February 2, 2016

Seeds of Expectation

Before I get carried away, let me be clear about one thing.  We’re talking about packets of seeds.  Seeds that cost about a buck fifty for a paper packet containing somewhere between a dozen and 500 seeds.  Starbucks would not swap you a tall decaf mocha latte for four packets of seeds, no matter how you declaim their virtues.
Our 2016 seed order arrived last week.
Double-click for a full-screen view.
But virtues they are.  After you consume that latte, all you’ll have to show for it is an empty cup.  Plant those seeds and you can harvest a season’s worth of Parisian carrots or Tom Thumb butterhead lettuce.  And, talk about bargains, the value of that $1.50 seed package multiplies tenfold, or even a hundredfold.  Case in point: Butternut squash is going for $1.59 a pound at my local supermarket this week.  We’ve been eating our 2015 crop of squash since October and still have a dozen specimens in the basement with a current retail value of more than thirty dollars.
I offer that prologue because, last week, two boxes arrived in our mailbox.  They contained our vegetable and flower seeds for the spring of 2016. 
Betty began poring over seed catalogs in late November (their arrival coincided with the last turkey sandwich made from our Thanksgiving dinner).  We receive more than a dozen such catalogs each year; the ones from which she might order is a small subset of what arrives in the mailbox.  What the semifinalists have in common is that their seeds are grown for a northern climate.  “One size fits all” seed companies need not apply.
The mark-up of the seed
catalogs is a wonder to behold
Betty’s markup of these catalogs is a wonder to behold.  There are bold “X” marks through descriptions that, to my untutored eye, look like great choices.  What, exactly, is wrong with Crosby Egyptian beets?  Some varieties are circled once; others, like Maximillian sunflowers, have multiple bold rings.
Looking through the seed packets now on hand (there are more than 50), there are a few surprises.  For example, we will grow five kinds of beets this year.  Why five?  Flavor, days to maturity, and an interest in trying some new introductions without jeopardizing the main crop.
This year will also mark a momentous turn in our gardening practices.  For more than a decade we have been part of a community garden in our town.  We have had a 600 square foot plot, tilled by the town and overspread with composted manure.  All we had to do was fence and plant our little bit of horticultural heaven.
Our new raised beds give us the option
of gardening at home.
We’ll still have that community garden space but, this year, we’ll augment our real estate by ten percent.  This past autumn I built a pair of raised-bed gardens in the sunniest part of our property.  Each is four feet by eight feet for a total of 64 square feet.  The nifty part of the beds is that when I say ‘raised bed’ I mean beds where the soil line is 30 inches above the surrounding ground.  Most raised beds are up about a foot.  Ours can be worked while sitting on the wooden rail around the garden – or even standing.
And the beauty of a raised bed is that there is not a square inch of wasted space.  There are no ‘aisles’ with a raised bed.  We will plant from board to board and start as soon as the soil is warm enough to germinate early spring crops.  We can even artificially warm the soil with row covers.  Perhaps best of all, picking lettuce for a lunch or dinner salad now will mean a quick walk outside rather than a two-mile drive.
Those seeds are a harbinger of the coming season.  The days are lengthening.  Those seeds are tangible proof that winter’s end is within sight. 

Well, at least it’s a glow on the horizon.  

January 2, 2016

Oh, Useful Christmas Tree

At our old home, trees soared
to fouteen fee
t
I believe in Christmas trees with a zeal only a convert can possess.  Having grown up in South Florida in an era when the idea of flying in fresh-cut Nova Scotia firs was the stuff of science fiction, my family made do with Scotch pines that had already lost half their needles before they appeared the day after Thanksgiving at the Lions Club lot.
Since migrating to New England some 35 years ago, I have become a connoisseur of fresh-cut trees, able to discuss the particular merits of Frasers and concolor firs, balsams, and spruces.  I believed in soaring trees: for 16 years, our trees rose as high as our cathedral ceiling would allow; some years more than 14 feet.  Whatever their height, our trees fill our home with the wonderful scent that only a Christmas tree can bring.
This year's tree had to fit under an 8'
ceiling, but what it lacked in height
it made up for in girth
This Christmas was our first in our new home.  The vaulted ceiling of our old home has been supplanted by an energy-efficient eight-foot one.  So, naturally, we traded height for girth.  The Fraser fir that came into our home on December 18 had branches that stretched an improbable four feet from the trunk at it base, giving the tree an eye-popping circumference of 25 feet.  It took seven strings - 900 lights - to satisfy Betty that there were no gaps in its brilliance.
Our trees are the history of our lives, from my baby shoes and delicate ornaments from the 1930s handed down from Betty’s family, to a wealth of travel mementos repurposed as decorations.  Boxes bearing tiny bells and crystal icicles still bear the name of long-vanished stores - B. Altmans, Woodward & Lothrop - where they were purchased decades ago at prices that seem to be missing a digit.
But a Christmas tree is an ephemeral visitor.  Some friends, especially those with young children, keep their tree lighted beyond Twelfth Night.  In our home, the tree goes up a week before Christmas and comes down on New Year’s Day.  Regardless of the duration, though, the tree must eventually make its exit.
The lower boughs now protect a
slumbering hosta garden, among
other places
For our trees, those two weeks of glory are just a stage in a longer journey.  On the appointed morning after our tree has been ‘de-consecrated’ of its ornamentation but still in its stand in our home, I bring in a pair of sturdy loppers and begin cutting off those lower branches (an enormous sheet of plastic is a necessity). 
The branches are dispersed to insulate perennials and low-growing shrubs.  They offer a layer of protection from unwanted sun and its resulting harmful freeze-thaw cycles.  They lessen the impact of frost heaves and unwelcome animal visitors.  This year, the lower four feet of our tree yielded some 30 branches that were deployed to all corners of our property.  At our old home, we scavenged trees from up and down our street to cover our extensive perennial beds.  As our new garden grows, so may we return to that tradition.
The upper four feet will provide
an avian wind break and shelter
After the lower boughs were removed there remained another lush four feet of tree with thick branches.  We left those on the still-eight-foot trunk and placed the tree at the edge of the wetlands behind us.  Almost all of the trees in our wetlands are deciduous; the lone evergreens are thin white pines.  Our Christmas tree will serve as a refuge for birds seeking shelter from wind, rain, and snow. 

In April, we will collect the fir boughs and take them to our town’s transfer station where they will be chipped into mulch.  A month later, as the remaining fir loses its needles, that remnant, too, will begin its final journey.

December 23, 2015

A Festival of Lights, and Imagination

Last evening was uncommonly warm for late December.  Moreover, it was raining.  The confluence of those two meteorological events caused Betty and me to get in our car and head for West Boylston, Massachusetts, to see the 19th annual installment of ‘Winter Reimagined’ at the Tower Hill Botanic Garden.
Getting people to visit a botanical garden in winter is a marketer’s challenge.  The New York Botanical Garden hosts a ‘Holiday Train Show’ in its Conservatory.  The Massachusetts Horticultural Society has a Festival of Trees.  The Worcester County Horticultural Society, which is more or less synonymous with Tower Hill, has come up with a stunning and original alternative: a festival of lights outdoors, and a fairy land of whimsical trees and more lights indoors.  These blog pieces customarily include captions with all photos.  In this case, they seem superfluous.  I encourage you to double-click on any image to see a full-screen slideshow.
The outdoor component is worth a trip all by itself.  The formal gardens around the Tower Hill campus are decked out in lights; each tree and hardscape structure a different color.  The effect is stunning and the view dramatically changes as you walk within individual gardens.  Even the ground covers are strung with lights.  A lot of thought and considerable imagination has gone into creating vistas that cry out for you to stop to admire and try your hand at nighttime photography.
It’s the indoor part, though, that pulls out all the stops.  Tower Hill starts with two exceptional assets: a pair of gorgeous conservatories, the Orangerie and the Limonaia.  Both are filled with mature subtropical plants that are an antidote to a New England winter.  For Winter Reimagined, there are lights.  Not overpowering and not intrusive.  The lights are subtle tweaks that turn an already handsome pair of spaces into something that is, well, romantic. 
The other indoor spaces within Tower Hill are given over to decorated trees and something very special and unusual: an igloo.
First, the trees.  You’re probably thinking, “another Festival of Trees”.  You’re wrong.  Yes, these are artificial Christmas trees and, yes, they’re decorated.  But that’s where the similarity ends.  These trees are decked out to be in sync with nature.  The materials on many of the trees are pine cones, seed pods, nuts and such.  For others, the theme is recycling: everything on the tree is re-purposed from everyday disposable objects.  Think flowers from soda bottles, for example.  A tree sponsored by one of Tower Hill’s caterers has a ‘topper’ of gold-sprayed forks and knives gloriously exploding out of a Styrofoam ball.
You can’t win these trees in a raffle or buy them from Tower Hill; they’re there to admire and to inspire.  Many are the creation of the Tower Hill staff and volunteers.  Some trees are more memorable than others, but the overall effect is spectacular.
Then, there’s the igloo.  In a space beyond the Orangerie is a modest room and, in the room is a large reindeer, some trees sprayed white, and a luminescent igloo.  It’s maybe four feet high and eight feet wide and will comfortably seat three or four children.  It’s made out of (pause for dramatic effect)… plastic milk jugs.  Several hundred gallon-sized containers that would have otherwise had a single two-week existence as a holder of milk or less wholesome beverage have been re-purposed to create a fun environment.  It’s a kid magnet and I hope the adults chaperoning those children take the opportunity to speak to their charges about the wonders of recycling.

There’s no Santa at Winter Reimagined.  This is a non-sectarian celebration that aims to lift everyone’s spirits on the shortest days and longest nights of the year.  The event runs through January 3rd.  It is free to Tower Hill members.  Non-member adults pay $15, seniors are $10, children 6-18 are $5 and those younger are free.  

December 15, 2015

A Garden Club Christmas

Something seems to come over garden clubs in December: they suddenly get extraordinarily creative and preternaturally festive.  Last year I wrote about three such club events:  a house tour in Hingham, a Greens Sale in Medfield, and a Festival of Trees in Easton.  This year, Betty’s and my travels took us to several other club events.  Two of them stand out for sheer exuberance. 
Whip Hill in Stoneham
Stoneham, Massachusetts is a beautiful town.  Just eight miles north of the center of Boston, more than a third of the town’s 6.7 square miles is taken up by the Middlesex Fells Reservation and bucolic Spot Pond.  In the 1930s, a local industrialist created an estate on one of the highest points of land in town and built a Tudor-style home.  The estate, Whip Hill, was bequeathed to the town in the late 1960s and the grand house serves as a meeting place for local organizations, including the Stoneham Garden Club. 
Just for the kids, a
tabletop Christmas village
On the second Saturday of each December, the Stoneham Garden Club throws a Christmas party for the town.  The club elaborately decorates several rooms.  There’s a large model railroad village on a tabletop to ‘wow’ the kids.  Warm apple cider and Christmas cookies are doled out by the hundreds.  Best of all, one room is given over to a Kris Kringle who is a dead ringer for Edmund Gwynn.  The line to see Santa stretches for a hundred feet, and every kid gets not just a lollipop, but enough quality time with the Big Guy to be assured that their wish list will get a fair hearing back at the North Pole.
Betty with club officers Bernie Diluzio 
(left) and Connie Filosi (right)
You’re probably thinking that this is a terrific fund raiser.  And, it probably would be except that there’s no charge (although donations are accepted for the cookies).  This is the club’s present to the residents of Stoneham.  And, when we were there, Whip Hill was overflowing with visitors.  It is a wonderful tradition.
Oh, and it isn’t the only way that the club ‘gives back’ to the community.  After an ice dam caused extensive damage to the beautiful antique pine floors in two rooms at Whip Hill, the Stoneham Garden Club picked up the check for refinishing the floors.
A good tour book helps everyone
navigate unfamiliar territory
A day later, we were in Littleton, Massachusetts for the 2015 installment of the Littleton Country Gardeners’ Holiday House Tour.  Decorated houses are a fund-raising staple for garden clubs.  The trick is to find between five and ten homeowners who do a great job of decorating and are willing to open their houses to total strangers for a day (the other trick is to have an incantation that will ensure good weather).
Littleton has a wonderfully active garden club that maintains 13 ‘wayside gardens’ around the community and has undertaken the replanting of gardens on the town common as well as at the town hall.  There’s a fresh floral arrangement each week at the town library. That’s just part of how the club serves its exurban community of 9,000, 26 miles northwest of the Financial District.  The Holiday House Tour helps defray the cost of those good works. 
An India-themed tree
(double-click for a full screen)
A good tour starts with a good program book.  Littleton’s provides an easy-to-follow map with a paragraph-long synopsis of what makes the decorations interesting and, where appropriate, a history of the house (one of the homes on the tour dates to 1780).  The Littleton program also includes a photo of the house’s exterior to help identify the location.
Every good tour should have at least one home where the owner or owners pull out all the stops.  A home on Goldsmith Street in Littleton fit that description to a tee.  She starts decorating in October.  From the outside, the home is a pleasant, sprawling 1930s Cape.  In the inside, it is Christmas in every room and it is glorious.  Every flat surface in the home is occupied by a tree, a Santa, a village, carolers, or some other reminder of the holiday.  
How about a post office-themed Christmas tree?  There was one, and if I looked long enough for the right kind of ornaments, I could probably replicate that tree.  But how about a tree with a theme of India?  I marveled at a tree overflowing with elephants, Hindu goddesses, peacocks… you name it and, if it had anything to do with India, it was on tree.  I asked the homeowner how many times she had been to India.  “Never,” she said.  “I just saw a few ornaments and went on from there.” 
A good house tour should also include an informative and talkative host.  At that circa-1780 house, the homeowner was more than pleased to take us on a guided tour of the downstairs, starting with the core historic building and then showing us how the colonial-era elements were preserved and incorporated into an attractive, modern home.  And our personalized tour, of course, was held amid a very beautifully Christmas-decorated home.
Why were the fireplace logs numbered?
The other thing I look for in a house tour is a ‘why-didn’t-I-think-of-that?’ moment, and I found it at a log home on Foster Street.  Amid a home filled with eclectic collections, I encountered a firewood rack filled with foot-long pine logs next to a fireplace.  Nothing unusual there, except that these logs all bore hand-written inscriptions like ’97 and ’99.
Baffled, I asked the homeowner if she could explain the meaning of the numbers on the logs.  She explained that, each year, the family purchased a 14-foot-tall tree for their cathedral-ceilinged family room.  And, each year, when the tree came down, they cut off the bottom-most foot of the tree and inscribed the date.  It was their way of keeping a little piece of each Christmas so that they could enjoy it for years to come. 
Now why didn’t I think of that?

November 27, 2015

Coming Soon: The End of an Era

If you live in southern New England and you ever thought a florist or floral designer did an especially imaginative job choosing the flowers for a wedding, flower show, or garden club presentation, you should probably include the Boston Flower Exchange in your thanks.  At the ‘flower exchange’, as most people refer to it, the aforementioned florists and designers can browse 13 wholesalers under one, 75,000-square-foot roof that is wall-to-wall displays.
The flower exchange is a venerable institution that has its origins back when greenhouses in the hinterlands around the city grew summer and winter blooms (notably carnations, roses and camellias) for the carriage trade.  Over time, ‘outside’ flowers were allowed in. 
Today, the source of most flowers is South America and the Netherlands.  They’re flown in overnight and, beginning at 2 a.m., the flower exchange wholesalers collect their orders at Logan Airport, bring them to the market, sort them, and have them ready for sale before 5 a.m.  I can attest that at 6 a.m. the flower exchange is in high gear.  By 9 a.m. the stalls are mostly bare and the market formally closes at noon.
The beauty of the flower exchange is the breadth of offering and specialization.  One stall specializes in ‘tropicals’, another in orchids.  If you can’t find the right shade of the specific flower you need at Chester Brown, try Cupp & Cupp or Carbone.  If you need 100 dozen roses in the exact same hue of cream for a wedding next Saturday, explain you need to the salesman at Riccardi and let them ensure your order is filled.
Inside the flower exchange
Although not part of the Boston Flower Exchange, life for those florists and designers is made easier still by the presence of Jacobson Floral Supply.  Housed in a supermarket-sized building adjacent to the flower exchange, Jacobson offers everything imaginable (except cut flowers) someone could need. 
You would think that every city would have its own flower exchange.  You would be wrong.  Most cities – including most major cities – have widely dispersed wholesalers, requiring florists and designers to either establish a strong rapport with one of those wholesalers, or else to drive from one end of (say) Houston to the other to find what they need.   Out-of-town designers who come to Boston for events have nothing but high praise the institution, and uniformly wish it was replicated back they came from.
When the flower exchange (center,
with Jacobson's just to the left) was
built, the neighborhood was seedy
You would also think that the future of the Boston Flower Exchange would be as secure as the North End’s Paul Revere statue.  Again, you would be wrong.  The flower exchange led a peripatetic existence for decades before settling in the old Cyclorama Building in the South End in 1923.  By 1963, however, that building’s future was threatened by redevelopment and the Exchange’s Board of Directors went looking for a permanent home.
They found it a mile away in a desolate, 5.6 acre plot hard by the elevated Southeast Expressway amid gritty, abandoned industrial loft buildings.  Built on land that was once part of Boston Harbor, a functional, one-story building with ample parking and loading docks opened in 1971.  Jacobson Floral Design built their store on an adjoining plot.  For more than four decades, florists and designers had a readily accessible, central market where the lone complaint was crime (ameliorated by a steel fence around the perimeter of the property, and then more recently by a much improving neighborhood).
Today, the flower exchange sits atop
a 'hot' property and has been sold
But in the second decade of the new century, that part of South Boston has become exceptionally attractive to developers.  In September 2014, the Exchange’s Board received an unsolicited offer of more than $35 million for the site.  Other offers quickly followed.  In May 2015, the vendors who make up the Board voted overwhelmingly to accept the offer from a still-unidentified buyer.  The transfer and closing of the market will take place before December 2017.
The reality of the closing of the market – and the apparent likelihood that there is no replacement facility on the horizon – has started to sink in among those who have always relied on the flower exchange.  One highly regarded North Shore floral designer mused about the situation during a floral demonstration last week.  His favorite wholesaler – one who has always found just the right blooms for demanding clients – is contemplating retiring rather than relocating; a devastating change that would add an unwanted, new layer of complexity to what is already a demanding business.
I think about the fifty-plus amateur designers who enter the competition at the Boston Flower & Garden Show on each of its two entry days in March.  They receive no compensation for their design; only a ribbon or two.  To earn that ribbon, they’ll spend many hours (sometimes several dozen), creating a unique design at home.  Then, the day before they enter their design in competition, they converge on the flower market between 5 and 6 a.m. where they’ll spend an hour or more searching out the perfect blooms among several wholesalers.  Those flowers will go back home where the designers will take a day to ‘condition’ them.  The following morning, those same designers will descend on the Seaport World Trade Center at 5:30 a.m. to create their masterpieces.  All for a ribbon and the satisfaction of having created something beautiful for others to admire.
That frenzy of competition is replicated across half a dozen other ‘major’ shows across the region each year (Topsfield, Marshfield, Barnstable), plus several dozen club shows where the more ambitious designers eschew supermarket flowers in favor of those from the flower exchange.

A change is coming.  An end of an era.  This is one case where the future – at least for floral designers – may not be as bright as the present.

October 29, 2015

400 Down, 1200 to Go

There is an unwritten responsibility that one spouse is expected to be supportive of the other.  You’re supposed to see their point of view, offer them encouragement, and be their cheerleader.  If they come home one day and say, ‘I think we ought to move to Paris’, you should hear them out.
This week, I am exploring the limits of supportiveness, and at what point it becomes, well, enabling.  You see, I am now helping plant 1600 spring bulbs.
It all began back in the halcyon days of early September when all things were possible.  Betty sat down with bulb catalogs and a map of our property.  She read the breathless descriptions (“Poeticus Narcissi, traditionally known as the ‘Poet's Narcissi’, are fragrant favorites with very large, white perianths with small, dainty cups in contrasting colors. Great naturalizers from yesteryear!) that invariably conclude with the uplifting, “Narcissi are The Art & Soul of Spring.”
Our bulb order.  Double click
to see at full size
She would read me a description and show me a photo.  I would agree that I was looking at the most beautiful daffodil/hyacinth/allium ever bred.  She would say, “Wouldn’t that look great outside the kitchen window,” or “That would be perfect in the Magnolia bed,” and I would aver that she had chosen the ideal bulb for the perfect location.
Even after Betty tallied up her bulb ‘wish list’ and said, “You know, we’re looking at close to a thousand bulbs here,” I continued my reassurance that we were not overreaching. 
“We’ve got all autumn to plant the bulbs,” I said.  And promptly forgot about the whole thing.
We had duffelbags full
of bulbs
There is a point, though, where ‘being supportive’ becomes ‘enabling’.  Betty finished her bulb order and submitted it.  I know I crossed the line because, on October 20, three enormous boxes appeared in our driveway, accompanied by a few choice words from our UPS driver.  Each box weighed more than 60 pounds.  Inside were duffel bags full of bulbs, many of them doubles and triples.
As the whole world knows by now, we are installing a new landscape at a new house.  As such, it is reasonable that we are buying inordinate numbers of things like spring bulbs because, well, we have a lot of space to fill.  And, we’re filling those spaces in unusual ways. 
Here’s how it works: using a rake, Betty will sketch out an amoeba-shaped plot for bulbs.  My job is to remove the soil in that plot down to a depth of eight inches; leaving, of course, at least an addition inch of soil so that the bulbs have a ‘cushion’ for their roots to sink into.  After a top layer of mulch is pulled aside, I carefully shovel out the soil and place it in seven or eight large tubs, breaking up any clods I might encounter.
I removed the soil, Betty
planted the bulbs
Betty’s job is to place the bulbs, overspread about two inches of soil, add lime and fertilizer, and then refill the balance of the bed and re-place the mulch.  On a good afternoon, it will take about 90 minutes start-to-finish to excavate, plant, and re-fill a 100-bulb bed.
That assumes, of course, that there’s nothing to go through but soil. Back in May we paid a landscaping contractor to excavate out the ‘builder’s crud’ from our new home and replace it with high-quality loam.  ‘Builder’s crud’ is almost too kind a term: what we had on our property was a mixture of large and small rocks with just enough soil to disqualify our site as a quarry.
In a short-sighted effort to save a few dollars, I didn’t press the landscaper to dig as close as feasible to a retaining wall at the front of the lot.  Instead, I said, “Oh, six feet from the wall is fine.  We’re just going to plant some shrubs there.”  We left that particular strip of crud in place.
With the bulbs covered, it's
wait until spring!
As we began planting shrubs this summer, we realized that the area atop that retaining wall is our ‘welcome to the garden’ statement.  Each day brings hundreds of walkers, joggers, and cyclists by our house and the plants atop that wall are the first thing everyone sees.  We put considerable effort into making that area beautiful with an array of shrubs and perennials.  And now we have several hundred bulbs earmarked for that area.
If it takes 90 minutes to excavate and plant an area that is pure loam, how long does it take to excavate an area that is pure rock?
This eight-foot-long trench against
the retaining wall took four hours to
dig, yielded three cairns of rocks,
and was planted with 62 bulbs
.
On two afternoons I have devoted multiple hours to digging out a few pathetic feet of crud.  Just shoveling out the debris is arduous after which each shovelful has to be sifted for rocks, roots, metal rods, unexploded ordnance, and whatever else was deposited on the site.  As of this writing, there are something over 100 bulbs planted along the wall.  By the time it is completed, the number of hours consumed for that one area will be almost as much as that required for the rest of the property.
But there is unmistakable beauty in what we are doing.  Beginning in April, 200 crocus will begin blooming, to be followed quickly by nearly a thousand daffodils and then 400 muscari and hyacinths.  For six weeks, our property will be a riot of color and texture from those bulbs, after which the shrubs and perennials take over.
Sometimes, being supportive is accepting that your spouse’s vision is better than your own and, if it becomes ‘enabling’ then so be it.  Yes, there’s a lot of backbreaking work to execute that vision, but I have all winter for my back to recover.

(Undergardener's note: the last of the 1800 bulbs (don't ask) were planted on November 19)

October 22, 2015

What They Wrought

Groton - it really is this beautiful
New England is full of beautiful towns.  They are small gems; vestiges of another time and certainly another century.  The best of these towns are beautiful because of civic pride.  The towns have families or institutions that seek to preserve the best of the past while accommodating the present and planning for the future.
Edmund Tarbell's 'In the Orchard'
is said to have been painted in Groton
Any short list of the most beautiful New England towns would include Groton, Massachusetts.  It is a village of 10,000 people roughly 40 miles from Boston’s Financial District.  The Nashua River flows through it; Gibbet Hill in the center of town provides beautiful vistas of the surrounding countryside.  Groton is or has been home to people as diverse as painter Edmund Tarbell, William Prescott (who commanded his troops at the Battle of Bunker Hill not to fire “until you see the whites of their eyes”), and rock musician J. Geils.
In short, Groton is the kind of town you would think doesn’t need improving.  Just say ‘no’ to all development, shut out the world, and enjoy the beauty.  That, of course, is a recipe for stagnation and inevitable decline.  For every Groton there are half a dozen sad New England towns that time passed by, leaving only decaying buildings and faded memories. 
Groton preserves its history, but is
hardly frozen in time.  The Boutwell

House was home to Massachusetts Gov. 
George Boutwell, who also served as
Treasury Secretary under Pres. Grant.
On Tuesday, I had the opportunity to see one of the reasons why Groton remains so beautiful.  The Groton Garden Club invited me to come talk about books at the town’s library and, in the course of that visit, I got to be an adjunct on a tour of wayside gardens the Club has created and, in all but one case, maintains.
‘Wayside garden’ is (at least to me) a collective term for everything from formal gardens to planted memorials and pocket parks.  A good wayside garden can be appreciated from an automobile passing by at 30 miles an hour.  It can also be a place you can walk in, explore, or sit and contemplate.
This tree and shrub garden honors
native son William Prescott
The Groton Garden Club maintains five sites around town.  Each one has a unique history and purpose.  There’s a tree and shrub garden honoring William Prescott of Bunker Hill fame.  It is simple, dignified, and well designed.  In the center of town is the Hollis Street triangle, which transforms what would otherwise be an undistinguished traffic island into a memorable patch of color and low-growing shrubs. 
This Blue Star Memorial By-Way
Marker is a tribute to those who
served in the Armed Forces
There’s also a Blue Star Memorial By-Way Marker on Sawyer Common.  For those not familiar with the Blue Star Marker program, it is a long-standing project of National Garden Clubs, Inc. The program encourages local garden clubs to place markers – typically bronze plaques mounted on stone – that honor those who have served in America’s armed forces.  The one placed by the Groton Garden Club in 2011 is surrounded by arborvitae and fothergilla that looks good anytime of the year, but is especially colorful in the autumn.  The marker sits in the shadow of a rare, mature black walnut tree.  A simple nearby stone bench provides a place to rest and remember.
The Groton Garden Club's work at
Boutwell House earned the club
recognition from National Garden
Clubs Inc. 
Next to the town library is a poignant memorial garden for which the Club has care and maintenance responsibility.  On September 11, 2001, Peter and Sue Hanson, and their daughter, Christine, of Groton boarded UA 175 for Los Angeles. The simple plaque is surrounded by lilacs and fall-blooming perennials (timed to coincide with the attack’s anniversary).  The memorial is also adjacent to the playground where Christine Hanson, who was not yet three years old, spent many afternoons of her too-short life.
The 'Four Corners' garden at the busy
intersection of two state highways
required seven months of state review
We also saw the Club’s handiwork at the Boutwell House, home of the Groton Historical Society.  It isn’t formally a Club-maintained site, but the Groton Garden Club designed and planted a garden there and, this year received the Kellogg Civic Achievement Award from National Garden Clubs, Inc.  The project involved beautifying the area around the handicapped-access ramps.  Such ramps are usually a no-man’s land of concrete, metal, and asphalt.  Aided by a new, well-designed ramp, the Club designed and installed a garden focusing in native shrubs.  The result is an eye-catching area that enhances the historic building while effectively ‘hiding’ the necessary ramp.

A few of the people responsible for
creating and maintaining those
gardens.  From left to right, Barbara,
Laura, (guest) Betty and Ann.
The Club’s most recent project is also its most ambitious.  While the center of Groton is filled with charming small shops and offices, there is also a development east of town with a supermarket, drug store, and other commercial activities.  The development sits at the junction of two state highways and, as a result, the easements are all state property with stringent restrictions on preserving sight lines and such.  A lesser club might have taken a pass on trying to create something beautiful for such a site, but the Groton Garden Club persevered through seven months of state review and approvals.  Last fall, the Club installed a superb, roughly 700-square-foot perennial garden in a triangular-shaped traffic island.  Instead of a flat expanse of grass (or, more likely, weeds) there’s a beautiful raised-bed garden that lends a sense of place to an otherwise anonymous suburban site.  The result is a model for other towns to emulate.  

October 8, 2015

Revisiting the Scene of the Crime

Yesterday I revisited the scene of an imaginary crime and, in the process, committed an actual one.  Herein lies that story.
My fictional 'Brookfield Fair' looks a lot like
the very real Topsfield Fair
Anyone who has seen a map of the Topsfield Fair will immediately note a striking resemblance to the map of the fictional “Brookfield Fair” that appears on the flyleaf of The Garden Club Gang.  Further, anyone who has heard my ‘Gardening Is Murder’ presentation knows the circumstances under which that venerable annual event came to be the inspiration for the story of a heist that doesn’t go quite the way it was planned.
For those who don’t know the story behind the story, a brief synopsis:  The Topsfield Fair has, among its many attractions, a flower show sponsored by the Garden Club Federation of Massachusetts.  My wife, Betty, is a floral designer who periodically enters such competitions.  Once you have signed up to design at the Fair, you also are making a commitment to be at the Fairgrounds at the ungodly hour of 7 a.m., where you have two hours to create your design.
Medfield is 52 miles from Topsfield and the only sane route from Point A to Point B is the insane circumferential highway known variously as Route 128, I-95, and the Yankee Division Highway.  Rush hour on that particular roadway begins at 5 a.m. (I promise I am not making this up) and so, to be at the Fairgrounds by 7, you need to leave Medfield before 6 a.m.  And, to arrive there without the residual urge to strangle anyone driving a gray Honda Accord, you need someone to drive you.
Even at 6 a.m., Route 128
is not for the faint of heart
And so, on a morning seven or eight years ago, I did my Loving Spouse Duty and drove Betty to Topsfield.  Unfortunately, once she was ensconced in front of her pedestal to begin her design, my presence became distracting and she bluntly let me know that I should go somewhere else for the duration.  Where I went was out in front of the Flowers Building (yes, the Flower Show has its own barn-like building which also houses horticulture and mini-landscape exhibits).  Close by were two other features: the Fair Administration Building and the Fair’s Main Gate.  I thought it mildly interesting that the three landmarks made a tight little cluster.
Then, the ‘Aha’ moment occurred.  An armored truck pulled into the main gate, went around a little traffic circle, and stopped in front of the Administration Building.  Two men jumped out of the truck, walked into the building, then came back out in under thirty seconds carrying a pair of enormous saddlebags.  The bags went into the truck, and the truck pulled out of the Fairgrounds.  Elapsed time:  perhaps ninety seconds.  I realized the truck had likely just picked up the Fair’s daily gate proceeds. 
And then it hit me that I was in the last bastion of the cash economy.  In a world where debit and credit cards have replaced cash in our wallets, places like the Topsfield Fair continue to be ones where we peel off twenty-dollar bills.  In that moment was born the plot of The Garden Club Gang in which four ‘little old ladies’ will pull off the feat of robbing that truck in broad daylight (yet with no witnesses), leaving behind no clues, and injuring no one.
Well, yesterday morning Betty was again entered at the Topsfield Fair and, once again, I was her designated driver.  But things have changed in the intervening years.  I have gotten to know many of the designers who form the core of the amateur competitions (they are ‘amateurs’ in name only).  Further, I spent three years as Chairman of Blooms! at the Boston Flower and Garden Show, where I learned the intricacies of how these competitions operate (knowledge I put on display in A Murder at the Flower Show and Murder in Negative Space).  Instead of wandering the fairgrounds, I stopped to chat with the flower show staff.  Moreover, taking a cue from one of my most useful activity as Chairman of Blooms!, I helped designers carry in cartloads of flowers from their cars.
Betty's design captured
the essence of Connecticut
Most designers were at their work places by 7.  A few had already completed their arrangements by 7:45.  But there were still a few open spaces.  These late arrivers would have to work quickly.  I saw one of those late arrivers struggling to bring in a cart and armload of flowers.  Her name was Rita, and she is a very nice lady.  I immediately rushed over to help her.  I swept up her cart and carried it into the building, following her instructions about which station was hers.  I placed the cart in the proper location, feeling very proud of myself. 
Which was when I got my foot caught in a basket.
There are moments in your life that will endure forever in memory.  This was one of them.  I did not see the basket; I knew only that I was inexplicably falling down.  And so I grabbed for something to keep me upright.  The ‘something’ that I grabbed was a pedestal on which rested the completed floral design of one Bonni Dinneen.
I did not know this at the time.  Nor did I know I had simultaneously jostled yet another pedestal.  All I knew was that I was being drenched in water and covered with croton leaves.  From start to finish, my pratfall lasted perhaps two seconds.  To me, it lasted an eternity. 
I had just ruined someone’s entry.
In seconds, I was surrounded by women asking me if I was all right.  Physically, I was fine.  A little wet perhaps but none the worse for wear.  What I was, was mortified.  This was the thing Betty had been admonishing me about for more than a decade:  stay away from the designers – they don’t have time for chit-chat.  And, for heaven’s sake, don’t ever get near any of the designs…
I slinked out of the Flowers Building and sat in my car.  As I was doing my slinking, I heard people asking if Bonni was still in the building and heard that, yes, she was still somewhere nearby.  I did not have the courage to face her, nor anyone else.  This was my ‘You’ll-shoot-your-eye-out’ moment.  Oh. My. God.
Early in the afternoon, the judging results were emailed to the entrants.  Betty received a 90+ Red for her Connecticut door hanging.  A 90+ Red is a big deal.  It means you got second place, but your design was good enough that it could have won a Blue (first), except that someone else’s entry was just a skosh better. 
Bonni's reconstructed design
received a Blue!
Oh, and Bonni Dinneen’s entry in a different category won a Blue.  And, no, it wasn’t a ‘we’re-so-sorry-for-what-happened’ gesture for my clumsiness.  The judges don’t show up until 9 a.m. and they have no idea whose entries they are viewing, and they certainly have no idea that someone’s entry had to be re-done on the fly.
I sent Bonni a congratulatory note that also apologized for my causing such devastation.  This morning, I received the following reply:
I feel as though I owe you an apology.  As I saw it happen, all I could do was laugh.  It was a comedic episode played in slow motion, with my design splaying in all directions and you grappling for control, while the second pedestal was wiggling back in forth.  No one knew if the second stand would also topple.  It was truly funny to see.  I apologize that I laughed at your accident.  I had to walk away, my laughter was so pronounced; like watching someone slip on the ice, it was that funny.   
Please if you ever tell the story...  tell it with a light heart and without embarrassment.  I know I will, when I encourage others to pursue flower design.

Bonni, that’s just the way I’m telling it.

September 29, 2015

Watering with an Eyedropper

My street, with a corner of the garden
My street got a long-awaited repaving last week. In three days, town crews efficiently took off the top two inches of asphalt and laid down a like amount of new blacktop along a three-mile course.  I was impressed with both the speed and attention to environmental conservation, with the old macadam bring instantly whisked away for reprocessing.
Like many of my neighbors, I came out to watch as the paving crew went by.  As they worked in front of my house, Highway Department Foreman Bobby Kennedy paused to look over our still-abuilding landscape.
“Neal,” he said.  “I don’t think I want to know how you’re keeping all those plants so green.”
Medfield, like virtually every town in eastern Massachusetts, is under tight water restrictions this year.  Even including that mountain of snow that fell between January and March, the region has had less than 25 inches of precipitation so far this year against an average of nearly 33 in the first nine months.  It just didn’t rain this summer.  We are in a drought.
We thought we had our watering needs taken care of when we installed four 55-gallon rain barrels across the back of our house.  As little as a quarter of an inch of rainfall will fill those four barrels to overflowing.  The trick to a rain barrel, however, is to first get the rain and, second, to get the rain to fall evenly over time.  As the chart nearby shows so starkly, September produced less than half the normal amount of rainfall and it all fell in a six day period in the middle of the month.
Too little rain, and not spread out
sufficiently to make rain barrels
a useful tool for conservation
And so, to keep our new plants alive and growing while adhering to both the letter and spirit of water bans, we have resorted to an eyedropper approach to watering.  Or, to be more accurate, we employ a flotilla of cat litter containers.
Here’s a statistic:  if you have a 3,000 square-foot lawn – that’s 100 feet by 30 feet – and you turn on your sprinkler system long enough to put a half an inch of water on that lawn, you will use a thousand gallons of water.
We don’t have a lawn and, if we did, we wouldn’t water it.  Lawns go dormant in the heat of summer and recover nicely when cooler weather returns.  But we have eight newly planted trees, roughly 60 shrubs, and nearly 200 perennials, all in the ground three months or less.  If the roots of those trees and plants don’t have access to water, they die.
Our secret weapon:  an
armada of cat litter
containers, shown next to
our empty rain barrels
We also have a massive number of three-gallon containers that originally held cat litter.  Today, they have been re-purposed to hold water.  Our original plan was to use the containers as ‘overflow’ for all the water being produced by our rain barrels; the equivalent of a fifth or sixth barrel.  But in the absence of rainfall, the water in those containers comes out of a faucet.
When we water, each tree gets two containers, or six gallons, of water.  Each shrub gets between one and 1.5 gallons of water.  Depending on size, each perennials gets from a quart and half a gallon of water.  The water is applied directly to the base of the plant where we wisely created a mulch berm around everything we planted.
So, how much water do we use?  I started counting the number of times I re-filled those containers.  Amazingly, we are watering our entire garden using less than 180 gallons. 
There’s just one minor downside to this otherwise ingenious, water-efficient method of keeping our plants properly hydrated… someone has to carry that water from plant to plant and fill those jugs. 
Every tree, shrub, and
perennial we've planted
incorporates a mulch
ring to hold water
Betty and I share that activity, which we typically perform just after dawn on those days we water.  I fill twenty or so jugs and then pre-position them where experience says they will do the most good.  Betty does the actual watering and leaves the empty containers where I can collect them.  I re-fill the jugs and return them to where I think they’ll be needed.  All this is done at breakneck speed with jugs being placed and collected up to 150 feet from where I fill them.  A physician would say I’m getting a good upper cardio workout.  The neighbors have concluded we’re nuts.
You may ask yourself, ‘why not just use a hose?’  That’s a good question; a sign of a nimble mind at work.
The answer is twofold: first, we can water with containers in a fraction of the time it takes to do so with a hose.  Our watering record is 20 minutes.  I can fill a three-gallon container in ten seconds.  Try pushing that much water through a hose without blasting the soil off the roots of a plant in the process.  Also, hose watering is, at minimum, a two-person process.  One person points the hose.  The others performs a continuous mambo to keep the trailing part of the hose – and we’re talking a hundred feet of hose here – from crushing or being dragged over unsuspecting plants.  I might also add that dragged hoses have a way of ‘reconfiguring’ bark mulch beds and gravel paths, and disassembling stone walls.
Garden hoses have a tendency to
disassemble rock walls
The second answer is that there is no waste with containers: every drop gets on the plants that need it. Moreover, those containers are continually being filled not only with water drawn specifically for watering, but for other household activities as well.  We collect the water other people let flow down their drains – shower water awaiting that perfect temperature, for example, or water used to wash vegetables.  Trust me, the plants don’t mind.

The downside is the abandonment of any attempt at dignity. At 6:30 a.m., our neighbors can look out their windows and see the Sanders flying around the garden carrying those dumb containers.  I cannot help but notice that we are now getting a contingent of dog walkers who have adjusted their schedules to better enjoy the spectacle.  I know we’re good for a laugh.

August 31, 2015

The Ogre and the Squash Vine Memo

Eight years ago, Betty and I made the mistake of complaining to one of Medfield's town’s selectman about the sad state of the volunteer-managed community garden.  We noted that the garden seemed to exist for the pleasure of a few well-placed friends of ‘the Committee’, who lavished multiple plots on themselves while neglecting basic services such as water and mowing.  Plot-holders abandoned their gardens in mid-season and those gardens grew up in weeds.  Couldn’t something be done, we asked?
Something was done.  A few weeks later, we found ourselves in charge of the operation.  Just the two of us.  The Committee had resigned en masse.
At first, the
squash vines
were a minor
problem
We like to think that we’ve made the garden a better place in the intervening years. Now covering three-quarters of an acre, there are 62 gardeners and 62 gardens (all occupied, thank you) in two sizes.  The perimeter is mowed regularly, aged manure has been overspread on the site enough times that the garden is now a foot above the surrounding fields, wood chips are delivered to create paths, and the six water spigots all function properly.
There are no ‘rules’ for the garden, only guidelines; and they fit neatly on one page.  But even guidelines require some level of enforcement.  Enforcement requires an Ogre.  That’s me.  Every week, I walk the garden looking for problems.  What follows is a true story.  Only the name of the individual has been changed. 
It is the time of year when the gardening season is winding down.  The gardens, though, are lush with crops.  In some of the gardens, pumpkin and winter squash vines climb and/or go under fences.  Zinnias and cleomes press against groaning fences as do tomatoes heavy with fruit. Gardens that were spotless a few weeks ago now show noticeable weeds.  The result is the three-foot-wide walkways around certain plots become impassable. 
But then the
vines spilled over
the fence
It is time for the Garden Ogre to go to work:  I send out ‘The Squash Vine Memo’.
My first email is light and breezy:
Subject:  Garden maintenance
“Hey, Judy!  Can you get down to the garden this weekend and take care of the squash vines out in the walkways?”
I send out twelve such emails, each personalized and tailored to the specific problems in that plot.  Four gardeners quickly respond that they will get right on it.
On Monday morning I’m back at the garden.  Six of the gardens have been brought back to a semblance of order.  Excellent!  But six have not been touched and the vines are longer and more treacherous.  I go home and write:
Subject:  Please take care of your garden
“Judy:  The squash vines from your garden have spilled out into the walkway, making it difficult for people to get to their own gardens.  We would all appreciate your taking time this evening to clear your path.”
By the time of the
third email the
squash was out of
control
That email to the six miscreants will draws three responses along the lines of, “Sorry!  We were away!  I’ve sent my son down to take care of it.”
Two days later, I am again at the garden.  Two of the six gardens have been cleaned.  The other four – including one that promised immediate response – have vines that now are completely across the aisle and climbing the neighbors’ fences.  I go home and write:
Subject:  You need to clean your garden right now!
“Judy:  This is my third email about getting the vines out of the aisles around your garden. You owe your neighbors an apology and you need to get down to the garden today to clean up the mess.”
This was the state of
the squash vines when
I sent out the 'now
or else' memo
The next day, two of the remaining gardens have, in fact, been cleared of vines.  I even have a note from one of the offenders apologizing for taking so long to take action.
But two gardens remain holdouts.  Not only are the vines still a problem, the weeds have started going to seed.  And so I go home and write one final message:
Subject:  You are going to lose your plot at the community garden
“Judy:  Your garden has become a hazard for everyone else.  If, by the end of today, you have not completely cleared the weeds and vines that are clogging the walkways around your garden, I will take them down myself.  If I have to do that, you will lose your right to a plot next year.
Neal Sanders
Garden Ogre”
The next day, I go to the garden, hoe and clippers in hand.  But I don’t need my tools: both gardens have been ridded of vines in the aisles and weeds along the fence line.
I go home and open my email.  I find this message:
Subject:  My plot at the garden
“Dear Mr. Sanders:
Why do you have to be so mean about it?  All you had to do was ask.
Judy”
As a writer, I spend my days exploring the mystery of human nature.  I invent characters who commit crimes.  I dream up sleuths who can see through the fog of warped motives and personal turpitude to point a finger of justice at the guilty party.  Then, just when I think I’ve finally got a handle on the inner workings of my fellow man, along comes a “Judy” and I have to go back to square one.