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.

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
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
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.
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.

August 7, 2015

The Pine Street Progress Report

The property as it looked this morning
Slowly, piece by piece, the landscape of 26 Pine Street is beginning to take shape. 

This is a long-term project; undertaken by two people who are hell-bent upon being able to say that they did this themselves.  There is a shopping list for trees, shrubs, and perennials; but their purchase is dictated by season and getting not just the right cultivar, but also the right conformance and pedigree.

Here's a guide to the photos
that follow.  Double click on the
map to see at full-screen size.
For example, there is a designated space in our landscape for a cercis canadensis, the forest pansy redbud.  We have been to five nurseries of which three had specimens.  But the trees we found were leggy, too small, or had branches crossing so badly that the tree would need to be pruned close to extinction to have the right shape. 

One cercis met all criteria but, curiously, it was both balled and burlapped and in a container.  Also, its leaves had turned green though it was early July and there had not been the string of warm nights that are generally required to make that transformation.  Those oddities caused us to ask questions, which eventually revealed that the tree’s origin was South Carolina.  We were looking at a tree bred for Zone 7 or 8, about to be plunged into Zone 5.  Sensibly, we passed.

Photo 1
The lone cersis that passed all tests had a tag on it indicating that it was being held as a possible replacement tree.  We called or visited the nursery every few days, hoping to spring the tree free.  Alas, it was called away.  We will wait until 2016 to find our specimen.

Photo 2
This is also predominantly a native garden.  There are two kinds of chionanthus – fringe trees.  Ninety percent of what is in nurseries is chionanthus chinesis, the Asian cultivar which is more popular because it grows more quickly.  We held out for virginicus, the native version.  It’s smaller (for now) but it’s what we wanted.

Photo 3
There are non-natives in the garden.  Hostas and epimedium can be found in multiple places.  These are the ‘friendly’ aliens.  They won’t take over the garden; they won’t spread seeds in the woods. 

Photo 4
Most surprising to most visitors and passers-by is that ours is, by choice, a grassless garden.  Our goal is to emphasize trees and shrubs (most of them flowering) and perennials.  We sold our mower when we moved, cementing that lawn-less decision.  The 45 cubic yards of mulch we have put down ensure that few weeds pop up.  We’re also saving thousands of gallons of water in a town that, in summer, pumps more that 100% of the water being replenished in its aquifer.

Photo 5
In time, the additional shrubs and perennials we plant will grow to maturity. When they do, the absence of grass will cease to be an issue because the greenery will predominate. We’re willing to wait.

We know our garden is not for everyone.  It’s a statement about conservation; a demonstration that ‘thoughtful’ landscaping can also be colorful and attractive.  We’re out working in front of the property most mornings before 6 a.m. and we get hundreds of walkers, bicyclists, and joggers every week.  There are lots of ‘thumbs up’ and many encouraging words.

Photo 6
All gardening should be a labor of love.  This one is also a journey of educating ourselves and those who are open to a different vision of suburban horticulture.

August 5, 2015

You Can Go Home Again (But You Probably Shouldn't)

I’ve been thinking these past few weeks about the inevitability of change. 

It started last month when Betty and I visited Bedrock Gardens, which is easily the most visually intriguing garden in New England.  Located in Lee, New Hampshire, it sprawls across more than 30 acres and is created from equal parts intelligence and whimsy.  Its creator, Jill Nooney, has filled it with plant combinations that challenge the imagination, and garden art – sculptures forged from century-old industrial detritus – that inspire both laughter and thought.

She and husband Bob Munger have been working on the garden for roughly 30 years.  It is a labor of love in every sense of the word and I have enjoyed watching it grow and mature.  But Jill and Bob have been on this earth, by their own admission, for a combined 135 years.  What happens when they can no longer care for the garden?

The perennial border at Great Dixter.
Sir Christopher Lloyd left us nine
years ago but his garden is still alive
The late eminent English gardener, Christopher Lloyd, is credited with the wisdom “The garden dies when the gardener dies”.  Lloyd’s home, Great Dixter, was still going strong the last time I was in East Sussex so, perhaps, death does not bring down the curtain on every garden.  An entity called the Great Dixter Trust is charged with preserving the garden for generations to come.  Looking to the future, Bedrock Gardens has similarly established a non-profit entity to help fund the preservation of that treasure.

Which brings me to the fate of a much smaller garden; one with much more limited notoriety: the one Betty and I created at our last home.

As everyone knows, we downsized this year; moving from a Colonial on Steroids on one side of town to a brand new 2100-square-foot jewel of a home on the other side.  In a perfect world (meaning one where money was no object), we would have stayed put on our same piece of land and built that smaller house.  The reason we would have stayed involved great views, terrific neighbors, and a garden that provided vast and continuing pleasure to us.

Our gardens, though extensive, covered
less than half of our land.  The rest was
a woodland we restored
We sold our home to a couple with two young children.  They loved the site, loved the pond view and shared our thoughts about pesticide-free lawns.  The garden was buried under several feet of snow when we accepted their offer in February.  We invited them over to take a tour of the garden as soon as the snow melted so that that we could identify some of the very unusual trees, shrubs, and perennials in it.  They demurred, citing family demands.

When we closed on the house in April we reiterated the offer – a hands-on walk-through so that they wouldn’t accidentally cut down a rare specimen.  They thanked us but said the pressure of packing and the impending sale of their own home made it impossible.  A few weeks later we passed along another invitation through our Realtor.  Again, regrets.

Then, three weeks ago, we stopped by to see one of our former neighbors and saw the beginning of the transformation: a small copse of pines and oaks at the front of the property was gone.  For us, it had provided desired privacy; we were part of our small neighborhood yet secluded.  At the edge of the copse we had planted a number of specimen trees and shrubs.  Most of those were also gone.

Beyond our house was an acre of oaks
and pines.  The new owners have
cleared it.
Last week, we were again at our former neighbors’ home.  This time we saw that our ‘forest’ had disappeared.

We had nearly two acres at our previous home, but we gardened only one of them.  The other acre was maintained as a forest preserve, primarily of oak and pine.  Over the years we had painstakingly removed invasive plants and fostered native ferns, wildflowers and ephemerals.  The forest floor was comprised of a rich duff and slowly composting leaves.  When tree limbs broke off in storms, they lay where they fell. Because it adjoined town conservation land, our forest was full of wildlife and was a wonderful habitat, especially for birds.  Now, it had been clear-cut; with massive logs from beautiful, mature oaks stacked like cordwood waiting to be taken away. 

This is all that remains of the forest
Naturalist Doug Tallamy tells us that a single oak tree supports 500 species of moths.  Those moths feed birds and pollinate plants, which beautify our world while playing an important part in the cycle of life on which we ultimately depend.  The dozen or more oaks in our forest are gone, likely to be replaced by a lawn suitable for young children.

We understand we ceded the right to dictate how our property could be used the moment we signed the papers passing title to it.  As long as they obey zoning ordinances, the new owners are entitled to whatever they wish to the land.  They have paid for the privilege.

But it does not stop us from mourning – and ‘mourning’ is the right word – the passing of those woods and, likely in time, the rest of the garden. 

Sir Christopher got it only partly right: a garden does not necessarily die when the gardener dies, but a change of ownership will almost certainly do the trick. 

July 12, 2015

Gardens for a Worthy Cause

Yesterday (July 11), with the temperatures in Boston expected to touch 90 degrees, Betty and I did what all sane New Englanders do: we headed for the coast. 

Cape Ann is 'the other cape'
For the uninitiated, Massachusetts has two ‘capes’ on its coast.  The one people refer to when then say they are ‘going down to the Cape for the weekend’ is Cape Cod and, yesterday morning, the backups on the Bourne and Sagamore Bridges were four and six miles, respectively. 

The other ‘cape’ is Cape Ann.  Cape Ann is an afterthought for most New Englanders and it barely registers if you are from outside the region.  As it turns out, this state of affairs suits Cape Ann residents just fine.  Unlike that ‘other’ Cape, the citizens of Gloucester and Rockport can traverse the A. Piatt Andrew Bridge spanning the Annisquam River that separates Cape Ann from the mainland without fear of hours-long delays.

The pedestrian bridge into Annisquam
Our goal yesterday morning was not beaches but, rather, gardens.  Specifically, we went on the Gloucester Garden Tour of Annisquam Village.  Annisquam, in turn, is a hidden gem: a beautiful seaside village dating to 1646 that is suspended in time.  Its houses are a mix of grand and humble.  Streets are narrow, winding, rising, and falling.  There are stone outcroppings everywhere that dictate where homes can and cannot be built. 

A garden on the Annisquam tour. 
Double-click for a full-page show.
Most garden tours are held by garden clubs.  This annual tour (which features a different part of Cape Ann each year) is the creation of a unique organization: Generous Gardeners, a Gloucester-based philanthropic organization that raises funds for beautification projects.  Some are carried out by the organization’s members, other projects are funded through grants to other groups.  And we are not talking about modest sums.  As you come into Gloucester on Route 128, you encounter Grant Circle, a large and, until last year, graceless traffic rotary.  This year it sports a new series of glorious beds.  Three area garden clubs banded together in 2014 to raise more than $100,000 to beautify the rotary; Generous Gardeners provided a hefty contribution that kick-started funding.  Four other projects are targeted for assistance this year including expanding the plantings in the center island of Gloucester’s principal downtown boulevard.

Several of the gardens included
painters at work
But however worthwhile the cause, a $25 garden tour ticket needs to provide an experience that is both fun and inspiring.  Generous Gardeners delivered on both counts, and it did so with a professionalism that made the day effortless (except for walking) on the part of tour goers.

A garden with a sweeping ocean view
There are two ways into Annisquam Village: narrow Leonard Street and a pedestrian footbridge across Lobster Cove. We parked and checked in at a school two miles away, and boarded a school bus that let us off on the Gloucester side of the footbridge. It was an appropriate way to start the tour, a 300-foot ramble past dozens of boats with the hill upon which the village is built as a backdrop.

In Annisquam, houses adapt to the
geology of the region
I had been to Annisquam just once, as a speaker earlier this year for the Cape Ann Garden Club.  I had gotten a sense of the village’s architecture, but not of its gardens. July is unquestionably the peak of the area’s gardens.  Spirea and hydrangea groan with blooms and spill over walls and fences.  Perennial borders blaze with daylilies, lavender, sage, hosta, fern, and epimedium.

This was my favorite garden:
small but intelligent with
a framed ocean view
There were 15 houses on the tour of which we saw 13.  While there were several large, beachfront homes featuring meticulous gardens with sweeping views of Annisquam Harbor and Wingaersheek Beach beyond, my tour favorite was a small house with a compact garden.  The homeowner compensated for a small space by emphasizing the vertical drop from the front to the back of the property.  The front garden gave way to a lushly planted bluestone patio with espaliered pear trees on the side; stepping down to a narrow, intelligently designed rear perennial border separated from the small lawn by a winding row of cobblestones.  The piece de resistance?  A well-framed view of the ocean.  It was perfect.

Our appreciation for the tour was heightened by the opportunity to chat with Susan Kelly, founder of Generous Gardeners and organizer of the tour.  As we waited for the bus to take us back to the school where our car was parked, she spoke of the daunting logistics required to make the tour happen (for example, a week before the tour, she was informed that only a single bus would be available – ultimately she negotiated three).

A great tour requires commensurate signage and an explanatory guide.  Every garden had multiple docents, the winding course was superbly marked, and the tour book included a concise ‘what-to-look-for’ in the garden as well as a quick sketch of the house’s history.

* * * * *

Beneath the 'acrobats'
Instead of heading home for a cool drink and a well-deserved rest, we made a 50-mile detour on our way home to another garden Saturday afternoon.  Bedrock Gardens in Lee, New Hampshire, is a nearly thirty-year-long effort by Jill Nooney and Bob Munger to create a space that marries art and horticulture.  (I first wrote about Bedrock Gardens here.)  We were inspired to visit yesterday both to see how the garden has changed and by the fact that the Garden Conservancy had chosen to sponsor an Open Day at the property.

Horsehead sculptures guard the
parterre garden
Bedrock Gardens need to be on every serious gardener’s bucket list.  It is unique as far as I know; a 20-acre garden that is equal parts whimsy and horticultural intelligence.  It is also a garden that grows and changes.  To put it another way, seeing Bedrock Gardens once is like seeing your grandchildren once.  You need to make a pilgrimage every year or so to see how it has evolved.

Unusual plant combinations are the rule
When you go, plan to stay at least two hours.  It will take you that long just to see, from various vantage points, the 21 ‘points of interest’ listed on the garden map.  If you are serious about horticulture, add the amount of time appropriate to your knowledge level.  Very little in this garden is ‘the usual suspects’.  Instead, unusual variations are the rule.  Take a camera (or a phone with a high-rez imager) and a notebook.  You’ll find unexpected but imaginative planting combinations that will send you to nurseries that specialize in lesser-known cultivars.

Part of the 'wiggle-waggle'
The ‘garden’ part of Bedrock Gardens is primarily the work of Jill Nooney.  Her spouse, Bob Munger, is credited with creating the walkways, water features and patios that dot the garden, though he will confess to no greater contribution than the digging of holes and operation of farm equipment.  I’m willing to accept that division of labor at face value without further investigation.

The Dark Woods feature
flying objects
The ‘art’ at Bedrock Gardens is both the interplay of plants and the inspired genius of Jill’s ‘sculptures’.  As the accompanying photos show, Bedrock Gardens is stiff with metal creations made from industrial scrap.  There are some recent pieces that appear to be the result of binge-watching ‘Game of Thrones’, but every piece is a delight.  Many are for sale.  Suffice it to say that had the arc welder not been invented, it would be necessary to do so to encourage the creations on display.

Two items of note:  First, in the past few years, the Friends of Bedrock Gardens has been organized as a 501(c)3 non-profit.  This both make it easier to support the garden financially, and to ensure that it survives its two creators.  Second, the garden has four more open weekends between now and October.  Those dates are July 18-19, August 15-16, September 19-20 and October 10-11-12.