February 6, 2019

You Can Take the Gardener Out of the Garden, But...


My wife, Betty, and I took a much-needed and long-delayed vacation last month.  Our original plan had been a month in New Zealand (where it’s midsummer) but, coming just four months after a total knee replacement, Betty’s surgeon advised against 20 hours on a plane and strenuous hiking. 

As it turned out, she made a remarkably swift and full recovery, but we made our January reservations in November.  And so instead, we chose a week in London and a week in Paris.  The forecast for London was chilly and damp.  For Paris, it was chillier and with a chance of Yellow Vests.

Expecting to be primarily indoors, we built our itinerary around a series of special art and culture exhibitions in those two cities.  In all, we visited fifteen museums and galleries, several with those ‘once in a generation’ kind of blockbuster events.

Why, then, did we keep ending up in gardens?

Snowdrops in bloom in January in St. James Park, London
It started in London.  We walked everywhere and, England being England, we kept running into things in bloom.  There were unexpected blooming irises in St. James Park.  Millbank Garden, a long, narrow park opposite the Tate Britain beckoned with a pocket garden where daphne and camellias were in flower despite the short days and chilly nights. 

It became a part of our day: finding small, protected parks where tough, seasoned plants were showing their stuff.  Park Crescent, at the southern tip of Regent’s Park, yielded a hedge with a white bottlebrush-type flower we could not identify.  A winter vegetable garden valiantly hung on at the Duck Island Cottage opposite the Horse Guards Parade, and a scattering of Galanthus (snowdrops) bloomed nearby.

A flower market in the Marais District
Paris provided more unexpected gardens, albeit of a different kind.  It was colder in Paris – not Boston-cold, but with daytime highs in the low 40s – and we were even greeted with a burst of sleet our first day.  We spotted our first garden on the south side of the Notre Dame Cathedral, where a pair of large raised beds provided homes for cold-weather bedding plants like Stachys byzanta (lambs ear) and hellebores.

Walking along the Seine on our way to the Musee d’Orsay, it seemed every houseboat on the river sported large boxes of brightly-colored flowers.  The Marais district sported dozens of window boxes and a large weekend flower market.

Can you really get a gardener out of the garden?  I don’t think so.  You can go to see art but, in the end, you can’t stop also seeing all the color that nature unexpectedly surprises us with, even in the depths of winter.

January 21, 2019

Celie Sturtevant


My path to becoming a writer was not a conventional one.  I lacked an MFA from any college, I attended no university-affiliated writers’ workshop, and I had no circle of established writer friends from which to draw wisdom.  What I had was a head full of ideas and an urge to get them down on paper.  Because I was learning as I wrote, some of my writing ‘lessons’ were painful to absorb.

Celie Sturtevant
One of those lessons came at the hands of Lucille ‘Celie’ Sturtevant, who passed away last week at the age of 91.

By way of background, Betty and I led a nomadic existence for several decades.  I made the most of career opportunities with the result we were sometimes in a given city for just a few years.  We came, we set up housekeeping, and we left without leaving footprints in the community we nominally called home.  That changed in 1999 when we returned to the Boston area, and to the same town we had called home through the 1980s.

This time, we began to sink down roots.  We joined a community garden, Betty joined the local women’s club and garden club.  And she began telling me stories of the people she met in those clubs.  I came to know those people personally when I volunteered to be the ‘strong back’ at club events. 

Celie was one of the people who made a deep and indelible impression.  She was a tiny woman, but full of laughter, smart insights about people and events, Yankee ingenuity, and affection for those around her.  Though in her 70s when I met her, she was a golfer and a skier.

When I retired in 2005, I had the outline of plots for several books, one of which became my second published work, The Garden Club Gang.  My plot was simple: four ‘women of a certain age’, acting out of friendship for one another, come together to do something very much outside their comfort zone.  Complications ensue. 

One of those four characters was modeled on Celie.  I knew enough about writing to understand you don’t lift someone from life and put them down on the page intact.  You change things around.  You create a mosaic and turn that montage into a mold that becomes your character.  Still, a writer has the leeway to insert a few ‘tells’ that give a wink to the character’s true identity.

When the first draft was done, Betty read it and suggested I might want to show it to Celie.  I called her and asked if she’d like to be a ‘first reader’ for one of my manuscripts.  She said she would be delighted.  When I dropped off a printout of the text, I made no mention I might have modeled a character on her.

I should mention the ‘something’ these four ‘women of a certain age’ do is plan and execute the robbery of a large New England fair.

Four years later, Celie
made a second
appearance
A week later, Celie called and said I could pick up the document.  When I arrived at her home, she was seated at her kitchen table, the manuscript in front of her.  She motioned me to the chair opposite her.  She was drumming her fingers on the draft of my book, and she was biting her lower lip.

I sat down.  She drummed her fingers a moment longer and then forcefully shoved the manuscript across the table toward me.  In her sternest voice she said, “I would never do anything like this.”  Defiant, she then folded her arms.

I went back to the drawing board.  I recast the character, excising anything that might conceivably lead a reader to conjure up an image of Celie Sturtevant.  In the process, I created a better, more nuanced and sympathetic character than the one I had written just a few months earlier.   Celie received one of the first copies of The Garden Club Gang.  I urged her to read it and she did.  Her review was highly positive; she said, apart from the character’s diminutive stature, she recognized nothing about herself.

Celie's third time; this
spring will be her fourth
Celie’s reaction that day in her home was a lesson I never forgot.  Ever since, I’ve made certain my characters, while inspired by people I know and admire (or, in some cases, know and dislike intensely) have physical characteristics and personality traits either imagined or borrowed from multiple sources.

This spring, the character inspired by Celie will appear in the fourth installment of what has become The Garden Club Gang series.  In fact, her much-transformed alter ego comes center stage in this outing.

In attending her memorial service this past weekend, I saw how deeply she touched the lives of those around her and her community.  I can state from personal experience she certainly touched mine.

January 16, 2019

A New Year, With New Gardening Possibilities


For a gardener, the wonderful thing about January in New England is that all things are possible.  Whether the ground is bare or under a blanket of snow, you need only look outdoors – or, better yet, take a walk – and imagine what might be in 2019.  That’s what we’re doing this week.

Courtesy of our neighbors’ trees, three November and December wind storms filled our property with thousands of plump pine cones – themselves a product of this year’s wet summer and fall.  We carted off barrels and bags of them lest they either sprout into pine forests or attract unwanted squirrels.  Because the cones buried themselves in nooks and crannies, extracting them gave us the opportunity to mentally revisit our 2018 garden and think about what can be done this year.

Thousands of pine cones
For example, I pulled a clutch of pine cones from a bed of daisies.  Last year’s stalks were cut down in November but the 2019 greens are already in place, over-wintering at the base of the plants; forming a blueprint of what the bed will look like next year.  Just two years ago this bed consisted of eight, gallon-sized pots on three-foot centers.  Now, they’ve grown into an unbroken mass.  Should the daisies be encouraged to spread further?  Based on their current ‘footprint’, it’s likely we’ll be offering our friends potted-up daisies next year.

Another example: our miniature clumping birch looked spectacular last year.  Now shorn of its leaves, however, it’s easy to see the crossing branches that will spell trouble down the road.  With the ground frozen, it’s easy to get in to cut the problem branches.  If we waited until April, we’d be up to our shins in mud.

This eupatorium grew so tall it hid
the redbud tree behind it
Or this: last year we planted a marvelous variegated eupatorium in one of our beds.  The foliage was so dramatic we elected not to trim it back in June.  Big mistake; the perennial grew to more than six feet in height, dwarfing everything around it, including a young Cersis canadensis ‘Burgundy Hearts’.  In the cold light of January, I tagged the eight-inch stubble of the eupatorium with the stern command: ‘trim me in June’.

This was to have been the site of a
water feature; it never seemed right
Betty has wanted a water feature in the garden ever since we built our house.  The original site was planned for a space behind our home but it never felt right and so the project went into abeyance.  This fall we added several hundred bulbs to one of the beds in the front of property.  Now, with the leaves off the trees and shrubs, and the outline of the newly planted bulbs apparent, it’s obvious where a small pond ought to be.  That will be a spring project. 

The garden is full of tales to tell.  When everything is green and in bloom, it’s easy to yield to temptation and say, ‘Leave it alone; it’s beautiful just like it is’.  In the brown (or snow) of winter, logic rears its glorious head.  The result will be a new, re-imagined garden.

November 13, 2018

Racing the End of the Season


The end of the gardening season is always abrupt.  One day you have a thriving vegetable plot.  Then, via the simple expedient of an overnight frost, it turns to mush.  Your annuals succumb to frost and old age.  Your perennials look fine and are in flower.  Then, for no ascertainable reason, they’re brown.

Mother nature has wreaked havoc
with our garden clean-up schedule
As conscientious stewards of the land, Betty and I strive each year to put each of our gardens to bed in an orderly fashion.  This year, Mother Nature has been mucking with the calendar.

What do I mean?  Let’s take pine cones as an example.  We had a wet summer and the pines at the borders of our property rewarded us with a bumper crop of cones.  We picked every last one out of the garden – more than a thousand cones – in late September.  Why do we bother?  Well, for one thing we don’t want a pine forest sprouting in our garden.  Just as important, though, pine cones are food for squirrels and other unwanted rodents.  But then came a surprise nor’easter.  The pine cones re-appeared in the garden as if by magic.  We picked them up again.  Last week, a storm with gale-force winds blew through.  Another pine-cone-picking party.

A nor'easter brought us a second
plague of pine cones
We took down our vegetable garden as plants ran their course.  The stalks from three squares of corn, for example, were taken out as the last ears were picked.  But, in the absence of frost, some plants kept producing (we had zucchini and tomatoes into late October).  The ogre who runs our community garden requires plots to be cleared by the end of October.  As a result, much of our final vegetable garden cleanup was hurriedly done on the last day of the month.  A week later, in our capacity as overseers of the community garden, we were back out to clean up the detritus of three abandoned plots.  Naturally, it rained.  Fortunately, seven volunteers made the work go much more quickly.

In addition to clearing our own plot we
cleaned abandoned ones... in the rain
Our first hard frost (October 20) took out our container gardens – twelve ‘major’ ones and another twelve ‘minor’ ones.  Each container had to be emptied, the vegetative matter taken to the transfer station, the potting mix added to a low spot, the miscellaneous bottles and other ‘ballast’ in the containers cleaned; and the containers themselves bleached, washed and put away in the basement.  That was a three-day process.

On October 21, UPS came calling with our fall bulb order – 500 of them.  We set it aside.  The trick with bulbs is they must be planted early enough that they can still generate roots, but not so early that they’ll produce greens.  If the ground begins to freeze, it’s likely too late to plant and you’ve just wasted beaucoup dollars.

Racing to get bulbs planted
We began taking down the multiple-hundreds of perennials that form the heart of our garden in late October… which is also when it began to rain in earnest.  We would cut back amsonia, baptisia, eupatorium and the like for a few hours; then watch as the clouds darkened.  This hide-and-seek with the rain went on for the better part of a week.

Finally, last Saturday, we could wait no longer.  Starting just after dawn, and with a forecast of heavy precipitation for the afternoon, we began digging out six large spaces for our new bulbs.  Everything was excavated to a depth of five to seven inches, bulbs were placed, then a parfait of limestone and soil layers were added and topped with mulch.  The rain started just as we patted down the last bulb patch.


We've had triple our normal rainfall
Yesterday afternoon, we limed the garden because our soil test came back showing a calcium deficiency.  The trick to putting down lime is to do so when there’s no wind to blow it away, but also near to the time when ample rain is expected.  We nailed the timing perfectly.  Our rainfall total overnight was more than an inch, and it’s still falling as this is written.

November 2, 2018

Be Careful What You Wish For


Be careful what you wish for.  It will all come back to bite you in the fall.

All those containers had to be
taken apart and cleaned
This spring I encouraged Betty to plant container gardens… lots and lots of container gardens filled with glorious annuals than allowed us to place points of color all around out landscape.  In all, she planted up a dozen ‘major’ containers and that many ‘lesser’ pots.  In mid-October, a killing frost wiped out those containers.  It took half a day to empty them, separate out the spent potting mix from the bottles and such we use as ‘ballast’, and clean and bleach the containers and store them in the basement so they’re ready for next year.

We left a dozen pine trees standing at the edges of our gardens because I wanted tall evergreens with deep green needles to contrast again the snows of winter, or dull browns when the snow has melted.  The late October nor’easter deposited several thousand pine cones from those trees onto our garden.  Sticky, sap-drenched pine cones.  Each one had to be picked up by hand and transported to a far edge of the property.  Elapsed time?  At least two hours.

Both for ecological and esthetic reasons, I demanded a driveway that would be asphalt-free and allow water to percolate through to replenish the groundwater, rather than adding to what goes down our town’s storm drains.  This past weekend, I spent two hours raking an inch of leaves and pine needles from the aforementioned nor’easter off our 90-foot-long stone driveway.  In the next few weeks, I have to attach skis (quite literally) to the bottom of our snow blower so I can remove the white stuff this winter without picking up buckets full of stones in the process.  And, does it take longer to clear a stone driveway than a macadam one?  It does, and don’t let anyone tell you differently.

Stalks of perennials have been cut
down, stuffed into bags, and taken
to the transfer station
Betty said she didn’t want any grass in our new garden, and so we planted the half acre that is not wetlands in native trees, shrubs, and perennials.  I not only agreed with her on the subject, I encouraged it.  And I keep urging her to fill in the ‘holes’ in the landscape with yet more perennials.  This fall, I have spent several days cutting back the now-dead stalks on those perennials, bundling them up in tarps, and transporting them to our transfer station for disposal.  Betty has spent even more time trimming back shrubs.  I get to bundle up and remove those as well.

I refuse to pay Whole Foods prices for fresh, organically grown vegetables and so we have a plot at our town’s Community Garden.  The garden has to be tended several hours each week, but it’s a small price to pay for placing food on the table that we have, ourselves, grown.  However, come October, plants stop producing and fruit stops ripening.  There’s an arrogant, overbearing ‘ogre’ who runs the garden and he sends out obnoxious emails telling everyone that must have their plot cleared by the end of the month.  And so, on multiple days, Betty and I have taken apart the garden, cleaning and storing the fencing and cages we’ll use next year, and taking everything else to the transfer station (the corn stalks alone filled the back end of our Prius to its limit).

Everyone loves our driveway
The magic question is, of course, why?  If it’s so much work and backbreaking labor, why not just pay someone to do it for us?  Or, more sensibly, stop doing it at all – dispense with the containers, plant some grass, cut down the damnable pines, and pay Whole Foods their extortionate prices?
The answer is that I wouldn’t change it for the world.  I love those 50-pound containers and the unusual plants Betty finds for them.  Those pines do look majestic against the snow and brighten up our cold, New England winter.  That driveway has a distinctive style all its own that further sets our property apart from the ‘usual’ suburban home, and that all-native and grass-free garden draws compliments that no flower bed out front could possibly get.  And pay Whole Foods prices?  Never.  I’d stop eating first.

Oh, and I’m getting serious exercise doing all this.  People ‘my age’ are supposed to be slowing down and becoming sedentary.  I carried 60 pounds of metal stakes in my arms last week and unloaded tarpaulin after tarpaulin filled with plant debris at the transfer station without resorting to pain-relieving drugs.  And, on top of that, it’s fun.  If all those wishes are, in fact. coming back to bite me, I’ll just put it down to the price of having a good time.

October 29, 2018

Thank you, Dorothy Jasiecki

This is a blog about gardening, which can be reasonably defined as growing, nurturing, caring, and cultivation.  However this edition of the Principal Undergardener will not be about the gardening of flowers or vegetables but, rather, the nurturing of young people's minds, the cultivation of their intellects, and urging the growth of their curiosity.  More specifically, it will be about a very special gardener of young minds: 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 13 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, as I look these 
days. 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 .  I was in one of her classes that first year strictly by happenstance.  The following two years, she was my English teacher by design.

Dorothy Jasiecki circa 1968
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 eleven 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 93 on October 30th.  And, in an important sense, Dorothy Jasiecki is still very much alive in 2018.  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 21, 2018

Farewell to the 2018 Gardening Season


What can you say about a gardening season that was perfect for growing… weeds?

The detritus of our 2018 garden
makes its way to the transfer station
New England summers are notorious for being fickle.  May frosts, monsoon rains in June, July droughts, humidity festivals in August.  You name it, New England can deliver it.  And, this year, boy, did it deliver.

The lettuce, spinach, and beet seeds we planted in early April were washed away.  We replanted, and it was so cold that nothing germinated.  In mid-May, we had a 600-square-foot garden that was barren except for a large patch of dill that sprang from self-planted 2017-vintage seeds.  We were so desperate to show progress in the garden, we left it in place.

Our first square of corn was also a no-show for three weeks, even though we covered the area with netting to dissuade marauding crows.  Finally, in mid-June, we had sufficient sprouts that we could assemble a passable seven rows of corn – from the ten we originally planted.

Our vegetable garden
was under row covers to
keep out bugs
Because of the rains of May and June, we tented everything with row covers.  Our garden began to resemble a refugee camp.  Eggplant, zucchini, green beans, and winter squash were all sequestered until they burst out of their covers… whereupon the squash borers and Mexican bean beetles descended on the plants.

Some vegetables were a bust.  Five pepper plants mysteriously became three.  In the end, we harvested four usable peppers.  Our re-planted lettuce crop bolted so quickly we picked enough for perhaps half a dozen salads and I never did harvest any spinach.

All was not lost, of course.  Eight tomato plants thrived in the midsummer heat and began producing prolifically.  Our corn, not quite ‘knee-high by the Fourth of July’, grew like a teenager in July and early August; so much so that our first and second squares of corn looked identical despite having been planted 20 days apart.  A modest-sized third square produced enough September corn to be worth the effort to cajole it along. 

It was a banner year
for tomatoes
The weather was, apparently, perfect for cucumbers because we handed out dozens of them to our neighbors.  Our zucchini exploded between mid-July and mid-August to the point we had to pick twice a day lest they turn into baseball bats between sunrise and sunset.  We had our best crop ever of fennel, and harvested enough green beans before the bean-beetle onset to feed us through the winter.
We also had a bumper crop of weeds.  They grew everywhere, cozying up to plant roots, hiding between rows, and boldly popping up in pathways.  When we pulled the row cover off our second crop of green beans, the weeds were higher than the surrounding vegetables.

I have spent the past two weeks taking apart the garden - hauling it to the transfer station by the carload to ensure the hitchhiking bugs and diseases do not have an opportunity to burrow in for the winter – and, now, much of the garden is again bare ground.  The late arugula is thriving and I have hopes some late tomatoes will ripen. 

You might think from reading this that I’ve begun to despair of gardening.  Not for an instant.  It took three years to figure out how to grow fennel in our garden and, now that we’ve mastered it, we will enjoy its unique flavor for years to come.  We just enjoyed the last of our corn and marveled at its sweetness. 

Give up gardening because of a little rain and a lot of weeds?  Not in a hundred years.  Once it’s in your blood, it’s there forever.

September 29, 2018

Color at the End of September

Dull in October?  Not our New
England garden!  Double-click
for a slideshow of the garden
There's a truism among certain gardeners that says New England gardens are shot by mid-September.  Pull it out and plow it under because, until the leaves turn, the garden will be a wasteland of spent plants and brown flowers.  There's a rationale for the belief.  Days are less than twelve hours long and the angle of the sun is all wrong.  And besides, an early frost will kill everything anyway, so why bother?

Perhaps our garden is the exception, or maybe it's a product of Betty's thoughtfulness coupled with serendipity, but 26 Pine Street is still barreling along, blissfully unaware that we should have put away our gardening tools on Labor Day.

These purple dome asters add
long-lasting fall color
Take the fall-blooming perennials, for example. We planted a clutch of purple dome asters two years ago, and they've spread quite nicely.  Two weeks ago they were green.  Today, they're a blaze of purple.  We also planted wood asters to border the wetlands at the back of our planted area. They've been a sea of white for the past three weeks and we're beginning to re-think how many of them we want on our property.

One of our Aconitum
Our pod of Chelone (turtlehead) 'Hot Lips' is also on full display as is a growing array of white Chelone 'Glabra' we planted specifically to attract the Baltimore Checkerspot butterfly.  Close by is a cluster of Aconitum (monkshood) with its vivid, and long-blooming purple flower.  The Aconitum is mostly my idea as I used it as a murder weapon in one of my books, Deadly Deeds.

Birds love our bright red
American dogwood fruit
We have berries on display.  The leaves of our Cornus florida (American dogwood) are just starting to turn but, as they do, the tree's fruit is quickly ripening.  In a week or so, migrating birds will see or smell it and descend upon the tree to devour its nutritious berries.  The fruit of our neighbors' Asian kousa dogwoods will fall to the ground and rot, uneaten.  On the rise at the front of the property, our three Ilex have produced their bright red berries.  They'll stay on the shrubs until they've been frozen and thawed multiple times, after which they'll be palatable to over-wintering birds.

Purple beutyberry with a backdrop
of still-blooming geranium
Our Callicarpa americana (American beautyberry) had exploded in its second year and now has arching branches laden with dark purple fruit, which will feed a variety of both migrating and over-wintering birds.  It pairs nicely with our 'river' of Geranium 'Rozanne', which will stay in bloom until the first hard frost.

These woodland asters, backed by
Solidago, catch the eye
Container gardens are supposed to be on the compost pile by mid-September and, indeed, we have pulled apart several that gave out after they stopped blooming in August.  But several are still brilliant with color.  Two are anchored by Alternathera, (one is Purple Prince, the other's tag is missing).  We consider them 'thugs' that crowd out other plants, but two containers in particular have equally aggressive specimens of coleus and Agastache.  The result is two, brilliant potted gardens that look better today than they did in August.  The photo at the top of the page shows one of those containers.

A profusion of Melampodium
Finally, one of our in-ground annuals is putting on a spectacular show.  We planted a short row (eight plants, if memory serves) of Melampodium 'Showstar' last year to disguise the unattractive hyacinth foliage along our driveway.  By September of last year, the Melampodium had turned into a foot-wide row of dense plants with yellow flowers.  The plants died with the first frost and we pulled them out and agreed we might purchase a comparable number this spring.

We needn't have bothered.  The seeds from those Melampodium flowers overwintered and began showing leaves as soon as we cut back the hyacinths in June.  This year, the row is two feet wide, denser, and showier.  They're also blooming prolifically.  Yes, they'll die with that first frost, but we now have a terrific eye-catcher that has earned a place in the landscape.

September 24, 2018

Here's Mulch in Your Shoe


Life is always interesting for the spouse of an active gardener.  You have an enormous garden at home and a 600-square-foot plot at a community vegetable garden to look after.  Even with all that to take care of, though, my wife can never turn down a cry for help, especially if it’s from a friend.  Which is how I came to be up to my calf in mud this past week.

‘Sally Kahn’ is a lovely lady.  I know because she is the first person I ever murdered.  That was more than a decade ago when I was writing A Murder in the Garden Club, and I use her fictional name here to spare her unwanted notoriety.  Sally maintains one of the most prominent wayside gardens in town and, last week, she called Betty to ask for her help in planting a new sedum at the site.  I should probably mention that Sally is closing in on 90, though she looks and has the energy of someone twenty years her junior.

Last week these were a pristine white.  Then I offered to
water a tree...
Although not specifically included in the invitation, I came along and ended up removing the mulch, digging the hole for the new specimen, toting the water, and then looking for opportunistic weeds in the bed while Sally and Betty did the actual planting. 

As they planted, Sally described another issue bothering her.  The parking lot at one of our town’s civic buildings has been something of a horticultural desert since its construction several years ago.  While maintaining the foundation plantings at the building. Sally and a group of friends have pressed for the addition of trees for the parking area.  Earlier this year, Sally got her wish: four trees were procured and planted by the town.

The problem Sally described to Betty was this:  the trees were a mess.  Although they bore sales tags from a highly regarded nursery, the specimens came with dead or broken branches and had clearly been grown with inadequate space to its brethren trees.  Everything pointed skyward; nothing grew laterally.  Could Betty help?  And so, the next morning, I once again piled tools into a car and drove with Betty to the site. 

The role of an Undergardener is to dig holes and move rocks.  A Principal Undergardener (that would be me) may, from time to time, be asked for advice by the Head Gardener (that would be Betty).  However, my charter has never extended to ‘skilled labor’.  On this day, my writ would be to move Heavy Stuff (ladders and hoses) and create mulch rings around the four trees.  In the meantime, Betty assiduously climbed the aforementioned ladder and pruned extraneous branches from the trees; reshaping them to allow air circulation within the tree and prevent branches from crossing and rubbing.

And so I began watering.  However, I could not help noticing an odd phenomenon: no matter how much water I put on that first tree, the water did not puddle.  And I am not talking about water trickling out of a hose.  This water was gushing out at the rate of four or five gallons a minute.  And it just disappeared into the mulch surrounding the tree.  I was standing on pavement while watering.  Intrigued, I stepped onto the mulch to investigate.

And promptly sunk my crisp, white sneakers into more than a foot of a thick, swamp-worthy slurry of mulch and water.

These trees had been planted in good, old-fashioned wood mulch.  There was no soil underneath what we all assumed was a veneer of mulch.  Like the turtles that support the earth, it was mulch all the way down.

Betty gave Sally the delicate task of communicating to our town’s Department of Public Works that a slight error had been made in the preparation of the site.  With luck, a crew will be dispatched to the building to dig out the mulch surrounding the trees’ root balls and replace it with something that will hold moisture and contain nutrients to allow the tree to grow. 

As for my sneaker, an afternoon in OxyClean followed by a bath in bleach left my shoestring a dazzling white, but the canvas of the shoe a dispiriting brown.  That is the fate of an Undergardener.

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 habitu├ęs 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.