May 19, 2017

The National Garden Clubs Convention

For the past three days, I’ve been in Richmond, Virginia, where my wife, Betty, is attending the National Garden Clubs Inc. Convention.  So that we’re clear on this, I have no function at this event other than as one of the crowd extras (‘man in blue blazer drinking white wine’).

Everyone knows why garden clubs exist.  It is to do horticultural good in a community.  Clubs engage in civic beautification and other acts of public service.  They educate their members and foster friendships.  (And, in the kinds of gardens clubs about which I write, their members solve or commit the occasional crime; up to and including murder.)

OK, local garden clubs make sense.  But why should there be a national organization for garden clubs?  The answer, in a word, is education.  There are four cornerstones on which all garden clubs rest: they are environmental, garden study, landscape design, and floral design.  For each one of these areas, there is a national group that designs and updates the curriculum for schools in each of these disciplines so that a club member attending Landscape Design School in California covers the same concepts as someone attending in Maine, but tailored to the special needs of each region.

There are also national projects.  If you’ve seen a book called, “The Frightened Frog”, you should know it was created under the auspices of NGC and released in 2015 to provide environmental education to children from roughly ages four to nine.  Rather than just scaring the bejesus out of kids (the usual way environmental education works), this beautifully illustrated and superbly written book tells a story with an environmental message.  This year, another book, “The Saved Seed” will use the same approach.

There are roughly 600 attendees here in Richmond.  They come from every state, as well as Central and South America.  On the surface, the purpose of the convention is to elect a new set of officers for the coming two years, to pass out awards, and to honor an interesting set of not-universally-known people from the world of horticulture and the environment.

The election, as with most such organizations, is a foregone conclusion.  The lone nail-biter is who will be elected Fourth Vice President.  That person then begins an apprenticeship that deposits them into the President’s chair eight years hence.  I’ve had the pleasure to get to know Sandy Robinson, whose term as NGC President coincided with that of Betty’s as President of the Garden Club Federation of Massachusetts.  As Sandy can attest, the President’s “chair” can more likely be described as Seat 14C on a red-eye flight from Albuquerque to Raleigh: the President’s role is to see and be seen, all the while pressing an agenda.  Last evening, I met Nancy Hargroves, the incoming President.  I wish her all the best and an unending stream of complementary upgrades.

The real purpose of any convention is to bring together people to exchange ideas, and to put faces on telephone voices and emailed communications.  Human nature makes it much more difficult to think poorly of someone you have met and shared a glass of wine with.  (A moderate amount of wine is being consumed in Richmond this week.)  The 52-page NGC program lists dozens of committees meeting to discuss specific topics.  As this is written, Betty is listening to a beleaguered gentleman by the name of Dave Robson explain to an angry, pitchfork-wielding mob how the new "Handbook for Flower Shows" is a marked improvement over its predecessor.

Having been on stage to accept a clutch of national awards bestowed on the state, Betty will have two additional minutes in the spotlight tomorrow morning as she delivers a succinct report to the convention on what the Garden Club Federation of Massachusetts accomplished under her administration.  As it turns out, the Federation has done much good while she has been its head, and she has much of which to be proud.  But if she goes over her allotted two minutes, she still gets ‘the bell’, just like everyone else.

That’s the way it is in the garden club world.

April 29, 2017

Sleep, Creep, Leap

The gardening world is rich with mnemonics; simple rhyming catch phrases that help you remember an important rule.  How much sunlight does a vegetable need?  “Leaf, root, flower, fruit” tells you everything you need to know.  ‘Leaf’ vegetables like lettuce need the least light, ‘fruit’ ones need most.

April 29, 2017.  The bulbs look great.
The one I’m coming to terms with at the start of the 2017 gardening season is “sleep, creep, leap”.  It’s a powerful truth: there is no such thing as an instant garden.  If you plant a tree, shrub, or perennial, expect that its first year will be one of little apparent growth.  Whatever you put in the ground is busy establishing a root system and acclimating itself to a new, alien environment.
This is the 'creep' year
In the second year, that yearling plant creeps.  It almost grudgingly displays a modicum of visible growth, but there is still a painful, yawning space between it and its nearest brethren.  Nothing happens fast enough to suit an impatient gardener.  It is not until the third year that the plant begins to fill its appointed space, and a garden begins to look like, well, a garden.

It is in that second year that Type-A-personality gardeners fall into the trap of overbuying.  If a rhododendron’s tag says to plant specimens four feet apart, the gardeners shrinks that to three or even two feet.  For a year or two, the homeowner achieves the illusion of an ‘instant garden’.  By the third year, plants are getting in one another’s way.  By the fifth year, shrubs that ought to be healthy are instead dying of diseases that should be collectively be labeled, ‘impatience’.

Betty and I moved into our new home in early April 2015.  Our intention had been to immediately install some 200 perennials lovingly divided and potted up from our ‘old garden’ and bring in a full retinue of new trees and shrubs perfect for the site.  Long before the first frost, we would have the elements of our new garden on the half-acre (of our one-and-a-half acres) we planned to cultivate. 

Instead of soil, we had
builders crud
Instead, in mid-April, we discovered we had no viable soil in the area we intended to make our garden.   A year of construction vehicles on the site, the dispersal of ‘spoils’ from digging the basement, and the removal of some 40 end-of-life pines meant that gardening would have to be preceded by the removal of 950 cubic yards of what we came to call ‘builders’crud’ and replace it with a like volume of loam

It took until late June to prepare the site for the new garden.  Nothing was planted during the critical April through June period.  Because of the late start that first season, we focused on locating and planting trees, a few dozen shrubs, the fifty or so perennials we divided from our old home that survived the winter and, that fall, roughly 1800 bulbs.  Our garden didn’t even get to the ‘sleep’ phase; most of the plants we wanted were still in nurseries.

Our first anniversary in our home – April 2016 – commenced the ‘sleep’ year.  We added more trees and several dozen shrubs.  We began planting ground covers and built a raised-bed vegetable garden.  Those first 1800 bulbs bloomed beautifully.  By August, the outline of what we planned was plainly in evidence.  In late October, we nearly doubled the number of bulbs planted in the first year.

A tiny, second-year dicentra is all
we can expect for 2017
That glorious autumn was what has made the spring of 2017 all the more difficult to bear.  This is the ‘creep’ year.  The patio off our back porch has been planted with more than a hundred primarily native perennials.  I keep thinking that, by now, this ought to be a riot of color and texture.  Instead, it is a series of discrete, small plants.  Nothing touches, nothing overlaps.

Our Virginia bluebelles
doubled in size, but still
don't dazzle yet
Plants are not only smaller than I expect, but are emerging later.  It takes a perennial with a deep web of roots to push up greenery in early April or to flower before the end of the month.  Only the ‘ephemerals’ – especially the Virginia bluebells – are of both a size to be noticed and flowering; and they will disappear in mid-May.  Everything else is Lilliputian.  The hostas are just unfurling their first leaves.  The dicentra are compact little mounds; their flowers are weeks away.

The good news is that those bulbs we planted in the autumn of 2015 are veterans.   They form lush borders and rise majestically.  Cyclists and walkers give us their ‘thumbs up’ and shout their approval. 

Even without those accolades, we have been diligently planting the new crop of shrubs and perennials.  These will not ‘leap’ until 2019 or 2020, but that’s fine.  We’re in this for the long haul.  For us, ‘leap’ is just another inflection point.

April 27, 2017

The Pain in My Back is a Pain in the Neck

My Primary Care Physician (previously known as a ‘family doctor’) will never get back the fifteen minutes I spent ranting in his office yesterday.  But at least it made me feel a little better.  Maybe even a lot better.
I am the not-very-proud owner of an extremely strained set of latissimus dorsi muscles.  Two evenings ago, what had been a two-month-long minor back ache turned into a full-fledged all-hands-on-deck, fifteen-minute-long spasm of my back muscles.  It happened at an especially inopportune time.  I was fifty miles from home, just finishing up a speaking gig.  I was carrying books, my laptop, and a projector out the door when several attendees stopped me to ask questions.  It was 9 p.m. and I had an hour’s drive in front of me to get home.

Instead of putting down my belongings, I continued to hold them.  After about seven or eight minutes of pleasant conversation, I turned to push open a door.  My back muscles decided this was the perfect time for an insurrection.  For the better part of fifteen minutes, I felt the most intense pain I have ever felt in my life as a wave of spasms went up and down my back.

Two of the witnesses to this event happened to be nurses, bless their hearts.  They saw the look on my face and began offering professional guidance. 

An MRI machine
In my view, those back spasms were entirely preventable.  Their genesis goes back to last summer when I had my decennial colonoscopy which showed a lone anomaly in an otherwise quite healthy colon: there was a slight indentation in a location that corresponded to my appendix.  Upon being told this by a Colorectal Specialist, I explained that my appendix had been removed at the age of 4 or 5.
 And so, to clear up the mystery, an MRI was ordered.

Think about this: I am on Medicare.  The Center for Medicare Services (CMS) has decreed that all Medicare subscribers are eligible for a $7,500 colonoscopy every ten years.  Because I dutifully agreed to have this procedure done, I am now in the hands of a Colorectal Specialist who had never laid eyed on me until last year.  My medical records from the early 1950s have almost certainly long since gone to a landfill in South Florida.  I cannot prove I ever had said appendectomy (the scar seems to have vanished).  It will take a $6,000 MRI to determine if I have an appendix and if said appendix is gently pushing into my colon.

Your appendix, if you still have one
The MRI results came back.  The Colorectal Specialist determined that I had the stub of an appendix, and that the stub appeared to be filled with some kind of fluid.  I was told I needed an appendectomy, which would be performed laparoscopically.  And so, on the eve of Thanksgiving, I went in for a $20,000 laparoscopic appendectomy (known as a “lappy appy” as the cheerful surgical resident informed me) at one of Boston’s major teaching hospitals.

Laparoscopic appendectomy
Five hours later I was sent home with written instructions: DO NOT LIFT ANYTHING OVER FIVE POUNDS.  OTHERWISE, YOU WILL PULL YOUR STITCHES AND YOU WILL REQUIRE A SECOND OPERATION.  Left unsaid but quite understood was that the fine folks at CMS would kick that bill back in my direction for full payment.  And so, for the next six weeks, including Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years, I adhered to those orders.  In the meantime, I also received the biopsy results of my “lappy appy”.  The full page, jargon-filled letter boiled down to one word:  “Ooops.”

There was indeed a tiny stub of an appendix, but it was not filled with fluid and it was not causing any problem.  It was all a matter of an ‘ambiguous reflection’ on the MRI.  Call it a ‘false positive’.
Like I said.  “Ooops.”

But I had emerged from my enforced inactivity at the beginning of February with some unwanted extra pounds, sort of like the ‘Freshman Fifteen’ but at the age of 67.  I am by nature an active person and I had just gone through the prime holiday period with no acceptable outlet for that energy.  And so I began doing things.  I moved furniture.  I shoveled snow rather than use the snow blower.  I carried stuff just to get the exercise. 

I tackled spring clean-up chores
with gusto
And I began to feel twinges in my back.  I ignored them.  I am a tough guy.  Spring finally arrived and Betty and I planted dozens of new shrubs and perennials.  I sawed tree limbs, raked with relish and toted brush-filled bags to the transfer station.  I was bound and determined to work off those pounds.  I also had a busy speaking schedule and I carried two bulging bags of books with me.
And so I was understandably angry when my back revolted.  And I freely admit that I was also more than a little frightened.  Which is why I called my Primary Care Physician, who cleared time for me because he could recall only one time in a three-decade relationship when I called to request a same-day appointment (it was my first encounter with Lyme Disease).

He listened to my rant.  He looked at the computerized reports.  He agreed that I had received $26,000 of ‘overly cautious’ medical attention, but that the blame lay with Congress for failing to rein in tort reform when the Affordable Care Act was being drafted. 

So, what was he going to do about my back?  After a full examination, his learned advice could best be paraphrased as “suck it up”. 

Yoga was prescibed
“I could set you up with physical therapy appointments or you could try acupuncture,” he said.  “But the real treatment is ice and yoga.  Your muscle will recover when you stop stressing it.”  

Because I whined, he also gave me a prescription for $1.86 worth of muscle relaxers, but cautioned that the pills don’t know which muscles need to be relaxed.  “They could decide to relax some muscles you’d rather keep under control.”  Message received.

And so I write this as part of my therapy.  All things in moderation.  This too shall pass.

April 5, 2017

The Seven Cent Solution

Feeder Enemy #1
Last month, I wrote that a gang of marauding squirrels had deemed my bird feeders to be their personal fiefdom.  They would shamelessly scamper up the three slender poles in my back yard to wantonly attack the five suet, seed, and worm feeders that hung from those poles.  While overwintering birds watched helplessly, the squirrels (Latin name: Sciurus carolinensis, which translates as ‘rats with bushy tails’) would gorge themselves on sunflower seed.  One even made off with a hamburger-sized chunk of suet.  My solution, I wrote, was to oil the poles; a process that had to be repeated every few days.

Yankee Flipper
I was pleasantly surprised to receive dozens of emails from readers offering advice.  A few also admonished me for blatantly favoring avians over phyla mammalia.  I responded to the latter group by underscoring that I had specifically purchased ‘bird’ feeders.

But I was excited by the reader suggestions for varmint-proofing my feeders.  Many were commercial products.  Two readers touted something called the Yankee Flipper, which incorporates a free-spinning base that takes any squirrel that jumps from a pole onto it for a ride akin to something that belongs in an amusement park.  Target carries them for $24.99, but I noticed two things in the video I watched.  First, as the feeder spun round and round, it also spewed out a sizeable serving of seeds.  The second, and perhaps more disturbing finding from viewing the product in action was that the squirrel appeared to be enjoying itself.  It hung on for half a dozen rotations and I would swear it was grinning.

Plexiglas works, but at a high cost
Plexiglas domes also figured strongly into reader suggestions.  The idea is simple: the dome hangs over the feeder.  The squirrel climbs a tree, drops down onto the dome and cannot gain a foothold.  After half a dozen tries, it adjusts to the new reality of a seed-free diet.  Simple domes start at about $15 although, for reasons I cannot fathom, they also are sold for twice and three timer that amount.  But the operative word at the top of this paragraph is ‘tree’.  Plexiglas-covered feeders mounted on a pole are child’s play to your average squirrel: they just jump the few inches from the pole to the feeder, then scarf down a pound of seed while being protected against the rain.

Clearly, for a pole-mounted feeder to work, the squirrel has to be kept from getting up the pole in the first place.  One reader suggested a product with the imposing name of the Stokes Select 38023 Squirrel Baffle.  It’s a simple device: a conical metal ‘hat’ that rests on a disc tightened to fit around the pole.  I was impressed but, at $13 each, I would be spending $40 to protect my feeders.  Was there a less expensive solution?

Squirrels are natural acrobats
I found one via another reader’s exciting suggestion: use a Slinky.  This sent me to the internet to view what turns out to be dozens of videos of squirrels being unable to master that ubiquitous, simple childhood toy.  I watched in fascination as squirrel after squirrel was defeated by a resilient spring.  Checking prices, I found that Home Depot (who knew?) even sells a three-pack of Slinkys for $12.94.
But was there something just as effective for even less?  Trolling more YouTube videos, I came across one that showed the use of two-liter plastic bottles.  The bottom had been cut off and the neck clamped to the pole with screws.  Well, we had a used, two-liter plastic seltzer bottle in a bag awaiting the opportunity to return it to the supermarket for the five-cent deposit.  I sacrificed the deposit, cut off the bottom, and taped it to one of our poles with about two cents worth of strapping tape. 

My 7 cent solution
Less than an hour later, a squirrel scampered up the pole and found itself inside a tiny jail cell made of polyethylene terephthalate.  The squirrel moved below the bottle and reconnoitered its situation.  It tried and failed to grab the bottom of the bottle.  It reached a paw up to gain purchase on the side of the bottle without success.  It again hunkered inside the bottle attempting to hatch some fiendish plan.  After three minutes, it gave up.

Yesterday, Betty and I consumed another bottle of seltzer to protect a second pole and I thoroughly oiled the third one.  As of this morning, only birds are enjoying the seed, suet, and worms. 

At least for the moment, we have found a solution to our squirrel problem for just seven cents a feeder.  I think even Sherlock Holmes would approve. 

March 3, 2017

Like a Hawk

The problem with wildlife is that the creatures in your garden haven’t seen all those Walt Disney movies and so they don’t know how they’re supposed to behave.  It isn’t just that they don’t spontaneously break out into cute songs.  It’s that they behave like, well, animals.
Take our birdfeeders.  Back in November, we purchased a twin-hooked steel pole, an Audubon-approved feeder, a 50-pound bag of sunflower seeds, a suet cage, and a six-pack of suet cakes.  We placed the pole out behind our house and almost immediately were inundated with birds.  And, not just any birds.  We had chickadees, house wrens, flickers, downy woodpeckers, and orioles.  We were stewards of the land.
We felt so good about the first pole that we acquired a second one and mounted a worm feeder atop it, then stocked the feeder with freeze-dried meal worms (who knew?) to attract yet other bird species.  That was followed in short order by a third pole with still another seed feeder and suet cage.
The enemy
Then, two things happened.  First, squirrels discovered the feeders.  We would see them during the day, sitting around in the trees, smoking little cigarettes, shooting craps and listening to gangsta rap, waiting for us to turn out the lights in the house.  Late at night they would then quickly scale the poles, knock much the seed out of the feeders, and gorge themselves until dawn.  Come daylight, we would find empty feeders and obese squirrels. 
Worse, one squirrel crew set about chewing off the bottommost two perches.  One morning we discovered they had very nearly succeeded in chewing through the connecting pins that held the bottom of the feeder together.  One more pin and there would have a glorious avalanche of seed that would have found a place in the lore of the Grand Council of Squirrels.  That feeder is now held together with steel-infused strapping tape.
Squirrels tried to gnaw out
the bottom of the feeder
We reminded ourselves that we had put up bird feeders.  Not squirrel feeders.  We began greasing the poles and took pleasure at watching squirrels take flying leaps onto the poles, only to slide ignominiously down to the ground; the seed safe from their gluttonous grasp.
But then, without notice, the second thing happened: the birds disappeared.  We tried to tell ourselves that our neighbors must have put up newer, better feeders; possibly with live music and a cappuccino machine.  It made no sense that we would be so readily abandoned.
One afternoon two weeks ago, we were chatting with our across-the-street neighbor.  Her two boys have a seasonal ice rink in their front yard and can skate on it for hours.  But, our neighbor said, sometimes the boys put down their hockey sticks in fascination just to watch and admire the hawk.
“What hawk?” we asked.
Yep, there's a hawks nest
Our neighbor obligingly pointed to a sixty-foot-tall pine at the front of our property and move her finger up the tree trunk.  There, fifty feet up in the air, was a massive aerie.  From it, a hawk could gaze up and down the street looking for unsuspecting mice and moles.  And, by turning its head just a little to the right, it could monitor the comings and goings at our feeders.
Hawks are carnivores. It is well known that hawks eat small mammals such as mice, rats, voles and other rodents. Less well known is that hawks – and especially red-tailed hawks like the one we had seen numerous times in the wetlands behind our home – also eat smaller birds, frogs and reptiles.  (When a two-foot-long garter snake disappeared from our garden, Betty did not go looking for a culprit.)
When a bird is snatched from a feeder by a hawk, the other birds scatter and look for less vulnerable feeding spots.  After a period of time, they’ll return to the scene of the abduction.  It’s a cycle that will repeat itself as long as supplemental feeding is needed.
'Our' red-tailed hawk
What’s a steward of the land to do?  It is not that we placed the feeders in too exposed an area.  The tree canopy is less that twenty feet away and birds perch within a few seconds flight from the feeders.  But hawks are excellent hunters, and they are silent and swift. We’ll leave the feeders in place until our over-wintering avian friends no longer have use for them.  As for the hawk, it’s part of nature.  Hawks got to hunt.

But the squirrels?  Let them order take-out pizza or whatever those Disney rodents live on.  I’m going to keep greasing those poles.

February 28, 2017

The Wasted Opportunity

The Principal Undergardener usually writes funny, upbeat items about garden-related slices of life.  I promise to return with something humorous in a few days but, this morning, I have something festering in my mind that needs to get down in words (and, no, it has nothing to do with politics).
It is a tale of a wasted opportunity on a vital topic. 
I have the pleasure to accompany my wife to many garden club events around Massachusetts.  Clubs enjoy meeting her and Betty relishes the chance to take a few minutes to speak about what the state Federation is doing, especially by way of education.
A week or so ago, we were at a joint meeting of two clubs.  A very nice garden center kept its doors open and provided a great meeting space. Because the event was well publicized, it drew a crowd of more than 75 people, many of them non-garden-club-member guests drawn by the topic at hand.  (I have purposely omitted names and details.)
The topic of the evening was bees and the danger they face.  There were to be two presentations.  One of them was from a professional beekeeping service.  The other was a librarian with a keen interest in the subject.
The beekeeping company was not a guy with a truck and some hives.  Rather, it is a firm with a presence in multiple cities.  Its founder is a behavioral ecologist who has written a lucid book on bees, and the company is quite adept at generating positive publicity for itself.
The speaker, according to the garden clubs’ flyer, was to have been the firm’s marketing director.  For whatever reason, she wasn’t there.  Instead, two of the company’s employees made the presentation.  What followed was a disorganized and poorly presented program that was astonishingly short on facts. 
The two presenters were both in their early twenties, and I’ll call them Ken and Barbie.  Ken gave part of his presentation not noticing he was standing between the projector and the screen.  He delivered half of talk directly to Barbie, who was standing to one side.  He gave the other half to the screen, where he read slides word for word.  He occasionally glanced at the audience, which noticed the absence of eye contact.
Ken would go backwards in the presentation looking for a particular slide.  He also paused to speak about a particularly ‘cool’ graphic done by the company’s ‘awesome’ in-house graphic artist; then apologized because the graphic wasn’t really large enough to be seen beyond the front row.  He also delivered his talk with one hand in his pants pocket, which would ordinarily be grounds for criticism (it telegraphs to an audience that you’re not serious) but, given the rest of his transgressions, barely matters.
Barbie was better, but her part of the talk comprised about 15% of the program. 
Poor presentation can ruin a program, but avoiding speaking about the ‘elephant in the room’ is unforgivable.  The presentation was devoid of discussion of neonicotinoids in general; and clothianidin, imiadcloprid, and thiamethoxam in particular.  Instead, according to Ken, colony collapse occurs because “bees just wander off”.  The absence of such a discussion was puzzling.  It lead one person with whom I spoke after the presentation to wonder aloud if the beekeeping organization receives funding from insecticide manufacturers.
Maybe the most bewildering slides was a list of nectar/pollen plants available by month.  I believe there was a single plant listed for September with nothing thereafter, and Ken allowed that, “after August, there isn’t much food out there for the bees.”  When questioned about the chart, Ken said the information in would be updated when other sources were verified.  (Our garden has active bees and food plants for them into November; I offered to supply Ken with my plant list.)
* * * * *
It was, in short, a wasted opportunity.  The question I keep coming back to is, ‘why’.  There are two possible answers.  The first is that Ken and Barbie were last minute substitutes who had never presented publicly and were unfamiliar with the program they were supposed to give.  That’s the charitable explanation.  The other is that this beekeeping organization considers garden clubs secondary or tertiary audiences that aren’t worthy of sending in the ‘big guns’.  If so, they blew it.  In the Q&A session that followed, it was members of the audience who asked the tough questions, citing specific chemicals and industry practices in detail.
The librarian’s presentation, on the other hand, was well researched, carefully thought out, and well-presented  – in short, infinitely better than the ‘professional’ one the preceded it.

A reader might wonder why, instead of venting in a blog, the Principal Undergardener didn’t express his thoughts directly to the beekeeping company.  I did.  I sent a detailed critique to the company’s founder, chief scientist, and marketing director the day after the presentation.  I heard back… nothing.

February 1, 2017

The Huddled Masses, Leaning Toward the Sun

They are camped out around our home, unwilling refugees, far from their tropical and subtropical origins, gathered by windows and leaning toward a feeble sun for sustenance. They huddle together to preserve precious water in a house where the humidity is in single digits. 
With its east and south-facing windows, our library
is a favored spot for wintering houseplants

What we do to our houseplants. We take growing things whose ancestors never experienced a frost and transport them to environments where, for six months of the year, all that separates them from death by frozen capillaries is a pane of glass. And all this for…. What?
Why do we have houseplants? I typed that question into Google, ordinarily a bastion of reason and well-marshaled information. The first response was a query right back at me: ‘How can I get rid of gnats?’ Not ready for a Socratic dialog so early in the morning, I declined to provide an answer. Five pages of scrolling later, I had not found any erudite responses from horticulturally-inclined sociologists, although I uncovered an online survey indicating that our home’s houseplant population puts us dangerously outside the bell curve (the average number is five).
One of our 'guest' orchids.  It hogs
two windows in my office
And so, I am left to come up with my own answers. The first one is obvious: they’re green and they sometimes flower. It’s February in New England.  The world outside my window this week is relentlessly brown. Who wouldn’t want to have something nearby that reminded us that winter is not some Game-of-Thrones-style permanent condition?
Another answer is that houseplants are undemanding. Water them once a week. Check them for insects (including, yes, gnats). Re-pot them once a year. Compared to your average pet, they’re self-sufficient. My aunt kept a snake plant (Sansevieria trifasciata) in a darkened hallway that, to the best of my knowledge, was never watered, only dusted occasionally. It lived for decades.
A wintering bougainvillea and an
array of plants in Betty's office.
A third answer is that houseplants are your friends.  We have deployed a small army of Peace lilies (Spathiphyllum) around our home.  They not only produce a handsome, long-lived flower, but they also cleanse the air of multiple toxins.  Many other houseplants perform similar functions.
Plants can surprise you. We have friends who have decamped for South America for a lengthy vacation.  We agreed to ‘babysit’ two of their orchids.  Our friends arrived for dinner in late December bearing the two biggest plants I have seen outside a botanical garden.  For two weeks, those orchids simply occupied space in our home; one of them hogging an entire twin set of casement windows.  They were nothing but greenery.  Then, one morning two weeks into our plant-sitting exercise, we awakened to find our guests in spectacular blooms of pink and white.  They’re still brightening our home and are welcome to stay as long as they wish.
This croton has been
with us for two
Finally, plants get to become family. We have two wonderfully colorful crotons that has been around so long they are practically family retainers.  Our various bougainvillea have been in residence for so many years that I can predict their flowering cycles to within a few days. Betty was given a ‘bunny ears’ cactus (Opuntia microdasys) almost a decade ago.  Every year, it rewarded us with a new ‘ear’, growing like an oblong floor of an oddly-shaped building.  When the cactus broke over under its own weight, Betty thought it might be a goner.  Instead, the area from which it broke produced two ears, each of which is now happily adding to the plant’s bulk.

So, why do we have houseplants?  I think it’s because they’re a year-round reminder that, no matter our station in life, we all ultimately came from the land.  A few generations ago, our forebears farmed to survive.  Today, we exchange our labor for money and, if we ‘farm’ at all, we call it ‘gardening’ and we do it for pleasure.  In short, houseplants keep us rooted.

January 3, 2017

Winter is for the Birds

Until this year, we never felt compelled to place bird feeders near our house.  At our previous homes we always had mature specimen trees and shrubs to provide shelter and food.  We left up seed-rich plants and other ‘natural’ food sources.  And, we didn’t want to encourage normally migratory birds to stick around on our account.  Our lone concession to the need for supplemental nutrition was to hang a slab of beef suet in a squirrel-proof wire frame suspended between two trees.
Our 'feeding station' has four stops, and
has accommodated as many as eight
birds at a time
We started with a blank canvas at our new home; or at least one-third of a blank canvas.  The front half-acre of our land was an ecological desert of climax pines, burning bush, and swallowwort.  No self-respecting bird would have had anything to do with it.  We created, from scratch, a new landscape of native trees and shrubs.  The birds followed almost immediately and gorged themselves on seeds, fruits, and worms.  We set out a hummingbird feeder and promptly attracted three families that waged incessant aerial warfare and conducted strafing runs to win the right to our station.
But as October turned cold and our perennials collapsed, all that was left were eight or nine immature ilex and snowberry shrubs; hardly a welcome mat for our avian friends.  Maybe we needed to re-think our ‘no feeder’ mindset.
As it turns out, we had all of the elements of a feeding station.  Betty gets invited to a lot of garden club events – she attended more than a hundred of them this past year.  As president of the state garden club Federation, no one ever asks her to pay, even though meals or big-time speakers may be involved.  Conscious that she’s a guest, Betty always makes a point of buying tickets for Opportunity Drawings (the IRS-approved terms for what used to be called ‘raffles’). 
The problem is, if you attend 150 events and buy ten Opportunity Drawing tickets at each event, the math says you will walk home with a certain number of items.  And so a corner of Betty’s office and some basement space is dedicated to storage for items she won but for which she has no immediate use.
When we went looking to create a bird feeding station, we needed look no further than these storage areas.  She had won several Audubon-approved bird feeders, a worm feeder (complete with ten packages of freeze-fried meal worms), and a suet cage.  Thanks to our hummingbirds, we already had one tall pole on which to hang a feeder. To set up shop we purchased a second pole, a 50-pound sack of striped sunflower seeds, and some suet.
We had company by mid-day of our formal opening and we apparently got good reviews on the avian equivalent of Yelp! because the crowds kept coming back.  Curiously, we would have times when the feeders were deserted.  Apparently there are other feeders in the neighborhood, and the birds felt a need to frequent both their older haunts as well as their new favorite.
Our biggest initial problem was squirrels.  They are voracious consumers of anything that even looks like food, and they’ll empty a feeder in minutes; dumping the contents on the ground for easy pickings at their leisure.  After watching them climb our poles with an easy, athletic grace – and awakening to empty feeders that had been topped off at dusk – we settled on a squirrel-proofing idea that will likely horrify the Nature Conservancy:  we greased the poles.  There was a certain satisfaction watching squirrels take a flying leap three feet up a pole, only to slowly slide down to the bottom with no hope of traction.  We also noticed that after two or three days, they stopped trying.

So, we’re now officially in the bird feeding business and that first 50-pound bag is nearly finished.  Now, our task is to figure out what to do with the sunflower seek husks: they contain a chemical that inhibits the growth of anything except sunflowers.  Do we rake them up and take them to the transfer station?  We’re not sure, and ideas are gratefully accepted.

December 7, 2016

Rescue Me

Being the spouse of the President of the Garden Club Federation of Massachusetts brings multiple Honors and Benefits, not the least of which is the frequent opportunity to be Presidential Arm Candy for garden club events (‘arm candy’ being a much better job description than ‘driver’).  In a given month, Betty receives as many as twenty invitations to various events, which she accepts on a first-invited-first-accepted basis.  In the peak months of November and April she frequently does two events a day (she once did three events in three widely separated towns in a day and swore she would never do so again).
The topiaried
cypress, about
which more will
be said in
a moment
November and December events are usually festive ones built around a holiday theme.  Clubs bring in ‘big name’ designers or otherwise pull out all the stops.  It’s also a time when clubs in the same or neighboring towns get together and pool their resources for a big splash; the better to make that big event affordable to even small clubs.
And also, by some unspoken protocol, the Federation President is offered the opportunity (some would say ‘obliged’) to take the best seat in the house for whatever presentation is being done.  Betty invariably protests that no fuss need be made.  Then she is shown that front-row seat with her name taped to it.
All of the preceding is necessary background to understand the events of about three weeks ago, and how I came to rescue three cypress trees from cruel and unusual punishment.
The Spring Grow Expo in 2016
Each year in November, five clubs in Topsfield, Boxford and Middleton hold a “Tri-Town meeting”.  It’s a rather elegant soiree held at an appropriate site.  Betty was especially pleased to be invited this year because one of the participating clubs holds an environmental fair each spring, and she was looking forward to talking with that club’s members.  This 2016 edition of the event was held at Topsfield Common, an historic building on that town’s original town green.  We arrived to find more than a hundred women dining on canapes and thoroughly enjoying themselves.  Betty was immediately swept into multiple conversations and so I tried to make myself inconspicuous; no small feat when you are the only person of the male persuasion in a rapidly growing crowd.  When the program began, Betty found herself ushered to the front of the hall and I found that a seat had been marked off for me beside her. 
Topiaries at Snug Harbor Farm
A brief word about garden club holiday programs. While a 'normal' month’s program may feature a speaker on the environment, landscaping, gardening, or even gardening humor; a holiday program invariably centers on floral design.  One of the 'big names' in design is booked and never fails to delight the audience.  Betty has been to enough of these events that one of those big names, Tony Todesco, believes she is stalking him. 
To be a 'big name', you must be more than just a good designer: you must also have a great 'patter'.  Watching anyone – even the most talented designer – put together five or six floral arrangements over 90 minutes can be a deadly dull experience.  What makes it enjoyable and even riveting is the accompanying patter.  The designer tells stories as he or she works, and it is those stories – always humorous and also often autobiographical – that are just as memorable as the designs.
Tony Elliott
The name on the program that evening, though, was a new one to me: Tony Elliott.  The topic, though, seemed a familiar one: ‘The Holiday Table’.  It turns out that Tony is the owner and proprietor of a specialty garden center called Snug Harbor Farm in Kennebunk, Maine, some 50 miles up the coast from Topsfield.  On the stage in front of us was a mass of vegetables, plants, and flowers.
Tony began by showing the audience how to make a topiary.  He did so because one of Snug Harbor Farm’s specialties is topiary.  To demonstrate, he brought out a beautiful small cypress, perhaps twelve inches high.  The plant was beautifully proportioned and in wonderful condition.  It was the kind of plant anyone would be proud to own.  Tony began to cut it.  Not nice little cuts to perhaps shape it; he took off an entire branch. 
The audience gasped.  Being in the front row, I saw the carnage from a distance of just five feet.
He cut more of the cypress.  Another branch fell to the floor.  The audience cried out for him to stop.  He kept cutting, whacking, hacking, until all that remained of that beautiful cypress was its stem and a small top knot.
He held it up for the audience to see.  The audience was in shock. 
He picked up another cypress.  “Shall I show you again?” he asked.  There seemed to be a gleam in his eye.
The two un-molested cypresses will
spend the winter as indoor ornamentals.
They are not hardy in New England, so
their long-term fate is uncertain.
The audience begged him to spare it.
The balance of the presentation, at least to me, was a blur.  I know he used a blue squash as a container for a floral centerpiece, but my mind was still on that poor cypress.
To defray the cost of a program, there are always 'opportunity drawings'  (the approved IRS terminology) and the creations of the designer are auctioned off.  An hour after he began, Tony Elliott had filled a large table with designs.  The auction began.
Three cypresses – the one turned into the beginning of a topiary – and two that had been given a stay of execution in the interest of time were part of the auction.  Bidding began.  I raised my hand.  I wanted to spare those poor cypresses.  Someone else raised their hand.  I raised mine again.  And so it went until the bidding reached $40.  Mind you, I could buy those three cypresses for six or seven dollars each at any decent nursery.  But these cypresses were being held hostage by a man who would butcher them without a second thought.
I raised my hand one more time.  “I will rescue them for $45,” I shouted.  The audience broke out in laughter. 

The three cypresses will grace the mantle over our fireplace this winter.  In the spring, we will find a place for all three outdoors.  They're not hardy hereabouts, but whatever fate awaits that cypress, it will know a kinder future than it experienced on a stage in Topsfield one evening in November.

December 1, 2016


We all want beautiful gardens, but is one – however gorgeous – that doesn’t consciously make room for wildlife a good idea?  That thought first came to mind back in October.  The native dogwood tree (cornus florida) we planted eighteen months earlier outside our library window seemed to be having an epileptic fit.  The whole top of the tree was shaking violently.  It turns out that the tree’s fruit had just ripened and a dozen birds were noisily staking their claim to it.
We are now a certified wildlife habitat
I mentioned the ruckus (which went on for three days) to a friend and asked if he had experienced a similar display.  No, he had not.  But he also said his was a cornus kousa, the Asian dogwood cultivar.  The response puzzled me and so I did some research.  It turns out that the fruit of the kousa dogwood is larger than that of its American cousin; too large, in fact, for most birds.  We had set out an autumn buffet for multiple bird species.  My friend’s tree was just an attractive ornamental tree with large, bright red berries.
I was reminded of that conversation last week when we drove a wooden pole into the ground at the front of our property and affixed to that pole a sign.  We are now a Certified Wildlife Habitat.
A bowl cast from a hosta
leaf provides fresh water
Certified Wildlife Habitats are part of the National Wildlife Federation’s ‘Gardens for Wildlife’ program.  Surprisingly, certification isn’t limited to people with acres of land.  You can certify an apartment building balcony or a college campus as well as a suburban home site.  In all, there are more than 200,000 such spaces in the U.S. encompassing 1.5 million acres.  That’s a lot of wildlife-friendly habitat.
Our property likely goes to the extreme end of the wildlife-friendly spectrum.  For example, to be certified your habitat needs to provide three of the following food sources: seeds from plants, berries, nectar, foliage and twigs, fruits, sap, pollen, suet, a bird feeder, a hummingbird feeder, a butterfly feeder, a squirrel feeder, and nuts.  We can tick the box for all but two of those.  We have no intention of ever feeding squirrels, and so we will never put up a feeder for them; and putting out nuts will attract squirrels, so ix-nay to that idea, too.
We feed the birds, but
draw the line at squirrels
Properties should have a source of clean water.  It could be a birdbath, a butterfly puddling area (perfect for a balcony), a river, a rain garden, a spring, or a seasonal pool.  We had no fewer than three birdbaths in operation, plus we have vernal pools on the land we own behind our home.
The NWF says that wildlife needs at least two places to shelter from predators and the weather.  It could be a wooded area, a rock pile or wall, cave, roosting box, brush or log pile, water garden or pond, evergreens, or a meadow or prairie.  We don’t have a prairie or a cave, but we check the box on all of the rest.  Some we created as we built our landscape.  One was the product of my laziness: when we acquired the property on which we would build our new home there was a pile of logs and brush adjoining the wetlands.  Betty told me to clear it out.  I said I wasn’t getting anywhere near it.  It remains; a perfect wildlife shelter.
This pile of wood and brush is both
shelter and a place to raise young
And a habitat should have a place for critters to raise their young.  These include mature trees, nesting boxes, dead trees or snags, thickets, wetlands, or host plants for caterpillars.  There are roughly fifteen acres of wetlands behind our home that are permanently protected.  We own an acre of that wetland.  We’ve also left up several dead trees specifically for nesting sites.
This dead tree was left
in place for bird roosts
Sustainability is also part of the certification process.  How about soil and water conservation?  Do you capture rain water from your roof?  Do you practice water-wise landscaping?  Do you have a rain garden? Use mulch?  In our case, we could check every practice. Boy, do we have the mulch question covered.
Is your property organic?  Have you eliminated chemical pesticides and fertilizers?  Do you use compost?  For us, the answers were yes, yes, and yes.  And, finally, are you controlling exotic species?  Ways to do that include practicing integrated pest management, removing non-native plants and animals, using native plants (like that American dogwood), and reducing lawn area.  I don’t know if having no lawn at all earned us extra points, but it should have.

Our pollinator garden
will stay up for the winter
Garden certification is both a good and a clever idea.  It rewards good behavior with a sense of satisfaction (and a sign) and provides gardeners with a tangible list of achievable goals to help them do more for the environment.  If you’re interesting in seeing if your property qualifies, check it out here.