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.