February 5, 2018

Another February 5th, Forty Years Ago...

Forty years ago this morning, my wife and I started on a fantastic journey, which turned out to be a little more ‘unscheduled’ than we expected.  After living in Chicago for two years, I had accepted a job in New York City.  On the morning on February 5, Betty and I boarded a 7:30 flight at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport bound for New York LaGuardia.  Our flight time was supposed to be 90 minutes.  We were told there was ‘some snow’ in the New York area but that we should arrive on time at 10 a.m.  We carried four large suitcases plus two carry-ons with us (this was before airlines discovered they could mint money by charging for such things).

The Blizzard of '78 shut down the
Northeast for more than a week
At a few minutes before ten, we were circling LaGuardia and the ‘some snow’ was getting much more serious.  At one point we were told we were next in line to land.  Then, after half an hour of circling, the announcement came that LaGuardia had just closed due to weather conditions and that we would be diverted to Bradley Field north of Hartford.

We landed at Hartford in blinding snow, the last plane to do so before that airport, too, was closed.  Our airline (I believe it was American) gave passengers the option of being taken by bus the fifty miles to New Haven where we could get the train for New York, or being put up ‘overnight’ at a hotel near the airport.

Betty grew up in the Finger Lakes of New York state, the land of ‘lake effect’ snow that can drop two feet of the stuff overnight.  She took a look at the snow and said, “We can do this.”  At noon, thirty intrepid passengers stowed their luggage on the bus and we headed south.

Double-click to see snowfall
totals - we landed right in the
thick of the thing.
Fifteen miles south of Hartford in swiftly deteriorating conditions, our bus skidded off the road and – very fortunately – into a guard rail.  It was fortunate because the guard rail was all that stood between us a steep ravine.  The bus could go no further.  Miraculously, another bus was dispatched, picked us up, and we slowly made out way down to New Haven.

It took three hours to reach New Haven and we feared we had missed the last New-York-bound train.  But there were people on the platform and so we lugged our many suitcases and waited.  A few minutes later, an Amtrak train pulled in.  It was now 4 p.m.  The train had left Boston at 6 a.m.  and would, as it turned out, the only train to make the trek that day.  Had we been a few minutes later, we would have been stranded in New Haven for the duration.

Note the fifth bullet...
There were no seats on the train; we sat on our luggage in one of the passenger compartments.  But at least we were inside the train.  Most of those who boarded at New Haven spent the next several hours in the unheated vestibule between cars.  Pushing snow in front of it, the train made it to Penn Station at about 8 p.m.

I had done one intelligent thing that day.  At Bradley Field, I had called my employer’s Manhattan office and pleaded for someone to walk over to the Statler Hilton and pay for our room, get a key, and leave it with the concierge.

It turned out to be a prescient move.  We arrived to a city that had shut down, stranding tens of thousands of travelers and commuters in the city.  Seventh Avenue was covered with two feet of snow and almost nothing moving.  A porter helped get our suitcases across the street to the hotel where we found a mob of people occupying every square foot of sleepable surface.  I went the concierge desk and held my breath.

A minute later, I held up the key for Betty to see.  Twelve hours after we left Chicago, we were finally in New York.
* * * * *
This is what we saw when we
got off the subway in Brooklyn
The blizzard turned out to be a fortunate event for us.  While the city was paralyzed, the subways were running on the subterranean part of their routes.  Two days after our arrival, a Realtor met us in Boerum Hill in Brooklyn. “If you can get here, I’ll show you houses,” she told us.  We emerged from the subway to a landscape of unplowed streets, with a police car – immobilized up to its windows in snow – blocking an intersection.  A bus sat abandoned in snow drifts in front of the brownstone we were there to see.

It was the house we had looked for in vain in Chicago.  Betty and I squeezed one another’s hand so tightly I nearly broke her fingers.  We made an offer that day, counter-offered over dinner that evening at the then-newly-opened River Café, and had our offer accepted over dessert.

211 Bergen Street in Boerum Hill.
We planted that tree in front, at left.
That was 40 years ago.  It was a time before cell phones, the internet or reliable forecasts.  Today, of course, everyone knows to stay home .  Passengers on the 7:30 flight from Chicago to New York are called the night before and told their flight has been cancelled and they have been re-booked for Thursday.  In short, apart from ones based on stupidity, there are a lot fewer ‘blizzard stories’ today.

But I wouldn’t have had it any other way.  It was an adventure – albeit a harrowing one at the time.  We got through it and we found the house of our dreams, made possible in large part by our perseverance.

February 2, 2018

Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams

For New England gardeners, January and February are a single, 59-day-long morass of cold, miserable weather which we know is killing our shrubs; punctuated by the occasional thaw that we are certain is unceremoniously heaving our perennials out of the ground. We can’t wait for March to come.

This is what 30 inches of
snow looks like
But, thinking about being buried under two feet of snow by winter storm Liam, Quinn, Skylar, or Toby (which are actual names chosen for 2018 by meteorologists whose sense of humor escapes me) is just too depressing. 

Accordingly, optimistic gardeners place seed orders and tend their houseplants.  However, I’m not allowed to place seed orders.  I always go straight for the most whimsically named vegetables (think ‘Lettuce Entertain You’ and ‘Beets Me’), even if they’re 180 days to maturity in a climate where 150 days is stretching the boundary of common sense.  I also fail to read the fine print (“One plant will produce enough zucchini to feed Latvia for a year, although our taste panel agrees it has both the aroma and texture of well-worn gym socks...”).  

I’m also off the houseplant watering detail ever since a minor mishap with a fern that resulted in three inches of water in our basement a few years back.  The less said about this unfortunate event, the better.

The Scott Arboretum encompasses
pretty much the entirety of the
Swarthmore College campus
So, instead of having responsibility for actual plants and such, Betty gives me the task of planning warmer-weather, horticulture-centric travel.  For example, I need to be in Philadelphia in the latter part of May.  I’ve already added two days to that trip to get re-acquainted with Longwood, Chanticleer, Winterthur, and the Scott Arboretum after a too-long absence. 

The Beatrix Farrand garden in Maine.
It's on our to-do list for 2018.
To me, ‘big’ gardens are more than just spectacles; they also contain educational elements for those of us who don’t have hundred-acre estates.  The Scott Arboretum (essentially, the entire campus of Swarthmore College) is a practical demonstration of how to combine ecology, horticulture, and botany into a home landscape.  The fact that the Arboretum represents the vision of acclaimed horticulturalist Claire Sawyer, who is now in her 28th year as its Director, is all the more reason to check in for a refresher.

I’m also going to head north (or is that down east?).  Last year I saw the Coastal Maine Botanical Garden for the first time (shame on me…). That visit was in June.  This year it will be in a different month and I intend to also see the Beatrix Farrand Garden and a few other historic properties in that state.

And, we've blocked off a week in
September to see Yosemite.
As long as I’m planning, how about something outside of the Northeast?  I sometimes feel as though I spent an entire year of my life on airplanes commuting between Boston and San Jose or San Francisco.  On those business trips, I flew over Yosemite National Park a hundred times without ever managing to visit it.  I have decreed this is the year I rectify that omission.  It will likely be in the fall, after most of the tourists have decamped.  It was America’s first National Park and still, arguably, its most dramatic.

The thermometer outside my window says it is 18˚ right now.  But, just by writing this, I’m already starting to feel as though I just might make it through this winter intact.  

January 2, 2018

All Praise the Common Houseplant

All Praise the Common Houseplant

 “All the leaves are brown and the sky is gray…”
California Dreaming, John Phillips and Michelle Phillips

The winter of 2017-2018 will be remembered as the one when the leaves forgot to fall from the trees.  It wasn’t the trees’ fault, of course, it was a combination of a too-warm October coupled with copious rain that caused trees to produce too little of the chemical that tells leaves it’s time to decamp for their golden future as compost.  As a result, the view out my window, since early November, has been a sad blend of browns and grays.  Welcome to winter in eastern Massachusetts, a condition that will persist in some variation for the next three months.

Which is why this essay is all about houseplants and why they’re treasured in this household. 

This croton - now more
than a decade old -
tolerates winter's low
sunlight yet provides
glorious color
I grew up with year-round outdoor greenery and flowers.  Nominally, I appreciated that subtropical splendor.  In reality, it was part of a background that I took for granted and too often found inconvenient.  When periodically ordered to cut back the hibiscus hedge or grub out the aracea palms that were spreading into the lawn, I piled imaginary term papers on top of one another as excuses not to sully my hands with such chores (to no avail, of course).

This morning, I marveled at our multiple crotons (formally, Codiaeum variegatum) that provide a rainbow of reds, yellows and greens in each leaf, yet tolerate the weak light of January and February.  Back in Florida, they were just one more thing on my to-do list of plants to be clipped back before they overflowed onto the sun porch. 

There are cultivars of begonias in many rooms, each an adventure to be appreciated.  A Rex Begonia 'Paso Doble’ that bloomed prolifically on our screened porch all summer still provides a wonderful palette of reds and pinks in its leaves as it brightens our bedroom.  How many plants can make that claim?

This Rex Begonia 'Paso Doble' spent
its summer on our screened porch.  It
has made the transition to indoors.
A houseplant need not be exotic, or even in bloom, to provide visual enjoyment.  Ferns occupy ledges and shelves in several rooms.  A single peace lily (Spathiphyllum) received as gift a decade ago has begat dozens of offspring that populate not only our own home but those of friends. They are cheerfully green the year round.  This time of year, their regal white flowers – plain by the standards set by many other plants – are welcome additions to rooms’ color. 

We purchase houseplants that appeal to us.  Some have lofty pedigrees from famous nurseries.  Others are commoners. There is a kalanchoe next to me as this is written. It is one of the most ordinary of houseplants, yet it is budding up in yellow for its umpteenth annual display of winter color atop leather-tough, dark-green leaves.

A simple fern provides a spot of
color amid a gloomy backdrop
A few of our plants are snowbirds.  The cyclamen in our kitchen window spent six months last year planted in our garden, where it strengthened its root system and bulb even as its foliage needed to be shaded from the sun.  Dug in October, it is now in the early stage of a winter bloom of majestic purple.   Thanks to tissue cultures, the availability and variety of orchids has proliferated even as their price has plummeted.  Nor are houseplants necessarily greedy.  Philodendron and cacti seem to thrive with minimal attention (a Sanseveria trifoliate, better known as ‘Mother-in-Law’s tongue’, survived in my Aunt Virginia's house for decades with little more than periodic dusting).

We have more than thirty houseplants this winter, a happy mix of the ordinary and the extraordinary.  There is no rhyme or reason to what we have.  Each plant came to us through serendipity; each remains because it has thrived in our home.

Me, in a warmer clime, avoiding
trimming back the hibiscus
I don’t often offer unsolicited advice, but here is some:  if you're here in New England or some place with a 'real' winter, this weekend, take a trip to a nursery with a selection of blooming houseplants.  If one (or more) strikes your fancy, take it home with you. 

And, if you happen to be reading this from a subtropical climate, stop complaining and go out and trim back the hibiscus like you were told to.

November 30, 2017

Winter May Be Coming

The jet stream spent much of October
touring the Maritime Provinces
I cannot remember a more pleasant autumn.  The jet stream spent the month of October touring Quebec and the Maritime Provinces, giving southern New England the longest growing season (and warmest October) in the record books.  When you’re still picking arugula and harvesting chard the day after Halloween, it’s easy to convince yourself that winter may be postponed indefinitely.

My wakeup call that this was wishful thinking came with a thud the evening of November 11.  That night, the temperature plunged to 23 in Boston and as much as ten degrees colder in even close-in suburbs.  The thermometer on our porch read 17 degrees.  Overnight, the leaves on our hydrangeas went from green to black and that arugula turned to mush.

I am not by nature a procrastinator (my wife’s laughter at this notion notwithstanding) but I had, quite justifiably, been putting off a lengthy list of end-of-season chores because, well, I thought we might still need those 280 gallons of rainwater in our rain barrels and cat litter jugs.  Imagine my surprise when I found the water in those jugs was frozen solid and it took a hammer and chisel to break the ice in the rain barrels.  Three sets of outdoor hoses were also frozen; fortunately, none had split.

NOAA is on record as saying this
will likely be a warmer than
normal winter...
I had also deferred picking up the various ornaments that populate our garden on the grounds that they are attractive and bring joy to our lives. They are also quite heavy.  My procras… excuse me, my reasonable delay in bringing them in cost a concrete turtle a leg and a fish a fin.  When I get around to gluing them back together, they’ll be just like new.

It took ten days (you may remember it rained a lot), but the barrels eventually were emptied and bleached.  A few days later, the newly sanitized jugs went into winter quarters in the basement.  I even helped take apart the summer container gardens despite my pointing out that several of them still had guara and salvia in bloom.

We don’t rake leaves as a rule.  Rather, we treat them as a winter mulch for plants and home for beneficial insects.  However, Betty pointed out that the maple tree at the front of our property had dropped all its leaves on the gravel, off-street parking pad.  Moreover, the wind had blown those leaves into two-foot-deep drifts along a rock wall.  I said they would be much lighter and easier to move after they dried for a few more weeks.  The day after Thanksgiving I was handed a rake and a tarpaulin. 

... While the Weather Channel has
New England being colder...
I still am waiting on putting out the driveway markers.  You see, there’s a La Nina setting up shop in the Pacific Ocean.  The Old Farmers Almanac predicts seasonal temperatures with above-average precipitation, but NOAA just released a map showing New England with a 40% chance of warmer than normal temperatures.  But a Boston-area meteorologist and blogger named Dave Epstein points out that when November is colder than average, the odds of a snowier than average winter…  You get the idea.

I think I’ll wait until these forecasters reach a consensus.  Then I’ll decide when it’s time to put out the markers.  Unless, of course, the ground is frozen, in which case I’ll have to find the metal stake I use to punch through the soil.  And the mallet.  I think I’ve misplaced that, too.

October 30, 2017

Thank You, Dorothy Jasiecki

Dorothy Jasiecki, circa 1967
This weekend I will make a pilgrimage to a place that will always hold a special meaning to me, and to see people I came to know in the first two decades of my life.  It’s my 50th high school reunion.  Interestingly, I suspect the people with whom I’ll spend the most time will have a common denominator: a teacher named Dorothy Jasiecki.

Me in 1967.  The less
said, the better
I am by trade a writer, and I say that with pride.  For 35 years, I plied a very different craft that occasionally required me to put words to paper, but which I can say with complete honesty never gave me anything like the personal and professional satisfaction I have felt for the past twelve years.  The reason this blog exists is because writers, like (for example) pianists, need to practice.  Just as a pianist does not sit down at a concert grand and begin playing ‘The Appassionata’, so a writer does not go to his or her keyboard and begin writing that Great American Novel.  The pianist begins with ‘etudes’ – literally, study pieces - that stretch the fingers and make the mind warm up. 

This blog is my equivalent of an etude.  It is about gardening because I am married to a virtuoso gardener and I am her helper, and also because writing about gardening is considerably more interesting than opining about, say, politics or wine.  Each entry is as carefully thought through as a short story and is polished to fit within a prescribed length.

Me, earlier this
month.  The less
said the better
I am a writer because, from September 1964 until June 1967, Dorothy Jasiecki taught me to love language, literature and words.  She had been recruited by a young principal named John M. Jenkins to teach at a spanking new school, Miami Springs Senior High School.  I was in one of her classes that first year strictly by happenstance.  The following two years, she was my English teacher by design.

Miss Jasiecki (the notion of calling teachers by anything other than ‘Mister’, ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs.’ lay many years in the future) created and followed a lesson plan that ensured we read and mastered the material that would appear on tests.  What made her so extraordinary was how she conveyed that information and that she demanded we go far beyond what was required by the Dade County Board of Public Instruction.  She effectively had a second syllabus, one of her own devising, that was intended to stretch – and open - our minds. 

Our reading list was designed to
stretch the mind
Part of her methodology was to reach deep into her own knowledge of literature to awaken our own senses.  She spent much of one class session reading Beowulf in a way that I felt I was gathered around a hearth fire, listening to oral tradition being made.  We delved into poetry far beyond Emily Dickinson or Robert Frost and spent several days dissecting The Wasteland and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock; titles that almost certainly were not sanctioned by the bureaucrats at Lindsey Hopkins.

The balance of her teaching style was to challenge us to think about what we were reading.  To be in her class meant you came to school prepared, and ‘prepared’ meant you had not only read the assigned book but that you had understood it.  And God forbid you came into class spouting something from Cliff’s Notes.  (I tried that once and was found out almost immediately.)

All of this was leavened with philosophy and humor.  The final five minutes of class could comprise a discourse on the importance of shaking hands or a treatise on elbows.  These ‘sermonettes’ as we called them stretched us further still, if for no other reason than because we had no idea of what was coming next.

Miss Jasiecki was a tough grader.  I made very few ‘A’s’ in her class.  But I tried harder than I did in any other subject both because she expected it and I knew it pleased her. 

She was recognized for her skills.  Florida named her a ‘Star Teacher’ and sent her on a statewide tour with a similarly high achieving student from my class.  My great hope is that she inspired other educators as much as she inspired us.

At the 2007 reunion with Ms. J.
That's classmate Jane Greer at right
I last saw Miss Jasiecki ten years ago at my 40th reunion and spent much of one evening doing nothing but listening to her reminisce about her years in the classroom.  Time had taken its toll on her body, though not on her mind.  It turns out that her best memories were of her first years at Miami Springs and at her predecessor school, Norland High. 

She passed away in 2015.  Were she alive, she would have turned 92 today.  And, in an important sense, Dorothy Jasiecki is still very much alive in 2017.  She touched thousands of lives and, for a certain number of them (including mine), she left an indelible impression that transcends time.  She still looks over my shoulder as I write; ‘tsking’ at lax grammar and use of ‘easy’ adjectives.

Ms. J circa 2015
We did not all become writers or poets.  We went into computer science, sales, engineering or education; we raised families or went into the military.  But we all learned how to think and, regardless of future occupation, that skill made us better individuals.

Principal Jenkins attracted a pool of talent in those first years that made Miami Springs a school unlike any other.  I had many teachers – Jack Gonzalez, Agustin Ramirez, and Phil Giberson come immediately to mind – who were outstanding and committed to quality education.  But I can draw a direct line back to Dorothy Jasiecki and say, without hesitation, that she was the teacher who most inspired me.  I would not be the person I am today were it not for her.

Happy birthday, Dorothy Jasiecki, and thank you for being the teacher you were, and the inspiration you still are.

October 17, 2017

A River Runs Through It

When we making the final plans for our ‘retirement dream home’ three years ago, we put a fair amount of thought into water management and our environmental responsibilities.  Our overriding goals were to a) keep water from our property out of the sewer system, b) preserve water for an extensive in-ground garden, and c) put as much water as possible into the wetlands we adjoined. 

The new stone culvert.
Double-click for a
full-screen slideshow
To that end, four rain barrels would capture roof runoff from the rear of the house before diverting the leftover water to underground pipes that let to the wetlands that form the back two-thirds of our property.  We did our best to make all ‘hard’ surfaces permeable: our driveway was crushed stone rather than asphalt; even our patio was designed with open spaces for water to soak in.  We agreed that gutters would spoil the look of a house and so we avoided them in front; opting instead for a two-foot-deep, rock-filled catch basin the stretched the length of the roof line.

We were left with one unaddressed problem area: a downspout from a gutter servicing the roof over our garage.  For the first year we allowed water from the downspout to splash unmolested out into our stone driveway.  It wasn’t a problem: rainwater easily perked through the rock and helped recharge our ground water.  The problem was that it did nothing for the nearby garden plantings.  We tried diverting the downspout to empty directly into a perennial bed.  The force of the water promptly washed away the surrounding mulch.  Houston, we have a problem.

That's Magnolia 'Elizabeth' in front
Fortunately, there is a civil engineer that resides deep with Betty’s soul.  There is a stonemason that lives within mine.  Betty yearns to harness Mother Nature’s energy.  I love to move rocks.

And so was born the Great Culvert Project.  On a crisp early October day, I dug a winding trench: 25 feet long, a foot deep, and a foot wide.  A masterpiece of design, it skirts the root systems of three clethras, a peony, and large amsonia ‘Blue Star’.  It terminates at the root line of a yellow-blooming magnolia ‘Elizabeth’ and the opening stretch of a ‘river’ of geraniums. Next spring, everything in its course will bloom like a New England Eden. 

Oh, and some rocks would be a nice idea.  simple math from the above description says I removed 25 cubic feet of soil.  All that was left to do was to direct the drain pipe into the culvert and add some rocks to keep the walls of the culvert from gradually caving in.  Allowing that the goal was to have water flowing through the culvert, we likely needed a total of maybe 20 cubic feet of rock.  

The culvert connects into
a river of geraniums
Where to get rock?  Normal people go to places where various sizes of rock is sold.  There is even one such place right here in Medfield.  You drive up and someone loads up your car or truck.  You take it home, get the job done in a day, and retire to the back porch for a gin and tonic.  We are not normal people (except for the gin and tonic). Buying rocks is abhorrent to our nature.  Rock, like music, wants to be free. 

Instead, we began scrounging rock from around our property, then from the Community Garden where we have a plot, and finally from (what we think is) a town-owned area where piles of rock mysteriously get deposited on a regular basis.  Over two weekends we filled tubs with large rough rocks for the bottom of the culvert, small smooth rocks to top the culvert, and flat stones to form the riverbank.

Our problem was that after filling six, five-cubic-foot tubs, we were less than half finished with the project.  Why would it take more rocks to fill the culvert than the volume of soil we removed?  OK, the ‘riverbank’ might account for some of the overage, but this was getting ridiculous.  In the end it took twelve tubs and five trips.  Why, I haven’t the faintest idea.

We finished the project over the weekend.  A lot of Advil was consumed in the process.  Was it all worth it?  Of course.  How often do you have the opportunity to build your own river?

October 7, 2017

Gardening Rocks

20,000 years ago, New England
was under a mile-thick sheet of ice
Twenty thousand years ago, New England lay under a mile-thick layer of ice.  Glaciers pushed down from the north, sculpting the land as they pushed southward as far as what is now southern Illinois.  Then, some ten thousand years ago, those glaciers gradually retreated, leaving behind terminal moraines that became Long Island and Cape Cod, and creating the Connecticut and Hudson River valleys.  Playing sand castles on some cosmic scale, glaciers gouged out the Great Lakes and New York’s Finger Lakes.

Louis Agassiz
The glaciers also occasionally ‘burped’, leaving piles of rocks in odd places.  Areas of bedrock proved to be the immovable objects against which the otherwise irresistible force of the glacier was forced to go over rather than through.  As the glacier moved, it pushed along sometimes enormous chunks of rock it had gathered from more pliable formations. 

Until the nineteenth century, the above paragraphs would have been considered something between nonsense and heresy, especially in the United States. Everyone ‘knew’ that Noah’s Flood had been responsible for the shape of lakes, rivers, and mountains.  Then, in 1837, Swiss Professor Louis Agassiz proposed the theory of glaciation.  His work caught the attention of Boston philanthropist John Amory Lowell, who induced him to emigrate to America, where the ‘Noah’s Flood’ theory was still firmly entrenched.

In the background is 'Little' Agassiz.  Double-click to see
the family at its base.
Agassiz settled at Harvard and found the New England coastal plain to be a proving ground for his theory.  Over several decades, glaciation came to be the only rational explanation for ‘errata’ like giant rocks atop hills that were hundreds of miles from their point of origin.  One of the prime examples of such ‘errata’ was a pair of rocks in Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts.  In 1874, at the end of his career, Agassiz visited the site and confirmed what his students had found: a glacier had pushed up and left behind these rocks.  The site was named for him.

On Saturday, Betty and I hiked half a mile from the nearest road to observe these rocks, which more than lived up to advance billing.  We were at the top of a prominent hill overlooking the countryside and there, in two locations, were these barn-sized rocks, the smaller of which was resting at an improbable angle.

A Google Maps view.  The white area marks the site
surrounding 'Little' Agassiz.
We were able to do this because, decades ago, someone gave a large chunk of land (which was later augmented by additional gifts) to an organization called Trustees of Reservations.  In Massachusetts, the Trustees own vast swaths of ecologically sensitive or historic land.  Their goal, stated elegantly, is to protect the region's heritage for future generations. 

The Agassiz Rocks Reservation is a rounding error in the Trustees holdings, a few hundred acres in a part of Massachusetts that has dozens of similar sites (including the Trustees’ ‘crown jewel’, Crane Beach).  While there are marked trails and an evident effort to ensure that ordinary walkers can get from the road to the rocks (and beyond), there’s no admissions gate or other barrier to entry.  On an early October day at noon, there was just one other car in the parking area.

Clethra grows wild, too
I write all this because, when the gardening season draws to a close, it is time for gardeners to go exploring new places and see what nature can teach them.  Saturday offered a few eye-opening lessons.  The first was seeing a grove of clethra surrounding ‘Big Agassiz’.  To me, clethra is a ‘suburban’ shrub; we have half a dozen compact specimens in our garden.  But there it was: an expanse of clethra growing as nature intended in a boggy area at the base of the rock.  It was, in its own way, an epiphany.

The ferns at the top of a rock
Then, there were the ferns.  Betty saw them first: they were improbably ensconced fifteen feet up at the top of an enormous rock.  The ferns were thriving where they ought to be washed away with every rainfall and erased out of existence with each winter.  Were they growing in a quarter inch of leaf litter, or had their roots found purchase in unseen crevices?

With luck, yesterday started a new season of discovery and of learning.

October 6, 2017

Ready for Fall

Fall is finally in the air.  The autumnal equinox came as scheduled on September 22, but ever since, the calendar has said one thing and the New England weather has spoken something quite different.  We were still picking the last of our luxuriously sweet yellow corn from our garden just last week.
The last gasp of one of our hostas
Now, though, things are changing swiftly.   In our vegetable garden, the corn has now been pulled and the green beans (and the bean beetles – good riddance!) are just a memory.  Zucchini that grew from a flower to a baseball bat in three days now takes a week or longer to become picking size.  Tomatoes continue to ripen but are no longer growing. Conversely, the cool-weather crops – spinach, lettuce, arugula – are hitting their stride.
Suddenly, our garden is blooming
purple, like these asters
Things are still blooming in our garden… almost all of them purple.  Asters, geraniums, vernonia, callicarpa (beautyberry) and aconitum (monkshood), having been nothing but greenery all summer, have come out of nowhere to declare autumn their private domain. The perennial season is going out with a decidedly violet bang.
Most of the trees on the property still have that voluptuous, late summer look but, here and there, the leaves have started to turn – an omen of the color explosion later this month that gives New England its seasonal distinction.  One of our itea ‘Henry Garnet’ got a jump on the season; it is a brilliant red and orange.  Our amelanchier (shadbush) seemingly overnight went from all green to speckled yellow and rust.  A single branch of one of our high-bush blueberries has turned a brilliant red – a semaphore of things to come.
Beautyberry and
geraniums, all purple
The hummingbirds have departed.  Just a week ago they were dive-bombing one another at our feeder in some senseless ‘if-I-can’t-have-it-then-neither-can-you’ ritual that must be programmed into their DNA.  Hummingbirds know when the fat lady is warming up in the wings.
And, almost overnight, the hostas are turning yellow.  If we do nothing, they’ll turn to yellow mush when we get our first frost (though the ten-day forecast shows nothing lower than the mid-40s).  However, we allow our hostas to go out with a semblance of dignity.  This coming week, we’ll cut them to the ground, the better to prevent any bad bugs from overwintering in their foliage.
Aconitum (monkshood)
with perennial ageratum
for a backdrop
Regardless of the weather, the beginning of October begins a series of ‘lasts’ just as early April was the time for ‘firsts’.  The rain barrels that provided supplemental water for our garden all spring and summer will be drained later this month to give our young trees a ‘big gulp’ to ensure their root systems are as full as we can make them before the ground gets too cold to perk water.  The fence around our community garden plot will get taken down because there will be nothing left to tempt two- or four-footed marauders. 

We pick our first luscious macouns last week from this tree
It’s not a melancholy time – far from it.  Apple picking has started and we've already picked our first peck of macouns.  We'll pick at least one more peck before the month is out.  Autumn brings its own excitement in New England.  I’m ready.

September 5, 2017

We've Got to Get Ourselves Back to the Garden

There’s an old saw about grandchildren that goes, ‘if you haven’t seen them in a year, you won’t recognize them’.  I think the same can be said of the best gardens.  They continually evolve as they mature.  We hadn’t been to Bedrock Gardens in (gulp) two years but, this past weekend, we carved out a beautiful Saturday to see what Jill Nooney and Bob Munger have been up to.  The answer turns out to be ‘a lot’.

The garden deliberately breaks
design rules, but the effect is magical
To the best of my knowledge, Bedrock Gardens has no basis for comparison in New England.  It is the idiosyncratic creation of two people who have transformed 35 acres of one-time dairy farm land in rural southeastern New Hampshire into a space that is equal parts intelligent horticulture and sheer whimsy, with an accent on the unexpected.  It also an ‘art park’ – an expression I generally detest, but use here because it is a wholly accurate description.  And it is a garden that is not afraid of shade.  More than half of the property is heavily wooded, yet under the canopy of those tree lie some of Bedrock Gardens’ most beautiful and enchanting spaces.

Garden art
Jill is what the brochure describes as the ‘horticultural and artistic force’ behind the garden.  She designed the garden and largely chooses the plants for it.  She also builds the art you see all around the place.  And, ‘build’ is quite accurate.  Much of her work involves taking industrial and farm machinery and reimagining it as sculpture.  While I’ve included a few samples, you can peruse a more complete gallery here.  Bob has the more prosaic responsibilities of maintenance, digging holes and moving rocks (although he is also credited with creating and executing several of the intricate stone walkways on the premises).  He is definitely a Principal Undergardener.

Double-click for a full screen view
If I were to attempt to articulate the design philosophy that underlies Bedrock Gardens, it would go something like, “If you see a rule, break it.”  The garden abounds in plant and color juxtapositions that force the viewer to reconsider his or her idea of what is ‘right’.  Yet the overall effect is as glorious as anything you’ll encounter in, say, the New York Botanical Garden.

A profusion of blue pots
There are no fewer than 23 distinct gardens within the property.  Seeing them all requires half a day and sturdy walking shoes.  Truly appreciating them requires multiple visits.  This is the kind of garden that invites you to frequently turn around and see where you’ve been.  The perspective changes; sometimes subtly, other times wildly.  There are also two major axes.  A 900-foot-long one extends from a pair of thrones across a pond to an allée, a torii, and a spiral garden.  An 850-foot-long one extends from a barn across an acre of red, green, and blue grasses to the aforementioned torii and terminating at a CD tree (don’t ask). 

A shrine to hay rakes
The garden has evolved since our last visit.  The ‘acrobats’ sculpture is now preceded and framed by the beginnings of a beech arch that will take another five years to make its statement.  I do not recall seeing the ‘thrones’ on my past visit and the ‘Baxis’, a parallelogram-shaped arch is a stunning addition.

More garden art
Four years ago, Jill and Bob established a non-profit ‘Friends of Bedrock Gardens’ to begin a process to preserve the garden for future generations by converting the property to a public garden and cultural center.  The project is apparently well underway.  John Forti, who left his mark on Strawbery Banke and Elm Bank, was named Executive Director earlier this year.

Bedrock Garden will next be open in 2017 on September 16 and 17, and then one final time on Columbus Day weekend.  In the phrasing of the Michelin guides, this is ‘worth a journey’.

Here's a 45-second-long video of what the 'Wiggle Waggle' part of the garden looks like.

September 3, 2017

Gardening After Labor Day

I don't get pots of mums...
There’s an odd seasonal ritual most New Englanders appear to observe.  No, it’s not the one about not wearing white pants after Labor Day, although that’s also grist for discussion.  Rather, it is that Labor Day somehow marks the official close the gardening season.  People stop tending their vegetable gardens, they forget about their perennials, and they begin bringing home yellow and orange mums to replace their annuals.

I don’t get it.

Of course, I don’t get lots of things, including craft beers.  But to me, Labor Day is just the back stretch of the gardening year.  And as for mums, the idea of planting something in September that is guaranteed to croak with the first hint of frost just makes my head hurt.

We have 200 tomatoes
ripening.  I intend to
harvest every one.
If you are a vegetable gardener, this has been a strange season.  Betty and I normally sow ‘cold weather’ crops such as spinach and lettuce in mid-April.  Not this year.  Relentless bouts of frigid, rainy weather washed away two successive plantings.  We didn’t see our first pick-able leaf vegetables until late May.  Corn that is ‘knee-high by the Fourth of July’ was a cruel joke; we had three-inch-high sprouts on Independence Day.

But Mother Nature made up for her inattention to New England from mid-July onward.  We have frozen and bagged enough green beans to last until the Apocalypse, and we are able to keep abreast of our zucchini production only by being very generous to our local Food Cupboard and driving around parking lots checking for cars whose owners foolishly left their windows down.

On September 1, we
topped our tomatoes
Our garden is still going strong.  We have more than 200 tomatoes ripening as this is written.  Betty wisely cut off the growing tips of those tomato vines so the plants focus their energy on finishing the job they started.  The way I see it is that there are twelve hours of daylight until September 25 and eleven hours on October 16 which is, statistically speaking, the average date of our first frost.  As far as I’m concerned, the season isn’t going to end until the last tomato has ripened on the kitchen counter.

Moreover, I’ve got an entire square of corn that has only now ‘tasseled out’.  We expect to pick sweet corn well into the month.  We also have hot peppers that barely budge the needle on the Scoville scale.  I’m holding out for 500,000 SHUs and if it takes until October 16 to get there, I’ll gladly keep weeding.

One of the members of the community
garden we manage decided to stop
weeding or cutting back her squash vines
And weeding, I suspect, is why many gardeners conveniently decide that Gardening Is Passé just as the Patriots open their regular season.  Weeding is the dirty little secret that underlies all gardening, as well as the worst kept one.  Weeds must be pulled.  Weeds must be kept in check. 

For the past eight years, Betty and I have run a community garden that now contains 75 plots.  My scientific observation is that everyone weeds assiduously in May and June.  Come July, the gardening slackers begin practicing a kind of horticultural triage that distinguishes between weeds that the Garden Ogre will notice (and generate nasty emails) and so must be pulled, and those that are kinda-sorta of out of sight and therefore benign. 

This is our corn crop as of this
morning.  We should be able to
pick through the month.
Then comes August.  Everyone in the garden is away for some two-week period during the month.  Upon their return, they discover to their horror that the ‘benign weeds’ are eighteen inches high and forming seed heads, and that the Garden Ogre (that’s me) has filled their inbox with nastygrams. 

And so, rather than devote the two hours it will take to get their garden back in shape, over Labor Day weekend they take down their fence and declare that they’ve had enough for one year.  They go home and make gin and tonics.  Whatever produce remains is fodder for birds and woodchucks.  They clean their plots only at the end October after the weather is reliably cool.

Our garden will not only still be chugging along in October, we’re planting seeds now that will ensure we will have fresh lettuce, arugula, and spinach with our Thanksgiving Dinner.  Think it’s impossible?  Last year we picked our last lettuce on December 10.  That’s Week 14 of the NFL season for those of you who threw in the towel back on Labor Day.

And, while we’re at it, what exactly is so wrong about wearing white after August?