December 20, 2011

High Maintenance Houseplants

Let me state at the outset:  I love White Flower Farm.  They are the class act of mail-order gardening and their Litchfield, Connecticut headquarters contains, without question, some of the finest display gardens I have ever seen – and I have seen a lot of them.  So, when White Flower Farm sends me catalogs and emails, I read them.  I do so as much for the writing style (both friendly and learned) as well as for the breadth of uncommon plants being offered.

This is what our jasmine should look
like in January (photo from
White Flower Farm)
Two weeks ago, I received an emailed offer from them that was too good to pass up:  a jasmine plant (Jasminum polyanthum), with buds already set, that was both attractively priced and the purchase of which would support the Massachusetts Horticultural Society.  I pushed the ‘buy’ button.

The plant arrived a few days later.  White Flower Farm knows how to package a live plant for shipment: an oblong box held the pot in such a way that, irrespective of whether UPS acknowledged the ‘this side up’ plea, the potting mix would stay in place and the plant would be undamaged.  The plant’s tendrils were cushioned (though one arrived broken, which is still a very good survival rate).  Best of all, the plant had hundreds of tiny buds that will lead to a beautiful and fragrant display in January and February.

And, inside was a complete booklet of care instructions.  This is where things began to get complicated.

According to the booklet, in order to promote blooming, the jasmine plant needs to spend the next month in a very unusual environment.  It needs a) “a cool place” with b) and c) “bright, indirect light”.  We are fortunate to live in a home with 64 windows, and that excludes skylights.  But finding a location that met all three criteria was going to be tricky.  According to the video on the WFF website, our jasmine should be kept in a room “between 50 and 60 degrees”.  We tend to keep most parts of our house at 65 degrees in the winter, which is cool by most homeowners’ standards, but above the level specified.  Some exposures get bright sun, but we eschew curtains in those rooms specifically because we want the solar heating benefits. 

We finally settled on our master bathroom, which drops to 62 degrees during the day, has a large, triple window, and which faces northwest and so gets no direct sunlight between November and March.  Of course, we’re only in that room for a brief period each day, but we’ll cross that particular bridge when the plant starts flowering.

If finding a proper place for the plant while it’s getting ready to flower is problematic, the real high-maintenance part of its ownership comes once the blooming cycle is done.

“After bloom, give your plant at least six hours of direct sun and normal room temperatures.”  Check.  We can definitely do that.  We have lots of windows with direct sunlight.

“When the danger of frost has passed, set the plant outdoors for the summer, shifting it gradually from a shady spot to full sun.”  OK, we’ll put it in our screened porch in May.  Sometime in June, we’ll let it spend a few hours a day on the back deck. Maybe I’ll set a timer.  In July, it moves to the deck full time.  Maybe.

“To encourage the formation of flower buds for next winter, be sure your plant experiences the cooler temperatures and shorter days of early autumn.  The plant needs 4-5 weeks of nighttime temperatures between 40° and 50°F, plenty of sunlight and the complete absence of artificial light after sundown.”

Next spring, the jasmine goes out on
our screened porch with the
rest of the houseplants.  No special
treatment thereafter!
The jasmine wants what?  Our cat requires less maintenance than this plant.  We have very little control over the nighttime temperatures around here.  We can get a frost in September.  “Plenty of sunlight” rules out the screened porch which provides some retained heat but fails the sunlight test.  As to the ban on artificial light, I’m at a complete loss. Maybe one of those birdcage covers at sundown?

Because I have an investment in it and I happen to love the smell of jasmine, I’m going to pamper this plant for the next month.  With luck and a little TLC, January and February will include a sweet, heavenly scent around our house.  Come May, we’ll pop the jasmine out onto the screened porch with our other houseplants for a spring and summer of leisure.

But after that, it gets no special treatment.  It lives by the house rules.

(December 2012 update:  To bring the story full circle, we kept the jasmine on our screened porch until mid-September; then put it in our basement, which gets low light through a bank of windows and stays at a relatively constant 55 degrees. The jasmine is covered in buds as this is written and is coming 'upstairs' for the holidays.)

December 15, 2011

The Big Bright Green....

If you are reading this from a subtropical climate, be prepared to scratch your head for the next few minutes.  You see, I have a problem.  One of my shrubs refuses to acknowledge that it is winter.

Our spirea Ogden Mellow Yellow,
still hanging on, with a yucca in
the foreground.
Here in New England, we cherish a group of shrubs that hold out against the end of autumn.  There is a spirea Ogden Mellow Yellow that is still a golden brown-yellow, and it is framed against a yellow-green yucca.  It’s a pleasure to look at, as is an itea ‘Henry Garnet’ with mottled golden leaves that cling tenaciously in mid-December.  Ultimately, of course, they will drop the last of their leaves, but they will have earned my appreciation for their providing a memory of summer as we approach the shortest day of the year.

And, of course, we have our evergreens up here.  Our property is studded with rhododendron; wonderfully dark green shrubs with waxy leaves that brighten up the winter.  There is also multiple forms of ilex – holly to the rest of the world – and boxwood.  We do not lack for greenery and, if we do, there are always the white pines, framed against a chalk-white sky.

Why is this buddleia
still green on December 15?
And so I am at a loss to explain a yellow buddleia that, for reasons known only to itself, is still in full leaf – full green leaf.  Green leaf as though it is still July.

There is rule around here: deciduous trees and shrubs lose their leaves in the autumn.  This butterfly bush seemed to have forgotten the lesson.

Next summer, it should look like this...
There is science at work: less sunlight (and we are down to eight hours a day right now) means an end to production of chlorophyll.  During the growing season, chlorophyll is continually being produced and broken down and leaves appear green. As the days shorten, chlorophyll production slows down and then stops and eventually all the chlorophyll is destroyed. The carotenoids and anthocyanins that are present in the leaf are then unmasked and show their colors.  This buddleia seems to have skipped that class.

The reason I’m not rejoicing at having a green shrub is that – well, it’s wrong.  Leaves fall and we get bare branches around here.  I’m used to it.

So, do your thing, buddleia.  Join your compatriots on the property and shed those leaves.  Winter starts in a week, for crying out loud. 

December 4, 2011

All the Leaves Are Brown...

Possibly the worst comic strip running in America today is ‘Pluggers’, a treacly concoction populated by characters who are almost universally morbidly obese.   In the Plugger world, being a cheeseburger away from a stroke is OK if one has a kind heart.  I generally scan right past it in the morning but, one day last month, the phrase ‘leaf blower’ caught my eye.

This is the way our neighbors remove
the leaves from their lawn.  The next
day, it's as though the lawn service
had never been there.
I have a thing about leaf blowers.  And it’s not a good thing. Leaf blowers are the single most unnecessary invention ever foisted off on the gardening public.  They are a way for lawn care firms to hit up homeowners for the expense of multiple visits at what would otherwise be the winding-down part of the season.

Leaves fall from trees for roughly eight weeks in New England.  For that period of time – mid-September through mid-November - every morning brings a fresh crop of leaves, culminating in a cascade of brown from oaks.  Lawn care companies come out weekly (why not daily?) and blow their customers’ leaves into a pile where they are then sucked via a giant vacuum hose into a truck, then hauled away to a landfill.  Twenty minutes after the truck departs, the winds pick up and blow newly fallen leaves onto the formerly pristine lawn.  To those leaves are added a bonanza of additional leaves from neighbors’ lawns.  By the next morning, it is as though nothing was ever done.

This is an aerial photo of our home.
The lawn is relatively small, but it is
surrounded by deciduous trees.
There is just one sane thing to do with the leaves that fall on your lawn:  run a lawn mower over them periodically.

We have been doing this with our own lawn for more than a decade.  Every week, we spend 45 minutes with our lawnmower set at two-and-a-half inches, and we chop whatever leaves are on our lawn into a fine mulch.

What we have discovered is a simple, elegant truth:  leaves left undisturbed on a lawn will form an impenetrable mat that prevents winter moisture from getting through to the soil and promotes the growth of mold.  Leaves chopped up by a lawnmower and left on a lawn decompose in a few weeks and become… fertilizer.  No matter how deep the leaves, the lawnmower minces them. 

This our lawn this afternoon,
December 4, 2011.  It has not been
raked this autumn, just moved weekly.
Best of all, every spring, we watch the snow melt to reveal a clean, green lawn that has already received its first dose of fertilizer.

So, why do our neighbors put themselves through this?  Asking the question would just annoy them.  And, of course, it’s their money.  They pay to have their leaves hauled away and then pay again to fertilize their lawn in the spring to make up for the nutrients that the decaying leaves would have otherwise provided.

Which brings me back to ‘Pluggers’.  In last month’s cartoon, an anthropomorphized (and, naturally, obese) bear mows over his leaves with the caption, “A Plugger’s Leaf Blower”.  I still don’t condone the it’s-OK-to-be-fat mentality, but at least they got the gardening right.

November 28, 2011

"Of Course You Know, This Means War"

Until a decade ago, the notion of composting our kitchen waste was an alien idea; the kind of ritual practiced by people living on communes.  Then, Betty read an article on the subject and saw a demonstration.  The next thing I knew, we had a black, trash-can-sized object near our garage that consumed a steady stream of stale bread, egg shells, grapefruit rinds, tea bags and the other detritus that once went into the garbage or down the disposal.  We leavened the waste with leaves and, every few weeks, extracted the richest, blackest compost we had ever seen which made our garden thrive.

We didn’t keep the secret to ourselves.  Betty tried to get our town into the business of selling discounted composters to residents.  The town lacked the infrastructure but a state program encouraging their sale didn’t specify that towns must be involved, just non-profit organizations. 

And so, every spring for the next seven years, we sold composters out of our driveway under the banner of our town’s garden club.  Over the course of that time, we ‘placed’ more than 700 composters in a town with about 11,000 residents.  It is quite possible that Medfield has the highest concentration of composter ownership in Massachusetts.

A squirrel gnawed a hole in
our new composter...
I offer this background because, until about a month ago, composting was for us basically as painless as it was morally uplifting.  Then, one morning, I noticed that a hole had been gnawed through the air grates in our Earth Machine composter.  Something – probably a squirrel – had set about gaining entry and we were left with a trail of debris leading out of the cavity.  The solution was a new composter.  The old one was, I imagined, getting elderly and brittle.  The new one was installed and the contents transferred. I attempted a fix...

That should have been the end of the story.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t.  A week before Thanksgiving, I went out one morning and found a hole gnawed through one of the air vents.  When I opened the composter lid, a gray blur streaked out of it.  We had squirrels.

I figured out a quick and easy fix:  a metal pot to cover the hole and a brick to hold the pot in place.  To the mechanical solution was added a chemical one: a daily spritz of, ummm, an organic, uric-acid-based liquid.  That would be the end of the never-ending Sunday brunch at the Sanders home.  For a week, things were swell.  The pot stayed in place and the spritz dampened interest on the part of other, would-be intruders. 

...which led to a coordinated,
nighttime assault.
Then, three days after Thanksgiving I found we had been the victims of a daring, coordinated nighttime raid.  Not only had the pot been pushed out of the way, but two new holes had been gnawed through the plastic air vents.  The ground around the composter was littered with the remnants of meals past.  Nearby, I thought I heard the sound of belching as squirrels digested the contents of our composter.

As I stared at the three holes, all I could think of was a sputtering Daffy Duck saying to his nemesis, “Of course you know, this means war.”  I was not going to be defeated by a gang of marauding squirrels.

The wire mesh includes lots of
nasty spikes to deter
inquiring paws.
I found what I hope is the solution at my local hardware store.  When you go to a big-box store, all solutions are nuclear.  At Will’s Hardware, the questions were gentle but probing; the solution inspired  Instead of squirrel traps or poison, I walked out with an eight-dollar, five-foot length of hardware cloth, which I placed inside the perimeter of the composter.  Nasty spikes of wire affixed the wire mesh to the remnants of the plastic grates, the better to impale inquiring paws.

I don’t know if the solution is permanent.  I hope it is.  We’ve put a lot of composters in a lot of yards in town, and our reputation is on the line.

November 1, 2011

Getting Wet for a Good Cause

I don’t know if it’s just me, but it seems that working around Paul Miskovsky is an invitation to get wet.  Very wet. 

You may remember that back in July, I helped Paul build an exhibit for the Newport Flower Show.  On the last day of the 'build', it rained so hard that I squished all the way home.  I eventually ended up with a cold that lasted two weeks.  But I digress.

Paul's original whiteboard sketch
Three months ago, I watched with fascination as Paul sketched on a whiteboard in a classroom at the Massachusetts Horticultural Society in Wellesley.  He had just come from a non-descript parcel of land between the Society's main parking lot and its entry gate, where he had wielded two cans of orange spray-paint on the scraggly grass, pines and scrub oaks that were the principal occupants of the site. 

He was sketching out a new, 800-square-foot garden to serve as the entryway to the Society's Elm Bank complex and, as part of a weekly lecture series, was now soliciting ideas as to what this new garden ought to look like from the 40 or so people assembled .  He drew circles and ovals and reeled off the Latin names of plants as easily as if he were an emissary of the Holy Roman Empire.  The room full of people watched, alternately transfixed and shouting out plant names that Paul accepted or countered.

Two and a half months went by and Paul’s landscaping business on Cape Cod took front and center stage.  Yes, it mostly rained in Wellesley during August and September, but at least it was warm rain.  I circled tentative work dates on my calendar and the dates were wiped out because some kettle hole in Wellfleet or estate in Weston cried out for a transformation.
Paul Miskovsky at the
site of the new garden

Then, a month ago, Paul called and said he would be at Elm Bank with a back hoe and some rocks and could I stop by to help?  I did, and three massive rocks went into place.  Fifty cubic yards of premium topsoil quickly followed. 

Two weeks later, Paul again called and said he had some plants for the site.  A group of us – primarily Betty's Master Gardener pals - shoved and nudged a half-dozen massive specimen trees into place and planted 30 hydrangeas.  For many gardens, the work would have been deemed to be done.  For Paul, of course, it was just beginning.  Ten days later, a 36-foot box truck rolled up, this one crammed with two additional varieties of hydrangea, boxwood and forsythia, plus fifteen flats of Japanese forest grass.  This time, of course, it was pouring rain.

Some of the volunteers who helped
build the garden.  Double-click on
the inage to get a better sense of
the cultivars being used.
When it rains and the temperature is, say, 45 degrees, an army of volunteers can shrink to a handful.  In this case, the corps of workers consisted of three very dedicated Master Gardeners, Betty, and me, plus Mike Falzone, a member of Paul’s full-time crew.  In the course of four hours, we planted at least four dozen full-sized shrubs and three topiary trees, re-contoured the site and made it look attractive for an evening event.  Paul dug holes with a Bobcat, then pitched in to complete the plantings.  Having forgotten his rain slicker, Paul did his work wearing a pair of fetching, black trash bags.

The garden is still not finished.  There remains a slate walk to be laid and small shrubs to be integrated into the site.  But the vision created on a whiteboard in July has been turned into a reality.  Now, as people approach the gates of the Elm Bank gardens, they’ll have had a foretaste of what is to come.  It is a garden that will be rich in color and texture and one that has appeal twelve months of the year.  It won’t have the size of the 'name' gardens inside the Society's gates, but it will tell the visitor that there are more treasures inside. 

October 31, 2011

Happy Birthday, Dorothy Jasiecki

2016 update:  Dorothy Jasiecki lost a long battle to disease in 2015.  Today, she would have turned 91.  While her years on this earth may have ended, she is in the hearts of thousands of students whose lives she touched.

This is my 100th entry to this blog since it originated in June 2009.  Like its predecessors, this will be a post about growing, nurturing, caring and cultivation.  But it will not be about gardening.  Instead, it will be about a remarkable woman named Dorothy Jasiecki, who turns 86 on October 30.

I am by trade a writer, and I say that with pride.  For 35 years, I plied a very different craft that occasionally required me to put words to paper, but which I can say with complete honesty never gave me anything like the personal and professional satisfaction I have felt for the past six years.  The reason this blog exists is because writers, like (for example) pianists, need to practice.  Just as a pianist does not sit down at a concert grand and begin playing ‘The Appassionata’, so a writer does not go to his or her keyboard and begin writing that Great American Novel.  The pianist begins with ‘etudes’ – literally, study pieces - that stretch the fingers and make the mind warm up. 

This blog is my equivalent of an etude.  It is about gardening because I am married to a virtuoso gardener and I am her helper, and also because writing about gardening is considerably more interesting than opining about, say, politics or wine.  Each entry is as carefully thought through as a short story and is polished to fit within a prescribed length.

Dorothy Jasiecki, circa 1967
I am a writer because, from September 1964 until June 1967, Dorothy Jasiecki taught me to love language, literature and words.  She had been recruited by a young principal named John M. Jenkins to teach at a brand new school, Miami Springs Senior High School.  I was in one of her classes that first year strictly by happenstance.  The following two years, I made certain I had her as my English teacher.

Miss Jasiecki (the notion of calling teachers by anything other than ‘Mister’, ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs.’ lay many years in the future) created and followed a lesson plan that ensured we read and mastered the material that would appear on tests.  What made her so extraordinary was how she conveyed that information and that she demanded we go far beyond what was required by the Dade County Board of Public Instruction.  She effectively had a second syllabus, one of her own devising, that was intended to stretch – and open - our minds. 

Part of her methodology was to reach deep into her own knowledge of literature to awaken our own senses.  She spent much of one class session reading Beowulf in a way that I felt I was gathered around a hearth fire, listening to oral tradition being made.  We delved into poetry far beyond Emily Dickinson or Robert Frost and spent several days dissecting The Wasteland and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock; titles that almost certainly were not sanctioned by the bureaucrats at Lindsey Hopkins.

At the 2007 40th reunion of the
Class of 1967.  That's fellow classmate
Jane Greer on the right.
The balance of her teaching style was to challenge us to think about what we were reading.  To be in her class meant you came to school prepared, and ‘prepared’ meant you had not only read the assigned book but that you had understood it.  And God forbid you came into class spouting something from Cliff’s Notes.  (I tried that once and was found out almost immediately.)

All of this was leavened with philosophy and humor.  The final five minutes of class could comprise a discourse on the importance of shaking hands or a treatise on elbows.  These ‘sermonettes’ as we called them stretched us further still, if for no other reason than because we had no idea of what was coming next.

Miss Jasiecki was a tough grader.  I made very few ‘A’s’ in her class.  But I tried harder than I did in any other subject both because she expected it and I knew it pleased her. 

She was recognized for her skills.  Florida named her a ‘Star Teacher’ and sent her on a statewide tour with a similarly high achieving student from my class.  My great hope is that she inspired other educators as much as she inspired us.

Today, Dorothy Jasiecki lives in Arizona.  Time has taken its toll on her body, though not on her mind.  She has been to two class reunions that I have also attended and I had the pleasure of spending several hours with her at the one in 2007.
Dorothy Jasiecki today

We did not all become writers or poets.  We went into computer science, engineering or education; we raised families or went into the military.  But we all learned how to think and, regardless of future occupation, that skill made us better individuals.

Principal Jenkins attracted a pool of talent in those first years that made Miami Springs a school unlike any other.  I had many teachers – Jack Gonzalez, Agustin Ramirez, and Phil Giberson come immediately to mind – who were outstanding and committed to quality education.  But I can draw a direct line back to Dorothy Jasiecki and say, without hesitation, that she was the teacher who most inspired me.  I would not be the person I am today were it not for her.

Happy birthday, Dorothy Jasiecki.

October 28, 2011

And in the End...

The gardening season drew to an abrupt close last evening as snow began falling in Medfield.  Through this strange autumn of never-ending rain, we had escaped without a frost – something that can happen as early as mid-September and that almost always occurs before Columbus Day. 

This year, though we’re down to under ten hours a day of sunlight, nighttime temperatures stayed mostly in the 40s.  The result was scraggly annuals that were too tired and light-deprived to bloom, but green nonetheless.  But because they had not been hit by frost, we left in place several containers that were foliage-centric, including one I highlighted in September.

The first snow of the 2011-2012
season spelled the end of this
container.  That's New England.
Well, all that’s over.  The photo at left is of the same container, taken last evening as wet, heavy snow overspread the area.  And, naturally, there’s a forecast of a couple of inches of additional accumulation for the weekend.

We’ve spent the past three weeks preparing the gardens for this event.  The perennials have been cut down and, in some cases, divided (or given the heave-ho as in the case of bearded iris).  The compost bins are overflowing and barrels of diseased plant material have gone to the dump.  With the exception of some beds in the rear gardens, we’re ready.

This morning, though, I realize that I’m never fully prepared for the onset of winter.  Even though November is just a few days off, I keep expecting to eke out another week of pleasant temperatures; or at least to not have to bundle up just to go out and get the newspapers in the morning.  Last evening was a reality check.  This is New England.  Get used to it!

October 18, 2011

The Autumn Garden Clean-Up

Autumn has come to Medfield in stealth fashion this year. Usually, some time between mid-September and early October, there’s a cold snap, the temperatures drop into the upper twenties, and fall begins with a vengeance. This year, thermometers across eastern Massachusetts have registered some six degrees above normal all month and we’ve not yet seen a frost.

The result is that the leaves on the trees hereabouts know the days are getting shorter, but there hasn’t been the catalyst for a brilliant autumn. So, despite ample rain, it’s been dull, color-wise. It’s a rare year when annuals are still green but the trees are becoming bare.

Before and after
Still, we’re putting the garden to bed because the calendar dictates our schedule. The vegetable garden fence is down and all that remains are some late autumn staples – lettuce, leeks and carrots. The gardens around out home are being cut down: the ‘before and after’ photos at left of the upper and lower shade beds tells the story.

We’re also using the clean-up of beds to ‘re-think’ the garden. One of Betty’s popular lecture is on making gardens easier to maintain as owners age. I was 49 when we moved to our home on Wild Holly Lane. Twelve-plus years later, I feel the difference in my ability to do ‘heavy’ gardening. And so low-maintenance shrubs are slowly displacing high-maintenance perennials. Last week, the last of the bearded iris were pulled out of the inner and outer sidewalk bed. The iris put on a great show for about ten days a year, but at a cost: iris borers are endemic in this area and every plant needed to be inspected every year. This year, as I pulled them out, I found that 90%-plus of the tubers had tell-tale holes indicating borer damage.

The most time-consuming part of the winterizing process is the emptying of containers. We had more than 50 this year and they made their appearance over a six- or eight-week period that started in early May and continued through much of June. They all went away in a single week.

These pots represent about
half of the ones to be cleaned
and stored for the winter
About 20 of them will over-winter in the garage once the temperatures drop. Those are the ones with shrubs like our loropetalum, cape plumbago, crape myrtle and acuba.

It’s the ones with annuals and ‘tender’ perennials that are the subject of a furious cleaning process. The containers are taken apart. Most of the plants go straight into the compost. Perennials that might overwinter with some care go into individual pots and then either into the nursery bed or into a cold frame. The remaining potting mix is dumped in with other compostables. In a few years, it will return to the garden as soil but will never be re-used in a container. From the bottom of the containers come the ‘ballast’ that Betty uses to keep the weight of the pots down – things like bags filled with stryrofoam ‘packing peanuts’ and plastic water bottles. Those will be washed and re-used in 2012 just as most had an earlier incarnation in 2010.

The last steps are to wash all the containers with a bleach solution to kill off any pathogens that might lurk. When they’ve thoroughly dried, everything goes into the basement; stacked three and four pots high.

Ready and waiting for 2012.

October 10, 2011

Suzanne Mahler

(A 2017 update:  I had the pleasure to hear Susan speak in March at the Medfield Garden Club.  She is as terrific a speaker as ever.)

When I am not the Principal Undergardener, I have another life that occasionally requires that I hire people to speak about horticulture.  I take that responsibility seriously.  I demand that the people I hire have three qualities: that they know their subjects very well, that they have enthusiasm for their areas of expertise, and that they know how to convey that enthusiasm to their audience.

I hear a lot of speakers over the course of a year and I notice how well speakers holds their audience's attention.  I also pay a lot of attention to the Q&A that follows a presentation.  There are speakers who give a terrific talk, but who then answer a few perfunctory questions and then are gone.  There is also a subset of speakers who seem to delight in putting down their audience with responses like, 'well, if you had been listening to what I was saying...'  I put a thick black like through their names.

Suzanne Mahler
One of my favorite speakers is Suzanne Mahler.  She speaks on a wide range of topics - perennials, daylilies, butterflies in the garden - or you can ask her to pull together a specialized presentation on a one-off topic.  Her handouts always list the plants she'll talk about.  And when the lights go down and she starts speaking.... people listen.  When the lights come back up and the questions start, she answers every one with care.  And, amazingly, she keeps answering those questions long after most speakers have put away their projectors and just want to get home.  She does all of this with great humor and patience. 

Still answering questions long after
the presentation is over
In short, Suzanne Mahler is a rara avis - a horticulturalist who not only loves what she does, but who transmits her knowledge in a way that inspires her audiences.  I've booked her numerous times and intend to do so again.

I write about Suzanne because, a few weeks ago, she was trimming trees at her home.  And, as fate will have it, she climbed onto her roof in order to get a better angle on a tree and she fell.  Worse, she was working when no one else was home, and she fell from her roof in a way that shattered her ankle.  To get assistance, she dragged herself some distance.  I cannot imagine the pain she musty have been in or the agony she endured.  Suzanne lives in a sparsely settled town south of Boston and the ER team at her local hospital quickly recognized that her injuries required more specialized care.  Precious hours elapsed while she was transferred to an appropriate hospital and infections set in.

Those events happened in September.  Suzanne ultimately received the care she needed, but those hours between the time of her accident and when she was properly treated took their toll.  She will be in rehabilitation for an extended period - definitely off the garden club circuit.

I write this both as a fan and an expression of my - and all her many friends - hope for a full recovery.  Get well soon, Suzanne.  There's a world full of people out there who need her enthusiasm and expertise.

(2012-2014 update:  Despite multiple surgeries and extensive rehabilitation, the damage to Suzanne's foot proved to be too great and she lost it to amputation.  She has otherwise made a full recovery and is back on the lecturing circuit.  She continues to be a class act; one of the best speakers I have ever heard.)

October 2, 2011

Apple Picking Time, the 2011 Edition

I picked my first apple when I was in my twenties and it was a revelation:  apples were delicious.  Until that time, I believed that apples came in two varieties: ‘tasteless’ (Red Delicious) and ‘tasteless and mushy’ (MacIntosh).  It was only when I plucked an apple from a tree, polished it on my shirt and bit into it with an audible ‘snap’ that I comprehended that apples could be tart or sweet or explode with flavor in my mouth.

From that day forward, I was hooked.  For the past thirty-plus years, picking apples in late September has been one of the joys of early autumn.

Honey Pot Hill is 200 acres of
apple orchards.  We walked a very
long way (white line) to get to them.
Yesterday, Betty and I ventured out for our first apple picking of the season.  For the past decade, we have traveled 45 miles north to Doe Orchards in Harvard, Massachusetts (I last wrote about it in September 2009).  We did so because Doe has Macouns and, having tasted dozens of varieties of pyrus malus, I have come to believe that Macouns are the pinnacle of appledom. 

This year, though, we broke with tradition and went to Honey Pot Hill, an orchard in Stow, Massachusetts.  Honey Pot Hill is in its third generation of growing you-pick apples (the farm’s website says Honey Pot Hill was one of the first in the country to offer pick-your-own fruits). 

Betty picking Macouns
Our reason for switching allegiances was not because of any disappointment with Doe but, rather, that Betty had a member of the fourth generation of the Martin family as her summer intern this year.  Chelcie Martin was energetic, self-motivating and hard-working; and we figured that if her family’s apples were as good as she was, it was worth investigating.

We had no idea of what we were getting into and, before I go further, let me emphasize that we came home with a peck (about thirty pounds) of the best Macouns we’ve ever tasted.  But Doe Orchards has 25 acres in apples.  Honey Pot Hill covers 200 acres (see map).  From the farm store, you drive a quarter mile to the entrance for ‘U-pick’ parking (with overhead banners to let you know you are on the right track.  The parking field alone is perhaps ten acres. 

We bought our peck-sized bag ($23) and set off for the Macouns.  We passed acres of trees bearing MacIntosh, Cortland, Empire, Ginger Gold, Spartan, Spencer, Royal Gala and Mutsu; finally encountering a directional sign indicating MACOUNS!  300 YARDS!  Many, many twists later, we found the trees – sturdy, mature trees with gorgeous fruit.  The Martin family also graciously provided dozens of ladders allowing pickers to get to the tops of trees.  We took full advantage, heaping up our bag with the largest Macouns we have ever encountered (and, yes, sampling one just for, ummm, quality control purposes).

Which one is the replica?
The orchards swarmed with people.  At Doe Orchards, we usually found perhaps two dozen cars in the modest lot and, as we picked, there was seldom more than one family nearby.  At Honey Pot Orchards, the trees buzzed with the sounds of humanity.

But that was nothing compared with the hive of activity back at the farm store.  Honey Pot Orchards has perfected the art of apple picking as all-day family entertainment.  There are dollar hay rides, a petting zoo, and a hedge maze that is an exact replica of the one at Hampton Court  (perhaps the Royal Palaces website should indicate that it is an exact replica of the one at Honey Pot Orchards).  A quick crowd estimate put the size of the contingent at the farm store and surrounding attractions at over a hundred.

Last evening, in what may be an apple’s finest incarnation, the first of our fresh-picked apples became 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?

Honey Pot Orchards is 22 miles
from Boston's financial district
As I enjoyed my cake, though, I thought about Honey Pot Hill.  It sits 22 miles from Boston's financial district in an urban area of 5 million people.  Can it survive as a family farm to serve future generations of apple pickers?  I sincerely hope so.  Yes, it is part circus but the petting zoo and such are part of a marketing strategy and, on a gray day, many hundreds of people came to sample a bit of rural life.  We do what we need to do to survive.  The alternative - 200 acres of 'estate homes on the picturesque Sudbury River' - would mean a lost treasure for those future generations.

September 30, 2011

Learning From Lynden

I had the pleasure of hearing Lynden B. Miller give a talk a few weeks back.  If you live in New York City, you’ve likely heard of her.  If you know ‘public spaces’ design, you surely know her name.  If you don’t, and if you care about parks and open public spaces, you should make her acquaintance. 

Ms. Miller describes herself as a ‘painter and gardener’ and it is true that she trained as a painter and that she gardens.  But that’s akin to calling Édouard Manet a French painter.  It’s technically accurate but it barely scratches the surface.
This is the Conservatory Garden
in Central Park.  When I lived in
New York City in the 1970, the
garden looked nothing like this
Ms. Miller got her start in 1982 when she was asked by Elizabeth Rogers, the Administrator of Central Park, to ‘do something’ with a space in Central Park.  Today, we think of Central Park and we think, ‘magnificence’.  Thirty years ago, the park was just starting to come back from decades of neglect and much of the restoration work being done was at the southern end of the park where, frankly, all the wealthy donors lived.  Ms. Miller was asked to tackle the Conservatory Garden at Fifth Avenue and 105th Street – well ‘above 96th Street’ as they say in Manhattan. 
Ms. Miller knew the site well.  She remembers when the Conservatory Garden contained both a series of greenhouses and a formal garden.  The former was destroyed by Robert Moses, the latter fell into disrepair because of a succession of city decisions to stint on maintenance.  By the early 1980s, the once-elegant gardens had given way to graffiti, broken bottles, compacted lawns and overgrown flower beds.  People stayed away in droves.  Ms. Miller did more than just design a new garden.  She set about to raise private funds, hire qualified staff and organize a dedicated volunteer group of gardeners drawn from the neighborhood.  Even better, she has stayed with the garden ever since, guiding its development, raising an endowment for its long term care, and, making the space a gathering spot for the community.

Lynden Miller
I focus on that garden not just because it was her first ‘commission’, but because the garden became the cornerstone of Ms. Miller’s philosophy: everyone, rich and poor, will respect and love a beautiful place when it is well-maintained.  She also believes in encouraging people to sit down and enjoy themselves.  The revamped Conservatory Garden encouraged people to linger by providing ample seating spaces.

More commissions followed:  gardens for The Central Park Zoo, Bryant Park (with its hundreds of portable folding chairs that, contrary to everyone’s fears, don’t get stolen) , The New York Botanical Garden, Madison Square Park, and Wagner Park in Battery Park; waterfront gardens in Red Hook, Brooklyn, improvements to Union Square Park and the 97th Street Park Avenue Mall, renovation of the “Gateway to Harlem” Broadway Mall at 135th Street, Loeb Plaza for Hunter College, and the 67th Street Armory.
I wish I could find a 'before' photo
of the Stony Brook campus - which
resembled a set from some
post-apocalyptic film.  Here is
part of what Lynden Miller
Her other project that caused gasps from the audience was her work at Stony Brook University, the Long Island campus of the State University of New York (SUNY).  Built in the 1960s, the campus embraced that decade’s ‘brutalist’ style of architecture: acres of raw concrete and windowless buildings that looked like bunkers.  It was once one of SUNY’s least desirable campuses. 

Since 2000, she has overseen the gradual transformation of the site, installing walkways, trees and large sweeps of colorful plantings to replace those vast stretches of concrete pavement which had make the center of the campus a barren and inhospitable place. Twenty thousand ground covers, ornamental grasses, perennials and shrubs were planted to soften and humanize this area. The result is nothing short of startling.

The thing I find most fascinating is that Ms. Miller focuses on New York.  She has wandered as far as Princeton but the great body of her work is in the five boroughs. I don’t see work in Dubai or Los Angeles. She may speak in Boston, but I don’t see a cadre of apprentices churning out plans for parks here (the apotheosis is Michael Van Valkenberg).  In her talk, she said she believes strongly that public open spaces with superior, well-maintained plantings can change city life.  She accurately and wisely acknowledges that well-planted public places (Bryant Park, for example) have a huge impact on the surrounding neighborhood, attracting visitors, reducing crime and raising real-estate values.

She is, in short, a treasure from whom we can learn a great deal.

September 24, 2011

And Now for Something Completely Different...

This blog customarily hews very closely to its self-assigned subject matter of life-and-death gardening issues.  Once in a while, though, something from an ancillary field is so darned interesting that I feel compelled to comment upon it.  This is one of those cases.

My wife, in addition to being a Lifetime Master Gardener, accomplished garden designer, garden club doyenne and half a dozen other titles, is also an internationally certified flower show judge.  Customarily, my principal interest in flower shows extends only to incorporating them into the plots of my mysteries, somewhat to her annoyance.  On Tuesday of this week, I accompanied her (she would say that she accompanied me) to a floral design demonstration.

Mrs. Soho Sakai, holder of
a Riji degree in Ikebana
The school of floral design was Ikebana; more specifically the Sogetsu School of Ikebana.  The person giving the demonstration was Mrs. Soho Sakai, a Master Teacher from San Francisco.  I don’t know what I expected going into what I thought would be an hour-long session, but what I came away with two-plus hours later was something very different:  For the first time, I think I may ‘get’ Ikebana.

Ikebana, for the uninitiated, is the traditional art of Japanese flower arranging.  There are several schools, one of which is Sogetsu.  When you see a display of Ikebana, you never see prize ribbons because Ikebana is never judged in competition.  Each entry stands alone.  I knew that much going into the program.

I have also seen Ikebana arrangers creating designs, but you don’t tap someone on the shoulder and ask why they’re doing something a particular way.  Designers get annoyed that way.  Instead, I have – like most people – looked at the finished design and admired it and tried to understand it.

Mrs. Sakai, who has been in the United States for 40 years and works out of San Francisco, managed to turn me into a genuine Ikebana fan in just one morning.  She then put the finishing touches on my transformation through a dinner conversation the following evening.  She appeared at the invitation of the Boston Chapter of Ikebana International.  Mrs. Sakai holds a Riji, or Director rank, the highest in the Sogetsu School.  To become a Riji, you first have to earn 13 separate diplomas.

That's me, admiring one of Mrs. Sakai's designs
But diplomas don’t necessarily translate into inspiration.  It was Mrs. Sakai on a stage, explaining what she did as she worked, that did the trick.  She was full of humor, wisdom and grace.  She held everyone’s attention through 14 designs, the last several of which were so over the top as to elicit gasps.  She spoke of technique, she spoke of philosophy.  Mostly, though, she just talked about Ikebana and why she was doing what she was doing.  As she spoke, these incredible arrangements grew before our eyes, and I began to understand.

One design incorporated a container fashioned from a single piece of two-inch-thick bamboo… a piece of bamboo roughly ten feet long.  Two feet at one end were left undisturbed as was one section a foot long at the other.  In between, the bamboo had been pared to a strip an inch or so wide, with the result that, when the larger section was anchored on a platform, its ‘satellite’ bobbed six feet away.  Mrs. Sakai added floral material to both receptacles, creating a kinetic arrangement.  It was nothing short of amazing and, when placed against a wall, became a piece of art as well as of floral design.

The following evening, I had the unexpected pleasure of sitting next to Mrs. Sakai at a dinner party.  We talked about Ikebana and I noted that she had referred to all of her flowers in the feminine form, as “I’m going to place her…” and “She looks unhappy here…”  In one of her designs, there was one bloom – a beautiful green anthurium, that refused to stay in place or bend as required for the design. “I think she is not well behaved,” Mrs. Sakai said at the time, scolding the flower. 

Reminding her of her words, I suggested that perhaps flowers were of different genders, and that the ones that would not comply with her requests or were otherwise unruly might possibly be ‘male’ flowers. 

She looked at me, considering what I had said.  After a moment, she smiled and nodded.  “I think that is a very good observation,” she said.  “I have learned a new insight in Boston.”

Perhaps she was being kind, but it was poetry to my ears.  That’s it:  I’m officially an Ikebana fan.