July 29, 2014

Bruce Smith


The Massachusetts Horticultural Society lost an unsung hero this week.  He was a reluctant hero and a somewhat improbable one, but a hero all the same.  His name was Bruce Smith.

In 2008, Bruce was happily retired from a career in finance with Raytheon.  His wife, Linda Jean, was rising through the leadership of the Garden Club Federation of Massachusetts.  By custom, the Federation has a chair on Mass Hort’s Board of Trustees and, from 2007 to 2009 that chair was occupied by the Federation’s First Vice President, who happened to be Linda Jean.

2008 was the year Mass Hort imploded.  A venerable institution was found to be millions in debt and with an endowment that had been drained to pay everyday expenses.  The Executive Director resigned, three-quarters of the Society’s employees were let go and, in a move that sent shock waves through the region, Mass Hort announced the cancellation of the 2009 New England Spring Flower Show.

In hindsight, the implosion may have been inevitable.  The Executive Director who resigned was just the most recent of a line of hires with questionable management skills.  Mass Hort had already sold off its patrimony (Horticulture magazine and Horticultural Hall in Boston) to keep itself afloat.  As Boston magazine put it rather indelicately in an article a few months after the implosion, perhaps the Massachusetts Horticultural Society had simply outlived its usefulness.

A group of trustees and long-time volunteers thought strongly otherwise.  They dug into their own pockets and began a salvage operation.  They rallied every friend they could muster.

And into this storm stepped Bruce Smith. 

I know from personal experience what it is like to be married to an officer of the Garden Club Federation.  Your spouse’s causes become your causes.  Whatever skills you possess become available to the Federation and the causes your spouse supports.  It’s all there, tucked between the lines of your wedding vows.

Bruce possessed financial skills.  Moreover, he had no allegiances and no history.  There would be no sacred cows.  He held no formal title and certainly received no salary.  He did it for the challenge and, perhaps, because Linda Jean asked him to.

I knew Bruce because I, too, was drawn into Mass Hort by my wife, Betty.  She, too, was rising through the Federation ranks but she was also a Master Gardener who had done her training and internship at Mass Hort’s Elm Bank headquarters.  My contribution was to organize and run Mass Hort’s activities at the Boston Flower & Garden Show, a new venture that could bring badly needed cash to the Society.  Bruce and I got along because when he talked about ‘GAAP’ I knew he meant Generally Accepted Accounting Principles and not a place to buy jeans.  We also got along because I knew how to make a budget and stick to it.

Bruce faced ledgers that did not balance, drawers that were filled with unpaid bills, and a paucity of incoming cash.  He was not entirely alone; the trustees had found an organization that helped distressed non-profits and that group lent additional managerial expertise.  Another volunteer with an accounting background also stepped into the breach.

Bruce made decisions.  Many of them were unpopular and a few of them were bull-headed.  He doled out cash with an eye dropper and took a personal hand in collections.  But his actions stopped the hemorrhaging and, slowly, Mass Hort began to stabilize. 

Bruce was also blunt to a fault and spoke what he felt.  He had few friends at Mass Hort and he made enemies of those to whom he said ‘no’, most of whom were unaccustomed to hearing that word when they wanted to spend money on something.  More than once he stormed out Elm Bank vowing not to return.  There came a time when he finally kept that vow.

I am one of the many people who admired Bruce.  I firmly believe that, had he not stepped in when he did, the organization would have foundered and sank.  He was not a Man for All Seasons but, in Mass Hort’s season of dire need, he was there.

Bruce survived a bout of cancer last year but suffered a massive stroke on Saturday.  He died two days later.  He was 72.  He leaves behind his wife, Linda Jean; a son and two daughters and their families. 

June 30, 2014

Watch This Space


Two years ago, Betty and I came to the conclusion that our home was just too big for two people.  Like many aging Baby Boomers, we decided it was time to downsize. 

But being an avid gardener makes downsizing complicated.  Neither of us wanted anything to do with those ‘active adult communities’ where gardening is restricted to what you can put in a pot on your front porch, or where the ‘community garden’ is shared with, well, the community.  We needed some property to go along with that new home.  An acre at least.  And maybe two.

The old house we found.  Note that the
center of the roof is two feet lower
than the sides.
Have you gone looking for raw land in eastern Massachusetts recently?  Maybe we’re too picky, but after 18 months of looking at lots bisected by wetlands, lots sidled up to utility long-distance transmission lines, and lots where the roof peak would sit at eye level with the street, we made the reluctant determination that the lot we wanted probably already had a house on it.

Six months ago we found that perfect site.  A private acre and a half on a winding street.  A sad, 74-year-old house beyond repairing.  A neighborhood of attractive older homes of the same size we want to build.

We were, of course, promptly outbid for that property by a developer, who had in mind to erect a grand Starter Castle suitable for a family of ten.  But we persevered and in early June we found ourselves the proud owners of a now-vacant lot.  This autumn, our new ‘right-sized’ home will rise on the site.

What has happened since we signed the purchase and sale agreement says a lot about who we are.  Most people would throw themselves full-time into designing the perfect compact house, worrying about how furniture will fit into fewer rooms and pondering choices of paint colors.  We’ve done our share of that, but an equal amount of time has been devoted to siting a raised-bed vegetable garden, determining which if any trees on the property are worth keeping and positioning a porch that will provide three seasons of natural light for houseplants.

A very small part of the transplant
garden now taking shape along
one side of our house
Meanwhile, back at our current home, a vast project is underway to populate the new garden even before the adjacent house’s foundation has been dug.  We have already divided and conditioned upwards of a hundred hostas.  They sit in a special bed, potted and identified.  Other perennials have been divided or marked for division in the fall. 

The runners of favorite shrubs, once unceremoniously pulled up and composted, are now lovingly potted with the maximum amount of root.  One especially prized and uncommon shrub, a chamaecyparis ‘Snow’ that has grown to monumental proportions in our back garden, has a now-four-inch-high, well-rooted cutting. 

This peony Alfred's Crimson'
came with us to Medfield
from Alexandria.  It will follow
us to our new home.
Fifteen years ago, we did this on a much more modest scale.  A few favorite perennials were dug up and thrown into pots.  They rode from our home in Virginia to our new one in Massachusetts along with those household belongings (e.g., wine) we refused to entrust to movers.  The aquilegia (columbine) ‘Biedermeier’ and peony ‘Alfred’s Crimson’ we brought from Alexandria are still part of our landscape a decade and a half later, and will have honored locations at our new home.


This beautiful chamaecyparis
'Snow" and itea 'Henry
Garnet' stay with the house.
Cuttings and runners go
with us.
The satisfaction in going through this admittedly time-consuming process has little to do with saving money.  What is in our transplant bed is just a down payment on a landscape.  Betty all but stopped adding to our garden a year ago and, instead, started making lists of trees, shrubs and perennials she will purchase in the spring of 2015.  Populating a 60,000-square-foot property is going to make the owners of a few select nurseries and garden centers very, very happy.


This is what we will be leaving behind.
The good news is that it will look
just this good for the next owner.


No, the satisfaction is that we are doing a favor for whoever purchases our home.  For example, a wonderful patch of delicate blue Siberian iris is just now passing out of bloom.  That Siberian iris needs to be divided.  It is now eighteen inches in diameter and has a small but definitely ‘bald’ center.  This fall, we will take up the entire colony, clean out the center and break the resulting ring into three or four segments.  One of those segments will go with us to our new home. The remaining iris will be replanted with a fresh helping of compost.  Like the hostas we have already divided, the re-planting should be good to 2019 or 2020.

The best part is that when we begin planting that new garden in earnest next spring, we will intermix a group of familiar old friends with a larger cast of new ones.  Those old friends will be touchstones; a reminder of what we left behind.

June 23, 2014

The Summer Garden Tour


Back in February, I was invited by the Danvers Garden Club to present ‘Gardening Is Murder’ at the organization’s monthly meeting.  As frequently happens, I spoke at the end of the evening and so had the opportunity to sit through the club’s business session. 

Although the snow was piled high outside, the primary subject for the evening was planning for ‘Enchanted Gardens’, a tour of ten member gardens that would not take place for another four months.  This was not a new topic; rather, this was the final logistics session.  The tickets, garden descriptions and tour map had all been printed.  That evening’s discussion was about docents, refreshments, raffle items and ticket sales.

The tour program.  Double-click
to see at full size
As I listened, I was struck by both the level of planning for the event and for the assumption that the chosen date would bring good weather.  The back-and-forth went on for half an hour: a checklist with a list of responsibilities that ensured nearly every able-bodied member of the club would be pressed into service.

This past weekend, Betty and I had the opportunity to see what was wrought by the club.  It was beautiful, and was augmented by falling on one of those ‘ten perfect days of the year’ that never seem to fall on a Saturday or Sunday.

The Collins garden is all about color
Until the 18th Century, Danvers was part of neighboring Salem and, for the record, the ‘Salem’ witch trials took place in what is now Danvers (many of the historical homes of the period still stand).  It is a town of older, small houses on village-sized lots, but it also has its share of estate-sized properties.  ‘Enchanted Gardens’ focused on those small, intimate properties where homeowners creatively used shrubs and walls to create distinct ‘rooms’ that invited exploration.

Here are some notes on three of the ten gardens:

Eye-catching!
We started with a suburban garden, where the Collins family showed they believe in color and unusual plant selection to make a statement about gardening.  On the front porch was a chartreuse-color container overflowing with yellow, peach, pink and red calibrochoa.  By the garage was a plant stand with pots in colors of plum, orange, pike and chartreuse.  Though most contained simple petunias or New Guinea impatiens, the overall effect was to create an entire, memorable wall of color.  The garden also incorporates some cultivars with which I was unfamiliar, such as a Delphinium ‘Summer Blues’ that trades the larkspur’s usual stake-it-or-else flower spikes for a mound of beautiful blue flowers.

The Skane garden was about texture
Any garden that features a table laid out with freshly made mimosas gets a ‘thumbs up’ from me, but the small village garden of Ian Skane would have been memorable even without drinks.  The guide indicated this was the garden of “Melanie and Ian Skane” but Ian immediately acknowledged that he is the gardener and not his spouse. His co-gardener is his mother, who was also on hand to talk about the property.  She is English by birth and grew up with gardens; she transmitted that love of growing things to her son. 

Geometry plus color at the
Sanborn garden
The Skane garden uses a fence to divide one planting area visible from the street from other, more private places to the side and rear of the home.  Much of the rear garden is shades of green, but with textures and leaf size providing the drama.  The lone bright bursts of color come from clutches of yellow oenothera, which Ian gleefully says he pulls out by the armload after the bloom passes. 

At the foot of the verandah, a
vegetable garden
Kathy and David Sanborn have a home on the part of town that touches the Danvers River leading into Beverly Harbor.  The home is gracious and, down a glorious geometric stone and gravel walkway lined with hosta and hydrangea, there’s a wonderful verandah.  And what is at the base of the verandah is anything but the expected:  there’s a beautiful, working vegetable garden in raised beds.  There are also containers overflowing with flowers at every turn.  This is a home where every square foot of the property has been thought through.

Bright containers overflowing
There is a purpose to all the hard work that members of the garden club went through to make that day happen.  I learned that more than 300 tickets were sold (at $20 for advance purchases and $25 on the day of the tour).  Tours also incur expenses, but it would not be unreasonable to conclude that the club netted several thousand dollars for its considerable effort.

And what does the club do with that money?  Give it away, mostly, by re-investing it in the community.  The balance of that business meeting I sat through in February was about planting sites around the town, scholarships awarded, donations to garden-related causes, and garden therapy at area nursing homes.  I would guess that virtually every dime raised for the tour gets put back into making Danvers a more attractive place to live.

So the next time you see a clutch of balloons and a sign saying ‘garden tour this way’, take an hour or two out of your schedule and go help a worthy cause.  It’s a little beauty that may brighten your day.

May 23, 2014

The Mystery of the Plant Tags

The trench for the hoses has
dug and the hose laid in the
trench.  All that remains is
to cover the trench... and find
the plant markers
Every Spring about this time, I lay the soaker hoses for our hosta garden. There's a narrow window of time when all the hostas have emerged, but are not so large that I can't wend two hoses close enough to each hosta's roots to provide water for the inevitable summer dry spells.

It's a time-consuming process because the hoses are buried about an inch into the soil and mulch rather than just placed along the surface.  And, to answer the inevitable question, the hoses are taken up each fall because they'd rot after a year or two if they were left in the ground over the winter.  The hoses I buried yesterday are in their tenth season.  So, yes, it's worth a morning's labor to both make the hosta garden look great and to exercise some Yankee frugality by not having to replace $60 worth of hoses.

 But that's not the purpose of this essay.  Rather, I write this morning to wonder why on earth the animals in the woods around our property find our plant tags so fascinating.  You see, yesterday I engaged in not one but two spring rituals.  The first was the burying of the soaker hoses.  The second was the annual matching of hosta plant markers with the shoots coming out of the ground.


Our hosta walk in season.
Fact: No one has walked in the hosta garden since late October when our final task of the season in that part of the property was to firmly push the steel and aluminum markers into the soil next to the remnants of the plants. We were conscientious in our efforts because we have a lot of different hostas in our garden – more than a hundred named varieties. Each plant has a marker and each marker has one of those labels with the variety printed out on clear plastic tape. (I know what you’re thinking: I need a hobby. Well, this is my hobby.)

Exactly why we go to the trouble of making labels is unclear, except that now, when we visit a nursery, we can resist buying a hosta ‘Lakeside Cupcake’ because we already have one. We know we have one because we made a label for one last year. Except unless we think what we have back at home is ‘Lakeside Cupid’s Cup’ or ‘Lakeside Cup Up’. Which means we may well go home with the hosta anyway because it’s so darn cute.

This is what our tags are
supposed to look like.
Fact: Back in October, every hosta marker was in exactly the right spot. Fact: For much of this past winter, the hosta garden was under two or more feet of snow. So, please explain to me why, yesterday morning, there were dozens of plant markers lying loose in the hosta beds?

Betty says the rational explanation is that the ground freezes and thaws and pushes the markers out of the ground. I could buy that theory if the markers were adjacent to the plants to which they belong. I happen to know for a fact, though, that hosta ‘Mohegan’ is a giant brute of a plant that hugs the foundation of the house (and may yet push the house out of the way in order to accommodate its version of Manifest Destiny). Why, then, is the marker for hosta ‘Mohegan’ in among the ones for the cute little miniatures twenty feet away? And why is there a pile of five markers?

Personally, I blame the squirrels and the raccoons. (“Hey, neat plant marker. I think I’ll pull it out and put it in this pile.”) More likely, knowing the raccoons in our neighborhood, the markers are used in lieu of poker chips. (“I see your ‘Francee’ and raise you a ‘Kabitan’ and a ‘Whirlwind’.) That might explain the piles of them – raccoons abandoning poker night when they’re called home for dinner and to do their homework. Their homework being their endless but fruitless efforts to break into our composter.

We have not created a 'Golden
Tiara' tag in probably ten
years.  Yet one turned up in
the hosta walk yesterday.
There are also hosta markers that have either lost that clear plastic label over the course of the winter or – and this is the scary part – returned to our garden from some parallel universe. Once upon a time (when we had only twenty or so named hostas), we were content to identify our cultivars with a black pen on a metal tag. I would swear, though, on a thousand-page Hostas A-Z reference tome that every single marker has been ‘upgraded’ to clear plastic tape during the past two years.

Why, then, do I have two warped and mangled handwritten tags for hosta ‘Golden Tiara’? Betty ejected all of the ‘Golden Tiaras’ from the formal hosta garden four or five years ago because they multiply like rabbits and she hasn’t bothered to make a tag for one in the better part of a decade. Where did these tags come from?

Once again, Betty’s rational explanation is frost heaves. The tags were buried in the soil. The ground froze and thawed and, one day, belched up a ‘Golden Tiara’ tag or two. I like the parallel universe theory a lot better.

With the hoses now safely buried, my task now is to dig out our diagrams of the hosta beds and match loose tags with last known locations of plants. Now that’s what I call a spring ritual.

May 4, 2014

What I Did for Love


A neighbor took down a Norway maple last week.  Norway maples, for those who do not carefully follow environmental issues, is one of worst trees ever foisted on New Englanders.  For much of the second half of the 20th century it was a ‘developer’s tree’; a fast growing specimen that could go from a ‘whip’ to a thirty-foot behemoth in under ten years.  And it was a maple!  And Norwegian!

The remains of a Norway maple
Acer platanoides may be - however technically - a maple, although its native range runs more to Bulgaria and Russia than Scandanavia.  The ‘Norway’ name was appended to the tree in the 1950s to class it up a bit.  Norway maples are variously described as a ‘weed' tree, a ‘rat’ tree, and ‘trash’, and all for good reasons.  It has an unbelievably dense root system that chokes out anything around it.  It is a voracious consumer of water.  Its limbs can come crashing down for no particular reason other than to annoy you and put a dent in your car.  And don’t ever think about tapping it for maple syrup.  The sugar content is virtually non-existent and the sap is milky.

The sale of Norway maples is illegal in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, and other northeastern states rightly consider it invasive.  Unfortunately, those trees planted before the ban went into place can remain.  We took down the two Acer platanoides that were on our property (planted by the developer, naturally) years ago.  Betty gnashes her teeth as we drive down our street where half a dozen specimens remain.

But the sound of a chipper caught our attention and so I walked up the street to find a landscaper feeding the last limbs into the maw of a large, noisy machine.

The wood chips define a path between
two beds at the front of our property.
“Only thing a tree like that is good for,” I said, watching the chips fly into the back of a dump truck.

The landscaper nodded his agreement.  “I take out a couple of dozen of these every spring,” he said.  “Good riddance.”

Then came the fateful question.  “Got any plans for the chips?” I asked.

He shook his head.  “Take ‘em back to the lot, I guess.”

“I’ll take them,” I said, trying to sound like I did this three or four times a day.  “I live just up the street.”  I threw my thumb over my shoulder.

The landscaper squinted at me.  “Fifteen minutes,” he said.  “But you got to take the logs, too.”

I knew better than to bargain further.  I was about to get ten cubic yards of wood chips for free.  Of course, I was doing the landscaper a favor: most places where landscaping debris can be ‘tipped’ want a fee for doing so.  Perhaps these would have ‘gone back to the yard’.  But his readiness to give them to me indicates they were headed for a landfill.


25 cartloads went to create this
border behind one of
our perennial beds.
At this point we need to back up a few minutes and a few paragraphs to the point where I said that the sound of a chipper caught “our” attention.  That statement is true.  Both Betty and I heard it.  But, left to my own devices, I would have ignored the sound until it went away.  You see, getting a load of chips or mulch or anything like that means hard work lies ahead.  It isn’t that I avoid difficult projects; I just don’t go out of my way to start them.

But when we heard the chipper, it was Betty who said, “Why don’t you go up and see if it’s something we could use?”

These are the things we do for love.  We go bargain for ten cubic yards of wood chips knowing that we will be the one who actually moves them.  And then down Motrin by the handful.

Fifteen minutes later the dump truck rumbled down the cul-de-sac and I waved in into an area just outside of our driveway.  It was, in fact, six yards of chips and four cubic yards of logs.  I smiled as the truck pulled away.  It was one of those ‘bargains with a curveball’:  mulch I could use but logs that will need to age two to three years before they’re useful.

It took just three days to disperse the chips.  I loaded them into wheelbarrows and carts and dumped them around the woodland edges and paths on our property where Betty directed.  There, she spread them several inches thick to hold down weeds and define borders.  In the process I re-awakened arm and back muscles that that taken the winter off (except for shoveling snow).  The morning after my first day (seventeen loads) I was so sore I could hardly stand.  The morning after the second day (twenty-five loads), I took a couple of Motrin and shrugged it off.  At the third day (ten loads plus moving and stacking two dozen logs), I enjoyed a glass of Scotch.

The wood mulch will keep down
the weeds in this area of the
garden.  A fitting use for a 'weed' tree.
I sometime think we fear getting into projects more than we ache from doing them.  In the next week or so, we’ll need to order up ten-plus cubic yards of brown mulch for our multiple beds.  Before I took on the wood chip project, I had been dreading ordering the mulch.  It was a subject I simply would not bring up.  Now, with my arms starting to get back into shape, it has moved into the realm of ‘not a big deal’.

It’s so much not a big deal that, today, I casually asked Betty how soon we were likely to order the mulch and how many yards it would likely take.

That’s what I call progress.  It’s also what I call love of gardening and of those whom we work alongside as we garden.

April 28, 2014

Clover and Violets and Squill, Oh My!

I still have my copy
from high school
“God bless the lawn mower, he thought. Who was the fool who made January first New Year’s Day? No, they should set a man to watch the grasses across a million Illinois, Ohio, and Iowa lawns and, on that morning when it was long enough for cutting… there should be a great swelling symphony of lawn mowers… People should throw grass spray at each other on the day that really represents the Beginning.”

In Ray Bradbury’s wonderful autobiographical novel, Dandelion Wine, a character opines that it is the year’s first mowing of the lawn that ought to represent the changing of the year, rather than some arbitrary day set down by the Romans two millennia ago. Sadly, it’s one of those impractical sentiments that doesn’t stand up to a lot of scrutiny (were such a law enacted today, it would be 2014 in Georgia two months earlier than in Massachusetts, and California and Florida might be stuck in some twilight zone in which the year never changes).

In mid-April, we limed the lawn.
Soaking rains washed the lime into
the grass' roots.
Those obstacles aside, I have a soft spot for Bradbury’s view because, to me, there’s nothing like that first mowing to demonstrate that spring is unequivocally here to stay. Crocus and daffodils can be reduced to mush by a hard freeze. A late snow can turn the emergent leaves on a tree or shrub a dispiriting black. But when the grass – scratched into life with a spring rake and a dose of lime – gets to be three inches high, it means the new season has truly arrived.  The lime, by the way, is purely of the inexpensive crushed variety.  The notion of paying a premium for crushed limestone that has been clumped together with wood glue ("So that it won't blow in the wind") is anathema to both common sense and Yankee ingenuity.

I mow around the Scilla
We had our first mowing of the year this week. Instead of the typical quadrangles or up-and-down pattern of our neighbors (and their lawn services), we follow the sinuous contours of our perennial beds. It takes longer to mow such a pattern but the effect can be seen for a week afterwards: long swirls of repeating curves with the grass bent ever so slightly one way, then another in a yin-yang pattern that pleases the eye, especially from a second-story window.


Because our lawn is mixed with clover, we cannot (and choose not to) use the broad-leaf weed control products that are found on most lawns. Instead, as I mow, I am constantly on dandelion patrol. I carry a screwdriver in my back pocket and, when I find the tell-tale spiky leaves flat to the ground, I pounce and dig out the offending plant, root and all. I found perhaps two dozen dandelions that first mowing. They won’t be the last. Around here, dandelions rarely make it as far as a flower and never get to a seed head.

Dandelions are pulled out by hand
Taraxacum officinale, the botanical name for the dandelion (the common name is an Anglicization of the French dente-de-lion, or lion's tooth, so called because of the jagged shape of the leaf), is not allowed in the lawn. Yet, in addition to clover (encouraged and even overseeded), we tolerate violets (white and purple) so long as they don’t spread conspicuously, and we actively make room for an early spring wildflower, scilla siberica, which is attempting to colonize one corner of our lawn. Our tolerance for the scilla is such that I mow around the stems in order to ensure that adequate nutrition gets to the bulb for next spring’s bloom.

We converted to a cordless electric mower four years ago. It was as much a statement about my dislike of changing oil (and figuring out what to do with the gunk) as it was of ‘going green’. One overnight charge givers us the requisite power to mow the roughly 5,000 square feet of lawn than remain of the 10,000 square feet we inherited when we purchased this property in 1999.. The new mower makes a cheerful ‘hum’ rather than the clatter of its gasoline-powered cousin. I find I don’t miss the old one at all.

April 20, 2014

Uncovering the Rock Garden

We first viewed our home in Medfield fifteen years ago in February. A thick blanket of snow covered everything in sight and all was peaceful. All the snow had melted when we moved in on April 1, 1999. We realized the grim humor of an April Fools Day closing when we walked around to the back of the property that morning. The melting snow and intervening rains had gouged a series of Grand-Canyon-sized gullies, carrying everything in sight down the hill behind our property toward the pond we abutted.


One of the rock gardens,
looking down toward
Danielson Pond.
Thus began a civil engineering project that lasted five years and still requires periodic refinements. Several new downspouts were added to the inadequate number that had been installed with the house. A total of seven underground French drains were attached to those downspouts, allowing water to be carried a minimum of fifty feet from the house. Rock-lined trenches extended those drains into the surrounding woodlands.

The fifteen degree slope behind the house was deemed inherently unstable. After rejecting one contractor’s suggestion of a retaining wall, we set out to find a less ecologically intrusive solution. We wanted something that would hold the soil in place yet not interfere with our view of Danielson Pond. More important than just a view, Danielson Pond is part of a conservation district and watershed from which the town draws its drinking water.  Our goal was zero emissions - fertilizer, soil, plants - into that watershed.  We also wanted something that would provide visual interest from our back windows, deck and porch. We wanted something that would be low maintenance. We settled on a rock garden. And, as Meat Loaf opined, two out of three ain’t bad.

In its May and June glory,
the rock garden is awash
in color.
I was thinking of that history this weekend as we uncovered the rock garden from its winter slumber. There were just three, fair-sized rocks when we started. The rest – hundreds of one-, two-, and three-hundred pound stones - had to be brought in. There was little usable soil. Today it is rich and black with compost. The five gardens are interconnected by steps and paths, none of which existed fifteen years ago. The rock garden today is ninety feet long and forty feet deep at its apex. It contains more than a thousand bulbs, several dozen shrubs and more types of ground covers than I care to count.  We have added specimen trees: there is now a mature Cornelian cherry (cornus mas) anchoring one end of the garden, a blooming Carolina silverbell (Halesia carolina), and numerous rhododendron. 

These Siberian iris were in
bloom under the oak leaves.
Rock gardens attract oak leaves like a giant organic magnet. The top layer of leaves can be removed, gingerly, with a rake. The underlying leaves need to be removed by hand so as not to damage the plants, mosses, ground covers, low shrubs and emerging perennials that are showing green. Betty and I began on Saturday morning at nine. By three in the afternoon we had completed about seventy percent of the job. The balance was completed Sunday afternoon. Before it was over, I carried off three dozens bins of leaves to add to our overflowing compost piles.

The result of this labor is striking. On the Friday before we began uncovering the rock garden, the back of the property was a solid, undulating mass of brown. Even the basic contours of the garden were masked by the carpet of matted leaves. This morning, the rock garden is plainly visible, the intricate walls and terraces still in place despite a winter of frost heaves.  There were even surprises: blooming under the leaves were miniature iris and blue and yellow primrose.

An overview of rock gardens 1 and 2.
There is as of yet not a lot of green (the accompanying photos are from last May and June). A few of the ground covers retained their color over the winter but the true explosion of yellows, blues, and reds will come in May. And, this weekend was just the first of several forays into the rock garden.   Ferns have become too aggressive in one bed. And, there is a creeping ajuga that needs to be eradicated before it makes the leap from ‘nuisance’ to ‘serious problem’.
But those are issues for another weekend. For now, there is the contentment of a spring chore crossed off.

March 30, 2014

(Dubious) Tools of the Trade


If, as T.S. Eliot wrote, April is the cruelest month, then the first half of April is, hands down, the rottenest fifteen days of the year.  It is spring, or at least the calendar says it’s spring.  The days are lengthening and we’ve turned the clocks ahead.  I’ve put away my heaviest winter coat.

What I’m not doing is gardening.  The lawn squishes if I walk on it.  There is still a three-foot-high bank of snow and ice along the driveway.  The soil temperature is about 35 degrees and there’s ice three inches down.  It may be spring somewhere, but certainly not in New England.

Scare away unwanted wildlife with
this coyote decoy!
Unable to plant anything, I am reduced to poring over the mound of gardening catalogs that arrive in a daily avalanche.  I suspect the people who write these catalogs realize that we are grasping at straws because the items for sale on these pages are unlike what you’ll find at your favorite nursery or garden center.  For example:

·         How about a lifelike, 37-inch-long coyote decoy made of resin?  According to the catalog, it unfolds and sets up in seconds, then assumes a realistic shape that changes position in the breeze.  It even has a furry tail.  It’s designed to repel Canada geese, rabbits, skunks and ducks and is only $64.99 plus shipping.

Too many apples on your lawn?
Use the pickup wizard!
·         Or, how about a pickup wizard?  You’ve seen them on tennis courts: gizmos with a wire mesh that you plunk down on tennis balls.  Well, someone has adapted the principle to nuts, fruits, pine cones and other stuff that collects on your lawn.  You roll it around outdoors and watch the cage fill up with nature’s detritus.  There’s one size for acorns and hickory nuts for $52.99 and another for apples and walnuts in their husks for $61.99.

This scarecrow sprinkler shoots a blast
of water up to 35 feet!
·         Do you have a problem with unwanted felines in your flower beds?  Well, for $59.99 you can get a motion-activated device that emits a sudden burst of ultrasonic sound that startles cats and teaches them to stay away.  It covers an area of about 280 square feet which, if I remember my geometry correctly, means an interloper has to come within 9.4 feet of the sensor.  For another ten dollars, though, you can get a motion-activated sprinkler that releases a blast of cold water at intruders, and it promises to be effective out to 35 feet.  The catalog photo shows a dog running away in fear, though most of the canines of my acquaintance would think such a device was the most wonderful thing humans had ever invented.

Never need to de-glove to use a
smartphone again with these
touch-sensitive garden gloves!
·         Are you expecting an urgent email while you garden?  Do you feel the desire to Instagram while you weed?  Are you unable to leave Angry Birds alone long enough to deadhead?  Then you need a very specific set of gloves; one that has a special texture that allows you to use a touchscreen device without taking off your gloves.  Amazingly, the gloves are just $6.99.

A potting bench, "re-purposed" from
a German biergarten!
·         Then there are the gardening implements that are useful, but at a price that seems to defy logic.  For example, how much is a fold-away potting bench worth?  The purpose of such a bench is to facilitate putting plants and dirt into pots (and vice-versa).  Betty puts together 50-plus containers each year by throwing a sheet of leftover plywood over our garden cart.  Cost:  zero.  But what if the bench has been crafted from a salvaged German biergarten table?  And what if it further uses reclaimed wood for eco-friendliness?  Including shipping, would you pay a nickel short of $760?  That’s the asking price.

Your very own electric leaf
mulcher!
·         In my humble opinion, the prize for the most useless garden tool may go to a portable electric leaf shredder.  It weighs 17 pounds and is powered by an electric motor.  You pour in leaves at the top and a string trimmer inside a plastic tub chops up the leaves which can then be bagged or spread as mulch.  It is not that I have anything against shredding leaves and using them as mulch; each fall we cover our perennial beds with finely-chopped leaves.  My astonishment is that someone would pay $209.99 for a device that performs exactly the same task – and without the raking – as a bagging lawnmower.

March 25, 2014

One Enchanted Evening


Turning 85 is a big deal for people.  For garden clubs, it’s a huge milestone.  Some clubs fold as soon as the founding group loses interest.  Many clubs ‘age out’ as community demographics change; younger would-be members take a look at the gray-haired ladies at meetings and go elsewhere.  When a club makes it to 85 it is a bona-fide, enduring institution.

Members of the Brockton Garden
Club at project site
Last evening I had the opportunity to be part of the Brockton Garden Club’s special 85th anniversary celebration.  For the occasion, the club had invited elected officials, representatives of area civic groups and presidents of garden clubs in neighboring towns.  It was, to say the least, a Big Deal.

The Brockton Garden Club has a lot to be proud of.  For those reading this from outside the region, Brockton is a city roughly half-way between Boston and Providence.  It is an old city with many of the problems endemic to such communities.  The garden club there is neither insular nor aloof from the surrounding area.  It plants and maintains downtown sidewalk planters as well as city gardens and traffic islands.  It provides scholarships and camperships and, of note, established and maintains a memorial garden at the city’s public library.  It is, in short, going strong with major civic involvement credentials.

Tony Todesco
When you turn 85 and have that much to celebrate, you want to do something special and, last evening, the club brought in a Big Gun.  While the Brockton Garden Club is thought of as a horticultural group (aka "dirt gardeners"), they elected to invite in a speaker who is widely known for arranging flowers rather than for cultivating them.

An aside before I continue:  amateur floral design is a subject about which I write in this space occasionally but I have never attempted to put what goes in in Massachusetts into a larger perspective.  Let me correct that now.  Massachusetts, by common consent, has a major concentration of gifted creative designers; one of the larger groups in the country.  Some of those are “amateurs” in the same way that the U.S. Olympic basketball and hockey teams are amateurs.  They operate flower-related studios and businesses but, when they sign up for a show, they’re competing against other talented amateurs for nothing more than a ribbon and bragging rights.

One of Tony's designs
Tony Todesco is a legend within this already rarefied group.  While he does not strut his résumé, he is a Master Flower Show Judge and served as the chairman of the National Garden Club Flower Show Committee on New Design Development from 2001 to 2009.  He has developed five new design types that can be found in the NGC’s Handbook for Flower Shows.  He is currently one of a small, select group re-writing that handbook, which is the ‘bible’ for both novice and experienced designers.  As curriculum vitae go, this is high octane.  I first came to know Tony during my years as Chairman of Blooms! at the Boston Flower & Garden Show, where, when he wasn’t designing, he would be the lead judge for the ‘top awards’ panel.

... and another...
It takes one set of skills to be a top designer and another, very different set of skills to be a top judge.  It requires a completely different aptitude to stand up on front of a large group of people and create ‘wow’ designs without putting an audience to sleep.  Tony gets an Award of Excellence for showmanship in this last category.

A floral designer hired by a club is expected to put together four or five arrangements in about an hour, explaining what they’re doing as they go along.  Tony did seven stunning designs in about 70 minutes.  He made it look effortless.  And he told stories.

Stories are an integral part to winning over an audience during a floral design or container gardening demonstration.  They’re part of a ‘patter’ that both establishes a rapport with an audience and fills in the blank spaces that punctuate the execution of a design (you can only say, “I’m going to add some more plecanthus in the back to draw the eye to rear of the design” so many times before people doze off).

... and another.
But you can tell them about your cat named Montgomery and how he came to be named for your favorite wholesale flower supplier in Northborough, or that while he is a stray you took in, you gladly spent a thousand dollars to repair Montgomery’s chipped canine.  You can tell them about your thirty-something son who has come home to “take care of you” and refuses to get the hint that it’s way past time to get a place of his own.  You can regale your audience with tales of having purchased land in then-far-away Sudbury at the age of 18 for a pittance, and that your parents were convinced there were still raiding parties from the King Philip War lurking.  These were some of Tony’s stories, and they kept the audience’s attention: entertainment coupled with education.

It was a great evening made all the more memorable because the event commemorated a milestone for a worthy organization.  My lone regret?  I have to follow Tony as the Club’s speaker at its April meeting and, while I’m not doing floral designs, comparisons are inevitable.  I guess I'd better brush up my tales of my own T.R., another cat with expensive dental issues.

March 23, 2014

The First Weekend of Spring Is Not the Same As the First Spring Weekend

This afternoon, the snow on our lawn
was still quite deep.
A wise person once said you should never mistake the first day of Spring for the first Spring day.  Here in New England, those words are chiseled in granite, or perhaps sculpted in snow.  This is the first weekend of Spring, but it should be more accurately categorized as the 14th weekend of winter.  Yes, we are getting more than twelve hours a day of sunlight, but that is the only grudging concession the season has yielded.
The mounds of snow at the edge of
the driveway are usually gone by the
second week of April.  This year, all
bets are off.
Snow still covers much of the lawn and the piles out by the street are still more than six feet high and have acquired a certain ugliness.  Each year, Betty and I make a bet in when the last of the mounds along the driveway will disappear.  We usually make that bet in mid-March and figure that the second week of April will mark the snow's final disappearance.  This year, we have not even ventured a date because the snow/ice mound is still so deep and thick.
The first crocuses were spotted
on Saturday.
But there are a few signs of Spring.  Yesterday, we cut back the grasses that provided 'structure' to the beds along the street before the nastiest storms pummeled them into nothingness.  In the process, we found two clutches of crocus.  It is a dozen flowers, pale against the brown leaves where the sun has melted the snow, but it is a start.  In a few weeks, there will be thousands of crocus.  The giant Petasites throw up an alien-looking flower before spawning leaves that are more than a foot across.  Betty found the yellow bump of one of them underneath a crust of snow.
Though still mostly covered in ice,
a rim of water can now be seen
around Danielson Pond.
Behind our house, Danielson Pond is starting to melt.  It is still only a rim of liquid water around the edge of the pond and the ice in the center is probably a foot thick, but our body of water has seen its last hockey game of the season.
This first weekend of Spring also brings "Art'n'Bloom" to our town.  Thirty-eight years ago, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston invited in a dozen floral designers to 'interpret' works in the museum's collection.  That event is held at the end of April and "Art in Bloom" has grown to become one of MFA's most popular draws. 
This is 'my' contribution
to Art'n'Bloom.
Dozens of towns around Boston now host their own variations on MFA's creation.  Medfield has one of the oldest, and it is called "Art'n'Bloom". Held at the Medfield Library this weekend, the art was supplied by students at Medfield High School, the floral designs by members of the Medfield Garden Club.  The interpretation may be as simple as a vase of flowers or as complex as the designer has the time and skill to make it.  Approximately 30 arrangements were paired with some stunningly good works of art in multiple media.
Betty interpreted a small ceramic
student piece using Monstera. It
looked fabulous
This year there are two entries from the Family Sanders.  One had Betty's name on it; the other has mine.  The one which has my name attached to it was created by me only in the sense that I was physically present and made one useful suggestion (the use of moss).  Other than that, the intelligence and skill belongs entirely to my spouse.