October 8, 2015

Revisiting the Scene of the Crime

Yesterday I revisited the scene of an imaginary crime and, in the process, committed an actual one.  Herein lies that story.
My fictional 'Brookfield Fair' looks a lot like
the very real Topsfield Fair
Anyone who has seen a map of the Topsfield Fair will immediately note a striking resemblance to the map of the fictional “Brookfield Fair” that appears on the flyleaf of The Garden Club Gang.  Further, anyone who has heard my ‘Gardening Is Murder’ presentation knows the circumstances under which that venerable annual event came to be the inspiration for the story of a heist that doesn’t go quite the way it was planned.
For those who don’t know the story behind the story, a brief synopsis:  The Topsfield Fair has, among its many attractions, a flower show sponsored by the Garden Club Federation of Massachusetts.  My wife, Betty, is a floral designer who periodically enters such competitions.  Once you have signed up to design at the Fair, you also are making a commitment to be at the Fairgrounds at the ungodly hour of 7 a.m., where you have two hours to create your design.
Medfield is 52 miles from Topsfield and the only sane route from Point A to Point B is the insane circumferential highway known variously as Route 128, I-95, and the Yankee Division Highway.  Rush hour on that particular roadway begins at 5 a.m. (I promise I am not making this up) and so, to be at the Fairgrounds by 7, you need to leave Medfield before 6 a.m.  And, to arrive there without the residual urge to strangle anyone driving a gray Honda Accord, you need someone to drive you.
Even at 6 a.m., Route 128
is not for the faint of heart
And so, on a morning seven or eight years ago, I did my Loving Spouse Duty and drove Betty to Topsfield.  Unfortunately, once she was ensconced in front of her pedestal to begin her design, my presence became distracting and she bluntly let me know that I should go somewhere else for the duration.  Where I went was out in front of the Flowers Building (yes, the Flower Show has its own barn-like building which also houses horticulture and mini-landscape exhibits).  Close by were two other features: the Fair Administration Building and the Fair’s Main Gate.  I thought it mildly interesting that the three landmarks made a tight little cluster.
Then, the ‘Aha’ moment occurred.  An armored truck pulled into the main gate, went around a little traffic circle, and stopped in front of the Administration Building.  Two men jumped out of the truck, walked into the building, then came back out in under thirty seconds carrying a pair of enormous saddlebags.  The bags went into the truck, and the truck pulled out of the Fairgrounds.  Elapsed time:  perhaps ninety seconds.  I realized the truck had likely just picked up the Fair’s daily gate proceeds. 
And then it hit me that I was in the last bastion of the cash economy.  In a world where debit and credit cards have replaced cash in our wallets, places like the Topsfield Fair continue to be ones where we peel off twenty-dollar bills.  In that moment was born the plot of The Garden Club Gang in which four ‘little old ladies’ will pull off the feat of robbing that truck in broad daylight (yet with no witnesses), leaving behind no clues, and injuring no one.
Well, yesterday morning Betty was again entered at the Topsfield Fair and, once again, I was her designated driver.  But things have changed in the intervening years.  I have gotten to know many of the designers who form the core of the amateur competitions (they are ‘amateurs’ in name only).  Further, I spent three years as Chairman of Blooms! at the Boston Flower and Garden Show, where I learned the intricacies of how these competitions operate (knowledge I put on display in A Murder at the Flower Show and Murder in Negative Space).  Instead of wandering the fairgrounds, I stopped to chat with the flower show staff.  Moreover, taking a cue from one of my most useful activity as Chairman of Blooms!, I helped designers carry in cartloads of flowers from their cars.
Betty's design captured
the essence of Connecticut
Most designers were at their work places by 7.  A few had already completed their arrangements by 7:45.  But there were still a few open spaces.  These late arrivers would have to work quickly.  I saw one of those late arrivers struggling to bring in a cart and armload of flowers.  Her name was Rita, and she is a very nice lady.  I immediately rushed over to help her.  I swept up her cart and carried it into the building, following her instructions about which station was hers.  I placed the cart in the proper location, feeling very proud of myself. 
Which was when I got my foot caught in a basket.
There are moments in your life that will endure forever in memory.  This was one of them.  I did not see the basket; I knew only that I was inexplicably falling down.  And so I grabbed for something to keep me upright.  The ‘something’ that I grabbed was a pedestal on which rested the completed floral design of one Bonni Dinneen.
I did not know this at the time.  Nor did I know I had simultaneously jostled yet another pedestal.  All I knew was that I was being drenched in water and covered with croton leaves.  From start to finish, my pratfall lasted perhaps two seconds.  To me, it lasted an eternity. 
I had just ruined someone’s entry.
In seconds, I was surrounded by women asking me if I was all right.  Physically, I was fine.  A little wet perhaps but none the worse for wear.  What I was, was mortified.  This was the thing Betty had been admonishing me about for more than a decade:  stay away from the designers – they don’t have time for chit-chat.  And, for heaven’s sake, don’t ever get near any of the designs…
I slinked out of the Flowers Building and sat in my car.  As I was doing my slinking, I heard people asking if Bonni was still in the building and heard that, yes, she was still somewhere nearby.  I did not have the courage to face her, nor anyone else.  This was my ‘You’ll-shoot-your-eye-out’ moment.  Oh. My. God.
Early in the afternoon, the judging results were emailed to the entrants.  Betty received a 90+ Red for her Connecticut door hanging.  A 90+ Red is a big deal.  It means you got second place, but your design was good enough that it could have won a Blue (first), except that someone else’s entry was just a skosh better. 
Bonni's reconstructed design
received a Blue!
Oh, and Bonni Dinneen’s entry in a different category won a Blue.  And, no, it wasn’t a ‘we’re-so-sorry-for-what-happened’ gesture for my clumsiness.  The judges don’t show up until 9 a.m. and they have no idea whose entries they are viewing, and they certainly have no idea that someone’s entry had to be re-done on the fly.
I sent Bonni a congratulatory note that also apologized for my causing such devastation.  This morning, I received the following reply:
I feel as though I owe you an apology.  As I saw it happen, all I could do was laugh.  It was a comedic episode played in slow motion, with my design splaying in all directions and you grappling for control, while the second pedestal was wiggling back in forth.  No one knew if the second stand would also topple.  It was truly funny to see.  I apologize that I laughed at your accident.  I had to walk away, my laughter was so pronounced; like watching someone slip on the ice, it was that funny.   
Please if you ever tell the story...  tell it with a light heart and without embarrassment.  I know I will, when I encourage others to pursue flower design.

Bonni, that’s just the way I’m telling it.

September 29, 2015

Watering with an Eyedropper

My street, with a corner of the garden
My street got a long-awaited repaving last week. In three days, town crews efficiently took off the top two inches of asphalt and laid down a like amount of new blacktop along a three-mile course.  I was impressed with both the speed and attention to environmental conservation, with the old macadam bring instantly whisked away for reprocessing.
Like many of my neighbors, I came out to watch as the paving crew went by.  As they worked in front of my house, Highway Department Foreman Bobby Kennedy paused to look over our still-abuilding landscape.
“Neal,” he said.  “I don’t think I want to know how you’re keeping all those plants so green.”
Medfield, like virtually every town in eastern Massachusetts, is under tight water restrictions this year.  Even including that mountain of snow that fell between January and March, the region has had less than 25 inches of precipitation so far this year against an average of nearly 33 in the first nine months.  It just didn’t rain this summer.  We are in a drought.
We thought we had our watering needs taken care of when we installed four 55-gallon rain barrels across the back of our house.  As little as a quarter of an inch of rainfall will fill those four barrels to overflowing.  The trick to a rain barrel, however, is to first get the rain and, second, to get the rain to fall evenly over time.  As the chart nearby shows so starkly, September produced less than half the normal amount of rainfall and it all fell in a six day period in the middle of the month.
Too little rain, and not spread out
sufficiently to make rain barrels
a useful tool for conservation
And so, to keep our new plants alive and growing while adhering to both the letter and spirit of water bans, we have resorted to an eyedropper approach to watering.  Or, to be more accurate, we employ a flotilla of cat litter containers.
Here’s a statistic:  if you have a 3,000 square-foot lawn – that’s 100 feet by 30 feet – and you turn on your sprinkler system long enough to put a half an inch of water on that lawn, you will use a thousand gallons of water.
We don’t have a lawn and, if we did, we wouldn’t water it.  Lawns go dormant in the heat of summer and recover nicely when cooler weather returns.  But we have eight newly planted trees, roughly 60 shrubs, and nearly 200 perennials, all in the ground three months or less.  If the roots of those trees and plants don’t have access to water, they die.
Our secret weapon:  an
armada of cat litter
containers, shown next to
our empty rain barrels
We also have a massive number of three-gallon containers that originally held cat litter.  Today, they have been re-purposed to hold water.  Our original plan was to use the containers as ‘overflow’ for all the water being produced by our rain barrels; the equivalent of a fifth or sixth barrel.  But in the absence of rainfall, the water in those containers comes out of a faucet.
When we water, each tree gets two containers, or six gallons, of water.  Each shrub gets between one and 1.5 gallons of water.  Depending on size, each perennials gets from a quart and half a gallon of water.  The water is applied directly to the base of the plant where we wisely created a mulch berm around everything we planted.
So, how much water do we use?  I started counting the number of times I re-filled those containers.  Amazingly, we are watering our entire garden using less than 180 gallons. 
There’s just one minor downside to this otherwise ingenious, water-efficient method of keeping our plants properly hydrated… someone has to carry that water from plant to plant and fill those jugs. 
Every tree, shrub, and
perennial we've planted
incorporates a mulch
ring to hold water
Betty and I share that activity, which we typically perform just after dawn on those days we water.  I fill twenty or so jugs and then pre-position them where experience says they will do the most good.  Betty does the actual watering and leaves the empty containers where I can collect them.  I re-fill the jugs and return them to where I think they’ll be needed.  All this is done at breakneck speed with jugs being placed and collected up to 150 feet from where I fill them.  A physician would say I’m getting a good upper cardio workout.  The neighbors have concluded we’re nuts.
You may ask yourself, ‘why not just use a hose?’  That’s a good question; a sign of a nimble mind at work.
The answer is twofold: first, we can water with containers in a fraction of the time it takes to do so with a hose.  Our watering record is 20 minutes.  I can fill a three-gallon container in ten seconds.  Try pushing that much water through a hose without blasting the soil off the roots of a plant in the process.  Also, hose watering is, at minimum, a two-person process.  One person points the hose.  The others performs a continuous mambo to keep the trailing part of the hose – and we’re talking a hundred feet of hose here – from crushing or being dragged over unsuspecting plants.  I might also add that dragged hoses have a way of ‘reconfiguring’ bark mulch beds and gravel paths, and disassembling stone walls.
Garden hoses have a tendency to
disassemble rock walls
The second answer is that there is no waste with containers: every drop gets on the plants that need it. Moreover, those containers are continually being filled not only with water drawn specifically for watering, but for other household activities as well.  We collect the water other people let flow down their drains – shower water awaiting that perfect temperature, for example, or water used to wash vegetables.  Trust me, the plants don’t mind.

The downside is the abandonment of any attempt at dignity. At 6:30 a.m., our neighbors can look out their windows and see the Sanders flying around the garden carrying those dumb containers.  I cannot help but notice that we are now getting a contingent of dog walkers who have adjusted their schedules to better enjoy the spectacle.  I know we’re good for a laugh.

August 31, 2015

The Ogre and the Squash Vine Memo

Eight years ago, Betty and I made the mistake of complaining to one of Medfield's town’s selectman about the sad state of the volunteer-managed community garden.  We noted that the garden seemed to exist for the pleasure of a few well-placed friends of ‘the Committee’, who lavished multiple plots on themselves while neglecting basic services such as water and mowing.  Plot-holders abandoned their gardens in mid-season and those gardens grew up in weeds.  Couldn’t something be done, we asked?
Something was done.  A few weeks later, we found ourselves in charge of the operation.  Just the two of us.  The Committee had resigned en masse.
At first, the
squash vines
were a minor
We like to think that we’ve made the garden a better place in the intervening years. Now covering three-quarters of an acre, there are 62 gardeners and 62 gardens (all occupied, thank you) in two sizes.  The perimeter is mowed regularly, aged manure has been overspread on the site enough times that the garden is now a foot above the surrounding fields, wood chips are delivered to create paths, and the six water spigots all function properly.
There are no ‘rules’ for the garden, only guidelines; and they fit neatly on one page.  But even guidelines require some level of enforcement.  Enforcement requires an Ogre.  That’s me.  Every week, I walk the garden looking for problems.  What follows is a true story.  Only the name of the individual has been changed. 
It is the time of year when the gardening season is winding down.  The gardens, though, are lush with crops.  In some of the gardens, pumpkin and winter squash vines climb and/or go under fences.  Zinnias and cleomes press against groaning fences as do tomatoes heavy with fruit. Gardens that were spotless a few weeks ago now show noticeable weeds.  The result is the three-foot-wide walkways around certain plots become impassable. 
But then the
vines spilled over
the fence
It is time for the Garden Ogre to go to work:  I send out ‘The Squash Vine Memo’.
My first email is light and breezy:
Subject:  Garden maintenance
“Hey, Judy!  Can you get down to the garden this weekend and take care of the squash vines out in the walkways?”
I send out twelve such emails, each personalized and tailored to the specific problems in that plot.  Four gardeners quickly respond that they will get right on it.
On Monday morning I’m back at the garden.  Six of the gardens have been brought back to a semblance of order.  Excellent!  But six have not been touched and the vines are longer and more treacherous.  I go home and write:
Subject:  Please take care of your garden
“Judy:  The squash vines from your garden have spilled out into the walkway, making it difficult for people to get to their own gardens.  We would all appreciate your taking time this evening to clear your path.”
By the time of the
third email the
squash was out of
That email to the six miscreants will draws three responses along the lines of, “Sorry!  We were away!  I’ve sent my son down to take care of it.”
Two days later, I am again at the garden.  Two of the six gardens have been cleaned.  The other four – including one that promised immediate response – have vines that now are completely across the aisle and climbing the neighbors’ fences.  I go home and write:
Subject:  You need to clean your garden right now!
“Judy:  This is my third email about getting the vines out of the aisles around your garden. You owe your neighbors an apology and you need to get down to the garden today to clean up the mess.”
This was the state of
the squash vines when
I sent out the 'now
or else' memo
The next day, two of the remaining gardens have, in fact, been cleared of vines.  I even have a note from one of the offenders apologizing for taking so long to take action.
But two gardens remain holdouts.  Not only are the vines still a problem, the weeds have started going to seed.  And so I go home and write one final message:
Subject:  You are going to lose your plot at the community garden
“Judy:  Your garden has become a hazard for everyone else.  If, by the end of today, you have not completely cleared the weeds and vines that are clogging the walkways around your garden, I will take them down myself.  If I have to do that, you will lose your right to a plot next year.
Neal Sanders
Garden Ogre”
The next day, I go to the garden, hoe and clippers in hand.  But I don’t need my tools: both gardens have been ridded of vines in the aisles and weeds along the fence line.
I go home and open my email.  I find this message:
Subject:  My plot at the garden
“Dear Mr. Sanders:
Why do you have to be so mean about it?  All you had to do was ask.
As a writer, I spend my days exploring the mystery of human nature.  I invent characters who commit crimes.  I dream up sleuths who can see through the fog of warped motives and personal turpitude to point a finger of justice at the guilty party.  Then, just when I think I’ve finally got a handle on the inner workings of my fellow man, along comes a “Judy” and I have to go back to square one.

August 7, 2015

The Pine Street Progress Report

The property as it looked this morning
Slowly, piece by piece, the landscape of 26 Pine Street is beginning to take shape. 

This is a long-term project; undertaken by two people who are hell-bent upon being able to say that they did this themselves.  There is a shopping list for trees, shrubs, and perennials; but their purchase is dictated by season and getting not just the right cultivar, but also the right conformance and pedigree.

Here's a guide to the photos
that follow.  Double click on the
map to see at full-screen size.
For example, there is a designated space in our landscape for a cercis canadensis, the forest pansy redbud.  We have been to five nurseries of which three had specimens.  But the trees we found were leggy, too small, or had branches crossing so badly that the tree would need to be pruned close to extinction to have the right shape. 

One cercis met all criteria but, curiously, it was both balled and burlapped and in a container.  Also, its leaves had turned green though it was early July and there had not been the string of warm nights that are generally required to make that transformation.  Those oddities caused us to ask questions, which eventually revealed that the tree’s origin was South Carolina.  We were looking at a tree bred for Zone 7 or 8, about to be plunged into Zone 5.  Sensibly, we passed.

Photo 1
The lone cersis that passed all tests had a tag on it indicating that it was being held as a possible replacement tree.  We called or visited the nursery every few days, hoping to spring the tree free.  Alas, it was called away.  We will wait until 2016 to find our specimen.

Photo 2
This is also predominantly a native garden.  There are two kinds of chionanthus – fringe trees.  Ninety percent of what is in nurseries is chionanthus chinesis, the Asian cultivar which is more popular because it grows more quickly.  We held out for virginicus, the native version.  It’s smaller (for now) but it’s what we wanted.

Photo 3
There are non-natives in the garden.  Hostas and epimedium can be found in multiple places.  These are the ‘friendly’ aliens.  They won’t take over the garden; they won’t spread seeds in the woods. 

Photo 4
Most surprising to most visitors and passers-by is that ours is, by choice, a grassless garden.  Our goal is to emphasize trees and shrubs (most of them flowering) and perennials.  We sold our mower when we moved, cementing that lawn-less decision.  The 45 cubic yards of mulch we have put down ensure that few weeds pop up.  We’re also saving thousands of gallons of water in a town that, in summer, pumps more that 100% of the water being replenished in its aquifer.

Photo 5
In time, the additional shrubs and perennials we plant will grow to maturity. When they do, the absence of grass will cease to be an issue because the greenery will predominate. We’re willing to wait.

We know our garden is not for everyone.  It’s a statement about conservation; a demonstration that ‘thoughtful’ landscaping can also be colorful and attractive.  We’re out working in front of the property most mornings before 6 a.m. and we get hundreds of walkers, bicyclists, and joggers every week.  There are lots of ‘thumbs up’ and many encouraging words.

Photo 6
All gardening should be a labor of love.  This one is also a journey of educating ourselves and those who are open to a different vision of suburban horticulture.

August 5, 2015

You Can Go Home Again (But You Probably Shouldn't)

I’ve been thinking these past few weeks about the inevitability of change. 

It started last month when Betty and I visited Bedrock Gardens, which is easily the most visually intriguing garden in New England.  Located in Lee, New Hampshire, it sprawls across more than 30 acres and is created from equal parts intelligence and whimsy.  Its creator, Jill Nooney, has filled it with plant combinations that challenge the imagination, and garden art – sculptures forged from century-old industrial detritus – that inspire both laughter and thought.

She and husband Bob Munger have been working on the garden for roughly 30 years.  It is a labor of love in every sense of the word and I have enjoyed watching it grow and mature.  But Jill and Bob have been on this earth, by their own admission, for a combined 135 years.  What happens when they can no longer care for the garden?

The perennial border at Great Dixter.
Sir Christopher Lloyd left us nine
years ago but his garden is still alive
The late eminent English gardener, Christopher Lloyd, is credited with the wisdom “The garden dies when the gardener dies”.  Lloyd’s home, Great Dixter, was still going strong the last time I was in East Sussex so, perhaps, death does not bring down the curtain on every garden.  An entity called the Great Dixter Trust is charged with preserving the garden for generations to come.  Looking to the future, Bedrock Gardens has similarly established a non-profit entity to help fund the preservation of that treasure.

Which brings me to the fate of a much smaller garden; one with much more limited notoriety: the one Betty and I created at our last home.

As everyone knows, we downsized this year; moving from a Colonial on Steroids on one side of town to a brand new 2100-square-foot jewel of a home on the other side.  In a perfect world (meaning one where money was no object), we would have stayed put on our same piece of land and built that smaller house.  The reason we would have stayed involved great views, terrific neighbors, and a garden that provided vast and continuing pleasure to us.

Our gardens, though extensive, covered
less than half of our land.  The rest was
a woodland we restored
We sold our home to a couple with two young children.  They loved the site, loved the pond view and shared our thoughts about pesticide-free lawns.  The garden was buried under several feet of snow when we accepted their offer in February.  We invited them over to take a tour of the garden as soon as the snow melted so that that we could identify some of the very unusual trees, shrubs, and perennials in it.  They demurred, citing family demands.

When we closed on the house in April we reiterated the offer – a hands-on walk-through so that they wouldn’t accidentally cut down a rare specimen.  They thanked us but said the pressure of packing and the impending sale of their own home made it impossible.  A few weeks later we passed along another invitation through our Realtor.  Again, regrets.

Then, three weeks ago, we stopped by to see one of our former neighbors and saw the beginning of the transformation: a small copse of pines and oaks at the front of the property was gone.  For us, it had provided desired privacy; we were part of our small neighborhood yet secluded.  At the edge of the copse we had planted a number of specimen trees and shrubs.  Most of those were also gone.

Beyond our house was an acre of oaks
and pines.  The new owners have
cleared it.
Last week, we were again at our former neighbors’ home.  This time we saw that our ‘forest’ had disappeared.

We had nearly two acres at our previous home, but we gardened only one of them.  The other acre was maintained as a forest preserve, primarily of oak and pine.  Over the years we had painstakingly removed invasive plants and fostered native ferns, wildflowers and ephemerals.  The forest floor was comprised of a rich duff and slowly composting leaves.  When tree limbs broke off in storms, they lay where they fell. Because it adjoined town conservation land, our forest was full of wildlife and was a wonderful habitat, especially for birds.  Now, it had been clear-cut; with massive logs from beautiful, mature oaks stacked like cordwood waiting to be taken away. 

This is all that remains of the forest
Naturalist Doug Tallamy tells us that a single oak tree supports 500 species of moths.  Those moths feed birds and pollinate plants, which beautify our world while playing an important part in the cycle of life on which we ultimately depend.  The dozen or more oaks in our forest are gone, likely to be replaced by a lawn suitable for young children.

We understand we ceded the right to dictate how our property could be used the moment we signed the papers passing title to it.  As long as they obey zoning ordinances, the new owners are entitled to whatever they wish to the land.  They have paid for the privilege.

But it does not stop us from mourning – and ‘mourning’ is the right word – the passing of those woods and, likely in time, the rest of the garden. 

Sir Christopher got it only partly right: a garden does not necessarily die when the gardener dies, but a change of ownership will almost certainly do the trick. 

July 12, 2015

Gardens for a Worthy Cause

Yesterday (July 11), with the temperatures in Boston expected to touch 90 degrees, Betty and I did what all sane New Englanders do: we headed for the coast. 

Cape Ann is 'the other cape'
For the uninitiated, Massachusetts has two ‘capes’ on its coast.  The one people refer to when then say they are ‘going down to the Cape for the weekend’ is Cape Cod and, yesterday morning, the backups on the Bourne and Sagamore Bridges were four and six miles, respectively. 

The other ‘cape’ is Cape Ann.  Cape Ann is an afterthought for most New Englanders and it barely registers if you are from outside the region.  As it turns out, this state of affairs suits Cape Ann residents just fine.  Unlike that ‘other’ Cape, the citizens of Gloucester and Rockport can traverse the A. Piatt Andrew Bridge spanning the Annisquam River that separates Cape Ann from the mainland without fear of hours-long delays.

The pedestrian bridge into Annisquam
Our goal yesterday morning was not beaches but, rather, gardens.  Specifically, we went on the Gloucester Garden Tour of Annisquam Village.  Annisquam, in turn, is a hidden gem: a beautiful seaside village dating to 1646 that is suspended in time.  Its houses are a mix of grand and humble.  Streets are narrow, winding, rising, and falling.  There are stone outcroppings everywhere that dictate where homes can and cannot be built. 

A garden on the Annisquam tour. 
Double-click for a full-page show.
Most garden tours are held by garden clubs.  This annual tour (which features a different part of Cape Ann each year) is the creation of a unique organization: Generous Gardeners, a Gloucester-based philanthropic organization that raises funds for beautification projects.  Some are carried out by the organization’s members, other projects are funded through grants to other groups.  And we are not talking about modest sums.  As you come into Gloucester on Route 128, you encounter Grant Circle, a large and, until last year, graceless traffic rotary.  This year it sports a new series of glorious beds.  Three area garden clubs banded together in 2014 to raise more than $100,000 to beautify the rotary; Generous Gardeners provided a hefty contribution that kick-started funding.  Four other projects are targeted for assistance this year including expanding the plantings in the center island of Gloucester’s principal downtown boulevard.

Several of the gardens included
painters at work
But however worthwhile the cause, a $25 garden tour ticket needs to provide an experience that is both fun and inspiring.  Generous Gardeners delivered on both counts, and it did so with a professionalism that made the day effortless (except for walking) on the part of tour goers.

A garden with a sweeping ocean view
There are two ways into Annisquam Village: narrow Leonard Street and a pedestrian footbridge across Lobster Cove. We parked and checked in at a school two miles away, and boarded a school bus that let us off on the Gloucester side of the footbridge. It was an appropriate way to start the tour, a 300-foot ramble past dozens of boats with the hill upon which the village is built as a backdrop.

In Annisquam, houses adapt to the
geology of the region
I had been to Annisquam just once, as a speaker earlier this year for the Cape Ann Garden Club.  I had gotten a sense of the village’s architecture, but not of its gardens. July is unquestionably the peak of the area’s gardens.  Spirea and hydrangea groan with blooms and spill over walls and fences.  Perennial borders blaze with daylilies, lavender, sage, hosta, fern, and epimedium.

This was my favorite garden:
small but intelligent with
a framed ocean view
There were 15 houses on the tour of which we saw 13.  While there were several large, beachfront homes featuring meticulous gardens with sweeping views of Annisquam Harbor and Wingaersheek Beach beyond, my tour favorite was a small house with a compact garden.  The homeowner compensated for a small space by emphasizing the vertical drop from the front to the back of the property.  The front garden gave way to a lushly planted bluestone patio with espaliered pear trees on the side; stepping down to a narrow, intelligently designed rear perennial border separated from the small lawn by a winding row of cobblestones.  The piece de resistance?  A well-framed view of the ocean.  It was perfect.

Our appreciation for the tour was heightened by the opportunity to chat with Susan Kelly, founder of Generous Gardeners and organizer of the tour.  As we waited for the bus to take us back to the school where our car was parked, she spoke of the daunting logistics required to make the tour happen (for example, a week before the tour, she was informed that only a single bus would be available – ultimately she negotiated three).

A great tour requires commensurate signage and an explanatory guide.  Every garden had multiple docents, the winding course was superbly marked, and the tour book included a concise ‘what-to-look-for’ in the garden as well as a quick sketch of the house’s history.

* * * * *

Beneath the 'acrobats'
Instead of heading home for a cool drink and a well-deserved rest, we made a 50-mile detour on our way home to another garden Saturday afternoon.  Bedrock Gardens in Lee, New Hampshire, is a nearly thirty-year-long effort by Jill Nooney and Bob Munger to create a space that marries art and horticulture.  (I first wrote about Bedrock Gardens here.)  We were inspired to visit yesterday both to see how the garden has changed and by the fact that the Garden Conservancy had chosen to sponsor an Open Day at the property.

Horsehead sculptures guard the
parterre garden
Bedrock Gardens need to be on every serious gardener’s bucket list.  It is unique as far as I know; a 20-acre garden that is equal parts whimsy and horticultural intelligence.  It is also a garden that grows and changes.  To put it another way, seeing Bedrock Gardens once is like seeing your grandchildren once.  You need to make a pilgrimage every year or so to see how it has evolved.

Unusual plant combinations are the rule
When you go, plan to stay at least two hours.  It will take you that long just to see, from various vantage points, the 21 ‘points of interest’ listed on the garden map.  If you are serious about horticulture, add the amount of time appropriate to your knowledge level.  Very little in this garden is ‘the usual suspects’.  Instead, unusual variations are the rule.  Take a camera (or a phone with a high-rez imager) and a notebook.  You’ll find unexpected but imaginative planting combinations that will send you to nurseries that specialize in lesser-known cultivars.

Part of the 'wiggle-waggle'
The ‘garden’ part of Bedrock Gardens is primarily the work of Jill Nooney.  Her spouse, Bob Munger, is credited with creating the walkways, water features and patios that dot the garden, though he will confess to no greater contribution than the digging of holes and operation of farm equipment.  I’m willing to accept that division of labor at face value without further investigation.

The Dark Woods feature
flying objects
The ‘art’ at Bedrock Gardens is both the interplay of plants and the inspired genius of Jill’s ‘sculptures’.  As the accompanying photos show, Bedrock Gardens is stiff with metal creations made from industrial scrap.  There are some recent pieces that appear to be the result of binge-watching ‘Game of Thrones’, but every piece is a delight.  Many are for sale.  Suffice it to say that had the arc welder not been invented, it would be necessary to do so to encourage the creations on display.

Two items of note:  First, in the past few years, the Friends of Bedrock Gardens has been organized as a 501(c)3 non-profit.  This both make it easier to support the garden financially, and to ensure that it survives its two creators.  Second, the garden has four more open weekends between now and October.  Those dates are July 18-19, August 15-16, September 19-20 and October 10-11-12.

July 6, 2015

The Hardscape Comes Together

Our landscaping plan. 
Double-click to see the plan
at full size
Until three weeks ago, they were lines on a piece of paper, paint on rocks, and suggestions nudged out of mulch and stones.  Today, they are real; and they make a huge difference in defining our new home and garden.

‘They’ are the hardscape.  ‘Hardscape’, for those not familiar with the language of the ‘green’ industry, is that part of a landscape that is built not from plants and trees but, rather, from stone or concrete.  Hardscape can be subtle or it can be front and center.  It can be the concrete plaza around a swimming pool or the hint of rocks in a sea of greenery.

Workmen from Dolan & Co.
installed a cobblestone border to
define the driveway perimeter
For us, the hardscape took on four elements:  a stone wall defining a change in elevation at the front of the property, a patio off our screened porch at the back of the house, a driveway, and a sidewalk from that driveway to the front door.

There are default choices for each of these items: almost all driveways are an asphalt strip from street to garage, for example.  We had a very different idea for ours.  Most people choose asphalt because it is durable.  You can tear out of it in your 4x4 and cause no damage, and a ten-ton truck can park on it with complete confidence.

The completed driveway: ecological,
tasteful, and great to look at
We don’t have a 4x4 and don’t intend to purchase one.  And, anyone tearing out of our driveway has better have flashing lights.  Trucks can idle on the street-side parking pad.  These are the joys of building a home to your own specifications.  And our wish list for our new home included an ecological component:  we wanted a driveway that a) occupied the minimum ‘footprint’ possible and b) was permeable to rainwater.
We got our wish.  The driveway allows us to back out of a side-loading two-car garage and drive into the bays in one motion.  But there is not an extra square foot of unnecessary or unused space and the 70-foot-long path from street to garage narrows quickly to just ten feet.  Cobblestones define the perimeter of the driveway and the ‘pavement’ is nothing but crushed stone.  There are big stones at the base and progressively smaller stones until you reach an inch-deep layer of half-inch stuff.  You can pour water onto it all day long and it will not puddle or run off.  Another plus is that you can hear a car pull into the driveway.

Installing the bluestone sidewalk
Oh, and it looks beautiful.

The default choice for sidewalks is concrete.  I grew up in a home with a three-foot-wide walk that ran straight as a shot from the town’s sidewalk (also concrete) to the front door.  The sidewalk was as uninviting as warm lemonade on a hot afternoon, but at least it got used.  In 21st Century New England, sidewalks to front doors are ceremonial because front doors and entry foyers have become ceremonial.  Everyone goes in through the garage or a ‘mud room’ door.  Don’t ask why; it’s just the way it is.  But we wanted a sidewalk that would invite usage by providing a walk through our garden on the way to the front entrance.

The finished sidewalk offers a
walk through the garden
For our sidewalk we chose bluestone, which meshes very well with the color of the house.  Instead of the polished stone, though, we chose ‘cleft’ stone with a slightly irregular space.  Over three days, a team of stonemasons from Dolan & Co. (who also replaced the ‘builder’s crud with loam), created a gorgeous four-foot-wide walk (with flares at either end) incorporating a Mondrian-like geometric pattern.  It’s enough to make you want to take up hopscotch.

Assembling the jigsaw puzzle that
will become the patio
Patios are all the rage these days.  They’re outdoor living rooms, dining rooms, and kitchens with pizza ovens, weatherproof sofas, and grills the size of a California King bed.  We wanted something simple: roughly round (but not round), about 14 feet across, and made of stone that could be inter-planted with moss or ferns. 

The completed patio, just add chairs
Scott Dolan sent us to a place in a nearby town with pallets of stone from everywhere. We saw what we wanted almost immediately:  irregularly-shaped pieces of Pennsylvania fieldstone in colors that changed within the same piece of stone. 

That stone was assembled into a jigsaw puzzle that left gaps a few inches wide between each piece.  The surfaces are sufficiently irregular that no one will be plonking down an outdoor sofa and loveseat on it.  But for sitting in simple chairs outside on a summer evening and admiring the outdoors with a glass of wine, it’s well-nigh perfect.

The stone wall and a perennial border
along the street side of the garden
The final piece of the hardscape is the stone wall, the plan for which started off about thirty feet long and one-to-two-feet high.  By the time I finished it, the wall ran to 70 feet and rises to a height of more than three feet for half of its length.  It is the one hardscape element that Betty and I can say we not only envisioned, but executed.

The completed hardscape; the start
of a landscape.  Please excuse the
giant pile of mulch.
In the last few days, we’ve started planting all the perennials and small shrubs that have waited patiently in pots for too long.  We work mostly in the early morning (a 5:30 start time is not unusual), drawing the approving notices of the walkers who like the ambience of our street.  We’ve rewarded them with a colorful shrub and perennial bed right up against the street.

The plants that were in these pots are
now in the ground
The garden is finally taking shape.

July 1, 2015

Green Is the New Orange

My wife, Betty, is walking on air this afternoon.  I mean, clicking-her-heels-three-times-in-the-air happy.  Turning-somersaults-with-glee pleased.

The orange fence is down.

The orange fence first went up in mid-
September 2014 as our foundation
was being prepared.  Double-click
any photo to see an enlargement.
The fence appeared in mid-September of last year as workmen began preparing the site of our new home for its foundation.  We had gone through a two-month permitting process that ended with the issuing of an Order of Conditions, or OC by our town’s Conservation Commission.

The OC is a lengthy document that spells out what the builder, landscaper, and homeowner much do to preserve the area beyond the immediate house.  Because our home would abut wetlands, the OC was quite specific about preventing the construction process from encroaching on those wetlands.

A silt barrier
Specifically, the OC called for the placement of a 300-foot-long silt barrier to keep construction debris and landscaping materials from spilling over into land that we own, but cannot alter. The silt barrier, in turn, is a continuous tube of straw-stuffed plastic netting.  It does an excellent job of keeping Bad Stuff on one side of a line while keeping the other side of the line pristine.

To mark that silt barrier for all to see and respect, the OC requested that we put up a four-foot-high orange fence.
For those of you reading this who know Betty - and especially those of you who have seen her do her superb container gardening demonstrations – you know that she dislikes orange.

No, dislike is too mild a word to describe her feelings on the subject. ‘Hate’ is not too strong a word.  ‘Abhor’ is just about right.  We have no orange flowers in our garden.  Orange is anathema.  Why?  Betty says the color orange stops the eye in a garden.  That's the way it is.

The orange fence disappeared under
the snows of winter, only to return
with the spring melt
And so, every time we visited the construction site as the house rose from the ground, Betty would avert her eyes.  Then, winter came and, for a while, the fence was buried.  But in March it reappeared; a specter of bad taste, a blot on an otherwise beautiful piece of property.

We moved into our new home in April, but the fence remained.  Every time Betty looked out our back windows, the fence was there, shouting out its unwanted presence.  Why did it stay?  Because the OC specified that final grading for landscaping must be ‘substantially complete’ and hardscape items like our patio and driveway must be in place.

A Jack-in-the-Pulpit planted at the
woodland edge is just one of dozens
of natives we added
With the bringing in of loam in May and the construction of the patio and driveway in June, we neared our compliance goal.  We purchased dozens of native and woodland shrubs and other plants to blend our property into the woodlands beyond.  Betty tagged each plant so there was no question that it added to our standing as Stewards of the Land.

This afternoon, Leslee Willitts, our town’s Conservation Commissioner, came to pay a call.  She is a wonderful and knowledgeable lady who shares Betty’s scorched-earth policy on the subject of invasive plants. 

She and Betty walked the property for roughly half an hour, pausing to look at plants, discuss drainage and water barrels, and admire the new oxydendrum.  Interestingly, Leslee’s eyes went well beyond the silt barrier to see what was growing in the woodlands and wetlands beyond.

At the end of the tour Betty asked, as casually as she could muster, whether the orange fence could come down.

“Oh, sure,” Leslee said.  “You don’t need that now.”

Ready for the dump
To her credit, Betty waited until the Conservation Commissioner’s car was out of sight before starting to rip out the fence.  But in less than twenty minutes it was in a pile in our driveway, ready to go to the transfer station.  The workmen completing our driveway offered to take it away for us. 

There is still one step remaining before the OC is lifted.  The engineering firm that surveyed the land last year and drew up the construction plan must now do a final ‘as-built’ plan showing that we adhered to the letter of the Conservation Commission’s orders.  It will be a joy to write that final check for the report. 

Almost as much of a pleasure as ripping out that fence.