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…