into gardening soil we have a rototiller.  AARP just sent it a membership application.  We purchased our Troy-Bilt EconoHorse in 1980 and used it happily for ten years.  Then we moved and then moved again, taking along our rototiller because it had served us so well and we expected that one day we would use it again.  The last time either one of us can definitively remember using it was during the Clinton administration.

Our circa 1980 rototiller
Two weeks ago we hauled our rototiller to the place that has kept our snow blower running for a decade and asked whether the EconoHorse could be saved or should it be put down.  A group of employees gathered around it and gazed, awestruck that such a machine could still exist and not have been reduced to rust.  A technician gave a tentative pull on the engine and said there was hope. 

Three days ago our aging rototiller came home, renewed with a host of sparkling new belts, hoses, and other parts, and ready to do its best.

But while the machine is the same, the man behind that TroyBilt is not the same guy who, in 1980, created a 50 by 200 foot garden in a single weekend of sweaty, muscular grit and determination.  That was more than half a lifetime ago.  He is 35 years older and those muscles, while they have exactly atrophied, aren’t what they were once upon a time.

And, tilling that dirt is just the first step toward turning it into soil.  There needs to be truckloads of compost worked into it plus whatever else a soil test tells us it needs.  Then, there are dozens of shrubs to plant, grasses and perennials to place, and paths to create.

Like I wrote at the beginning of this essay, what have I gotten myself into?

We do these things out of love.  We also do these things because we want to prove to ourselves that we still possess the stamina to carry out a major project that is long on physical effort.  Mostly, we do these things because we want to be able to say that we had a hand in creating something beautiful.  But, all the same, get ready to pass the Advil.

February 10, 2015

It's Winter, and I'm Content

Let me admit this at the outset:  I did not see snow until I was twenty years old.  In fact, on that first occasion, in December 1969, I drove 200 miles from Gainesville, Florida to Augusta, Georgia for the sole purpose of seeing genuine flakes of the stuff falling from the sky.

February 1960.  No snow.  That's me
standing in the center.
My Florida upbringing notwithstanding, I have seen a lot of snow since.  A little over two years after that first encounter, I was ensconced in what I genuinely believed was the Snow Capital of the World: Schenectady, New York.  There, it is said, the snow never melts.  Instead, by June, enough soot collects on the top of the snow to support grass and flowers for a few months.

I have been in one snow mecca or another ever since, including a total of 25 years in the Boston area.  In short, despite a late start, I believe I have paid my snow dues. 

This latest round of snow - Marcus -
brings the 30-day snow total to
more than 60 inches
My wife, Betty, on the other hand, is from the upstate New York snow belt.  She has childhood tales of reaching out her second floor window to make snowballs from the lake-effect-fueled drifts.  Her definition of a ‘white Christmas’ is that it must actually be snowing on the morning of December 25.  I bow to the truth that she was shoveling snow as a child while I refused to go in swimming because the ocean temperatures at Miami Beach had dipped to a nippy 75 degrees.

For nine months of the year, our disparate upbringings have no bearing on our life together.  But when the snow starts falling heavily, my wife reverts to the fervent belief that I came to New England on the back of a mango truck sometime in the last few months.  When it comes to snow removal at our home, she is the boss and I am there mostly for comic relief.

Betty is the master of the snow blower
There is one final element of this story that needs to be told:  for the past fifteen years we have lived in a home with a winding, 220-foor-long driveway.  At the top of that driveway is a three-car garage that – likely as an architectural version of a practical joke – faces the street rather than ‘loading’ from the side.  All snow needs to be pulled away from the garage; not pushed past it.  Add an area for backing in, and you are talking about a little over 3000 square feet of asphalt that must be cleared each and every snowfall. 

And, there is a ‘part two’ of that final element:  along the driveway and close to the house are glorious beds of plants and trees that should never have excessive snow piled on them.  Plus a sidewalk.  And some pathways that lead to things like our compost bin and side door into the garage. 

A truck wielding a snow plow is impractical (those front-facing garage doors leave no ‘terminus’ to push the stuff).  Thus, there are no easy solutions when you are serious about not damaging a garden.  This is ‘retail’ snow removal, not ‘wholesale’.

All of this is manageable if the snowfall amounts to a few inches.  Using a ‘pusher’, I move the snow beyond what we call the ‘no throw’ zone, and we then shovel or use a snow blower to throw the stuff onto the lawn or into the woods.  Piece of cake.

My job is to keep the edges crisp
and even
The relentless series of storms that have encompassed New England for the past month had dropped more than 70 inches of the white stuff on our town.  That volume of snow calls for extraordinary measures and Betty devises the battle plan because she is the one who designed these gardens.  And so she commands the Ariens snow blower with its 20-inch-high maw and wide augur.  My job… is to clean up the edges and do any heavy lifting required.

I will be the first to admit that she does an extraordinary job of it.  The remnants of storms Juno, Linus and, now, Marcus, have been dealt with not just efficiently, but with an eye to managing snow melt if and when things warm up.  I will also acknowledge that I could not have done nearly as well.

In the meantime, though, my work on the edges is crisp and even.  I do have my pride.

Snow removal is supposed to be ‘guy’ stuff.  Our next-door neighbor has a tractor-cum-snow blower that is the envy of every guy on the street.  He can clear his driveway (with its side-loading garage) in half an hour, then do wheelies out in the street. 

It takes us considerably longer but, tomorrow morning, our driveway will be down to black pavement while all of our neighbors drive on a thin coat of ice.  Moreover, our mailbox is readily accessible to our carrier despite being ground zero for an entire street’s worth of snow.

No, I didn’t just arrive here from the land of the tropics.  Sometimes, though, you have to acknowledge that someone else has a ‘better idea’ of how to do these things.  Is it a product of being snow-belt born and bred?  I don’t know. 

I just do what I’m told.  But, in the back of my mind, I known darn good and well that I can husk a coconut ten times as fast as Betty any day of the week.

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.


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.


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. 


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
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…).