March 30, 2014

(Dubious) Tools of the Trade


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 25, 2014

One Enchanted Evening


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 23, 2014

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

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

March 17, 2014

Margaritaville


I had a double dose of spring these past few days.  Three of those days were spent at the Boston Flower & Garden Show, which I think I covered adequately in ‘Flower Show Fever’ in the essay just below this one.  On Saturday, Betty and I took the day off and drove down to the New York Botanical Garden.

Mid-March in New York is an ‘iffy’ time of the season.  There are years when the lawn is already awash in daffodils and spring is officially in the air if not yet on the calendar.  This is not one of those years.  It has been a cold, wet winter across the mid-Atlantic and the Ides of March blew cold and damp.

The Orchid Show is an annual event, a means of attracting visitors to NYBG at a time when ‘fun outing’ and ‘botanical garden’ are not normally used in the same sentence.  And inside the majestic Enid Haupt Conservatory, it is the March of the tropics or, more specifically, Key West. 

Walls of orchids.  Double-click
for a slideshow.
You don’t try to count the number of orchids on display; they come by the wall-ful.  One ‘plaque’ contains 900 dendrobium orchids, each a unique plant in its own tiny pot, wired into place and made part of the whole by judicious use of moss.  There are orchids overhead and at ankle level; massive cascades of polychrome and spiky orchids that appear to have taken their inspiration from a coral reef.

The designer of all this is a gifted tropical landscaper named Raymond Jungles (and the biographical sources I searched all swear that this is his real name).  Jungles believes in modernism: cubes, thrusting angles and circles.  ‘Waterfalls’ are niches cut in lime-green stucco walls through which water flows in perfect measure to a ‘pool’ thirty feet long and a six inches wide.

Alone amid the scent
of vanilla
But the glory of this garden (inspired by one of Mr. Jungles’ real-life commissions for the Key West home of a prominent New York family) is the sheer abundance of color.  There is no muted backdrop to make these orchids pop; rather the multiple varieties of crotons and bromeliads compete for the eye.  And it all works.

We had the luxury of seeing all this on a Saturday morning when the Conservatory was nearly empty, but it takes planning to have such an experience.  By noon, the nearby subway and Metro North stations are disgorging thousands of visitors, all headed for the same building.  We left suburban Boston at 6 a.m. and arrived at the NYBG’s main parking lot just as it opened at 9:45 (when we left at noon the lot was full).  We were inside the entrance a few minutes later and made the short walk to the Conservatory.  The exhibit nominally opens at 10 a.m. but the sight of a dozen people huddling outside the door caused the staff to open the doors a little early.  I figure we were in the exhibit at 9:50.

It is all the difference in the world to see the exhibit without crowds.  You can appreciate the design better, stand in the middle of a room and slowly drink in the color.  You can also stand very still among dozens of vanilla orchids and smell their intoxicating aroma.


The Orchid Show runs through April 21.  Yes, by mid-April you’ll be able to enjoy far more of what NYBG has to offer.  But right now, it has something very special:  a building full of tropical color at a time when the world is still gray.

March 7, 2014

Flower Show Fever

I don’t know about you, but I could use a large dose of spring about now.  I’m talking about perfect spring: middle-of-May spring.  And not someplace you get to at the end of three hours on a flying sardine can.  I want New England spring with lilacs, tulips, rhododendron and newly leafed-out maples.  And, yes, I know that’s an impossible request.

Oh, wait.  It isn’t impossible.  In fact, I can get that dose next week.  It’s called the Boston Flower & Garden Show. 

We are in the midst of The Winter That Will Not End.  Courtesy of the Polar Vortex, New England is caught in a Groundhog Day-like repeating weather pattern in which we wake up every few days to single-digit temperatures (the temperature this morning was 3 degrees) and a fresh six inches of snow.  Somewhere under the two feet of snow on my garden, hellebores are supposed to be blooming and crocus sending up exploratory flowers. 

Instant spring in mid-March
The flower show is visible, smell-able and touchable proof that winter eventually comes to an end around here.  It is lush landscapes and garden vignettes and sensory overload by design.  It’s exactly what I need.

The exhibits and vendors out on the main floor of the Seaport World Trade Center, though, are just part of the pleasure.  Beyond the glass doors at the rear of the hall is another, more intimate show that is just as compelling.

A dragon made from flowers
It starts with a pair of floral design competitions.  I’m privileged to know some of the men and women who pull out all the stops for this show, and what they do is conjure up magic.  They enter a class with a name like “Rendezvous” with a description to come up with a floral design based around “a creative design staged on two teardrop-shaped pedestals which combine to form 36” round. Height of taller segment is 24 inches; height of lower segment is 18 inches”.

Faced with such guidelines, I would curl up into a fetal position for two weeks and then call in sick.  These designers will come up with something that will cause everyone to a) gasp and b) say ‘how did they do that?

Photography at the flower show
Next door, there’s Ikebana, the incredibly graceful art of Japanese flower arranging.  (It can’t be called a competition because it isn’t judged, but it is no less beautiful or imaginative.)

Then, there’s the Photography competition, which will be in its fourth year in 2014.  Every year, I keep thinking it can’t get any better, and every year, the folks who run it prove me wrong.  The photography competition is worth the trip into South Boston all by itself.

Finally, there’s the Amateur Horticulture displays.  This is where we mere mortals get to strut our stuff.  If I have a houseplant I am proud of, and I can get it to Seaport between noon and 8 p.m. on Monday, March 10, I can enter it.  There are a handful of rules to follow (no plastic pots, no bugs on plants, please), but the rest of it is easy.  One of the best parts is that, if you don’t know the exact name of your plant, there are a roomful of experts to help you find that name.

Some of the candidate house-
plants that may go to the show
There’s one other great reason to enter a plant into Amateur Horticulture:  you get to walk near the landscape exhibits as they’re in the middle of being created.  This part of the show, called ‘the build’, is one of the most awe-inspiring sights around. Of course, you can also use the drive-through service in which a volunteer takes your plant and you’re on your way. 

I have been trying to decide which houseplants I’m going to enter this year.  For example, I’m the official bougainvillea guy in my household.  One of our plants is showing tiny, delicate lavender blooms right now.  It is certain to get me a blue ribbon. 

Betty has already tagged and is assiduously grooming the plants she intends to enter.  I’m welcome to anything left over – say, any of the dozen or so Spathiphyllum (Peace Lily) that bloom randomly around the house.  Right now, I have my eye on a begonia whose full bud seems to have escaped her attention.   If she doesn’t claim it as her own entry, it’s all mine.  That’s what it’s like to have Flower Show Fever. 

March 1, 2014

Drip Drop

This is a tale of a garden club president from Oregon with a vision for conservation, a company in Indiana with a troubling notion about product obsolescence, and a shower head in Massachusetts with a slow drip.  Ultimately, though, it is a story about putting your money where your mouth is.

Our home was built in 1995 and Betty and I have been its owners since 1999.  It has been, by and large, a problem-free home.  But even good homes occasionally develop minor problems.  For ours, it was a shower head in our master bathroom that developed a slow drip a year or so ago.  And, when I say ‘slow’ I am talking about a pint of water over a 24-hour period.  On some days it did not drip at all.

Linda Nelson, President of
National Garden Clubs
With that as background, let us turn our attention to the garden club world.  The largest federation of garden clubs in the country is National Garden Clubs, Inc.  Headquartered in St. Louis, it is the umbrella for 6,218 local garden clubs in the U.S. plus another hundred or so international affiliates.

Every two years, NGC elects a new president and, in 2013, that incoming president was Linda Nelson, who is from Oregon.  One of the great things about being NGC president is that you get to establish a theme for your term, and Ms. Nelson’s is ‘Making a World of Difference: Choices Matter’.  The essence of that theme is that individual actions count in better managing our planet’s resources.

It is the role of state garden club federations to help communicate that theme to its member clubs and, last fall, Betty was asked by the president of the Garden Club Federation of Massachusetts to prepare a summary of Ms. Nelson’s theme for delivery at the state federation’s fall conference. 

One of Betty's slides talked about
water conservation.  That's Linsday.
The easy thing would have been to write down a few talking points and then ad-lib for ten minutes at the conference.  This, however, is not Betty’s style.  When given such an assignment, she takes it as a challenge to create a memorable presentation with equally unforgettable visuals.  She co-opted Lindsay, one our new next door neighbors, to pose for a series of photos showing how one person can make a difference in conservation.  Lindsay has model-good looks and a winning smile, plus she was seven months pregnant on the day the photos were taken, adding to the ‘we’re stewards of the planet for the next generation’ theme.

Betty’s talk lasted about fifteen minutes and it is fair to say that she captivated her audience.  I know, because I was in the back of the room.  The talk was sufficiently well received that the president of one of the garden clubs attending the meeting asked Betty if she might expand out her presentation to 45 minutes and give it to that club’s membership.  Betty agreed.

Over the course of several weeks, Linda Nelson’s ‘Choices Matter’ theme was amplified into ‘Simple Steps’, a listing of the dozens of relatively simple, painless things we all can do that add up to becoming better citizens of the planet.  And, just as one of Ms. Nelson’s targets is water conservation, so that was explored in depth as part of Betty’s expanded talk. 

Which brings us to slide #31: “Fix the water drips and leaks around your house.”

Our shower control unit
The subject of plumbing is a sensitive one around our home.  Two years ago, using a kit of washers and springs procured from our local hardware store, I was able to fix a drippy sink in our home.  A capable plumber could have done the job in twenty minutes; it took me three hours and the faucet now opens counter-clockwise.  But it established a benchmark that I am somehow capable of carrying out plumbing repairs when, in fact, I am not.  I neither possess a plumbing gene not I did not take Shop in eighth grade where such skills are acquired.

I did, however, watch a YouTube video on the repair of a Delta Classic Monitor single pole shower unit which, unfortunately, was not translated from the original Klingon.  After watching it several times, it was clear that I would be not only be out of my depth in trying to repair this unit, I would likely drown in the process.  Besides which, the drip –when there was a drip – amounted to a pint a day.

Then, two weeks ago, I went down to our basement and saw a puddle of water under the overflow tank of our heating system.  In New England, you do not mess around with your heating system, especially in the middle of winter.  We called a plumber.  Mike Eisenhauer came out the next morning, spent half an hour in our basement, and repaired the leak, which had something to do with a pressure valve.  Whereupon Betty asked if he would take a look at the drippy shower head in our Master Bath.

He did, and told us the bad news.  This was not a matter of tightening some screws or adding springs or any of the things that I did when I fixed the drip in one of our sinks.  This involved replacing a cartridge in the guts of the control device and our Delta shower unit was almost certainly obsolete, including repair parts.

From Delta's website.  Our shower
control unit was obsolete.
I asked Mike how he could be so certain.  Mike said that Delta pretty much obsoleted its entire product line every few years.  But we might be in luck and there might be a Model 1700 cartridge that could be retrofitted to fit into a Model 1500 slot.  The Model 1700 has also been discontinued, but at least parts are still available.  He said he would check and let us know.

It was Betty who asked what it would cost to repair the unit. 

“Two or three hundred dollars,” Mike replied.

“What if you just put in a new shower unit?” I asked.

“Then I have to break tile around the enclosure.  You don’t want to go there,” he said.

This brought us to the moment of truth.  According to the 2014 rate card, water in Medfield costs $38.81 for the first 10,000 gallons.  At a pint a day (assuming it dripped every day), the shower would drip 91.25 gallons of water per year.  The shower would have to drip 109 years to equal that $38.81 worth of water, and we were being told that the repair could be six to line times that amount: close to a thousand years worth of drips.

$278 later, it was fixed; it
was the right thing to do.
Betty and I looked at one another. 

“Fix it,” we said.

Two days later, Mike had located a Model 1700 cartridge and indeed, with some tinkering, it fit our obsolete Model 1500 enclosure.  After 45 minutes, the shower was repaired.  We wrote him a check for $278, which included a $20 discount for having used Angie’s List.

We did the right thing.  If Betty is get up in front of an audience and tell people that one of ‘small steps’ that we can take to make our resources last is to fix the drips and leaks around our house, then we had certainly better practice what we preach. 

It’s called putting our money where our mouth is.  I don’t regret it for a moment.

February 11, 2014

S'no Fun Getting Rid of the White Stuff

This has been a bitterly cold winter though, until now, not especially snowy.  That appears to be changing.  We had eight inches of snow over the weekend, an inch yesterday morning, and there is a prediction for a 'major storm' for Thursday and Friday.  The problem for us is, what do you do when there's too much snow?

Planning for snow removal is part of
planning for a New England garden
This weather report is part of a garden blog because snow is a reality in New England and where to put snow is a continuing problem for any serious gardener in this region. Our particular issues are twofold: first, where the town puts the snow from the street and, second, where we put the snow from our driveway.

We are at the end of a cul-de-sac with a broad turning circle as part of our streetscape. The upside is that this gives us a very dramatic arc around which to design a garden. The downside is that the town plows have to put the snow from the other end of the street somewhere, and that ‘somewhere’ includes the buffer zone between our sidewalk and the street. And, because the town lays down chemicals to keep the street passable prior to plowing, the snow that ends up on that buffer zone (variously called an ‘easement’ or a ‘hell strip’) is laden with salts that render the strip inhospitable to grass.

This xeric bed - shown in its
summer glory - was under
several feet of chemical-
laden snow today
We’ve adapted the strip – some 960 square feet – into a xeric garden that is planted with perennials that tolerate the chemical soup. That garden planting scheme was detailed in this blog entry. There is already a two-foot-high mound of snow on part of that xeric garden and the Valentine's Day Storm could add several feet to that total.

The second issue is where we put the snow from our own driveway. We are set back 220 feet from the street on a meandering driveway and, at the head of the driveway, the asphalt widens out to 35 feet to feed a three-car garage, plus provide an additional backing-out area for cars. The home’s architect was apparently from some southern clime because the driveway dead-ends into the garage.  As such, there is no ‘simple’ place to put snow.  The problem grows geometrically with the depth of the snow and new snowfalls follow ones already on the ground.  There is already a four-foot-high wall of snow on one wall of the backing-out area.  After this storm, it may be double that height.

Removing 18 inches of snow - carefully
We’ve adapted the gardens along the driveway to this reality. (Double-click on the plot plan at the top of this post to get a more detailed view of the descriptions that follow.)  Along the main stretch of access, there is a grass strip roughly eight to ten feet wide, the sole purpose of which is to provide a landing spot for the snow from the driveway.  The driveway is never treated, so the snow simply provides moisture for the spring growing season.

This burlap skirt for
Thuja occidentalis was
added in November
The gardens in front of the house adjacent to the wide part of the driveway are, with a few exceptions, spring and summer perennials. A thuja occidentalis has a protective burlap skirt to deflect snow and we carefully direct our snowblower away from a now-seven-year-old oxydendrum that occupies the center of that bed. The perennials in the bed are already under a blanket of up to three feet of snow.  Absent a prolonged thaw, this area may not be bare until mid-March.

The wisteria bed was planned to
support heavy snow cover
in winter
Three years ago, we created a new garden at a critical area for snow removal. The "wisteria" garden, about which I wrote in 2010, is roughly 200 square feet and is anchored by six woody shrubs – three ilex and three miniature kalmia. The balance of the bed is spring- and summer-blooming perennials that can take heavy snow cover. After the blizzard, the depth of snow thrown in this area is up to five feet and is heavily compacted. We made every effort to direct snow around the tender kalmias. We cross our fingers each season and, so far, the kalmias have bounced back without damage.

The back of the turnaround area has long been planted with Kirengeshoma (Japanese wax bells) and Hakonechola macra ‘Aureola’ (Golden Japanese forest grass), with miscellaneous rhododendron behind them. These perennials die back to the ground in late September; the several feet of snow that cover the area all winter seems to make the plants thrive in the growing season.

February 1, 2014

February 1, 1974


The passage of time throws a haze over most of our adult lives.  Months blend into years that are smoothed into decades.  Can you say with any certainty what you did on your birthday in, say, 1997?  Unless it was the date of the birth of a child or some other such milestone, can you recall what you did on a specific date two or three decades ago?

With enough research I can approximate where I was and what I was doing during a given month of a year; I went somewhere on vacation or completed a project for work.  A newspaper headline might jog a memory.  For me, though, as for most people, our adult lives are a continuum; a blur.

I can, however, remember one day with perfect clarity.  That date is Friday, February 1, 1974.


I was working for a stagnant backwater of GE
For me, the year 1974 did not start off auspiciously.  I had been out of college nearly three years and I was spending my second winter in Schenectady, New York.  I had gone to work for General Electric in a management training program with the promise that, after a year in North Carolina, I would be transferred to an office in San Jose, California.  That promise was turning out to be hollow.  Moreover, I discovered that the branch of GE that was my employer was a stagnant backwater and that my skills were ones that the company valued only as an afterthought.

It was an era of bad music...
My goal upon graduation from college had been to get as far away from Florida – the only place I had ever known – as possible.  On that score, I had succeeded.  However, in the middle of yet another upstate New York winter, that plan was looking increasingly poorly thought out.  Mostly, though, the year was starting off poorly because I was alone.  Apart from a few friends at work, I had no one in my life.

... and long gas lines
On the morning of February 1, my attendance was required at what was called a ‘section meeting’ in Colonie, NY, where my office had recently moved.  There, the sixty or so of us who could not find an excuse to be somewhere else got to hear about the importance of filling out time sheets and filing weekly activity reports.  A subsection manager delivered a half-hour talk outlining an exciting (to him) new business opportunity.

Then, at about 8:30 a.m., a small group of people joined the meeting.  They were from an office in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, some 40 miles away.  I would not have noticed their arrival except that they were forced to sit in the front of the room (I was ensconced in the back row) and that one of their number was a strikingly attractive blonde. 

For the next several hours I did little but look at her (well, at the back of her head and shoulders) and wonder who she was.  The meeting broke up shortly after noon and she was one of the first people out of the room.  My heart sank.  Then, I found her sitting in the lobby.  She was waiting for her ride back to Pittsfield. 

Betty was late to the meeting because
she had been at a Bob Dylan concert
She said that her name was Betty Burgess and that she had been late because she had been at a Bob Dylan concert in New York the previous evening and had gotten back to Pittsfield with an empty gas tank (this was an era of odd/even gas rationing).  Her smile was radiant.  She was intelligent and funny; knowledgeable and quick.  I asked if she could excuse me for a minute, but that I would be right back.

I went back to my cubicle and pulled out my copy of the employee phone directory.  There she was.  And, in the grand, sexist tradition of GE and of the era, employee names bore one of three prefixes: ‘Mr.’, ‘Mrs.’ and ‘Miss’.  Betty Burgess was a ‘Miss’.

Us, 40 years later
I was back in the lobby in seconds.  She was still there, though she was gathering her coat and briefcase for the trip back.  I gathered every ounce of courage I could muster and asked the dumbest question I had ever put to a member of the opposite sex in my life:  “Are you dateable?”

She paused for a moment and said ‘yes’.

Two years and two weeks later, we were married.  A few weeks after our wedding, we escaped from General Electric and began a new life together.

That’s what happened 40 years ago today. 

It was the luckiest day of my life.

January 24, 2014

The January Garden Club Meeting


I was the guest speaker at a garden club on Boston’s South Shore yesterday.  January has been a very good month for ‘Gardening Is Murder’; clubs want to be entertained rather than educated, especially when there is a foot of snow on the ground.  And what I provide is, for all intents and purposes, entertainment: the practice of gardening packaged as humor.

Because my presentation involves PowerPoint, I typically arrive well before the meeting starts so that my setting up is not disruptive.  I sit quietly through the business meeting, and then I get up and do my thing.

The business meeting yesterday was an eye-opener into the purpose and workings of an active garden club.  Even in the heart of winter, the club is vibrant.

Wayside gardens, like this one in my
town of Medfield, are frequently the
work of garden clubs.
Like most clubs, this one has a ‘garden therapy’ group that does outreach at retirement homes.  There was a report on the club’s most recent outing – making small floral arrangements in vintage teacups with the residents of an area nursing home.  There is also a ‘junior gardeners’ group that teaches horticulture to a group at the local school and it, too, had been active since the club’s last meeting.  If I heard the report correctly, the junior gardeners will go as a group to the Boston Flower & Garden Show in March under the club’s sponsorship.

For its own members, the club is organizing a trip to the greenhouses at Wellesley College in early March as well as an overnight outing to the Coastal Maine Botanical Garden for August.  The latter will include a talk by Bill Cullina, the Garden’s executive director and a noted horticulturalist.

Like many garden clubs, this one plants and maintains multiple wayside gardens around town.  Those sites are currently under heavy snow cover but keeping up those locales from early May through the first heavy frost is not cheap.  Clubs need to raise funds for their planting and this one will hold its annual plant sale at the end of May. Organizing and running such a sale is a volunteer-intensive effort and, through the meeting, a clipboard was circulated for members to sign up for specific tasks.

Plant sales and garden tours are
staples of garden club fundraising
efforts.  Support them and you
support your town.
Garden clubs are also social groups and one of this one has a long-time member who is in uncertain health.  The club devoted several minutes to discussing what it will do to make certain the elderly member knows she has not been forgotten by her friends.

This was one club on one frigid morning in January.  All over the country there are other clubs doing similar things.  They are educating themselves, doing outreach to their community, and beautifying their towns. 

I guess the takeaway is this:  come spring, you will likely read or hear about the garden club in your community raising money through some kind of an event – a plant sale or a garden tour, for example.  Please participate.  Whatever amount you pay will be returned to your town with long-lasting benefits. 

January 13, 2014

A Winter Lift from Fellow Indoor Gardeners


I had the pleasure this past weekend to be the guest speaker for the Hobby Greenhouse and Indoor Gardening Group of Massachusetts, an ungainly name for a very lively group of people who don’t believe that the gardening season ends with the first hard freeze.  It was a surprisingly large crowd who ventured out on a nasty Saturday afternoon for some camaraderie, plant- and tip-swapping. 

Part of our indoor garden
The group was formed in 1981 as the Hobby Greenhouse Association to give home greenhouse owners an opportunity to compare notes.  John Russo, the club president, explained to me that the current name – adopted in 2006 – recognizes that having a greenhouse is just one facet (and a somewhat rarefied one at that) of enjoying the pleasures of living with plants year-round.  Some members have full-fledged stand-alone greenhouses, some have partial glassed-in spaces.  One very spry lady with whom I spoke, lately residing in a retirement village, makes do with a particularly sunny window.

I came across a statistic last year that the average home contains five houseplants.  If that is the case, then the Sanders household is somewhere at the far end of the bell curve.  We don’t quite have a hundred, but we’re within reach of that figure.  Some are long-term residents, having been with us for decades.  Others are transitory.

Three primula that came home
with Betty
Among the latter are a trio of primroses – primula vulgaris – that came home in Betty’s grocery bag late last week.  On one level, primroses are lowest-common-denominator houseplants.  You can purchase them this time of year from every supermarket for a few dollars a pot.  Native to southern Europe and western Asia, in nature their bell-shaped flowers are white, pale yellow and pink.  Today, breeders have turned them into veritable rainbows.

Primroses are also the ultimate easy-care houseplant.  If you don’t over-water them, they’ll happily bloom indoors until summer.  If they start to flag, put them in the basement for a few weeks and watch for a new crop of flower buds.

Orchids are the other winter pleaser that plant breeders have made accessible to everyone. They’ve come a very long way in the past decade. Once orchids were rare, temperamental and outlandishly expensive. Today, tissue culture technology has made them readily available, especially phalaenopsis and dendrobium which adapt well to growing in homes. Ours occupy a tray in our upstairs hallway where a southeast-facing set of windows provide all-day light. We provide the moisture they need by resting the orchid pots on trays filled with a thin layer of pea gravel and water.

Paphiopedlium 'Napa
Valley' in a south-
facing window
Orchids require more care than primula. They need a reasonable amount of air circulation and higher humidity than most homes can provide in winter. They’re prone to spider mites, scale and aphids and so need to be watched (a little alcohol or soapy water is the best medicine). But the payoff is worth the effort: months of spectacular flowers on spikes and, miracle of miracles, re-blooms on plants that have been allowed to rest and gather energy.

I cite these two plants because attending a meeting of a group like the HG&IGGM keeps me excited about being a gardener (or, at least a Principal Undergardener) even in the throes of winter. 

I came home from that meeting and did an inventory of our indoor garden, and felt pretty good about our level of commitment.  Given that it will be nearly four months before anything can grow reliably out of doors, being an indoor gardener is a very good thing.