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.