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.