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.

April 29, 2017

Sleep, Creep, Leap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 27, 2017

The Pain in My Back is a Pain in the Neck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 5, 2017

The Seven Cent Solution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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