December 27, 2010

The Blizzard of 2010

Three weeks ago, I wrote about the first rite of winter – putting out the driveway markers. I wrote that they wouldn’t prove their worth for the first few snows, but gave myself some wiggle room by adding, "unless it’s a nor’easter".
Well, the great blizzard of December 26 and 27 is winding down as this is written. Medfield was one of the ‘jackpot’ communities with roughly 18 inches of snow on level ground. Of course, with 50-knot winds blowing almost continuously, undisturbed snow has been quite hard to find today. But the eighteen inches seems to be a reasonable guess.

Planning for snow removal is part of
planning for a New England garden
This weather report is part of a garden blog because snow is a reality in New England and where to put snow is a continuing problem for any serious gardener in this region. Our particular issues are twofold: first, where the town puts the snow from the street and, second, where we put the snow from our driveway.

We are at the end of a cul-de-sac with a broad turning circle as part of our streetscape. The upside is that this gives us a very dramatic arc around which to design a garden. The downside is that the town plows have to put the snow from the other end of the street somewhere, and that ‘somewhere’ includes the buffer zone between our sidewalk and the street. And, because the town lays down chemicals to keep the street passable prior to plowing, the snow that ends up on that buffer zone (variously called an ‘easement’ or a ‘hell strip’) is laden with salts that render the strip inhospitable to grass.

This xeric bed - shown in its
summer glory - was under
several feet of chemical-
laden snow today
We’ve adapted the strip – some 960 square feet – into a xeric garden that is planted with perennials that tolerate the chemical soup. That garden planting scheme was detailed in this blog entry. This afternoon, there is a seven-foot-high mound of snow on part of that xeric garden.

The second issue is where we put the snow from our own driveway. We are set back 220 feet from the street on a meandering driveway and, at the head of the driveway, the asphalt widens out to 35 feet to feed a three-car garage, plus provide an additional backing-out area for cars. The home’s architect was apparently from some southern clime because the driveway dead-ends into the garage.  As such, there is no ‘simple’ place to put snow.  The problem grows geometrically with the depth of the snow and new snowfalls follow ones already on the ground.

Removing 18 inches of snow - carefully
We’ve adapted the gardens along the driveway to this reality. (Double-ckick on the plot plan at the top of this post to get a more detailed view of the descriptions that follow.)  Along the main stretch of access, there is a grass strip roughly eight to ten feet wide, the sole purpose of which is to provide a landing spot for the snow from the driveway.  The driveway is never treated, so the snow simply provides moisture for the spring growing season.

This burlap skirt for
Thuja occidentalis was
added in November
The gardens in front of the house adjacent to the wide part of the driveway are, with a few exceptions, spring and summer perennials. A thuja occidentalis has a protective burlap skirt to deflect snow and we carefully direct our snowblower away from a now-four-year-old oxydendrum that occupies the center of that bed. After this blizzard, the perennials in the bed are under a blanket of up to three feet of snow.  Absent a prolonged thaw, this area may not be bare until mid-March.

The wisteria bed was planned to
support heavy snow cover
in winter
This year, we created a new garden at a critical area for snow removal. The "wisteria" garden, about which I wrote in August, is roughly 200 square feet and is anchored by six woody shrubs – three ilex and three miniature kalmia. The balance of the bed is spring- and summer-blooming perennials that can take heavy snow cover. After the blizzard, the depth of snow thrown in this area is up to five feet and is heavily compacted. We made every effort to direct snow around the tender kalmias. We’ll know next spring if we succeeded.

The back of the turnaround area has long been planted with Kirengeshoma (Japanese wax bells) and Hakonechola macra ‘Aureola’ (Golden Japanese forest grass), with miscellaneous rhododendron behind them. These perennials die back to the ground in late September; the several feet of snow that cover the area all winter seems to make the plants thrive in the growing season.

December 26, 2010

2000 Hits

For the first year that I wrote this blog I had no idea if anyone was looking at it.  Then, six months ago, Blogspot added a 'statistics' tab to the toolbar, allowing me to see for the first time how many people logged onto this site.  Yesterday, the counter passed 2000 since July 1, 2010.

I didn't start this blog in order to reach huge audiences.  Instead, I created it as a writing exercise.  A pianist does not sit down at the keyboard each day and play the Apassionata.  Instead, they play etudes, study pieces that are intended to stretch the fingers and keep them limber.  As a writer (see The Hardington Press), I need to stretch my mind.  While I write mysteries for a living, gardening is my avocation.  And so it is gardening thoughts that fill this blog, and keeping to one subject helps me to sharpen my writing.

But I am constantly in awe that people find this site and that they come from around the world.  The United States accounts for three quarters of visitors, but Canadians have been here 37 times and those from Great Britain 35 times (kudos to a nation of gardeners).  But, what about South Korea and its 28 visitors?  The Netherlands, India, Germany, Russia and Brazil each have more than 20 visits.  What interests them about New England gardening?

Blogspot provides some clues.  The search term 'container gardening'  brought several hundred visitors (most of whom went to the post, 'The Early Autumn Container Garden', and 'xeric garden' took more than fifty visitors to 'The Xeric Gardens Hits Its Stride'.  'The Incredible Shrinking Lawn' is the third most-viewed topic.  (It is also one of my wife's most requested programs from garden clubs.)

Because there have only ever been three comments appended to any of these posts, I have no idea if anyone reads for content or just bcause I happened to have a good photo of a plecanthus.  I don't required that readers respond, but it would be nice on occasion.

Anyway, it gave me a warm feeling this morning to find that my 2000th visitor had taken a look to see what the Principal Undergardener is all about.  Thanks for reading!

December 21, 2010

One Christmas, Two Trees

Before we 'downsized': a 14-foot
behemoth in our Great Room
In the continuing debate over artificial versus fresh-cut Christmas trees, we have always been squarely in the ‘real tree’ camp (see ‘Oh Christmas Tree’, December 16, 2009). The idea of a plastic, made-in-China tree was deemed too repugnant to even consider. In addition to being an affront to our gardening ethos, Betty and I buttressed our beliefs with a near-religious fervor by reading and quoting aloud the statistic that one would have to use an ersatz tree for twenty years for it to have the same carbon footprint as twenty trees from a Christmas tree farm.

And so, with such strongly stated preferences, we are braced for some cognitive dissonance and a few arched eyebrows when guests walk into our home this year and find a nine-foot-tall tree that just happened to have come in a box with assembly instructions. We are also expecting mild sense of bewilderment when those same guests encounter a seven-foot Fraser fir in a different room of our house. One house, two adults, no kids. Two trees?

An explanation is required. And so, one follows.

The interloper: a nine-foot artificial tree,
but your can hang ornaments anywhere.
We had made a decision last year that we would ‘downsize’ our trees this year. No more fourteen-foot behemoths. No more standing on eight-foot ladders to decorate. No more guy wires to foil curious cats. We would have a sensible tree in 2010. But we are also deeply tied into a celebration called ‘the Festival of Trees at Elm Bank’ which raises money for the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. We helped plan the event and gladly served as volunteers for it. Moreover, Betty was responsible for decorating something like nine sponsored trees.

All entries for the Festival of Trees are artificial, which may seem a bit off-putting given that ‘horticulture’ would seem to exclude things made from hydrocarbons in Asian factories. The trees are artificial because the Festival is held indoors and the local fire marshal read us the fire code: no combustible cut trees indoors where lots of people would assemble. So, an organization that promotes horticulture put fifty-plus artificial - albeit beautifully decorated - trees in a building and people came in droves to see them.

They also came to win those trees. The Festival makes money two ways: a modest charge to get in to see the trees for adults, and the opportunity to buy raffle tickets for those trees once inside. The raffle tickets are where the real money is: once the kids (who are admitted free) see a tree festooned with Hot Wheels cars or pictures of adorable, adoptable cats and dogs or stuffed animals… and, as might be expected, wallets open up and the boxes at the bases of trees fill up with raffle tickets.

I spent many hours at the Festival as a volunteer and I came to admire many of the trees. And so I purchased a couple of sheets of raffle tickets. So, apparently, did Betty. When the Festival closed and tickets were drawn, we found to our surprise that we had won a tree – one of those big nine-footers.

We brought it home and set it up in our ‘great room’ with its 18-foot ceilings. It looked, well, artificial. But we decided that we would use it for at least this one year. It is our custom that our tree gets decorated one week before Christmas – no sooner – and comes down on New Year’s Day – no later. The tree sat, bare, in the room for a full week as we got used to its presence. Then, last Thursday, we made the determination that we also needed a fresh tree. We found a nice, seven-foot Fraser fir at Weston Nurseries, brought it home and set it up in our living room.

The winner and still champion: a
Fraser fir in the living room.
We’re fortunate that we’ve accumulated a lot of ornaments over the years. Many have come from our travels, some have been handed down from Betty’s parents, more than a few are objets trouve; things that were never intended as ornaments but that look quite nice on the tree and remind us of people or places past. It turns out that there were more than enough ornaments to decorate two trees.

And so, for this year, the two trees co-exist. I will readily admit that the artificial tree is easier to decorate. Ornaments can be hung without regard to weight anywhere on the tree. Branches can be moved a few inches to accommodate long or short ornaments. And, the dark green color makes every ornament ‘pop’. It is, on the whole, an enticing prospect: a tree that never sheds and drinks no water. A tree that stood straight in its ‘stand’ on the first try and has no holes that must be covered by sleights of hand.

But our hearts are with the Fraser fir in the living room, and that is the tree that will have presents under it on Christmas morning. It has a lovely scent and a serenity that the one in the great room will never touch.

We have been tempted and we have resisted. Come New Year’s Day, the Festival of Trees will have a spare tree to decorate in 2011. It was nice, but we prefer reality.

December 6, 2010

Driveway markers

We observed one of our solemn, annual rituals the other day: we put out the driveway markers.

We have fairly well exhausted the end-of-fall checklist. The leaves have been mowed and re-mowed into the lawn until they are a fine, brown mulch. The perennial beds have been cut flat and, depending upon whether the spindly, desiccated stalks showed evidence of mildew or not, the detritus has been either composted or taken to the dump.

Those autumn chores remind us that, once upon a time, there was color and life in our garden. By contrast, putting out the driveway markers serves only the purpose of acknowledging that winter is imminent. The sun will set today at 4:15, the third of an eleven-day run featuring that horrendously early departure of daylight. It rose this morning at 7:01 and, incredibly, has still another ten minutes of daylight to lose before the solstice. With just nine hours of daylight and nighttime temperatures sinking into the low twenties, all it will take is a little bit of moisture coming up from the Gulf of Mexico and the snows of winter will arrive with a vengeance.

The markers look odd for now; circles of bright red atop white poles. Because our driveway meanders 220 feet from the street to the garage (good feng shui, I imagine) and has a curving turnaround area, it takes 20 markers to indicate the true outline of the course. It’s a necessary exercise: not for the first snow but, rather, for the fourth or fifth. The first one (unless it’s a nor’easter) will melt in a day. The second one may linger a little longer but the demarcation between asphalt and lawn will still be obvious even under a few inches of snow.

It’s when we get six inches of snow followed by eight inches more that the reason for the markers becomes clear. The person pushing the snow blower follows the line of markers, left and right, throwing snow between two feet and ten depending upon how much moisture is in it (if you are a snow-shoveling veteran, you can skip this part). In wide areas of a driveway or where the house or shrubs are immediately adjacent, snow is thrown elsewhere on the driveway, then re-blown off on a subsequent pass. Each pass deposits snow in a slightly different location with the result that after a short while there is no longer a clear line between driveway and non-driveway. Without those markers as a guide, a snow blower will inevitably veer off into grass. The blades of the snow blower grind up the grass, killing it, while also typically snapping a shear pin. By mid-January, those markers are worth their weight in hot chocolate.

We also are sticklers for cleaning right to the edge of the driveway. This is a matter of personal preference for some New Englanders (I have seen driveways plowed exactly the width of a car and not an inch more). Betty’s strongly held view is that snow or ice left on a driveway is bound to melt and re-freeze. Getting it all off as soon as it snows is the one way to keep the driveway clear all winter.

And, it all starts with those markers. And the markers start now, in early December.