July 21, 2017

The Woodchucks Are Back

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 11, 2017

Quest for Blueberries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The next morning, every ripe blueberry was gone.

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

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

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

The blueberries are still disappearing.

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

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

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

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

July 1, 2017

Summer Rain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 23, 2017

A Gem of a Garden in Maine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 9, 2017

Making Good for the Chunky Monkey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 2, 2017

Presidential Arm Candy

On June 7 at around 3 p.m., my wife, Betty, hands off the Presidency of the Garden Club Federation of Massachusetts to her successor.  And I stop being presidential arm candy.

At the dedication of a wayside
garden in Groton, MA.  That's Betty
second from the right.
Maybe ‘arm candy’ is a stretch.  All right, it’s a huge stretch.  But, for the past two years, I’ve had the opportunity to be Betty’s designated driver when she was committed to doing two-a-day events and badly needed for someone else to be behind the wheel.  The position - hers and mine - has been an eye-opener for me. 

How often has Betty been on the road?  Try this: Betty took her car in for its routine, 5,000-mile service earlier this year and the dealership rep did a double-take when he saw that the car had been in just three months earlier, and three months before that.  “Are you in sales?” he asked.  “That’s a lot of miles.”  Betty said she thought about it for a moment and replied, “In a sense, yes; I guess I’m in sales.”

The Federation has more than 11,000 members in 182 clubs from the Outer Cape to Williamstown.  Betty had visited 135 of those clubs over the past two years, and met the balance at regional annual luncheons and district coffees.  She has logged over 15,000 miles a year without ever leaving the state.  Her job, as she describes it, is to “show the flag” and be the face of what could otherwise be a faceless organization.  She has also relentlessly pushed the subject of education; urging clubs to take advantage of the schools, workshops, and talks sponsored by the Federation (where she shows up to ‘give greetings’ and, not coincidentally, talk up the next workshop or school).

Has she been successful?  In late March, a one-day workshop on designing wayside gardens drew 135 participants… and had to turn away 90 more because of a lack of room.

This park in Chelmsford was built
by one of the town's garden clubs.
For me, the remarkable part has been seeing what garden clubs do when they exercise their collective imagination to take on a project.  One day last June, I drove Betty to the dedication of a park in Chelmsford.  The new park sits on the site of a former fire station.  Two years ago, it was a rubble-strewn lot.  The Chelmsford Garden Club volunteered to make it an inviting site.  They did much more than that: it is a civic showcase and a horticultural gem.  Oh, and they did it in nine months. 
In Topsfield, a garden club with fewer than 25 members decided to put on an environmental exposition.  This year, the fourth iteration of the ‘Grow Spring Expo’ lured in more than a hundred exhibitors, and sprawled across three historic buildings around Topsfield’s Town Green (and that doesn’t count the tractors, animals, and Morris Dancers on the Green itself).  In Tewksbury, I saw a Blue Star marker unveiling turn into a town-wide, morning-long celebration of veterans… all due to the hard work and diligent planning of that community’s garden club. 

I was present at the dedication of numerous wayside gardens.  One, in Groton, was nearly a thousand square feet at a prominent intersection and was so intelligently designed and beautifully planted it couldn’t possibly have been done by a garden club… except it was. 

Planting the landscaping for a
Blue Star Marker in Tewksbury
There were countless ‘art in bloom’, ‘books in bloom’ and club flower show events, and Betty went to every one that would fit on her schedule.  She helped clubs celebrate their 100th anniversaries; as well as their 90th, 75th and 50th.  All are going strong, continually drawing a new generation of members interested in gardening and community service.

Seen in isolation, a town’s garden club is a beneficial part of the civic tapestry.  Put together 182 of them, and you have an extraordinary group of individuals that make a lasting impact on Massachusetts. 

May 29, 2017

Perennial Road Trips

I have had a very active May, with lots of exciting road trips.  I’ve been as far afield as Maine and as close as Waltham (just 22 miles away).  One included a stop for ice cream but what ties together all of those journeys was that they were built around buying lots and lots of perennials.

May 29, 2017.  Believe it or not, more than a hundred new
perennials have been planted this month.  Double-click
for a full screen slide show.
It was two years ago this month that Betty and I began building our new garden.   We moved into our ‘dream retirement home’ in April 2015 and promptly discovered we had a terrific house, but not a square foot of arable land around it.  Faced with such a problem, most homeowners would arrange for a few truckloads of topsoil to be brought in.  It would be placed, two or three inches deep, on top of the ‘builder’s crud’; grass seed (or sod) would be spread; and a few pretty shrubs would be added along the foundation.  Problem solved.  Time to fire up the grill.

We are not ‘most homeowners’.  Betty is a very serious and highly dedicated gardener, and she had a vision for a garden.  Her vision did not include any grass.  It included trees, shrubs, and perennials – very nearly all of them ‘natives’. 

Along the driveway,
we've added Geun rivale
'Flames of Passion'
(with the red spike)
And so our first act as new homeowners was to hire a landscape contractor to dig out the top 18 inches of ‘builder’s crud’ on the front half acre of our acre-and-a-half property.  Nine hundred forty-seven cubic yards of lifeless dirt and rock was hauled away, to be replaced by 950 cubic yards of screened loam. 

That first year was dedicated to finding and planting a dozen good-sized native trees, a few dozen native shrubs, and 1800 bulbs.  (We originally intended to move more than 200 perennials from our previous home, but moles and voles had other ideas.  Roughly thirty plants survived the winter.)  In our second year, we added a few more trees, another few dozen shrubs, 1400 more bulbs, and a few hundred carefully selected perennials, including 120 heuchera and tiarellas that had graced a landscape exhibit at the Boston Flower and Garden Show.

The purple allium was
planted  last fall. The
coreopsis will hide the
allium foliage
You might think that our garden would be fully populated after two years of planting.  Nope; not even close.  This is the year of the perennial (plus a few more trees and shrubs).  Thus, the need for road trips.  Our first one was a warm-up.  Northborough is a leisurely 45 miles from Medfield and, in early May, we visited Bigelow Nursery and brought home a Cornus mas (Cornelian cherry) and a Bartzella intersectional peony that blooms yellow. 

We next set off for a trip to the Middlesex Conservation District plant sale in Littleton, Massachusetts, where we brought home three crabapples trees, 25 strawberry plants (yes, strawberries are natives), and another dozen miscellaneous native perennials.  A week later, we were at the Grow Native Plant Sale in Waltham, where we filled our car with barren strawberry (a ground cover), monarda (bee balm), and buttonbush, among many other purchases.

Roughly 25 of the new
perennials are in this
photo.  Can you spot any?
Next, we headed to Log Cabin Perennials in East Overshoe, Maine (all, right, Saco), where Kenneth Rice sells more than 300 varieties of perennials in one-gallon pots for the unbelievable price of five dollars per plant.  It was pouring rain that morning, but we packed 30 specimens into the back of our car.  On our way back to civilization, we made a detour to a place called Kane’s Flower World in Danvers, Massachusetts, where Betty made use of a gift certificate she had won in a drawing five months earlier.  Six more perennials were crowded into the back seat (we also stopped for the aforementioned ice cream).

 Last Thursday, we set off for Bay State Perennial Farm in West Bejesus, Massachusetts.  Betty has been getting emails from Bay State since the invention of the internet, and because it was raining and 47 degrees, we decided it was a perfect day to see central Massachusetts. Bay State has an impressive plant list, and we packed the car with finds such as Monarda ‘Cherry Pops’, Geun rivale ‘Flames of Passion’, and Nepeta nervosa ‘Cat’s Meow’.  No, Betty does not purchase plants based on cute or alluring names, but it’s intriguing that few plants that come home with us are ever labeled ‘species’.

More new perennials,
all well hidden for now
Any trip beyond the Charlton Rest Area on the Mass Pike inevitably includes a stop at Andrew’s Greenhouse in South Amherst.  Andrew’s has been Betty’s go-to place for annuals ever since she discovered it a decade ago, and each year we make the pilgrimage two or three times in May and June.  It is also a major source of perennials, and Betty packed the car with Veronica, Echinacea, Guara, Chelone (turtlehead), and Achillea (yarrow); plus most of the vegetables we don’t plant from seed in our garden.  Between the two stops, we stuffed 38 perennials and an untold number of vegetable and annual six-packs into a Prius with a rated capacity of thirty perennials.  I only needed to move the flat of vegetables when I had to shift

Amazingly, we finished planting all of these perennials this morning. 

The topmost photo of this essay was taken at noon today (May 29).  I’m calling this the ‘before’ picture.  Over the course of the summer, as the plants bloom and grow, I’ll update the sequence.

The garden is beginning to show its true potential.  What were long expanses of mulch now has clusters of green that will burst into color with the advent of summer.  Next year, those plants will self-seed, spread by runner or rhizome, or otherwise fill in their allotted spaces. 

Me?  I’m waiting to find out where the next road trip will take us.

May 19, 2017

The National Garden Clubs Convention

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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