December 20, 2020

The Cat Chronicles

 Day 15

This is the day, in what was supposed to be my new home for life, my humans went over the edge – around the bend – off the deep end with no life preserver.

My humans planted a tree in the house!
They planted a tree in the house.  No kidding.  A gigantic, touch-the-ceiling monster. It’s so tall I don’t think I could climb to the top of it even with a flying leap. Of course, it would be an interesting experiment…

They brought it into the house while I was sleeping. I smelled it before I saw it. And, when I did, I admit I freaked out.  I ran, I hid, and I took another nap. Later in the day, I went to see if it was still there.  It might have been a bad dream.

There's cold white stuff outside
Nope.  Still there.  Don’t ask me what kind of a tree it is.  I’m a Florida cat. I know six kinds of palm trees. I can tell you the difference between a jacaranda and a royal poinciana, and I’m only eight months old.  But I’m not in Florida anymore, and it isn’t just that three-hour plane ride.  There’s this white stuff all over the ground, and it’s cold (I put my nose against a window; a mistake I won’t make twice).

Day 16

This morning, they put lights on it!
This morning, my humans went even further over the edge.  They put lights all over the tree.  Hundreds of them! Give me one good reason why a tree needs lights.  It isn’t going anywhere and it’s not exactly a navigation hazard.  My two humans are going to be carted off to the loony bin and no one is going to feed me.  But putting on lights wasn’t the end of their lunatic behavior: they disappeared downstairs (I had no idea this place had a ‘downstairs’! But now I do…) and they came up with giant plastic bins that smelled… old.  They opened them and I smelled years of stuff.

Being just eight months old, I’m still getting the hang of this time thing.  I talked it over with some of the other cats in that hotel they had me in when I first came up from Florida.  They explained to me first you’re a kitten and then you’re a cat.  You’re a cat for, like, twenty years, with your muzzle growing whiter each year, and then

your time is up.  I asked how long humans lived and no one had a clue.  Assuming we all live the same number of years, I’m guessing (based on my male human’s gray hair) my humans are around 15 years old, which means in five years I’ve got to find some different humans to be my staff.  Except this pair is going to be in an institution just as soon as some other human gets a load of the tree they’ve planted in the house.

Oh, and after lunch, they started taking all this old stuff out of the boxes and putting it on the tree.  And, I don’t mean just throwing it on the tree.  There must have been six hundred gizmos in those two bins, and every one of them had to go in one certain place.  They even got all misty-eyed when they pulled out stuff.  I’m still getting the hang of human-speak, but they’re all
weepy and reminding each other about where they were when they got each of those gizmos (Harrod’s? Is that a human? A city?) Egypt? Amsterdam? What’s that?

The interesting thing is, every object they put on the tree smells different. I smell different times and places, but they’ve all been together for different lengths of time – as though my humans collected this stuff and saved it just to put on the tree.  How weird is that?

Day 17

This morning, they let me into the room where they keep the tree.  I think I finally get it.  For the first time, I got to really smell the gizmos (my humans call them ‘ornaments’). I smelled three things.  The first is where they came from, which I’ll probably never sort out.  The second thing is that they’ve been on lots of other trees before this one. I smelled a few ornaments that had the scent of more than fifty different trees.  So, this isn’t the first tree my humans have brought into this home.  I figure they bring in new ones – what? – once a year, maybe?

They finally thought they had thrown
enough gizmos on the tree
The third thing was the real eye-opener.  I’m not the first cat to have laid a paw on these ornaments.  Some of the ornaments have been sniffed at by one cat; and some by as many as three. (The three-cat ornaments are really, really old.)

I’ve got a lot to ponder here.  Maybe they haven’t gone completely around the bend.  Maybe this is one more kind of stupid human trick. Whatever it is, I’ll keep an open mind.  As long as the food keeps coming.

December 7, 2020

Abigail’s Resurrection

For twelve excruciating hours on Sunday, I believed I had contributed to the horrifying demise of an innocent creature with which my wife and I had only recently been entrusted. Because this is a Christmas-time story, I will say, up front, that this tale has a happy ending.

Betty and Brandy
circa 1980
My wife, Betty, is a cat person.  When I first met her in 1974, she was the guardian of Brandy, who had been born in her college apartment closet.  In order to date Betty, I had to have Brandy’s approval.  To marry Betty, I had to adopt her cat. Brandy lived a long life, following us from upstate New York, to Chicago, to Brooklyn, and to Massachusetts; never complaining about our seeming impermanence.

Alfie, circa 1993
Brandy succumbed to cancer at the age of 18 and, after a suitable period of mourning – and now living in Stamford, Connecticut – we adopted a seven-year-old shelter cat whom we named Alfred Lord Tennisanyone, for his ability to expertly bat small objects.  Alfie obligingly followed us to Virginia and back to Massachusetts. His specialty was finding odd places to hide.  When we moved into a temporary apartment in Alexandria, he promptly went walkabout and took an elevator to the lobby.  He charmed everyone he met, and his affection could be purchased by the highest bidder, preferably in the form of food. He developed pancreatitis at 16.

T.R., circa 2002
After another period of mourning, we adopted another shelter cat, this one from New Hampshire.  Though he was almost certainly a Red Sox fan, T.R. (Tabby la Rasa) was a one-of-a-kind homebody who cheerfully followed Betty around the house, laid at her feet, and slept at the foot of our bed, snoring like a sailor.  He lived to the ripe old age of 21 and even adorns the cover of one of my books.

That's T.R.!
After T.R.’s death, we elected to be a pet-free household for a period of time. Our travel schedules for both business and pleasure were hectic, and we reasoned a cat should not know his or her sitter better than Mom and Dad. After three years, though, I sensed we were both ready for another furry face in our family.  We would adopt a cat for Christmas.

That was when I discovered the rules had changed.  The Medfield Animal Shelter, which once had daily visiting hours for animals and humans to assess one another, now required an online application process including references.  Fortunately, one of our long-time members of the Community Garden is a foster parent for ‘hard-to-place’ animals, and could speak well of our prior stewardship.

Moreover, the supply-demand equation for adoptions had changed.  In Massachusetts, even feral animals are routinely spayed and neutered, then re-released into the wild.  As a result, there are few local animals available.  Instead, adoptable cats and dogs come from other regions.

Abigail Adams
Last Wednesday, our application having been vetted, we were invited to meet three cats.  All were from Florida; two had required just-completed major surgery.  We had our heart set on a domestic shorthair and there was an eight-month-old female tuxedo who peered at us with that ‘please take me home with you’ kind of look that melted your heart.  ‘Zoe’ has been born in April and surrendered to a shelter in Sunny Isles Beach, Florida.  She had lived with a foster family for a few months but, as we were told, there is no demand for shelter cats in south Florida but there is a continuing supply because pets are not routinely neutered. Thus, Zoe and her companions were put on a plane and flown to New England.

After a half-hour introduction, we said, ‘we’ll take her’.  She came home that same afternoon.

I suggested naming her Abigail Adams; both to honor an illustrious Founding Mother and because one of my favorite characters in my books, Liz Phillips, has a cat named Abigail.  As everyone who reads the series already thinks Liz is Betty’s crime-solving alter ego, I figured we might as well bow to public pressure. Betty agreed. We had our 'Cat Who Came for Christmas', albeit a few weeks early.

Abigail came to our house as a frightened and disoriented animal.  A week earlier, she had been in a Miami-area apartment with a foster family and, likely, other cats (though the notes from the foster parents stated clearly this cat would be happiest as a lone animal in an all-adult household).  Then, she was on a plane, and likely not in Business Class.  Next, she was in a shelter in a (large) cage.  Abigail was understandably skittish, quick to bite or scratch, and constantly on the lookout for hiding places.  On her first full day with us, we spent two hours ferreting her out of closets; once memorably burying herself in a box of ribbons.

By Saturday, though, she seemed to have acclimated herself to her new surroundings.  She lay under a table while we watch a movie; she even made a foray into our bedroom after we retired, before determining that was 'too much too soon' on the familiarity scale.

Sunday morning, she was not in her sleeping tent (an Amazon box with cut-outs for seeing the surrounding terrain).  Abigail was found hiding in a closet and, once discovered, took off like a shot. I had promised to fetch breakfast from a favorite bakery in Wellesley.  Betty went out to the end of the driveway to bring in the newspapers.  When I called to say I was on my way home, Betty told me she had not seen Abigail since that lone encounter at 6:40 a.m.

The sink unit
We searched what we had come to think of as her ‘usual hiding places’ without success. We began to wonder if Abigail had somehow slipped out of the house when I went to the bakery and Betty gathered the newspapers. After breakfast, we did a more thorough search.  No cat.  We walked around outside – we had a Nor’easter on Saturday and there was a crust of snow on the ground and temperatures in the low 30’s.  No cat.

We then did a room-by-room search, taking apart cushions and tipping up every piece of furniture.  We truly scoured the house.  No cat.  I theorized Abigail might be hiding in the garage (what self-respecting, Miami-born cat would venture out into the snow?). Betty checked the basement, even though we were both certain the basement door was closed. No cat.

Cat's-eye view of the sink
As the afternoon wore on and the temperature began to fall, we made two more extensive circuits of our property, looking for where a cat might shelter. At twilight and exhausted, we took a nap.  Half an hour into the nap, I was awakened by what I was convinced was mewing and, running into our living room, was convinced I saw Abigail huddled outside at the door to our screened porch.  Fifteen minutes of frantic searching yielded no confirmation. I must have been dreaming.

We looked at one another and, for the first time, began to accept the terrifying reality that Abigail was lost.  She had insufficient fur or body fat to survive a New England night, and would be easy prey for the multiple carnivores that live in the conservation land behind our home. Our only hope was someone found her on the street, took her in, and would phone the animal shelter in the morning.

Feeling horrible and guilty for our neglect, neither of us felt like having dinner.  We read the newspapers and then books.  Around 8 p.m., sitting in our living room, we heard a noise; a ‘thump’ sound.  We looked at one another, and investigated every place we had previously looked. Still no cat. Maybe it was snow coming off the roof.

A 5"-deep cave
We returned to the sofa. Ten minutes later, another thump.  This was definitely from inside the house, and likely from our small upstairs which consists of two modest bedroom/offices and a small bathroom.  We re-inspected every space.  Then, on a hunch, Betty opened a small tightly-closed and never-used drawer under a sink. There, inside, was a trapped cat.  It had somehow launched itself into the drawer from underneath the sink through a hole a few inches on a side.

Last night, Abigail was officially invited to sleep on a blanket at the foot of our bed.  She declined, of course. For all we know, she was highly annoyed it took us so long to suss out her hiding place.  Over time, perhaps, she will come to understand humans neither possess supersensitive noses nor are mind readers.  But I’m not counting on a thank-you.

October 23, 2020

To Zoom or Not to Zoom, That Is the Question

Eight months ago – which now can be thought of as the ‘Before Time’ – I wrote about attending a talk by horticulturalist Dan Jaffe held at a garden club in a neighboring town.  There, in front of 35 or 40 people, Dan put on a virtuoso performance under the most unimaginable of circumstances: he could not project his presentation onto a screen.  Rather than cancel  as would have been his right (the club had promised a compatible projector), Dan pivoted to a different strategy: he pared his visuals to a minimum and walked the room, holding his modest-sized laptop for groups to see. 

I truly enjoy presentations
I was reminded of that talk twice this week.  Wednesday evening, I again watched Dan (doing a different presentation) speaking to a group numbering more than 300.  The presentation was via Zoom, a computer program that had become our de facto tool for education in a time in which we cannot assemble in groups.

Dan’s topic that evening was about incorporating native plants into landscapes.  He has dazzling visuals for his presentations and he possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of his topic.  But his hour-long talk was marred by technical glitches beyond his control: video freezes and audio that was often hard to hear.  At one point, his audience got a tour of Dan’s home as he moved from an office/study to sit adjacent to his router in a different room.  Further, Dan's slides aren't especially compatible with a small computer screen (see the photo at right).  Most of his slides contain multiple images, which look fine when projected on a six- or eight-foot screen – but were difficult to absorb on a 14-inch monitor.  And, without a laser pointer, deciphering which cultivar he was discussing was sometimes problematic.  Also, in the February presentation, Dan was interrupted every few slides by questions from the audience, which added to everyone's understanding of the presentation, and had the added benefit of forcing Dan to slow down. On Wednesday evening, Dan fairly raced through his slides.  All in all, it wasn’t a disaster; just a disappointment. 

Many of Dan's slides incorporate
 multiple images - hard to see
on a small screen
I can feel for Dan Jaffe because, this week, I did my first Zoom presentation.  It was a fund-raising project for the Central Atlantic Region of National Garden Clubs.  Mine was the kick-off talk of a four-day, seven-speaker event that likely raised close to $10,000 for scholarships.

As much as I genuinely enjoy speaking to groups, I have turned down several dozen remote speaking opportunities since Covid-19 became part of our national language.  I did so because I did not think I could do justice to an audience.  Mine is not a set of canned presentations; a group of lectures that never need vary.  Rather, I continually ‘read’ my audience and adjust as I go.  As a result, no two audiences ever see and hear exactly the same talk. Also, my subject matter is tailored for a live audience.  It is intended as entertainment; to make people laugh (and laughter is infectious), and is ‘educational’ but certainly not 'education heavy'.

Zoom has become the de facto
tool for enabling meetings

In agreeing to do the presentation (the organizer was exceptionally persuasive), I knew I needed to re-think many of my visuals for ‘the small screen’.  I also would need to tailor the talk for an audience that would be viewing in Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Maryland (among other states). I also rehearsed multiple times (including in a Zoom call with the conference organizer) and mastered (or so I thought) Zoom’s screen-sharing options.

Those requirements paled next to the elephant in the room: that I would be unable to see or hear my audience.  In my ‘dress rehearsal’ with the organizer, we were one-on-one and I could see and hear her reactions.  I could also see myself.  I knew if I were properly positioned within the camera’s frame and could judge whether my gestures were appropriate. I also had that wonderful crutch offered to all users of PowerPoint: a miniature image of my next slide alongside the current one. When you see a presenter doing effortless segues between topics, it’s because of that ‘preview’ pane on his or her laptop.

A speaker's best friend is the
preview pane (in the lower
right) showing the next slide

All of that disappeared when I presented at four in the afternoon this past Monday. I logged on half an hour early but quickly discovered the ‘dirty little secret’ of Zoom: unless you’re the host (as I had been in my rehearsals), you a) can’t see yourself, b) can’t see or hear your host or the audience, and c) don’t have access to that preview pane.
  All I saw was my presentation and a small black rectangle with my name in it, where everyone else would see me speaking.  My audience, according to the Zoom counter visible to me at the bottom of the screen, was 133 strong.  Were they laughing, or were they going to the sideboard for another glass of wine?

I calmed down after a few slides and blew only one transition.  But, in my own estimation, I did a mediocre job.  I move around a fair amount and use hand gestures a great deal.  Because I could not see myself, I rigidly stayed in one position and minimized gestures.  I also went too fast (I know this because Betty kept holding up a sign that read SLOW DOWN!!!!).

Afterward, the organizer offered praise and said comments from attendees were uniformly positive.  I respectfully disagree.  I think I gave the audience less than half of what they deserved.  They got a well-rehearsed talk but there was no spontaneity because I couldn’t see or hear their reactions.  It was a two-dimensional talk that lacked depth and shading.

I enjoy connecting with my
audience (and, yes, selling
 books)

I realize I also failed in one other way:  When I present, I am invariably one of the first people to arrive (I even help set up chairs).  I speak to members as they come in.  I join conversations.  Sometimes, when it is a group with spouses, I even seed the husbands with the answers to arcane horticultural questions, then ask those questions before or during my presentation.  This pre-meeting chatter helps me to better understand my audience, with or without the mischief.

I haven't done a live, in-person presentation of any program since the first week of March - more than 40 presentations have been canceled.  While I miss those audiences, based on my Zoom experience, I'll wait out the pandemic and hope clubs remember me in 2021.

October 6, 2020

The Apple Antidote to a Covid Autumn

I turned down $50 for this mask
Between us, Betty and I own 14 face masks.  Four of them are of the blue surgical variety and two are wince-worthy, home-made efforts from patterns printed in The New York Times back in March.  Eight, though, were crafted from the best silk ties from my long-ago working days.  These masks were sewn by two home-sheltering college students and look quite professional.  I was even offered fifty dollars for one of them – an authorized replica of the cover of the Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s album – while standing in line at a bakery one recent Sunday morning (I turned down the deal).  

A sign of the times by the back door
The masks, which hang on a rack by the door into our garage, are a continuing, cautionary reminder of the reality that, seven months after we first recognized we had a pandemic on our hands, the out-of-doors are still a place where a dangerous disease lurks and chance encounters on a walk around the block – let alone in supermarkets – are inevitably awkward exercises in you-go-that-way-and-we’ll-go-this-way social distancing.  And, this is in Medfield, a town of 11,000 that had reported fewer than 50 Covid-19 cases as of the end of September.

Every garden has its way to
remind us to social distance
Even trips to gardens, with all their color, texture, and scents; are sobering reminders of the ‘new normal’.  We have enjoyed day-trip sojourns as far away as Maine and as close as the Massachusetts Horticultural Society’s Gardens at Elm Bank, but every trip has been an exercise in safety: masks must be worn at all times and hand-sanitizing stations are placed wherever you might be required or tempted to handle something. Even with timed tickets to limit crowds, garden paths are the scene of polite pas-de-deux to determine who will backpedal to the nearest cove to let the other party pass with a six-foot buffer.

Ripe Macoun apples
On the last day of September, however, Betty and I made our annual pilgrimage to Doe Orchards, a place un-scarred by the events of 2020.  Each year, when the Macoun apples are ripe, we make at least one near-hundred-mile round trip to this family-owned orchard located on a hilltop outside Route 495 in the rustic town of Harvard, Mass.  There, we fill a large bag with apples and, for quality control purposes, enjoy one or two along the way.  

I wore a mask for this
photo just to prove
it was taken in 2020
The orchard has 15 varieties of apples (each trunk is color-coded) on 60 acres, but we inevitably head directly for the Macouns, an apple with superb taste that is also ideal for cooking.  There were only five cars in the parking lot when we arrived so, as soon as we were out of sight of the farm stand, we shed our masks to enjoy a warm, early autumn day. It was a leisurely exercise: we inspected five trees before we picked our first apple.  I grew up knowing only Red Delicious apples that had withstood withering heat and oppressive humidity on their 600-mile trip from orchards in the mountains of North Carolina to supermarket shelves in tropical Miami.  Betty, on the other hand, grew up in upstate New York’s apple country and has sworn by Macouns for decades.  She inspects each candidate and takes only those that meet her high standard.

The bag will be empty in two weeks
We devoted more than an hour to filling our admittedly large bag and, in the time, saw just one lone, bag-toting picker pass down a path 50 feet distant.  When the winds were right, we also heard voices which turned to be orchard employees picking off ladders seven rows away.

We also just… wandered.  The orchard thoughtfully mows the aisles, so moving from one tree – or variety – is an easy task.  There are also vistas where you can take in the surrounding terrain.  In such a place, and with masks stowed in pockets, it is possible to forget about the world and its troubles for an hour or so.  We certainly did.

Our first Molly O'Neill apple
walnut cake of the season

The apples will become crisps, cobblers, snacks, and a special treat called the Molly O’Neill Upside-Down Apple Walnut Cake.  In a few short weeks, long before they have had an opportunity to soften or lose flavor, our bag of apples will be gone.  But, while they last, they will be a reminder of both a pre-mask path and the hope of a mask-free 2021.

September 17, 2020

A September Gardening Tale

Every year in August, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts sets aside one weekend when the state’s 6.25% sales tax is waived on purchases under $2,000.  The tax holiday was originally intended to help strapped parents lessen the cost of school materials for their children, and college students stock up on critical dorm items such a newer model expresso machine.

 Like all good ideas, though, the tax holiday quickly spiraled out of control and became the once-a-year opportunity to reduce the final price of 84-inch hi-def televisions, iPhone 11s, and Peloton exercise systems. Back-to-school backpacks have long receded in the rear-view mirror.

Pop quiz: On August 29, 2020, which of these items did Betty and Neal buy (hint: the title of this blog contains the consecutive letters g-a-r-d-e-n)?

a)     A CyberPowerPC gaming system to save $106.25 in sales tax

b)     A Fuji Sportif racing bike to save $61.69 in sales tax

c)     A Kitchen-Aid convection microwave to save $48.43 in sales tax

d)     Seven cubic yards of dark brown mulch to save $14.37 in sales tax

* * * * *

The mulch was delivered by Sam White & Sons on September 1, and piled neatly on the parking pad in front of our home.  We, of course, were on our way to the beach.

I should add a note about Mr. White’s business.  If the Harvard Business School was truly on the ball, they would send out a crack team of grad students to write a case study on Sam White & Sons, and then devote a full semester each year to learning the genius of his business model.  When you walk into the Sam White’s office, you see two credit card readers.  As we paid for our mulch, I started to insert my credit card in the one on the left.  “Use the other one,” I was instructed.  “What’s this one for?” I asked.  “That’s for incoming stuff,” was the reply.

Apple Computer has a trillion-dollar market valuation.  In its most recent quarter, it’s ‘cost of goods sold’ was about 62 cents for every dollar of revenue, meaning its ‘gross profit margin’ was about 38 cents per dollar of sales.  Sam White & Sons has no ‘cost of goods sold’.  In fact, it charges you to drop off the same stuff they will sell to me.  All they do is grind it up, sort it by size and color, and put a price on it.  If the company went public, I figure Sam White’s market valuation would be a couple of billion, easily.  Enough on the subject.

Our first act as gardeners
was to top our loam with mulch
The front of our property (the back is wetlands) is roughly half an acre and there is nary a blade of grass to be seen. It’s all plants: trees, shrubs, perennials, and annuals (well, there’s also a house and a driveway, so let’s call it 20,000 square feet of garden).  After five years, those plants – and especially the shrubs and perennials – have made it a fairly dense proposition.  Back in 2015, our first act as gardeners was to put down four or five inches of mulch atop 965 cubic yards of loam before we planted anything on the property. 

Five years later, our garden is quite dense
Mulch, however, breaks down over time into, well, soil.  By this summer, the remaining mulch was thin enough weeds grew through it.  We needed to do something.  The logical thing would be to call a garden service and tell them to come mulch our garden for us.

But there was much more to the project than just throwing down mulch.  Volunteer plants – and especially wandering perennials – had insinuated themselves into areas of the garden they didn’t belong.  Tiny but insistent weeds needed to be dug out; throwing mulch on them would only retard their inevitable appearance.  Shrubs needed to be thinned.  In short, this was the kind of eagle-eyed and meticulous work that could not be entrusted to an outsider. We had to do this project ourselves.

The mulch pile, roughly half gone
We started every morning at 6:30 and worked until the sun made gardening uncomfortable – always before noon.  And, we made good progress.  The pile dwindled each day.

But it was still there: out where everyone driving by could see it.  When a week passed and three cubic yards remained, we began pushing ourselves to finish what we had started.  Last Thursday we made a final, gallant effort to finish the job, and succeeded in at least making it look to nosy neighbors like we were done: all the mulch was now in the back of the garden and the parking pad was mulch-free.

We took care of lots of
garden maintenance
And, sometimes when you’re at the end of a job, you press too hard.  That’s what we both did.  On that last morning, Betty later acknowledged her back been bothering her (she has the eye and the horticultural knowledge to know what ought to be removed; my skills are weeding and making pretty edges with the mulch).  By mid-afternoon, Betty’s back was telling her she had abused it once too often.  By Friday morning, the act of getting out of bed was excruciating.

Five days and two trips to urgent care later, her back is feeling better.  The garden looks magnificent; not just because of the mulch, but because of the culling of surplus plants and the removal of six, 50-gallon bags of garden detritus.

There's no question about its beauty...
There is a lesson here, but I’m uncertain what it is.  On the one hand, Betty and I ought to have done the obvious thing and hired one of the six ‘garden maintenance’ firms in Medfield to do the spreading for us.  But had we done so we would have hovered over whomever we had hired at $15 an hour to ensure they were doing the job properly.  And, we would have inevitably become frustrated because hired hands never spy everything the gardener sees.  We would have been in the garden exactly as long as if we had done it ourselves and have paid other people handsomely in the process; but at least we wouldn’t have back spasms.

...and we're good on maintenance until spring
On the other hand, at 70 and 71, we’re getting to the age where both bicep-building and stoop gardening induces back pains.  Fortunately, Betty designed our garden to be ‘low maintenance’. Unfortunately, ‘low maintenance’ is still ‘some maintenance required’.  September’s mad dash to get a job done will carry us through to next spring.  By then, however, hundreds of birds will have deposited alien seeds (complete with fertilizer packets), around the garden. The wind will have brought in still more interlopers, and rhizomes will be rhizomes.  In short, the whole rodeo starts again in March.

Fortunately, nothing will be piled in our parking pad.

August 25, 2020

Seeing the Garden... and All of its Weeds

Our doorbell rang last week for the first time since early March.  Peering out through a window, we saw an anxious-looking, casually attired middle-aged woman with face mask in place.  Curious, we opened the door.

“I’ve been biking past your garden for months,” the woman said.  “I finally worked up the courage to ask if we could see it.”  She motioned behind her to a similar-aged man standing next to a car parked out on the street.

This is how our garden appeared
from the street in July 2020
Betty and I looked at one another.  “Sure,” I said.  A few minutes later, we were all standing, masked and socially distanced, on our sidewalk.

The woman explained she and her husband had grown tired of their grass lawn and wanted to make an ecological statement.  Our garden was the closest thing they had seen to what they envisioned.  Flattery, I guess, will get you everywhere.  For the next hour, we walked the couple through our property and explained how, over five years, we created our native garden from what had been a thicket of pines and nasty, invasive plants and shrubs. 

One of our stands of Monarda - in July
The woman was enchanted by what she saw; her husband, somewhat less so.  He kept asking about wildflower blends that could be purchased, sown, and cause their lawn to turn into a colorful meadow.  Betty carefully explained that ‘gardens in a can’ don’t take into account the reality of differing rates of growth or the aggressiveness of certain plants.  “You really have to start with lots of pots,” she said; almost but not quite apologetically.

The same Monarda in late August
after six weeks of drought and heat
While Betty pointed out and enumerated specific trees, shrubs and perennials – the names of which were entered into the woman’s phone; I was making a different list.  Mine was of tasks we had let slide during the debilitating, six-week-long heat wave that seemed a fitting accompaniment to our Covid-19 year.  Our guests thought the garden looked wonderful.  All I could see was the neglect.  Spent perennials had not been trimmed back and weeds were everywhere.  Paths were barely passable because of overgrown plants, and summer-blooming perennials were obscured by rangy shrubs.

I know Betty was seeing the same to-do list because, as soon as our guests left, she pointed out everything I had noticed, plus a few more problem areas.

One of our foundation plantings. To us
it looked terrible (oxalis highlighted).
Which, I guess, is the key difference between those who are visiting gardens and those who maintain them.  It’s a forest-and-trees thing: the visitor sees a pleasing green fuzzy ground cover with cute, tiny yellow flowers.  The gardener sees opportunistic and unwanted oxalis encroaching into every open space.  A dozen arching but clearly spent liatris can be viewed as a graceful, visual destination point; or they can be recognized as the husks of once-attractive perennials waiting to dump tens of thousands of seeds that will mean pulling out the same number of seedlings from every corner of the garden next spring.

The same area, after an hour's
work this morning
With the arrival of cooler temperatures, we’ve spent the first two-plus hours after dawn each morning bringing the garden back into some semblance of order.  As I fill buckets with the detritus of that cleaning, though, I’m also trying to keep in mind the genuine sense of appreciation those visitors had for what we’ve accomplished.  All too frequently, we dwell on the warts: all the things we’ve not done (and whether it’s a good trait or a personality flaw is a subject for another discussion).  

The spent liatris: a 'visual destin-
ation point' or a disaster
unless cut down immediately?

I strongly believe we need to leaven that ingrained dissatisfaction with a dollop of reality: real gardening is hard.  Whether it’s a small vegetable garden in the back yard or a manicured estate, creating something takes time and patience, and maintaining it requires a commitment measured in seasons rather than hours.

My back ached after pulling multiple buckets of weeds this morning, and the well-earned shower afterwards felt wonderful.  The best feeling of all, though, was looking past the newly cleaned areas to admire the half of the garden that still requires attention, and thinking to myself with a grin, ‘I had a hand in making all of that happen.’

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
happen.
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.