August 21, 2019

She Spreads She Sheds Along the South Shore

The She Shed as installed at the
Marshfield Fair.  Double-click for
a full-screen slideshow.
I’ve written several times about the venerable Marshfield Fair.  It’s a wonderful anachronism; a local fair that seamlessly combines agriculture with a midway and farm animals.  It ought not to exist in the 21st Century and, indeed, most such fairs disappeared long ago.  But those which survive adapt with the times to attract new generations of families.
I live fifty miles from Marshfield, which is on what is called the ‘South Shore’ of Massachusetts, yet every August my life seems to come to a grinding halt because of the fair.  Once upon a time, it was to transport flowers for Betty’s entry in the standard flower show held there each year.  Then, it became themed mantels.  That was followed by helping create conservation or ecology exhibits to explain things like the perils of black swallowwort or the need to encourage using native plants.
The 2018 entry, 'Grandma's Cottage'
Last year, Roni Lehage, who runs all ‘horticulture’ for the fair, roped us in big time.  She asked if we would create what is called a ‘vignette’ – a three-dimensional, full-size display based on a theme.  I had never noticed the vignettes before; perhaps I never got to that part of the Horticulture Building.  The 2018 theme was,‘The Front Porch’.  Betty and I created an entry called ‘Grandma’s Seaside Cottage’ which visually told a story of a young girl’s afternoon on the aforementioned porch.  To goose its verisimilitude, I created and painted a four-foot-by-six-foot scenery flat which was a very good replica of a part of that cottage’s exterior.  We blew away the competition.
It all starts with lumber and props
We also blew away much of the month of August.  Creating and painting the panel was an educational.  We weren’t just creating a clapboard house exterior; it has to have shadows to create that three-dimensional feel – and late afternoon shadows at that.  Plus, everything needed to be transported in a Prius and assembled on site.  We agreed one year created a lifetime of laurels on which to rest.
Last month, Roni called again: the 2019 theme was ‘He Shed/She Shed’ (get it?).  She had the ‘He Shed’ but there was no feminine equivalent.  This was especially heartbreaking because She Sheds were becoming a ‘thing’ – there is even a very funny television commercial on the subject.  Could we come out of retirement to ensure the ‘boys’ (actually, two women) had some competition?  OK, we agreed to enter.
Fabric on the panels.  We had ample
props... for a 4'x6' space
For 2019, the rear height dimension increased from four feet to six feet.  The depth remained four feet and the width six feet.  It was right there in the Horticulture Entry Manual, and I even sent Roni a sketch to make certain we were within spec. 
We went to work.  I built three panels – a back one six feet by six feet, and two side panels, each four feet on a side.  While created from nothing but 1”x3” rough framing strips covered with muslin cloth, we wanted to be able to add things like shelves and a window.  So, supports were added wherever these elements would be placed (have I mentioned I know nothing about carpentry?).  The flats were created, primed, and painted a pleasing yellow.  It was time to visit The Swap.
The Swap - everything we needed!
Medfield has a town Transfer Station.  Almost everyone in town takes their carefully-sorted yard debris, garbage, and recyclables there.  Five years ago, someone noticed an appalling number of useful things were being thrown in with garbage destined to be incinerated to create electricity.  Thus was born The Swap which, in 2019 is a spectacular, volunteer-driven paean to the virtue of recycling no-longer-needed consumer goods. 
Need art? Furniture? It's at The Swap
Over three visits, Betty and I collected a feminine-looking desk, a nice chair, two large wine glasses with flowers painted on them, three colonial-themed shelves, a small window with frame and glass intact, picture frames, gardening books, and other bric-a-brac that might be useful.  The window frame was an especially good find; I managed to coax it out of the hands of a young woman who wanted it for a craft project by promising her she would get it back after the fair’s run.
The view out the shed window
(that's part of our garden!)
All these items plus five of our best-looking gardening containers were assembled in our basement – after making certain we could get the six-by-six frame up the stairs.  I took dozens of photos of our garden to find the right one to be blown up to poster size to be the ‘view’ out the window. some items, such as the chair, were painted to create a visual theme. At the last minute I added a ‘shadow’ to the side panels to assure the viewer this was the inside of a shed and not a suite at the Four Seasons.
On the appointed morning we transported everything to Marshfield.  We cajoled a friend with a truck to take the three wall panels and desk.  We got there, expecting to assemble everything in an hour – 90 minutes tops. 
We started by attaching the window to the six-by-six panel and hoisting the scenery flat into its place at the back of the exhibit space… and discovered the flat didn’t fit.  The space was eight feet wide – and five-and-a-half-feet high.  We had been given incorrect dimensions.  Oops.
A gardener always admits 
the truth to herself - one 
of the shed's illustrations
So, we commandeered tools, un-tacked the fabric, took apart the back panel, shortened it to the allotted height (no small feat) and re-stretched the fabric.  Betty opened the side walls to fill the eight-foot width.  We brought in our car-load of props – all designed to fill 24 square feet (or 144 cubic feet) of space.  Except we had 32 square feet (200 cubic feet) of space to fill.  After four hours of work it looked… empty.  Chic, feminine, and spare.  Betty returned to Marshfield the next morning with four large containers, but there was no ignoring the contrast between our whimsical ‘space of her own’ and the overstuffed tribute to veterans that occupied the adjoining ‘he shed’.
We got the Red – second place. 
Yet, I’m damned proud of that shed (on view through August 25).  It is everything we set out to illustrate: a space where a woman can make gardening plans with the comfort of books, wine, a pet, aphorisms – and a marvelous view of her own garden. 

August 16, 2019

A Groaning Glut of Green Beans


In our 600-square-foot vegetable garden this year we are growing corn, lettuce, chard, dill, carrots, summer squash, winter squash, eight varieties of tomatoes, fennel, cucumbers, peppers, basil, leeks, beets, spinach, amaranth…. and green beans.
The summer zucchini explosion can
be easily addressed by leaving them
on your neighbors' doorsteps
I have no argument with the first 16 items on the list. There is nothing as flavorful as sweet corn eaten minutes after it was picked or a salad topped with tomatoes still warm from the vine. These are the reasons we garden. Even when there is excess (think zucchini), there are neighbors with whom to share the bounty.  And, if your friends begin avoiding you because they know you come bearing suitcases full of the stuff, you can dispose of the surplus on National Sneak Zucchini on Your Neighbors’ Porch Night (which fell on August 8th this year).
Zucchini, though, is a vegetable that must be eaten fresh. No one would ever think of canning or freezing summer squash, because they’d find nothing but mush when they sampled it in January. Not so green beans. Green beans effectively have the same taste and texture whether they’re eaten fresh or frozen.
One of our two wide rows of beans
For reasons known only to her, this year Betty planted two ‘wide rows’ of green beans with the idea we would freeze what we didn’t immediately eat.  To add color to the garden, one of those plots is planted with a bean that is picked when purple, though it disappointingly reverts to green when cooked.  We picked out first green bean in mid-July and are now picking upwards of a pound of beans from of the garden every other day.
This variety of beans is purple... alas,
it turns green when cooked.
The first week was wonderful. The yield was maybe 20 or 30 long, luscious beans a day, perhaps ten minutes worth of picking in the cool, late afternoon. Once home, we pinched off the ends, threw them in a dish, steamed them for three minutes and we had fresh, delicious green beans; high in vitamins and good for us to boot.
Then the yield bounced up to about 60 green beans a day. Fifteen minutes of picking and ten minutes of snipping ends. OK, we cooked half and froze half (two minutes in boiling water, then rinse under cold water to stop the cooking, arrange the beans on a tray, stick them in the freezer for an hour, then bag them and return them to the freezer until needed). I could cope with that.  One reason is that, in earlier years, our green bean season could last as little as two weeks.  Mexican bean beetles would discover the garden and begin chomping on everything in sight.  We would come out one morning and find leaves reduced to skeletons and the beans are half-eaten by voracious beetles.  
I am doomed to pick beans until
well into September
Then, Betty discovered the virtue of floating row covers.  From planting until picking time, the plants were swathed in white tents that thwarted even the most vigilant bugs.  The beans, which are self-pollinating, thrive under the row covers.  Worse, this year, the second plot is about to come into full production.
Now, we are spending half an hour every other day stooped over picking under a blazing sun with suffocating August humidity, pinching ends for another 45 minutes, and then lining up green beans on trays for half an hour. First, it was one double-decked tray of beans to blanch and freeze and then two double-decked trays. Did I mention we still have green beans from last summer?
Dealing with the excess will require a plan I have not yet devised.  Before we moved, we lived next door to a family of vegetarians that gladly took our excess.  Our local Food Cupboard also takes fresh vegetables on the day of their distribution, but there’s only one in August .  Unless I can come up with something, I’m doomed to eat green beans with every meal, and I do not look forward to a green bean omelet.
If only I could stop them...
There is joy in seeing plants first emerging from the ground in May and flourish in June. Alas, the mind does not contemplate the work that will be involved when, as in the ‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice’, the green beans keep maturing by the hundreds every day, demanding to be picked. The great gardening guru Roger Swain calls one of the joys of summer the ‘wretched excess’ from the garden. This August, being a grower of green beans makes it easy to understand the ‘wretched’ part of that statement.

July 17, 2019

"Not Another One of Those F-ing Meadows!"

Here's a 30-second walk-through of the front garden on July 17, 2019
Four years ago this month, Betty and I began planting our new garden in earnest.  It was going to be a monumental undertaking with four goals: attract and be a home to pollinators (birds, bees, butterflies, etc.) by emphasizing natives, respect the wetlands adjoining our property, be attractive, and be low (or at least lower) maintenance than our previous one.

The front, sunniest part of the garden
is at its peak in mid-July.  Double-
click to see a full screen slide show.
One way of achieving all four goals was to skip the lawn.  Go cold turkey; no grass at all.  To make our resolution stick we sold our lawnmower.  And so, as the first trees and shrubs went in, there was a conspicuous absence of either sod or sprayed-on grass seed around our property.

Though we had been in our new home since April, we still had only a nodding acquaintance with one of our next-door neighbors.  We knew he was a Boston police officer and his hours were erratic, as might be expected of such an occupation.  On that early morning as we were working on planting shrubs, he appeared in our driveway.  He surveyed the work done so far.  Then, he grabbed his chin in one of those manly poses and asked, "When does the lawn go in?"

Native perennial border
along the driveway
Betty was quick to say, quite proudly, "There isn't going to be one."

A look of consternation came over his face as the words took root.  He looked around the property, then looked back at his own lawn.  Finally, to us, he said, "Not another one of those f***ing meadows!"

We did our best to assure him we weren't randomly strewing wildflower seed across our property.  He left unconvinced.

Four years later, the jury has come back.  No, it's not a meadow.  Rather, it's a carefully thought out garden that is abundant with life.  Everywhere we turn there's a clutch of interesting and unusual plants or shrubs, or a tree that is under-used and a benefit to wildlife.  The garden transitions seamlessly to the wetlands behind us, and those wetlands are flourishing.

Definitely not a meadow!
Different parts of the garden strut their stuff at different times of the season.  This week, the star of the show is a 'full sun' area with tall perennials- multiple cultivars of Asclepias turberosa (butterfly weed), Agastache (giant hysops), multiple forms of RudbeckiaStachys officinalis (betony); as well as native shrubs; especially Quercifolia (oakleaf hydrangea), but also Spirea and Physocarpus (ninebark).  The 30-second walk through this area at the top of the page, as well as the adjacent photos, were shot this morning to record its full glory.

July 5, 2019

Struttin' With the Peacocks

The Newport Flower Show

One of the pleasures of being married to a serious gardener who also happens to be a Master floral design judge is that you get to tag along to the darnest things.

The Newport Flower Show is held annually toward the end of June.  It’s a wonderful event, held for a worthy cause (the Preservation Society of Newport County), and held in a jaw-dropping setting (Rosecliff, an oceanfront estate owned and maintained by the aforementioned Preservation Society).  I’ve been to the show several times and even once helped to build an exhibit there. 

Betty, Dave, and Sandy at Crane Beach
This year was special:  Betty was invited to judge its flower show, and two good friends were arriving from the Midwest who were also judging.  Being asked to judge at Newport is a big deal; judges fly in in from all over the country.  Sandy, our friend from Kentucky, and Dave, our friend from Illinois, agreed to come a few days early so we could take them to our favorite beach and clam shack, and otherwise show them a small slice of ‘our’ New England.

I thought my role in all of this ended when we had dinner before we dropped them at their hotel on our third evening together.  Instead, they casually asked Betty (and, politely, included me) if she had a few spare hours the next day to, well, assemble a pair of peacocks.  Betty enthusiastically agreed.  The following afternoon, we were on the magnificent grounds of Rosecliff.

Dave directs Sue Redden, our
fellow volunteer
The project seemed simple: here is a four-foot-wide fountain on a pedestal; part of Rosecliff’s original design and, more or less, the centerpiece of its front lawn.  Here are the wire-frame heads and bodies of two over-sized peacocks, ready to be covered with green moss, plus an assortment of additional wire cages.  Here is a box of Oasis, a water-retaining product used by floral designers to keep their material fresh.  Oh, and here are a dozen buckets filled with roses, orchids, sea holly, hydrangea, eucalyptus, thistle, and other materials whose names I can only guess.

Betty puts the finishing touches
on the first peacock
Dave had been given a vague design of what the finished peacocks were supposed to look like.  The design, unfortunately, ignored some basic laws of gravity and physics.  The peacock perched on the edge of the fountain would never stay upright.  Moreover, the wire cages meant to hold the Oasis didn’t include openings large enough to insert blocks of the stuff.  My first job as ‘helper’ was to canvass the estate to cadge wire cutters.

With monumental bags of sand and rocks, plus enough florist and duct tape to wrap a mummy, the first peacock was made to stand at the lip of the fountain, and an assemblage of Oasis-filled cages were ingeniously joined to anchor the bird to the ground.  The peacock’s tail, five feet long and two feet wide, was created.  Dave and Sandy worked together, calling for floral material prepped by Betty and another volunteer, Sue.  I cleared debris and fetched additional flowers from buckets kept under a tent some distance away (did I mention Newport was encased in fog so thick you couldn’t see Rosecliff a hundred yards away? Or that it periodically rained?)

The second peacock takes
shape, as it rains harder
The first peacock was finished and Dave and Sandy set out to create the second one, thankfully located on the ground at the base of the fountain, but with a five-foot-wide fan of floral ‘feathers’.  Sandy worked from the back; Dave from the front.  Betty was ordered into service placing flowers, and I prepped material while keeping the mounting pile of debris in check. 

Meanwhile, people wandered by and many stopped to stare with a sense of awe at what was being conjured up from sleight-of-hand plus a wealth of design knowledge.  Two teams of landscape judges were disappointed they couldn’t give our work an award (this was ‘sponsored art’ for a Newport bank and, thus, ineligible).  

Sandy does a final
inspection, including a
'fountain' from leftovers
After nearly three hours (including several ‘rain delays’), the peacocks were finished.  Although not in the original design, Dave and Betty used leftover flowers to create a ‘fountain’ from which the first peacock was drinking.  The completed vignette was stunning – for which I take no credit – and free of debris (my proud contribution).

That night at the judges’ dinner, the peacocks were the talk of the room.  Dave and Sandy shared credit freely, but I think everyone knew who were the artists and who were the worker bees.  Emboldened, though, I asked the Chair of Judges if she might be able to use an extra set of hands the following morning when judges assembled to do the work for which they had traveled from afar.  She gave it some thought and tapped her chin.  “You know,” she said, “we could use another runner.”

But that’s a different story.

July 2, 2019

I Was a Male Flower Show Runner


It all started with the receipt of an email.  My wife, Betty, was cordially invited to judge at the forthcoming Newport Flower Show in Rhode Island.
An invitation to judge at Newport is a genuine honor. Judges are chosen from around the country and the preponderance of those selected are members of clubs affiliated with the Garden Club of America, or GCA. (Betty’s ‘home club’ is affiliated with National Garden Clubs, or NGC. GCA is older, NGC is larger.)  But Betty is a Master flower show judge known to have a good – and fair – eye.  She, of course, accepted, and promptly blocked off June 20 and 21.
The floral peacocks
Fast-forward two months.  Two friends from the Midwest, also chosen to judge at Newport, came to New England early and Betty and I showed them the sights. On the day before judging, they were tasked with creating floral representations of two, larger-than-life-sized peacocks in a fountain on the grounds of Rosecliff, where the show is held. Somehow, Betty (logically) and I (improbably) were asked to pitch in.  It was a great engineering feat and a fine artistic effort, which would have been a lot more fun were it not for the pea-soup fog that encased Rosecliff’s grounds, plus the periodic bouts of rain the Weather Channel said were not happening anywhere in Rhode Island.
Because I was Betty’s designated driver (all right, because I whined for several days), I also attended the Judges’ Dinner, an annual event held on Rosecliff’s back veranda.  The table at which I was seated was a busy one because many judges had seen the peacocks on the front lawn and wanted to congratulate their creators.  Dave Robson and Sandy Robinson freely shared the credit.
Rosecliff, a 'Gilded Age' mansion. 
The Newport Flower Show helps
support the upkeep of this and other
historic properties in Newport.
Somewhere along the way, I built up my courage to ask the show’s Judges’ Chair, Vera Bowen – who, fortunately, is a fan of my books – if she needed any help the following morning.  Vera thought about it for a moment and then asked Vicki Iannuccillo, the show’s Clerks’ Chair, if she still needed another runner.  Vicki didn’t have to think about it.  ‘Yes,’, she said, obviously not knowing it meant she was getting me.
A few words about the world of standard flower shows.  When, as a visitor, you walk into a show, you see the end product of a process that took, at minimum, several months to create; and, in the case of Newport, a full year. Someone wrote a schedule for the show, someone else trolled for entries, and still another group made certain all the right ribbons and banners were printed.  Others pulled together and painted pedestals and tables (‘staging’ in flower show parlance). 
Rosecliff's back lawn, with its
ocean frontage
Some parts of a flower show unfold in a relatively easy timetable but a few are jammed into a few hours – or even minutes – of work.  There are highly visible roles (docents come to mind), and there are low-profile but very necessary ones.  In a crowded kitchen just steps from the Rosecliff ballroom sits the most necessary of unsung heroes: the computer staff.  At 6 a.m. on the morning of judging, four women, including a mother/daughter team, start with nothing other than the titles of the classes and the fact there are four entries.  And so, they type ‘Fork Tailed Flycatcher, Class 8, Entry 1’ into a data file.  Then, as designers make their appearance, they hand in sheets containing the plant materials they are using.  The computer staff goes feverishly to work, adding the information to the file for Class 8, Entry 1 which will appear on the placards everyone sees when the public is admitted.
Judging starts ten minutes late, at 8:40 a.m. and, for more nearly two hours, nothing whatsoever happens inside the computer room.  Then comes the tsunami as judging panels complete their work and choose who gets which award and what to say about each entry.  The information is reviewed for appropriateness and accuracy.  Oh, and fifty or more placards have to be printed out, letter perfect, and posted by 11:30 a.m.
Enter the clerks.  Each judging panel – usually three people – is accompanied by a clerk, whose job it is to write down what the judges are saying about each entry.  Not verbatim, of course, but within those critiques will come the nuggets of thought that convey to the general public (as well as to the designers) what caused Entry 2 to get third and Entry 3 to get Honorable Mention.  Clerks get run ragged for three hours.  They race back and forth between the panel to which they were assigned and the Powers That Be who are allowed to question anything that seems out of place.  Clerking is definitely not a glamor position but, in the flower show world, being a clerk can be necessary to becoming a judge.
Speaking of non-glamorous positions, I was one of two runners.  My job was to do whatever Vicki told me to do.  I twice ran through a driving rainstorm to fetch an extra box of ribbons from a trailer.  I got copies made of something important.  I kept out people who ‘just wanted a peek’.
The placard, in place, for the Fork-
tailed Flycatcher winning entry
And I also helped place those placards.  This is nerve-wracking.  As judges examine designs, they see only a yellow sheet of paper with hand-written information about materials used.  They know only this is Class 8, entry 1.  In the computer room, names and results are attached and, now, there is a placard saying ‘Fork-Tailed Flycatcher, Entry 1, First Place, Janice Gardner and Julie Mather. Green Fingers Garden Club, Greenwich, CT.’ I and my co-runner were handed stacks of placards and we dashed from one end of the room to the other, matching those yellow sheets to the final placard.  When it was done, Vicki went back and checked to verify we did it right. 
At one point, one of the judges on Betty’s panel apparently noticed me on one of my missions, wearing a blue apron.  “Who is he and why is he here?” she asked, apparently miffed that a man was wearing the cherished blue apron.
“Well,” Betty explained with a smile, “he’s my husband and he knows something about flower shows. He ran the Boston Flower and Garden Show for three years. Oh, and one of his books is called, A Murder at the Flower Show.
The woman gave Betty an odd look.  Maybe she believed Betty, maybe she didn’t.  But she didn’t ask again.

June 24, 2019

Ten Years and 300 Posts Later...


Ten years ago today, I decided to try something new.
I had written three books and was working on a fourth.  Every morning, I would sit down at my computer, look at what I had written the previous day, and attempt to pick up where I left off.  In doing so, I often wasted an hour or more because my ‘creative juices’ wouldn’t flow on command. 
On the morning of June 24, 2009, I was thinking about a garden I had visited that weekend.  It was opened to Master Gardeners (Betty) and their ‘significant others’ (me).  It was also a party that lasted long into the evening, and it was the conversations around me that were the most intriguing.  The gardeners – mostly but not entirely women – spoke excitedly about all things horticultural while the significant others drank wine and beer and listened with varying levels of interest and comprehension.
Sargent's portrait
Accompanying my memory of that evening was another image.  A week earlier, Betty and I had made one of our periodic forays to New York.  Such visits always entail a stop at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and, on this visit, we focused on the American Wing.  We have been members of the Museum since the 1970s and have come to have favorites within the permanent collection.  On that trip, I chose to spend time with two old friends: Mr. and Mrs. I.N. Phelps Stokes.  It’s a wonderful, 1897 painting by John Singer Sargent with a fascinating history. 
Edith and I.N. in 1895,
the year of their marriage
As a wedding present two years earlier, a friend ‘gave’ I.N. (he hated his given names, Isaac Newton) and Edith a sitting for Edith with Sargent; in the 1890s still the unquestioned master of ‘society’ portraiture.  Edith Minturn was a radical – a champion of women’s suffrage and housing for the poor. The Phelps Stokes were in Vienna as was Sargent.  An appropriate gown was selected by Sargent, and Edith was to appear in the portrait with a Great Dane at her side.  Then, two things happened: either Sargent or Edith decided sporty daywear was more appropriate attire, and the Great Dane became ‘unavailable’.  I.N. volunteered in to step in, and the result was a stunning double portrait with an unmistakable message: the radiant, 30-year-old Edith quite literally overshadows her husband.
I.N. did some writing...
At that party I felt like I.N. (who, by the way, went on to write the definitive, six-volume history of New York).  We were overshadowed by our partners, yet we didn’t mind.  We are enablers.  We encourage them to keep learning and to practice the art and science of whatever they love.
And so, instead of struggling with chapter 17, I wrote about that garden party.  I polished it to a high sheen, struggling over every sentence until it conveyed exactly what I wanted it to.  Over the next two days, I mastered Blogspot design and editing, and chose the perfect name: ‘The Principal Undergardener’.  I decided each essay would be about some aspect of horticulture and the tone would be light – no lectures and no soapbox diatribes.  That first post went live on June 26, 2009.
In addition to being the tenth anniversary of the blog, this is also my 300th post to it.  That’s an average of 30 posts a year (duh) or one every 12 days.  These essays – I strive for 900 words – have become my ‘etude’ – the mental equivalent of the finger-stretching exercises used by musicians.  A few have been dashed off in an hour.  Most take several hours (plus additional time to find just the right illustrations) and then are allowed to ‘cool’ overnight before a final review and posting.
The remarkable thing is, people read my blog.  Google provides readership stats, and I’m invariably amazed by the number who drop in to see what is on my mind.  Here is that first post:
                    * * * * *
There are a handful of paintings that bring an instant smile to my face when I see them. They’re the kinds of painting where the artist has recognized some deeper truth about the objects before him (or her) and managed to convey that ‘something’ onto the canvas. One such painting is John Singer Sargent’s “Mrs. and Mrs. I.N. Phelps Stokes”, which hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Edith Minturn and Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes were married in 1895, and one of the couple’s weddings gifts was of a portrait to be painted by Sargent. Sargent's first intention was to paint a single portrait of Edith during the summer of 1897 in Venice. After numerous posing and preparatory sessions, the artist decided to paint her as if she were just returning from a brisk walk outdoors, with a Great Dane at her side. After Edith’s part of the portrait was finished, however, the Great Dane was no longer available and I. N. Phelps Stokes suggested that he take its place. Sargent agreed, and the single portrait became a double portrait.
But, if it is a double portrait, it is one of the most lopsided ever done. Edith is radiant and forthright. It would not be an overstatement to say that she glows. Her husband, by contrast, is consigned to the shadows. Yes, he’s there, but he’s a stand-in for the greyhound. In another fifty years, I have no doubt that he will fade and the pentimento of a dog will take his place.
But the painting, in turn, captures the reality of the two. Both were from wealthy ‘reformist’ families. Edith threw herself into women’s suffrage and housing reform, among other noble causes. I.N. (he hated ‘Isaac Newton’) turned his attention to writing the definitive history of the City of New York – six volumes and over 7,000 pages. She was the spark plug in the family, his role was to be supportive and to write large checks. Sargent saw it and captured it on canvas.  (Fun facts:  Edith’s uncle was Robert Gould Shaw’ her great-granddaughter is Kyra Sedgwick.)
I was reminded of that portrait Sunday afternoon and evening as I attended a Master Gardener Open Garden. There are several hundred people in the Boston area who have gone through the Master Gardener program at the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. Several times each summer, a Master Gardener will open his or her garden to other Master Gardeners. These tend to be spectacular gardens, all them designed and tended by the homeowner rather than by some ‘name’ landscape designer.
Most Master Gardeners are women. Until this year, the courses were given all day, one day a week, which makes it difficult for anyone who worked full time to gain the accreditation. People who go through the same class tend to become friends.
There were probably thirty people at the garden in Quincy on Sunday afternoon and evening. Many Master Gardeners brought spouses. And, throughout that afternoon and evening, I could not help but be reminded of the Sargent portrait. The women – the Master Gardeners – were in charge. They talked of gardens and of plants. They dissected plant diseases and growing problems and evaluated landscaping choices. Their talks were animated and full of energy. They spoke for hours about their own plans for new beds and rare and unusual cultivars. Master Gardeners also get a heavy dose of environmental awareness as part of their studies and these women discussed organic and pesticide-free lawn care and composting as though it were second nature.
The men… drank beer and ate guacamole. They were appendages in the spirit of Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes. They acknowledged readily that their responsibility is to dig holes and move plants when requested, and to be supportive, including the occasional writing of a large check.
The garden is stunning. It’s a quarter-acre lot with a 1930s-era house in the middle, but packed into that lot is enough landscaping for an estate. The lot slopes steeply making it possible to build multiple garden ‘rooms’ that are functionally invisible from one another. The owner - one of the rare male Master Gardeners - is a pharmacist by training who managed to become a Master Gardener in the same class as Betty by working extra shifts. Paul is also married and, in the true spirit of I. N. Phelps Stokes, his partner, John, says his contribution to the garden is to ‘suggest accessories’.
I never thought of myself as an I.N. Phelps Stokes but, being around those Master Gardeners and listening to them talk about plants and ecosystems as fervently as Edith Phelps Stokes surely talked about housing and universal suffrage, I knew how he felt. The best thing you can do is be supportive. Who knows, I may even write the next definitive history of something.


June 10, 2019

The Gardening Charter


An email arrived last week from Medfield's Town Administrator (we don’t have ‘City Managers’ or ‘Mayors’, just a Board of Selectmen and an appointed official who oversees our various town departments).  Attached to the email was a letter saying the Board of Selectmen had decided to “review the structure, purpose, and prior years’ work for all appointed Boards and Committees” before reappointing anyone for the coming year.  Attached to it was a two-page questionnaire.
Medfield has 45 Committees; 30 of them ‘Special Committees’, and another fifteen created by the Town Charter. These range from one to ‘Study Memorials’ to a ‘Permanent Planning and Building Committee’. 
Tucked somewhere in the middle of the list is the Community Gardens Committee.  It so happens that Betty and I are on that Committee.  We are, truth be told, its only members and have been so for almost ten years.  We came to be on the Committee because, in 2009, we complained to a Selectman that the Community Garden was in a state of disarray.  We charged the Garden was run by a clique that allocated multiple plots to itself while allowing the others to lie fallow. Spigots leaked or were disconnected.  Weeds were everywhere.  Chaos ruled.
A week later, the Town Clerk asked us to come to the Medfield Town House (we also don’t have a Town Hall, just a ‘Town House’) to be sworn in as members of the Community Gardens Committee (we had no idea there was a ‘Committee’).  After we had been sworn in, we asked when the Committee would next meet.  The Town Clerk shook her head.  “You decide.  They all quit.”
The garden seems to run fairly well
In the intervening years, we have run the garden as best we can.  Our names appear annually in the Town Yearbook, but that is the extent to which anyone acknowledges we hold some official title (I make a point of signing all Community-Garden-related emails ‘Garden Ogre’).
So, it came as a surprise we needed to write a ‘Charter’ for the Committee, and that the Charter should include our “long-term objective or purpose”, “goals for the year”, and “dates and deliverables for committee work”.  In return, the Selectmen would, ominously, “determine if the Committee should continue to exist” and “identify which members wish to continue on the Committee”.
So, I sat down to fill out the questionnaire, starting with answering “Question 1: Should this Committee continue to exist?’  I thought long and hard about it, and finally wrote, “The Community Garden exists only because the Town considers a vegetable garden, open to all interested residents and located on Town land, to be a worthwhile use of such land and a benefit that makes the town a more appealing community in which to live.  The Community Gardens Committee, in turn, exists to relieve the Town of the expense and manpower that would otherwise be required to perform the tasks outlined in the Charter.”
Steal from the best,
I always say...
From there, all I had to do was write the ‘Charter’ I had so blithely referenced.  What, exactly, should a Charter chart?  I decided to use as my reference point a document from 1215 called the ‘Great Charter’ or, as they said in those days, the ‘Magna Carta’.  When you read that 804-year-old bit of statecraft, you come to understand it is a ‘how-to-govern’ manual.  For example, “No constable may compel a knight to pay money for castle-guard if the knight is willing to undertake the guard in person, or with reasonable excuse to supply some other fit man to do it.” Simple, clear, to the point. 
So, I changed the wording somewhat, but otherwise came up with twelve things the Community Gardens Committee is supposed to do; starting with making certain everyone in town knows in February and March plot are available, and concluding with making certain the water gets turned off at the end of October.  I was tempted to include something about droit de seigneur just to see if anyone was reading my responses but, sadly, Betty overruled me.
Once upon a time we all lined up
outside the Town House to get a plot
Writing the Charter, in turn, clarified my understanding of what is involved in running the Community Garden and how it has changed.  Once upon a time, interested gardeners lined up outside the Town House on one specified day and a town employee took money and assigned plots.  Until a few years ago, a group of Department of Public Works employees spent an afternoon staking out the gardens and, once every two weeks, a town tractor mowed the garden’s perimeter.  Now, all these tasks are done by volunteers.
The 2008 plot assignment map Betty and I inherited from the Committee showed a garden with a total of 40 plots, but just 27 gardeners, many with multiple plots, and five gardens that were never taken (and, if memory serves, another half dozen that were abandoned mid-season).  This year, 83 individuals or families are in 73 plots of varying sizes.  Next year, if all goes well, there will be 20 new plots in an annex.  Either interest in gardening has grown exponentially in the last decade, or we’ve fulfilled a need that was not being met.
The questionnaire I filled out will go into a pile along with responses from the other 44 Committees.  Will the Community Gardens Committee continue to exist in 2020?  Time will tell.  Will Betty and I continue to chair it?  I hope so.  I’ve gotten to enjoy signing memos as the ‘Garden Ogre’.

May 29, 2019

"January, February, March, March, March, March, July..."

Iris cristata and Trilliums
at the end of May?

This morning I paused a moment to admire the trilliums and iris cristata blooming at the edge of our back patio. I sniffed the perfume of the lilac in full glory along the driveway.  And I admired the tenacious hellebores that have continued to flower since the snow melted in early March.
The problem is, I did all these things this morning, and this morning is May 29. The iris and lilac should have ceased blooming three weeks ago. The hellebore should have gone dormant by now. 
Yes, I know I'm lucky...but 49 degrees?
Oh, and the temperature outside is 49 degrees.  And, according to this morning’s Globe, it has rained 22 out of the first 29 days of the month (and more rain is expected today).
There’s a cute joke about the weather on Cape Cod: that monthly calendars have headers that read, ‘January, February, March, March, March, March, July…’. And, it has the ring of truth: the cold Atlantic waters keep the region’s spring weather cool and damp.  But I live in the temperate Boston suburbs, 60 miles from Cape Cod.  What’s going on?
The lilacs ought to have passed by now
The meteorological explanation is a persistent high-pressure system that keep giving us Canadian-grade weather, coupled with a recalcitrant jet stream and brewing El Nino.  Two hundred miles south, Pennsylvania and Maryland are being rocked by thunderstorms, and further west and south, there are tornadoes and flooding.  So, we ought to (and do) count ourselves lucky.
But then I go visit our vegetable garden… or what ought to be our vegetable garden.  By the end of May we should be up to our knees in lettuce and spinach.  We should be picking peas and coaxing green beans. Instead, our garden looks like we planted it last week – which is also not too far from the truth. 
Phlox at the end of May?
Thus far we have picked exactly nothing from a 600-square-foot plot, because everything is too cold and too wet.  This past weekend, when the temperature briefly got above 80 degrees for an afternoon, we planted the tomatoes we purchased three weeks ago. Now, I fear the plants will curl up and wither from the cold.  Neither the corn nor the squash seeds we planted ten days ago have germinated.  ‘Knee high by the Fourth of July’?  We’re not holding our breath.
I realize these are ‘high-class problems’.  “Awww, your garden isn’t producing.  Would you like to come bail out my basement or cut up the tree on my roof?”
The old saw is that ‘If you’re not killing plants, you’re not gardening’.  I guess I’d prefer to see my plants croak the usual way: because I over-watered them, stepped on them, or failed to give them the proper nutrients.  Freezing to death at the end of May?  Now that’s just cruel…

May 6, 2019

In Our Garden, 2019 Is Leap Year


The gardening world is rich with mnemonics; simple rhyming catchphrases that help you remember important rules.  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.

The daffodils we planted by the road
at the front of our house have doubled
The one I’m pondering at the start of the 2019 gardening season is “sleep, creep, leap”.  It’s a powerful truth: yielding to the desire for ‘instant gratification’ is never in a gardener’s best interest.  Instead, cultivate patience.  If you plant a tree, shrub, or perennial, expect that its first year will be one of little apparent growth – it sleeps.  Whatever you put in the ground is busy establishing a root system and acclimating itself to a new, alien environment.

Twelve months pass.  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.  It is not until the third – or even fourth year – that the plant begins to fill its appointed space, and a garden begins to look like, well, a garden.

The leucothoe, heuchera,
and azalea now fill the bed
It is also in that second year that Type-A-personality gardeners fall into the trap of overbuying and over-planting.  If a rhododendron’s tag says to plant specimens four feet apart, the impatient gardeners shrinks that spacing 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, ‘willful ignorance’.  (Several decades ago, we acquired a house with such a landscape.  A year into our ownership, we pulled our hundreds of dollars of yellowing shrubs with underdeveloped roots starved for space.)

Betty and I moved into our new home in early April 2015.  Our intention had been to quickly 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. 

Magnolia 'Elizabeth' went
from a few dozen blooms
to more than a hundred
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 foundation and 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.  Moreover, moles and voles had consumed the roots of three-quarters of our transplanted stock.

It took until mid-summer to complete the site preparation; nothing went into the ground during the critical April through June period.  By the end of September, we had planted just eight trees, 50 or so perennials, and perhaps a dozen shrubs.  We added 1800 bulbs in late October.  Our start was so late that 2015 didn’t even merit being called the ‘sleep’ phase; most of the plants we wanted were still in nurseries.

The hyacinths we planted along the
sidewalk emerge stronger each year
In the following two years we added more trees and several dozen shrubs.  We began planting ground covers, added plants –primarily native perennials – to the spaces between trees and shrubs.  And, yes, more bulbs went into the ground, bringing our total to more than 4,000.  Those were our ‘sleep’ years.  I remember looking out on our back patio where we had planted more than a hundred native perennials a year earlier.  I kept thinking that, by now, it ought to be a scene of riotous color and texture.  Instead, it was a series of discrete, small plants.  Nothing touching, much less overlapping.

Our ‘creep’ year was 2018.  The ‘ephemerals’ – especially the Virginia bluebells – flowered and proliferated.   Our hostas unfurled their first leaves before the end of April.  The dicentra grew vigorously and bloomed into July.  Our shrubs – notably the small iteas and fothergillas – put up exuberant spikes of white flowers, and our leucothoes nearly doubled in size.

The individual plugs of
bearberry have merged into
a mat, helping prevent weeds
This spring we are seeing the telltale signs that 2019 is our ‘leap’ year.  The dozen plugs of bearberry we planted in 2016 merged over the winter into a continuous cover that will help keep weeds under control in one section of the garden.  Eight, gallon pots of chrysanthemum daisies planted on three-foot centers in 2017 will merge this season into a continuous mass of long-blooming color.  A handful of native asters we planted in 2016 to help keep soil in place at the edge of our wetlands have proliferated to the point we now need to stop their plan for world dominance.

It is the trees and shrubs, though that provide the greatest satisfaction.  Only a year ago, our yellow magnolia ‘Elizabeth’ had scarcely two dozen blooms in late April.  This morning I stopped counting at a hundred.  We planted many of our native shrubs in groups of three, typically on four-foot centers.  As they begin greening up this year, it is growing difficult to know which branches below to what shrub.

The best news is that the ‘leap’ phase is not just a one-year event.  Rather, it is the first tangible – and continuing – evidence of our land’s evolution from a ‘collection of plants’ into a coherent garden.