February 12, 2020

Spreading the Doug Tallamy Gospel

Doug Tallamy

I had the pleasure last week of hearing one of the clearest and most compelling voices on the intertwined topic of ecology, landscaping, native plants, and survival of wildlife (including humans).  Then, this week, I heard a second voice… one of someone who just doesn’t get it.
The first voice was that of Doug Tallamy.  He spoke at the Harvard Science Center in Cambridge.  His talk was given in the building’s largest auditorium, which seated 500, and every seat was filled with an additional 75 attendees standing or seated on the floor.  The talk was sponsored by Grow Native Massachusetts, a group with goals closely aligned with those of the guest speaker.  The audience gave him a sustained standing ovation at the conclusion of his talk.
Tallamy writes and speaks lucidly on the environment and how ‘citizen biologists’ can effect change for the better.  He’s a professor of etymology at the University of Delaware, though I suspect he spends more time on the road than in the classroom.  A few years back, he wrote what I thought was the defining book on the importance of native plants to support the native food chain.  Bringing Nature Home was and is a highly readable and thoroughly researched treatise on why we can’t just plant what’s ‘pretty’. 
Soft-skinned worms and
caterpillars are the most
nutritious foods for baby birds
For example. oak trees abound with hundreds of species of native caterpillars which, in turn, are the preferred food for birds, and just about the only food for their nestlings.  Conversely, the Bradford pear – a Chinese import despite its anglicized name – supports no native species of any kind.  Yet, homeowners (and municipalities) continue to plant Bradford pears because they provide a well-proportioned, uniform tree for streetscapes. 
Bringing Nature Home ought to have brought about a revolution in America’s thinking about what is planted and where.  It made an impact, but climate change and species extinction require more than just ‘an impact’.
So, Tallamy had written another book, Nature’s Best Hope, with the telling subtitle, ‘A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard’.  Like its predecessor, it is a page-turner and rife with practical suggestions along with supporting statistics.  Tallamy is no prophet of gloom; rather, he is a self-described optimist.  He offers concrete solutions; not just horror stories.
In his new book, Tallamy takes aim at the absence of biological ‘corridors’ in 21st Century America.  Wildlife is increasingly relegated to isolated pockets, and those pockets are not sustainable.  Species extinction is as much a product of lack of habitat as of climate change (though the two are linked).
Collectively, America's lawns
are the size of New England
The solution, he writes, is at our feet: the lawn.  The U.S. has 40 million acres of lawn (an area the size of New England), and it is growing at 5,000 acres a year.  Lawns are sterile, they use 30% of the available water in the East and 60% in the West. Moreover, in our efforts to maintain perfectly green and manicured lawns, we pour carcinogens on them, and 40% to 60% of those chemicals make their way into the surrounding surface or groundwater.  Lawns are the ultimate lose-lose proposition.
The perfect lawn is an ecology desert
But, he said, our love affair with turf is not necessarily unbreakable.  Once upon a time, everyone smoked.  Today, cigarettes are considered filthy and smoking is banished to parking lots.  Coats of sealskin and other rare furs were status symbols.  Today, they’re shunned.  All it takes is for public opinion to determine a practice is ‘bad’.  Vast lawns are a bad habit that needs to be broken.  Once broken, those biological corridors will thrive.
What should replace most of those lawns is native plantings that will feed native moths and other insects that will lay eggs that will produce juicy caterpillars that will feed native birds… the ultimate virtuous cycle. 
Which brings me to the second part of the story; the voice that just didn't get it.  
Betty teaching
My wife, Betty, is a Doug Tallamy acolyte.  She has absorbed his writings.  She has put his tenets into practice at our home.  And, she packages what she had learned into talks for garden clubs and libraries.  One in particular, ‘Healthy Lawns and Alternatives’ is a 45-minute distillation of Tallamy’s observations, aided and abetted by Betty’s own study and practice.
She gave the talk this morning to a garden club, and I had the opportunity to observe part of it.  The conclusion of her talk is a graphic of an average suburban property; a house, a driveway, some trees and foundation plantings, and lots and lots of grass.  She points out the problems: why maintain a narrow strip of grass alongside a driveway, or where a side of the house is near a property line.  Why not replace those areas with native trees, shrubs, ground covers, and perennials?  No one plays on front lawns, so why not reduce the space and add to the plantings?  In the back of the house, how about a permeable patio on which to entertain, and a vegetable garden? In three slides, a property that was 80% grass became 20%.
The graphic that incensed an attendee
double-click for a full-screen view
As soon as her talk was finished, a hand shot up.  A woman said such a scheme might be workable for some people, but would be impossible in her own case.  Her husband believes a vast expanse of lawn is the natural scheme of things.  I happen to know this woman and I have seen her property.  Her lawn is measured in acres, interspersed by an occasional perennial bed.
The woman said they entertain on the lawn and her husband practices golfing on the lawn.  He would never change his views, she said, and to achieve marital harmony, the lawn had to stay.
Betty handled the question (there was no question; just a justification for the woman’s own gardening practices) admirably.  Betty carefully said everyone had to make their own choices.  But they should do so with all the facts in hand; including the ones that point to acres of lawn as creating an ecological desert.  Perhaps, Betty suggested, she could work from the margins; gradually shrinking the lawn. 
Based on the balance of the questions, I have a suspicion Betty made headway with most of the audience.  She presented not just a rationale for change, but a specimen list of native plants that have all the glory of the sterile ones she wants to replace.  She came home to an inbox filled with additional questions.

January 28, 2020

The Allure of the Spring Gardening Catalogs

I remember it well.  It was one of those awful days at the end of December.  Sleet changed to rain and back again in a meteorological tug-of-war that seemed to have sapping the post-holiday spirit as its lone purpose.  At mid-day, I trudged out to the mailbox at the end of our driveway, managing to turn an umbrella inside out when a gust of wind caught it as I reached in for whatever the postman had seen fit to leave on such a dreary afternoon.  Back in the house, I plunked the mail down, un-inspected, on the kitchen counter and went off to finish my book. 

The catalogs are all marked up, and
two orders are already in.
I came downstairs an hour later and found my wife at the dining table.  There was the aroma of a freshly-brewed pot of tea.  Across the table’s surface were catalogs and magazines – specifically gardening catalogs and magazines.  One had already been marked up with pages folded over and items circled.  Another was undergoing the same scrutiny.  The third and fourth waited in the wings.

Regardless of what the calendar says, with the arrival of those glossy, color catalogs, the spring gardening season is officially underway.  And, the winter gloom seems to have lifted just a little.

Darcus Daria, a fancy name for
Queen Anne's lave
White Flower Farm featured Daucus ‘Dara’ on its cover.  To me, it’s Queen Anne’s Lace, but if someone wants to call it by some unfamiliar name and label it a ‘hard-to-find’ annual, that’s fine with me.  ‘Dara’ offers delicate flowers ranging in color from white to maroon.  By the vehemence of the circling, I have every reason to believe it will grace our garden this spring and provide a burst of color beginning in July.

Scabiosa is a perfect 'picking' flower
Scabiosa, better known as pincushion flower, has one of the least attractive names ever appended to a beautiful flower.  Johnny’s of Maine features a ‘Pincushion Series’ featuring a mix of color from almost black to creamy apricot and lavender blue.  The wonderful thing about scabiosa is they’re near perfect for cutting.  They can simultaneously grace a garden as well as a dining table.

Betty’s heart never wanders far from the vegetable garden, and I found a dozen pages folded over in Pinetree Seeds’ 2020 catalog.  After several disappointing tries, we had great success with fennel this past year.  I don’t know if ‘Florence’ fennel is the same variety we grew in 2019, but this one promises a one-pound bulb twice the size of its nearest competitor, yet delivering sweet, anise-like flavor.

My love of okra - and its hibiscus-like
flower knows no bounds
She also grows okra because my southern roots demand I have it as part of my diet.  This year, she circled one called ‘Jambalaya’ (the perfect name, in my view) that promises dark green pods in 55 days.  Because it can’t be planted until the soil temperature is close to 80 degrees, getting from seed to fruit in under two months sounds about perfect for New England. 

Ultimately, gardening catalogs are a lifeline between the past and the future.  We’ve chosen to live in a climate where fruit, flowers, and greenery are compressed into five or six months that are equal parts precious and spectacular.  Looked at from an outdoor gardener’s viewpoint, January is the year’s nadir, not its start.  It has been three months since the garden was alive with color, and it will be three months until it again begins to show its promise.  Those catalogs are tangible proof spring is just a few months away.

January 5, 2020

Everything I Thought I Knew About Feeding Birds Was Wrong

I really hate it when my cherished illusions are shattered.  Having a car would finally make me popular with girls.  The Beatles would get back to together – with or without Ringo.  It always snowed Christmas Eve in New England.  All proved wrong, some painfully so.

Our feeder visitors include a 
mated pair of northern cardinals
Now, I’ve just learned everything I thought I knew about feeding birds was hooey.  It turns out they don’t need us.  We’ve spent a fortune on suet, seed, and squirrel baffles for naught.

The authority of this truth is a gentleman named Christopher Leahy, whose credentials are hard to dismiss.  He is the Gerard Bertrand Chair of Natural History and Field Ornithology (emeritus) at Mass Audubon.  His means of disabusing me of my sense of noblesse oblige toward the avian community is an article in the winter edition of ‘Native Plant News’, published by the Native Plant Trust.

Ounce for ounce, hummingbirds are
the nastiest creatures on earth
Betty and I have two near-year-round feeding stations on our property.  From May to September, we limit ourselves to a pair of hummingbird feeders.  We have learned from having those feeders that hummingbirds are the nastiest, most territorial and, ounce-for-ounce, lethal creatures on earth; but that is a different story.  Come winter, we pull out all the stops with two sunflower seed feeders and two suet cages.  Both stations are protected by squirrel-proof baffles, and I will admit that my enjoyment of watching rodents with bushy tails spend hours trying to defeat our defenses runs a close second to that of watching birds alight and partake of our largesse.

A flicker can consume a suet cake
in an afternoon
Mr. Leahy wastes no time in puncturing my ‘good human deed’ balloon.  “Many, if not most people who feed birds do so under the impression that they are providing necessary sustenance, without which many birds would perish, especially during our harsh northern winters,” he writes.  Then adds, “This is simply untrue.”

It turns out birds feed themselves perfectly well without our help.  Evolution has provided them with ‘an exquisitely sensitive metabolism’ and a ‘highly effective insulation system’ to find all the food they need.  It takes a Field Ornithologist to write a put-down like that.

So, the idea of ‘the hungry bird’ is just a myth, born in the mid-19th Century when human ignorance, greed, and depredation (those are Mr. Leahy’s highly accurate words) were causing many bird species to be hunted to the point of extinction.  One solution was to create bird sanctuaries as safe havens.  Another was to import plants that grew quickly, had thick foliage, and produced lots of fruit.  The first idea yielded the Aubudon Society and its many sanctuaries, which also became educational centers.  The latter yielded such unloved additions to our landscapes as oriental bittersweet, Japanese barberry, and burning bush.

We have transformed our 
property into a bird-friendly site
Today, 55 million Americans annually purchase 3 billion pounds of seed, suet, mealworms and such; not to mention spending $800 million on feeders, poles, and baffles.  It is all for our own human enjoyment.  We have set up the equivalent of fly-through McDonalds in our back yards that make it easy for birds to get exactly the same stuff they would have found on their own.  Actually, I’m not so certain of that.  This afternoon, I watched a flicker consume the better part of a suet cake at one sitting.  Where, exactly, is there suet in January?  Maybe I don’t want to know the answer.

Mr. Leahy offers an ecological alternative to feeders: turning your property into a bird-friendly habitat. I’m pleased to report we check nearly all of his boxes.  His suggestions:

This ilex verticulata provides 
winter food for many birds
Kill your lawn or let it go to seed.  Instead of a lawn, we have native ground covers and wildflowers.
Leave an area of rank grasses and wildflowers.  The back border of our property is a continuous ribbon of wildflowers, and we leave the seed heads up specifically to feed the birds.
Don’t over-prune trees or, better yet, don’t prune them at all.  We started with a sterile half-acre of pines, with nothing on the forest floor except burning bush and swallowwort.  We now have a dozen specimen trees – all natives – but none are as yet remotely mature.  However, an additional acre of our property is untouched, mature oaks and pines.
Leave dead trees standing and, when they fall, leave them on the ground.  Check and double check.  We will admit, however, to ‘rearranging’ fallen trees to look more artistic.
Retain areas of heavy brush.  The wetlands behind our home do just that.
Encourage insects with appropriate plantings.  Most of our front garden is a pollinator paradise.
Plant native fruit-bearing shrubs and eliminate invasive species.  Double check.
Avoid garden chemicals.  Check.
Keep your cats indoors.  No feline member of our family has ever been allowed to run free outdoors.

Instead of a lawn, wildflowers
I do wonder about one thing Mr. Leahy does not touch on:  by feeding the birds in winter, are we ‘training’ them to come looking for insects on our property the rest of the year?  Our evidence is only anecdotal, but we see and hear a lot of birds in the non-feeding months.  I like to think they think we have a nice place to hang out.

December 6, 2019

A Walk in the Pine Forest

Geology is destiny, and geology is a product of time plus luck.  I failed to absorb that lesson back in college, but it was finally made clear when I was recently part of a group taking a hike through the Myles Standish State Forest.
12,000 years ago, Massachusetts was
under a mile's thickness of ice.
Double-click for a full-screen slideshow
It took until the later half of the 19th Century for scientists to understand the role of ice-age glaciation.  Until that time, ‘Noah’s Flood’ (I promise I am not making this up) was the accepted source for the creation of everything from the Great Lakes to Cape Cod.  The notion that the top half of North America was under more than a mile of ice was something we humans couldn’t wrap our minds around. 
Glaciers, we gradually came to understand, advanced and ebbed over tens of thousands of years, finally retreating to the poles and high mountains about 11,000 years ago.  It was a messy business.  Acting as hundred-mile-wide bulldozers, glaciers pushed debris out in front of them, forming moraines when the sheet of ice reversed course.  Cape Cod is visible evidence of that final push, as is Long Island.  The glaciers’ retreat was quite uneven, with glacial remnants settling into low areas scraped out when the ice advanced hundreds or thousands of years earlier.  We call those pockets ‘kettles.’  If they have water, they’re ‘kettle ponds.’
Myles Standish State Forest  survived
as a native plant habitat because the
land was unsuitable for crops.
The inland part of Southeastern Massachusetts got the fuzzy end of the glacial lollipop.  Instead of dumping rocks and silt to break down into soil to support vegetation, the glaciers retreating from the area that is now Myles Standish State Forest left behind sand dozens of feet deep, plus more than its quota of kettle holes, where frost could be found 11 months of the year.
Which is all to say it was rotten farmland.  Settlers came, planted, saw their crops wither for lack of nutrition (sand is notably lacking in nutrients) and water (which just perked down to the aquifer in minutes), and left for greener pastures.  As a result of this benign neglect, the area is a near-perfect repository of the plants that would have been encountered when the first Europeans arrived.  It was pine forest plus scrubby vegetation in 1616, and so it was when the state forest was created 300 years later.
Bryan Connolly, left, provides
an introduction to the Pine Barrens
That near-pristine provenance is why I was part of a groups of about 15 amateurs and two experts walking fire trails through the forest – technically called the pine barrens – on a Saturday morning.  Our leaders were Bryan Connolly and Meredith Gallogly.  Bryan has many titles.  One of them is Assistant Professor at Framingham State University (sadly, being a full-time native plant naturalist requires multiple part-time gigs).  He is also one of the authors of ‘The Yellow Book’; an exhaustive index by region of plants native to the Commonwealth.  Meredith has the good fortune to be the Manager of Programs for an organization called Grow Native Massachusetts, more about which in a moment.  She is one of the group’s two employees.
This kettle, about seven acres in size, has frost 11 months of the year
We, the amateurs, walked and tried to keep up – physically and intellectually – with our two professionals who spoke largely in Latin binomials.  We started with the overview: Myles Standish State Forest encompasses 12,400 acres (19 square miles) of pine barrens; the third largest such preserve in the world.  Apart from some ill-conceived efforts to plant ‘useful’ (read: commercially harvestable) red pines by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, the land is as it was when the Wampanoag were its residents.  The red pines, incidentally, have almost all vanished, leaving behind the native pitch pine that somehow finds sustenance in the sand.  We learned the pines need to burn periodically to reproduce, and forest managers periodically burn areas of the barrens to ensure the next generation of trees.
The really good stuff, though, was underfoot.  What might appear to the uninitiated as ‘weeds’ and ‘brush’ was instead a Noah’s Ark of native plants plus a few uninvited interlopers.  A few plants were easy to identify, like native blueberries and dewberries (a cousin to blackberries).  Otherwise, we were like a gaggle of kids, pointing to plants and saying ‘What’s this?’
A rest stop along the walk. 
Meredith Gallogy in the red hat,
looks up an unidentified plant
We learned to identify white dogbane (Apocymum cannabinum) by its delicate pink flower, and tiny sickle-leaved golden asters (Pityopsis falcata).  We found lots of miniature Baptisia and even a clutch of mayflower (Epigaea repens), Massachusetts’ state flower. 
And it wasn’t all ground covers.  The forest hosts large stands of Kalmia latifolia, the native rhododendron or mountain laurel, and sweet pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia).  They’re especially lush around the kettle ponds.  Over two hours, we learned a lot of botany.
Which brings me to the real reason for this blog entry.  An old friend, sadly now deceased, accumulated enough money that organizations used to come calling asking for donations. To each one, my friend would ask one question: if your organization did not already exist, why would it be started today?
The question flummoxed many visitors because, truth be told, their missions overlapped those of dozens of other organizations.  Other non-profits had long outlived their purpose and continued on because of they were ‘brand name’ charities.  He gave to those that passed his litmus test of knowing why they were in existence, and why what they were doing was unique.
Grow Native Massachusetts is such an organization.  It is now ten years old and came into being at a time when ‘native plants’ was a marketing phrase used by the landscaping industry to foist off things that stretched the definition of ‘native’ beyond the snapping point.  Grow Native Massachusetts has the most comprehensive website on the subject of any I have seen, puts on seminars (especially Evenings with Experts but also smaller events like the one of which I was a part).  In this season of giving, it is well worth supporting.

November 4, 2019

Tangible evidence of the past, disguised as garden ornaments

Berkeley the snail is a souvenir of a
visit to London decades ago

Berkeley the snail went away for the winter this morning.  So did the Turtle with the Broken Nose, the World’s Ugliest Frog, and more than a dozen other old friends.  They’ll rest until next April in the safe confines of our basement.  Before consigning them to their fate, though, everyone was first cleaned with a bleach solution and then placed carefully inside a pot or some other protective container.
Berkeley and his brethren are garden ornaments, and each one has a story to tell.  Berkeley, for example, joined our garden menagerie as a result of a trip to London almost 20 years ago.  I was there as part of a financial road show in deepest, darkest February.  Because of its grueling, two-week duration, Betty was invited to join me for its final, transatlantic stop.  The underwriters were responsible for all lodging and they chose for us rather a nice room at The Berkeley, a luxurious Knightsbridge hotel a stone’s throw from Hyde Park.
From spring to fall, Fish swims
 in a dry stream bed in our
front garden
Going to gardens in February was a non-starter so, while I was in meetings, Betty went shopping and to museums.  Just down the street from our hotel was a shop that dealt exclusively in garden ornaments (they have such stores in England).  In its window was a large, metal snail.  She purchased it, promptly named it after our lodgings - pronounced, by the way, “BARK-lee” - and we placed it in the overhead bin on the flight home.  (In that pre-9/11 world, no one in airport security took notice of our carrying onboard a 20-pound cast-iron object.)  Every year since, Berkeley has been positioned in a different perennial bed, waiting to be admired anew by us or a visitor.
The World's Ugliest Frog
is destined to remain
in Medfield
The World’s Ugliest Frog was a parting gift from a friend moving away.  The frog had graced, if that word can be used for such a thing, her garden for at least as many years as we had lived in town.  Its muted, polychrome d├ęcor had been the butt of numerous jokes on my part.  On the day that the packers came, our friend brought over the ornament, explained she had been given it when a dear friend moved away.  She was leaving Medfield, but felt the World’s Ugliest Frog must not only remain, but should come live with us.  It has inhabited a rotating list of garden sites for at least 15 years.
I will not bore you with the individual stories for each of our other garden ornaments.  I will tell you only that they all have back stories and that all those stories link us to times, places or people fondly remembered. 
Oh, all right, one more.  An outrageously overpriced concrete turtle at the Winterthur Shop was knocked down to a much more realistic five dollars after we pointed out a chip on its nose.  For 25 gardening seasons now, the turtle’s chipped nose has poked out of the water of a bird bath.  The Turtle with the Broken Nose suffers its imperfection with as much dignity as it can muster.  The butterflies and dragonflies that land on its snout don’t seem to mind in the least.
This frog spends its summer
relaxing amid tiarellas
and leucothoe
Each April, we take out these items much as we take out Christmas tree ornaments in December.  We discover them anew and, with great deliberation, place them around the property, taking into account changes in the landscape.  Our move to our ‘dream retirement home’ four years ago forced a complete rethinking of ornaments: for the first two years, and the new garden got started, ‘hiding places’ were few and far between.
These garden ornaments are links to travels.  They are reminders of old friends.  They are also practical objects that draw the eye to certain plants or that break up expanses of mulch.  Some are put in plain sight while others are deliberately hidden, awaiting someone to part the foliage and find a surprise.  With the 2019 garden season officially over, their careful cleaning and storage are an annual ritual as distinct and ingrained as picking apples or harvesting the butternut squash.

October 7, 2019

First Frost

Early Saturday morning, probably about 4 a.m., a layer of cold air settled over the one-time farm field that is the home of Medfield’s community garden.  Elsewhere in town, the cold air slipped down hillsides or was chased away by roads that retained warmth.  But, in the valley (‘good bottom land’ in farming parlance) along the country road on the south side of town, the air – probably no colder than 30 degrees – found a pocket where it could stay, unmolested, for a few hours.
That’s all it took to send an irrevocable eviction notice to our vegetable garden.  Water freezes at 32 degrees and most vegetables are little more than columns of water surrounded by thin membranes.  By the time we got to the garden, the zucchini leaves were limp and oily. Green tomatoes had dropped to the ground.  Our glorious crop of basil – our best in years – was tinged with black.  Gone, all gone.
We had already harvested
our winter squash
We had already harvested our winter squash.  Had we not, it would have been reduced to un-salvageable mush.  A few crops are light-frost hardy: the arugula, carrots, and chard will withstand temperatures down into the mid-twenties for a few hours without suffering damage.
But there is no doubt that the summer gardening season is at an end.  Yeah, the beets will get a little bigger, and we’re promised temperatures in the mid-70s early this week, but we’re down to 11 ½ hours of sunlight, and the sun’s angle is such that ‘practical’ daylight is two hours less. 
The fat lady has sung.  Start carving the pumpkins.
Frozen marigolds
It was a glorious year for gardening – though, like all years, one also filled with frustration.  It took forever for our first crops to germinate (it seemed never to stop raining in April and the temperature remained stubbornly in the 40's).  The bean beetles arrived on schedule in mid-July and halved our crop of green beans.  Someone in the garden – either thoughtless or trying to save money – purchased tomatoes infected with the fungus Phytophthora from a Big Box store, and late blight rampaged through everyone’s garden, including ours. (And no, late blight isn’t inevitable.  Three tomato plants in our as-yet-frost-free home garden are still producing fruit.)
The successes far outnumbered the failures.  Betty and I have attempted to grow fennel for years with nothing to show for it but inedible ferns.  This year, every fennel plant thrived and we feasted on it from early August on (there is some in the refrigerator).  Our three squares of corn produced their last, delicious ears just last week; and we even were able to strip, cut and flash freeze the kernels of several ears during peak production days.
A coating of frost on our
'good bottom land'
And, for the first time in a decade, there will be winter squash and even sweet potatoes for the late fall and winter.  We encouraged butternut squash vines to grow beyond their allotted space and colonize the void created as rows of corn were pulled.  The result was 20 large squash that have been cleaned, dipped in a diluted bleach solution, and sequestered in a dark corner of the basement.  A gardening neighbor gave Betty two surplus sweet potato ‘slips’ which we planted in an abandoned plot.  This morning, with another gardener who will share in the bounty, we harvested an impressive number of fat yams.  They’ll be edible in about a month as they sit quietly in the basement converting starch to sugar.
The final cleanup
We will harvest a few more crops over the balance of the month.  A row of leeks came through the frost unscathed, as did our carrots, arugula and chard.  But there’s little to do but cart away out the spent vines and, ultimately, take down the fence. 
We’ll enjoy the fruits (well, the vegetables) of our labor well into the future. Betty put up hot pepper jelly and froze peas, corn and green beans.  We have enough of those crops to last well into the winter.  It’s the squash, though, that is scary.  At one squash per week (they’re that big), we’ll be eating the last of our 2019 crop when we harvest our first spinach next April.  That’s what I call continuity.

September 9, 2019

This Old Pot

This single-use pot's first use was to
enclose a tree's roots.  It has
stuck around for five seasons

Four years ago this spring, Betty and I began buying trees and shrubs for the garden at our new home.  Many specimens had root balls of a size that required rope wrapped around burlap wrapped around a wire cage.  But six smaller trees came in black, ten-gallon plastic pots; each 19 inches wide and 13 inches deep.
After the first trees went in, we contacted the selling nurseries to recycle the pots, but were informed these were ‘one-use’ containers (on top of which they had likely, themselves, been made from recycled materials).  The reason for declining to take back the tubs was because they were encrusted with soil and/or might contain diseases.  Instead, we were advised to take them to our town’s transfer station.  We asked at the transfer station what would become of the pots.  Because they weren’t ‘clean’, we were told, the containers would be incinerated.
In 2016 the pots were pressed
into service as we planted
our second round of bulbs.
As it turned out, we had an almost immediate, though temporary, need for the pots.  We had covered our newly-spread loam with several inches of mulch.  As we dug holes for arriving shrubs – more that 50 that summer – we had to find a short-term parking spot for the displaced soil other than a pile adjacent to the hole (which would inevitably mix with the mulch).  The pots were perfect.  Also, I was building a stone wall and needed to group like-sized rocks for easy transport.  There were times when there were more uses for the vessels than available tubs.
That autumn, our first 1500 bulbs arrived.  We excavated winding, foot-deep trenches around the property, with those containers serving as a brief way station for displaced soil.  Trenching for pipes to carry rainwater from downspouts to the wetlands behind us provided yet another use.
Season after season, the pots
makes themselves useful
In the spring, we started the next round of planting and, by now, those single-use plastic containers were becoming indispensable friends.  We lost one to necessity: Betty acquired a lovely specimen of Sanguisorba canadensis (American Burnet), a wonderful wildflower that produces magnificent plumes.  Unfortunately, it thrives best in a moist environment, and the ideal visual location on our property was ‘well drained’.  Our solution was to sacrifice one of our containers.  We cut out part of its bottom, sunk it a foot into the ground, and planted our American Burnet in it, pledging to throw a gallon of water into the mini-wetland whenever things were getting dry.  It has thrived, and the black neck of the container is still visible.
When not in use, the pots
have a home next to our
Another year went by and, each spring, the four remaining tubs were roused from their off-season resting place by our compost bins.  All spring and summer they served as either warehouses or transports for the soil/mulch/compost that made our ever-denser garden possible.  In the fall, UPS brought another avalanche of bulbs to be planted. There was hardly a week that went by that our one-use containers weren’t pressed into service. 
This year, they have been in near-continuous use to transport compost, heel in perennials and, of course, to hold topsoil for the plants destined for the final frontiers of our garden.  This past weekend, an Aronia (Chokeberry) and Ilex verticillata (Winterberry) found new homes on our property, as did a tray of native ground covers.
As we planted those most recent shrubs, though, I noticed for the first time our remaining containers are showing their age.  Two have large cracks in their base that make carrying them problematic; they need a wheelbarrow as a ‘crutch’.  One also has a cracked rim.  In short, their life span may be five seasons.
In 2017 the pots allowed me
to move 10 cubic yards of
compost, a few cubic feet
at a time
But they have been five glorious seasons.  They were present at the inception of the garden and proved to be useful as soon as their original purpose was completed.  They started out as walk-ons but have, through steady, uncomplaining work, become stalwarts of the regular garden troupe. If they were sentient beings, their ears would perk up as soon as they heard Betty or me reaching for a trowel or spade, because they knew they would soon, themselves, be called into action.
All right.  Maybe I’m over-romanticizing a bunch of pots.  The thing is, I’m going to be sorry to lose them, albeit to advanced age and general wear and tear.  What I know is this: they were manufactured to contain a single plant on its journey from a nursery to our home. They have stuck around to help build an entire garden.

August 21, 2019

She Spreads She Sheds Along the South Shore

The She Shed as installed at the
Marshfield Fair.  Double-click for
a full-screen slideshow.
I’ve written several times about the venerable Marshfield Fair.  It’s a wonderful anachronism; a local fair that seamlessly combines agriculture with a midway and farm animals.  It ought not to exist in the 21st Century and, indeed, most such fairs disappeared long ago.  But those which survive adapt with the times to attract new generations of families.
I live fifty miles from Marshfield, which is on what is called the ‘South Shore’ of Massachusetts, yet every August my life seems to come to a grinding halt because of the fair.  Once upon a time, it was to transport flowers for Betty’s entry in the standard flower show held there each year.  Then, it became themed mantels.  That was followed by helping create conservation or ecology exhibits to explain things like the perils of black swallowwort or the need to encourage using native plants.
The 2018 entry, 'Grandma's Cottage'
Last year, Roni Lehage, who runs all ‘horticulture’ for the fair, roped us in big time.  She asked if we would create what is called a ‘vignette’ – a three-dimensional, full-size display based on a theme.  I had never noticed the vignettes before; perhaps I never got to that part of the Horticulture Building.  The 2018 theme was,‘The Front Porch’.  Betty and I created an entry called ‘Grandma’s Seaside Cottage’ which visually told a story of a young girl’s afternoon on the aforementioned porch.  To goose its verisimilitude, I created and painted a four-foot-by-six-foot scenery flat which was a very good replica of a part of that cottage’s exterior.  We blew away the competition.
It all starts with lumber and props
We also blew away much of the month of August.  Creating and painting the panel was an educational.  We weren’t just creating a clapboard house exterior; it has to have shadows to create that three-dimensional feel – and late afternoon shadows at that.  Plus, everything needed to be transported in a Prius and assembled on site.  When it was over, we agreed our one year created a lifetime of laurels on which to rest.
Last month, Roni called again: the 2019 theme was ‘He Shed/She Shed’ (get it?).  She had the ‘He Shed’ but there was no feminine equivalent.  This was especially heartbreaking because She Sheds were becoming a ‘thing’ – there is even a very funny television commercial on the subject.  Could we come out of retirement to ensure the ‘boys’ (actually, two women) had some competition?  OK, we agreed to enter.
Fabric on the panels.  We had ample
props... for a 4'x6' space
For 2019, the rear height dimension increased from four feet to six feet.  The depth remained four feet and the width six feet.  It was right there in the Horticulture Entry Manual, and I even sent Roni a sketch to make certain we were within spec. 
We went to work.  We built three panels – a back one six feet by six feet, and two side panels, each four feet on a side.  While created from nothing but 1”x3” rough framing strips covered with muslin cloth, we wanted to be able to add things like shelves and a window.  So, supports were added wherever these elements would be placed (have I mentioned we know nothing about carpentry?).  The flats were created, primed, and painted a pleasing yellow.  It was time to visit The Swap.
The Swap - everything we needed!
Medfield has a town Transfer Station.  Almost everyone in town takes their carefully-sorted yard debris, garbage, and recyclables there.  Five years ago, someone noticed an appalling number of useful things were being thrown in with garbage destined to be incinerated to create electricity.  Thus was born The Swap which, in 2019 is a spectacular, volunteer-driven paean to the virtue of recycling no-longer-needed consumer goods. 
Need art? Furniture? It's at The Swap
Over three visits, Betty spotted and collected a feminine-looking desk, a nice chair, two large wine glasses with flowers painted on them, three colonial-themed shelves, a small window with frame and glass intact, picture frames, gardening books, and other bric-a-brac that might be useful.  The window frame was an especially good find; we managed to coax it out of the hands of a young woman who wanted it for a craft project by promising her she would get it back after the fair’s run.
The view out the shed window
(that's part of our garden!)
All these items plus five of our best-looking gardening containers were assembled in our basement – after making certain we could get the six-by-six frame up the stairs.  I took dozens of photos of our garden to find the right one to be blown up to poster size to be the ‘view’ out the window. some items, such as the chair, were painted to create a visual theme. At the last minute I added a ‘shadow’ to the side panels to assure the viewer this was the inside of a shed and not a suite at the Four Seasons.
On the appointed morning we transported everything to Marshfield.  We cajoled a friend with a truck to take the three wall panels and desk.  We got there, expecting to assemble everything in an hour – 90 minutes tops. 
We started by attaching the window to the six-by-six panel and hoisting the scenery flat into its place at the back of the exhibit space… and discovered the flat didn’t fit.  The space was eight feet wide – and five-and-a-half-feet high.  We had been given incorrect dimensions.  Oops.
A gardener always admits 
the truth to herself - one 
of the shed's illustrations
So, we commandeered tools, un-tacked the fabric, took apart the back panel, shortened it to the allotted height (no small feat) and re-stretched the fabric.  Betty opened the side walls to fill the eight-foot width.  We brought in our car-load of props – all designed to fill 24 square feet (or 144 cubic feet) of space.  Except we had 32 square feet (200 cubic feet) of space to fill.  After four hours of work it looked… empty.  Chic, feminine, and spare.  Betty returned to Marshfield the next morning with four large containers, but there was no ignoring the contrast between our whimsical ‘space of her own’ and the overstuffed tribute to veterans that occupied the adjoining ‘he shed’.
We got the Red – second place. 
Yet, I’m damned proud of that shed (on view through August 25).  It is everything we set out to illustrate: a space where a woman can make gardening plans with the comfort of books, wine, a pet, aphorisms – and a marvelous view of her own garden.