September 28, 2016

Extending the Season

There’s a gardening axiom in Eastern Massachusetts that says, “if you can make it to the end of September without a frost, you’re good at least until Columbus Day”.  Well, yes, that may be true.  But first you have to make it to the end of September.  Which we didn’t do this year.  The night of September 25 brought a cold front down from Canada and, if you lived in Boston’s western or northern suburbs, it was the end of your annuals and most of your vegetables.
Our raised-bed garden this morning
And, indeed, the following morning our 600-square-foot plot in our town’s community garden was a sad display of tomatoes fallen prematurely from their vines and zucchini cut down in its prime.  All that is left to do is to gather what we can and compost the balance.
But a garden barely a tenth its size at our home is chugging along as though late summer will never end.  It’s our raised bed vegetable garden and, with luck, it will produce food for our table well into autumn.
There's hardware cloth and lots of
rocks at the bottom of the beds.
When we planned our new home we had on-premises vegetable garden in mind, but the site wouldn’t cooperate.  Tall pines on the property of our neighbor to the south block part of the sun we had counted on, leaving us with few choices for a space that had to be both sunny much of the day and not where it stuck out of the landscape.
Then, Betty had a brilliant idea: why not hide it in plain sight along the driveway?  OK, we had a long, narrow strip that was planned for a native perennial border.  The garden could be only four feet wide, but could be as long as we wanted.
Not-so-good soil, amended with
several inches of leaves, came next
We had both also wanted a raised bed garden.  Raised beds warm up earlier in the spring and don’t freeze as easily as in-ground gardens in the fall.  Betty said, if we’re going to build a raised-bed garden, why not make it a really raised bed?  Something you could garden standing up, or sitting on its walls.  Not twelve inches.  Think three feet.
And that’s what we built: two, four-foot-by-eight-foot gardens, each three feet high.  The shell is 2x10 pine which ought to last eight to ten years.  A screen mesh went into the bottom to deter critters from burrowing up from underneath, and the first foot is solid rock.  Anything that comes up through that is very, very determined.  The next nine inches is leaves and so-so soil.  It should improve with time.
The top 15 inches is beautiful,
compost-enriched soil
The top fifteen inches is beautiful, compost-enriched soil.  We screened it to be free of rocks and roots.  It is the happiest home any vegetable could want.  We completed the beds in early May and planted our first crop of lettuce, spinach, basil, chives, and beans.  It became our kitchen garden; the place to which you could run out and get the makings of a salad for dinner.
We discovered in the process that ‘tall’ raised beds confer another benefit: they’re too high for bunnies to hop onto, and squirrels and chipmunks feel like hawk bait.  Our spring and summer crops matured unmolested.
Bamboo 'hoops'
support a row cover
In early September, we pulled everything except the basil, chives, and carrots; and planted a crop of vegetables with short times to maturity.  We’re heavy on lettuce, arugula, beets and spinach.  We’ve added a superstructure of flexible bamboo stakes to support a row cover.  A row cover won’t protect against a hard freeze, but it will keep frost off of out vegetables – with luck – well into October and perhaps longer.

We’re about a week away from picking our first lettuce.  Building it was a labor, but our hope is that we’re picking the fruit of the first of many autumn crops.

August 6, 2016

An Unexpected Flood - of Plants

The El NiƱo summer that has produced floods in West Virginia and tornados in the South has left New England parched.  Most of Massachusetts officially passed into a Stage 2 drought this past week, and nearly every town now have complete bans on lawn watering along with other water use restrictions.
Our front garden as it appeared this
morning, August 6
The reverberations are being felt in local nurseries.  If people fear they won’t be able to water their gardens, they won’t buy plants.  And nurseries face the same water scarcity: retention ponds that allow them to keep their stock well irrigated are running dry, and the alternative is expensive town water.  The result is that everything is on sale: trees, shrubs, and perennials that are out the door are plant that don’t have to be watered.
The drought is getting worse
Following a heavy spring planting schedule, we had decided to use the summer to see how the new additions to the garden filled in.  But then the offers began arriving.  First, Cochato Nursery in Holbrook offered Master Gardeners a one-day special discount.  Betty drive over and came back with six specimens of Betony (Stachys officinalis), a full-sun-tolerant flowering ground cover which she promptly used to begin filling in a previously unplanted part of our front garden.
Betony comes in many leaf colors,
and makes a great ground cover
The following week, we received a mailer from Weston Nurseries with an arresting offer of $25 off of $75 worth of plants, including ones already on sale.  Betty went off to investigate and came back with a car filled with yellow Coreopsis and Shasta daisies.  They were all in magnificent bloom and we planted them immediately.  While picking out plants, she spoke with one of Weston’s staffers who was candid about the low levels of the retention ponds and the fallback position of using expensive town water.  When Betty tried to give back the discount coupon at check-out, the clerk gave it back to her saying, “We’d rather you came back in and use it again.”
Avant Gardens' greenhouses
overflowed with interesting plants
This week, the discount offers came from Avant Gardens in North Dartmouth.  I’ve written about this specialty nursery before.  North Dartmouth is an hour from our home in a direction that makes it on the way to nowhere else that we ever go.  But the lure of unusual plants at substantial savings drew us to a part of the state where our mental maps say “Here Be Dragons”.
Caryopteris 'Hint of Gold'
Betty’s avowed purpose in going was to procure three specimens of Caryopteris x ‘Hint of Gold’, a deer-resistant butterfly magnet with distinctive lime green foliage and vivid blue late summer flowers.  But allowing me to tag along on any shopping expedition is an invitation to blow the budget, and it took me about two minutes to start dragging out Geranium ‘Rozanne’ which we need to extend the ‘river’ of that perennial that we have created across the front of our property.  Betty, too, started seeing plants that she had on her wish list but had put off buying.  I capped it off by spotting a Cape Plumbago (Plumbago auriculata) ‘Imperial Blue’ with phlox-like flowers in an ethereal shade of blue.  I said I wanted it for my birthday.  We filled the back end of our Prius with plants.  So much for three small plants.
I got a Cape Plumbago for my birthday
We planted almost everything we purchased at Avant Gardens this morning.  It took four hours in weather so warm and muggy that our clothes were drenched when we finally called it quits.  We started early because the forecast today was for rain.  In fact,’s maps showed the entire Northeast getting socked by thunderstorms and torrential precipitation.  But it is going on 5 p.m. and the current radar shows just a few showers, all north of us.

Our fizzled day of rain
This summer of drought will apparently linger well into August.  And through serendipity, our garden is a little – no, a lot – fuller than we had anticipated a few months ago.  Which means we'll have to keep finding innovative ways to keep it watered.

July 29, 2016

Watering with an Eyedropper

I remember back when it used to rain.  I distinctly recall looking at computer weather maps with angry red, orange, and even purple rain pounding all of eastern Massachusetts.  There were days when we awakened to a soft, gentle rain that soaked the soil down eight or ten inches.
But not recently.
Medfield in a drought.  A Stage 2 drought according to the U.S. Weather Monitor.  New England is 25% under its normal rainfall – 6 ½ inches short and counting – with a long term trend for more of the same.  Our town has imposed strict watering guidelines that will likely get even more draconian in August. 
Water collected from the air
conditioner goes into jugs
If we lived in an apartment or condo, we’d shrug, water the plants on our deck, and count our blessings.  If we lived in a house with a long-established garden, we’d ride out the dry spell and consider ourselves lucky.  But we don’t live in a condo and our garden is brand new – nothing in is more than a year old.  We have a dozen young trees that are just starting to establish root systems.  We have sixty or more shrubs and several hundred newly-planted perennials.  If we don’t water, they’ll die. 
Almost all of New England is dry
So, here is what we do.  Every morning at 5:30 a.m. we are dressed and out in the garden.  Our four rain barrels would hold 200 gallons of water if there had been rain to fill them, but they’ve been dry since Bastille Day.  (That storm at the end of July that the radio promised would drop two to four inches of rain went south of us.  Rhode Island got lucky.  We got sprinkles.)  So we collect the water condensate from our air conditioner.  We collect the water that we ran while the shower warmed up.  We pool the water in which we washed vegetables saved in a pail.  There are mornings when those three activities generate six or seven gallons of water.
It just hasn't rained around here.
Double-click for an enlargement.
To get the rest of the water we need, we begin filling re-purposed cat litter jugs with tap water.  One day, we water the plants in the front of the property.  The next day, we water the plants in the back.  Each tree, shrub, and perennial gets a specific allotment of water.  There is no waste.  We’ve built little berms around the plants to ensure that there is no runoff.  Betty applies the water, I refill the jugs and run them to where they’re needed next.  And ‘run’ is an accurate descriptor: I carry two, three-gallon jugs at a time, and a jug is filling while I sprint to the next drop point.
Yesterday, the radio spoke of 2-4" of
rain today.  It went south of us!
The jug-watering brigade goes on for up to two hours because we also have to water our vegetable plot two miles distant.  (There, we’re allowed to use a hose, but Betty is just as precise in her watering.)  At 7:30 or so, we line up the empty containers.  We are both covered in sweat and ready for a shower.

Where, of course, we will start collecting the water for tomorrow morning…

July 11, 2016

Free to a Good Home

Betty and I were “corporate gypsies” during much of my working career.  At various times we lived in Chicago, New York City, Virginia, Connecticut, and Massachusetts.  It was all a matter of moving for opportunity.  Until our move back to the Boston area in 1999, we had never really put down roots anywhere.
For much of the 1990's we lived in Alexandria, Virginia.  We had a very nice house on a cul-de-sac and wonderful neighbors.  But gardening our half-acre property was nearly impossible; the problem was the heat and humidity.  Vegetables and annuals died horribly from diseases.  Perennials were eaten to the ground by voracious Insects Of Unusual Size.  Already ecologically conscious before it was fashionable, Betty refused to spray the necessary chemicals on plants to deter these pestilences.  She was well aware that the same fungicides that allowed roses and phlox to survive were deadly to the beneficial insects that were attracted to their flowers.
Our loropetalum in full bloom
And so our landscape consisted of heat-tolerant azalea and evergreens, and a handful of trees and shrubs that were bred for Zone 7A.  Three shrubs in particular were continuing delights.  Loropetalum, an Asian native, was at the lower edge of its hardiness zone, but its tiny burgundy leaves and periodic displays of ruby-red or fuchsia flower clusters made it a pleasure to look at.  Lagerstroemia, better known as crape myrtle, was another import – from Indonesia and northern Australia.  Most cultivars of crape myrtle are found along the southeast coast, but newer, more cold-tolerant ones were appearing.  We enjoyed the summer-long display of pink-to-red flowers that made our shrubs seem ablaze.
The third shrub that we hated to leave was a large acuba, also called spotted laurel.  Native to China and Japan, it’s a Zone 7 to 9 plant that had two ‘wow’ factors.  The first was that it was happiest in shade.  The second was that its natural leaf color was an almost banana yellow with green spots.  It happily grew under a large wisteria trellis and was the focal point of the view out our kitchen window.
On warm days in winter, we took our
'southern garden on wheels' outside
We returned to the Boston area in 1999 and, for the first time in eight years, Betty could design and plant a ‘real’ garden.  But she missed those southern plants and was disappointed to learn that, except for Cape Cod, eastern Massachusetts is solidly in Zone 5B.  Her favorite Virginia shrubs would perish even in an average winter.  And so she got busy and filled two acres with hardy New England plants.
Then, in October 2008 or 2009, Betty and I were visiting a friend, landscaper Paul Miskovsky, on Cape Cod.  We were walking through his Falmouth plant yard when Betty noticed a pile of discarded shrubs.  They looked exactly like loropetalum.  There were easily a dozen of them, thrown into a pile. Her inquiry brought a shrug from Paul.  “My customers use them as annuals,” he explained.  “I put them in in May and pull them out at the end of the season.”  Betty asked if she might retrieve one.  She was told to help herself.
A year after coming home, our acuba
got its fist 'up-potting'
We brought home the best looking of the shrubs, trimmed it back severely, and placed it in a large container. We watered it well until the weather turned colder then, lacking a greenhouse, we brought the shrub into our garage and positioned it by a window that got morning light.  Our garage wasn’t heated, but it was well insulated and, presumably, some heat radiated from the adjacent house wall because our garage never got below freezing all winter.  The loropetalum lost its leaves but, the following spring, it produced both new leaves and flowers.  We were delighted.
Then, in May 2011, Betty was set to receive an award at the National Garden Clubs convention being held in Washington, D.C.  I tagged along and so we elected to make the nine-hour drive rather than flying.  On our way home, we passed the Route 1 exit off the Beltway in Maryland and Betty said, “Didn’t we used to get really good plants at a nursery up here?”
Three years after
coming home, the
acuba is thriving
Five minutes later, and despite the passage of more than a decade, we unerringly found Behnke’s Garden Center in Beltsville.  And, 45 minutes later, we were back on the highway, now carrying a small acuba and a crepe myrtle cultivar called ‘Burgundy Cotton’.
For five years, our ‘southern garden on wheels’ thrived.  For seven months of the year, the crepe myrtle, loropetalum, and acuba luxuriated in our garden; then ‘wintered’ in our roomy garage, coming out only on days when temperatures rose into the 40's or 50's.  The loropetalum and crepe myrtle grew to a modest size and then seemed to find an equilibrium.  The acuba, though, quadrupled in size.
Then, last year, we moved into our new home.  Suddenly, two things were different.  First, there was no shady area for the acuba; everything in the garden was new and the trees did not yet have a shade-producing canopy.  The acuba had to stay in the shade of the house but, even there, its leaves scorched because of six hours a day of direct solar exposure.  Second, our new garage lacked the extra insulation of our old one, plus it had a northern exposure.  Nighttime winter temperatures fell into the twenties on several occasions.
The acuba in 2016.  Now
5' high, it needs a new home.
This summer, we have realized that our acuba, despite being ‘up-potted’ several times, requires a much larger container to hold its ever-growing root system.  And, because of its size (nearly five feet tall with its new, 2016 growth), it has also outgrown its place in our plant family.  It needs a new home where it can grow and thrive.
How do you tell a plant you’re putting it up for adoption?

Of course, next year the NGC convention is in Richmond and, to get to Richmond, you have to drive around Washington.  And Benkhe’s is still right there in Beltsville…

June 30, 2016

Garden Season

June is all about gardens.  Everything blooms, everything is verdant, nothing looks tired.  It is the perfect month to show off your own garden or to see someone else’s.  It’s also the perfect month for a flower show.  Which is why I’ve spent so much of the past month (when not moving compost), looking at other people’s blooms and other people’s gardens.
Rosecliff is more than just a backdrop
for the Newport Flower Show: it is
intrinsic to its success
I’ll start with the Newport Flower Show.  It is held every year at Rosecliff, one of the grandest of the oceanfront Newport ‘cottages’.  The multi-acre ‘front lawn’ is given over to display gardens and horticultural vendors.  The cottage (including porches and a formal garden immediately adjacent to the front entrance) provides the backdrop for floral design, photography, and other specialty competitions.  The rear lawn has tents for amateur horticulture and lectures; the balance of the magnificent sweep that goes down to Sheep Point Cove and the ocean beyond is given over to food and vendors. 
Vendors by the sea...
Newport is closer in spirit to the Royal Horticultural Society’s Chelsea Garden Show in London than to the late winter flower shows in Boston and Philadelphia.  Because so much of the venue is outdoors, nature is always underfoot, overhead, and all around you.  And, because it is Rosecliff and Newport, you don’t go to the show wearing jeans or tee shirts.  I know of no formal dress code, but I saw no one who did not look as though they had dressed for the occasion.
Roses judged for perfection
Finally, the Newport Flower Show has a Brigadoon-type existence.  The show runs just three days (Friday through Sunday); exhibits come into being in just two days.  (I know because I helped build one.)  Then it disappears as completely as that magical village.
There are more garden tours in June than I can keep track of.  I had the pleasure to attend one last Saturday for the Rockport Garden Club on Cape Ann.  Garden tours are both a summer mainstay for clubs as well as the principal fund-raising event for many.  Tours typically comprise six to ten gardens with a mixture of ones designed and maintained by professionals, and those that are the product of the imagination of dedicated amateurs.
A professionally designed garden
on the Rockport tour
I have nothing against professionally designed gardens.  I have seen many that stopped me dead in my tracks and caused me to pull out my camera to try to capture the essence of what a talented designer had accomplished.  More often though, I see ‘safe’ landscapes that bespeak large budgets that echo conservative tastes.  Every garden tour has two or three such gardens.  I can’t begrudge the tour planners; such gardens tend to be crowd pleasers.
Nancy Johnson's small garden was
the highlight of the tour.
The garden that stopped me in my tracks last Saturday belonged to Nancy Johnson.  Hers is not an oceanfront estate or a ten-acre preserve.  Rather, it is a small colonial on what is probably half an acre of land.  The genius of what she has accomplished over an eight year period is to think through every square foot of her available land and to make use of it accordingly.  The overarching reality of the site is an outcropping of granite – this is Cape Ann, after all. From this granite she has created a rock garden filled with perennials, shrubs and ground covers that flow together seamlessly.
It is a whimsical garden with a home for chickens (where an ash tree fell in a storm), some beautiful specimen trees, a small vegetable plot, and a row of fruit trees.  The overall effect was nothing short of magic.  Ms. Johnson was on hand to answer questions and also to ask in a low voice how her garden compared to the others on the tour.  She need not have concerned herself: it was head and shoulders above the competition, and worth the price of the tour ticket all by itself.
(Incidentally, if you missed this tour but enjoy Cape Ann, the Generous Gardeners tour covering Gloucester’s Eastern Point will be held July 9th).
The entry to Jill's garden
My final notable garden visit of the month came when I tagged along with Betty as she attended the annual meeting of the Garden Study Group, one of the Councils of the Garden Club Federation of Massachusetts.  It was held at the home of Jill Sczepanski.  I first saw Jill’s garden eight years ago when it was part of the “Mass Gardens on Tour” project Betty headed for the Federation. Back then, it was stunning.  It has only gotten better with time.
You could be forgiven for thinking
you were in the Cotswolds
What Jill and her husband have accomplished on their two-acre property is nothing short of transporting a corner of a great Cotswold estate to a town adjacent to Cape Ann.  There are meticulous stone paths with cobble borders, fountains, hidden vistas, glorious sweeps of color, trellises, and places to pause, sit and enjoy.  It is a garden that you have to walk twice; once in each direction, because the garden changes so dramatically from a different perspective.  I have never seen a more enchanting garden.

Formality segues to informality...
When I first saw the garden, Jill was immersed in a biotechnology career and her garden was an avocation.  With her kids out of college and out in the world, she has embarked on a second career: as a garden designer.  If the sketches I saw in her studio are any indication, she is going to be a very busy lady.

June 20, 2016

"A Gem Within a Gem"

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

My congratulations on a job well done.

May 26, 2016

The Coupon

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

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

April 30, 2016

If You Go to a Flower Show with a Gardener

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

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

April 13, 2016

What Sandy McIntyre Saw

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

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

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