May 28, 2010

Now You See 'Em, Now You Don't

We don't make nearly enough use of spring ephemerals.  Perhaps, in New England, that's because they're not supposed to live, much less thrive.  Tell that to my bluebelles.

We lived in Virginia for eight years and came to love the annual, massive display of Virginia bluebelles at Manassas State Park.  They carpeted acres of that park for a few weeks each March, then disappeared as if by magic.  When we returned to Medfield, we decided - against the advice of nurseries - to try some two clusters in one of our shade gardens.

The result can be seen in the two photos.  The one above (double-click on it to see a larger version) was taken in early April.  There are the bluebelles, now eight clusters and growing.  They provided color for three sweeks when there was nothing else in the bed.  The photo at right is from the same vantage point last week.  The bluebelle foliage is still there - barely visible - crowded out by the hosta and emerging astilbe.

By mid-June, the astilbe will be in flower and the bluebelle foliage will have completely disappeared.  It's a terrific use of two plants in the same space, and an opportunity to extend the color season.

May 25, 2010

The Perfect Driveway Edge

I can state with some degree of confidence that for the first five-plus decades of my life, I never thought much about edging my driveway. I had a string trimmer and, twice a year, I’d dutifully create a moderately straight demarcation between asphalt and grass. On a scale of one to ten of satisfying activities, it was a solid ‘one’.

Then, a few years ago I found myself at Hidcote on a mid-May morning. Hidcote, for the garden-impaired, is one England’s (and the world’s) great gardens. It sprawls across the Cotswold countryside near the village of Chipping Campden and is, as Michelin would put it, ‘worth a journey’.

Anyway, on that May morning, I was savoring the gardens when I happened to look down and see the world’s most perfect pathway edge. Instead of grass butted up against macadam, this path contained an inch-and-a-half wide dirt channel on either side. The grass was crisp and green up to the channel, which was perhaps an inch deep. Nothing grew in the channel.

Can you get rapturous about a ditch?

Yes, the gardens were spectacular, but I had to know about this ideal edge. And so, with Betty rolling her eyes, I went off to find someone who could tell me about how it had been made. I assumed it was done with one of those half-moon edgers wielded by someone with a perfect sense of touch and infinite time.

A docent was pleased by my question, put her finger to her chin, and then pointed to one of the garden ‘rooms’ nearby. “You’ll likely find him working over there,” she offered.

A few hundred feet away, I found a young man wielding a tool with two wheels and what looked like a bicycle chain ring. He easily pushed the tool forward, one wheel on the path. Grass and bits of garden debris sprayed out as it clattered. He did this for perhaps fifty feet, then lay the tool on the sidewalk and swept up the clippings. As he did, what remained was that perfect inch-and-a-half-wide channel.

“I think I know what I want for my birthday,” I said. Betty rolled her eyes again.

Upon returning to the States (when you’ve just come back from England you can say things like that), I made a beeline for Home Depot. There was no such tool, I was assured, but they had something even better - the eight-pound, gas-powered Lawn Boy Micro-Trim, and for the unbelievably low price of just $189.98.  I did what I should have done in the first place and made a beeline for Will’s Hardware, where I am locally famous for my idiosyncratic requests.

The manager, Randy, and I leafed through several catalogs and finally settled on a Deluxe Mechanical Edger ($34.95). It wasn’t exactly what I had seen at Hidcote but it was close enough. A week later, I had it in my hand (birthday we damned - I had to have this thing).
Now, twice a year (more often if there’s a group coming), I get to use my Deluxe Mechanical Edger. It makes the same satisfying clacking sound that I first heard that morning at Hidcote. The channel not only looks terrific, it is practical: it carries away rainwater, preventing ponding on the driveway.

It takes perhaps five hours to do our 220-foor driveway with its curves and parking aprons. I’m spending about an hour each morning this week on the project. It’s eminently satisfying and the result looks like a million bucks. Best of all, for a few hours, I feel I’m back at Hidcote. And that is a very satisfying feeling.

May 23, 2010

The Secret Pleasure of Mulching

In mid-April – a month earlier than it should ever be done in this area – I watched as a lawn maintenance company blew mulch into the beds around a neighbor’s home. The mulch came out of a long, probably eight-inch-diameter hose that snaked back to a large truck. The person doing the mulching haphazardly sprayed the mulch into azaleas and rhododendron, creating piles six inches deep or more. I cringed at the sight, but am long past the stage of saying anything about such behavior on the part of my neighbors or the firms that service their lawns.

I cannot imagine paying someone to spread mulch for me, though this evening my back and shoulders are telling me I did too much work today. To me, there’s a great satisfaction in spreading mulch. In mid-May (when the ground has warmed up in New England), perennials are well established for the new season, early spring bulbs have been reduced to foliage and shrubs are showing their new growth. Spreading mulch is a final step in re-imagining a landscape for the new season.

At our home, mulch must first be inspected before it is purchased. Ten days ago, Betty drove up to Sam White & Sons, where she walked the mulch piles, sifting handfuls before pronouncing it acceptable. Later that day, a dump truck dropped off ten cubic yards in two piles. Six yards went to the beds alongside the street and was spread over two days. Next came the beds along our driveway. Today, at the end of three days of preparatory work, we tackled two beds immediately in front of the house.

During those three days, we ‘edited’ what we call our outer sidewalk bed, a fifty-foot-long, eight-foot-wide curving garden of mixed perennials and shrubs. A summer-blooming phlox that was hidden behind a rhododendron in another bed now has a new, sunny locale. Stands of Ladies Mantle (Alchemilla mollis) that had migrated from its reservation were dug out and sent to the compost heap. The area of Snow-in-Summer (Cerastium tomentosum), though in full bloom, was reduced by half. A dozen perennials were brought back to acceptable boundaries and spurge was grubbed out from dozens of unwanted locations.

When the mulch finally went down this morning, it was top dressing for a bed that, at least to the trained eye, had been subtly re-made. Foliage colors have been re-arranged in a more pleasing fashion and the color scheme that will follow with summer blooms will be equally altered. It was three days well spent.  The final result is shown above.

But the mulch is more than a top dressing. It is also a unifier. A week ago, the outer sidewalk bed looked, frankly, messy. It was a hodgepodge of plants that, because of a season of rampant growth fueled by abundant rain, lacked visual coherence. The dark brown mulch provides the canvas upon which those plants and shrubs are arrayed, plus the contrast to the dark green grass of mid-May is dazzling. Because of the mulch, the eye can easily follow Betty’s planting pattern.

The mulch will be in its current state of perfection for perhaps two or three weeks. Then, inevitably, the sun will bleach the dark brown out of the top-most layer and it will no longer be as ‘special’. But for now, all is perfection. The sidewalk bed is perfectly edged and the mulch is uniform.

So much pleasure from so simple a thing.

May 12, 2010

The Sweet Smell of... Mulch

Ten cubic yards of dark brown mulch were delivered on Monday.  Two-thirds of it has been deposited in the street-side and driveway beds.  No garden ever looks better than when it has been newly mulched.  Here's a photo gallery, taken this morning.

May 3, 2010

The Inmates Take Over the Asylum

For the past decade we have taken advantage of a terrific program offered by our community, in which a town-owned field is plowed and marked into 40, 600-square-foot ready-to-plant garden plots. For the munificent sum of $20 per year, we get water, manure, and a site with ample sunlight. It’s a bucolic site with a 4-H sheep encampment across the road. The soil, once dense and prone to flooding, is now well aerated and heavy with organics.

We never thought much about who managed the enterprise. We received a notice each spring in a town envelope and paid our $40 for a double plot at the information desk of town hall. As the years passed, it became evident that one of our fellow gardeners, Lenny, was the ‘manager’ of the site. His principal responsibility seemed to be to run a gas-powered weed-whacker over the paths to the garden. Other than that, it was all very low key.

Then, last year, there appeared to be a change. The heretofore simple set of guidelines for the garden ballooned into a multi-page manifesto that took on an uncomfortably shrill tone. We read the rules with a sense of amusement and made the assumption that they were the work of one of our neighboring gardeners, a woman who is stridently organic and, well, pushy about her views.

There had also been a few things about the garden that irked us. Two water spigots stopped working and were never repaired. Publicity about the availability of plots was almost non-existent with the result that some gardeners could claim three parcels. Other gardens were quickly abandoned by people who discovered that keeping a plot weed-free required actual time and labor. The result was in a town with a strong interest in fresh foods, there were weed-filled plots next to an oligarchy of triple-plot empires. We brought up the subject with one of our town’s selectmen and followed it with a letter outlining the issues.

In October, Betty and I found ourselves appointed to the Community Gardens Committee (who knew?). More surprising, upon being sworn in (we took the oath of office, administered by the town clerk, in her office), we quickly thereafter discovered ourselves to be the only members of the committee, the long-time chairman having finally found someone willing to take on the role, and so resigning. We asked about the woman whom we suspected had authored the revised garden rules. No, she was not a committee member.

In February, we took our overhaul of the Community Garden rules to the town’s Conservation Commission, who listened and then gave us their blessing.

The garden opened this past weekend. There are now six, half-sized plots for those who want to dip their toe into the water without committing to a 600 square-foot garden. Triple plots had been outlawed. The spigots are being fixed as this is written. An evening seminar on good gardening was held in April and there were multiple newspaper articles announcing availability of plots in the garden. The ‘guidelines’ fit comfortably on one page.

We’re being pushy in one way: if a garden isn’t being worked by the middle of the month, the owner forfeits it to one of the people on the waiting list. There will be no weedy lots this year.

It’s a modest start. When she swore us in, the town clerk warned us that ‘people don’t like big changes’. Maybe we’ll be deposed in a coup d’etat by the rabidly organic crowd. For 2010, anyway, the inmates are in charge of the asylum.

May 2, 2010

Emily Dickinson, Gimmick

What does it take to draw a crowd? What does it take to draw a crowd when you have a hundred thousand members and a gazillion dollar endowment? What does it take to draw a crowd when you have all those things plus it’s the first weekend in May and the most beautiful day of the year?

Apparently, Emily Dickinson.

The New York Botanical Garden is without question one of the finest facilities of its type in the world and I’ve been to no finer one in the United States. I’m pleased to be a member despite living 209 miles from its front gate.

We were there yesterday as part of “members’ weekend”, perhaps a kind of “old home” event on the part of the NYBG marketing staff. Parking was free, use of the tram was free, admission to the rock garden was free. Of course, except for the tram, these things are always free for members anyway. But we also got free admission to “Emily Dickinson’s Garden – the Poetry of Flowers”, except that is also free any other time for members (for non-members, it’s $20). Oh, and everything in the gift shop was 20% off.

It was a glorious day to be at the garden. We arrived at 9:30 and were one of the first dozen cars into the parking lot. We walked the Ladies’ Border and perennial beds in front of the Conservatory in utter seclusion. At 10 a.m. the Conservatory opened its doors and we decided to go see what the fuss was about as regards Ms. Dickinson.

We usually skip the Conservatory during the warm months because there’s so much to see outdoors. That’s a mistake. The Enid Haupt Conservatory is divided into climates representing different regions of the world and, on May 1, it seemed as though the whole world had exploded into bloom. Turquoise pods fell in chains on vines in the rain forest. A cactus in the desert room was covered in vividly yellow flowers. Bougainvillea in hues of red, orange and purple cascaded from the ceiling.

And then we were in the Special Exhibitions area of the Conservatory and in Emily Dickinson’s garden.

It was a nice garden, though why it was mounted indoors is a bit mystifying. It featured the flowers, trees and shrubs that the Belle of Amherst wrote about in her poetry. But it was a tiny, densely packed New England garden with a lot of explanatory text. The plants were of the sort found at any decent nursery. It had a ten-foot-long woodland path; not exactly conducive to the kind of contemplative walks that inspired Ms. Dickinson.

There is no question, though, that Emily Dickinson and flowers are inextricably linked, or that her family’s garden (at The Homestead, an estate in Amherst) stimulated her. Bringing it indoors and compressing it into less than two thousand square feet seems extremely short-sighted.

We spent the balance of our time walking the lilac garden (in full, fragrant bloom) and paying homage to NYBG’s spectacular rock garden, a continuing source of inspiration.

At half past noon we were ready to journey into Manhattan. That’s when we got to observe what happens when you dawdle on members’ weekend. The lines to get in stretched out of the visitor’s center and out into the parking lot. The NYBG parking lot was long since filled to capacity and closed, with a massive traffic jam stretching into the garage at Fordham University across the street.