May 15, 2018

The Little Garden That Could

Medford, in the upper left corner
of this map, is just five miles
from Boston's Financial District.
The garden is located in that
first 'e' in Medford.

Three years ago, Joan Parker was feeling frustrated.  A long-time volunteer at a church-run food cupboard in Medford, Massachusetts, each week she parceled out canned and packaged foods to the mostly Haitian immigrants served by the charity.  While what she provided helped needy families stretch meager resources, Joan felt she should be doing more.

It wasn’t that Joan didn’t know how to grow vegetables.  As a Master Gardener, Joan helped maintain a 6,000-square-foot vegetable plot at the Elm Bank headquarters of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society.  Most of the output of that garden made its way to food banks in towns adjacent to Wellesley, where Mass Hort is located.  Joan began to wonder if it might it be possible to create such a garden in Medford, a city just a few miles north of Boston’s Financial District?

Joan Parker
At the Mass Hort garden, Joan worked alongside Susan Hammond.  (I should add at this juncture I have known Susan for the better part of a decade.  Susan was Betty’s ‘protégé’ and the person to whom she handed off responsibility for that garden when Betty’s growing Garden Club Federation responsibilities took her in a new direction.)

Joan and Susan talked about the potential challenges of an urban, food-cupboard-oriented garden.  As it turned out, changes in the focus and direction of the Mass Hort garden made that project less attractive to the volunteers who worked there.  The Medford project seemed like a more freewheeling ‘re-boot’ for gardeners looking for a challenge.

The garden hugs one side
of the church and several
sites around the Rectory
Joan and Susan set about to design a model garden smack in the center of Medford.  Their sponsor was the Unitarian Church of Medford, a venerable institution that also sponsored the food cupboard where Joan volunteered.   Initial plans were for a very low budget garden, funded by the volunteers, using the existing soil and adding compost.  The site would be the (mostly) sunny lawn of the church rectory.  Master Gardener volunteers would run the garden.  A few hundred dollars seemed more than adequate to get the garden up and running, buy seeds, all those sorts of things, and a drip irrigation system could wait for a while.

Because the soil contains high levels
of lead, all planting is in raised beds.
That's Susan Hammond at right.
Which was when reality reared its ugly head.  The first problem was the site.  The grass lawn turned out to be integral to the church’s ministry. Groups met there and services were held there.  Joan and Susan regrouped.  They proposed a dispersed garden utilizing bits and pieces of church property.  ‘Terrific!’ was the response.  Soil tests were performed and plans were made to begin plowing up the ground to start the garden.

Then, those soil tests came back.  The soil contained toxic levels of lead.  All that lead paint and lead from other sources had left the ground utterly unsuitable for the growing of anything planned for human consumption.

To ensure no bed lies
fallow, these cups hold
spaces where a squash
crop will be planted next
OK, they concluded, we’ll do taller raised beds.  On further investigation, the raised beds would need to be kept completely apart from the soil underneath them.  OK, they thought, double-height raised beds with impermeable barriers between the beds and the soil. 

There went the budget. However, there was still a need for this garden, so the food pantry applied for and received a $1,000 grant from the Massachusetts Master Gardener Association.

In the meantime, other Master Gardeners were eager to start on the project.  They surveyed food cupboard recipients and got input on what kinds of fresh vegetables would be most welcome.  A request for exotic seeds went to Master Gardener Deb Haley, who investigated and sourced Haitian varieties.  Master Gardener Gretel Anspach provided access to large quantities of onions and leeks including specialty cooking onions.

This weekend, I finally got to see the garden I’ve heard about for three years.  The Master Gardeners opened it for visitors, and I was part of a tour group led by Susan Hammond. 

The ollas buried in these 'bag beds'
provide continuous moisture to
the vegetables growing there.
The garden is a small masterpiece.  It hugs one side of the church with raised beds for vegetables and an in-ground perennial garden.  Across the street at the rectory, three sets of distinct vegetable beds ring that grass lawn while leaving the center available for church functions.  All the tricks of the trade are used to coax the maximum production of vegetables from the site, including succession planting and space holders for second crops even as the first round are little more than seedlings.  Ollas, ceramic jugs embedded in the soil, provide continuous moisture because the drip irrigation system can be used only when volunteers are present (the faucet upon which the drip system is dependent has an unfortunate leak).

These handful of beds, with the help of
ten volunteers, delivers a bounty
of fresh produce every week.
This year’s first distribution of vegetables – pea greens – will be made in mid-May.  Thereafter, every week, a growing cascade of Haitian favorites comes to the food cupboard, with ten volunteers working the garden on a regular schedule.  The last distribution coincides with Thanksgiving, when the last of the autumn cornucopia is handed out.

It is an urban success story; proof that, with perseverance and resources, gardeners can overcome almost any obstacle.  It isn’t ‘The Little Garden That Could’; it’s The Little Garden That Does.

May 7, 2018

Stewards of the Land

The town I live in, Medfield, had several incarnations before it was a suburb of Boston. It was, however briefly, the straw hat capital of the world. It was an artists’ colony. It played a small but pivotal role in the King Philip War. Mostly, though, until the 20th Century, Medfield was a farming community.

You can see Pine Street in this 1858
map of Medfield.  What would become
our home is the orange dot. Double-
click for a full-page image.
The winding road on which I now live can be seen on maps dating back well into the 19th Century.  An ‘aerial view’ of the town from 1888 shows farm fields and a swamp.  Sometime before 1940, a modest single-family home rose on the site and two families raised children in it.  Then, about 25 years ago, it became home to an invalid.  The acre-and-a-half around the house reverted to pines and, unfortunately, opportunistic invasive species.

The front part of the property circa
2014.  Somewhere under there was
a house and sterile land
When Betty and I saw the property for the first time in April 2014, the first thing we noticed was a 50-foot-long sweep of black swallowwort; one of the nastiest introductions into New England of the past decade.  Several specimens of euonymous alatus – burning bush – towered more than ten feet and no less noxious offspring were all over the property, including the wetlands that comprised the back two-thirds of the parcel.

My strongest memory of that first walkaround, though, was the complete absence of sound.  There were no birds, no frogs, nothing.  The land had gone sterile.

We designed a house to respect
the wetlands behind us
Last month we began our fourth year as stewards of that acre and a half we now call home.  In some ways we’ve accomplished a lot; in others, we have so far to go.

Beginning in September 2014, we removed some 40 pines.  All were over 60 feet in height with growth only at their very tips.  The invasive plants and shrubs were ripped out of the ground. Except for a few remaining maples, oaks, and pines, we were left with a blank slate upon which to create a house and landscape. 

Pulling up the trees also
pulled up tons of rock
The following spring we began planting a dozen specimen trees – all natives – and, except for a concolor fir, all flowering.  We added native shrubs (itea, fothergilla, high-bush blueberry), then ground covers (ferns, wild strawberries, and heuchera).  We also allowed in a few ‘friendly aliens’ such as hosta and bulbs.  We continued the planting last year, adding still more trees, shrubs, and too many perennials to keep count.

Has it made a difference?  An inch and a half of rain fell the other day.  I went out after dark to switch over our gutters from filling rain barrels to flowing rainwater into underground pipes that feed directly into the wetlands.  In the process, I frightened a frog (or toad) that had to be at least three inches in length.  Amphibians have re-colonized our land.

We planted all native trees and shrubs
Two years ago we put out hummingbird feeders and were promptly rewarded with at least two pair of rubythroats.  That winter, we added seed and suet feeders to let overwintering and migrating birds know they were welcome.  Yesterday morning, we counted at least a dozen distinct species – all nesting pairs – at our feeders.  The birds are back with a vengeance, including a hawk who surveys his or her hunting ground from the top of one of the remaining pines.

Are we finished planting?  Not by a long shot.  Two weeks ago we made the trek out to New England Wild Flower Society’s Nasami Farms nursery in Whatley to inspect their new offerings and returned home with a car full of ground covers and yet another shrub.

The once-sterile plot of land now is now bio-diverse and
home to all manner of wildlife... including a hawk
We are stewards of our little chunk of land. The frogs and birds were here long before us.  They have an equal right to enjoy this little acre and a half.  Admittedly, we deter the animals we consider pests (deer, turkeys) but welcome all others. 

We occasionally even get unexpected help.  A three-foot-long garter snake, whom for whatever reason I promptly named ‘Herbert’, took up residence near the two raised-bed vegetable gardens at the front of our property.  It was a sufficient presence that Betty always made me check the area to ensure Herbert was elsewhere before she would work those plots. 

Last fall, the two boys across the street brought exciting news:  right as they were playing outside, our resident hawk swooped down from his aerie and grabbed Herbert.  He was last seen wiggling helplessly, 50 feet in the air, as the hawk sought out an appropriate luncheon spot.

April 5, 2018

Qui Hortos?

What kind of a person gardens?  What attracts them to gardening?  Every year at this time, I get to answer those questions anew as 70 to 75 gardeners either sign up for or return to the community garden I help run.  There’s no application to fill out and so there is no line titled ‘occupation’.  I’ve certainly never demanded to know what people do with their time when they’re not gardening.  But some people tell me and sometimes their emails betray an occupation.  Others let the cat out of the bag gradually.

The Medfield Community Garden.
From the air, it looks quite orderly.
For example, we have a surgeon and at least two nurses.  I’ve gotten to know the surgeon fairly well.  For him, a few hours in the garden on a Sunday morning is what he needs to let go of the inevitable stress from his livelihood.  His garden is neat and orderly; something I like to see in someone who is going to make an incision in me.  Our resident school nurse also runs a tight ship, though her husband is an engineer, which might skew the results just a bit.  Another medical professional – an operating room nurse – has a garden so weed-free it’s spooky.

We also have an elementary school principal.  Her vegetables tended toward the ‘free range’ variety, but the veggies and flowers are all healthy and growing.  ‘Well-nurtured’ is an apt description, and I have a hunch that also describes her educational charges.

Our gardener who is an immigration
lawyers doesn't want to fences to
constrain his vegetables
The most inventive and exploratory gardens belong to our horticulturally-inclined scientists.  One is an academician whose plot runs to things like tomatillos and eye-wateringly hot peppers.  Another plot gardened by a chemist grows nine different types of lettuce and has precise squares of corn planted ten days apart.  I feel as though I am watching experiments unfolding.

It is my observation that attorneys do not necessarily make superior gardeners.  One of our number specializes in immigration.  His vines conspicuously meander all over his unfenced garden, as though he is loathe to limit vegetable mobility.  Another is in corporate law.  She’s just expanded from a half plot to a full one; perhaps the product of a successful takeover.

We’ve had a veterinarian for two years and are about to get a second one.  Our established vet keeps a great garden with exceptionally healthy plants that are kept free of disease and pests.  I can’t wait to see how the second one fares – especially given that her spouse is a conservation biologist.

This gardener has kids in middle
school.  I think her mind is elsewhere.
We have one banker in our midst.  And another one whose email identifies the individual as being a sales manager.  The less said about those two gardens, the better.

Our retirees fall into two categories.  The first is those for whom gardening forms a significant part of their recreation and weekly exercise.  They are a pleasure to have as gardening neighbors.  The condition of their plots bespeaks a life well lived, they grow copious amounts of produce, and they are quick to share their bounty with our local Food Cupboard.  The second group travels frequently and their gardens are, well, something of an afterthought.  They tend to sign up for a plot, plant it all at once, and water it too heavily and too often.  In mid-summer, they become annoyed by my asking them to weed their aisles.  After a year or perhaps two, they move onto the next retirement time-filler.

The final category are the stay-at-home moms and dads (and, yes, we have a few of the latter).  I thought there was no correlation between gardening and full-time parenting until I looked at the ages of the children accompanying their parents.  Those with toddlers and pre-school kids are terrific gardeners.  They use their plots as educational tools.  But, as the children age, the parental gardening skills decline.  By the middle school years, the weeds sprout with abandon (I have learned to take this into account when sending out reminders).  Equilibrium is miraculously restored with high school graduations.

I don’t believe these observations are colored by preconceptions.  I like all of my gardeners because they’ve chosen to garden.  In a world of choices, they’ve elected to get their hands dirty, and to do so among a crowd of like-minded people.  So, what kind of gardener am I?   A satisfied one.

March 29, 2018

A Late March Surprise

Yesterday, this area was
covered with snow.  Today
it bloomed with crocuses.

It hasn't snowed in ten days here in Medfield and the temperatures finally crept up above 50 yesterday and today. As a result, we're getting serious melting and we're seeing bare ground in many places. This afternoon. though, we got a surprise: the snow melted back from an area where we planted a large patch of crocuses two years ago. Less than a day after being snow-covered, the crocuses were in bloom.

Bees! At the end of March!
But the biggest surprise was still ahead. I went to photograph them and discovered the crocuses were covered with bees. This winter and last, Betty and I took steps to create habitats for native bees to overwinter.  It wasn’t all that hard:  instead of cutting our long perennial border to the ground, we left up a foot of stalk to provide a winter home for native bees.  Instead of taking every fallen branch to our town’s transfer station, we created protected nest areas with layers of branches. The only thing we did that was an out-of-pocket expense was to buy a bundle of bamboo tubes, which creates a kind of ‘bee hotel’.  Why do all that?  Because native bees don't live in hives; they're solitary critters.

A 'hotel' for native bees
This was likely the first nectar these bees have likely seen this year (witch hazel blooms in January and February, but is not usually planted by homeowners).  The ‘big’ flowers – azalea and rhododendron – are still months away.  Our choice of trees and shrubs is designed to ensure there’s always something in bloom.

When the amalanchier blooms
there will be lots of pollen to go
around for everyone
We also have good news for the bees that were around today: as soon as the snow recedes another foot, there's an even larger patch of purple crocuses waiting to burst into bloom.  And, with nearly 4000 bulbs on the property, there’s lots more pollen to come.  The next big slug will be when our amelanchier (shadbush) blooms in a week or so.  Its flowers last approximately two weeks and the shrub will be covered with

Take a look at the second photo, which is as great a magnification as I could get with a 6 megapixel point and shoot camera. The inset shows ones of the bees at work.

March 16, 2018

What Happened When I Didn’t Sleep In This Morning

This has been a crazy week for me.  The third nor’easter in as many weeks dropped two feet of snow and more or less cancelled Tuesday except for shoveling the white stuff.  But, before that, I had spent an afternoon at the ‘build’ for the Boston Flower & Garden Show where, playing to my strengths, I served as a typist for horticultural entries.  Thursday evening, Betty and I appeared before our town’s Conservation Commission to give our annual report on the state of the Community Garden – something that required considerable preparation to ensure a 30-minute preparation went smoothly.  All the while, I was also juggling the filling of the remaining spaces in that same Community Garden.

Typing entries for AmHort is
part of my skill set
Betty’s week was no less hectic than my own, but she also had two other things on her mind: she was speaking to a private group at the Flower Show with a ‘tailored’ presentation on one of her favorite topics; and she was scheduled to enter the Standard Flower Show this morning.  I was pressed into woodworking service (definitely not my strong suit) to create a suitable base for her entry. 

For the uninitiated, a ‘standard flower show’ proceeds according to a set of rules set down by National Garden Clubs, Inc.  There are four entries per ‘class’, and there may be multiple entry days.  The number of classes is limited by the imagination of the person writing the show’s schedule.  For this year’s show, there are twelve classes and two entry days. (There is also a concurrent ‘Open Class’, but that’s another story.)

The kind of design you
see at a Standard
Flower Show
Chairing the event, formally, ‘Celebrate the Season’, an NGC Design Specialty Flower Show as part of MassHort at the 2018 Boston Flower and Garden Show, is a remarkable woman named Lisa Pattinson.  Lisa is a banking executive by training.  A few years ago, during the interminable consolidation of banks in New England, Lisa found herself between jobs and decided to attend Flower Show School.  The next thing she knew, she stepped forward to run the Federation’s premier annual flower show event.  She had done so with a grit, determination, and resourcefulness that I find remarkable.

The realities of the Boston Flower and Garden Show’s 10 a.m. opening dictate that floral designers did their work between 5:30 a.m. and 8 a.m. this morning.  Judging starts at 8:30. At 10 a.m., the public pours in. 

Just a few years ago, the Seaport
District was a sea of parking lots.
The show is held the World Trade Center in Boston’s Seaport District.  Seaport is 18 miles as the crow flies from Medfield; 26 miles via the Southeast Expressway or the Massachusetts Turnpike, neither of which go anywhere near Medfield.  Betty’s plan was to arise at 4:20 a.m., be in her car at 4:50, and in Boston at 5:45 or so.  She would snag an on-street space and be designing before 6 a.m.  I would sleep in.

Now, it is office buildings, and
parking is, ummm, problematic
I had a slightly different idea.  I awakened her at 4:20 a.m. and we were both out the door at 4:50, sparing her the need to pound on the steering wheel in frustration at the idiots who drive the pre-dawn roads of New England; or marvel that there could be stop-and-go traffic on the Southeast Expressway at 5:15 a.m.  I let her off at Seaport at 5:45 and went in search for that elusive on-street space.  Not too many years ago, the area east of Boston’s Financial District (inexplicably called ‘South Boston’) was a sea of $5-a-day parking lots.  It is now a sea of office buildings and holes where office buildings are under construction.  Surface parking lots are a memory.  On-street spaces are illusory.  Parking is subterranean at daily rates only slightly less than first-class air fares to Europe.

So, I parked, and went in to see how Betty was faring.  Betty immediately told me to go away and that I was disturbing her concentration.  I walked over to Lisa Pattinson to say ‘hello’ and ask if there was any way I could be helpful.  My idea of being helpful is to move tables or help designers get flowers and tools out of their cars.

Lisa had slightly different idea.  Several paragraphs above, I explained there are four entries per floral design class.  Question: What happens if there are only two or three entries?  Answer: The class is not eligible for judging.  Question:  What happens if a designer calls and says her car is hanging off an overpass and the tow truck won’t be there until an hour from now?  Official answer: Tough luck.  The class is not eligible for judging.  Unofficial answer:  The Committee (meaning the people who run the flower show) will beg and borrow flowers and a container and create that fourth entry so that the class can be judged.

Floral design judges have no idea
who created the entry they're
Judges don’t know who designed what; they have only the object in front of them which the Committee has passed.  It is not unknown for a Committee-created design get the ‘blue’ for a class.

This morning, I co-created a design for a class.  Lisa grabbed me and a highly regarded designer who had completed her work.  Lisa showed us the materials we had available.  Together, we created an entry that adequately conformed to the schedule, allowing it and the other three entries to be judged.

If I am cagy about the nature of the entry, it is because it is generally considered unbecoming to claim any credit when the finished product is attributed to someone else (or, in this case, credited to the garden club of which my co-creator is a member).

But I’ve had my moment of glory.  For the first and last time in my life, I have worked with the same pressures as the floral designers whom I so much admire.  When it was finished, I stepped back and looked at what I had helped create.  And I thought, ‘not half bad’.

March 10, 2018

The Return of the Ogre

This month, for the ninth year in a row, I will go into a cave and come out wearing my Garden Ogre suit.  For the next seven months, I will prowl the Medfield Community Garden with one task: to tell 75 gardeners to weed their plots, tighten their fences, and be nice to one another.  I know with complete certainty that, by the end of October, half a dozen gardeners will hate me.  The rest will find me merely annoying.

Nine-and-a-half years ago, Betty and I cornered one of our town’s selectmen and complained that our town’s small Community Garden was a wreck.  Plots grew up in weeds and no one cared.  Two families took a quarter of the garden for themselves.  Water spigots leaked or didn’t work.  We demanded action.

Abandoned garden plots used to grow
up in weeds, like 'Mom's Garden'
What we got was a call from the Town Clerk, telling us we were to be sworn in as members of the Garden Committee.  After we took our oath, we asked who were the other members.  The answer was: “Just you; everyone else resigned.”

We generate publicity
seeking new gardeners
Betty and I took our newfound responsibility seriously.  A four-page list of Draconian ‘Rules’ became a single page of ‘guidelines’.  Articles appeared in the local papers seeking gardeners and new recruits showed up in droves.  Six thousand square feet of gardens were added, and then another 3,000 square feet, bringing the garden to a full acre in size.  New gardeners were encouraged to start with a 300-square-foot ‘half-plot’ space, and an early-Spring class on vegetable gardening became a staple at the town library.

It all sounds idyllic, except even ‘guidelines’ need to be enforced.  The secret to having 75 people gardening together is to ensure that everyone plays nice.  That’s where the Ogre comes in. 

Weeds along the fence
My number one responsibility is to ensure everyone keeps the paths around their garden weed-free.  It’s a simple request: every week, spend five minutes pulling any grass or weeds that are in the three-foot-wide aisles and, especially, along your fence line.  If you have a front-row garden, there are fifteen gardeners behind you who depend on being able to walk by your plot unmolested. 

Yet, every year, gardeners decide it’s not their job.  It begins with weeds growing in their fence and, left unchecked, escalates until there’s a carpet of crabgrass that will spew billions of seeds into every plot.  I start with kind notes: “Hey, the next time you’re at the garden, could you take a few minutes and weed the aisles?”  Some people comply, others don’t.  The next note is just a little testy: “Hey, I’m getting complaints about the weeds in your aisles.  Please take care of them.”  This send-and-ignore pas-de-deux continues until I send out one that says, “Weed your fence line and aisles or else I’ll do it.  And if I do it, you lose your garden.”  That’s the note the recipient posts to social media to show how a simple, friendly community endeavor has devolved into a dystopian nightmare.

Common sense says not
to shade your neighbors
As the season progresses, the problems escalate to include ten-foot-high sunflowers and eight-foot-high stalks of corn.  With just three feet between gardens, common sense says not to grow stuff that casts a shadow over your neighbors’ plot.  Yet, some gardeners insist it their Flora-the-Goddess-of-Gardening-given-right to not only grow this stuff at the back of their plot (where it shades the front of the adjacent garden), but to use it as a border around their garden, thereby shading everyone in sight.
Out go the memos, with predictable results.

I take photos of
rogue squash vines
Come August, two things happen.  First, everyone goes away for two weeks.  And, second, everyone’s squash vines run amok.  The vines push out fences, turning three-foot passageways into Amazonian-caliber jungle pathways where machetes are required for navigation.  I plead via email for cooperation and receive replies from Patagonia where, I’m informed, the skiing is wonderful but they’ll take care of the vines just as soon as their holiday is over and they’ve ‘decompressed’.  Some express amazement that ‘Madison’, who had faithfully pledged to tend their garden in their absence, hasn’t stopped by.

Then comes the end of the season.  Most gardeners clear their plots during September, even though they have until the end of October.  The days are shorter and few things are ripening.   A few gardeners, though, just stop gardening; leaving everything in place with predictable results.  Three gardeners did this in the autumn of 2017.  Oh, they finally took down their fence and cleared the plot, but not before the weeds were two feet high.  They were livid when I told them their plots were being given away.

Now, it’s March, and the process has started all over again.  Between people ‘aging out’ and moving away, I have nine plots to fill with up to 18 gardeners.  The newspaper articles began appearing last week and the response has been enthusiastic.  Everyone who inquires gets a copy of those Gardening Guidelines with a plea to read them before they send a check.  Everyone says they have so.  In theory, this year should be one of bonhomie and bountiful harvests of well-contained squash. 

But I’m not counting on it.

February 26, 2018

Brookfield, Real and Imagined

An opportunity to expiate my sins...

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to atone for an eight-year-old crime.  I didn’t know until a year and a half ago I had committed it but, by then, it was too late to do anything about it.  The worst part is that, even when I knew what I was doing, I didn’t stop.

Nine years ago, Betty came home from a meeting of the Medfield Garden Club and said, “You won’t believe what I heard this morning.”  I asked her to tell me all about it.  She told me about an elderly member of the club who had had been repeatedly ignored by the teenaged clerks at a local drugstore, and her walking out of the store without paying for $1.98 of photos.  How had the woman gotten away with this act of larceny?  Her answer when I asked: “I’m 71 years old.  I’m invisible.”

A light bulb went off in my head. 

Betty was designing at the fair...
Ten days later, I made an early morning, 50-mile drive with Betty from Medfield to the Topsfield Fair, where she was entered in a floral design competition.  I was banished from the building where she was creating her arrangement.  I went outside and noted the proximity of the fair’s ‘Flowers’ building with its main entrance and administration building.  As I mentally noted the cluster, I watched as an armored truck pulled in, parked in front of the administration building, two men walked into the building and returned a minute later with bags of, presumably, money.  Thirty seconds later, they were gone. 

Which is when I realized I had the plot of a book: what would happen if four ‘women of a certain age’ used their invisibility to rob the daily gate of a New England fair?  At the Topsfield Fair a few days later, I confirmed a hunch:  that in an era of debit and credit cards, green is still king at fairs.  There’s a lot of cash sloshing around.

Six months later I had the draft of ‘The Garden Club Gang’.  I also had a problem: for reasons that become obvious in the book, I couldn’t make the Topsfield Fair the setting of the heist.  I needed to invent one.  I looked at a map of Massachusetts.  Marshfield also has a fair, and the idea of the ‘(Blank)field Fair’ seemed appropriate.  I ruled out ‘Riverfield’ and ‘Meadowfield’.  I couldn’t find a ‘Brookfield’ on the map and had never heard of such a town.  And so, the heist took place at the Brookfield Fair.

‘The Garden Club Gang’ was an instant hit.  Everyone loved the four ladies and women quickly identified with the characters.  When I began speaking to garden clubs four years ago, I incorporated a segment about the book’s origins as part of my talk.  Instead of tailing off, sales of the book soared.

There really is a town of Brookfield!
Fast-forward to September 2016.  Betty and I were returning from a trip to the Berkshires on the Mass Pike.  Just as we got to the Palmer exit, traffic came to a complete stop.  We made what seemed like a wise decision and got off onto local roads, only to come a cropper with an even worst morass of traffic leaving the Brimfield Antiques Fair (which sprawls along several miles of Route 20, paralleling the Pike).  We started taking any side road that seemed to point us even vaguely east.  Forty-five minutes later, we found ourselves entering the town of…. Brookfield.

The real and imaginary towns are
48 miles apart
It was a beautiful little town of 3500 people.  Just like the one I describe in the book.  Except that it was in the wrong place.  ‘My’ Brookfield is located 48 miles east, along I-495, roughly where the real town of Stow lies. 

I had a dilemma.  In seven years, no one had ever mentioned that there was a town called Brookfield in southern Worcester County.  I had spoken to groups in nearby towns with nary a peep.  Worse, a second Garden Club Gang book, ‘Deadly Deeds’, repeated the error from the first book; a character who lives in ‘my’ Brookfield makes appearances in other books; and I made Brookfield the home of the infamous Joey McCoy of ‘How to Murder Your Contractor’ – who complains about the traffic on 495.

I had quite a crowd...
Then, three months ago, I was invited by the ‘real’ Brookfield Garden Club to come present ‘Gardening in Murder’.  The presentation was yesterday.  The Fellowship Hall of the Brookfield Congregational Church was packed.  Before the projector came on, I confessed everything... all the duplicity, including that I have just completed yet another Garden Club Gang installment that soft-peddles the canard that Brookfield is located where it isn’t.

My audience took it with good grace and, for that, I am thankful.  If you are ever in central Massachusetts, I encourage you to make a stop in Brookfield.  It is, indeed, a lovely New England village with a storied history and friendly people.

Just don’t ask them about their fair…

February 5, 2018

Another February 5th, Forty Years Ago...

Forty years ago this morning, my wife and I started on a fantastic journey, which turned out to be a little more ‘unscheduled’ than we expected.  After living in Chicago for two years, I had accepted a job in New York City.  On the morning on February 5, Betty and I boarded a 7:30 flight at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport bound for New York LaGuardia.  Our flight time was supposed to be 90 minutes.  We were told there was ‘some snow’ in the New York area but that we should arrive on time at 10 a.m.  We carried four large suitcases plus two carry-ons with us (this was before airlines discovered they could mint money by charging for such things).

The Blizzard of '78 shut down the
Northeast for more than a week
At a few minutes before ten, we were circling LaGuardia and the ‘some snow’ was getting much more serious.  At one point we were told we were next in line to land.  Then, after half an hour of circling, the announcement came that LaGuardia had just closed due to weather conditions and that we would be diverted to Bradley Field north of Hartford.

We landed at Hartford in blinding snow, the last plane to do so before that airport, too, was closed.  Our airline (I believe it was American) gave passengers the option of being taken by bus the fifty miles to New Haven where we could get the train for New York, or being put up ‘overnight’ at a hotel near the airport.

Betty grew up in the Finger Lakes of New York state, the land of ‘lake effect’ snow that can drop two feet of the stuff overnight.  She took a look at the snow and said, “We can do this.”  At noon, thirty intrepid passengers stowed their luggage on the bus and we headed south.

Double-click to see snowfall
totals - we landed right in the
thick of the thing.
Fifteen miles south of Hartford in swiftly deteriorating conditions, our bus skidded off the road and – very fortunately – into a guard rail.  It was fortunate because the guard rail was all that stood between us a steep ravine.  The bus could go no further.  Miraculously, another bus was dispatched, picked us up, and we slowly made out way down to New Haven.

It took three hours to reach New Haven and we feared we had missed the last New-York-bound train.  But there were people on the platform and so we lugged our many suitcases and waited.  A few minutes later, an Amtrak train pulled in.  It was now 4 p.m.  The train had left Boston at 6 a.m.  and would, as it turned out, the only train to make the trek that day.  Had we been a few minutes later, we would have been stranded in New Haven for the duration.

Note the fifth bullet...
There were no seats on the train; we sat on our luggage in one of the passenger compartments.  But at least we were inside the train.  Most of those who boarded at New Haven spent the next several hours in the unheated vestibule between cars.  Pushing snow in front of it, the train made it to Penn Station at about 8 p.m.

I had done one intelligent thing that day.  At Bradley Field, I had called my employer’s Manhattan office and pleaded for someone to walk over to the Statler Hilton and pay for our room, get a key, and leave it with the concierge.

It turned out to be a prescient move.  We arrived to a city that had shut down, stranding tens of thousands of travelers and commuters in the city.  Seventh Avenue was covered with two feet of snow and almost nothing moving.  A porter helped get our suitcases across the street to the hotel where we found a mob of people occupying every square foot of sleepable surface.  I went the concierge desk and held my breath.

A minute later, I held up the key for Betty to see.  Twelve hours after we left Chicago, we were finally in New York.
* * * * *
This is what we saw when we
got off the subway in Brooklyn
The blizzard turned out to be a fortunate event for us.  While the city was paralyzed, the subways were running on the subterranean part of their routes.  Two days after our arrival, a Realtor met us in Boerum Hill in Brooklyn. “If you can get here, I’ll show you houses,” she told us.  We emerged from the subway to a landscape of unplowed streets, with a police car – immobilized up to its windows in snow – blocking an intersection.  A bus sat abandoned in snow drifts in front of the brownstone we were there to see.

It was the house we had looked for in vain in Chicago.  Betty and I squeezed one another’s hand so tightly I nearly broke her fingers.  We made an offer that day, counter-offered over dinner that evening at the then-newly-opened River Café, and had our offer accepted over dessert.

211 Bergen Street in Boerum Hill.
We planted that tree in front, at left.
That was 40 years ago.  It was a time before cell phones, the internet or reliable forecasts.  Today, of course, everyone knows to stay home .  Passengers on the 7:30 flight from Chicago to New York are called the night before and told their flight has been cancelled and they have been re-booked for Thursday.  In short, apart from ones based on stupidity, there are a lot fewer ‘blizzard stories’ today.

But I wouldn’t have had it any other way.  It was an adventure – albeit a harrowing one at the time.  We got through it and we found the house of our dreams, made possible in large part by our perseverance.

February 2, 2018

Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams

For New England gardeners, January and February are a single, 59-day-long morass of cold, miserable weather which we know is killing our shrubs; punctuated by the occasional thaw that we are certain is unceremoniously heaving our perennials out of the ground. We can’t wait for March to come.

This is what 30 inches of
snow looks like
But, thinking about being buried under two feet of snow by winter storm Liam, Quinn, Skylar, or Toby (which are actual names chosen for 2018 by meteorologists whose sense of humor escapes me) is just too depressing. 

Accordingly, optimistic gardeners place seed orders and tend their houseplants.  However, I’m not allowed to place seed orders.  I always go straight for the most whimsically named vegetables (think ‘Lettuce Entertain You’ and ‘Beets Me’), even if they’re 180 days to maturity in a climate where 150 days is stretching the boundary of common sense.  I also fail to read the fine print (“One plant will produce enough zucchini to feed Latvia for a year, although our taste panel agrees it has both the aroma and texture of well-worn gym socks...”).  

I’m also off the houseplant watering detail ever since a minor mishap with a fern that resulted in three inches of water in our basement a few years back.  The less said about this unfortunate event, the better.

The Scott Arboretum encompasses
pretty much the entirety of the
Swarthmore College campus
So, instead of having responsibility for actual plants and such, Betty gives me the task of planning warmer-weather, horticulture-centric travel.  For example, I need to be in Philadelphia in the latter part of May.  I’ve already added two days to that trip to get re-acquainted with Longwood, Chanticleer, Winterthur, and the Scott Arboretum after a too-long absence. 

The Beatrix Farrand garden in Maine.
It's on our to-do list for 2018.
To me, ‘big’ gardens are more than just spectacles; they also contain educational elements for those of us who don’t have hundred-acre estates.  The Scott Arboretum (essentially, the entire campus of Swarthmore College) is a practical demonstration of how to combine ecology, horticulture, and botany into a home landscape.  The fact that the Arboretum represents the vision of acclaimed horticulturalist Claire Sawyer, who is now in her 28th year as its Director, is all the more reason to check in for a refresher.

I’m also going to head north (or is that down east?).  Last year I saw the Coastal Maine Botanical Garden for the first time (shame on me…). That visit was in June.  This year it will be in a different month and I intend to also see the Beatrix Farrand Garden and a few other historic properties in that state.

And, we've blocked off a week in
September to see Yosemite.
As long as I’m planning, how about something outside of the Northeast?  I sometimes feel as though I spent an entire year of my life on airplanes commuting between Boston and San Jose or San Francisco.  On those business trips, I flew over Yosemite National Park a hundred times without ever managing to visit it.  I have decreed this is the year I rectify that omission.  It will likely be in the fall, after most of the tourists have decamped.  It was America’s first National Park and still, arguably, its most dramatic.

The thermometer outside my window says it is 18˚ right now.  But, just by writing this, I’m already starting to feel as though I just might make it through this winter intact.