April 5, 2018

Qui Hortos?

What kind of a person gardens?  What attracts them to gardening?  Every year at this time, I get to answer those questions anew as 70 to 75 gardeners either sign up for or return to the community garden I help run.  There’s no application to fill out and so there is no line titled ‘occupation’.  I’ve certainly never demanded to know what people do with their time when they’re not gardening.  But some people tell me and sometimes their emails betray an occupation.  Others let the cat out of the bag gradually.

The Medfield Community Garden.
From the air, it looks quite orderly.
For example, we have a surgeon and at least two nurses.  I’ve gotten to know the surgeon fairly well.  For him, a few hours in the garden on a Sunday morning is what he needs to let go of the inevitable stress from his livelihood.  His garden is neat and orderly; something I like to see in someone who is going to make an incision in me.  Our resident school nurse also runs a tight ship, though her husband is an engineer, which might skew the results just a bit.  Another medical professional – an operating room nurse – has a garden so weed-free it’s spooky.

We also have an elementary school principal.  Her vegetables tended toward the ‘free range’ variety, but the veggies and flowers are all healthy and growing.  ‘Well-nurtured’ is an apt description, and I have a hunch that also describes her educational charges.

Our gardener who is an immigration
lawyers doesn't want to fences to
constrain his vegetables
The most inventive and exploratory gardens belong to our horticulturally-inclined scientists.  One is an academician whose plot runs to things like tomatillos and eye-wateringly hot peppers.  Another plot gardened by a chemist grows nine different types of lettuce and has precise squares of corn planted ten days apart.  I feel as though I am watching experiments unfolding.

It is my observation that attorneys do not necessarily make superior gardeners.  One of our number specializes in immigration.  His vines conspicuously meander all over his unfenced garden, as though he is loathe to limit vegetable mobility.  Another is in corporate law.  She’s just expanded from a half plot to a full one; perhaps the product of a successful takeover.

We’ve had a veterinarian for two years and are about to get a second one.  Our established vet keeps a great garden with exceptionally healthy plants that are kept free of disease and pests.  I can’t wait to see how the second one fares – especially given that her spouse is a conservation biologist.

This gardener has kids in middle
school.  I think her mind is elsewhere.
We have one banker in our midst.  And another one whose email identifies the individual as being a sales manager.  The less said about those two gardens, the better.

Our retirees fall into two categories.  The first is those for whom gardening forms a significant part of their recreation and weekly exercise.  They are a pleasure to have as gardening neighbors.  The condition of their plots bespeaks a life well lived, they grow copious amounts of produce, and they are quick to share their bounty with our local Food Cupboard.  The second group travels frequently and their gardens are, well, something of an afterthought.  They tend to sign up for a plot, plant it all at once, and water it too heavily and too often.  In mid-summer, they become annoyed by my asking them to weed their aisles.  After a year or perhaps two, they move onto the next retirement time-filler.

The final category are the stay-at-home moms and dads (and, yes, we have a few of the latter).  I thought there was no correlation between gardening and full-time parenting until I looked at the ages of the children accompanying their parents.  Those with toddlers and pre-school kids are terrific gardeners.  They use their plots as educational tools.  But, as the children age, the parental gardening skills decline.  By the middle school years, the weeds sprout with abandon (I have learned to take this into account when sending out reminders).  Equilibrium is miraculously restored with high school graduations.

I don’t believe these observations are colored by preconceptions.  I like all of my gardeners because they’ve chosen to garden.  In a world of choices, they’ve elected to get their hands dirty, and to do so among a crowd of like-minded people.  So, what kind of gardener am I?   A satisfied one.

March 29, 2018

A Late March Surprise

Yesterday, this area was
covered with snow.  Today
it bloomed with crocuses.

It hasn't snowed in ten days here in Medfield and the temperatures finally crept up above 50 yesterday and today. As a result, we're getting serious melting and we're seeing bare ground in many places. This afternoon. though, we got a surprise: the snow melted back from an area where we planted a large patch of crocuses two years ago. Less than a day after being snow-covered, the crocuses were in bloom.

Bees! At the end of March!
But the biggest surprise was still ahead. I went to photograph them and discovered the crocuses were covered with bees. This winter and last, Betty and I took steps to create habitats for native bees to overwinter.  It wasn’t all that hard:  instead of cutting our long perennial border to the ground, we left up a foot of stalk to provide a winter home for native bees.  Instead of taking every fallen branch to our town’s transfer station, we created protected nest areas with layers of branches. The only thing we did that was an out-of-pocket expense was to buy a bundle of bamboo tubes, which creates a kind of ‘bee hotel’.  Why do all that?  Because native bees don't live in hives; they're solitary critters.

A 'hotel' for native bees
This was likely the first nectar these bees have likely seen this year (witch hazel blooms in January and February, but is not usually planted by homeowners).  The ‘big’ flowers – azalea and rhododendron – are still months away.  Our choice of trees and shrubs is designed to ensure there’s always something in bloom.

When the amalanchier blooms
there will be lots of pollen to go
around for everyone
We also have good news for the bees that were around today: as soon as the snow recedes another foot, there's an even larger patch of purple crocuses waiting to burst into bloom.  And, with nearly 4000 bulbs on the property, there’s lots more pollen to come.  The next big slug will be when our amelanchier (shadbush) blooms in a week or so.  Its flowers last approximately two weeks and the shrub will be covered with

Take a look at the second photo, which is as great a magnification as I could get with a 6 megapixel point and shoot camera. The inset shows ones of the bees at work.

March 16, 2018

What Happened When I Didn’t Sleep In This Morning

This has been a crazy week for me.  The third nor’easter in as many weeks dropped two feet of snow and more or less cancelled Tuesday except for shoveling the white stuff.  But, before that, I had spent an afternoon at the ‘build’ for the Boston Flower & Garden Show where, playing to my strengths, I served as a typist for horticultural entries.  Thursday evening, Betty and I appeared before our town’s Conservation Commission to give our annual report on the state of the Community Garden – something that required considerable preparation to ensure a 30-minute preparation went smoothly.  All the while, I was also juggling the filling of the remaining spaces in that same Community Garden.

Typing entries for AmHort is
part of my skill set
Betty’s week was no less hectic than my own, but she also had two other things on her mind: she was speaking to a private group at the Flower Show with a ‘tailored’ presentation on one of her favorite topics; and she was scheduled to enter the Standard Flower Show this morning.  I was pressed into woodworking service (definitely not my strong suit) to create a suitable base for her entry. 

For the uninitiated, a ‘standard flower show’ proceeds according to a set of rules set down by National Garden Clubs, Inc.  There are four entries per ‘class’, and there may be multiple entry days.  The number of classes is limited by the imagination of the person writing the show’s schedule.  For this year’s show, there are twelve classes and two entry days. (There is also a concurrent ‘Open Class’, but that’s another story.)

The kind of design you
see at a Standard
Flower Show
Chairing the event, formally, ‘Celebrate the Season’, an NGC Design Specialty Flower Show as part of MassHort at the 2018 Boston Flower and Garden Show, is a remarkable woman named Lisa Pattinson.  Lisa is a banking executive by training.  A few years ago, during the interminable consolidation of banks in New England, Lisa found herself between jobs and decided to attend Flower Show School.  The next thing she knew, she stepped forward to run the Federation’s premier annual flower show event.  She had done so with a grit, determination, and resourcefulness that I find remarkable.

The realities of the Boston Flower and Garden Show’s 10 a.m. opening dictate that floral designers did their work between 5:30 a.m. and 8 a.m. this morning.  Judging starts at 8:30. At 10 a.m., the public pours in. 

Just a few years ago, the Seaport
District was a sea of parking lots.
The show is held the World Trade Center in Boston’s Seaport District.  Seaport is 18 miles as the crow flies from Medfield; 26 miles via the Southeast Expressway or the Massachusetts Turnpike, neither of which go anywhere near Medfield.  Betty’s plan was to arise at 4:20 a.m., be in her car at 4:50, and in Boston at 5:45 or so.  She would snag an on-street space and be designing before 6 a.m.  I would sleep in.

Now, it is office buildings, and
parking is, ummm, problematic
I had a slightly different idea.  I awakened her at 4:20 a.m. and we were both out the door at 4:50, sparing her the need to pound on the steering wheel in frustration at the idiots who drive the pre-dawn roads of New England; or marvel that there could be stop-and-go traffic on the Southeast Expressway at 5:15 a.m.  I let her off at Seaport at 5:45 and went in search for that elusive on-street space.  Not too many years ago, the area east of Boston’s Financial District (inexplicably called ‘South Boston’) was a sea of $5-a-day parking lots.  It is now a sea of office buildings and holes where office buildings are under construction.  Surface parking lots are a memory.  On-street spaces are illusory.  Parking is subterranean at daily rates only slightly less than first-class air fares to Europe.

So, I parked, and went in to see how Betty was faring.  Betty immediately told me to go away and that I was disturbing her concentration.  I walked over to Lisa Pattinson to say ‘hello’ and ask if there was any way I could be helpful.  My idea of being helpful is to move tables or help designers get flowers and tools out of their cars.

Lisa had slightly different idea.  Several paragraphs above, I explained there are four entries per floral design class.  Question: What happens if there are only two or three entries?  Answer: The class is not eligible for judging.  Question:  What happens if a designer calls and says her car is hanging off an overpass and the tow truck won’t be there until an hour from now?  Official answer: Tough luck.  The class is not eligible for judging.  Unofficial answer:  The Committee (meaning the people who run the flower show) will beg and borrow flowers and a container and create that fourth entry so that the class can be judged.

Floral design judges have no idea
who created the entry they're
Judges don’t know who designed what; they have only the object in front of them which the Committee has passed.  It is not unknown for a Committee-created design get the ‘blue’ for a class.

This morning, I co-created a design for a class.  Lisa grabbed me and a highly regarded designer who had completed her work.  Lisa showed us the materials we had available.  Together, we created an entry that adequately conformed to the schedule, allowing it and the other three entries to be judged.

If I am cagy about the nature of the entry, it is because it is generally considered unbecoming to claim any credit when the finished product is attributed to someone else (or, in this case, credited to the garden club of which my co-creator is a member).

But I’ve had my moment of glory.  For the first and last time in my life, I have worked with the same pressures as the floral designers whom I so much admire.  When it was finished, I stepped back and looked at what I had helped create.  And I thought, ‘not half bad’.

March 10, 2018

The Return of the Ogre

This month, for the ninth year in a row, I will go into a cave and come out wearing my Garden Ogre suit.  For the next seven months, I will prowl the Medfield Community Garden with one task: to tell 75 gardeners to weed their plots, tighten their fences, and be nice to one another.  I know with complete certainty that, by the end of October, half a dozen gardeners will hate me.  The rest will find me merely annoying.

Nine-and-a-half years ago, Betty and I cornered one of our town’s selectmen and complained that our town’s small Community Garden was a wreck.  Plots grew up in weeds and no one cared.  Two families took a quarter of the garden for themselves.  Water spigots leaked or didn’t work.  We demanded action.

Abandoned garden plots used to grow
up in weeds, like 'Mom's Garden'
What we got was a call from the Town Clerk, telling us we were to be sworn in as members of the Garden Committee.  After we took our oath, we asked who were the other members.  The answer was: “Just you; everyone else resigned.”

We generate publicity
seeking new gardeners
Betty and I took our newfound responsibility seriously.  A four-page list of Draconian ‘Rules’ became a single page of ‘guidelines’.  Articles appeared in the local papers seeking gardeners and new recruits showed up in droves.  Six thousand square feet of gardens were added, and then another 3,000 square feet, bringing the garden to a full acre in size.  New gardeners were encouraged to start with a 300-square-foot ‘half-plot’ space, and an early-Spring class on vegetable gardening became a staple at the town library.

It all sounds idyllic, except even ‘guidelines’ need to be enforced.  The secret to having 75 people gardening together is to ensure that everyone plays nice.  That’s where the Ogre comes in. 

Weeds along the fence
My number one responsibility is to ensure everyone keeps the paths around their garden weed-free.  It’s a simple request: every week, spend five minutes pulling any grass or weeds that are in the three-foot-wide aisles and, especially, along your fence line.  If you have a front-row garden, there are fifteen gardeners behind you who depend on being able to walk by your plot unmolested. 

Yet, every year, gardeners decide it’s not their job.  It begins with weeds growing in their fence and, left unchecked, escalates until there’s a carpet of crabgrass that will spew billions of seeds into every plot.  I start with kind notes: “Hey, the next time you’re at the garden, could you take a few minutes and weed the aisles?”  Some people comply, others don’t.  The next note is just a little testy: “Hey, I’m getting complaints about the weeds in your aisles.  Please take care of them.”  This send-and-ignore pas-de-deux continues until I send out one that says, “Weed your fence line and aisles or else I’ll do it.  And if I do it, you lose your garden.”  That’s the note the recipient posts to social media to show how a simple, friendly community endeavor has devolved into a dystopian nightmare.

Common sense says not
to shade your neighbors
As the season progresses, the problems escalate to include ten-foot-high sunflowers and eight-foot-high stalks of corn.  With just three feet between gardens, common sense says not to grow stuff that casts a shadow over your neighbors’ plot.  Yet, some gardeners insist it their Flora-the-Goddess-of-Gardening-given-right to not only grow this stuff at the back of their plot (where it shades the front of the adjacent garden), but to use it as a border around their garden, thereby shading everyone in sight.
Out go the memos, with predictable results.

I take photos of
rogue squash vines
Come August, two things happen.  First, everyone goes away for two weeks.  And, second, everyone’s squash vines run amok.  The vines push out fences, turning three-foot passageways into Amazonian-caliber jungle pathways where machetes are required for navigation.  I plead via email for cooperation and receive replies from Patagonia where, I’m informed, the skiing is wonderful but they’ll take care of the vines just as soon as their holiday is over and they’ve ‘decompressed’.  Some express amazement that ‘Madison’, who had faithfully pledged to tend their garden in their absence, hasn’t stopped by.

Then comes the end of the season.  Most gardeners clear their plots during September, even though they have until the end of October.  The days are shorter and few things are ripening.   A few gardeners, though, just stop gardening; leaving everything in place with predictable results.  Three gardeners did this in the autumn of 2017.  Oh, they finally took down their fence and cleared the plot, but not before the weeds were two feet high.  They were livid when I told them their plots were being given away.

Now, it’s March, and the process has started all over again.  Between people ‘aging out’ and moving away, I have nine plots to fill with up to 18 gardeners.  The newspaper articles began appearing last week and the response has been enthusiastic.  Everyone who inquires gets a copy of those Gardening Guidelines with a plea to read them before they send a check.  Everyone says they have so.  In theory, this year should be one of bonhomie and bountiful harvests of well-contained squash. 

But I’m not counting on it.

February 26, 2018

Brookfield, Real and Imagined

An opportunity to expiate my sins...

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to atone for an eight-year-old crime.  I didn’t know until a year and a half ago I had committed it but, by then, it was too late to do anything about it.  The worst part is that, even when I knew what I was doing, I didn’t stop.

Nine years ago, Betty came home from a meeting of the Medfield Garden Club and said, “You won’t believe what I heard this morning.”  I asked her to tell me all about it.  She told me about an elderly member of the club who had had been repeatedly ignored by the teenaged clerks at a local drugstore, and her walking out of the store without paying for $1.98 of photos.  How had the woman gotten away with this act of larceny?  Her answer when I asked: “I’m 71 years old.  I’m invisible.”

A light bulb went off in my head. 

Betty was designing at the fair...
Ten days later, I made an early morning, 50-mile drive with Betty from Medfield to the Topsfield Fair, where she was entered in a floral design competition.  I was banished from the building where she was creating her arrangement.  I went outside and noted the proximity of the fair’s ‘Flowers’ building with its main entrance and administration building.  As I mentally noted the cluster, I watched as an armored truck pulled in, parked in front of the administration building, two men walked into the building and returned a minute later with bags of, presumably, money.  Thirty seconds later, they were gone. 

Which is when I realized I had the plot of a book: what would happen if four ‘women of a certain age’ used their invisibility to rob the daily gate of a New England fair?  At the Topsfield Fair a few days later, I confirmed a hunch:  that in an era of debit and credit cards, green is still king at fairs.  There’s a lot of cash sloshing around.

Six months later I had the draft of ‘The Garden Club Gang’.  I also had a problem: for reasons that become obvious in the book, I couldn’t make the Topsfield Fair the setting of the heist.  I needed to invent one.  I looked at a map of Massachusetts.  Marshfield also has a fair, and the idea of the ‘(Blank)field Fair’ seemed appropriate.  I ruled out ‘Riverfield’ and ‘Meadowfield’.  I couldn’t find a ‘Brookfield’ on the map and had never heard of such a town.  And so, the heist took place at the Brookfield Fair.

‘The Garden Club Gang’ was an instant hit.  Everyone loved the four ladies and women quickly identified with the characters.  When I began speaking to garden clubs four years ago, I incorporated a segment about the book’s origins as part of my talk.  Instead of tailing off, sales of the book soared.

There really is a town of Brookfield!
Fast-forward to September 2016.  Betty and I were returning from a trip to the Berkshires on the Mass Pike.  Just as we got to the Palmer exit, traffic came to a complete stop.  We made what seemed like a wise decision and got off onto local roads, only to come a cropper with an even worst morass of traffic leaving the Brimfield Antiques Fair (which sprawls along several miles of Route 20, paralleling the Pike).  We started taking any side road that seemed to point us even vaguely east.  Forty-five minutes later, we found ourselves entering the town of…. Brookfield.

The real and imaginary towns are
48 miles apart
It was a beautiful little town of 3500 people.  Just like the one I describe in the book.  Except that it was in the wrong place.  ‘My’ Brookfield is located 48 miles east, along I-495, roughly where the real town of Stow lies. 

I had a dilemma.  In seven years, no one had ever mentioned that there was a town called Brookfield in southern Worcester County.  I had spoken to groups in nearby towns with nary a peep.  Worse, a second Garden Club Gang book, ‘Deadly Deeds’, repeated the error from the first book; a character who lives in ‘my’ Brookfield makes appearances in other books; and I made Brookfield the home of the infamous Joey McCoy of ‘How to Murder Your Contractor’ – who complains about the traffic on 495.

I had quite a crowd...
Then, three months ago, I was invited by the ‘real’ Brookfield Garden Club to come present ‘Gardening in Murder’.  The presentation was yesterday.  The Fellowship Hall of the Brookfield Congregational Church was packed.  Before the projector came on, I confessed everything... all the duplicity, including that I have just completed yet another Garden Club Gang installment that soft-peddles the canard that Brookfield is located where it isn’t.

My audience took it with good grace and, for that, I am thankful.  If you are ever in central Massachusetts, I encourage you to make a stop in Brookfield.  It is, indeed, a lovely New England village with a storied history and friendly people.

Just don’t ask them about their fair…

February 5, 2018

Another February 5th, Forty Years Ago...

Forty years ago this morning, my wife and I started on a fantastic journey, which turned out to be a little more ‘unscheduled’ than we expected.  After living in Chicago for two years, I had accepted a job in New York City.  On the morning on February 5, Betty and I boarded a 7:30 flight at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport bound for New York LaGuardia.  Our flight time was supposed to be 90 minutes.  We were told there was ‘some snow’ in the New York area but that we should arrive on time at 10 a.m.  We carried four large suitcases plus two carry-ons with us (this was before airlines discovered they could mint money by charging for such things).

The Blizzard of '78 shut down the
Northeast for more than a week
At a few minutes before ten, we were circling LaGuardia and the ‘some snow’ was getting much more serious.  At one point we were told we were next in line to land.  Then, after half an hour of circling, the announcement came that LaGuardia had just closed due to weather conditions and that we would be diverted to Bradley Field north of Hartford.

We landed at Hartford in blinding snow, the last plane to do so before that airport, too, was closed.  Our airline (I believe it was American) gave passengers the option of being taken by bus the fifty miles to New Haven where we could get the train for New York, or being put up ‘overnight’ at a hotel near the airport.

Betty grew up in the Finger Lakes of New York state, the land of ‘lake effect’ snow that can drop two feet of the stuff overnight.  She took a look at the snow and said, “We can do this.”  At noon, thirty intrepid passengers stowed their luggage on the bus and we headed south.

Double-click to see snowfall
totals - we landed right in the
thick of the thing.
Fifteen miles south of Hartford in swiftly deteriorating conditions, our bus skidded off the road and – very fortunately – into a guard rail.  It was fortunate because the guard rail was all that stood between us a steep ravine.  The bus could go no further.  Miraculously, another bus was dispatched, picked us up, and we slowly made out way down to New Haven.

It took three hours to reach New Haven and we feared we had missed the last New-York-bound train.  But there were people on the platform and so we lugged our many suitcases and waited.  A few minutes later, an Amtrak train pulled in.  It was now 4 p.m.  The train had left Boston at 6 a.m.  and would, as it turned out, the only train to make the trek that day.  Had we been a few minutes later, we would have been stranded in New Haven for the duration.

Note the fifth bullet...
There were no seats on the train; we sat on our luggage in one of the passenger compartments.  But at least we were inside the train.  Most of those who boarded at New Haven spent the next several hours in the unheated vestibule between cars.  Pushing snow in front of it, the train made it to Penn Station at about 8 p.m.

I had done one intelligent thing that day.  At Bradley Field, I had called my employer’s Manhattan office and pleaded for someone to walk over to the Statler Hilton and pay for our room, get a key, and leave it with the concierge.

It turned out to be a prescient move.  We arrived to a city that had shut down, stranding tens of thousands of travelers and commuters in the city.  Seventh Avenue was covered with two feet of snow and almost nothing moving.  A porter helped get our suitcases across the street to the hotel where we found a mob of people occupying every square foot of sleepable surface.  I went the concierge desk and held my breath.

A minute later, I held up the key for Betty to see.  Twelve hours after we left Chicago, we were finally in New York.
* * * * *
This is what we saw when we
got off the subway in Brooklyn
The blizzard turned out to be a fortunate event for us.  While the city was paralyzed, the subways were running on the subterranean part of their routes.  Two days after our arrival, a Realtor met us in Boerum Hill in Brooklyn. “If you can get here, I’ll show you houses,” she told us.  We emerged from the subway to a landscape of unplowed streets, with a police car – immobilized up to its windows in snow – blocking an intersection.  A bus sat abandoned in snow drifts in front of the brownstone we were there to see.

It was the house we had looked for in vain in Chicago.  Betty and I squeezed one another’s hand so tightly I nearly broke her fingers.  We made an offer that day, counter-offered over dinner that evening at the then-newly-opened River CafĂ©, and had our offer accepted over dessert.

211 Bergen Street in Boerum Hill.
We planted that tree in front, at left.
That was 40 years ago.  It was a time before cell phones, the internet or reliable forecasts.  Today, of course, everyone knows to stay home .  Passengers on the 7:30 flight from Chicago to New York are called the night before and told their flight has been cancelled and they have been re-booked for Thursday.  In short, apart from ones based on stupidity, there are a lot fewer ‘blizzard stories’ today.

But I wouldn’t have had it any other way.  It was an adventure – albeit a harrowing one at the time.  We got through it and we found the house of our dreams, made possible in large part by our perseverance.

February 2, 2018

Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams

For New England gardeners, January and February are a single, 59-day-long morass of cold, miserable weather which we know is killing our shrubs; punctuated by the occasional thaw that we are certain is unceremoniously heaving our perennials out of the ground. We can’t wait for March to come.

This is what 30 inches of
snow looks like
But, thinking about being buried under two feet of snow by winter storm Liam, Quinn, Skylar, or Toby (which are actual names chosen for 2018 by meteorologists whose sense of humor escapes me) is just too depressing. 

Accordingly, optimistic gardeners place seed orders and tend their houseplants.  However, I’m not allowed to place seed orders.  I always go straight for the most whimsically named vegetables (think ‘Lettuce Entertain You’ and ‘Beets Me’), even if they’re 180 days to maturity in a climate where 150 days is stretching the boundary of common sense.  I also fail to read the fine print (“One plant will produce enough zucchini to feed Latvia for a year, although our taste panel agrees it has both the aroma and texture of well-worn gym socks...”).  

I’m also off the houseplant watering detail ever since a minor mishap with a fern that resulted in three inches of water in our basement a few years back.  The less said about this unfortunate event, the better.

The Scott Arboretum encompasses
pretty much the entirety of the
Swarthmore College campus
So, instead of having responsibility for actual plants and such, Betty gives me the task of planning warmer-weather, horticulture-centric travel.  For example, I need to be in Philadelphia in the latter part of May.  I’ve already added two days to that trip to get re-acquainted with Longwood, Chanticleer, Winterthur, and the Scott Arboretum after a too-long absence. 

The Beatrix Farrand garden in Maine.
It's on our to-do list for 2018.
To me, ‘big’ gardens are more than just spectacles; they also contain educational elements for those of us who don’t have hundred-acre estates.  The Scott Arboretum (essentially, the entire campus of Swarthmore College) is a practical demonstration of how to combine ecology, horticulture, and botany into a home landscape.  The fact that the Arboretum represents the vision of acclaimed horticulturalist Claire Sawyer, who is now in her 28th year as its Director, is all the more reason to check in for a refresher.

I’m also going to head north (or is that down east?).  Last year I saw the Coastal Maine Botanical Garden for the first time (shame on me…). That visit was in June.  This year it will be in a different month and I intend to also see the Beatrix Farrand Garden and a few other historic properties in that state.

And, we've blocked off a week in
September to see Yosemite.
As long as I’m planning, how about something outside of the Northeast?  I sometimes feel as though I spent an entire year of my life on airplanes commuting between Boston and San Jose or San Francisco.  On those business trips, I flew over Yosemite National Park a hundred times without ever managing to visit it.  I have decreed this is the year I rectify that omission.  It will likely be in the fall, after most of the tourists have decamped.  It was America’s first National Park and still, arguably, its most dramatic.

The thermometer outside my window says it is 18˚ right now.  But, just by writing this, I’m already starting to feel as though I just might make it through this winter intact.  

January 2, 2018

All Praise the Common Houseplant

All Praise the Common Houseplant

 “All the leaves are brown and the sky is gray…”
California Dreaming, John Phillips and Michelle Phillips

The winter of 2017-2018 will be remembered as the one when the leaves forgot to fall from the trees.  It wasn’t the trees’ fault, of course, it was a combination of a too-warm October coupled with copious rain that caused trees to produce too little of the chemical that tells leaves it’s time to decamp for their golden future as compost.  As a result, the view out my window, since early November, has been a sad blend of browns and grays.  Welcome to winter in eastern Massachusetts, a condition that will persist in some variation for the next three months.

Which is why this essay is all about houseplants and why they’re treasured in this household. 

This croton - now more
than a decade old -
tolerates winter's low
sunlight yet provides
glorious color
I grew up with year-round outdoor greenery and flowers.  Nominally, I appreciated that subtropical splendor.  In reality, it was part of a background that I took for granted and too often found inconvenient.  When periodically ordered to cut back the hibiscus hedge or grub out the aracea palms that were spreading into the lawn, I piled imaginary term papers on top of one another as excuses not to sully my hands with such chores (to no avail, of course).

This morning, I marveled at our multiple crotons (formally, Codiaeum variegatum) that provide a rainbow of reds, yellows and greens in each leaf, yet tolerate the weak light of January and February.  Back in Florida, they were just one more thing on my to-do list of plants to be clipped back before they overflowed onto the sun porch. 

There are cultivars of begonias in many rooms, each an adventure to be appreciated.  A Rex Begonia 'Paso Doble’ that bloomed prolifically on our screened porch all summer still provides a wonderful palette of reds and pinks in its leaves as it brightens our bedroom.  How many plants can make that claim?

This Rex Begonia 'Paso Doble' spent
its summer on our screened porch.  It
has made the transition to indoors.
A houseplant need not be exotic, or even in bloom, to provide visual enjoyment.  Ferns occupy ledges and shelves in several rooms.  A single peace lily (Spathiphyllum) received as gift a decade ago has begat dozens of offspring that populate not only our own home but those of friends. They are cheerfully green the year round.  This time of year, their regal white flowers – plain by the standards set by many other plants – are welcome additions to rooms’ color. 

We purchase houseplants that appeal to us.  Some have lofty pedigrees from famous nurseries.  Others are commoners. There is a kalanchoe next to me as this is written. It is one of the most ordinary of houseplants, yet it is budding up in yellow for its umpteenth annual display of winter color atop leather-tough, dark-green leaves.

A simple fern provides a spot of
color amid a gloomy backdrop
A few of our plants are snowbirds.  The cyclamen in our kitchen window spent six months last year planted in our garden, where it strengthened its root system and bulb even as its foliage needed to be shaded from the sun.  Dug in October, it is now in the early stage of a winter bloom of majestic purple.   Thanks to tissue cultures, the availability and variety of orchids has proliferated even as their price has plummeted.  Nor are houseplants necessarily greedy.  Philodendron and cacti seem to thrive with minimal attention (a Sanseveria trifoliate, better known as ‘Mother-in-Law’s tongue’, survived in my Aunt Virginia's house for decades with little more than periodic dusting).

We have more than thirty houseplants this winter, a happy mix of the ordinary and the extraordinary.  There is no rhyme or reason to what we have.  Each plant came to us through serendipity; each remains because it has thrived in our home.

Me, in a warmer clime, avoiding
trimming back the hibiscus
I don’t often offer unsolicited advice, but here is some:  if you're here in New England or some place with a 'real' winter, this weekend, take a trip to a nursery with a selection of blooming houseplants.  If one (or more) strikes your fancy, take it home with you. 

And, if you happen to be reading this from a subtropical climate, stop complaining and go out and trim back the hibiscus like you were told to.

November 30, 2017

Winter May Be Coming

The jet stream spent much of October
touring the Maritime Provinces
I cannot remember a more pleasant autumn.  The jet stream spent the month of October touring Quebec and the Maritime Provinces, giving southern New England the longest growing season (and warmest October) in the record books.  When you’re still picking arugula and harvesting chard the day after Halloween, it’s easy to convince yourself that winter may be postponed indefinitely.

My wakeup call that this was wishful thinking came with a thud the evening of November 11.  That night, the temperature plunged to 23 in Boston and as much as ten degrees colder in even close-in suburbs.  The thermometer on our porch read 17 degrees.  Overnight, the leaves on our hydrangeas went from green to black and that arugula turned to mush.

I am not by nature a procrastinator (my wife’s laughter at this notion notwithstanding) but I had, quite justifiably, been putting off a lengthy list of end-of-season chores because, well, I thought we might still need those 280 gallons of rainwater in our rain barrels and cat litter jugs.  Imagine my surprise when I found the water in those jugs was frozen solid and it took a hammer and chisel to break the ice in the rain barrels.  Three sets of outdoor hoses were also frozen; fortunately, none had split.

NOAA is on record as saying this
will likely be a warmer than
normal winter...
I had also deferred picking up the various ornaments that populate our garden on the grounds that they are attractive and bring joy to our lives. They are also quite heavy.  My procras… excuse me, my reasonable delay in bringing them in cost a concrete turtle a leg and a fish a fin.  When I get around to gluing them back together, they’ll be just like new.

It took ten days (you may remember it rained a lot), but the barrels eventually were emptied and bleached.  A few days later, the newly sanitized jugs went into winter quarters in the basement.  I even helped take apart the summer container gardens despite my pointing out that several of them still had guara and salvia in bloom.

We don’t rake leaves as a rule.  Rather, we treat them as a winter mulch for plants and home for beneficial insects.  However, Betty pointed out that the maple tree at the front of our property had dropped all its leaves on the gravel, off-street parking pad.  Moreover, the wind had blown those leaves into two-foot-deep drifts along a rock wall.  I said they would be much lighter and easier to move after they dried for a few more weeks.  The day after Thanksgiving I was handed a rake and a tarpaulin. 

... While the Weather Channel has
New England being colder...
I still am waiting on putting out the driveway markers.  You see, there’s a La Nina setting up shop in the Pacific Ocean.  The Old Farmers Almanac predicts seasonal temperatures with above-average precipitation, but NOAA just released a map showing New England with a 40% chance of warmer than normal temperatures.  But a Boston-area meteorologist and blogger named Dave Epstein points out that when November is colder than average, the odds of a snowier than average winter…  You get the idea.

I think I’ll wait until these forecasters reach a consensus.  Then I’ll decide when it’s time to put out the markers.  Unless, of course, the ground is frozen, in which case I’ll have to find the metal stake I use to punch through the soil.  And the mallet.  I think I’ve misplaced that, too.

October 30, 2017

Thank You, Dorothy Jasiecki

Dorothy Jasiecki, circa 1967
This weekend I will make a pilgrimage to a place that will always hold a special meaning to me, and to see people I came to know in the first two decades of my life.  It’s my 50th high school reunion.  Interestingly, I suspect the people with whom I’ll spend the most time will have a common denominator: a teacher named Dorothy Jasiecki.

Me in 1967.  The less
said, the better
I am by trade a writer, and I say that with pride.  For 35 years, I plied a very different craft that occasionally required me to put words to paper, but which I can say with complete honesty never gave me anything like the personal and professional satisfaction I have felt for the past twelve years.  The reason this blog exists is because writers, like (for example) pianists, need to practice.  Just as a pianist does not sit down at a concert grand and begin playing ‘The Appassionata’, so a writer does not go to his or her keyboard and begin writing that Great American Novel.  The pianist begins with ‘etudes’ – literally, study pieces - that stretch the fingers and make the mind warm up. 

This blog is my equivalent of an etude.  It is about gardening because I am married to a virtuoso gardener and I am her helper, and also because writing about gardening is considerably more interesting than opining about, say, politics or wine.  Each entry is as carefully thought through as a short story and is polished to fit within a prescribed length.

Me, earlier this
month.  The less
said the better
I am a writer because, from September 1964 until June 1967, Dorothy Jasiecki taught me to love language, literature and words.  She had been recruited by a young principal named John M. Jenkins to teach at a spanking new school, Miami Springs Senior High School.  I was in one of her classes that first year strictly by happenstance.  The following two years, she was my English teacher by design.

Miss Jasiecki (the notion of calling teachers by anything other than ‘Mister’, ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs.’ lay many years in the future) created and followed a lesson plan that ensured we read and mastered the material that would appear on tests.  What made her so extraordinary was how she conveyed that information and that she demanded we go far beyond what was required by the Dade County Board of Public Instruction.  She effectively had a second syllabus, one of her own devising, that was intended to stretch – and open - our minds. 

Our reading list was designed to
stretch the mind
Part of her methodology was to reach deep into her own knowledge of literature to awaken our own senses.  She spent much of one class session reading Beowulf in a way that I felt I was gathered around a hearth fire, listening to oral tradition being made.  We delved into poetry far beyond Emily Dickinson or Robert Frost and spent several days dissecting The Wasteland and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock; titles that almost certainly were not sanctioned by the bureaucrats at Lindsey Hopkins.

The balance of her teaching style was to challenge us to think about what we were reading.  To be in her class meant you came to school prepared, and ‘prepared’ meant you had not only read the assigned book but that you had understood it.  And God forbid you came into class spouting something from Cliff’s Notes.  (I tried that once and was found out almost immediately.)

All of this was leavened with philosophy and humor.  The final five minutes of class could comprise a discourse on the importance of shaking hands or a treatise on elbows.  These ‘sermonettes’ as we called them stretched us further still, if for no other reason than because we had no idea of what was coming next.

Miss Jasiecki was a tough grader.  I made very few ‘A’s’ in her class.  But I tried harder than I did in any other subject both because she expected it and I knew it pleased her. 

She was recognized for her skills.  Florida named her a ‘Star Teacher’ and sent her on a statewide tour with a similarly high achieving student from my class.  My great hope is that she inspired other educators as much as she inspired us.

At the 2007 reunion with Ms. J.
That's classmate Jane Greer at right
I last saw Miss Jasiecki ten years ago at my 40th reunion and spent much of one evening doing nothing but listening to her reminisce about her years in the classroom.  Time had taken its toll on her body, though not on her mind.  It turns out that her best memories were of her first years at Miami Springs and at her predecessor school, Norland High. 

She passed away in 2015.  Were she alive, she would have turned 92 today.  And, in an important sense, Dorothy Jasiecki is still very much alive in 2017.  She touched thousands of lives and, for a certain number of them (including mine), she left an indelible impression that transcends time.  She still looks over my shoulder as I write; ‘tsking’ at lax grammar and use of ‘easy’ adjectives.

Ms. J circa 2015
We did not all become writers or poets.  We went into computer science, sales, engineering or education; we raised families or went into the military.  But we all learned how to think and, regardless of future occupation, that skill made us better individuals.

Principal Jenkins attracted a pool of talent in those first years that made Miami Springs a school unlike any other.  I had many teachers – Jack Gonzalez, Agustin Ramirez, and Phil Giberson come immediately to mind – who were outstanding and committed to quality education.  But I can draw a direct line back to Dorothy Jasiecki and say, without hesitation, that she was the teacher who most inspired me.  I would not be the person I am today were it not for her.

Happy birthday, Dorothy Jasiecki, and thank you for being the teacher you were, and the inspiration you still are.