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.

September 17, 2011

Mid-September Color

I glanced outside my office window this morning and saw a remarkable sight: our outer sidewalk bed awash in color.  This mixed perennial and shrub border has been in bloom since early May, but seldom has it shown such a variety of color and texture as it does now.
The outer sidewalk bed.  Double-click to
enlarge and follow the descriptions of
what's in bloom.
Looking from the bottom of the photo to the top (double click on the photo to blow it up to full-screen size), the yellow closest to the grass is a second bloom of coreopsis ‘Sunbeam’.  Its main bloom was back in July and, by heavily cutting it back in August, we’re getting a modest repeat performance.  Just above it is a wigela  ‘My Monet’ with its white leaves flecked with pink and green.  It’s not in bloom, but it’s gorgeous.  The pinkish flowers on long stems are Japanese anemone.  They’re nice to look at, but are a garden thug.  Keeping them in check is (except for these few weeks) more trouble than they’re worth.

The great masses of blue you see are asters.  They’ve been trimmed back twice this summer to maximize flower production.  The variety is unknown; they have a yellow center.  Best of all, they’ll stay in bloom for two-plus weeks before fading.  For great texture, there’s also an amsonia hanging over the sidewalk.  It bloomed back in May but its foliage is about to turn a lingering, golden yellow.

Above the first flight of asters is Daphne Atlantica.  This shrub has doubled in size this year and, far more impressive, has been in near-constant bloom since late April.  The white flowers are wonderfully fragrant.  To its left and just visible as small spots of reddish purple are the second bloom of a veronica.

Beyond that are the fading yellow-gold floral remnants of a stand of helenium and, just above that, rudbeckia Goldstrum.  Finally, below the lamppost is the ubiquitous sedum ‘Autumn Joy’.

The character of this bed has changed in the past few years.  Once almost entirely perennials, it is now interspersed with low evergreens and slow-growing shrubs; all part of Betty’s strategy to minimize the labor required to maintain a bed that is eight feet wide and nearly fifty feet long.  She has edited large sections of the bed that were once given over to plants with short bloom times, disease issues or aggressive habits (multiple stands of iris, for example).  This year, we spent a total of perhaps ten hours moving plants.  The rest of the time, we’ve been able to just enjoy this highly visible bed.

September 12, 2011

Tales of Two Nurseries

There are times when I fear for the future because it may not include places like Tranquil Lake or Weston Nurseries.  Instead, we’ll buy specialty plant over the internet and everything else at big box stores.  If that happens, we’ll be poorer for the change. 

No – not just poorer, impoverished.  Here’s why:

Back in July, I went to Tranquil Lake’s ‘Garden Day’, a festive extravaganza that offers superb speakers and gardening advice, all set among the nursery’s stunning fields of daylilies (in full bloom, naturally) and iris.  You meet a lot of fellow gardeners at the event and pick up a wealth of knowledge.  And, you do it under the aegis of an organization that is hosting the event because it is good for business (true to that theory, I always walk out with a car full of plants).  It is 62 miles round trip from my home to Rehoboth, Massachusetts, a fact that speaks volumes about the quality of the plant material and the expertise that comes with every purchase.

Henry Schmidt, in the green shirt at
left, led a group of 30 through the
display gardens at Weston Nurseries
this past weekend.
But in speaking with co-owner Warren Leach this year, I heard the unsettling news that the event may be in jeopardy, at least in its existing form.  The reason is declining attendance and rising costs.  I saw a field full of cars when I arrived at noon but Warren reminded me that as recently as five years ago the event drew more than a thousand people. Whether the lower attendance is economy related or a change in the ‘macro’ environment is a subject for debate but I accept Warren’s concern that the event needs to cover its considerable costs through higher sales.

One element of the expense side, he explained, is that Tranquil Lake owns the smaller tents used for purposes like a Master Gardener information table but has to rent the large ones that house speakers.  If it continues, the event may do so in a scaled-back form.  In the meantime, I’m pleased to see that Tranquil Lake’s Fall Festival – another full day of gardening talks – is being held on October 1.

Weston Nurseries has a different problem.  For years, their ‘Weston Days’ kept getting increasingly fancy and with lavish goodies for participants (see ‘The Siren Call of the Garden Center Special, September 30, 2010).  And, I kept succumbing to their blandishments.  This year, the event was quite subdued.  When I asked why, I was told that the event was a victim of word of mouth.  Customers came but, last year something else happened: every Council on Aging in eastern Massachusetts sent busloads of seniors to Hopkinton, where they had chowed down on corn, pizza and ice cream, and purchased exactly nothing.  Success is clearly not always measured by headcount.

The hike included a stop at Weston owner Wayne
Mezitt's garden, which contains a cornucopia of both mature
specimen trees planted by Weston founder Peter Mezitt
and unusual cultivars collected by Wayne in his travels.
I write this because I was at Weston Nurseries twice this past weekend.  The first time was strictly as Volunteer with a Pickup Truck.  Betty had designed a new entry garden for our town’s historical society; I was charged with picking up the ten shrubs that comprise the garden plus nine bags of compost to augment the site’s depleted soil.

Because the plant material was purchased over the phone by a member of the historical society, Betty asked that I have someone at Weston check the quality of the plants.  I asked at the sales desk and no less an authority than Henry Patt came out and spent ten minutes inspecting buds and root balls.  It was one of those moments that make a lasting impression: a customer with a rather modest order asks if he is getting the best stock available.  A guy with more than a quarter century’s experience in such matters takes the time to genuinely look at the material and render an honest evaluation.  Don’t try this at Lowe’s.

Yesterday, Betty and I were back at Weston, this time for a nearly-two-hour-long walk of Weston’s property.  It was led by Henry Schmidt, who says he has worked at Weston since college, and I would imagine that Henry is coming up on his fifty-year college reunion.  A group of 30 started at a patio with coffee and cookies at 10 a.m.  We needed it; we climbed hills and threaded our way single-file through narrow paths.  We did this in order to see all of Weston’s display gardens. 

Here is my ignorance on display: I have been buying stuff at Weston Nurseries for three decades and I did not know that they had display gardens.  Not only do they have them, they’re mature display gardens, most of them planted in the 1940s when Weston first acquired its Hopkinton property.  Worse, most of the gardens are right there in front of you.  They’re beautiful.  They feature specimens that inspire.  They’re also cautionary tales:  ‘dwarf’ has a different meaning in the plant world.  A human ‘dwarf’ grows to ‘x’ height and stops.  A plant ‘dwarf’ grows more slowly than its non-dwarf cousin.  An 50-foof dwarf Atlantic pine is not an oxymoron.

The walk also featured a rare treat, a walk through owner Wayne Mezitt’s garden (which, in turn, was started by Wayne’s father, founder Peter Mezitt).  The garden shows both the grace of mature plantings and a collector’s eye for the rare and unusual.  ‘Breathtaking’ is not an inappropriate word.

This was not some press junket.  Word of its availability went out via Weston’s e-newsletter and the first 30 people to sign up for each of the two walks got on the list.  And, ultimately, it was a sales tool, though one superbly presented.  We ended up in the plant lot where many of the exotic and unusual specimens we had seen were for sale. 

We didn’t buy anything on Sunday, but we made a lot of notes about things that we liked.  First, we have to find room for them.  Then, we’ll buy them.  You can be certain those purchases won’t be from Home Depot.

September 9, 2011

A Great Autumn Container

Back in May, Betty put together some 50 container gardens.  Some contained a single specimen (a hydrangea, for example) but most consisted of from four to seven different cultivars, principally annuals, designed to provide spring and summer beauty around our garden.

It's like having something from a
Mediterranean villa on the back deck...
By September, nature takes its toll on most containers.  ‘Thugs’ take over, crowding out better behaved plants, leaving lopsided designs.  Those plants that cannot take summer heat (Lobelia, for example) wither and die.

But some containers come through the season in fine form and, occasionally, a few get even better with the passage of time, as though created with September in mind.

One of those containers has been on our back deck for the past four months, improving with age.  The dominant or ‘anchor’ plant is a coleus, a Proven Winners ‘Dipt in Wine’.  The tag said it would grow 20 inches to 36 inches; this one seems extraordinarily happy at the lower height.  Above it are a pair of plants to provide the correct height proportion for the container.  One is a Proven Winner cape mallow called ‘Slightly Strawberry’; the other is a Talinum ‘Limon’ with beautiful green-yellow foliage and a spray of tiny ‘berries’ in an airy halo.  At the base are two accent plants, a pink begonia and a Dianthus ‘Ideal Select Violet’.

The container looked great in May and terrific through the summer months.  Now, with cooler weather, it looks like it belongs in a Mediterranean villa.

September 8, 2011

The Rains Came

I took stock of our various gardens when we began battening down the hatches for Irene two weeks ago and liked what I saw.  The precipitation that came at the start of August had been just what we needed to end the month-long dry spell that was beginning to take its toll on shrubs and perennials.  Two weeks later, with Irene threatening, the gardens looked perfect and I hoped against hope that they would be spared the damaging winds of the storm.

This NOAA chart is
current to September 7.
Two additional inches
of rain have fallen
Irene came and went and, as I wrote at the time, we got off lightly.  The storm dropped six inches of rain on Medfield but our trees, shrubs and flowers came through with no damage.  However, Irene left, but the skies cleared for a few days, then clouded up again.  For the last ten days, we have been in a weather system that has dropped monsoon-quantity amounts of water on a part of the country that customarily sees perhaps four inches in a month.  The rain gauge in our yard has been emptied half a dozen times, but the semi-accurate running tally that I keep shows we have had north of twelve inches of rain in the past 30 days.

Medfield is squarely in the
300% of normal
precipitation for the
past 30 days
NOAA backs me up on this.  The two accompanying charts show 30-day precipitation levels across the northeast and variances from normal precipitation for the same time period.  Medfield falls on the border between ten and fifteen inches, and is squarely in the 300% of normal rainfall area.  Since those maps were published, my rain gauge had tallied an additional two inches.

The upshot is that all this rain is putting a premature end to our gardening season. 

The Manhattan bed looks as
though it has been trampled
I went to pick the vegetable garden (in the rain) last evening and found it a sea of mud.  The zucchini aren’t growing; the tomatoes are waterlogged.  In the absence of sun and warmth, the eggplant are the same size they were two weeks ago and the green beans are being chomped by Mexican bean beetles.  The lettuce is thriving but is spattered with mud.

In our main gardens, water ponds during rainstorms; a sure sign the ground is saturated.  The lawn squishes when I walk on it (an audible ‘keep off the grass’ sign).  Plants are drooped over, weighed down by all the water.  Heretofore long-lasting blooms are patches of color on the ground.

I hear that all this rain means a more colorful autumn and longer lasting leaves on trees.  I’ll let you know later if that theory holds…. (oops) water.

September 2, 2011

After the Storm

I’m looking across my garden as I write this.  The grass is brilliant green, the trees and shrubs resplendent in late summer glory.  ‘What hurricane?’ I could easily ask.  My house and garden got off easy: a few broken tree limbs to clean up; an oak with its top cleaved off but so deep in the woods that it need not be dealt with.  A morning’s worth of clean-up.

But half of Medfield lost its power and the surrounding towns of Dover and Sherborn were almost entirely without power (and, hence, water) for days after the storm.  Going shopping a few days ago, I was still struck by the number of roads closed, indicating either trees blocking access, live power lines exposed or flooding.

I promised an 'after' photo.  No damage to the Japanese
waxbells, which will bloom on schedule.  Ditto the
outer sidewalk bed.
Expressed at its simplest, my neighborhood lucked out.  I don’t feel smug about it or believe that there was some divine intervention at work.  Our highest winds were 56 mph.  The tree canopy is near solid and the utilities underground.  We received six inches of rain but the neighborhood is on a knoll; Danielson Pond 30 feet below us.  There was a particularly vicious squall line that missed us by about ten miles.  Had we been in its path, this would be an entirely different entry.

Another reason is simply that the storm tracked farther to the west than was expected even twelve hours earlier.  Just a few days before that, NOAA’s track had the hurricane’s eye going right over us.  We lucked out and upstate New York and Vermont (Vermont!) got flooded.  The next person who calls Irene a ‘dud’ will get nothing but a cold stare from me.