July 19, 2020

The Saga of Plot 48B: What a Community Garden Is All About

Volunteers put the finishing touches on Plot 48B
As I have written before, my role as co-manager of my town’s community garden is to be the ‘enforcer’ to Betty’s ‘garden guru’.  While she is universally loved because she freely dispenses excellent horticultural advice, gardeners hear from me when there is a problem with their plot. I’m the one who tells people to weed their aisles, cut back their vines, and tighten their fences. 

And, also as I have written, I have to do my job with a light touch.  A plot in the community garden may be a limited, sought-after town benefit; but having one ought to be fun.  Having someone continually nag you to do something is definitely not ‘fun’ and, after a while, a gardener will say to himself or herself, ‘To hell with all this.  I’m going to the Cape.’  If that happens enough times, I run out of people on the waiting list and plots begin growing up in weeds. 

It's a big garden - 76 gardeners in 70 plots
And so, I say ‘please’ and use phrases like ‘as soon as possible’ a lot, even when the transgressions are annoying to the miscreant’s rule-abiding neighboring plot holders.  I nudge people into being better gardeners.  I sign my notes, ‘Garden Ogre’; the better to draw both a smile and compliance.  But I am also persistent, especially this time of year.  

In mid-June, I began to notice one garden was developing a weed problem.  I sent an email.  A week later, I had neither received a written response (‘sorry, I’m on vacation…’) nor did I see evidence of weeding.  Another email went out.  Still no reply. 

Plot 48B had grown up in weeds
Then, the heat of late June and early July hit, and the weeds exploded.  I wrote one of ‘those’ emails: ‘Unless you get your garden under control, you’ll lose it.  That message drew a response – an unexpected one.  The plot’s tenant wrote back to explain why she had been unable to garden.  I won’t divulge the reasons except to say they were moving, and jarring proof that the Covid-19 epidemic reaches into our lives in unexpected ways.  Like so many of our gardeners, she saw her plot as a refuge, but she did not have the hours it would take to bring it back into compliance. 

So, I did something I’ve done a handful of times:  I put out a plea to help rescue the plot.  In a simpler time (before March 2020), I would sent out my request to a dozen long-time gardeners with big hearts and open calendars.  I would name a date and time, and expect enough of them to show up such that, in some fixed number of hours, we could correct whatever problem needed to be addressed.  This year, social distancing made that impossible.  Instead, I sent my request to the entire garden, telling everyone to do what they could on their own schedule, and to keep six feet apart in doing so. 

At least 20 of the 76 gardeners responded.  Each day, the garden showed tangible improvement.  By this past Friday, I could write the plot holder and say, ‘I think you can do the rest.  You have a lot of friends here.’ A few hours later, though, I received an unexpected reply: even with the reclamation, she would be unable to continue for this season.  With regret, she was giving up her plot. 

And, I had my own dirty little secret:  by mid-July, no one wants to start gardening.  It’s too     damn hot and there’s not enough season remaining to grow the 'fun' crops.  By mid-July, everyone who might have thought about gardening in April has made other plans. 

Some stories have unexpected plot twists, and this is one of those.  That same day I also received an email from one of our gardeners – a wonderful woman who is a professor at Wellesley College –wondering if surplus vegetables might be collected for a group of two dozen food-insecure international students remaining on campus for the summer.  All on-campus food service had been shut down, supermarkets were miles away, and the students’ budgets were tight to non-existent.  

Except in 2020, we regularly put
out bins for the Food Cupboard
I will add that, for more than a decade, we have regularly put out bins for our town’s Food Cupboard.  This year, because of Covid-19 restrictions, they’re unable to accept donations of fresh produce.  I told the Wellesley College professor that not only could we put out bins bi-weekly for such a food drive, but we would also devote plot 48B to the effort.   

This morning brought the final plot twist.  As volunteers were putting the final touches on cleaning and re-planting the garden, yet another of our members came by to help out.  She is on staff at Babson College in Wellesley.  When she heard about the Wellesley College students, she said she had just been made aware of a similar number of international students at Babson who also face food insecurity until classes begin in September.  Then, half an hour later, the lady who has long coordinated the community garden collection for the Food Cupboard, also dropped by and said, yes, the Food Cupboard bins are all available and will be in place for our use. 

A proud occupation
when things like this
So, this coming week, and one day every other week until the end of the season, there will once again be bins and wheelbarrows at the front of the garden.  The recipients will be different but the need will be just as great.  And, Plot 48B is going to be devoted to that very good cause. 

It is events like these that make being a garden ogre a proud occupation. 

This afternoon I emailed everyone in the garden and told them they should take a bow.  This is what a Community Garden is supposed to be about.

July 7, 2020

The Bucket List - 2

A month ago, I wrote about the pleasure of visiting places that had been off-limits during the nearly three-month pandemic shutdown of March through May.  I wrote of feasting on fried clams at Farnham’s, spooning my first mouthful of chocolate chocolate chip ice cream at White Farms and, primarily, of seeing several gardens that could not accept visitors because of Covid-19.

A pergola in full June glory.  Double-click for
full-screen slideshow of the garden.
The Coastal Maine Botanical Garden was at the top of our post-pandemic bucket list of places to visit.  It’s a spectacular site in an enchanted spot.  It has the best of both worlds: a beautifully conceived and executed garden, with a location that makes it a worth-a-journey destination in its own right: that proverbial rock-bound coast of Maine just up the road from Boothbay Harbor.

CMBG finally opened, however tentatively, at the beginning of June.  Our original plan was to go as close to opening day as possible; we even had tickets in hand.  But life intervened and that first journey had to be scrubbed.  We purchased a new set of tickets for late June, using their website (no walk-ins allowed) to place our order.  CMBG’s protocol allows for just 50 timed admissions every half hour from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. (the garden closes at 5 p.m.).  For those keeping tally, that’s only 650 guests per day.  In 2018, the garden hosted 200,000 guests; with a roughly 100-day season, that’s 2,000 visitors per day.  The garden is operating at about one-third of its capacity.

To get there, we had to break the law
It was perfectly legal to purchase those tickets.  Using them was a different story.  There was just one minor problem: by going to Maine, we were breaking the law. 

CMBG’s website contains this paragraph:  “Please note that all State of Maine CDC guidelines need to be met by Gardens visitors, including the State’s 14-day quarantine requirement for those coming into Maine. Please also note that Maine has lifted the quarantine requirement for residents of New Hampshire and Vermont. Beginning July 1, residents of other states who have had a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours may also visit without a quarantine period.”

In my defense let me say this: at this writing, Massachusetts is a national model for its ‘taming’ of the coronavirus curve.  After a horrific March (a major biotech company held a global conference in Boston in February that helped seed hundreds, if not thousands, of cases), Massachusetts locked itself down and slowly opened up with a rational plan that appears to have worked.  You want a statistic?  For the first seven days of July, Massachusetts has a total of 1,092 confirmed cases.  Today (July 7), the number was 140.  However, Maine recognizes only its two northern New England neighbors as kindred spirits.  Everyone else is asked to sequester themselves indoors for two weeks before going out in public.  The idea of renting a hotel room for two weeks in order to enjoy a day’s visit seems, well, a bit much.

What greets you once inside
Moreover, the Lodging Gods were telling us to stay home.  It’s 190 miles and a three-and-a-half-hour trip from Medfield to Boothbay Harbor. Technically, you can drive there and back in a day, and still have three or more hours to enjoy the site (especially with 15 hours of sunlight).  However, we’ve reached the age when driving up one day, staying overnight, and starting fresh the next is an exceptionally appealing option.

Except hotels weren’t taking guests.  Our ‘usual place’, a hotel roughly 15 miles from the garden, was apparently open only for front-line workers; and a letter of medical need was required to check in.  We finally found a hotel in Freeport, 30 miles from the garden.  They cautioned us they would not be serving meals and, by the way, they were not aware of any nearby restaurants offering takeout.

It didn’t matter.  A week before our planned departure, the hotel manager called to apologize they wouldn’t be opening before mid-July, and so had taken the liberty of canceling our reservation.  Never mind.

The new bog garden
We decided to make it a day trip.  We did so knowing full well we might be turned back at the border or at the admissions desk.  We could drive seven hours and have nothing to show for it but a lot of toll charges on our EZ-Pass statement.  But we also knew we felt fine and had been practicing social distancing and mask-wearing as a matter of course.  Other than the two of us, no one has been in our house in four months.  Also, we take our temperature daily.  Neither of us even cracked 98 degrees. 

We set out before 6:30 a.m. and, by 8:30, we were on the Piscataqua River Bridge separating New Hampshire from Maine.  Then, just over the border, we saw the first overhead sign asking us to self-quarantine for 14 days.  Nervous, we declined the opportunity to stop at the official Welcome to Maine Rest Area lest a state trooper take an interest in our red-and-white Massachusetts plate and inquire of our itinerary.

We arrived at the garden a few minutes before our 10 a.m. admission time.  The parking lot held fewer than 100 cars.  We donned our masks and, just outside the entrance hall, were greeted warmly by a docent who pointed out the remnants of several thousand tulips planted last fall in expectation of welcoming April and May visitors.  “Nobody but the staff got to see them,” the docent said ruefully.

A reminder to social distance
At the admission desk, we handed over the printout of our tickets.  No request for a negative Covid-19 test.  No demand for a quarantine certificate.  Our tickets were scanned.  That was it.  We were inside.

CMBG is an ever-expanding and evolving wonder.  Conceived in 1991 by a dedicated group of area residents, and first opened in 2007, it is now 295 acres in size (including a mile of frontage along the Back River) with 17 acres of gardens and miles of trails (the 17 acre figure is from their website and may be out of date as the map doesn’t show their newly opened ‘bog garden’). 

Garden intelligence: milkweed,
viburnum and allium grown together

The gardens are intelligently planned and beautifully maintained.  All around us, a combination of volunteers and staff were planting summer annuals even as spent spring bulbs were being cleaned up.  While going down the quite steep Haney Hillside Garden, we chanced upon one of the CMBG horticulturalists, a woman named Allison, who had only recently been 'given' responsibility for the hillside garden.  She was friendly, informative and enthusiastic about her role.  As we parted, she shouted, "Don't miss the meditation garden!"  We did indeed visit the garden and, like so many things at CMBG, it is equal parts whimsy, beauty, and thoughtfulness. 

A map of the garden.  The Meditation Garden
is at the top, right-hand side of the diagram

In visiting the garden, we had an opportunity to have impressed on us the financial tightrope many gardens are walking.  The cash flow and profits from their cafĂ© and snack stands is not there.  Their revenue from gate admissions is likely down by two-thirds.  It takes deep pockets and generosity to keep everything looking good in the face of a disaster no one could have seen coming.

Yet, the many docents are out and as friendly as ever. This is an enterprise with an educational mission being fulfilled despite uncertain times.  For once in my life, I’m glad we broke the law.  Institutions like CMBG deserve our support.

July 6, 2020

The Return of the Cascade Effect

Our garden is now getting full.  This
is what it looked like on July 5, 2020.

Some years back, I proposed a modest theory: that going into the garden to do any one thing begets a need to do at least half a dozen other things before the first thing can be done.  I called it 'The Cascade Effect' and learned horticulturalists took my observation seriously.  A few noted field researchers confirmed my findings. 

But, over time, my theory was consigned to the margins.  “It may happen in a few, rare instances,” one Midwest critic wrote, “but there is no evidence this occurs outside of a handful of gardens, mostly in New England.  The vast majority of gardeners will never experience this phenomenon, and it certainly never happens in Illinois.”

Shopping for plants 
with a mask
This spring of 2020 has been like no other.  Nurseries and garden centers did not open their doors until mid-May and, even then, admitted just a trickle of customers (and some only by appointment).  Betty was offered (and turned down) opportunities to email in her order and have curbside pickup.  The idea of having someone else ‘select’ your plants gets no traction in our household. 

When Massachusetts finally opened up just a crack, the pent-up demand in our home resulted in a horticultural explosion – more than 50 shrubs, perennials, and container-bound annuals were acquired over a space of 30 days.  Naturally, they all had to be quickly gotten into the ground (a plant in a pot is an orphan in need of a home). 

Polystichum acrostichoides
The container plants went quickly, but we had also purchased roughly twenty perennials and a few shrubs.  Our garden – five years ago a sea of loam topped with mulch – has filled in.  But what has also happened is a few early decisions proved to be, well, less than prophetic.  Here is what happened when we set to plant three, small Polystichum acrostichoides (Christmas ferns):

1.     We identified an excellent, semi-shady site behind our house. The ferns would help to further define a border between a moss path and a shrub-and-perennial bed.  The pots were set in an arc, identifying where holes would be dug.

2.    Betty immediately noted several tiarellas and a hosta were in the process of being overgrown by a viburnum a few feet away from the planting site.  The tiarellas and hostas were dug out to await a new home.

Not part of the plan - removing 10
square feet of Carex pennsylvanica

3.   Roughly 10 square feet of carex pennsylvanica was dug out and soil was brought in to replace what clung to the roots of the carex.  While the grasses were not in the path of the three ferns, it was decided the carex was a mistake from the start and needed to be removed before it spread further.  As a side note, this cultivar is notoriously fickle: it usually dies or refuses to spread.  Ours, on the other hand, was lush and seeding freely.

Columbine seeds freely
4.   Also seeding freely were nearby Aquilegia (columbines).  We topped more than 50 plants - none of them close to the site of the ferns - that had completed their bloom and were getting ready for their offspring to take over the garden.

5.   Holes were dug and the first fern was planted.  It didn’t look right.  So, instead, the homeless hosta and tiarellas were planted where the ferns were to have been installed.  Colorful language was used.

6.    It was decided the ferns would look better on an adjacent walkway.  A small clump of solidago was dug out to make way for the ferns. Holes were dug.

Ripening blueberries
7.    Betty noted the five, high-bush blueberries behind the site of the ferns were laden with fruit, though still unripe.  She also noted the squirrels, chipmunks, and birds were patiently watching the bushes for every indication of ripening.

8.    We collected spun fabric, landscape staples, posts, and clothespins, and netted our blueberries.  Some items came out of our gardening inventory.  Others needed to be acquired.  I made note that blueberries were selling for $2.50 a pint at our local supermarket, and the cost of 'new' materials exceeded the value of the crop on our five shrubs by a considerable margin.

The three Christmas ferns in their new home...
plus, the 
blueberries with their new tents.
9.    After two mornings work to install the tents over our blueberries, we finally planted the three ferns; and went on to the next set of plants to go into the ground.

Make no mistake... the Cascade Effect is real.  But it is also the natural result of gardening in the real world with finite resources.  Sure: with a blank slate and an unlimited budget, it may be possible to create a garden on paper, hand the plan to a good landscaper, and get exactly what you want.  On the other hand, the idea of drawing up a plan and marching into an existing garden with the expectation of flawlessly executing it is the stuff of fiction.  

All 'real' gardening is ultimately done on the fly.  All plans are subject to change.  And, anyone who says different has never been the Principal Undergardener to a serious gardener.

June 7, 2020

What the World Needs Now Is... A Flower Show

Flower shows are big deals for
garden clubs

Spring is the season for flower shows. Here in New England, seemingly every other town’s garden club has one in May or June.  There are multiple classes of floral designs to admire, plus table after table of amateur horticulture: irises, peonies, flowering branches, early roses, and every annual imaginable.  Notices of the event go out in the local paper and signs appear on Main Street inviting the public to partake of a delight for the senses.

The flower shows we're used to won't
work in a time of social distancing
But not this year.  In a season of shelter-in-place orders and social distancing mandates, town garden clubs put a giant ‘X’ though the balance of their 2019-2020 schedule back in early March, including not just monthly meetings and road trips but special events such as flower shows.  They’ll re-group and (fingers crossed) start fresh in September. 

At a flower show, everything is up
close and personal - a no-no in 2020
The plight of local clubs extends to state and regional garden club organizations.  I had been invited to speak at several conventions this spring and I noted in their schedules that each had a major flower show attached to the listing of events.  Not a single one of those shows took place as scheduled.  And, the disappointment went all the way to National Garden Clubs, Inc., which cancelled its May convention for the first time ever.  It, too, had an enormous flower show as one of its attractions (Betty was part of the show’s committee).

Sometimes, though, you can’t keep a good idea down.  When the word went out that the NGC convention was to be a victim of Covid-19, the organization’s president, Gay Austin, made a phone call to a guy named David Robson and asked the question: “what would it take to make the flower show an on-line event?”

David Robson, directing the
building of a peacock
David is a retired Extension Horticultural Specialist at the University of Illinois, and so has a certain amount of spare time on his hands.  He is also one of the behind-the-scenes forces in the flower show world.  He could have told Ms. Austin, ‘search me’ or ‘it’s impossible’, but he did neither.  Instead, he started thinking about the logistics of holding a standard flower show (the term of art for one that adheres to a very specific set of rules) on the internet.  There was, naturally, no precedent.  It has never been attempted before.

He then went a step further and wondered what would happen if, instead of having just the 30 or so floral designers who were to have participated in the original event, plus the hundred or so people who might have brought horticultural entries to Milwaukee (where the convention was to have been held), NGC invited the entire garden club world to participate?

Clip the best flowers in
your garden, take photos...
That is exactly what is going to happen:  Download the schedule.  Choose one of the seven horticultural categories (including flowers, foliage, and arboreals among others).  Photograph your entry in the approved manner, and email it with your entry form (there is no entry fee). Your entry will be examined by accredited flower show judges.

It’s such an audacious idea it just might work. 

I am pleased to count David Robson as a friend (he’s the guy who hooked me into building peacocks in the rain at the Newport Flower Show last year).  When he called to ask Betty to be part of the committee (and, yes, Betty is in the schedule as chair of one of the horticultural sections), I broke into the conversation to ask him how many horticultural entries he thought Betty might end up reviewing.

“It depends on how successful the show is,” he replied, verbally bobbing and weaving.

“Well,” I asked, “what constitutes the low end of ‘successful’?”

“A couple of hundred entries,” he allowed.

“Then, what’s the high end?” I pressed.

After a few moments for contemplation, he replied, “The server crashes.”

This could be yours!
I’m rooting for the server to crash.  I’ll bet that between now and June 15th (the period entries will be accepted), your garden is ablaze with color.  Assuming your garden club is NGC-affiliated, clip the best half dozen of those flowers or branches, rig up a white board to put behind them and a clear bottle to put them in.  Take the required six photos of each specimen as described in the guide.  Fill in the entry form. Email it off.

Judging will take place between June 16 and June 30, with winners notified shortly thereafter.  And I hope this time next month I'll be writing about what happened when David’s server crashed.

June 4, 2020

The Bucket List - 1

For two months, Betty and I adhered to both the letter and the spirit of Massachusetts’ ‘shelter-in-place’ order.  We went once a week to the supermarket during ‘senior hours’ shopping time, we socially distanced ourselves from friends, and our car’s gas gauge barely budged.  Our lone extravagances were trips to the Community Garden and long walks around Medfield to avoid packing on the ‘Quarantine 15’.

We adjusted as we went along; learning how to navigate the pandemic in a way that didn’t cause us to go crazy in the process.  Principal among these was skipping those ‘senior hours’, when 50 of us would be in line at 6 a.m.  We now go at 9 a.m., walk directly into the store, and find the shelves are fully stocked.  We also made two, 88-mile runs out to Andrews Greenhouse for vegetables, perennials, and annuals.  You have to support local agriculture, after all; and if you get an exhilarating, traffic-free drive out the Mass Pike in the bargain, so much the better.
The last tine my hair was this long, it
was brown and Nixon was president

Two weeks ago, Massachusetts began a cautious return toward a ‘new normal’.  On May 27, I was my barber’s fourth customer.  It was my first trim since the middle of February.  My hair hadn’t been that long since 1969.  Two days later, our favorite bakery re-opened and a pair of chocolate croissants graced our breakfast table.  These are the important things in life.
But there is more to life than chocolate and shorter hair.  There are gardens and open spaces. 

You can walk neighborhoods only so long before they all start to feel alike and, by mid-May, our walks were getting frankly repetitive.  Then, Trustees of Reservations gradually opened its most-lightly-trafficked properties.  We walked one less than three miles from our home that we had ignored for decades because it was ‘just a trail through the woods’.  Oh, were we wrong.  We even enjoyed getting lost by missing the turn in our trail.

Phlox stolonifera at Garden in the Woods
Then, came the electrifying emails: the opening of several gardens to members on a timed-ticket basis.  We jumped at the opportunity.  Our first excursion was to Garden in the Woods, the Framingham home of Native Plant Trust (formerly the New England Wildflower Society). May 29th was a beautiful day and the woodland garden was in its peak spring glory.  A field of blue phlox greeted us. Trilliums were everywhere. 

Yellow lady slippers
Frogs and turtles basked on tree trunks semi-submerged in a pond.  Native Plant Trust may have taken social distancing too far: there were just three cars when we arrived at 10 a.m., and seven when we departed at 11:30.

Tower Hill was in its spring glory
Next was Tower Hill Botanical Garden, the home of the Worcester County Horticultural Society.  The site is an old farm high above the Wauchusett Reservoir. When we go to Tower Hill, it is usually for an indoor event and, while we always knew the gardens were there, we had never walked all of them at once.  We corrected that error on June 2nd. 

Everywhere, plants were awaiting
their new homes
We were the first car through the gate at 9:50 a.m.  When we departed a few minutes before noon, there were perhaps 30 cars in the parking lot, though I suspect more than a few of those belonged to volunteers and staff, because everywhere we went, beds were in the process of being planted.

It is a beautiful garden with a lovely mix of annuals, perennials, shrubs and mature trees.  Its lone drawback, at least in my view, is the dominance of Asian cultivars. American gardening is bending toward native specimens, and to see so many Japanese and Chinese trees and shrubs – despite their beautiful, variegated leaves and sinuous branches – is disappointing when conservationists and naturalists are demonstrating the critical role of native plants for pollinators.

At the top of Tower Hill....
We walked each of Tower Hill’s gardens and savored them.  We sat in Adirondack chairs overlooking the reservoir.  We hiked to the peak of the eponymous hill to see scenery little changed by time.  It was a picture-perfect morning.

Yesterday (June 3), we made the 55-mile drive to Crane Beach in Ipswich.  In my opinion, this is the crown jewel of the Trustees of Reservation; it had opened only a week earlier, and only on an ‘experimental basis’.  On-line tickets were snapped up in a few hours.

So much beach, so few people...
We know Crane Beach intimately.  Its four miles of fully-protected and undeveloped, white-sand beach backed by dunes is a treasure.  Also, as retirees with a highly flexible schedule, we can go when the crowds aren’t there.  But nothing prepared us for the sight of the beach on a perfect, 75-degree day with only sparse family groups on the ‘lifeguard’ section of the beach, and only the occasional walker along the other 95 percent of the coastline.  The endangered piping plovers that call the dune home were the lone competition to the sound of the ocean.

Warnings amid the dunes
We stayed two hours (our ticket was good for all day, so there are definitely kinks to be worked out in the reservation process) and left tired but rejuvenated.  Of course, being so close, we also ticked off two more ‘to do’ items on our post-pandemic bucket list: fried clams and onion rings at J.T. Farnham’s, and homemade ice cream at White Farms.

Our next outing will be to the Coastal Maine Botanical Garden.  But that’s a story for another time.

May 10, 2020

There's One In Every Crowd

Medfield's Community Garden

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you will remember that I wrote just a few weeks ago about community gardening being wonderful therapy for a country caught in the jaws of a pandemic, and how I predicted, “people will wave greetings to one another from their respective plots until it is once again safe to offer a hug.  In short, I think it’s going to be a great season for the Community Garden.”

Well, scratch that idea.

A ‘community garden’ is just that… a community built around a common interest in gardening.  Those gardeners, in turn, bring a diverse level of skills and depth of experience.  Some are true, hard-core dirt gardeners; others are dipping their toe into the soil for the first time.

The garden, circa 2007.  Some plots
were never claimed...
Running a community garden is akin to being the mayor of that community.  Ten years ago, Betty and I somehow found ourselves in charge of the Medfield Community Garden; which was then as dysfunctional as an activity could be.  There was a four-page-long, single-spaced rule book, but no one cared about it, much less heeded its Draconian list of commandments. There were nominally 40 plots but just 25 gardeners (some had assembled three- and four-plot dynasties).  Moreover, if a gardener dropped out or the space was never assigned, the plot or plots grew up in weeds.

... others were abandoned, like 
'Mom's Garden' from 2009
When we took over, our number one goal was to keep all the plots filled.  Six hundred square feet of fertile topsoil will grow a lot of weeds in just a few weeks; and an abandoned plot will quickly spread its weed seeds to its neighbors.  Our solution to keeping the garden populated was to a) drum up a lot of interest in the garden to ensure each plot was filled at the beginning of every season; b) encourage gardeners to hang in, even if things didn’t go perfectly (and, the corollary to that solution of not doing things that would cause gardeners to leave); and c) have a wait list in the wings for the inevitable mid-season dropouts.

Each year, Betty does
a gardening presentation
Having nominally mastered the art of running a garden, we (and, by ‘we’, I mean Betty) turned our attention to educating gardeners and upgrading the garden’s practices.  Every March, Betty gives a well-attended vegetable gardening talk at our town library.  A steady stream of emailed educational materials (including soil test results and an explanation of how to read them) goes out to plot holders, and even simple queries receive serious responses. 

With the support of Medfield’s Conservation Commission (which oversees the town land upon which the garden is located), we banished pesticides, herbicides, and smoking.  We began sub-dividing plots to give gardeners a choice of size.  We required fencing and well-maintained paths.  The garden grew by nearly half, to 70 plots on a full acre of rich land; 30 of those plots 300 square feet in size and 40 of them the full 600 square feet. We went no-till when it became apparent our annual plowing of the garden disrupted the soil food web underneath.

Despite its claims to the contrary,
scientists were increasingly
questioning plastic mulch's effect
on the food soil web
As a Lifetime Master Gardener and avid horticulturalist, Betty regularly attends talks by people who are at the cutting of gardening science.  By last year, what was once a murmur that perhaps ‘plastic mulch’ (rows of plastic matting laid down over fields to warm the soil and prevent weeds) had significant downsides, had become a rising, though hardly universal, chorus of concern.  Betty read the studies, and reached a logical conclusion: there is nothing a plastic mulch can do that an organic mulch cannot do, and there are truly important things (like break down into humus and ultimately new soil) organic mulches can do that plastic ones cannot.

We decided to implement a ‘no plastic mulch’ policy effective with the 2020 gardening season.  It would affect perhaps four gardeners who had laid down plastic over their entire plot in 2019, and another twenty or so who lay down plastic sheets between raised rows.  On March 29, the date we opened the garden after staking it, we sent an email to everyone in the garden giving our reasons for the new policy. To those gardeners who questioned why we were making the change, we explained and they said, ‘OK, we understand’.

Seven days later, I was walking the garden when I was stopped in my tracks by a garden partially cloaked in plastic sheets, with additionally rolls of matting waiting to go down.  I went home and wrote the gardener – I’ll use the gender-neutral name ‘Reilly’.  I politely pointed out the earlier memo.  The following afternoon, Reilly responded at length, starting with the observation that this was “an awfully silly thing to quibble about during a global pandemic.”  The gardener went onto say, “there is ample science supporting the beneficial use of landscape fabric.”

There are two things I know with certainty.  The first is that, on any controversial topic, the first page of Google results – including the ones that don’t say ‘ad’ – have been bought and paid for by organizations with deep pockets, a vested financial interest, and an ability to ‘game’ Google’s ranking algorithm.  The second thing I know is that there is no upside in picking fights with my fellow gardeners.  As self-appointed 'Garden Ogre', my management policy is to ‘nudge’ gardeners into doing the right thing; not make enemies of them.  I agreed with Reilly on a few points and offered praised for having had the foresight to purchase a better grade of plastic mulch.  But, I stressed, the policy is the policy. No plastic sheets. Please remove them.

Reilly responded with an even longer missive, ending with the statement, “I intend to leave my ground covering down.”  That’s when I went to Medfield’s Conservation Commissioner, Leslee Willetts, and said, “This is above Betty’s and my pay grade.”

On April 12, the scientific journal Global Change Biology published the blockbuster results of a peer-reviewed study on plastic mulch, concluding its use boosted yields for a single season, then became injurious to the soil and crops grown in it; all the while doing long-term damage to that soil food web.  Concurrent with the publication of the study, China – hardly an enlightened paragon of environmental practices – set in motion laws to outlaw the use of plastic mulch.

Ultimately, Reilly asked for and, last Thursday got, a hearing (held via Zoom) before the Conservation Commission. Reilly came prepared with a PowerPoint presentation.  I responded with abstracts of several peer-reviewed studies and said Reilly was ‘flat wrong on the science’.  The Commission voted unanimously to uphold the ban on plastic mulch.

Reilly then shifted gears and asked for a hardship exemption for this season, stating it had taken Reilly’s family all day to put in the fence and plastic sheets, the garden was now growing and well established, taking out the plastic was impossible at this late date, and Reilly’s family was uneasy about going out in a Covid-19 world for such a task.  Reilly’s plea swayed three commissioners.  The plastic would stay down for this season.

The photo I wish I had at the
Commission meeting
The next day, I went to the Community Garden and took photos of Reilly’s plot – something I did not think to do before the Commission meeting.  There are no thriving plants.  I could have taken out the plastic sheeting in a morning without disturbing the site.  If there were sprouted seeds, they were likely killed by Saturday night’s hard freeze.

But Reilly’s plastic will stay for this season.  Betty and I won the larger battle – a ban on plastic mulch.  It will not make me alter my management style; I’ll continue to change behavior by nudging, not by wielding a sledgehammer.  But it was a learning experience that will stay with me for a very long time: the world is full of people like Reilly who choose to follow only those rules that do not inconvenience them.