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 (http://www.mclaughlingarden.org/Tour-garden.html), 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 cafĂ© 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.