December 23, 2009

The Jungle Moves Indoors

I write these words a few days before Christmas with a large, unruly bougainvillea brushing the top of my head. To my right are lush orchids and more bougainvillea. I’m not spending the holidays on some exotic Caribbean island, however. There’s a foot of snow outside and the temperature is in the low teens. This tropical jungle is in my own home.
From May to early October, the gardens around my home sport a profusion of containers and our porch and deck are awash in greenery and flowers. This year there were more than forty container gardens ranging in size from 14-inch pots to 30-gallon behemoths. In our screened porch, dozens of individual plants were arrayed on trays and benches. On our deck, more containers and heat-loving tropicals provided color into September.

But when overnight temperatures dipped into the 40s, the tender plants began migrating indoors. The tropicals were the first to make the move, followed by hardier succulents, cyclamen and herbs. As annuals succumbed to frost, the containers that bore them were washed and stowed in the basement. The property has been bare of containers since early November.

Indoors, though, is a Noah’s Ark of the plant kingdom. They crowd in front of every window, especially those with a southern exposure. I share my office (above) with a rack of sun-thirsty plants plus two hanging bougainvillea. (You can see them in the topmost photo in their 'summer quarters'.)  The aforementioned orchids are in the hallway where there is a triple window. There are half a dozen neomarica, better known as walking iris, that were cut from a mother plant in late summer. They will grow through the winter, and be given away in the spring. Down in the basement where a bank of ground-level windows allow in feeble sun, a magnificent papyrus – rescued from our water garden – stands four feet tall and brushes up against the ceiling. Nearly a dozen spathiphyllum, commonly called the peace lily, are scattered around the house. There seems to be one in every room and all of them are currerntly in bloom.

It is out in the garage, though, that the extent of our plant asylum becomes apparent. Betty mixes perennials and annuals in containers, often with dramatic results. When she pulled apart those containers in October, many of the perennials showed well-developed root systems. She made the decision to winter over the best of the plants.

However, we do not have a greenhouse. What we have, instead, is a large, well-insulated garage that stays above freezing and has a large, southwest-facing window. There, up against the glass are huddled more than a dozen containers. There is an enormous, cattail-patterned concrete urn where a fern is going through its dormancy period. A white Italianate container holds a now-well-established trailing herichrysum petiolare, otherwise known as a licorice plant, that has found its hibernal equilibrium. Various salvia, verbena, and gaura have been sharply trimmed back but are holding their own and seem poised to survive a New England winter.

Logic says we should consider our plants disposable; chuck them into the compost pile as we do hundreds of annuals. But logic isn’t the be-all and end-all of gardening. Strange as it may seem to some people, many of these plants are old friends. The bougainvillea over my head (which also sheds leaves onto my keyboard) is more than a decade old. I know it well. Come February it will bloom a pale purple, much to my delight. The bracts will linger into late April. I could no more imagine leaving it out on the porch to freeze than I could do such a thing to our family cat. (Then again, plants never have ‘accidents’ on Oriental rugs.)

Being sentimental about a plant is, in my view, a very good trait. They bring us pleasure and prod our senses. They invoke memory. Sharing a window with a bougainvillea is a small price to pay for the reminder that spring will come again.

December 16, 2009

Oh, Christmas Tree

I grew up in Miami which is Christmas tree hell unless you consider decorated Norfolk Island pines to be festive. Back when I was a kid, as nearly as I can reconstruct events, a truck that probably left Nova Scotia sometime in August made its way down U.S. 1, shedding needles all the way, finally dumping a load of scorched Scotch pines in supermarket parking lots around the city on Thanksgiving day. We would go to a lot in our town, run by the Lions Club, and pick out a pathetic, five-foot-tall specimen. Its remaining needles would be brown long before Christmas Day, let alone New Years. (It should go without saying that this was long before Harry and David would ship you a fresh tree overnight.)

One of the benefits of moving north was to discover the joys of cutting a fresh tree and discovering that Fraser firs smell different than Balsams and that long-needled pines have plusses and minuses. Having been deprived of such things for so many years, I have sort of gone overboard for the past few decades, opting for ever-larger specimens. In Virginia, I once unceremoniously landed in a mud wallow trying to pull a ten-foot-diameter tree through a baler.

In Massachusetts, presented with the unlimited potential of an 18-foot-high ceiling in one room, I confess I went wild. (Although it must be pointed out that I was ‘enabled’ by Betty who, though she is a native New Yorker, is no less enamored of fresh trees.) We would make a day of it; hiking for hours across a hundred acres of trees arranged by type. To me, it was heaven.

Our tallest topped out at more than 14 feet, had a 25-foot circumference and was steadied by three guy wires to keep it upright in a stand that was seriously over its rated capacity. We found the tree in southern Rhode Island, 70 miles distant, and brought it home in a borrowed pickup truck, the tree strapped to and overhanging both ends of the truck. Rumbling up I-95, our truck with its cargo bore an uncanny resemblance to a Boeing 747 ferrying the Space Shuttle.

This year, we are in Giant Christmas Tree withdrawal. Because of a back injury, cutting our own tree was not a realistic option. Instead, we perused a lot in our town (run by the Lions Club, naturally) as well as commercial ventures that spring up for a few weeks each December. Further, we agreed ahead of time that decorating a tree off of a pair of eight-foot ladders as we have done in past years was not in the cards. Our 2009 tree would be no taller than eight feet.

What I discovered was that a) cut Christmas trees look a heck of a lot better than they did fifty years ago, and b) the cost ranges from reasonable to astronomical. Big John’s, the cut-your-own tree farm in Rhode Island that has been our source of yuletide greenery the past two years, charges $35 for any tree. Add in gas money and the price is still under $50 for that ideal tree, regardless of size.

The starting price for trees in the Lions lot was $45 for short-needled balsams that were guaranteed to start shedding needles as soon as we strapped it to our car. Fraser firs, our preferred trees, were $65 and up. A seven-foot one was $85 and had a gaping hole in one side.. While five dollars of the purchase price went to the Medfield Food Cupboard, we thought the cost too high.

We had heard that trees at Home Depot were fresh and realistically priced. Realistically priced, yes, but still packed so tightly from shipping that we felt we were choosing a dehydrated specimen to which we would need to add water. We passed. A ‘family’ tree lot in an adjacent town offered Bruce Springsteen carols (I had no idea) and great trees… for a hundred dollars. We passed again.

Our fallback position had always been to drive down to Big John’s and avail ourselves of one of the fresh-cut specimens they keep on hand for those in a hurry. Last Sunday morning we packed tea and cookies for the trip south but thought we’d stop at one more seasonal lot that appeared to have a large selection and a big turnover. To our amazement (and my wife’s back’s relief), we spotted a seven-foot Fraser fir that had no holes and looked quite fresh. And, at $40, it was more than fairly priced.

The tree is now tied up in our side yard, its branches fully extended. It isn’t as wide as one we’d cut for ourselves, but I’ve looked at it from every angle and I can’t find a hole or a bad spot. On Friday, as is our custom, the tree will be decorated. And, unlike previous years’ trees, this one won’t need guy wires to prevent a cat-induced tree felling.

December 2, 2009

The Long Goodbye to the Gardening Season

We had fresh lettuce as part of our Thanksgiving dinner last week. It was wonderfully crisp and almost sweet to the taste. It was picked, hours before we sat down to dinner, from the cold frame outside our garage door.
It is also possibly the last fresh lettuce we will see until next April. We may get lucky and pick a few dozen leaves in early December but, eventually, sub-freezing temperatures will render the cold frame inadequate against the onslaught of a New England winter. When the lettuce is gone, it will officially end the gardening season.

We relish our growing season and put aside that which can be stored to savor into the winter. There are carrots in the refrigerator and butternut squash in the basement and, if the last two years are any yardstick for the latter vegetable, we will scramble in February and March to give away the last of our bounty before age renders it inedible.

There are green beans; blanched and flash frozen, then placed in sandwich bags to be parceled out at meals between now and next June. There is okra, an underappreciated vegetable in the north that will nevertheless grace our jambalayas and stews for the next six months. And there is corn. The same, miserable weather that decimated our tomato and pea crop gave us the best corn ever. Because all the corn came at once, we blanched, de-cobbed and froze the kernels from dozens of ears. Remarkably, it is as sweet from the freezer as it was fresh from the field.

With the end of November we should put out our driveway markers and forget about plants. Perversely – and sometimes aided by our own hand – nature conspires to give us reminders of the season past and of the one to come. There is a Daphne along the sidewalk leading to our front door that continues to bloom though it has been hit repeatedly by freezing temperatures. There are Hellebores across from the Daphne that will bloom until covered by snow – and then stubbornly thrust up flowers when the snow melts.

When I go out to pick up the newspaper, I see a patch of Delosperma reliably putting up purple flowers. Now, I know why it’s called the ‘Ice Plant’. Nearby, a clutch of Galliarda, planted last year, is still flowering prolifically. There are Heucheras, no longer flowering, but still displaying leaves with bright palettes of color.

The first heavy snow will put an end to much of this late-autumn display. But for now, with the sun setting at 4:30 and gray afternoons more the norm than the exception, I take delight in these small reminders of the season past.

We live in New England by choice. There are parts of the country where November is just a slightly cooler month in an eternal summer. I grew up in such a place and, frankly, I don’t miss it. The changing seasons are mileposts to be noted and savored. Winter, even one that lasts four or five months, is just another of those mileposts. And, each year, it gives me a better appreciation for the spring that will follow.

November 11, 2009

All Gardening Is Local

(Note:  In her October, 2010 newsletter, Janet Macunovich addressed the issue of burning bush as being regionally invasive and gave credit to 'Massachusetts Master Gardener Betty' for calling attention to the subject.  Please read this entry with Ms. Macunovich's subsequent change of opinion in mind.)

There are some truly great gardening speakers out there, and one of them is Janet Macunovich.

Ms. Macunovich has been a horticulturalist for close to 40 years and has nine books to her credit. When she stands up to give a talk, she unwinds a long story – or series of stories – that resonate with her audience. She delivers a truckload of information along the way and has the presence of mind to provide her audience with an outline that can run five pages.

She is a classic, ‘first-person’ speaker. By the time she has finished, you know as much about her family as you probably do about some of your neighbors and you have gotten a time-lapse view of her back yard that stretches over two decades. She is also a ‘first-name-familiar’ speaker. When discussing projects she has undertaken for clients, it’s never ‘a property in (name of upscale community)’, it’s ‘Bob and Millie’ or ‘Jerry and Judy’, regardless of whether it’s a split level on a treeless lot or an estate.

Her presentations are also rich in photographic support. This is in part because her husband is an accomplished photographer, but also because Ms. Macunovich recognizes that, especially in landscape renovations, photos fill out a story and leave a more indelible impression on an audience.

I had the opportunity to hear Ms. Macunovich twice in the past few weeks. She spoke twice in the same day on two topics and, to her credit, there was remarkably little overlap between her two presentations. It’s the sign of a great speaker when they can be as bouncy and energetic at seven in the evening as they were at ten in the morning.

But I also heard a loud, clanging noise at two points in her talk. The first was when she said that it was too wet to plant xeric gardens in New England. The second was when she dismissed concerns about burning bush (euonymus alatus) as an invasive species.

Janet Macunovich comes from Michigan and most of her projects are in that region. She also has some clients in the Boston area, including a wonderful garden on Beacon Hill. But she has chosen to speak to groups around the country and, on this day, her audience was comprised of New Englanders.

I could almost let the first comment pass. Perhaps, by ‘xeric garden’ she had in mind strictly cactuses and yuccas and, if that were the case, then yes, New England is a poor site for such things. But ‘xeric’ means ‘dry’ and not ‘arid desert’. One of Betty’s most requested subjects is ‘water-smart gardening’ and a major component of that talk is xeric gardens which, to her, means a garden that, once established, needs no water beyond what Mother Nature provides. In an era of dwindling water resources, homeowners need to think before they plant.

We have a ninety-foot-long demonstration garden in the front of our property that is build around xeric gardening principles. Alas, for all of their admiration, none of our neighbors have taken us up on our offer to help them replicate our project.

However, calling concerns about burning bush ‘overblown’ was a case of failing to understand what is being wrought around New England. As trees lost their leaves this month, the extent to which euonymus alatus has insinuated itself into the forest floor is too visible to be ignored. Driving the back roads of Medfield, Dover, and Sherborn, the distinctive pale red shrub is everywhere it shouldn’t be.

Burning bush, a native of China and northeast Asia, has a root mat out of science fiction – a thick, fibrous tangle that captures every ounce of moisture and allows nothing else to grow. There were three burning bushes on our property when we moved in. Ten years later, I am still digging out plants that have sprung up from the pieces of root left behind.

Most burning bush comes from seed. Birds eat the shrub’s berries though they offer no nutritional value. The seeds pass through the birds and grow where they fall. Perhaps in Michigan the climate is wrong for burning bush to spread unchecked. It certainly isn’t the case here. Massachusetts and Connecticut both have the plant on their invasive species list and ban their sale.

The lesson I take away is that all gardening is local. Ms. Macunovich is a terrific speaker and writer and she has a lot to offer an audience. But, when a lecturer ventures outside of his or her home turf, a little research is in order. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

October 24, 2009

The Garden Benches

We put away the garden benches yesterday. They’re handsome things: two have blacks, cast iron ends with cedar slats painted a rich green. Those benches would not be out of place in the Tuileries in Paris. The third is metal, cast in the form of a profusion of ferns. It’s in a style that reached its apex in the Beaux Arts period and, as furniture, it’s a gem; a loveseat that’s as much an objet d’art as it is a seating area.

And that’s the problem. As we carried the benches from various points around the property to their resting place under the screened porch, away from the elements, I had the disappointing realization that I never sat on any of them this year. Two are strategically positioned to provide viewpoints across lawns and gardens. The third offers an elevated point from which to contemplate Danielson Pond. I never admired the vistas I helped create. I never took the time.

I know I’m not alone in this predicament. Last year we were at a wonderful garden and I admired a rustic retreat set in the woods. I asked the owner how often the little gazebo was used. The response was a rueful shake of the head. “I never have time.”

Often, it seems, such appurtenances are meant for the enjoyment of visitors. When the Medfield Garden Club held its August ‘backyard get-together’ at our home, the benches were both admired and well used throughout the morning and into the afternoon. We had the pleasure to attend a party this summer at the home of a Cape Cod landscaper, who has studded his beautiful property with seating areas large and small. When we had been his lunch guests a few weeks earlier, he allowed that he mostly enjoyed sitting on his deck during the rare times he was not working. That evening, though, his guests made use of every available space, sipping drinks and enjoying the views.

This is an admitted small sample. But I suspect that we buy ‘garden furniture’ with all of the best intentions of using it, then employ it more as ‘visual destination points’ for the eye rather than as functional places to park our behinds and relax.

Perhaps the reason is rooted in the possibility of enjoyment. If there were no bench – or gazebo or whatever – we could never sit back and taking pleasure in our gardens. The presence of the benches means that there will at least be an opportunity… if it ever stops raining (or if the mosquitoes go away, the humidity breaks, or any of a dozen reasons we give for staying indoors).

As we put away the benches yesterday, I made a vow that next year will be different. I will make it a point, at least once a week, to go out and sit on those benches. I may take a book or a newspaper, but I will also make certain that I allow adequate time to enjoy the view. A lot of effort has gone into that garden. The least I can do it see it the way visitors do.

October 15, 2009

Big Red Judy

Big Red Judy died last night. She froze to death, succumbing to a merciless New England autumn that saw pre-dawn temperatures at our home fall to the upper twenties. She was, by our guess, about six months old.

Big Red Judy was a coleus, a Proven Selections specimen that came to us in a four-inch pot from one of our forays to Andrew’s Nursery in late April. We were attracted by its brilliant, crimson foliage and large leaves. Even before Big Red Judy got home, Betty already knew which pot she would go into: a massive white one with bas relief garlands and swags (fortunately made of foam). Big Red Judy was accented with some trailing light blue flowers and was awarded a highly visible spot at our driveway turnaround (that’s her on the right in mid-July).

Her dainty companion gave up the ghost with the heat of August but, by then, Big Red Judy was so large that she no longer needed an escort. She was soon twice as wide and twice as high as her container, but the foliage just kept looking magnificent.

Her lone problem was that she tended to topple in the wind. In late August, Big Red Judy was moved to Rock Garden 4 where she occupied a space left vacant by the annual mid-summer disappearance of a Dicentra spectabilis, an unusually large bleeding heart. There, protected from the wind, Big Red Judy attracted even more attention from visitors, a lone burst of color in a bed that is relentlessly green at that time of the year. She was the first thing your eye saw from the deck and she glowed in the late afternoon.

Starting in the last week of September, we began bringing annual-bearing containers close to the house in the evening, shuttling them back out to their customary positions only when the morning temperatures rose above 40 degrees. That way, we figured to keep our thirty-plus containers going for another month. It worked, up to a point. Several brushes with frost were successfully avoided.

This morning, though, there was ice on the turtle bird bath. I went out to inspect Big Red Judy. Her leaves were limp and drooped, a sign that the water in the veins of the leaves had frozen. A few leaves at the bottom of the plant were firm, but it was clear that her time was passed.

We buy annuals in New England with the full knowledge that we will be able to enjoy them for six months or less. We keep them on a diet heavy with fertilizer because we know there is only season to admire their flowers, color, or texture. But there is also always next April. Big Red Judy has earned a place in our garden repertoire, along with other coleuses like Inky Fingers and Alabama Sunset.

And that’s one of the joys of gardening: meeting old friends every Spring.

October 7, 2009

A Pair of Autumn Gardens

It’s relatively easy to make a garden look good from mid-May to late June in New England. A succession of woody plants and perennials come out of their winter slumber and burst forth with color and form. It’s a lot harder to create an appealing, visit-worthy property at the end of September when most gardens look tired.
This year, Ellen Lahti, the Garden Conservancy’s coordinator for the greater Boston area, set out to find gardens that met the description of ‘still looks great at the start of autumn.’ She succeeded spectacularly with two properties that were open on September 27.

‘The Garden on Bennington Road’ in Lexington occupies a steeply sloped site backing up to conservation land. At two acres with nothing behind the property but hardwood forest, the location has the feel of something much farther away from a city. Still being fine-tuned, it is also a garden into which considerable money is being spent intelligently. Three terraces step down the hillside to a lawn below, creating a series of outdoor rooms ranging from intimate to grand. The stonework is meticulous and different materials – granite, bluestone and brick – further help differentiate spaces. Unusual specimens - including a Seven Sons tree (Heptacodium miconioides) in full, fragrant bloom – fill these rooms.

We spotted a familiar face at the garden – Tess McDonough of Sequencia Gardens – who maintains the property. She gave us the guided tour with emphasis on the displays of tropicals and annuals in containers of every color and material. The intelligence extends to the perennials, which are a mix of summer- and fall-blooming ones with an emphasis on natives. There are walks down to a small man-made pond that, Tess says, is used for ice skating in the winter.

All in all, it’s a beautiful garden that, rather than being just a showcase, looks as though it is regularly used.

The Gardens at Clock Barn is on the main road from Concord into Carlisle, which is to say it’s a two-lane road thick with venerable homes on large chunks of land. The house and drying barn date back to 1790, the garden has been a work in progress for thirty years. It, too, is a product of a great deal of money being intelligently spent though, in this case, the driving force behind the design is one of the homeowners.

But it is also a garden with its own staff – a property manager, a gardener and an assistant – and the care and long-term plan show. The vegetable and cutting gardens are ripe with raspberries and dahlias, late-blooming tall rudbeckia surrounds a tennis court. A formal, parterred mosaic garden plays in subtle colors and textures.

It is an extensive garden filled with woodland walks, a small orchard and a pond. On this late September day, color was everywhere, provided by the aforementioned dahlias, hakonechloa and unusual asters. Garden manager Guy Doran met us at the entrance with a map of the property (reproduced at left). Rather than being an affectation, it proved to be a useful guide to finding our way around a deceptively large property.

The two gardens were a great bookend to a summer of viewing gardens. Yes, a hard frost will reduce the dahlias to limp greens, but these are gardens that refuse to declare the season over and done with when the calendar turns to fall

September 29, 2009

Apple Picking Time

Growing up, I didn’t understand the fuss about apples. They were mushy, tasteless things that were already showing brown spots by the time they appeared in our local supermarket. But then, I grew up in Miami, that was more than half a century ago and the nearest apple tree was six hundred miles away.

I had my first taste of a just-picked apple when I was in my twenties. With that taste, I finally understood what I had been missing. Since then, picking apples in September has been one of the joys of early autumn.

This past weekend, Betty and I ventured 45 miles north to Doe Orchards in Harvard, Massachusetts to pick Macouns. Doe is a family-run business and has a 25-acre apple orchard plus two acres of blueberries and raspberries. There are closer orchards to our home, including nearby ones with Macouns. But Doe has magnificent, mature trees and apples are their primary business. The location is a hilltop and the trees have the air and light they need to produce luscious fruit.

This has been a very good year for apples in New England. Trees bloomed on schedule and there was no late hard frost or May snow to destroy the buds. The interminable rains of June and early July came after the fruit had set. The rain meant tree roots had all the water they could absorb and so the apples never lacked for moisture as they grew. A relatively dry August and September meant the fruit ripened slowly. The trees from which we picked were heavy with fruit, the Macouns huge with no loss of flavor.

We pick Macouns because they are, hands down, the best apple around for fresh eating, for baking and for making the two dozen jars of apple butter that will tide us over the winter, offering a tart, smooth reminder of autumn’s pleasure. Macouns are especially sweet, very aromatic and their flesh is tender and snow white. They have an especially satisfying ‘snap’ when you bite into one.

Macouns are Johnny-come-lately’s among apples. They were developed at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, New York in 1932 and are named for a famous Canadian fruit breeder W.T. Macoun. We’ve picked them as far south as Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

Apple butter is a fine souvenir of a harvest but, while the apples are fresh, they’ll be eaten with several meals a day and as in-the-car snacks. In what may be an apple’s finest incarnation, they’ll be the star of Molly O’Neill’s Apple Walnut Upside-Down Cake, which can be found in ‘A Well Seasoned Appetite’. Ms. O’Neill (who is Paul O’Neill’s baby sister in addition to other accomplishments) specifies Macoun apples in her recipe. Who can go against the instructions of the sister of a Yankee legend? Betty may make as many as half a dozen of these desserts during September and October.

We’ll make another trip to Doe Orchards when our half-bushel-sized bag is empty. The apple butter we put up will be made from those last specimens. Come January, jars will get opened and spread over waffles; reminders of the wonderful autumn of 2009.

September 18, 2009

Adjø, Acer platanoides

A few decades ago, the back cover of publications such as ‘Parade’ were adorned with ads for ‘miracle trees’; things that would grow from a four-foot whip into a thirty-foot shade tree in five years. You could buy four of them for $19.95 or some such preposterous figure.

I’d be willing to bet that some of those ‘miracle trees’ were Acer platanoides, better known as the Norway maple. Beloved by developers twenty years ago for their ‘instant neighborhood’ qualities, the tree is today considered an invasive species. It has a thick, shallow, fibrous root system that fairly well sucks out the moisture from everything around it. It is also a brittle tree, given to shedding branches at inopportune times.

Mostly, though, it is a great brute of a shade tree. It gets very large and has a massive canopy that permits no light to get through it. Anything that is planted between it and the sun is doomed to live in eternal shadow. It’s lone saving grace is that it turns a brilliant yellow and gold in the fall.

The builder who put up the ten homes on my street did a fine job with the houses, but his skills ended at finish carpentry. He put a five-clump river birch in the front yard of the house we would buy… ten feet from the septic tank. He dotted the street with now-banned burning bush (Euonymus alatus). And, to shade the sidewalks, he planted a great many Norway maples. Our home was four years old when we moved in and the tree on our property was roughly fifteen feet in height and still reasonably shaped.

Ten years later, the shortcomings of Acer platanoides could no longer be ignored. We had consistently pruned the maple in front of our shrub bed so that it was, at worst, an annoyance. But a second Norway maple on a neighbor’s property - forty feet high and as wide across as its height - was shading our ‘butterfly bed’ out of existence while keeping the soil underneath it as dry as dust.

Last summer, that neighbor’s home sold and the new owners had the property re-surveyed. When they mulched their beds this spring, Betty noted that the line of bark mulch ended abruptly a foot from the Norway maple. She inquired and was told that the new survey showed that the tree was on our property. Seldom has such a proclamation been so joyously received.

Yesterday afternoon, Sasa, the tree man arrived with the biggest Bandit chipper I’ve ever seen. Adjø, Acer platanoides.  In half an hour he reduced both trees to mulch and a stack of firewood. He then, at our request, upended the cart on his dump truck and left us a neat pile of roughly nine cubic yards of well-shredded leaves and wood chips. Last evening, Betty and I began the task of spreading that mulch, three inches thick, onto walkways and open areas.

Over the course of the winter the leaves will decompose and put nitrogen back into the soil. The wood chips – which we know to be disease-free - will remain to keep down weeds and build up the soil. The shrub bed will be slightly enlarged to incorporate the stump of the one Norway maple, the Butterfly bed will likely be replanted in the spring to take advantage of the new, unaccustomed sunlight.

September 7, 2009

What Clarence Hay Wrought

Truly great rock gardens are rare. In the Northeast, the one at the New York Botanical Garden is magnificent. Smith College has a fine, albeit small one. And then there’s the rock garden at The Fells, on the eastern shore of Lake Sunapee in Newbury, New Hampshire. It’s the one that makes you truly appreciate why rock gardens are such special places.

The name of John M. Hay has fairly well passed into the history books, but he was a pivotal figure of the nineteenth century, serving as private secretary to Abraham Lincoln, ambassador to Great Britain and Secretary of State under Presidents McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. The Fells was his family’s country retreat, a thousand acres on one of New England’s most scenic shorelines. Upon his death, The Fells passed to his son, Clarence Hay (1885-1969).

An avid amateur horticulturalist, Clarence started building a rock garden in 1920. He and a crew of skilled stonemasons began setting lichen-speckled rocks on the south-facing hillside toward the lake. He planted hundreds of alpine and rock garden plants to give the impression of a rocky Swiss hillside. A stream was created to wind the length of the rock garden; at its center he created a lily pool surrounded by azaleas and Japanese iris. Stone paths with rock steps meandered through the garden, and alongside them crevices and raised islands provided growing conditions for the more demanding rock garden plants. (The photo above, left is a view of the garden in the 1920s.)

The bulk of the Hay estate became a wildlife refuge beginning in the 1960s. By the time a non-profit organization called The Fells began managing the property in 1995, the rock garden existed only in memory and old photos. The organization set out to refurbish the multiple gardens Hay created, with special attention to the rock garden. It has taken over ten years of work by a dedicated staff, and volunteers (many of them New Hampshire Master Gardeners) but today the rock garden has been restored to its 1920s splendor.  The photo below was taken this weekend from the same vantage point as the one from the 1920s.

We were there this weekend to draw inspiration for our own rock garden. While Hay’s was a labor of love, ours was one of necessity. The back of our property slopes down steeply to a pond and, when we purchased our home, spring and summer rains poured off the roof, washing grass, soil and everything in its wake down into the woods toward the pond.

A civil engineering project worthy of the WPA came first. New downspouts were added across the back of the house and French drains installed to safely carry away rainwater and snow melt. Something had to go on top of all those pipes. We brought in large rocks to begin stabilizing the hillside and to create terraces. After the first few dozen stones were in place, we realized that, without intending to, we were creating an ideal environment for a rock garden.

We made our first visit to regional rock gardens, including The Fells, about nine years ago. We’ve returned to the Fells several times a year ever since, each time gaining new appreciation for what Hay (and a cadre of volunteers decades later) accomplished. The garden changes both with the seasons and from its multiple interior and exterior perspectives. The garden is at its most colorful in early summer but, even in September, there is color, texture and shape to please the eye. We’ve tried to learn from what Clarence Hay created. We have a long way to go.

September 6, 2009

The Rule of Three

Over the decade we have lived in our current home, we have transformed what was once two acres of woods with a too-large lawn into what we think is an attractive series of interconnected gardens: shrub beds, perennial borders, xeric beds and specimen trees – and a lot less lawn. I have willingly contributed the labor while my wife, the Master Gardener, provided the intelligence and design prowess.

But there comes a point in a garden’s evolution when the place is, well, full. For a period of time after that, new plants can be introduced by filling in gaps. Inevitably, however, you run out of space and, short of cutting down more trees to open up new territory, you have to learn to live within your garden footprint.

We reached the saturation point about three years ago. But nothing has diminished my wife’s interest in adding new specimens. A trip to a nursery ‘just to look around’ inevitably results in something up coming home with us. When those new shrubs or trees or perennials arrive at out home, there begins a game of musical chairs that I have come to think of as ‘the Rule of Three’.

The Rule of Three works like this: my wife falls in love with a new cultivar of Itea virginica ‘Little Henry’. ‘Little Henry’ is swaddled in burlap and comes home with us. My wife notes that ‘Little Henry’ is an ideal candidate for the shrub bed out in front of our property because it wants lots of sun, can tolerate a fairly dry area, and has colorful fall foliage that just might serve as an inspiration to our neighbors to get rid of their invasive burning bush.

Unfortunately, there’s a problem. Our shrub bed already contains more than twenty specimens. She begins walking the bed. She views the bed from multiple angles. Finally, she makes a determination: the Baptisia (false indigo to the rest of us) has to go. It never looked good there and it didn’t bloom this year until late July and then only for a few weeks.

Thus, we have the first hole. Out goes the Baptisia and in goes ‘Little Henry’.

But that’s too easy a solution. There’s nothing wrong with the Baptisia, it just wasn’t up to snuff for such a prominent locale. A home needs to be found for this misplaced plant. Once again, the entire garden is paced and viewed from multiple angles. Like ‘Little Henry’, the Baptisia also wants lots of sun and is tolerant of a dry spot. There are a limited number of such locales on our property.
It just so happens there is such an area in our xeric garden, created two years ago from what was once the strip of grass between the sidewalk and street. There is even a lovely spot for it just by the mailbox. The Baptisia would look perfect there. Unfortunately, that spot is currently occupied by a square foot or so of Hypericum calycinum, a ground cover with an attractive yellow flower that is, alas, effectively invisible from the street.

And so we have the second hole. Out goes Hypericum, to be replaced by the displaced Baptisia.

By now, you’re wondering if this plant version of musical chairs is going to go on infinitely. It could, but it turns out that Hypericum (sometimes called ‘Aaron’s Beard’) was a sort of failed experiment. My wife planted it (it was a gift from a fellow gardener) but never grew to love it.
But in our garden, things never get thrown away (except Rudbeckia, which goes straight into the mulch pile). And so a third hole is dug. This one is in the transplant bed, an area where sick plants go to get healthy and unwanted plants go to be potted up for the annual plant sale held by our local garden club. Hypericum will rest there until early May, when it goes to a new, more appreciative home.
That’s the ‘Rule of Three’: the introduction of any one, new plant requires the digging of three holes.
There is a corollary to the ‘Rule of Three’. I call it the ‘Rule of the Rock’ and it states that any perennial, tree or shrub put into a previously unplanted area will require the removal of a rock. Usually a big one. There is a handsome stone wall out in front of our property that wasn’t there when we moved in. Some of the biggest rocks in that wall were the result of putting in tiny hostas that ‘had’ to go in a certain area.

Now, you can only imagine what happens half a dozen new plants are brought in at once…

August 23, 2009

In praise of the uncommon nursery

Yesterday, Betty and I drove 90 miles to buy $116 worth of plants. It isn’t that we live in the middle of a nursery-free zone or that we have access to free gasoline. Rather, we chose to drive to Dartmouth, Massachusetts because we were looking for unusual plants and Avant Gardens is a reliable source for them. Then again, this spring, we drive 155 miles, to Andrew’s Greenhouse in South Amherst, to stock up on more than $300 of plants.

I have nothing against the ‘Big Box’ stores. If what I want is inexpensive potting mix or lime, I’ll be hard-pressed to find it cheaper anywhere. I also brook no argument with the locally-owned soup-to-nuts nurseries. The people at Weston Nurseries (a mere 18 miles away) know me on sight and they have supplied most of the trees and shrubs that grace our property. Weston’s staff is both knowledgeable and friendly and the nursery has some nifty marketing programs that keep us coming back. I used to joke that, instead of having my paycheck direct-deposited at a bank, it should be given to Weston and they could give me back any loose change that I didn’t spend there.

But when it came time to buy the annuals and perennials for some thirty containers this spring, we headed out the Mass Pike and spent roughly four hours shopping Andrew’s vast greenhouse and open-air sales area. Andrew’s (named for Andrew Cowles, who owns the nursery along with his wife, Jacqui) is a 30-year-old family business. It’s a 150-acre farm that has found its niche selling plants that you won’t find elsewhere. Those plants are lovingly described in a dense, 84-page catalog that makes it clear that Andrew’s both knows and believes in what it grows. For example:

MELAMPODIUM paldosum ‘Showstar’. This vivacious bloomer is the workhorse of your garden. Incredibly heat and drought tolerant. Once you try it you’ll never be without. Lush bushy mounds of misty green foliage adorned by multitudes of golden-yellow blooms. Full sun to partial shade.

That’s a lot of description for a small plant purchased in a four-inch pot, yet everything in the catalog is similarly detailed. Because those descriptions have been dead-on accurate every year, we’ve grown to trust that the cultivar we’re getting is going to perform as described.

Avant Gardens is not so easily described. If there is a common thread to the nursery’s collection, it is the unusual plants that owners Kathy and Chris Tracey have discovered and nurtured for the New England market. Going there is always a voyage of discovery: a mass of brilliant, late-summer color that turns out to be a self-sown annual brought back from California; or a capsicum annuum ‘Black Pearl’ that has dark purple foliage, the better to highlight the tiny, round black and red peppers on the plant. ‘Black Pearl’ was worth the drive all by itself. Finding an array of sedums and grasses with terrific autumn accent colors was exactly what we expected, and we were not disappointed.

Nurseries like these are a treasure and deserve a wide following. The outlay for gas is more than made up by discovering a plant with an off-the-charts ‘wow’ factor. And, to me, that’s what gardening is about: cultivating delight.

August 14, 2009

Mom's Garden

I like to think that maybe Mom hit the lottery, went on a luxury cruise around the Mediterranean and is, at this writing, fending off the attentions of some superannuated lothario on the Côte d’Azur. The alternative is too sad to contemplate.

Perhaps I should explain.

Rather than cut down a dozen trees on our property, fend off the deer and figure out how to fix the rototiller, my wife and I have a 20 foot by 60 foot plot in our town’s community garden. The town tills up the land, marks off the plots, supplies a large pile of manure and unlimited water. We fence it, plant it and keep it neat. For this we pay the bargain price of $40 a year. Last year, we harvested produce worth, conservatively, ten times that figure.

Anyone can sign up for a plot, first-come-first-served, and no gardening experience is required. In point of fact, once you’re there, you can get all the advice you need, much of it first-rate if you talk to the right people. You would think that with such a payoff ratio – plus the lure of indescribably fresh tomatoes, basil and corn – every plot would be lovingly tended now that everything is ripening.
Alas, there is summer gardening and there is… human nature. Of the 40 plots in the community garden, at least six are abandoned. Some still have fencing but other have shed even that pretense. The gardener gave up with all the rains of June or else they came back from those two weeks in California and discovered that the weeds had overwhelmed their little plot.
Which leads me back to Mom’s Garden. It’s the first one you see as you enter the community garden; a 20x30 plot. A four-foot fence went up in early May and, attached to the fence, a colorful, hand-made sign announcing that this is ‘Mom’s Garden’. Inside, a garden was laid out and planted and a weather-proof chair appeared. For a few brief weeks, it all looked perfect.

Then, the weeds began to sprout and, worse, the grass. The community garden was carved out of a hay field and is still surrounded by acres of greenery that is mowed just twice a year. If you don’t continually pull the grass, it takes over with a vengeance.

The rules of the community garden state that a garden plot that is not worked by the first week of June can be turned over to someone on the waiting list. Well, Mom’s Garden had a fence and some seedlings appearing, plus that chair. But, by early July, the grass was knee high. This week, the grass was chest-high and seed heads were ripening. The chair may or may not still be in there somewhere.

Perhaps Mom’s Garden was an unwanted gift from the kids. The kind of thing that seemed like a great idea at the time, except that no one bothered to consult Mom about whether she wanted to spend her summer hoeing and picking off bean beetles (“But we made you such a cute sign…”). If that’s the case, the kids ought to get to the garden once a week and show Mom some respect by weeding the thing.

Personally, though, I like the Mediterranean cruise explanation.

August 4, 2009

August: The Payoff Month

I was in our vegetable garden this afternoon picking green beans and noticed that the corn, now chest high, is starting to tassel out. Next to the green beans are harvest-size heads of cabbage and beets pushing themselves out of the ground. This evening, even after lavishing them on our salads, there are roughly twenty unused tomatoes on the kitchen counter.

In the garden immediately in front of our home, there is a riot of color and texture as white balloon flowers, golden heliopsis, lavender stokesia, yellow coreopsis, pale blue hydrangea, rust-colored blackberry lilies and a dozen other perennials compete for the attention of bees and butterflies. In another bed, rudbeckia crowds against solidago and fragrant Orienpet lilies, while red and purple monarda stake claims to the morning sun.

August is the month of excess. It is too much, really. Too many flowers all at once, too much lettuce that will not save and chard that will grow bitter before it is eaten. Our town’s food cupboard distributes twice this month. We will share the excess with the less fortunate but, even after turning over bags overflowing with produce, there will still be too much by next week.

This year’s bounty is less plentiful for certain vegetables. Last year, our bumper crop of zucchini forced us, at one point, to take several bags of it to our town’s transfer station – not to throw it away, but to leave it in the ‘swap meet’ area in hopes someone would say ‘yum, zucchini!’ Last year, we put up dozens of bags of frozen green beans, consuming the last of them just as this year’s crop began to mature.

Our eight varieties of tomatoes, many of them heirloom, began ripening in mid July. Now, three varieties are in full swing and a fourth will soon join them. My fear is that this year, despite planting squares three weeks apart, all our corn will ripen at once. Those chest-high plants mean we are, at most, three weeks away from ripe ears. Once it starts, we will be inundated with more corn than we can possibly eat.

Corn, in turn, may be the most satisfying of crops because it is one where there is a night-and-day difference between what appears in supermarkets and what comes from your own garden. Corn sugar starts turning to starch as soon as it is harvested. Two days after being picked, it is essentially tasteless. A local farm stand sells sweet corn that is hours from the field. Last year, because of the dry summer, it was a dollar an ear. We will definitely get our money’s worth… but how many ears of corn a day can two people eat? Some will be given away and some will be frozen in hopes of reliving a bit of August when winter sets in.

Finally, there are the ‘winter’ crops – winter squash, principally, but some other gourds as well. The vines are still relatively small – a product of too much rainfall and too little sun. I have confidence, though. Two weeks of heat will cause them to spill out past the garden fence into the fields beyond. Last September, we picked dozens of huge Butternut squash that filled several wheelbarrows. Stored in our cool, dry basement, they were a tasty reminder of summer for many months. I confess, though, that I cheered when we ate the last one in April.

All this bounty will all be over too soon. The New England gardening season is effectively over shortly after Labor Day because, here at 45 degrees north latitude, the daylight starts to shrink at an alarming rate and frosts appear with impunity.

So, I am enjoying this excess of August, the payoff month for gardeners. Flowers fill vases around the house bringing the beauty of the outdoors into out home and brightening our evenings. Meals are built around produce so fresh that, as I joke, it thinks it is still growing. I know it will be over too soon. That’s why I’m relishing it so much right now.

July 30, 2009

Lyme Disease

If you are reading this and you are not aware that I recently contacted Lyme Disease, then you are truly a minority in this new Age of Information. In the past three weeks I have received calls from friends, friends of friends, and President Obama all inquiring about my health.

Before going further, let me say two things about Lyme Disease: first, contracting it is likely an inevitable part of being a gardener. The deer ticks that carry it are the size of poppy seeds and, at least in southern New England, they are endemic. (The photos at left show the relative size of an adult deer tick and the deer tick nymph that latches onto humans and spreads Lyme Disease. In comparison, the common dog tick is the size of Jupiter.) Second, there is nothing humorous about undetected Lyme Disease. It can be debilitating and cause long-term health issues.

Fortunately, my own prognosis and treatment came swiftly. Three weeks ago today, I saw a bulls-eye rash on my skin in the morning. Instead of pretending it was something else that would go away on its own, I called my doctor. My doctor saw me at 4 p.m., took one look at it and said it was Lyme Disease. “I’ve seen more cases in the past six weeks than I’ve seen over the past six years,” he said. “We’ll do the blood work, but I’m starting you on antibiotics.” A vial of blood was drawn. By the time I got to my local pharmacy, two prescriptions were waiting for me. I took my first pill with dinner the same evening I first saw the rash. (Attention Congress: this is how health care is supposed to work.)

Lyme Disease is a bacterial infection. A deer tick nymph attaches itself to you and settles in to draw blood. In the process, an infected tick releases borrelia bacteria. If you remove the tick within 36 hours, the chance of further infection is virtually nil. If you don’t, you may see symptoms (the rash) within days. The good news is that if you treat the infection promptly, the ‘cure’ rate approaches 100%. I’m pleased to report that I’m free of any other symptoms.

But the news of my infection has spread within the gardening world like a Japanese beetle infestation. The reason is that my wife considers my condition, well, fascinating. Not to get too personal about this but, after each gardening session, we perform a tick check on one another. The fact that this tick escaped our scrutiny is cause for comment. The unnerving part is that Betty’s description generally includes the tracing (on her own body) of the location and progress of the rash. As a result, I get stares at a part of my anatomy that, well, I consider unsettling.

The downside to taking the antibiotics is that you are warned not to go out into the direct sun. This leads to weeding the vegetable garden at 7:30 a.m., all the time keeping an eye on the sun as it inexorably rises behind the trees. Of course, on a muggy July morning, any reason to get in and out of the garden early is welcome, but I consider it my responsibility to do my fair share of garden work.

This will pass. The treatment includes one set of pills for ten days and another for three weeks. I take my last pill this evening. On Monday, I’ll see my doctor again and, with luck, he’ll pronounce me one of the fortunate ones who didn’t procrastinate and so who were cured with a few dollars worth of pills. Then, I’ll be back to pulling my full weight as we hit the peak of the summer season.

A word to the wise: If you see that rash, don’t hesitate. Don’t pretend that it will go away on its own (it will but, when it does, your problems are just beginning). Get a diagnosis and get treated.

July 21, 2009

A Double-Header in the Bronx

New York City is 210 miles from my home and, on a Saturday morning, it’s a leisurely three-hour-and-change drive. This past Saturday, my wife and I spent a beautiful day visiting two old friends – Wave Hill and the New York Botanical Garden. Both are in the Bronx, which causes people’s eyes to bulge (you went where?!). These two gardens are must-sees for anyone who is serious about horticulture.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Wave Hill is that it is there. You walk from a modest parking area around a bend in a hedge and there, before you, is a vista that ought not to exist. A vast lawn stretching hundreds of feet sprinkled with specimen trees, a magnificent pergola studded with plants, and a vista across the Hudson River to the 500-foot-high Palisades that is unchanged from two centuries ago.

But then Wave Hill has an extraordinary history and enjoys unusual support. Located in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, it began, in 1843, as the ‘country estate’ of a grandson of a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Theodore Roosevelt lived there for two summers as a boy and Samuel Clemens was a resident for two years while the property was owned by a wealthy publisher. In 1903, a financier purchased Wave Hill and began acquiring adjacent properties, ultimately assembling 28 riverfront acres. The property passed to the City of New York in 1960 and is run today as a city-owned ‘cultural institution’. But it is hardly an impoverished institution: as of their last annual report, Wave Hill held cash and marketable securities valued at $21 million.

The Great Lawn, with its flights of eminently movable, tall-backed wooden chairs, is the dominant feature when you first see Wave Hill. This is Riverdale’s ‘front porch’, so to speak. Dozens of people read books and newspapers or chat with friends, oblivious to the stunning backdrop. If there were no gardens, Wave Hill would be worth the visit, just for that glorious view of the river and the high-rise-free cliffs beyond.

But there are gardens. Imaginative ones large and small. The pergola is a study in the use of containers. It is a riot of colors and textures and much of it is provided by dozens of containers holding everything from full-grown fruit trees to cascading, flowering vines. In another part of the park is a monocot garden – one comprised entirely of plants such as grasses, grains, banana plants and taro that produce a single leaf from each seed instead of the more prevalent two – which in turn surrounds an aquatic garden. It is intelligent in its design and intriguing in its execution. There is a flower garden – tiny for so large a park but packed with hundreds of annals and perennials. The layout is a formal grid but plants spill over into walkways producing a glorious jumble. There is an herb garden and an elliptical garden, each a fascinating space. Perhaps best of all, there is a container garden filled with Alpine plants. The containers – concrete cubes mostly – would be plug-ugly except for the riot of tiny plants they hold and the imaginative arrangement of those cubes. They stack upon one another and spread out line an Alpine meadow. It is a wonderful space.

I have been to Wave Hill perhaps half a dozen times and each visit brings something new to explore. On this visit, for the first time, I explored a woodland trail that tacks down the hillside toward the Hudson. It brought me by an unmarked, half-acre-sized swatch of land that appears to have been given over to seed-eating birds. It is a mass of Rudbeckia, Vernonia noveboracensis (New York State ironweed), Solidago, and Echinacea. Every garden should offer something new with each visit. Wave Hill never disappoints.

The New York Botanical Garden may be the most exquisite public garden in the U.S. It is lavishly endowed and continually being renewed. Its horticultural staff has the funds to Do Things Right and its marketers continually dream up events to pull in the crowds. Every public garden that has ever bemoaned poor attendance needs to send someone to the Bronx to see how it’s done.

Seeing NYBG properly takes days. We had a limited itinerary: to see the Rockefeller Rose Garden in its summer glory and take a walk through the Rock Garden looking for ideas of how to improve our own.

During the interminable rains of June, multiple rose specimens were hit by fungal disease and the NYBG staff belongs to the when-in-doubt-rip-it-out school of floriculture. Seeing several linear feet of mulched, empty beds is startling in such a garden but a wise move on the part of those who tend the garden. The signs promise a return of new specimens. But the color of everything else made those empty beds almost unnoticeable. If there is a scheme to the arrangement of rose varieties in the garden it escapes me. It’s just a wonderful, formal space that no home gardener could or should ever try to replicate. It’s the reason why there are public gardens. It’s the reason why you have to see the New York Botanical Garden.

July 12, 2009

Altogether for the McLaughlin Garden: A Trip to South Paris

I will leave it to the social scientists to decide whether it is a sign of maturity or senility, but it has been quite a long time since I wondered what the people around me looked like naked. But I could be forgiven a lapse yesterday if I kept seeing them that way: on tractors, behind wheelbarrows, and weeding flower beds. Oh, they were artfully camouflaged with leaves or shovels in just the right places, but they were nude all the same.

I guess an explanation is in order. The McLaughlin Garden in South Paris, Maine, has a storied history. It was the 60-year-long project of Bernard McLaughlin, who died at 98 in 1995. Upon his death the two-acre property, consisting of a farmhouse, barn and the garden, went up for sale. Because of its location on a main road in a growing town, McLaughlin’s garden seemed destined to become a supermarket parking lot. Fortunately, a group of area residents acquired the property with the expectation that the garden would remain open to the public without charge, just as it had been in McLaughlin’s lifetime. Unfortunately, the group had few assets apart from the property which they mortgaged. Seven years after it was acquired, the garden seemed without a future. The McLaughlin Foundation had solicited funds in the conventional way but with little success.

Then, the foundation’s trustees hit on an idea. It wasn’t entirely original: the Rylstone and District Women’s Institute in the Yorkshire Dales had done it in 1999. They had published a calendar and it had done very well, raising over a million dollars for leukemia research. The McLaughlin Foundation had a no less noble cause: to save the garden. And so they stripped. ‘Altogether for the Garden’ raised enough to pay off the $450,000 mortgage and acquire an adjoining acre parcel.

On a glorious Saturday in July, I tagged along as the Massachusetts Master Gardeners toured the garden (, led by Kristin Perry, Director of Horticulture. It was a three-hour drive each way to get there, but it was, as they say in the Michelin Guides about three-star enterprises, ‘worth a journey’.

Interior Maine has a short, spectacular gardening season. The earth is frozen solid into April but, when it thaws, plants jump out of the ground seemingly overnight. The bloom season is compressed from mid-May into late August because Labor Day frosts are not uncommon. McLaughlin was an avid plant collector and trader and the garden is a mix of Maine natives – especially wildflowers and ferns – and exotics, notably Japanese cultivars. He had a passion for lilacs (there are more than 200 of them in the garden) and irises, and those plants are found in virtually every corner of the property.

The garden plan is a combination of broad grassy strips delineating deep planting beds and narrow, hard-packed pathways among those same beds. It is astonishing to think that McLaughlin started with a treeless farm because much of the garden is in shade, some of it in deep shade from coniferous and deciduous trees that are now some seven decades old. A cow path from the barn to distant pastures became a delightful walk through a woodland garden filled with ferns and May apples. The literature describes the garden as ‘formal’ but the description is accurate only in the technical sense. Looking across the beds you see a tangle of plants, but there’s an intelligence behind it.

Kristin Perry’s job for the past seven years has been to maintain the integrity of the garden while also making sense of it. On the tour she pointed out where new trees and shrubs have been brought in as old ones died or did not over-winter. There are beds that are overrun with garden ‘thugs’ that need to be scoured of species that have outgrown their welcome. There is considerable deliberation taken before making changes: was this plant in the original garden? If so, the replacement should reflect McLaughlin’s vision. In the case of a particularly obnoxious Petasites overrunning a hosta bed, it was recently found to be an interloper. It is on its way out.

But it is a very good garden and the fact that it was the singular vision of a man with no formal horticultural training makes it all the more inspiring. McLaughlin’s house is given over to a café and a gift shop, the barn houses exhibits. McLaughlin would approve of the local Maine cuisine served there and of the friendly staff that goes out of its way to dispel the reputation of Downeasters as being aloof. The garden looks much as it did in his lifetime; a credit to Ms. Perry and a cadre of volunteers. I suspect is it very much as Bernard McLaughlin would have liked, even if it did take a bit of artful disrobing to make it all possible.

June 29, 2009

The Gardens of Litchfield County

So, here we were, at ten o’clock on a Saturday morning, driving leisurely through the foothills of the Berkshires in northwestern Connecticut’s Litchfield County. A copy of the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days Directory was on my wife’s lap, together with a fine-scaled map of the state folded to find minor state highways that seeming appeared and disappeared with abandon.

Open Days are wondrous things. People with tour-worthy gardens allow in anyone with five dollars in their pocket. Sometimes the gardens are spectacular; sometimes they’re ‘personal’ (a polite word for disappointing). Proceeds from these Open Days go to preserve noteworthy gardens that would otherwise disappear due to neglect or development.

In Litchfield County, even the ‘personal’ gardens are usually worth seeing and we had circled three as sounding especially intriguing. Owners write their own descriptions for the directory and, while some are grandiose, others are masterpieces of understatement. For example: “This Old World-style garden is intimate, with cobbled paths, terraced gardens, raised perennial beds, and reflecting pools. Overlooking the Housatonic River, the property has a distinct French/Italian flavor.” Twenty-eight words. And, as it turned out, I could have shortened it to just eight words: “You have to see it to believe it.”

To get to the garden, you go to West Cornwall. To get to West Cornwall, you go through a genuine, working, one-lane covered bridge across the Housatonic River. Just past the bridge you make a left hand turn on, naturally, River Street. You park and find… a shop: Michael Trapp Antiques. The front of the Greek Revival property gives nothing away. You enter around the side and the garden reveals itself. It is a masterpiece of both whimsy and design, studded with what Trapp calls ‘architectural fragments’. Stone and greenery blend seamlessly. Steps lead to a lower garden – actually, gardens – that border a fast-moving brook that feeds into the Housatonic. A long room, opened to the elements and stuffed with artifacts and objects of natural beauty, merges into the hillside. It is a garden of the imagination that demands exploration of every nook.

Trapp’s garden has been nearly twenty years in the making. The antique shop once also served as his home, but the garden’s (and store’s) growing fame became a problem. To quote a 2007 New York Times article, “People he had never met would arrive at all hours. They didn’t seem to care that the store was open only on Saturdays and Sundays or by appointment, and that the garden could only be visited through the Open Days program. ‘They walked in and out of my house all day long, thinking I wouldn’t mind so long as they were nice,’ Mr. Trapp said.”

From West Cornwall, we traveled overland to Falls Village. I confess that before I visited the Michael Trapp garden, the name meant nothing to me. But ‘the Garden of Bunny Williams’ is etched into the mind of anyone who has ever opened a gardening or décor magazine. This is her ‘weekend retreat’ – fifteen intensively planted acres – from her New York City interior decorating business.

Ms. Williams was in her garden, greeting a horde of visitors. She had out tea, lemonade, cookies and bottled water. It was a welcome gesture because truly exploring all of her gardens would be a day-long (or more) proposition. Visitors are first directed to a ‘rustic Greek Revival-style pool house folly’ (her precisely accurate description), which is a jumping-off point to a series of woodland trails. These eventually lead down to the main house. Or, or be more accurate, main houses (one is a converted barn). Around them are her set pieces: sunken gardens, perennial borders around a fish pond, flower- and herb-filled vegetable gardens, conservatories and greenhouses. They are a photo shoot awaiting only the arrival of the delegation from the high-end lifestyle magazine. Every detail is perfect. Everything is balanced, there is meticulous planning behind every plant in the garden.

There is also a gardener. We met him and chatted briefly. He was able to precisely name a woodland peony that had caught Betty’s eye and he even provided a source for it.

On a different day and in a different place, I might have objected to all this perfection. But this was a house and garden as objects to be admired. And, Ms. Williams actually lives there. She has created a space that few could ever afford to mimic, but darn it if she didn’t open up her private retreat for us to wander at will – and all for a worthy cause.

We also visited a third garden in the area. It was a lavish property and no expense was spared by the owner to have a designer create the perfect series of gardens. Everyone received a map of the premises printed on vellum-type paper. The garden was, ummm, very personal.

June 26, 2009

Blame Walt Disney

What’s the most environmentally catastrophic film of all time? Some sci-fi thriller? Not a chance. The hands-down winner is ‘Bambi’. Four generations of children have now been indoctrinated with the notion that deer are wonderful little creature with big eyes and cute lashes, and that they eat nothing but tufts of spring grass. Your garden may say something different.

The impact of ‘Bambi’ can be seen in the numbers. The whitetail deer population of North America before the advent of European settlers is generally pegged at around 20 million. Hunting by Native Americans and the realities of harsh winters kept the number of deer stable. European settlers brought farms, urbanization, and a rising demand for venison and hides. The number of deer declined through the 18th and 19th centuries, reaching a trough of under a million whitetails by 1930 because of over-hunting and habitat destruction.

Then, along came ‘Bambi’. Every child in America recoiled in horror as Bambi’s mother was killed by hunters. Hunters were portrayed as evil people, creating forest fires and killing with abandon. Not content with bringing child audiences to tears in 1942, Disney re-released the film in 1947, 1957, 1966, 1975, 1982, and 1988 (and thereafter on home video so it could be watched in an endless loop).

Today, the whitetail deer population of the United States is estimated at 30 million – fifty percent above the pre-Columbian figure. Deer have learned to adapt – indeed, to thrive – in suburbia. There are fewer hunters (Bambicide!), no wolves, no predators of any kind.
Keeping out deer has created an arms race worthy of the Cold War. We have friends who have encircled their entire property with a ten-foot fence – and worry every time the driveway gate is left open for guests. Other friends believe in hanging scented soap from the branches of bushes. The deer eat the shrubbery and leave the soap alone.

Which brings me to our garden. We back up to a pond and border several square miles of town watershed. I estimate the local whitetail deer population at around half a million. I see them strolling the neighborhood, tasting the new, the flowering, and the beloved plants (the Latin name for ‘tulip’ translates as ‘deer candy’), leaving a fresh crop of deer ticks in their wake.
My wife and I keep deer at bay through a number of techniques. In the winter we fence the most delectable plants. Every month we apply a solution that, when sprayed on plants, smells as though the entire sixth-grade class of our local elementary school came down with stomach flu in our yard. It works. The smell (the base ingredient is putrefied eggs) fades to the human nose after a few hours but the scent lingers (to deer, anyway) for several weeks.

My wife plants native trees and shrubs that have developed their own deer defenses over the millennia. Our property abounds in blueberry, Clethra, Fothergilla, Itea, Leucothoe, Rhododendron and a host of other trees and shrubs that look glorious to humans but that the deer find unappetizing.

When we note the presence of deer in our yard, usually in the early morning, we run out screaming in robes and slippers, waving our arms. The deer retreat into the woods a few feet and watch us. We chase them and throw rocks at them (yes, I throw rocks at Bambi; so sue me). By continuing to chase them deep into the woods, we have caused an entire generation of deer (and neighbors) to believe that there are crazy people living on the street that are best avoided.

There is no present solution for the glut of deer. Declaring open season for hunters in densely populated suburbs isn’t going to happen for very good reasons. ‘Relocation’ has proven an abysmal failure. Birth control (via contraceptive darts) appears to work only in areas with a static population such as islands. Friends of Animals estimates that half a million deer are killed each year in collisions with automobiles. Sadly, disease and starvation due to a lack of food – both products of overpopulation – are what currently thin herds. It is indeed time for fresh thinking on the subject.

In the end, it’s a problem of our own making – our own changing sensibilities along with the creation of suburban gardens that act as feeding station… aided and abetted by Walt Disney.

Stewards of the Land

The town of Medfield had several incarnations before it was a suburb of Boston. It was, however briefly, the straw hat capital of the world. It was an artists’ colony. It played a small but pivotal role in the King Philip War. Mostly, though, it was a farming community. The land upon which our home was built 14 years ago previously grazed sheep and was a working farm.

Around 1880, Boston’s growing affluence coupled with an excellent rail network created a new market opportunity for Medfield: ice. Farmers diverted streams to flood fields to a depth of six feet or less, then harvested ice in the winter, storing the ice in sawdust for use throughout the year. It was a good, niche business until the advent of year-round ice-making equipment in the second decade of the new century.

Danielson Pond, behind our home, began its existence as an ice pond. Sometime after 1880, a colony of snapping turtles (Cheldyra serpentina) made it their home. For a hundred years, the snappers lived in the pond, doing what turtles do. Each spring – in the last week of May – the pregnant females lumbered up the slope to high ground, climbed the farmers’ rock walls, and found a suitable place to lay a clutch of eggs. A few hours or a few days later, the turtles returned to their pond.

The building of our home and the creation of the gardens around it has been a transient event in the lives of these turtles – some of which are many decades old and have shells approaching two feet wide. Just as they learned to breach the farmers’ walls, so they have accommodated themselves to our home and garden.
Saturday morning, a turtle made her appearance on our front lawn. She was mid-sized – her shell was perhaps a foot wide indicating she was 15-20 years old – so she had made this trip many times before. She was investigating the perennial border along the sidewalk when we first encountered her. Directly in front of her was a mound of common Lady’s Mantle (Alchemilla mollis). To its right, an infestation of Japanese anemone we have been attempting, with limited success, to dislodge for years. To the turtle’s left, a carefully nurtured clump of Eupatorium chocolate that will be in its glory in late September.

We made the decision when we first encountered these snappers that we would do nothing to interfere with their egg-laying ritual. They will lay their eggs where nature dictates and, if it’s in the middle of the Eupatorium, so be it. There may two to three dozen one-inch-diameter eggs in a clutch laid in a shallow hole. Most will be immediately dug up by foxes or other foragers. Those which are not eaten will hatch in eighty days and must make a perilous trek past waiting predators which consider soft-shelled newborn turtles a delicacy. The literature suggests perhaps one turtle egg in a hundred makes it to become an adult.

Snappers may dig three or four holes before finding a satisfactory depository. The ‘dry holes’ remain excavated but uncovered, the final nest will be filled. We’ve identified as many as five nests on our property each year. It is our practice to mark the sites so as not to accidentally walk on or dig in the area. This year, we’re also top-dressing the nests with Milorganite – a fertilizer made from sewage that animals reportedly find repugnant. If we can improve the hatching percentage by a few points, so much the better.

We are stewards of our little chunk of land. While the pond may be the work of man, the turtles pre-date our occupancy by more than a century and it is our responsibility to accommodate ourselves to their nesting habits, not the other way around. One of our first acts as homeowners was to build a series of stone ‘ramps’ over the old farmers’ walls, the better to facilitate their migration. If our stewardship entails rehabilitating a few perennials or rock garden plants along the way, that’s a small price to pay.

The Slug and I

Last Tuesday morning, the Boston Globe reported something I already suspected: that eastern Massachusetts was on track to have its ‘dimmest’ June since record keeping began in 1885. According to the article, Boston and vicinity had, through June 22, received just 32% of the ‘available’ sunshine. In an average June, the region gets 55% of the possible sunshine between dawn and dusk. In June 1971, a record of 77% was set. (Also in that month, the New York Times began publishing the Pentagon Papers. Coincidence?) Until now, only 1903 was dimmer and, with a week of gloomy weather in the forecast, the record seemed certain to fall.

I do not know if we eclipsed the title, but I can state with some certainty that at least one record was set: I have never seen more slugs on my plants than I did in June. The slug population was off the charts.

I have learned that the common garden slug (Arion distinctus) is constantly with us, but usually as eggs. Charmingly, garden slugs are hermaphrodites, so any two slugs can get together, make whoopee, and play rock-scissors-paper for the right to lay a clutch of 15-30 eggs which lay dormant in the soil until it rains.

If you live in New England, you may remember that it rained in June. I can, personally, count on the fingers of one hand the number of hours in June when it did not rain. And, so, with cool temperatures and lots of moisture, the slugs hatched and came out to play. And to eat every plant in sight. By mid-June the slugs were fat, roly-poly things having feasted on the trays of annuals that were purchased in May with the expectation of planting beautiful, colorful containers.

My wife and I began looking for solutions. Being environmentally responsible sorts, we bypassed the Armageddon solutions at out local garden center. These pellets promised to Kill Slugs Fast, but cautioned in the fine print that they would also take with them to animal kingdom heaven ladybugs, earthworms, cats and dogs.

The Internet, that vast repository of wisdom, offered multiple ‘organic’ solutions to our slug problem. The first suggestion was to create a barrier of lava rock around the plants we wanted to protect. This probably works extremely well in Hawaii. It is of minimal utility in Massachusetts. There was also a tip that we could use lint from our clothes dryer as a deterrent. However, to be effective, we would need to add four ounces of vinegar to the final rinse water (I promise I am not making this up). Something called Quack Grass is reported to damage the nerves that slugs use for feeding. There was even a recipe for ‘Quack Grass Cake’ (corn bran, powdered milk, cornstarch, the aforementioned Quack Grass and 16 ounces of beer, beaten to a paste and run through a meat grinder). This seemed a somewhat promising lead until I Googled Quack Grass and got 134,000 hits, almost all of them in Q&A forums on gardening web sites asking, ‘Help! How do I get rid of the stuff?

I decided that what we needed was not a deterrent, but a method of eliminating our garden pests, responsibly. One web site offered a list of predators. Rhode Island Red hens, the site said, are great slug hunters that eat every specimen of Arion distinctus they can get their beaks on. A nice idea, but our neighbors might object. Blackbirds, crows, ducks, jays, owls, robins, seagulls, starlings and thrushes are also known slug eaters. We have successfully encouraged all of the preceding (except seagulls) to visit our yard. But they do not appear to have developed a taste for our slugs. Perhaps they did not read that particular web site and get their dietary marching orders.

A further search yielded the tantalizing fact that there is a predatory nematode that has been demonstrated effective against slugs. Phasmarhabditas hermaphridita (hermaphrodite vs. hermaphrodite!) are being “mass reared” in England but are not yet sufficient in production to be used widely. Like some D-Day armada, they await the time when their numbers swell sufficiently, when they will likely be launched against the garden slugs of Normandy.

We decided it was time to stop reading Internet articles and start practicing Better Living Through Chemistry. Out came the trusty handbooks. Isopropyl alcohol works. Wonderful. It will also kill many of the plants to which it is applied. Next. Wormwood tea works. Great, but we don’t have any wormwood. Next. Ammonia works. It also burns tender leaves. Next. Quassia works. Wonderful. The nearest quassia trees are in Ecuador. Also available from your neighborhood herbalist at prices so staggering you can afford to replant your property when it stops raining. Next.

Iron phosphate. It kills on contact. It’s poisonous to slugs. It won’t harm plants if you use it sparingly. We looked for the downside. There wasn’t one. The slugs ingest the iron phosphate and lose the will to live. Where had this advice been hiding?

It must be that iron phosphate just isn’t glamorous enough. Wormwood tea, lava rock and Rhode Island Reds all have a certain folksy quality that sound authentic. Iron phosphate sounds… industrial. We found some. We applied it. A week later we had far fewer slugs.

We’ve dealt with the stragglers the old-fashioned way: we’ve removed them by hand, then applied shoe leather to slug.