September 5, 2017

We've Got to Get Ourselves Back to the Garden

There’s an old saw about grandchildren that goes, ‘if you haven’t seen them in a year, you won’t recognize them’.  I think the same can be said of the best gardens.  They continually evolve as they mature.  We hadn’t been to Bedrock Gardens in (gulp) two years but, this past weekend, we carved out a beautiful Saturday to see what Jill Nooney and Bob Munger have been up to.  The answer turns out to be ‘a lot’.

The garden deliberately breaks
design rules, but the effect is magical
To the best of my knowledge, Bedrock Gardens has no basis for comparison in New England.  It is the idiosyncratic creation of two people who have transformed 35 acres of one-time dairy farm land in rural southeastern New Hampshire into a space that is equal parts intelligent horticulture and sheer whimsy, with an accent on the unexpected.  It also an ‘art park’ – an expression I generally detest, but use here because it is a wholly accurate description.  And it is a garden that is not afraid of shade.  More than half of the property is heavily wooded, yet under the canopy of those tree lie some of Bedrock Gardens’ most beautiful and enchanting spaces.

Garden art
Jill is what the brochure describes as the ‘horticultural and artistic force’ behind the garden.  She designed the garden and largely chooses the plants for it.  She also builds the art you see all around the place.  And, ‘build’ is quite accurate.  Much of her work involves taking industrial and farm machinery and reimagining it as sculpture.  While I’ve included a few samples, you can peruse a more complete gallery here.  Bob has the more prosaic responsibilities of maintenance, digging holes and moving rocks (although he is also credited with creating and executing several of the intricate stone walkways on the premises).  He is definitely a Principal Undergardener.

Double-click for a full screen view
If I were to attempt to articulate the design philosophy that underlies Bedrock Gardens, it would go something like, “If you see a rule, break it.”  The garden abounds in plant and color juxtapositions that force the viewer to reconsider his or her idea of what is ‘right’.  Yet the overall effect is as glorious as anything you’ll encounter in, say, the New York Botanical Garden.

A profusion of blue pots
There are no fewer than 23 distinct gardens within the property.  Seeing them all requires half a day and sturdy walking shoes.  Truly appreciating them requires multiple visits.  This is the kind of garden that invites you to frequently turn around and see where you’ve been.  The perspective changes; sometimes subtly, other times wildly.  There are also two major axes.  A 900-foot-long one extends from a pair of thrones across a pond to an allée, a torii, and a spiral garden.  An 850-foot-long one extends from a barn across an acre of red, green, and blue grasses to the aforementioned torii and terminating at a CD tree (don’t ask). 

A shrine to hay rakes
The garden has evolved since our last visit.  The ‘acrobats’ sculpture is now preceded and framed by the beginnings of a beech arch that will take another five years to make its statement.  I do not recall seeing the ‘thrones’ on my past visit and the ‘Baxis’, a parallelogram-shaped arch is a stunning addition.

More garden art
Four years ago, Jill and Bob established a non-profit ‘Friends of Bedrock Gardens’ to begin a process to preserve the garden for future generations by converting the property to a public garden and cultural center.  The project is apparently well underway.  John Forti, who left his mark on Strawbery Banke and Elm Bank, was named Executive Director earlier this year.

Bedrock Garden will next be open in 2017 on September 16 and 17, and then one final time on Columbus Day weekend.  In the phrasing of the Michelin guides, this is ‘worth a journey’.

Here's a 45-second-long video of what the 'Wiggle Waggle' part of the garden looks like.

September 3, 2017

Gardening After Labor Day

I don't get pots of mums...
There’s an odd seasonal ritual most New Englanders appear to observe.  No, it’s not the one about not wearing white pants after Labor Day, although that’s also grist for discussion.  Rather, it is that Labor Day somehow marks the official close the gardening season.  People stop tending their vegetable gardens, they forget about their perennials, and they begin bringing home yellow and orange mums to replace their annuals.

I don’t get it.

Of course, I don’t get lots of things, including craft beers.  But to me, Labor Day is just the back stretch of the gardening year.  And as for mums, the idea of planting something in September that is guaranteed to croak with the first hint of frost just makes my head hurt.

We have 200 tomatoes
ripening.  I intend to
harvest every one.
If you are a vegetable gardener, this has been a strange season.  Betty and I normally sow ‘cold weather’ crops such as spinach and lettuce in mid-April.  Not this year.  Relentless bouts of frigid, rainy weather washed away two successive plantings.  We didn’t see our first pick-able leaf vegetables until late May.  Corn that is ‘knee-high by the Fourth of July’ was a cruel joke; we had three-inch-high sprouts on Independence Day.

But Mother Nature made up for her inattention to New England from mid-July onward.  We have frozen and bagged enough green beans to last until the Apocalypse, and we are able to keep abreast of our zucchini production only by being very generous to our local Food Cupboard and driving around parking lots checking for cars whose owners foolishly left their windows down.

On September 1, we
topped our tomatoes
Our garden is still going strong.  We have more than 200 tomatoes ripening as this is written.  Betty wisely cut off the growing tips of those tomato vines so the plants focus their energy on finishing the job they started.  The way I see it is that there are twelve hours of daylight until September 25 and eleven hours on October 16 which is, statistically speaking, the average date of our first frost.  As far as I’m concerned, the season isn’t going to end until the last tomato has ripened on the kitchen counter.

Moreover, I’ve got an entire square of corn that has only now ‘tasseled out’.  We expect to pick sweet corn well into the month.  We also have hot peppers that barely budge the needle on the Scoville scale.  I’m holding out for 500,000 SHUs and if it takes until October 16 to get there, I’ll gladly keep weeding.

One of the members of the community
garden we manage decided to stop
weeding or cutting back her squash vines
And weeding, I suspect, is why many gardeners conveniently decide that Gardening Is Passé just as the Patriots open their regular season.  Weeding is the dirty little secret that underlies all gardening, as well as the worst kept one.  Weeds must be pulled.  Weeds must be kept in check. 

For the past eight years, Betty and I have run a community garden that now contains 75 plots.  My scientific observation is that everyone weeds assiduously in May and June.  Come July, the gardening slackers begin practicing a kind of horticultural triage that distinguishes between weeds that the Garden Ogre will notice (and generate nasty emails) and so must be pulled, and those that are kinda-sorta of out of sight and therefore benign. 

This is our corn crop as of this
morning.  We should be able to
pick through the month.
Then comes August.  Everyone in the garden is away for some two-week period during the month.  Upon their return, they discover to their horror that the ‘benign weeds’ are eighteen inches high and forming seed heads, and that the Garden Ogre (that’s me) has filled their inbox with nastygrams. 

And so, rather than devote the two hours it will take to get their garden back in shape, over Labor Day weekend they take down their fence and declare that they’ve had enough for one year.  They go home and make gin and tonics.  Whatever produce remains is fodder for birds and woodchucks.  They clean their plots only at the end October after the weather is reliably cool.

Our garden will not only still be chugging along in October, we’re planting seeds now that will ensure we will have fresh lettuce, arugula, and spinach with our Thanksgiving Dinner.  Think it’s impossible?  Last year we picked our last lettuce on December 10.  That’s Week 14 of the NFL season for those of you who threw in the towel back on Labor Day.

And, while we’re at it, what exactly is so wrong about wearing white after August?

August 25, 2017

Fair Territory

Tomorrow (Saturday) afternoon, my wife, Betty, will deliver a horticultural lecture on the topic of ‘Water-Smart Gardening’.  In and of itself, that’s not an unusual event; Betty will give dozens of talks on horticultural topics to groups over the next twelve months.  But this one will be unusual.  Instead of a garden club or environmental organization, Betty’s audience will be people attending the Marshfield Fair.  They’ll come into the Agriculture Building because they saw a sign outside it advertising a talk.  With luck, they’ll leave with a large dollop of education.

I have nothing against fair food,
but it's not why I go
I’ve had the pleasure to contribute at the periphery of the Marshfield Fair for the past few years.  Rather than the one most people think of when they such events (deep-fried Snickers bars, Tilt-a-Whirl rides), the one I love exists in an alternate universe; it harkens back to the original Marshfield Agricultural & Horticultural Society.  I don’t begrudge fair-goers the thrill of the Midway, but I think my fair is a lot more fun.

Agricultural Hall in the 1920s...
New England lives in a state of grace when it comes to fairs.  Once upon a time, agricultural expositions were a staple around the country.  The Marshfield Fair, for example, got its start in 1862 when three local farmers formed what was then called the Farm and Garden Group to discuss ways to improve farming.  By 1866, returning war veterans going back to farming needed a means of pooling their ideas and formed the South Marshfield Farmer’s Club.  A year later, the club’s annual summer event had grown so large it was attracting the manufacturers of agricultural implements, while club members showed off their best farm animals and produce.  By 1869, a piece of land had been purchased for a permanent exhibition site and a fine building, Agricultural Hall, was under construction.  In the following decades, the Marshfield Fair ruled the South Shore of Massachusetts.

... and today.
Here’s a description of the fair, circa 1890: “Before the children saw the flag even, they often heard the band. Coming through the pinewoods, by train, by horse-drawn carriage of every description, and on foot, just before they emerged into sight of the Fair grounds, they heard that joy-thrilling music of the brass band. Here was where Fair really began. Anticipation had reached its height and was soon to give way to the actual joys of Cattle Show. And reality can never touch anticipation…”

I had an exhibit at this year's fair...
But times changed.  The Great Depression killed off many fairs, World War II caused others to suspend operations, and the great Suburban Diaspora of the 1950s and 1960s rendered most of the rest obsolete by converting exurban farmland into subdivisions.  In their place came the state fairs; soulless, antiseptic behemoths that sprawled over a square mile of land and were totally bereft of any sense of their rural origins and purpose.

Remarkably, a number of expositions that still look and feel a lot like their century-ago forebears have survived in New England.  In addition to the Marshfield Fair, the Woodstock Fair in Connecticut traces its origins to 1860 and will be held over Labor Day Weekend, September 1-4.  The Fryeburg Fair in Maine dates to 1851 and will be open this year from October 1 to October 8.  And the granddaddy of them all, the Topsfield Fair, which held its first event in 1818, opens September 29 for an eleven-day run.

Quilts and crafts at the Fair
I spend the bulk of my time at the Marshfield Fair inside that venerable Agriculture Building.  Upstairs, there are displays of quilts; some quite old and others brand new.  There were hand-knitted sweaters – not for sale but, rather, submitted for judging in hopes of securing a blue ribbon.  The whole floor is a tribute to creativity and skill with fabric.

Flower Show entries
The real fun, though, is downstairs.  There, Ronnie Lehage presides over what is simply known as ‘Horticulture’, the evolution of the Marshfield Agricultural & Horticultural Society’s original mission.  Gardeners are invited to bring in their best examples of zinnias, cleomes, and anything else that flowers on their property.  There’s a proper ’standard’ flower show hosted by the Garden Club Federation of Massachusetts. 

There is whimsy all around you
There are competitions to design a small grouping of container gardens and another for holiday mantel arrangements.  There is a horticultural competition for the school-aged set and categories for flower arrangements in purses, watering cans, and recycled objects.  In short, the competitions going on within Horticulture is about skill and creativity.

Where else can you see a
butterfly hatch before your eyes?
I first came to these fairs as an adult.  As I wrote earlier, I think everyone ought to have the opportunity to try that deep-fried candy bar but, personally, I’ll take a pass.  Ditto the funnel cakes and cotton candy.  But you have never had French fries until you’ve tasted the ones at the Fryeburg Fair.  The potatoes are freshly dug, still with clods of dirt on them.  They’re washed, put through a hand-cranked machine that turns them into strips, and put in a deep fryer.  In less than five minutes, a potato is turned into its finest incarnation.
A quick look around one corner of the Fair

If you live in New England and have given up on fairs as corny relics, it’s time to give them another look.  And, if you’re thinking of a vacation in New England this fall, keep in mind the dates of those upcoming ones.

July 21, 2017

The Woodchucks Are Back

Marmota monax, aka woodchuck
(among many aliases)
Only slightly less predictable than the yearly return of the swallows to Mission San Juan Capistrano each March 19 is the mid-July annual pilgrimage of woodchucks to the Medfield Community Garden in Massachusetts.  Unlike the California event, tourists have yet to take notice of the east coast invasion by multiple members of the extended Marmota monax family, so there is still time to get a ringside seat.

While I had not circled the event on my calendar, I was not the least bit surprised to receive an email Thursday morning from one of the plot holders at the community garden that Betty and I manage.  The gardener, Heather, wrote, “When I arrived at the garden this morning there was a chubby woodchuck munching away in my neighbor's (Ed’s) garden. It looked like he went under the fence so it will need some repairs…”

My immediate response was to dash off a memo to each of the 75 gardeners who grows vegetables in the town-owned garden, reprinting Heather’s email, and warning everyone that the woodchucks (there are always more than one) would not be to content to eat just Ed’s vegetables. I warned he or she will follow their nose and seek out other, vulnerable gardens and will likely post reviews on Yelp!   That, in turn, generated a panicked response from Ed, who said he is on vacation, and asked if I could effect some of those emergency repairs.  I said I would do so.

Before I continue with this story, here is what humankind knows about woodchucks.  The first thing is that they have many aliases.  They have fake IDs identifying themselves as groundhogs, whistlepigs, marmots, and half a dozen lesser-known names.  They are endemic in Canada and call home a swath of the United States running roughly from Minnesota south to Arkansas; swooping down into Mississippi, Alabama, and North Carolina.  They are thick as thieves in New England.  They are, technically speaking, a large ground squirrel.

The Medfield Community Garden is
more or less a woodchuck's idea
of heaven
Woodchucks prefer open country and the edges of woodlands.  They live in underground burrows with multiple entrances.  The Medfield Community Garden occupies a one-acre site in a former farm field (the aforementioned ‘open country’) surrounded, in turn, by woodlands that are protected town conservation land.  And, did I mention that hunting is prohibited in Medfield?  “Location, location, location.”

In my warning memo, I wrote that everyone should make certain the fence around their garden was buried.  I said, Yes, I urged you to do this back in April, and most of you took that advice to heart.  So, the real advice is to make certain your fence is still buried in the ground at least three or four inches.  If it is not, or if you did not bury it because it was too much trouble or you assumed the only hungry wildlife you needed to thwart were sheep or capybaras, take the time to bury it now.”

The gap under this fence at the
community garden is three inches.
Anything can crawl in and out.
A quick survey of the community garden this morning revealed that my estimate was a little optimistic.  Fewer than half of the 75 gardeners had buried their fences; including, of course, Ed.  While Ed’s fence at least sat on the ground, many fences in the garden began a good two or three inches above the soil line.

I further wrote, If your plot is on the perimeter of the community garden, consider driving wood or bamboo stakes through vulnerable points of entry.  Make them four to six inches apart and drive them down at least six inches.  Woodchucks are fundamentally lazy.  They won’t try to figure out why they can’t get into your garden; they’ll just go for easier pickings.  And make certain you gate isn’t the Achilles Heel of your protection plan.  Make certain it is tight at the bottom, has no obvious gaps, and consider those wood or bamboo stakes.”

I repaired Ed's garden as best I could
This is what I did for Ed.  I found the two points of entry where the woodchuck had moseyed in, and added ten or twelve stakes to seal those points.  Of course, since none of Ed’s fence is buried, that woodchuck or his cousin Ralphie has another 96 liner feet of fence to crawl under.

Bobbex-R won't kill
woodchucks, but it will
annoy them mightily
My next piece of advice involved chemical warfare.  “Invest in a spray bottle of Bobbex-R.  Bobbex-R doesn’t kill woodchucks; it just smells awful to them, causing them to avoid your garden for a more palatable one.  Apply it around the perimeter of your garden – not on anything you plan to eat.  A 32-ounce ready-to-spray bottle will cover 1,000 square feet, which means a full-size plot can be sprayed ten times; a half-size plot can be sprayed 14 times.  As an application lasts two to three weeks, one bottle will see you through to the end of the gardening season.”

Will people in the community garden buy a rodent repellent?  The uniform price seems to be $32.47 for that ready-to-spray solution.  Given that each garden has several hundred dollars of produce growing in it, it seems like a bargain.  I sniffed the air this morning for the tell-tale scent of putrefied eggs and garlic.  Nothing so far.

“If you find a place in your fence where an animal has entered, repair the site immediately, which does not mean piling up mulch or stone around the affected area,” I wrote.  “Woodchucks may look dumb, but they’re not.  They have good noses, unerringly return to the same locale, and pawing aside some loose debris helps build up an appetite.”

This morning, I observed several gardens with closely-spaced wooden stakes around what may have been previously unnoticed entry sites.  I also found a depressing number of places where gardeners had piled up mulch.  I have to learn to make my declarative sentences shorter.

My last piece of advice to my troops was this: “If all else fails, be prepared to stand guard around your garden for the rest of the season with two metal trash can lids at the ready.  I do not advocate this approach.”

It isn’t that banging garbage can lids is time-consuming (although it would likely get very old, very quickly).  It is that I can imagine that, rather than driving woodchucks from the vicinity of the garden, it would encourage families of adults and chucklings to gather at the periphery of the site, spreading blankets and bringing picnics, waiting for the rest of the band to arrive.

July 11, 2017

Quest for Blueberries

Fresh blueberries, picked in the
morning, washed, and consumed with
breakfast.  Is that too much to ask?
This story begins two years ago when Betty and I began the process of creating a ‘from scratch’ landscape at our new home.  ‘Low- and high-bush blueberries’ were near the top of the list of native plants we wanted.  We ultimately purchased five low-bush blueberries, which we planted above the stone wall at the front of our property.  They have thrived, spread, flowered, and produced mountains of tiny blueberries that have fed the creatures that visit our garden. 

Those low-bush blueberries, unfortunately, are not the topic of this essay.

We also purchased five high-bush blueberry shrubs.  They cost close to $40 each and were already laden with already ripe and ripening fruit when we brought them home.  We planted them in a cluster in our rear garden.  For two weeks, we gorged on sweet, luscious blueberries.  I remember joking at the time that we had picked enough berries off of them to defray about a quarter of their cost.

Blueberry bushes produce
awesome fall colors
Berry season ended.  The shrubs grew.  All was well.  Autumn came and we delighted in the display of autumn color that Vaccinium corymbosum  put on.  It rivaled anything in our garden.

Came the spring of 2016.  It was a drought year and, though we gave adequate water to those five shrubs, we saw few flowers and fewer blueberries.  We wrote it off to dry weather and the reality that pollinators were still just discovering our garden.  All our bushes made it through the year looking healthy.  We considered it a victory.

Two weeks after the last flower, I put
up fencing and netting for protection
The rains returned this spring and our five blueberry shrubs were alive with vibrant, white flowers.  I began to think about protecting the shrubs so we could enjoy our bounty.  Two weeks after the last flowers disappeared, I put up fencing and netting.  Metal posts were driven into the ground and half-inch plastic fencing was placed around the boundary of the shrubs.  Fifty ‘ground staples’ anchored the fencing to deter ground-level incursions.  Quarter-inch netting was spreads across the top to foil fence climbers and avian intruders.

These berries were showing their
first blush of red
I watched as the berries changed from white to green to red-purple.  The first batch needed just a day of additional ripening.  I salivated at the thought.

The next morning, every ripe blueberry was gone.

I inspected the base of the fence.  Where the beginning and end of the fence met, there was a gap where a small animal could have wriggled through.  I wired it closed.  I found areas where a contortionist rodent could squeeze between the fence and the earth. I added more ground staples.

The next batch of berries ripened before my eyes.  The morning I went to pick them, they had vanished.

Every potential point of
entry was reinforced
I reassessed the netting as well as the fencing.  I added bamboo and wooden poles to further make a ground assault impossible.  I added ties to better secure the netting to the fence.

The blueberries are still disappearing.

I spent much of yesterday on our back porch, monitoring my patch.  A crow cawed from a nearby pine tree.  Crows, as we all know, have been known to bend and shape metal with their beaks.  Undoing twist ties is well within their skill set.  A suspicious-looking squirrel loitered in the area but, aware he was under surveillance, made no move for the fence.  A tufted titmouse lit on one of the tall metal stakes but feigned disinterest in the crop below it.  Two mourning doves walked in circles, pecking at non-existent seeds.  A fat chipmunk tried just a little too hard to look like it was much more interested in a random piece of bark mulch than in the blueberries behind it.  One of these creatures – or perhaps all of them – are guilty of stealing my blueberries. 

Chipmunks are the most likely culprit
A few years ago, Betty and I were on a garden tour in the Berkshires.  One of the estates on view had a dozen high-bush blueberries encased in a structure with removable screen panels, built with 4x4’s post-and-beam style, that must have measured twenty feet by forty feet, with seven feet of head clearance and a locked door.  I remember laughing at the time that the cost of building such a cage so outweighed the potential benefit that the payback time must approach infinity.

This morning, looking at the white berries that I am certain will be swiped just before I judge them ripe, I could not help but mentally lay out a variation on that ostentatious Berkshires building.  I could use 2x4’s, and five feet of headroom would be sufficient for my needs…

Afterword:  On Sunday, July 23, I threw in the towel and took down the netting and the fence.  Nothing worked, and I never saw what was getting into the enclosure.  All I know is that I never got a single blueberry from those five plants.  There will be a better plan next year.

July 1, 2017

Summer Rain

This summer, our garden is lush.
Double-click for a full-screen view.
It rained yesterday afternoon.  It was a glorious thunderstorm that dropped better than a half an inch of rain on our garden.  As this is written, the skies are overcast and there is a promise of even more rain this evening.

Our four rain barrels are
full, and are augmented
by twenty-plus re-purposed
cat litter jugs, each
holding three gallons.
Last year at this time, we had four empty rain barrels across the back of our home.  Those rain barrels were at the receiving end of an elaborate system of gutters, diverters, and underground drain pipes to collect and carry away rain water.  It was a beautiful system; intelligently conceived and built with back-breaking labor.  But without rain, it was also pointless.  We went weeks without a drop of rain in the summer of 2016.

So, instead, with a new garden filled with plants with limited root systems, we scrounged water from every possible source.  We doled out that water with a figurative eyedropper, conserving every pint.  We watered at six in the morning to ensure no water was lost to evaporation.  The garden made it through that long, hot summer but we were exhausted by the effort.

This year, our four rain barrels are completely filled with 220 gallons of neutral pH and chlorine-free water, and an additional reservoir is stored in twenty re-purposed, three-gallon cat litter jugs.  We lavish water on container gardens to keep them blooming and on new perennials to encourage root growth.  What isn’t collected flows directly into the wetlands behind us via six subterranean conduits.  As a result, the vernal pools that were dry in April last year are still filled with water at the end of June.  It is a sign that we are, at long last, beginning to replenish our watersheds.

Diverters allow us to
switch from filling barrels
to directing water into
the wetlands behind us.
A return to more normal rainfall has an unexpected benefit as well as a drawback.  The benefit, as reported by the University of Massachusetts Extension Service, is that all this moisture has activated the maimaiga fungus.  Why is that important?  The fungus is deadly to gypsy moth caterpillars.  Caterpillars die before they can lay the eggs that would otherwise wreak havoc next spring on our oaks.  It means the devastation of the past two years will likely abate.  The downside to the precipitation is that the woolly adelgids are hatching.  They primarily attack hemlocks and the drought kept eggs from hatching.

June 2017 yielded more than five inches of rain in Boston; more than an inch above the long-term average.  We’ve had 26 inches of precipitation so far this year – four inches above normal.  This week’s Drought Monitor map shows no area in New England as being even abnormally dry.  Last year, all of New England except extreme northern Maine was in at least a ‘Stage 0’ drought and much of the region was in a moderate drought (which would become ‘extreme’ by summer’s end).

Our elaborate system of
drains is also designed to
look attractive.
We learned to cope last year.  An absolute lawn watering ban in our town (Medfield) reduced summer water usage to winter levels.  Lawns went brown.  Then, to the surprise of many homeowners, cooler weather in September and October, coupled with a little rain, caused those same lawns to green up.
The question is whether we learned any lasting lessons from the summers of 2015 and 2016.  I fear the answer is that we did not.  Driving around town this week I saw automatic lawn sprinkler systems pouring water onto bright green lawns in mid-day.  I saw other sprinkler systems operating in the rain. 

Rain is not guaranteed.  It is a gift to be cherished.  Being stewards of the land means also being stewards of our finite water resources.  It’s an imperative that ought to be obvious. All those lawn sprinklers tell me that, sadly, lessons have been too easily and quickly forgotten.

June 23, 2017

A Gem of a Garden in Maine

There’s a little piece of paradise a few miles west of the town of Boothbay, Maine.  Two decades ago, it seemed to be destined to become a housing development.  Fortunately, a recession intervened and, instead, it became a treasure called the Coastal Maine Botanical Garden.

Neither urban nor affiliated with a university, CMBG is in
a sparsely populated area of coastal Maine.  But its
location is ideal for a botanical garden.
A botanical garden is usually thought of as an urban oasis (think New York and Chicago) and, if not urban, then the preserve of well-known (and endowed) universities (think UNC-Chapel Hill and the North Carolina Botanical Garden).  But the Coastal Maine Botanical Garden (CMBG for short) had its start as a discussion among friends along Maine’s midcoast region.  Looking at the garden today, you would assume its cost was underwritten by deep-pocketed folks who call Maine home for a month or so each summer.  Such people would eventually jump on board, but CMBG was always first and foremost a local initiative among residents who did more than just dream about creating a world-class garden; they figured out how to build it.

Every turn offers a new perspective.
Double-click for a full-screen view.
CMBG opened ten years ago this month and I am embarrassed to say that it took me until this week to make my first visit (Betty, on the other hand, has been several times).  But an invitation to speak at the Garden Club Federation of Maine’s Annual Meeting in nearby Freeport led me to decide to finally get me initiated into the cadre of fans of the institution.

Most of CMBG's 270 acres had been
left in its natural state, but is readily
accessible via well-marked trails.
CMBG’s site encompasses some 270 acres, including a mile of waterfront along the Back River.  The core of the garden is about 30 acres; the balance is laced with educational trails but has otherwise been left undisturbed.  

If there’s an overarching theme to the garden, it is one of surprise.  This is Maine, but it’s also southern Maine and CMBG’s microclimate is a product of its location on a south-facing ocean inlet.  This is Zone 5B to 6A; akin to eastern Massachusetts.  While it is at their northern limit, plants thrive here that common sense says ‘no way’. 

A view of part of the fern garden
along the Haney Hillside Garden.
Double-click for a full-screen view.
The other surprise is the intelligence in the design.  The best single ‘garden’ is the Haney Hillside Garden that, from the hilltop display gardens, zig-zags down toward the Back River.  No one blasted a path down the hill.  Instead, someone (or a group of someones) with a great deal of environmental sensitivity found the natural paths and switchbacks.  At each of its three bends there is a ‘study’ garden that invites you to pause and look around.  In between are sweeps of plants than can thrive in the thinnest of soils.  We likely spent more time pondering those mini-gardens than any other location.

A thirty-second look at the waters around CMBG.  
The rocky shoals at the beginning of the clip are filled
 with seals digesting the lobsters they take from the local waters.

As much enjoyment as we found in CMBG’s gardens, I had my most fun on the water.  At the admissions desk, there was a sign indicating that visitors could enjoy a discounted price for a combined boat tour and garden admission.  It sounded intriguing.  Half an hour later, we were shuttled down to a boat landing.  What followed was at least a full hour of sheer enjoyment on a perfect afternoon.  Captain Shawn Griffiths of the ‘Beagle’ took us downriver and into inlets where we learned to identify (and sampled) different kinds of kelp, learned the geology of the Maine coast, got an education about the region’s logging history, paused to watch seals sunning themselves on a shoal, and generally had a spectacular time.

Our leisurely boat trip added to our
perspective of the garden and of
the region and its history.
The most surprising part was that it was just the two of us and Captain Shawn on the Beagle.  The garden was overflowing with visitors, but no one else was apparently interested in the boat tour.  That is an unmitigated shame.  To me, that boat tour was an integral part of understanding the garden.  In other words, if you go to CMBG and you do not avail yourself of an hour on the Beagle, you’ve denied yourself both a pleasure and an education.

Beautiful gardens, lovingly care for
and superbly curated.
Which leads me to the staff.  I’ve seldom met a more talkative group of employees and volunteers.  We spent more than five minutes with an older lady who was rescuing a patch of lowbush blueberries from encroaching grasses along the Haney Hillside Garden.  We didn’t interrupt her work; we just listened to her commentary about the nature of what she was doing.  Was she an employee or a volunteer?  I have no idea.   But she was enormously knowledgeable about the garden.  We encountered people like her all across the garden and in the visitors center.  No one was too busy to stop and thoughtfully answer a question.  This is a garden where everyone involved clearly loves their work.

The clip below is a 360 degree pan of the Cleaver Event Lawn and Garden.  

June 9, 2017

Making Good for the Chunky Monkey

Before becoming the Principal Undergardener, your humble correspondent had a day job in technology, specializing in an arcane subject called ‘corporate development’.  While the hours were frequently long, the job had some noticeably good perks.  One of them was an annual trip in late October to a financial conference sponsored by the American Electronics Association.

There, technology companies and institutional investors (many of them Masters Of The Universe) got together on what could be fairly described as a ‘level playing field’.  We all had breakfast and lunch together but, in the morning and afternoon, companies told their stories in a more formal setting.  There were perhaps 150 presenting companies trying to get the attention of roughly 400 institutional investors.

Brokerage firms, too, were seeking attention.  The usual suspects plied companies and institutional investors alike with lavish dinners every night.  One small firm, though, hit on a more novel approach.  Still building name recognition and lacking the ‘pull’ of the banking giants, the brokerage firm set out a Ben & Jerry’s cart on the hotel’s plaza, where they handed out ice cream cones.  Senior managers of the brokerage firm used the thirty seconds or so that it took to scoop a cone to give what has come to be called an ‘elevator pitch’; a concise summary of their qualifications.

The genius of the cart was that there was always a line.  Even Masters Of The Universe who made zillions of dollars a year could not resist the lure of a free scoop of New York Super Chunk Fudge.

I began going to the conference (initially held in Monterey, then moved to San Diego) in the mid-1980s.  Like everyone, I lined up for ice cream.  Then, in the mid-1990s, the cart was missing.  I asked the conference director what had happened. “They decided it wasn’t sufficiently dignified,” I was told.  Having grown in size and stature, they now held a dinner, just like the big boys.  “Well,” I asked, “could a company sponsor the cart?”  The conference director thought for several long moments. “I don’t see why not,” was the final reply.

The next year, I was back at the conference with a four-day lease on a Ben & Jerry’s cart and twenty tubs of super-premium ice cream.  All I needed was someone to help scoop.

Think globally, act locally.  'Plant
America' became 'Plant Massachusetts'
(Double-click for a larger view)
My boss was the Chairman and CEO of the company.  He thought my idea was a stroke of genius.  He also had no intention of scooping ice cream (he claimed a bad back).  The company’s CFO also went to the conference.  He was slightly more game for the project, but claimed to be tongue-tied. 

Which left my wife, Betty, as the assistant scooper.  And, because I was making presentations eight times a day on two of those days, Betty was frequently the main scooper.

Our respective spouses had frequently accompanied us on the trip.  Betty would take off with the others to see gardens or historic sights, have lunch, and join us just in time for dinner.  When I first broached my problem with Betty, she said something to the effect that I ought to have worked out the fine details before I leased the cart.  But she agreed.  And, for three years, she more or less willingly scooped ice cream; even the rock-hard Chunky Monkey.  Also for the record, she was superb.  Our sessions were held to standing-room-only audiences.

I spent a day cutting apart tablecloths
I tell this story because of what took place in our home over the past five days.  On Wednesday, June 7, Betty chaired her final meeting as President of the Garden Club Federation of Massachusetts (GCFM).  Present to install the new GCFM President was Nancy Hargroves, the President of National Garden Clubs, Inc.; herself also newly installed.

National Presidents hit the ground running.  President Hargroves’ theme for the next two years is ‘Plant America’ with a focus on horticulture and gardening. 

The problem with all this was 30 table centerpieces. Traditionally, GCFM annual meetings show off the considerable talents of floral designers, and taking home one of the centerpieces is a big deal.  Floral design, by definition, deals with cut flowers.  You can’t exactly ‘Plant America’ with cut flowers (most of which were grown in South America).

A dianthus with its flag
So Betty hit on an idea.  Instead of cut flower centerpieces, she would use plants.  There would be nine plants for each table so that each attendee could take home (and plant) an annual, perennial, or vegetable.  To meet a tight budget, Betty went to a wholesale nursery with the employee of a friend and, two hours later, hundreds of plants were in our garage.

The plants needed a flag.  Betty decided the idea of ‘Plant America’ could be made more forceful by having a ‘Plant Massachusetts’ flag.  My first job was to design and have printed such a flag, which sounds easier than it is.  An area print shop turned around the flags, printed on glossy paper, in a few hours.  Next, the flags had to be mounted on flagpoles, which ended up being bamboo skewers.  On Sunday morning, four members of the Medfield Garden Club, Betty, and I set up an assembly line that turned out 300 flags in about three hours. 

But now the pots of plants needed covers.  Fortunately, Betty had saved 20 gingham tablecloths from a long-ago event.  I spent most of Monday cutting the tablecloths into squares.  On Tuesday, while Betty purchased more plants (due to higher than expected attendance), I loaded as many plants, cloth squares, and flagpoles as would fit into a Prius and began ferrying them 45 miles to the conference center where the annual meeting would be held.  On Tuesday evening (after dinner with President Hargroves), Betty, her good friend who deserves a halo, and I began placing the squares on the plants, securing them with a rubber band, and then fluffing the squares to look more decorative.  The flags were then affixed to the finished pots.  This took until nearly midnight.

The centertpieces (red arrows), with
Betty (in pink) presenting an award
On Wednesday morning, the final covers were affixed to the final pots and everything was placed on carts.  While 250 garden club members networked before lunch, the carts were wheeled in and the plants decoratively arrayed on tables.  When the attendees filed in for lunch, there were the 30 tables, each festooned with colorfully-bibbed plants bearing ‘Plant Massachusetts’ flags.  It all looked effortless.

Five days of helping Betty get ready for a meeting doesn’t fully atone for those years of scooping ice cream.  But helping her last meeting be a success was a pleasure I won’t soon forget.