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 d├ęcor 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.

There are Gardeners, and there are helpers

There are a handful of paintings that bring an instant smile to my face when I see them. They’re the kinds of painting where the artist has recognized some deeper truth about the objects before him (or her) and managed to convey that ‘something’ onto the canvas. One such painting is John Singer Sargent’s “Mrs. and Mrs. I.N. Phelps Stokes”, which hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Edith Minturn and Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes were married in 1895, and one of the couple’s weddings gifts was of a portrait to be painted by Sargent. Sargent's first intention was to paint a single portrait of Edith during the summer of 1897 in Venice. After numerous posing and preparatory sessions, the artist decided to paint her as if she were just returning from a brisk walk outdoors, with a greyhound at her side. After Edith’s part of the portrait was finished, however, the greyhound was no longer available and I. N. Phelps Stokes suggested that he take its place. Sargent agreed, and the single portrait became a double portrait.

But, if it is a double portrait, it is one of the most lopsided ever done. Edith is radiant and forthright. It would not be an overstatement to say that she glows. Her husband, by contrast, is consigned to the shadows. Yes, he’s there, but he’s a stand-in for the greyhound. In another fifty years, I have no doubt that he will fade and the pentimento of a dog will take his place.

But the painting, in turn, captures the reality of the two. Both were from wealthy ‘reformist’ families. Edith threw herself into women’s suffrage and housing reform, among other noble causes. I.N. (he hated ‘Isaac Newton’) turned his attention to writing the definitive history of the City of New York – six volumes and over 7,000 pages. She was the sparkplug in the family, his role was to be supportive and to write large checks. Sargent saw it and captured it on canvas.

I was reminded of that portrait Sunday afternoon and evening as I attended a Master Gardener Open Garden. There are several hundred people in the Boston area who have gone through the Master Gardener program at the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. Several times each summer, a Master Gardener will open his or her garden to other Master Gardeners. These tend to be spectacular gardens, all them designed and tended by the homeowner rather than by some ‘name’ landscape designer.

Most Master Gardeners are women. Until this year, the courses were given all day, one day a week, which makes it difficult for anyone who worked full time to gain the accreditation. People who go through the same class tend to become friends.

There were probably thirty people at the garden in Quincy on Sunday afternoon and evening. Many Master Gardeners brought spouses. And, throughout that afternoon and evening, I could not help but be reminded of the Sargent portrait. The women – the Master Gardeners – were in charge. They talked of gardens and of plants. They dissected plant diseases and growing problems and evaluated landscaping choices. Their talks were animated and full of energy. They spoke for hours about their own plans for new beds and rare and unusual cultivars. Master Gardeners also get a heavy dose of environmental awareness as part of their studies and these women discussed organic and pesticide-free laws care and composting as though it were second nature.

The men… drank beer and ate guacamole. They were appendages in the spirit of Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes. They acknowledged readily that their responsibility is to dig holes and move plants when requested, and to be supportive, including the occasional writing of a large check.

The garden is stunning. It’s a quarter-acre lot with a 1930s-era house in the middle, but packed into that lot is enough landscaping for an estate. The lot slopes steeply making it possible to build multiple garden ‘rooms’ that are functionally invisible from one another. The owner - one of the rare male Master Gardeners - is a pharmacist by training who managed to become a Master Gardener in the same class as Betty by working extra shifts. Paul is also married and, in the true spirit of I. N. Phelps Stokes, his partner, John, says his contribution to the garden is to ‘suggest accessories’.

I never thought of myself as an I.N. Phelps Stokes but, being around those Master Gardeners and listening to them talk about plants and ecosystems as fervently as Edith Phelps Stokes surely talked about housing and universal suffrage, I knew how he felt. The best thing you can do is be supportive. Who knows, I may even write the next definitive history of something.