February 28, 2017

The Wasted Opportunity

The Principal Undergardener usually writes funny, upbeat items about garden-related slices of life.  I promise to return with something humorous in a few days but, this morning, I have something festering in my mind that needs to get down in words (and, no, it has nothing to do with politics).
It is a tale of a wasted opportunity on a vital topic. 
I have the pleasure to accompany my wife to many garden club events around Massachusetts.  Clubs enjoy meeting her and Betty relishes the chance to take a few minutes to speak about what the state Federation is doing, especially by way of education.
A week or so ago, we were at a joint meeting of two clubs.  A very nice garden center kept its doors open and provided a great meeting space. Because the event was well publicized, it drew a crowd of more than 75 people, many of them non-garden-club-member guests drawn by the topic at hand.  (I have purposely omitted names and details.)
The topic of the evening was bees and the danger they face.  There were to be two presentations.  One of them was from a professional beekeeping service.  The other was a librarian with a keen interest in the subject.
The beekeeping company was not a guy with a truck and some hives.  Rather, it is a firm with a presence in multiple cities.  Its founder is a behavioral ecologist who has written a lucid book on bees, and the company is quite adept at generating positive publicity for itself.
The speaker, according to the garden clubs’ flyer, was to have been the firm’s marketing director.  For whatever reason, she wasn’t there.  Instead, two of the company’s employees made the presentation.  What followed was a disorganized and poorly presented program that was astonishingly short on facts. 
The two presenters were both in their early twenties, and I’ll call them Ken and Barbie.  Ken gave part of his presentation not noticing he was standing between the projector and the screen.  He delivered half of talk directly to Barbie, who was standing to one side.  He gave the other half to the screen, where he read slides word for word.  He occasionally glanced at the audience, which noticed the absence of eye contact.
Ken would go backwards in the presentation looking for a particular slide.  He also paused to speak about a particularly ‘cool’ graphic done by the company’s ‘awesome’ in-house graphic artist; then apologized because the graphic wasn’t really large enough to be seen beyond the front row.  He also delivered his talk with one hand in his pants pocket, which would ordinarily be grounds for criticism (it telegraphs to an audience that you’re not serious) but, given the rest of his transgressions, barely matters.
Barbie was better, but her part of the talk comprised about 15% of the program. 
Poor presentation can ruin a program, but avoiding speaking about the ‘elephant in the room’ is unforgivable.  The presentation was devoid of discussion of neonicotinoids in general; and clothianidin, imiadcloprid, and thiamethoxam in particular.  Instead, according to Ken, colony collapse occurs because “bees just wander off”.  The absence of such a discussion was puzzling.  It lead one person with whom I spoke after the presentation to wonder aloud if the beekeeping organization receives funding from insecticide manufacturers.
Maybe the most bewildering slides was a list of nectar/pollen plants available by month.  I believe there was a single plant listed for September with nothing thereafter, and Ken allowed that, “after August, there isn’t much food out there for the bees.”  When questioned about the chart, Ken said the information in would be updated when other sources were verified.  (Our garden has active bees and food plants for them into November; I offered to supply Ken with my plant list.)
* * * * *
It was, in short, a wasted opportunity.  The question I keep coming back to is, ‘why’.  There are two possible answers.  The first is that Ken and Barbie were last minute substitutes who had never presented publicly and were unfamiliar with the program they were supposed to give.  That’s the charitable explanation.  The other is that this beekeeping organization considers garden clubs secondary or tertiary audiences that aren’t worthy of sending in the ‘big guns’.  If so, they blew it.  In the Q&A session that followed, it was members of the audience who asked the tough questions, citing specific chemicals and industry practices in detail.
The librarian’s presentation, on the other hand, was well researched, carefully thought out, and well-presented  – in short, infinitely better than the ‘professional’ one the preceded it.

A reader might wonder why, instead of venting in a blog, the Principal Undergardener didn’t express his thoughts directly to the beekeeping company.  I did.  I sent a detailed critique to the company’s founder, chief scientist, and marketing director the day after the presentation.  I heard back… nothing.

February 1, 2017

The Huddled Masses, Leaning Toward the Sun

They are camped out around our home, unwilling refugees, far from their tropical and subtropical origins, gathered by windows and leaning toward a feeble sun for sustenance. They huddle together to preserve precious water in a house where the humidity is in single digits. 
With its east and south-facing windows, our library
is a favored spot for wintering houseplants

What we do to our houseplants. We take growing things whose ancestors never experienced a frost and transport them to environments where, for six months of the year, all that separates them from death by frozen capillaries is a pane of glass. And all this for…. What?
Why do we have houseplants? I typed that question into Google, ordinarily a bastion of reason and well-marshaled information. The first response was a query right back at me: ‘How can I get rid of gnats?’ Not ready for a Socratic dialog so early in the morning, I declined to provide an answer. Five pages of scrolling later, I had not found any erudite responses from horticulturally-inclined sociologists, although I uncovered an online survey indicating that our home’s houseplant population puts us dangerously outside the bell curve (the average number is five).
One of our 'guest' orchids.  It hogs
two windows in my office
And so, I am left to come up with my own answers. The first one is obvious: they’re green and they sometimes flower. It’s February in New England.  The world outside my window this week is relentlessly brown. Who wouldn’t want to have something nearby that reminded us that winter is not some Game-of-Thrones-style permanent condition?
Another answer is that houseplants are undemanding. Water them once a week. Check them for insects (including, yes, gnats). Re-pot them once a year. Compared to your average pet, they’re self-sufficient. My aunt kept a snake plant (Sansevieria trifasciata) in a darkened hallway that, to the best of my knowledge, was never watered, only dusted occasionally. It lived for decades.
A wintering bougainvillea and an
array of plants in Betty's office.
A third answer is that houseplants are your friends.  We have deployed a small army of Peace lilies (Spathiphyllum) around our home.  They not only produce a handsome, long-lived flower, but they also cleanse the air of multiple toxins.  Many other houseplants perform similar functions.
Plants can surprise you. We have friends who have decamped for South America for a lengthy vacation.  We agreed to ‘babysit’ two of their orchids.  Our friends arrived for dinner in late December bearing the two biggest plants I have seen outside a botanical garden.  For two weeks, those orchids simply occupied space in our home; one of them hogging an entire twin set of casement windows.  They were nothing but greenery.  Then, one morning two weeks into our plant-sitting exercise, we awakened to find our guests in spectacular blooms of pink and white.  They’re still brightening our home and are welcome to stay as long as they wish.
This croton has been
with us for two
Finally, plants get to become family. We have two wonderfully colorful crotons that has been around so long they are practically family retainers.  Our various bougainvillea have been in residence for so many years that I can predict their flowering cycles to within a few days. Betty was given a ‘bunny ears’ cactus (Opuntia microdasys) almost a decade ago.  Every year, it rewarded us with a new ‘ear’, growing like an oblong floor of an oddly-shaped building.  When the cactus broke over under its own weight, Betty thought it might be a goner.  Instead, the area from which it broke produced two ears, each of which is now happily adding to the plant’s bulk.

So, why do we have houseplants?  I think it’s because they’re a year-round reminder that, no matter our station in life, we all ultimately came from the land.  A few generations ago, our forebears farmed to survive.  Today, we exchange our labor for money and, if we ‘farm’ at all, we call it ‘gardening’ and we do it for pleasure.  In short, houseplants keep us rooted.

January 3, 2017

Winter is for the Birds

Until this year, we never felt compelled to place bird feeders near our house.  At our previous homes we always had mature specimen trees and shrubs to provide shelter and food.  We left up seed-rich plants and other ‘natural’ food sources.  And, we didn’t want to encourage normally migratory birds to stick around on our account.  Our lone concession to the need for supplemental nutrition was to hang a slab of beef suet in a squirrel-proof wire frame suspended between two trees.
Our 'feeding station' has four stops, and
has accommodated as many as eight
birds at a time
We started with a blank canvas at our new home; or at least one-third of a blank canvas.  The front half-acre of our land was an ecological desert of climax pines, burning bush, and swallowwort.  No self-respecting bird would have had anything to do with it.  We created, from scratch, a new landscape of native trees and shrubs.  The birds followed almost immediately and gorged themselves on seeds, fruits, and worms.  We set out a hummingbird feeder and promptly attracted three families that waged incessant aerial warfare and conducted strafing runs to win the right to our station.
But as October turned cold and our perennials collapsed, all that was left were eight or nine immature ilex and snowberry shrubs; hardly a welcome mat for our avian friends.  Maybe we needed to re-think our ‘no feeder’ mindset.
As it turns out, we had all of the elements of a feeding station.  Betty gets invited to a lot of garden club events – she attended more than a hundred of them this past year.  As president of the state garden club Federation, no one ever asks her to pay, even though meals or big-time speakers may be involved.  Conscious that she’s a guest, Betty always makes a point of buying tickets for Opportunity Drawings (the IRS-approved terms for what used to be called ‘raffles’). 
The problem is, if you attend 150 events and buy ten Opportunity Drawing tickets at each event, the math says you will walk home with a certain number of items.  And so a corner of Betty’s office and some basement space is dedicated to storage for items she won but for which she has no immediate use.
When we went looking to create a bird feeding station, we needed look no further than these storage areas.  She had won several Audubon-approved bird feeders, a worm feeder (complete with ten packages of freeze-fried meal worms), and a suet cage.  Thanks to our hummingbirds, we already had one tall pole on which to hang a feeder. To set up shop we purchased a second pole, a 50-pound sack of striped sunflower seeds, and some suet.
We had company by mid-day of our formal opening and we apparently got good reviews on the avian equivalent of Yelp! because the crowds kept coming back.  Curiously, we would have times when the feeders were deserted.  Apparently there are other feeders in the neighborhood, and the birds felt a need to frequent both their older haunts as well as their new favorite.
Our biggest initial problem was squirrels.  They are voracious consumers of anything that even looks like food, and they’ll empty a feeder in minutes; dumping the contents on the ground for easy pickings at their leisure.  After watching them climb our poles with an easy, athletic grace – and awakening to empty feeders that had been topped off at dusk – we settled on a squirrel-proofing idea that will likely horrify the Nature Conservancy:  we greased the poles.  There was a certain satisfaction watching squirrels take a flying leap three feet up a pole, only to slowly slide down to the bottom with no hope of traction.  We also noticed that after two or three days, they stopped trying.

So, we’re now officially in the bird feeding business and that first 50-pound bag is nearly finished.  Now, our task is to figure out what to do with the sunflower seek husks: they contain a chemical that inhibits the growth of anything except sunflowers.  Do we rake them up and take them to the transfer station?  We’re not sure, and ideas are gratefully accepted.

December 7, 2016

Rescue Me

Being the spouse of the President of the Garden Club Federation of Massachusetts brings multiple Honors and Benefits, not the least of which is the frequent opportunity to be Presidential Arm Candy for garden club events (‘arm candy’ being a much better job description than ‘driver’).  In a given month, Betty receives as many as twenty invitations to various events, which she accepts on a first-invited-first-accepted basis.  In the peak months of November and April she frequently does two events a day (she once did three events in three widely separated towns in a day and swore she would never do so again).
The topiaried
cypress, about
which more will
be said in
a moment
November and December events are usually festive ones built around a holiday theme.  Clubs bring in ‘big name’ designers or otherwise pull out all the stops.  It’s also a time when clubs in the same or neighboring towns get together and pool their resources for a big splash; the better to make that big event affordable to even small clubs.
And also, by some unspoken protocol, the Federation President is offered the opportunity (some would say ‘obliged’) to take the best seat in the house for whatever presentation is being done.  Betty invariably protests that no fuss need be made.  Then she is shown that front-row seat with her name taped to it.
All of the preceding is necessary background to understand the events of about three weeks ago, and how I came to rescue three cypress trees from cruel and unusual punishment.
The Spring Grow Expo in 2016
Each year in November, five clubs in Topsfield, Boxford and Middleton hold a “Tri-Town meeting”.  It’s a rather elegant soiree held at an appropriate site.  Betty was especially pleased to be invited this year because one of the participating clubs holds an environmental fair each spring, and she was looking forward to talking with that club’s members.  This 2016 edition of the event was held at Topsfield Common, an historic building on that town’s original town green.  We arrived to find more than a hundred women dining on canapes and thoroughly enjoying themselves.  Betty was immediately swept into multiple conversations and so I tried to make myself inconspicuous; no small feat when you are the only person of the male persuasion in a rapidly growing crowd.  When the program began, Betty found herself ushered to the front of the hall and I found that a seat had been marked off for me beside her. 
Topiaries at Snug Harbor Farm
A brief word about garden club holiday programs. While a 'normal' month’s program may feature a speaker on the environment, landscaping, gardening, or even gardening humor; a holiday program invariably centers on floral design.  One of the 'big names' in design is booked and never fails to delight the audience.  Betty has been to enough of these events that one of those big names, Tony Todesco, believes she is stalking him. 
To be a 'big name', you must be more than just a good designer: you must also have a great 'patter'.  Watching anyone – even the most talented designer – put together five or six floral arrangements over 90 minutes can be a deadly dull experience.  What makes it enjoyable and even riveting is the accompanying patter.  The designer tells stories as he or she works, and it is those stories – always humorous and also often autobiographical – that are just as memorable as the designs.
Tony Elliott
The name on the program that evening, though, was a new one to me: Tony Elliott.  The topic, though, seemed a familiar one: ‘The Holiday Table’.  It turns out that Tony is the owner and proprietor of a specialty garden center called Snug Harbor Farm in Kennebunk, Maine, some 50 miles up the coast from Topsfield.  On the stage in front of us was a mass of vegetables, plants, and flowers.
Tony began by showing the audience how to make a topiary.  He did so because one of Snug Harbor Farm’s specialties is topiary.  To demonstrate, he brought out a beautiful small cypress, perhaps twelve inches high.  The plant was beautifully proportioned and in wonderful condition.  It was the kind of plant anyone would be proud to own.  Tony began to cut it.  Not nice little cuts to perhaps shape it; he took off an entire branch. 
The audience gasped.  Being in the front row, I saw the carnage from a distance of just five feet.
He cut more of the cypress.  Another branch fell to the floor.  The audience cried out for him to stop.  He kept cutting, whacking, hacking, until all that remained of that beautiful cypress was its stem and a small top knot.
He held it up for the audience to see.  The audience was in shock. 
He picked up another cypress.  “Shall I show you again?” he asked.  There seemed to be a gleam in his eye.
The two un-molested cypresses will
spend the winter as indoor ornamentals.
They are not hardy in New England, so
their long-term fate is uncertain.
The audience begged him to spare it.
The balance of the presentation, at least to me, was a blur.  I know he used a blue squash as a container for a floral centerpiece, but my mind was still on that poor cypress.
To defray the cost of a program, there are always 'opportunity drawings'  (the approved IRS terminology) and the creations of the designer are auctioned off.  An hour after he began, Tony Elliott had filled a large table with designs.  The auction began.
Three cypresses – the one turned into the beginning of a topiary – and two that had been given a stay of execution in the interest of time were part of the auction.  Bidding began.  I raised my hand.  I wanted to spare those poor cypresses.  Someone else raised their hand.  I raised mine again.  And so it went until the bidding reached $40.  Mind you, I could buy those three cypresses for six or seven dollars each at any decent nursery.  But these cypresses were being held hostage by a man who would butcher them without a second thought.
I raised my hand one more time.  “I will rescue them for $45,” I shouted.  The audience broke out in laughter. 

The three cypresses will grace the mantle over our fireplace this winter.  In the spring, we will find a place for all three outdoors.  They're not hardy hereabouts, but whatever fate awaits that cypress, it will know a kinder future than it experienced on a stage in Topsfield one evening in November.

December 1, 2016


We all want beautiful gardens, but is one – however gorgeous – that doesn’t consciously make room for wildlife a good idea?  That thought first came to mind back in October.  The native dogwood tree (cornus florida) we planted eighteen months earlier outside our library window seemed to be having an epileptic fit.  The whole top of the tree was shaking violently.  It turns out that the tree’s fruit had just ripened and a dozen birds were noisily staking their claim to it.
We are now a certified wildlife habitat
I mentioned the ruckus (which went on for three days) to a friend and asked if he had experienced a similar display.  No, he had not.  But he also said his was a cornus kousa, the Asian dogwood cultivar.  The response puzzled me and so I did some research.  It turns out that the fruit of the kousa dogwood is larger than that of its American cousin; too large, in fact, for most birds.  We had set out an autumn buffet for multiple bird species.  My friend’s tree was just an attractive ornamental tree with large, bright red berries.
I was reminded of that conversation last week when we drove a wooden pole into the ground at the front of our property and affixed to that pole a sign.  We are now a Certified Wildlife Habitat.
A bowl cast from a hosta
leaf provides fresh water
Certified Wildlife Habitats are part of the National Wildlife Federation’s ‘Gardens for Wildlife’ program.  Surprisingly, certification isn’t limited to people with acres of land.  You can certify an apartment building balcony or a college campus as well as a suburban home site.  In all, there are more than 200,000 such spaces in the U.S. encompassing 1.5 million acres.  That’s a lot of wildlife-friendly habitat.
Our property likely goes to the extreme end of the wildlife-friendly spectrum.  For example, to be certified your habitat needs to provide three of the following food sources: seeds from plants, berries, nectar, foliage and twigs, fruits, sap, pollen, suet, a bird feeder, a hummingbird feeder, a butterfly feeder, a squirrel feeder, and nuts.  We can tick the box for all but two of those.  We have no intention of ever feeding squirrels, and so we will never put up a feeder for them; and putting out nuts will attract squirrels, so ix-nay to that idea, too.
We feed the birds, but
draw the line at squirrels
Properties should have a source of clean water.  It could be a birdbath, a butterfly puddling area (perfect for a balcony), a river, a rain garden, a spring, or a seasonal pool.  We had no fewer than three birdbaths in operation, plus we have vernal pools on the land we own behind our home.
The NWF says that wildlife needs at least two places to shelter from predators and the weather.  It could be a wooded area, a rock pile or wall, cave, roosting box, brush or log pile, water garden or pond, evergreens, or a meadow or prairie.  We don’t have a prairie or a cave, but we check the box on all of the rest.  Some we created as we built our landscape.  One was the product of my laziness: when we acquired the property on which we would build our new home there was a pile of logs and brush adjoining the wetlands.  Betty told me to clear it out.  I said I wasn’t getting anywhere near it.  It remains; a perfect wildlife shelter.
This pile of wood and brush is both
shelter and a place to raise young
And a habitat should have a place for critters to raise their young.  These include mature trees, nesting boxes, dead trees or snags, thickets, wetlands, or host plants for caterpillars.  There are roughly fifteen acres of wetlands behind our home that are permanently protected.  We own an acre of that wetland.  We’ve also left up several dead trees specifically for nesting sites.
This dead tree was left
in place for bird roosts
Sustainability is also part of the certification process.  How about soil and water conservation?  Do you capture rain water from your roof?  Do you practice water-wise landscaping?  Do you have a rain garden? Use mulch?  In our case, we could check every practice. Boy, do we have the mulch question covered.
Is your property organic?  Have you eliminated chemical pesticides and fertilizers?  Do you use compost?  For us, the answers were yes, yes, and yes.  And, finally, are you controlling exotic species?  Ways to do that include practicing integrated pest management, removing non-native plants and animals, using native plants (like that American dogwood), and reducing lawn area.  I don’t know if having no lawn at all earned us extra points, but it should have.

Our pollinator garden
will stay up for the winter
Garden certification is both a good and a clever idea.  It rewards good behavior with a sense of satisfaction (and a sign) and provides gardeners with a tangible list of achievable goals to help them do more for the environment.  If you’re interesting in seeing if your property qualifies, check it out here.

November 16, 2016

Worldly Possessions

Our over-wintering plants in their
home for the next four or five months
Each year in late October or early November, Betty and I go through an autumn ritual called ‘turning over the garage’.  It’s a grueling, day-long task that starts with pulling apart upwards of two dozen large, terra cotta summer containers, washing and disinfecting those containers, making a sunny space for the plants we’ll over-winter in the garage, and switching around ‘gardening stuff’ (e.g. carts and wheelbarrows) to make ‘winter stuff’ (e.g.,  our snow blower) readily accessible.
We also take everything out of the garage, spread it out over our driveway, and look at each item with a jaundiced eye.  Do we still have use for this?  Are we ever going to use that again?  Is this beyond repair?  When we moved out of Wild Holly Lane (with its three-car garage) and into our new home (two-and-a-half-cars wide), we threw away a lot of stuff, but kept some questionable things that we thought might prove useful.
The rototiller awaits its fate
Well, at the end of our first full season in our new home, the jury is back with a unanimous verdict. 
We no longer have a use for a rototiller.  It served us faithfully back in the eighties and we kept it around like some superannuated family retainer, carting it from Massachusetts to Connecticut to Virginia and back to Massachusetts.  Despite a $200 overhaul, our old Troy-Bilt was no match for the rocky ‘builder’s crud’ at our new home site; and now, with that crud replaced at great expense by new screened loam, a simple shovel will suffice to open planting areas.  However, a notice on a Facebook ‘swap meet’ page has thus far failed to find a taker. Until it does, our venerable rototiller resides in an obliging neighbor’s shed.
Our former clematis
at our former house.
Note the lattice.
But the Troy-Bilt is a success story, relatively speaking.  You see, it takes two votes to oust something from the garage.  Take, for example, three pieces of plastic latticework.  For several years, they provided support for an autumn clematis that climbed twenty feet up the side of our former house and spread six feet wide.  The emphasis in the previous sentence should be on the word, ‘former’. We no longer live there and the clematis most definitely stayed behind.  Why do we still need pieces of lattice cut to fit a plant at a house we left behind?  Betty says we may well again have a climbing vine or hydrangea, and the lattice might come in handy.  And, besides, it stacks neatly against a wall and takes up almost no space.
The lattice stayed.
Our blade-less hoe
earned a reprieve
because it is useful
to swab out barrels
Over the summer, the blade broke off from the handle of one of our hoes.  It proved impossible to re-attach the blade but we kept the sturdy, six-foot-long handle because it gave us an interesting hook that might prove useful in, say, pulling down tall branches that needed to be trimmed.  Well, a summer and fall have come and gone, and there was never a time that such a tool was even remotely required.  We both agreed that, however handsome and intriguing was our decapitated hoe, its time was past.  The handle actually went into our car and made a trip to the transfer station.  But, somehow, it did not get thrown away.  It came home with us.  Then, that very afternoon, I was attempting to swab out the interior of our now-emptied rain barrels with a bleach-soaked rag.  I needed some kind of a long pole with a hook at the end to thoroughly scrub the walls and base of the barrels…
The headless hoe is back in the garage.
The French drain sample.  Coming
soon to a flower show near you?
There is no grace-saving employment, however, for an eighteen-inch long sample of an innovative prefabricated French-drain: a perforated-pipe-cum-packing-peanuts-plus-netting contraption.  Betty scored the sample at a trade show two years ago.  We knew we would need subterranean drains to carry off rainwater from our gutters to the wetlands behind our new home.  The salesman’s pitch was this: rather than digging a foot-deep trench, filling it part way with rock, laying in a drain pipe, then complete the filling of the trench with more rock and covering with topsoil; two steps could be eliminated.  Just dig the trench, lay in the pipe-and-peanut contraption, and cover with soil. 
A 40-foot drain I dug in the
back of our property.  The
pipe cost less than $40.  The
French drain would have
cost $250.
Well, we have six such drain fields, the longest of which stretches forty feet.  But when I went to price this labor-saving prefabricated system, I discovered that a 25-foot-section of plain, perforated four-inch plastic pipe is less than $20 while an eight-foot length of prefabricated French drain is fifty dollars.  And I didn’t really need the drain feature; having most of the water make it to the wetlands was beneficial.  Multiply that cost differential times the roughly eighteen, eight-foot sections that we would need install, and the premium quickly soared to more than $700.  Such an investment made sense only if someone was paying a work crew by the hour.  I work for love.  I made my case to Betty that the drains are already in place and the sample is redundant.  She was adamant.  It may come in useful someday.  Possibly in a highly creative abstract floral design.
The French drain is still in the garage.
Without grass, my cherished British
edging tool has no purpose.  But it
isn't going away...
And then there is the lawn edger.  I fell in love with this tool a decade ago on a trip to England, came home and located one via my local hardware store’s specialty catalog, and used the tool religiously thereafter.  Unfortunately, “thereafter” ended when we moved to our new home.  There is no lawn to be edged.  By design, there is not a blade of grass on the property, nor will there ever be.  My beloved tool has no place in this New Horticultural Order.  But will I part with it?  Not a chance.  It is a family heirloom and it will be removed only when it is pried from my cold, dead hands.
It, too, is still in the garage.

There is a list of other gegaws and gimcracks that will populate our garage for another season, but you get the idea.  I will even readily confess that I am more sentimental about keeping things than is Betty.  There is, after all, room.  Room, in this case, for things where possession is less a function of logic than of human nature.

November 1, 2016

Dig the Holes and Pass the Ibuprofen

Readers of this blog may remember that last year at this time, I was ruing my decision to be wildly enthusiastic about the spring bulbs my wife showed me in various catalogs.  The result of my praise of her esthetic sense was to witness the delivery of what turned out to be 1800 bulbs, primarily hyacinths and daffodils.  All had to be planted within a narrow time window.  Much ibuprofen was consumed in the process.
Yes, the hyacinth border was
beautiful, but too short.
Most people would assume that 1800 bulbs would be sufficient to make a garden beautiful for years to come.  My wife is not ‘most people’.  Betty carefully observed and made notes as those bulbs made their appearance this spring.  The hyacinth border along the driveway covered just half its length.  A planned ‘river’ of geraniums and hyacinths was just fifteen feet long.  Entire areas of the front of our garden contained nary a spring bloom.  Our back garden had just a few pods of daffodils.
And so Betty made a new spring bulb list.  Because it mostly was just ‘small bulbs’, she did not offer me the same level of consultation (last year, to her credit, she said at one point, “You know, this is getting to be a pretty big bulb order.”).  This year she, well, just placed the order.
While the boxes were a
little smaller, we still had
duffel bags full of bulbs
Last year, I was greeted in my driveway in late October by three enormous crates of bulbs and a UPS driver swearing vengeance against my entire family tree.  This year, just two, somewhat smaller boxes arrived.  How many bulbs could possibly be in them?
It was exactly 1650 bulbs.
Betty offered me this solace: “All you have to do is dig the holes.  I have to plant them.”
Now the hyacinth border
is being extended
to the street.
Which, factually is exactly the case.  Except that “digging the holes” means removing the mulch from an area that might be six or eight square feet.  The mulch goes into a container.  Then I excavate all of the soil from that area to a specified depth.  The soil goes into additional containers (so as not to risk mixing soil and mulch), after which I break up the soil for better aeration and remove rocks.  And kill any grubs.  And rescue any earthworms.  And then ensure that there is nice, loose soil at the bottom of the hole which the bulb can snuggle into.  Each area can easily take an hour.
These daffodils needed to be
planted 8".  It's just as much
effort to dig down 5".
Betty offered more soothing words.  “They’re all small bulbs,” she said.  “They can be planted more tightly than the last ones,” she averred.  “None of these have to be planted eight inches deep like the daffodils.”
Those, too, are true statements.  Or, at least true as far as the statement went.  No, the new crop of bulbs did not have to be planted to a depth of eight inches.  ‘Just’ five inches.  What percent of the effort is required to dig out a section of the garden to five inches?  Almost exactly as much as eight inches.  You can take my word for it.  Further, because the garden was new last year, much of the digging was through virgin, never-planted areas.  This year, many of the new bulb pods wrap around now-established shrubs and perennials. 
The geranium and hyacinth
'river' will now stretch 30'
All of that said, 1,350 bulbs have been planted during the past two weeks.  There is a long, serpentine sweep of hyacinths above a rock wall that should look splendid next spring.  That river of geraniums and hyacinths is now 30 feet long with twin trenches of a special white-capped blue hyacinth.  The driveway border now sweeps 75 feet down to the street and some leftover bulbs have colonized the perennial border on the other side of the driveway.  Three pods of an unusual, native ‘nodding onion’ will now grace a sunny area adjacent to our ‘Burgundy Hearts’ redbud.  And, from the kitchen window will be visible a long sweep of still more hyacinths in the rear garden.

These are the ipheion flowers
we'll see next spring
Where will those last three hundred bulbs go?  They’re scilla and ipheion (which only need to be planted three inches deep!), and Betty plans to walk the property today to determine where they’ll make the highest impact.  The impressive part is that she’ll actually find an area that doesn’t already have bulbs planted under it.  The even more impressive part is that my kidneys will still function after taking all that ibuprofen.

September 28, 2016

Extending the Season

There’s a gardening axiom in Eastern Massachusetts that says, “if you can make it to the end of September without a frost, you’re good at least until Columbus Day”.  Well, yes, that may be true.  But first you have to make it to the end of September.  Which we didn’t do this year.  The night of September 25 brought a cold front down from Canada and, if you lived in Boston’s western or northern suburbs, it was the end of your annuals and most of your vegetables.
Our raised-bed garden this morning
And, indeed, the following morning our 600-square-foot plot in our town’s community garden was a sad display of tomatoes fallen prematurely from their vines and zucchini cut down in its prime.  All that is left to do is to gather what we can and compost the balance.
But a garden barely a tenth its size at our home is chugging along as though late summer will never end.  It’s our raised bed vegetable garden and, with luck, it will produce food for our table well into autumn.
There's hardware cloth and lots of
rocks at the bottom of the beds.
When we planned our new home we had on-premises vegetable garden in mind, but the site wouldn’t cooperate.  Tall pines on the property of our neighbor to the south block part of the sun we had counted on, leaving us with few choices for a space that had to be both sunny much of the day and not where it stuck out of the landscape.
Then, Betty had a brilliant idea: why not hide it in plain sight along the driveway?  OK, we had a long, narrow strip that was planned for a native perennial border.  The garden could be only four feet wide, but could be as long as we wanted.
Not-so-good soil, amended with
several inches of leaves, came next
We had both also wanted a raised bed garden.  Raised beds warm up earlier in the spring and don’t freeze as easily as in-ground gardens in the fall.  Betty said, if we’re going to build a raised-bed garden, why not make it a really raised bed?  Something you could garden standing up, or sitting on its walls.  Not twelve inches.  Think three feet.
And that’s what we built: two, four-foot-by-eight-foot gardens, each three feet high.  The shell is 2x10 pine which ought to last eight to ten years.  A screen mesh went into the bottom to deter critters from burrowing up from underneath, and the first foot is solid rock.  Anything that comes up through that is very, very determined.  The next nine inches is leaves and so-so soil.  It should improve with time.
The top 15 inches is beautiful,
compost-enriched soil
The top fifteen inches is beautiful, compost-enriched soil.  We screened it to be free of rocks and roots.  It is the happiest home any vegetable could want.  We completed the beds in early May and planted our first crop of lettuce, spinach, basil, chives, and beans.  It became our kitchen garden; the place to which you could run out and get the makings of a salad for dinner.
We discovered in the process that ‘tall’ raised beds confer another benefit: they’re too high for bunnies to hop onto, and squirrels and chipmunks feel like hawk bait.  Our spring and summer crops matured unmolested.
Bamboo 'hoops'
support a row cover
In early September, we pulled everything except the basil, chives, and carrots; and planted a crop of vegetables with short times to maturity.  We’re heavy on lettuce, arugula, beets and spinach.  We’ve added a superstructure of flexible bamboo stakes to support a row cover.  A row cover won’t protect against a hard freeze, but it will keep frost off of out vegetables – with luck – well into October and perhaps longer.

We’re about a week away from picking our first lettuce.  Building it was a labor, but our hope is that we’re picking the fruit of the first of many autumn crops.

August 6, 2016

An Unexpected Flood - of Plants

The El NiƱo summer that has produced floods in West Virginia and tornados in the South has left New England parched.  Most of Massachusetts officially passed into a Stage 2 drought this past week, and nearly every town now have complete bans on lawn watering along with other water use restrictions.
Our front garden as it appeared this
morning, August 6
The reverberations are being felt in local nurseries.  If people fear they won’t be able to water their gardens, they won’t buy plants.  And nurseries face the same water scarcity: retention ponds that allow them to keep their stock well irrigated are running dry, and the alternative is expensive town water.  The result is that everything is on sale: trees, shrubs, and perennials that are out the door are plant that don’t have to be watered.
The drought is getting worse
Following a heavy spring planting schedule, we had decided to use the summer to see how the new additions to the garden filled in.  But then the offers began arriving.  First, Cochato Nursery in Holbrook offered Master Gardeners a one-day special discount.  Betty drive over and came back with six specimens of Betony (Stachys officinalis), a full-sun-tolerant flowering ground cover which she promptly used to begin filling in a previously unplanted part of our front garden.
Betony comes in many leaf colors,
and makes a great ground cover
The following week, we received a mailer from Weston Nurseries with an arresting offer of $25 off of $75 worth of plants, including ones already on sale.  Betty went off to investigate and came back with a car filled with yellow Coreopsis and Shasta daisies.  They were all in magnificent bloom and we planted them immediately.  While picking out plants, she spoke with one of Weston’s staffers who was candid about the low levels of the retention ponds and the fallback position of using expensive town water.  When Betty tried to give back the discount coupon at check-out, the clerk gave it back to her saying, “We’d rather you came back in and use it again.”
Avant Gardens' greenhouses
overflowed with interesting plants
This week, the discount offers came from Avant Gardens in North Dartmouth.  I’ve written about this specialty nursery before.  North Dartmouth is an hour from our home in a direction that makes it on the way to nowhere else that we ever go.  But the lure of unusual plants at substantial savings drew us to a part of the state where our mental maps say “Here Be Dragons”.
Caryopteris 'Hint of Gold'
Betty’s avowed purpose in going was to procure three specimens of Caryopteris x ‘Hint of Gold’, a deer-resistant butterfly magnet with distinctive lime green foliage and vivid blue late summer flowers.  But allowing me to tag along on any shopping expedition is an invitation to blow the budget, and it took me about two minutes to start dragging out Geranium ‘Rozanne’ which we need to extend the ‘river’ of that perennial that we have created across the front of our property.  Betty, too, started seeing plants that she had on her wish list but had put off buying.  I capped it off by spotting a Cape Plumbago (Plumbago auriculata) ‘Imperial Blue’ with phlox-like flowers in an ethereal shade of blue.  I said I wanted it for my birthday.  We filled the back end of our Prius with plants.  So much for three small plants.
I got a Cape Plumbago for my birthday
We planted almost everything we purchased at Avant Gardens this morning.  It took four hours in weather so warm and muggy that our clothes were drenched when we finally called it quits.  We started early because the forecast today was for rain.  In fact, Weather.com’s maps showed the entire Northeast getting socked by thunderstorms and torrential precipitation.  But it is going on 5 p.m. and the current radar shows just a few showers, all north of us.

Our fizzled day of rain
This summer of drought will apparently linger well into August.  And through serendipity, our garden is a little – no, a lot – fuller than we had anticipated a few months ago.  Which means we'll have to keep finding innovative ways to keep it watered.

July 29, 2016

Watering with an Eyedropper

I remember back when it used to rain.  I distinctly recall looking at computer weather maps with angry red, orange, and even purple rain pounding all of eastern Massachusetts.  There were days when we awakened to a soft, gentle rain that soaked the soil down eight or ten inches.
But not recently.
Medfield in a drought.  A Stage 2 drought according to the U.S. Weather Monitor.  New England is 25% under its normal rainfall – 6 ½ inches short and counting – with a long term trend for more of the same.  Our town has imposed strict watering guidelines that will likely get even more draconian in August. 
Water collected from the air
conditioner goes into jugs
If we lived in an apartment or condo, we’d shrug, water the plants on our deck, and count our blessings.  If we lived in a house with a long-established garden, we’d ride out the dry spell and consider ourselves lucky.  But we don’t live in a condo and our garden is brand new – nothing in is more than a year old.  We have a dozen young trees that are just starting to establish root systems.  We have sixty or more shrubs and several hundred newly-planted perennials.  If we don’t water, they’ll die. 
Almost all of New England is dry
So, here is what we do.  Every morning at 5:30 a.m. we are dressed and out in the garden.  Our four rain barrels would hold 200 gallons of water if there had been rain to fill them, but they’ve been dry since Bastille Day.  (That storm at the end of July that the radio promised would drop two to four inches of rain went south of us.  Rhode Island got lucky.  We got sprinkles.)  So we collect the water condensate from our air conditioner.  We collect the water that we ran while the shower warmed up.  We pool the water in which we washed vegetables saved in a pail.  There are mornings when those three activities generate six or seven gallons of water.
It just hasn't rained around here.
Double-click for an enlargement.
To get the rest of the water we need, we begin filling re-purposed cat litter jugs with tap water.  One day, we water the plants in the front of the property.  The next day, we water the plants in the back.  Each tree, shrub, and perennial gets a specific allotment of water.  There is no waste.  We’ve built little berms around the plants to ensure that there is no runoff.  Betty applies the water, I refill the jugs and run them to where they’re needed next.  And ‘run’ is an accurate descriptor: I carry two, three-gallon jugs at a time, and a jug is filling while I sprint to the next drop point.
Yesterday, the radio spoke of 2-4" of
rain today.  It went south of us!
The jug-watering brigade goes on for up to two hours because we also have to water our vegetable plot two miles distant.  (There, we’re allowed to use a hose, but Betty is just as precise in her watering.)  At 7:30 or so, we line up the empty containers.  We are both covered in sweat and ready for a shower.

Where, of course, we will start collecting the water for tomorrow morning…