August 18, 2018

August at Grandma's Cottage

It’s a modest snapshot from everyday life.  Two rocking chairs on a front porch, one is adult-sized and made of wicker with a cushioned seat; the other is a colorful wooden one, sized for a young child.  There’s a small table laden with books and two glasses with iced tea.  Looking closer at the table, you get clues about the absent adult: a stack of classic mysteries (Lord Peter Wimsey! Amelia Peabody!), but tucked in the middle is also a copy of Enchanted April. Surely, this is a woman of eclectic taste.  On the edge of the table are two other slender classics: Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner.

Sprawled across the seat of the small rocker is an adorable plush brown doggy.  At the base of the rocker you see a beach bucket, its treasures emptied out onto the porch floor: sea shells (clam, mostly, but also a few periwinkles), sand and, if you look very carefully, a shiny penny washed by the ocean.
And, everywhere there are flowers.  One side of the porch has as its border an ornate, rectangular planter overflowing with purple flowers. Two round planters hold other annuals, including one with a cascade of gray foliage falling below the lip of the porch.  A terracotta sign in one of the pots says ‘Bees Please’.

Behind these objects is a peek at the house: light gray siding and white trim.  A classic New England style.  There’s the lower part of a window, but it’s too dark to make out anything inside.

A few feet from the porch, a four- or five-year-old girl, explains the scene to her mother.  “The little girl was down at the beach and has come back to sort her shells.  They’ve had something to drink and her grandmother has promised to read to her, but they’ve gone inside to take a nap.”

The little girl is probably too young to read the small sign at the edge of the porch:  August at my Grandma’s cottage, but I couldn’t have described it better myself.  Mother and daughter then walk a few steps to admire the floral designs and the horticulture while, fifty feet away outside the barn doors, there’s bright sunshine and a fair going on.

My lone disappointment is that they didn’t pause to look at the blue ribbon appended to the scene and the name underneath it: mine.

Roni Lehage
I have admired Roni Lehage for many years.  She is a bundle of energy and management skills, overseeing Horticulture at the sprawling Marshfield Fair.  She is also the South Shore District Director for the Garden Club Federation of Massachusetts and, in that capacity, invited me to speak earlier this year at the District’s annual luncheon held, naturally, at the Fairgrounds.

There, she pressed the 2018 Marshfield Fair schedule into my hand and said, “You are going to enter this year.”  There may have been a nominal question mark at the end of that statement, but what I heard was more or less a command.  I pored over the schedule and found an interesting competition: ‘The Front Porch’  A 4’ x 8’ vignette’.  No other specifications or conditions.  How hard could that be?  It even carried a cash prize!  I signed up.

I can honestly state that I started thinking about my vignette almost immediately.  I wanted a backdrop of an actual house.  I wanted to tell a story with objects.  It shouldn’t be cluttered.  It should have container gardens filled with flowers.

My problem was I didn’t have any of those things.  Sure, Betty would plant up containers in May and I could nudge a few smaller ones into the production line.  Everything else would have to be scrounged or borrowed.

Fortunately, Medfield is blessed with a ‘swap meet’ at its Transfer Station.   People bring stuff that’s too good to throw away with the hopes of those objects finding a new home.  Betty and I became habitués of the three-day-a-week meet when it opened in May, looking for cast-off treasures.  They slowly accumulated: the child’s rocker, a cute sippy cup.  Betty planted up more containers than she had otherwise planned and I watched them grow.

In mid-July I began tackling the backdrop.  There was no requirement for one, but I felt that, without it, my ‘stage’ would look empty.  I purchased lumber and a 4’x10’ piece of heavy muslin cloth... and discovered I knew nothing about painting a backdrop.  Betty, who has theater in her collegiate background, walked me through the process of priming the canvas.  I discovered many interesting things along the way, including that muslin shrinks when painted.  I would guess I spent two weeks creating that simple panel.  I was disappointed in the look of the siding and so purchased gray artist’s chalk to create shadows and depth.

The mock-up in front of the garage
When it was done, I discovered it would never fit into a Prius.  I would have to disassemble it at home and quickly re-assemble it in Marshfield.  Another learning curve to master. 

At the beginning of August, the perfect ‘adult’ rocker appeared at the swap meet along with the plush doggy.  A neighbor supplied beach toys; we combed our paperback shelves for the right volumes.  I staged the vignette in our basement, rearranging elements with Betty as helpful critic. The final dress rehearsal, with container gardens, was held en plein aire against our garage.

Every artist ought to have the opportunity to sign his or her work, and so I appended mine.  If you look carefully at the stack of books on the table, between Elizabeth Peters and Dorothy Sayers, there is a copy of A Murder at the Flower Show by yours truly.

August 6, 2018

The Squash of August


I swear it wasn’t there yesterday morning.  I picked our garden thoroughly and, especially, the zucchini.  I harvested six perfect squash which we used ourselves and shared with our neighbors. 
What remained on our four plants were a dozen ‘fingerlings’ – zucchinis roughly two or three inches long.  Cute little baby squash, still with their fading yellow flowers at one end.  They lay, swaddled among the leaves of their mother plant, in a kind of nursery.  All that was missing were little signs saying ‘come back in a few days…’.

3.6 pounds of zucchini
This morning, I returned to the garden and there it was.  This behemoth. The Gargantua of the plant kingdom.  A zucchini so preposterously large it couldn’t be real.  Yet, there it was.

For several years, we played a cute trick on our neighbors. They had a tiny vegetable garden growing by their front door… in too much shade.  It included a lone squash plant that barely flowered and never produced fruit.  And so, every morning as we returned from our own, sun-filled garden laden with veggies, we ‘salted’ their garden with some of our surplus.  Our neighbor’s two daughters would venture out each morning and squeal with delight at the bounty, never noticing that the tomatoes, beans, and squash were not attached to any plant.

But this guy was still firmly on the vine. While not exactly requiring the Jaws of Life to extract it, there was considerable grunting (on my part) involved to twist it out of its position without also removing much of the plant.  The other zucchini had grown by a predictable rate and will be a respectable seven inches long with a six- or seven-inch circumference when picked.  ‘Big Boy’ is 16 inches long and eleven inches around.  Per the photo, it weighs in at a hulking 3.6 pounds.  If it could box, it would be classified as a super-heavyweight.

Clearly, the zucchini are out of hand.
This is one morning's pick from
last week.
I’m sure that many of you reading this are thinking to yourselves, ‘for heaven’s sake, he just missed it… let it go already…’.  To which I respond that I swear it wasn’t there yesterday.

And science backs me up on that.  Or, at least it sort of backs me up.  According to the SF Gate website, given an inch of water a week, a zucchini can grow two inches a day.  And that’s in cold, damp San Francisco where the sun hasn’t been seen since the Giants arrived from the Polo Grounds.  Meanwhile, here in eastern Massachusetts, we were awash in rain in July, and the typical dewpoint for the past two weeks has been in the 70s, meaning you can wring water out of the air at will.  What should that do to a zucchini’s growth rate?  Triple it?  Quadruple it?  Easily, I think.

Finally, according to Food and Wine magazine this Wednesday, August 8, is National Sneak Some Zucchini Onto Your Neighbor’s Porch Night.  We’re already stockpiling bags of the stuff.  ‘Big Boy’ is going to find an appreciative home.

July 21, 2018

Garden Courtesy and the Lost Art of a Willingness to Listen


I have two questions for the women readers of this blog: when was the last time you were dismissed by a man by calling you ‘Honey’?  And, does that person still walk with a noticeable limp?

My wife, Betty, and I manage Medfield’s community garden.  We’re in our ninth year of a volunteer job we never asked for, but which we do out of the sense of satisfaction we get from watching people’s gardening skills grow, and seeing parents teach their children to partake of the special pleasures of coaxing food from the soil.

We have 71 plots this year on an acre of land, and those plots are gardened by 80 families.  It’s a heterogeneous group that is representative of a diverse community.  The common bond is gardening.  But keeping everyone on the same page isn’t easy.  Our retirees can devote hours to their plots each day while those with hectic careers see their garden as a brief, zen-like retreat where the outside world doesn’t intrude and weeds are tolerable.

The community garden
Betty’s role is the ‘garden guru’.  Yesterday, she spent ten minutes examining someone’s tomato plants, determining why some are robust and others are in the nightshade equivalent of intensive care.  I am the garden ogre.  I email gardeners asking them (at first) or telling them (if they don’t get the hint) to weed, clip back vines, or perform some other task to keep their garden from becoming a menace to those around it.

This week, two incidents in the garden brought our roles into sharp focus while testing our skills. 
The first test was a failure and entirely my fault, with roots dating back a year.  A long-time gardener got lazy or distracted as the season went on.  He grew things that weren’t allowed and hid them behind a corn perimeter.  Then, in August, he stopped maintaining the garden.  Multiple ‘nastygrams’ from me went unanswered.  At the end of the season I was forced to spend an afternoon clearing out his plot.  He wasn’t invited back for this season.

The community garden - large plots
are 600 sq ft, small ones are 300
The person who took over the plot told me he was an experienced gardener.  His 600-square-foot garden had an intelligent design, even if it was ‘way overplanted with tomatoes.  In early July, though, I noted the weeds in the plot were overwhelming the plants and I sent him a polite note asking him to take some time to bring the plot back to a weed-free state.  He quickly wrote back saying he had been traveling but would attend to the problem. 

 Two weeks later, I walked by the plot and it was evident no work had been done.  I sent off a Defcon 3 nastygram saying he had until this weekend to clean the plot, after which I would do it for him – and would cause him to lose his right to garden next year.  I sent it off with a righteous sense of satisfaction.  That plot wouldn’t be mis-gardened two years in a row.

An hour later, he telephoned me.  He explained his son was in the hospital.  The garden wasn’t his priority at the moment, but he promised to get to it as quickly as possible.

Chastened, I offered him a sincere apology.  I ought to have called to see if there was an explanation.  Instead, I used email to vent a frustration that pre-dated him as a gardener.  The garden, by the way, is now free of weeds.  I’m the one who learned a valuable lesson.

But I don’t know how to characterize what happened yesterday in the garden.

Here’s the background: after a wet spring, the rain stopped falling in eastern Massachusetts.  Our town, like many others, declared a drought emergency.  But three days ago, the heavens opened up and we got more than three inches of rain.  The ground was saturated.

What we’ve told gardeners – repeatedly – is this:  water only when you have to.  Put a trowel in the ground and see how far down the ground is damp.  A dry top inch may well be hiding lots of water down where your plants have their roots.  Common sense says you also look at the forecast to see if more rain is expected.

Late yesterday afternoon Betty and I went to the garden to pick vegetables.  Several gardens over, a man we didn’t know was watering what we assumed was his garden (we know most, but not all, gardeners).  Betty went over to him and found he was essentially soaking his garden to the point of having standing pools of water.

Betty is a horticultural educator.  She speaks all over New England and charges a fee commensurate with the quality of her information.  She is in high demand.  I mention those qualifications because no one invites back someone who ‘lectures’ an audience or speaks in a way that people feel they are being hectored or spoken down to. 

She told him the ground is already water-saturated, that he’s likely doing damage to his plants, and that there’s a water ban on in town.  She also threw in that we’re a community of gardeners, and we’re all paying for the water he’s wasting.

His response was to keep watering, and to start referring to Betty as ‘Honey’.  In the rudest possible language, he told her he had paid his fee, it was his garden, and he’d do what he pleased.  This went on for about three minutes.  I saw Betty walking back to our garden, ashen-faced and shaking.

It was my turn.  I walked over (he was still watering).  Upon seeing me, his first words were, “What do you want, asshole?”  I provided the same information and got the same dismissive result. 

I composed a careful email to him last evening.  Using well-modulated tones, I made the same points, but I pointedly added that my wife’s name isn’t ‘Honey’ and mine isn’t ‘Asshole’.  I offered him an out, saying maybe the reason for his rudeness was that he was having a rotten day and we approached him at an especially bad time. 

He responded this afternoon.  He didn’t give an inch.  No one ‘bullies’ him and no one told him, specifically, not to water.  He also added a few gratuitous personal insults.

I have a theory.  This man reports to a woman where he works.  He hates her and therefore probably hates his job.  Betty got the vitriol he can’t heap on his manager, and so she got the sobriquet ‘Honey’ he doesn’t dare use at work.

What do we do about him?  I don’t know.  But I noticed this morning that his peppers are wilting – a classic symptom of overwatering.

July 7, 2018

Garden Tour at the Sanders'!


Garden tours are educational and instructive.  They open your eyes to new vistas and ways of thinking about horticulture.  They are, in short, wonderful.

Except when it’s your garden that’s on tour.  I know this because, last month, our garden was the one everybody wanted to see. 

Three years ago it was a blank slate
Betty and I began planting our ‘dream retirement garden’ in June 2015.  As readers of this column know, we started with a true ‘tabula rasa’ – we had taken out 947 cubic yards of what could politely be called ‘builder’s crud’ and replaced it with 18 inches of screened loam into which we would plant trees, shrubs and perennials… and not a single blade of grass.

On the back patio
Fending off requests to see the garden was easy for the first two years – there really wasn’t a lot to see.  Last year, we pleaded for more time with the explanation that, well, we needed more time.  Trees needed to grow some more; shrubs still had to spread out their roots, and perennials were just starting to fill in the gaps between them.

The back garden
But this is the start of the garden’s fourth year.  That old but accurate aphorism about “sleep, creep, leap” has proven true.  And so, Betty agreed to open our garden for two hours for Master Gardeners. 

You would think that having a group in your garden would be a snap… put out signs, bake some cookies and set out the lemonade.  No, that’s not the way it happens.  And it especially doesn’t happen that way if the group in question has more than a passing knowledge of horticulture and a keen eye for detail.

The view from the bench
For three weeks before the event, Betty labeled plants.  We have three viburnums behind the house.  We even know what kind of viburnums they were because we’ve saved all their paperwork.  But which one is which?  This is why Google Images exists, and I suspect the fine folks in Mountain View are compiling quite an interesting, if puzzling dossier about our internet search habits.  And, of course, common names are so… common.  Why call it an ‘arrowwood viburnum’ when ‘Viburnum dentatum’ is more botanically correct?

Shasta daisies are at the 'leap' stage
And then, of course, there’s the weeding and deadheading.  Every bed was gone over multiple times, and paths were plucked of everything even resembling a weed.  Of course, our paths are also supposed to be ‘natural’.  Our heucheras and tiarellas are prolific self-seeders.  One especially fecund cultivar had cute brown and gold seedlings popping up everywhere.  How many stayed and how many were composted was a question being answered up to the morning of the tour.

The asclepias bloomed just in time
There is also the ‘prayer factor’, otherwise known as “will it bloom in time?” and “will it still be in bloom?”  We have a stand of gorgeous Asclepias tuberosa, also knows as butterfly weed.  It is golden yellow and is a magnet for every pollinator in town.  Up until Saturday morning, it appeared as though only a single stem would be showing color.  But nearby, an entire colony of Asclepias syriaca – rose milkweed to the rest of us – blossomed with white flower clusters that, while not as showy as its cousin, perfumed the air magnificently.  They were a perfect complement to the Asclepias tuberosa, which opened a dozen flowers just as cars began arriving.

No one seemed to believe there's
not a blade of grass on the property
Finally, there was the scourge of parking.  We are on a narrow, winding road that is a favorite of bicyclists and walkers.  We have a parking pad at the front of the property that will hold three cars and a driveway that will accommodate four more.  Fearing being blocked in, no one wanted to use the driveway and, when the pad filled up, visitors began parking on the street (Betty had provided detailed instruction of how to park at a nearby elementary school). 

A river of geranium
Visitors ignored the school parking option.  They not only parked on the street; they parked on both sides of this narrow, winding road.  It did not take long for the local police to take notice and we soon had two cruisers, one with flashing lights, in front of our house.  It took all of Betty’s charms and persuasive powers to get everything back to normal.  I am in awe of her for this.

Was it worth it?  Of course.  The compliments were both genuine and numerous.  People said they learned and called what Betty has created, ‘the new American yard’.  Am I in a hurry to do it again soon?  If you have to ask….
And then, we had the garden to ourselves again!

June 9, 2018

A 50th Birthday Party Done Right


Some folks kick back and relax on their 50th birthday.  Some decide to take on a tough assignment.  Count the Greenleaf Garden Club of Milford among the latter group.

Where incoming horticulture is
catalogued
I have a passing acquaintance with what are called ‘standard flower shows’.  If you walk into a room and see many groups of four floral designs, horticulture, and educational exhibits – and the titles indicate it is built around a theme – you’re in a standard flower show.  ‘Standard’ means the organization putting in on is following a set of rules about what kinds of designs can be used, the number of entries, what else is going to be displayed (e.g., horticulture and educational displays) and most importantly, how it will be judged.

Assembling a floral design - it all
seems so chaotic, but it isn't
Standard flower shows are not for the faint of heart.  You need a fair-sized venue, you need separate groups of people to create a schedule, lasso people to enter, build or scrounge up (and then paint) the pedestals (called ‘staging’) to be used, ensure all floral design materials are what they say they are, ensure all horticulture presented for display is what it says it is, ensure that floral designs conform to what the ‘schedule’ says it is supposed to be, type up and ensure everything is spelled correctly, and find accredited judges who are current with an ever-changing set of rules, and clerks to take down those judges’ comments.

Will they come?  And will they
bring horticulture?  Or will there
be rows of empty tables?
Oh, and you have to make certain everyone and everything is in the right place in that room (especially difficult with horticulture), ensure the floral designers have sustenance, keep the judges out of sight of the designers and vice-versa, have all the right awards on hand (and ensure they go on the right hosta leaf or six-foot-tall design), keep the designs and horticulture watered, and then clean up the place.

The decision to put on a standard flower show is a process that usually takes six months from start to finish.  It requires coaxing, cajoling, and understanding on the part of its chairman, who will need eight or so committees to handle the tasks enumerated above.  In all, it isn’t unusual for thirty-plus people to be involved.

Creating a table display
The Greenleaf Garden Club turns fifty this year.  The usual commemoration is a luncheon or dinner and a look backward at notable accomplishments.  The Milford club elected to do something quite different:  put on a flower show as a gift to the town.  And, with a tad over fifty members, that event would tap the talents of a sizable percentage of the club’s membership.

I became aware of the event because, weeks earlier, Betty fielded a phone call from an anxious member of the club tasked with ensuring there was lots of horticulture for the show.  Even though Milford is four towns and ten miles away, this person was working the phones overtime, looking for people with ‘known’ interesting plants they might be willing to take a piece of to share with the world. 

Each step is incised with
the name of a battle.
Double-click for  detail.
Betty agreed and, Friday morning, we drove ten carefully curated samples to Milford’s Memorial Hall.  It is an imposing stone building erected at the close of the 19th Century to honor the town’s participation in the Civil War.  The Grand Hall on the second floor is accessed by a curving granite staircase into which are incised the names of the major engagements of that war.  The last step bears the words ‘Surrender at Appomattox’.  (Though, as a son of the South, I note the stairs commemorate only those battles won by the Yankees.)

Inside that Grand Hall was a scene of which I have fond memories: a flower show being nurtured into existence.  At one long table was the ‘intake’ for horticulture; in an alcove, four educational exhibits were being readied.  And, in the main room, individuals and groups worked to assemble floral and table designs in, I think, eight classes.

The design is done, but
is it right?
To the untutored eye, it appears chaotic.  It is anything but.  Designers have a few hours to get right something they may have worked on for weeks.  The table settings class required four groups working in tight quarters to create a set piece built around a common idea – in this, case, a Fourth of July picnic at the town main park.  Even the educational class exhibits each had moving parts – one featured upwards of a dozen small floral arrangements.

Sometime after Betty and I left, probably around 1 p.m., judges came in and made their decisions.  At 4 p.m., there was a party and reception that was open to the public.

Horticulture galore
We returned Saturday morning to see the finished product and, to be perfectly honest, to see how Betty’s horticulture stacked up against the competition (the show was open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.). 

This was the time where everyone crosses their fingers, holds their breath, and waits for the answer to the question everyone has asked themselves for months: will anyone come?

The answer was a resounding ‘yes’.  The room was crowded with people.  Some were friends, some were strangers drawn by publicity about the event.  All were impressed.

The completed picnic tables
Betty and I had one unexpected but highly enlightening encounter.  The ‘blue’ and Educational Display Award went to one from the Milford Library, which displayed its plans for restoration of a garden at the site (which, in turn, sits adjacent to Memorial Hall).  The display was superbly done and ticked every requirement from the judges.  But, better than just a display, Library Director Susan Edmonds was there to explain the project and its present status.  We spent at least fifteen minutes engaged in conversation on the topic.  My fervent hope is that the project gets built exactly as shown, because it will be a gorgeous, environmentally sound, and useful addition to the library.

Judged horticulture.  And Betty got
several 'blues'
The flower show was a great success.  It energized the club by involving its members, and it was a memorable event shared with the larger community.  A golden anniversary luncheon would have left everyone with a full stomach and glow that lasted a few hours.  The Greenleaf Garden Club’s 50th Anniversary Flower Show will leave a lot of people exhausted, but also an indelible sense of having done something fine for the town of Milford.

June 1, 2018

The Siren Call of the Instant Garden

Our first act as homeowners was to
remove dozens of azaleas dying because
they had been planted too close'together
(no, this wasn't the house)

Several moves ago, Betty and I purchased a ‘doctor’s home’.  That house was relatively new and stood at the end of a suburban cul-de-sac in Alexandria, Virginia.  It had been professionally landscaped perhaps five years earlier, and the good doctor (or his landscaper) apparently had a thing for azaleas.

Our first act as homeowners was to remove at least 30 of those shrubs.  The doctor’s landscaper had installed double rows of medium-sized azaleas on two-foot centers.  In the ideal growing conditions of northern Virginia, the shrubs had doubled and tripled in size.  What had looked ‘perfect’ when first planted, now was not only wildly overgrown; plants were dying as they competed for light, food, and water.

Our two new polemonium
I was reminded of that long-ago landscape this past week as we planted two polemonium in our rear garden.  The perennials, commonly known as Jacob’s Ladder, were being added to an area once contemplated as the site of a water feature.  That idea has been shelved for the time being, and perennials will instead anchor the site.

Betty planted the polemonium on two-foot centers – 24 inches between what are (for now) fairly small plants.  To the untutored eye, there is a vast, empty plain between the two specimens.  Why not put in half a dozen and “make a statement”?  Your local garden center will love you for it.

What started as a single
Jack-in-the-pulpit is
now at least six specimens
The answer can be seen all over our garden.  Three years ago, it was a blank slate.  Even after a dozen trees and sixty shrubs, it still looked bare.  We’ve since added roughly 2,000 perennials.  That may sound like a lot but, when spread out over 20,000 square feet of garden, works out to give each plant ten square feet… like putting everything on three-foot centers.

The wonderful thing about plants is that they spread, and seed, freely.  Three years ago we carefully transplanted a single Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) into a shady area of our garden and surrounded it with protective ferns.  The following year, we found two plants.  This year, there are at least six in glorious bloom  

Betty's 'bargain' tiarellas and
heucheras have tripled both in
size and in number
Those 125 tiarellas and heucheras Betty procured at the 2016 Boston Flower & Garden Show have more than tripled in area and number.  Twenty native asters planted in 2015 have completely colonized and carpeted a dry, shady slope where nothing would seem to flourish.  Today the area is a verdant green, and we are pulling out asters where they are encroaching on other perennials.

What we’ve learned is patience is a virtue.  Everyone loves that “perfect garden”, but when everything goes in at once, the result is an image that makes for pretty wall calendars and postcards, but not much else.  And, there’s another problem: the next year, the garden won’t look the same way because some plants are bullies and some are shrinking violets.  A gardener will spend his or her weekends trying to maintain the “status quo”, always unsuccessfully.

A relative handful of native asters have
now colonized this dry hillside
Giving plants time to settle in is a much better idea.  Some won’t make it, some will flourish.  It is up to the gardener to maintain balance while allowing for the serendipity that makes gardens great.  So, that pair of polemoniums will have eight square feet of garden to themselves this year.  I’m counting on there being siblings and offspring come next June.
This is how much a garden can change in just two years - May 10, 2016 and June 1, 2018



May 15, 2018

The Little Garden That Could

Medford, in the upper left corner
of this map, is just five miles
from Boston's Financial District.
The garden is located in that
first 'e' in Medford.

Three years ago, Joan Parker was feeling frustrated.  A long-time volunteer at a church-run food cupboard in Medford, Massachusetts, each week she parceled out canned and packaged foods to the mostly Haitian immigrants served by the charity.  While what she provided helped needy families stretch meager resources, Joan felt she should be doing more.

It wasn’t that Joan didn’t know how to grow vegetables.  As a Master Gardener, Joan helped maintain a 6,000-square-foot vegetable plot at the Elm Bank headquarters of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society.  Most of the output of that garden made its way to food banks in towns adjacent to Wellesley, where Mass Hort is located.  Joan began to wonder if it might it be possible to create such a garden in Medford, a city just a few miles north of Boston’s Financial District?

Joan Parker
At the Mass Hort garden, Joan worked alongside Susan Hammond.  (I should add at this juncture I have known Susan for the better part of a decade.  Susan was Betty’s ‘protégé’ and the person to whom she handed off responsibility for that garden when Betty’s growing Garden Club Federation responsibilities took her in a new direction.)

Joan and Susan talked about the potential challenges of an urban, food-cupboard-oriented garden.  As it turned out, changes in the focus and direction of the Mass Hort garden made that project less attractive to the volunteers who worked there.  The Medford project seemed like a more freewheeling ‘re-boot’ for gardeners looking for a challenge.

The garden hugs one side
of the church and several
sites around the Rectory
Joan and Susan set about to design a model garden smack in the center of Medford.  Their sponsor was the Unitarian Church of Medford, a venerable institution that also sponsored the food cupboard where Joan volunteered.   Initial plans were for a very low budget garden, funded by the volunteers, using the existing soil and adding compost.  The site would be the (mostly) sunny lawn of the church rectory.  Master Gardener volunteers would run the garden.  A few hundred dollars seemed more than adequate to get the garden up and running, buy seeds, all those sorts of things, and a drip irrigation system could wait for a while.

Because the soil contains high levels
of lead, all planting is in raised beds.
That's Susan Hammond at right.
Which was when reality reared its ugly head.  The first problem was the site.  The grass lawn turned out to be integral to the church’s ministry. Groups met there and services were held there.  Joan and Susan regrouped.  They proposed a dispersed garden utilizing bits and pieces of church property.  ‘Terrific!’ was the response.  Soil tests were performed and plans were made to begin plowing up the ground to start the garden.

Then, those soil tests came back.  The soil contained toxic levels of lead.  All that lead paint and lead from other sources had left the ground utterly unsuitable for the growing of anything planned for human consumption.

To ensure no bed lies
fallow, these cups hold
spaces where a squash
crop will be planted next
OK, they concluded, we’ll do taller raised beds.  On further investigation, the raised beds would need to be kept completely apart from the soil underneath them.  OK, they thought, double-height raised beds with impermeable barriers between the beds and the soil. 

There went the budget. However, there was still a need for this garden, so the food pantry applied for and received a $1,000 grant from the Massachusetts Master Gardener Association.

In the meantime, other Master Gardeners were eager to start on the project.  They surveyed food cupboard recipients and got input on what kinds of fresh vegetables would be most welcome.  A request for exotic seeds went to Master Gardener Deb Haley, who investigated and sourced Haitian varieties.  Master Gardener Gretel Anspach provided access to large quantities of onions and leeks including specialty cooking onions.

This weekend, I finally got to see the garden I’ve heard about for three years.  The Master Gardeners opened it for visitors, and I was part of a tour group led by Susan Hammond. 

The ollas buried in these 'bag beds'
provide continuous moisture to
the vegetables growing there.
The garden is a small masterpiece.  It hugs one side of the church with raised beds for vegetables and an in-ground perennial garden.  Across the street at the rectory, three sets of distinct vegetable beds ring that grass lawn while leaving the center available for church functions.  All the tricks of the trade are used to coax the maximum production of vegetables from the site, including succession planting and space holders for second crops even as the first round are little more than seedlings.  Ollas, ceramic jugs embedded in the soil, provide continuous moisture because the drip irrigation system can be used only when volunteers are present (the faucet upon which the drip system is dependent has an unfortunate leak).

These handful of beds, with the help of
ten volunteers, delivers a bounty
of fresh produce every week.
This year’s first distribution of vegetables – pea greens – will be made in mid-May.  Thereafter, every week, a growing cascade of Haitian favorites comes to the food cupboard, with ten volunteers working the garden on a regular schedule.  The last distribution coincides with Thanksgiving, when the last of the autumn cornucopia is handed out.

It is an urban success story; proof that, with perseverance and resources, gardeners can overcome almost any obstacle.  It isn’t ‘The Little Garden That Could’; it’s The Little Garden That Does.