November 4, 2019

Tangible evidence of the past, disguised as garden ornaments

Berkeley the snail is a souvenir of a
visit to London decades ago

Berkeley the snail went away for the winter this morning.  So did the Turtle with the Broken Nose, the World’s Ugliest Frog, and more than a dozen other old friends.  They’ll rest until next April in the safe confines of our basement.  Before consigning them to their fate, though, everyone was first cleaned with a bleach solution and then placed carefully inside a pot or some other protective container.
Berkeley and his brethren are garden ornaments, and each one has a story to tell.  Berkeley, for example, joined our garden menagerie as a result of a trip to London almost 20 years ago.  I was there as part of a financial road show in deepest, darkest February.  Because of its grueling, two-week duration, Betty was invited to join me for its final, transatlantic stop.  The underwriters were responsible for all lodging and they chose for us rather a nice room at The Berkeley, a luxurious Knightsbridge hotel a stone’s throw from Hyde Park.
From spring to fall, Fish swims
 in a dry stream bed in our
front garden
Going to gardens in February was a non-starter so, while I was in meetings, Betty went shopping and to museums.  Just down the street from our hotel was a shop that dealt exclusively in garden ornaments (they have such stores in England).  In its window was a large, metal snail.  She purchased it, promptly named it after our lodgings - pronounced, by the way, “BARK-lee” - and we placed it in the overhead bin on the flight home.  (In that pre-9/11 world, no one in airport security took notice of our carrying onboard a 20-pound cast-iron object.)  Every year since, Berkeley has been positioned in a different perennial bed, waiting to be admired anew by us or a visitor.
The World's Ugliest Frog
is destined to remain
in Medfield
The World’s Ugliest Frog was a parting gift from a friend moving away.  The frog had graced, if that word can be used for such a thing, her garden for at least as many years as we had lived in town.  Its muted, polychrome d├ęcor had been the butt of numerous jokes on my part.  On the day that the packers came, our friend brought over the ornament, explained she had been given it when a dear friend moved away.  She was leaving Medfield, but felt the World’s Ugliest Frog must not only remain, but should come live with us.  It has inhabited a rotating list of garden sites for at least 15 years.
I will not bore you with the individual stories for each of our other garden ornaments.  I will tell you only that they all have back stories and that all those stories link us to times, places or people fondly remembered. 
Oh, all right, one more.  An outrageously overpriced concrete turtle at the Winterthur Shop was knocked down to a much more realistic five dollars after we pointed out a chip on its nose.  For 25 gardening seasons now, the turtle’s chipped nose has poked out of the water of a bird bath.  The Turtle with the Broken Nose suffers its imperfection with as much dignity as it can muster.  The butterflies and dragonflies that land on its snout don’t seem to mind in the least.
This frog spends its summer
relaxing amid tiarellas
and leucothoe
Each April, we take out these items much as we take out Christmas tree ornaments in December.  We discover them anew and, with great deliberation, place them around the property, taking into account changes in the landscape.  Our move to our ‘dream retirement home’ four years ago forced a complete rethinking of ornaments: for the first two years, and the new garden got started, ‘hiding places’ were few and far between.
These garden ornaments are links to travels.  They are reminders of old friends.  They are also practical objects that draw the eye to certain plants or that break up expanses of mulch.  Some are put in plain sight while others are deliberately hidden, awaiting someone to part the foliage and find a surprise.  With the 2019 garden season officially over, their careful cleaning and storage are an annual ritual as distinct and ingrained as picking apples or harvesting the butternut squash.

October 7, 2019

First Frost


Early Saturday morning, probably about 4 a.m., a layer of cold air settled over the one-time farm field that is the home of Medfield’s community garden.  Elsewhere in town, the cold air slipped down hillsides or was chased away by roads that retained warmth.  But, in the valley (‘good bottom land’ in farming parlance) along the country road on the south side of town, the air – probably no colder than 30 degrees – found a pocket where it could stay, unmolested, for a few hours.
That’s all it took to send an irrevocable eviction notice to our vegetable garden.  Water freezes at 32 degrees and most vegetables are little more than columns of water surrounded by thin membranes.  By the time we got to the garden, the zucchini leaves were limp and oily. Green tomatoes had dropped to the ground.  Our glorious crop of basil – our best in years – was tinged with black.  Gone, all gone.
We had already harvested
our winter squash
We had already harvested our winter squash.  Had we not, it would have been reduced to un-salvageable mush.  A few crops are light-frost hardy: the arugula, carrots, and chard will withstand temperatures down into the mid-twenties for a few hours without suffering damage.
But there is no doubt that the summer gardening season is at an end.  Yeah, the beets will get a little bigger, and we’re promised temperatures in the mid-70s early this week, but we’re down to 11 ½ hours of sunlight, and the sun’s angle is such that ‘practical’ daylight is two hours less. 
The fat lady has sung.  Start carving the pumpkins.
Frozen marigolds
It was a glorious year for gardening – though, like all years, one also filled with frustration.  It took forever for our first crops to germinate (it seemed never to stop raining in April and the temperature remained stubbornly in the 40's).  The bean beetles arrived on schedule in mid-July and halved our crop of green beans.  Someone in the garden – either thoughtless or trying to save money – purchased tomatoes infected with the fungus Phytophthora from a Big Box store, and late blight rampaged through everyone’s garden, including ours. (And no, late blight isn’t inevitable.  Three tomato plants in our as-yet-frost-free home garden are still producing fruit.)
The successes far outnumbered the failures.  Betty and I have attempted to grow fennel for years with nothing to show for it but inedible ferns.  This year, every fennel plant thrived and we feasted on it from early August on (there is some in the refrigerator).  Our three squares of corn produced their last, delicious ears just last week; and we even were able to strip, cut and flash freeze the kernels of several ears during peak production days.
A coating of frost on our
'good bottom land'
And, for the first time in a decade, there will be winter squash and even sweet potatoes for the late fall and winter.  We encouraged butternut squash vines to grow beyond their allotted space and colonize the void created as rows of corn were pulled.  The result was 20 large squash that have been cleaned, dipped in a diluted bleach solution, and sequestered in a dark corner of the basement.  A gardening neighbor gave Betty two surplus sweet potato ‘slips’ which we planted in an abandoned plot.  This morning, with another gardener who will share in the bounty, we harvested an impressive number of fat yams.  They’ll be edible in about a month as they sit quietly in the basement converting starch to sugar.
The final cleanup
We will harvest a few more crops over the balance of the month.  A row of leeks came through the frost unscathed, as did our carrots, arugula and chard.  But there’s little to do but cart away out the spent vines and, ultimately, take down the fence. 
We’ll enjoy the fruits (well, the vegetables) of our labor well into the future. Betty put up hot pepper jelly and froze peas, corn and green beans.  We have enough of those crops to last well into the winter.  It’s the squash, though, that is scary.  At one squash per week (they’re that big), we’ll be eating the last of our 2019 crop when we harvest our first spinach next April.  That’s what I call continuity.

September 9, 2019

This Old Pot

This single-use pot's first use was to
enclose a tree's roots.  It has
stuck around for five seasons

Four years ago this spring, Betty and I began buying trees and shrubs for the garden at our new home.  Many specimens had root balls of a size that required rope wrapped around burlap wrapped around a wire cage.  But six smaller trees came in black, ten-gallon plastic pots; each 19 inches wide and 13 inches deep.
After the first trees went in, we contacted the selling nurseries to recycle the pots, but were informed these were ‘one-use’ containers (on top of which they had likely, themselves, been made from recycled materials).  The reason for declining to take back the tubs was because they were encrusted with soil and/or might contain diseases.  Instead, we were advised to take them to our town’s transfer station.  We asked at the transfer station what would become of the pots.  Because they weren’t ‘clean’, we were told, the containers would be incinerated.
In 2016 the pots were pressed
into service as we planted
our second round of bulbs.
As it turned out, we had an almost immediate, though temporary, need for the pots.  We had covered our newly-spread loam with several inches of mulch.  As we dug holes for arriving shrubs – more that 50 that summer – we had to find a short-term parking spot for the displaced soil other than a pile adjacent to the hole (which would inevitably mix with the mulch).  The pots were perfect.  Also, I was building a stone wall and needed to group like-sized rocks for easy transport.  There were times when there were more uses for the vessels than available tubs.
That autumn, our first 1500 bulbs arrived.  We excavated winding, foot-deep trenches around the property, with those containers serving as a brief way station for displaced soil.  Trenching for pipes to carry rainwater from downspouts to the wetlands behind us provided yet another use.
Season after season, the pots
makes themselves useful
In the spring, we started the next round of planting and, by now, those single-use plastic containers were becoming indispensable friends.  We lost one to necessity: Betty acquired a lovely specimen of Sanguisorba canadensis (American Burnet), a wonderful wildflower that produces magnificent plumes.  Unfortunately, it thrives best in a moist environment, and the ideal visual location on our property was ‘well drained’.  Our solution was to sacrifice one of our containers.  We cut out part of its bottom, sunk it a foot into the ground, and planted our American Burnet in it, pledging to throw a gallon of water into the mini-wetland whenever things were getting dry.  It has thrived, and the black neck of the container is still visible.
When not in use, the pots
have a home next to our
composters
Another year went by and, each spring, the four remaining tubs were roused from their off-season resting place by our compost bins.  All spring and summer they served as either warehouses or transports for the soil/mulch/compost that made our ever-denser garden possible.  In the fall, UPS brought another avalanche of bulbs to be planted. There was hardly a week that went by that our one-use containers weren’t pressed into service. 
This year, they have been in near-continuous use to transport compost, heel in perennials and, of course, to hold topsoil for the plants destined for the final frontiers of our garden.  This past weekend, an Aronia (Chokeberry) and Ilex verticillata (Winterberry) found new homes on our property, as did a tray of native ground covers.
As we planted those most recent shrubs, though, I noticed for the first time our remaining containers are showing their age.  Two have large cracks in their base that make carrying them problematic; they need a wheelbarrow as a ‘crutch’.  One also has a cracked rim.  In short, their life span may be five seasons.
In 2017 the pots allowed me
to move 10 cubic yards of
compost, a few cubic feet
at a time
But they have been five glorious seasons.  They were present at the inception of the garden and proved to be useful as soon as their original purpose was completed.  They started out as walk-ons but have, through steady, uncomplaining work, become stalwarts of the regular garden troupe. If they were sentient beings, their ears would perk up as soon as they heard Betty or me reaching for a trowel or spade, because they knew they would soon, themselves, be called into action.
All right.  Maybe I’m over-romanticizing a bunch of pots.  The thing is, I’m going to be sorry to lose them, albeit to advanced age and general wear and tear.  What I know is this: they were manufactured to contain a single plant on its journey from a nursery to our home. They have stuck around to help build an entire garden.

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.  When it was over, we agreed our 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.  We 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 we 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 spotted and 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; we 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.