June 21, 2010

In Pursuit of a Little Hanky Panky

There are days that are meant for working in the garden, there are days that are meant for reading a good book indoors, and there are days that are meant for… driving to the ends of the earth in search of the perfect hosta.

To say that Mason Hollow Nursery is located off the beaten path is to imply that there is an actual path to the nursery, beaten or otherwise. It is located in Mason, New Hampshire and, if there is a physical town, we have never found it. Were there a town, it would be located about ten miles over the Massachusetts border above Fitchburg, except that we did not start our expedition from Fitchburg but, rather, from The Fells, fifty miles north in Newbury. But I digress.

To get to Mason Hollow Nursery, you must first find Parker’s Maple Syrup Barn Restaurant, which the Mason Hollow website treats as a navigational feat akin to, say, finding the George Washington Bridge from the New Jersey Turnpike. In reality, you can travel for hours, fastidiously following tiny signs nailed to telephone poles and trees. Once at the restaurant, you see signs for the nursery, which is ‘just 1.6 miles farther on’, mostly over dirt roads.

Sue and Chuck Andersen (that's Chuck facing the camera on the right) run Mason Hollow as both a business and a labor of love. It is open five days a week and, one weekend a year, they entice a lot of people to visit with the promise of hot dogs and ice cream while you shop. With more than 650 varieties of hosta in their collection plus hundreds of perennials, there’s a lot of shopping to do. The ice cream, incidentally, is excellent.

We made the journey because their website lists among their collection, a hosta called ‘Hanky Panky’. As the accompanying photos show (double-click on them to get larger versions), this is not your grandmother’s, or even Tommy James and the Shondells’ hosta. ‘Hanky Panky’ has leaves in three tones: a dark green surrounded by gold border with a narrow, cream-colored thread between the two patterns. Moreover, as the season progresses, the yellow edge changes to white with an unusual light green overlay. How did it get the name ‘Hanky Panky’? Because it’s a sport of ‘Striptease’. (And, just to show that breeders who name hostas have a wonderful sense of humor, there’s another ‘Striptease’ sport called ‘Yellow Polka Dot Bikini’.)

Betty encountered ‘Hanky Panky’ while judging horticulture at a flower show several weeks back. She came home talking about it at length, which is a reasonable data point to infer that it will soon be in our garden, assuming that a good-looking specimen can be located. We are approaching 100 named varieties of hosta and have just opened a new bed to accommodate the growing collection.

You do not go to a nursery like Mason Hollow and walk out with just one plant. We came away with six, including one hosta called ‘Madam’ and other with the terrific name ‘Olive Branch’. The fern collection also continues to grow apace and Sue threw in a small tiarella as a ‘thank-you’.

We live in a time when, all too often, we go places because they are convenient: the McDonalds is just off the exit ramp and the Barnes and Noble is at the mall. All Big Macs taste exactly alike and B&N will reliably have the new Martha Grimes at a discount. When it comes to gardening, though, identical isn’t necessarily better and knowledge counts for a lot. Mason Hollow features extensive and intelligently designed hosta gardens showing their offerings at maturity. The staff understood what we were looking for and where to find it. If they didn’t have it, they could recommend something very close.

Service like that is worth a lot. Even a very long drive in the country.

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