December 24, 2012

A Christmas Story

Because it is Christmas Eve and I do not believe in frightening people unnecessarily, I will tell the end of this harrowing story first, then go back to the beginning.  And so, here goes:  I am happy to report that I am alive to write this, and Hank Rawlings is not going to get a set of bongo drums for Christmas.
Now, to the beginning of the story. 
Hank and me, circa 2007
This has been a rotten week, weather-wise, in eastern Massachusetts. It has been cold and rainy. The sun comes up after seven in the morning and sets a few minutes after four, peaking at just 24 degrees above the horizon.  On Friday, partly for the exercise and partly to enjoy the Yuletide spirit, Betty and I had planned to visit a small town along the coastline south of Boston where all the shops in the quaint village are beautifully decorated for the holidays.  The visit was enthusiastically recommended to her by members of a garden club in that town.  But there was a driving rain and cutting wind all afternoon.  And so we stayed home.
Yesterday morning, Betty suggested a better form of exercise: cutting down a tree.  (No, not a Christmas tree; a nine-plus-foot Frasier fir has graced our Great Room for the past ten days and is magnificent.)  The tree she had in mind is a tall, spindly oak that, since a snow storm last winter, has leaned precariously into our gardens even as it grew to a height of more than forty feet.  Last summer, the tree provided unwanted shade to several rock garden beds and Betty’s well-founded fear was that a winter storm could topple the tree once and for all.
To be completely honest, Betty has had the tree removal on my ‘to-do’ list ever since we had to shake a coating of snow and ice off of it to get it off our deck last January, but I have successfully put off the task by various subterfuges, the most persuasive was that the oak could not just be cut down with a chain saw.  It is less than thirty feet from the back of our house and, based on the direction it was leaning, it would take out our back deck and a portion of our Great Room, a Cornus mas (Cornelian cherry), and a very rare Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Snow’ – not necessarily in that order of importance to Betty.
The tree, I argued, needed to be cut half-way up so that its top half fell harmlessly into some minor shrubs and pathways.  To get twenty feet up the trunk of the tree required a suitable, sturdy ladder and the tall wooden one we possessed was more than half a century old and was – literally and figuratively – falling apart. 
Ten days ago, that excuse became moot when Betty spotted on sale and purchased a 22-foot Little Giant, 350-pound-rated aluminum ladder.  She ordered the ladder on line (who knew?) and my hope was that its delivery would be delayed until after the snow started falling, making the tree-removal task impossible for yet another season.  Instead, the ladder arrived in three days. 
And so, yesterday morning, with all excuses gone, I unfolded the ladder to its maximum height and set out to finally perform the feat that I had promised to do all year.  I secured a rope around the tree above the cut line and Betty positioned herself off to one side, ready to guide the falling tree into one of minimal landscape damage.
I made a practice cut, taking off a largish side branch roughly fifteen feet off the ground.  When the limb fell, the tree bucked and I had to hold on for dear life.  If that was the effect a smaller branch had, it was likely that the Main Event would hurl me and the ladder into the adjoining trees.
Betty suggested tying the ladder to the tree.  I thought this was a good idea.  She also suggested lashing myself to the tree.  I did not like this idea one bit.  I imagined the top of the tree snapping over, the base of the tree bucking violently, the ladder flying free, and me hanging from the trunk of the tree in a vignette out of the song, ‘Tom Dooley’.
My own plan was to cut (with a hand saw) at the 25-foot level and, as soon I even thought I heard the tree start to give, climb as far down the ladder as fast as I could.  I thought I heard the trunk begin to crack about the one-third way point.  I scurried down the ladder, expecting the tree to go over.  It didn’t.  Betty and I tugged on the rope for several minutes trying to hasten it along..  The tree did not budge.
I went back up, and gave the trunk a few more cuts, all the time listening for that tell-tale cracking sound.  And, I readily confess, I began to worry for my safety.  Here I was, at the top of a very tall ladder, sawing above my head, with sawdust falling into my face.
I began to think about… Christmas presents.
I am told that I am very hard to buy presents for.  That is quite true for the simple reason that I have long had all of the ‘things’ I ever wanted.  When Betty asked what I wanted this year, all I could come up with was the very practical suggestion that my bedroom slippers are worn out.  I was subsequently given a number of ultimatums to come up with better ideas.
"Desk Set" - for the man who has everything... bongo drums
One of my favorite Christmas movies is ‘Desk Set’, the 1957 Katherine Hepburn – Spencer Tracy vehicle that features possibly the best office Christmas party scene ever.  After Gig Young has found Tracy wearing the monogrammed bathrobe Hepburn bought for Young (don’t ask, just rent the film), Hepburn buys Young a set of bongo drums because the sign in the store said they were ‘for the man who has everything’.
So the question was, if the next cut was the crucial one and I did not get out of the way of the tree quickly enough, and the tree bucked me and the ladder onto one of the granite boulders that dot our woods, to whom could Betty give the bongo drums?  I decided my oldest friend, Hank Rawlings, was the right recipient.  My fear was that, with my dying breath, she might not understand this part of my last will and testament.
Maybe I was thinking too hard about bongo drums.  I gave the tree an insignificant but crucial cut and heard just a single warning ‘snap’.  The top twenty-three feet of the tree fell over.  Later, Betty would say she heard ‘snap-snap-craaaaaack’ before it fell.
Whichever is the case, I got down about four rungs when the trunk of the tree, now relieved of more than a ton of weight that had pulled it toward the earth, lost that burden and the trunk went ‘twang’ like an airline seat being returned to its upright and locked position before landing.
I hung onto the ladder with a grip I did not know I possessed and the tree’s kick was strong enough to slam the ladder into my thigh. 
But a second later, I was still on the ladder, fifteen feet above ground, shaken but very much alive.  The tree’s top was on the ground, having missed the house and deck by roughly five feet; completely missing the Cornus, and inflicting very minor damage on Chamaecyparis ‘Snow’.
Seeing that I was shaken, Betty asked if I was all right.  I responded that I was fine but that I hoped she had not bought me bongo drums for Christmas.  She looked at me quizzically, then smiled.

December 12, 2012

The Joy of Discovery

For plant enthusiasts, catalogs – both their print and on-line incarnations – are wonderful shopping tools.  You can see a plant, get a good idea of its needs and habits, and determine whether it will fit into your home or garden.  But even the best catalogs are imperfect substitutes for physically picking up a plant, examining it, and choosing the one that has your idea of the right number of leaves, buds or branches. 

You walk in looking for one plant,
only to be beguiled by its neighbor.
To get the perfect plant, you have to go to the source.  And, occasionally when you do, something wonderful happens.  You go off in search of a great specimen of Begonia ‘Cracklin Rosie’ which caught your eye in the catalog but sitting next to it is Begonia ‘Curly Fireflush’.  You look into the deeply spiraled chartreuse and chocolate leaves of ‘Curly Fireflush’ and you say, ‘wow’.  Then, you see the fine red hairs on the leaves and you know that this plant is going home with you.

The facade of Logee's retail store.
It tells you nothing about what's inside.
Last Saturday, Betty and I set off on just such an exploration.  It was a beautiful day in southern New England; still uncharacteristically mild for early December.  Our destination was Logee’s Greenhouse in Daniels, Connecticut.  Logee’s is exactly sixty miles from our home and getting to Daniels takes us through some very pretty countryside. 

As I wrote in my last entry, Logee’s has one of the more compelling catalogs in the business.  But, like even the best businesses, what you see in the catalog is just a snapshot in time, and is limited by marketing realities.  For example, if you have only three of something to sell, putting it in a catalog makes no economic sense.  Or, if you’re not certain something can be shipped safely, it’s best to omit it. 

Before I go further, a few words about Logee’s.  The business was founded in 1892.  In 1900, William Logee ordered a Ponderosa Lemon tree and planted it in his greenhouse.  The Ponderosa Lemon is still there, 112 years old, bearing fruit like crazy and occupying several hundred cubic feet of greenhouse space.  I relate that story as evidence this is no ordinary, by-the-books business.  It is a distinctly, family-run business, now its third generation.  Byron Martin and Laurelynn Glass Martin are both very active in the enterprise.  Byron is the horticulturalist; Laurelynn is marketing and administration.

Logee's aisles are less than
two feet wide.
To comprehend the passion that goes into Logee’s, you need to set foot in its greenhouses.  Directly behind the ‘retail store’ is the Long House, a hundred-plus-foot-long structure that nominally houses begonias and gesneriads.  Here’s a video of what is actually growing inside it.  What the video cleverly disguises is that the two aisles down the length of the structure are less than two feet wide.  When someone wants to get by you, one of you ducks into the center greenery.  There, you may be ensconced in a thirty-foot-long bougainvillea (with two-inch-diameter trunks), jasmine vine or Glory Bower.

All along the perimeter of the Long House – as well as the Big House, Lemon Tree House, Fern House and Potting House – are the plants.  I counted 106 genera, from Aeschynanthus to Trichodiadema. How many different cultivars?  I wouldn’t venture a guess.  Each cultivar is well signed, with growing information and a detailed description.  The one drawback is that those who buy only mature plants may go away disappointed.  Much of what you find in Logee’s is in two-, three- and four-inch pots.  The assumption is that you will take the plant home, nurture it and, in a year (or two, or three), have a strapping specimen in your window.

On one side, it's a dense tangle
of greenery, with occasional
The joy is in wandering, of reading descriptions, and of letting your horticultural imagination run rampant.  We walked into Logee’s with a dozen catalog pages earmarked.  In the course of ninety minutes, we filled a box with plants, put some back and re-filled the box with others that caught our eye.  If we couldn’t find a featured plant, one of the greenhouse staff quickly located it for us.  In the end, only two of the plants we went looking for came home with us.  The balance was spontaneous decisions.  (On a down note, the Sarcoglottis sceptroides that was at the top of my list had only three specimens to choose from, none of them sufficiently tempting.  The Fragrant Jewel Orchid is now listed as being out of stock.)

Shopping in person can also have a financial benefit (in addition to saving shipping and handling charges).  We were told that if any of our purchases was a plant with a red bloom, our entire order would be 20% off.  A Clerodendrum x spectrum – already in our box – qualified our purchase for the discount.  You don’t get that kind of a happy surprise from a catalog.  And, as a note to any marketers who may be reading this and wondering if offering a 20% discount on an order a) reduces the total sale by 20%, b) causes the shopper to purchase 20% more stuff but keeping the total dollar purchase the same as it would have been without the discount, or c) causes the shopper to buy lots more stuff, thereby increasing the total value of the sale by more than the discount; the answer is most decidedly 'c'.

Logee’s is at the extreme end of the ‘Joy of Discovery’ kind of plant shopping.  You can expect no such thrill in a big box store (with endless rows of focus-group-approved plants) or at a garden center whose stock in trade is Four-Step lawn products.  But any nursery that has unusual plant devotees on its staff invariably has a section of uncommon cultivars tucked away and available for perusing.  Stop in and look around.

December 3, 2012

Fifty Shades of ....... Green

Yes, I admit it.  I had this
stashed under my bed when
I was a teenager.
Like almost every self-respecting male adolescent of my generation, I kept several copies of Playboy magazine tucked between the mattress and box spring in my bedroom.  Those well-thumbed magazines had the beneficial effect of ensuring that my bedroom was always neat and clean, so that prying adults would never stumble upon them.  My friends and I would spend hours, ummm…, reading the articles.

I mention this ancient memory because, last week, I chanced upon my wife and her friend and fellow gardener, Susan Hammond, sitting side by side at our kitchen table; so intently poring over the pages of a magazine-sized periodical that they did not hear me come in.  As they turned pages, they would say ‘Wow’ in unison and make breathless sotto voce comments about the photos on the page.

I do not normally interrupt such interludes.  My wife is entitled to her private interests and her friendships.  But after one particular joint ‘gasp’, I felt I needed to investigate.  And, unlike that one time when my mother unexpectedly came into my bedroom while I was admiring ‘The Girls of Ole Miss’, Betty and Susan did not quickly kick the publication under the kitchen table and pretend to be thumbing through a stack of 45 rpm records.

The object of my wife's affection:
Episcia 'Pink Brocade'
No, instead, they brazenly smoothed down the page so that I could see an Episcia hybrid, better known as Flame Violet ‘Pink Brocade’, a container plant with a draping leaves that mix pinks, whites, silvers and green; all interspersed with brilliant red blooms.

Welcome to what my wife’s friend jokingly calls, ‘plant pornography’.  To which Betty adds, “While everyone else is reading ‘Fifty Shades of Gray’, gardeners prefer ‘Fifty Shades of Green’.”  Each year at this time, catalogs arrive (sans brown paper wrapper) bearing photos of new and exotic plants, heavy with flowers and mixing color palettes that are the antithesis of the relentless browns in the ‘real world’ of a late autumn New England.

Logee's catalog, with the
Holiday 'Calathea' on the cover.
These catalogs come from many sources, but two that get a lot of attention in New England come from Logee’s and White Flower Farm.  Both are based in Connecticut and both are masters of both marketing and plant selection.  The cover of the Logee’s catalog features a Calathea which they have dubbed the ‘Holiday Peacock Plant’.  We have a couple of Calatheas around out house.  But ours don’t have raspberry-red flowers those promise continuous bloom once the plant reaches eighteen inches in height.  Nor does the foliage on our Calatheas have a white feathered pattern around its leaves; but this one does.

White Flower Farms is
a master of marketing.
In the White Flower Farm Holiday Catalog, Betty skips the bulbs and heads straight for the hard stuff: things like Cape Primrose ‘Blue Mars’.  Forget everything you know about primula vulgaris.  What White Flower Farm is offering may be called a ‘primrose’ but it’s a Streptocarpus, an African Violet relative that produces a profusion of voluptuous, purplish-blue flowers.

We pull Euphorbia out of our garden all summer long.  It’s a nuisance plant.  But White Flower Farm has a new hybrid called Euphorbia ‘Salmon’ that has luscious salmon-colored flowers (brachts, actually) that rise over long succulent leaves.  It even ships in a white metal cachepot.  Garden thugs never looked so good.

The Fragrant Jewel Orchid
But the winner, at least to me, is a Sarcoglottis sceptroides; the Fragrant Jewel Orchid. Even if it never bloomed, Sarcoglottis would be a winner because of its beautiful, silver-striped, spotted leaves.  But according to Logee’s, in winter and early spring, the Jewel Orchid puts up tall (up to twenty inch) flower spikes, each of which is adorned with up to twenty blooms.  And the blooms have both a spicy fragrance and turn green to gold as they age. 

Plant pornography?  Yeah.  But unlike the Girls of Ole Miss, you can bring these beauties home to stare at all winter.  And Mom not only won’t mind, she’ll be pleased.

November 28, 2012

"A Wretched Excuse for a Public Space"

Scollay Square in 1906 - a thriving
commercial center (click on any of
these photos for a full-screen view).
In 1795, a merchant named William Scollay purchased a four-story building at the intersection of Court and Cambridge Streets in the burgeoning town of Boston, Massachusetts. With his name affixed to the structure, it wasn’t long before everyone began referring to the intersection as ‘Scollay’s Square’.  By 1838, the city of Boston officially named the site ‘Scollay Square’ and, through the 19th Century it was a thriving shopping and entertainment area, just a few blocks from the refined precincts of Pemberton Square and Beacon Hill. 
Scollay Square in 1947

By the middle of the 20th Century, the venerable Scollay Square neighborhood, like the adjacent West End, had declined in social standing.  The buildings were still solid, but the commercial activity ran to tattoo parlors and bars.  Some theaters closed; the ones that remained tended to show low-budget horror and ‘peep’ shows.  If you were on shore leave, it was the place to go.  If you were a proper Bostonian, it was to be avoided.

By the early 1960s, a new movement had taken hold in America.  The concept was ‘urban renewal’ and it posited that the answer to gritty neighborhoods like the West End and Scollay Square was to simply bulldoze them out of existence and build anew.  Drawing from the French model championed by Le Corbusier and his Plan Voisin school, slums were cleared and modern apartment blocks built on the same site.  In America, it was called ‘The Radiant City’.

1962 - Scollay Square is razed
Convinced that the ‘Hub of the Universe’ was sliding into insignificance, the city of Boston, armed with $45 million of federal funds, conceived of a vast ‘Government Center’ with tall buildings and broad avenues that would bring people downtown and be a magnet for further development.  The site of this bold venture?  Scollay Square.

I.M. Pei's inspiration: Siena's Piazza
del Campo
In 1962, bulldozers began clearing 90 acres – more than 20 city blocks.  No less an architect that I.M. Pei was commissioned to create a master plan for the site.  His centerpiece was a public square modeled on the concept of Siena’s Piazza del Campo which, like its Old World cousin, would be at the foot of City Hall.

In theory, Kallmann, McKinnell &
Knowles designed a plaza that mimicked
the Piazza del Campo.  In practice...
Interpreted by the architectural firm Kallman, McKinnell & Knowles, an eight-acre plaza was designed.  Construction began in 1963; the resulting ‘City Hall Plaza’ was dedicated in February 1969.  Honors followed: that year, the American Institute of Architects named Boston’s new city hall, “the sixth greatest building in American History.”

City Hall.  The less said, the better.
I will not dwell on Boston City Hall, except to say that it perfectly exemplifies the ‘Brutalist’ school of architecture and that in 2008 it was voted ‘the World’s Ugliest Building’ by the readers of  Also in 2008, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino floated the idea of building a new city hall on the South Boston waterfront and selling the City Hall Plaza site to developers.

This being a gardens and gardening blog, I'll focus solely on City Hall Plaza, billed as ‘Boston’s front yard’.

From Congress Street, City Hall Plaza
is an inaccessible two-story-high
In 2004, the Project for Public Spaces identified City Hall Plaza as the worst plaza in the world.  I have not seen every plaza in the world, so I cannot state with certainty that Boston’s is the worst, but it is the worst that I have ever stood in.  It is eight acres of brick interrupted occasionally by strips of concrete.  In form, it resembles the Piazza del Campo in that both are built of brick.  But I have been to Siena.  The Piazza is enclosed by wonderful, low historic buildings and the first floor of those buildings house nearly a hundred restaurants and cafes.  It is beloved equally by residents and tourists.

From Cambridge Street, a bleak,
alienating and uninviting prospect of
brick as far as the eye can see.
By contrast, City Hall Plaza is a vast, wind-swept (and restaurant-free) plaza.  On the Congress Street side, it presents a two-story-high wall of impenetrable brick for much of its length, separated from the rest of the city by a six-lane divided highway.  The more accessible Cambridge Street side (also a six-lane divided highway) offers a bleak, alienating and uninviting prospect of brick as far as the eye can see.  One critic called it, “a sucking void in the heart of the city.”  My favorite description is that of DavidKruh, the author of ‘Scollay Square’, who calls it “a wretched excuse for a public space.”

In 2002, a million people
jammed City Hall Plaza
to cheer the Patriots.
What is baffling is that the site has been recognized as a failure almost from the day it opened.  It has hosted a few memorable moments – mostly tied to celebrations of championships by Boston sports teams – but it usually deserted.  How can a failure go un-rectified for 44 years?  It has not been for a lack of design competitions.  Beginning in 1968 and continuing to this year, there have been a steady stream of re-design invitationals that are international in scope. (One such design is show below).  None have been implemented (Mayor Menino’s trial balloon of moving City Hall may have a lot to do with the lack of action since 2008), but what of the prior decades?

One 2010 entry to re-design the plaza.
One ‘improvement’ ended in  ignominious disaster: In 1969, a fountain was built on the Cambridge Street side of the plaza.  Barely a week after the fountain was first turned on, the filtration system malfunctioned and, according to newspaper accounts of the time, "began spewing brown and green foam that no duck would wet his feathers in." Soon, water from the fountain was leaking into the Blue Line subway tunnel below it.  In 2006, the fountain, dry for decades, was paved over.

The Piazza Del Campo 'works' because
it is enclosed by human-scale
buildings with things that attract
lots of activity
My own guess is that there is a two-part answer to the question of why nothing has been done.  The first is that City Hall Plaza is what City Hall deserves.  A Brutalist, dehumanizing structure fits a barren brick plaza that is devoid of human activity.  The second answer is that site is too large and the scale all wrong.  Siena’s Piazza del Campo works exactly because it is enclosed by those human-scale structures with their outdoor cafes.

Would horticulture help?  At present, greenery in the plaza is restricted to a pathetic rectangular grid of trees adjacent to an office building.  The 'grove' is almost painful to look at.  Could the bricks be torn out and the entire eight acres turned into a park along the lines of Boston Common or, even better, the Norman Leventhal Park at Post Office Square?  It would be an improvement.  Like that park, such a project would need to be built with private donations (my next mystery envisions a murder potentially tied to fund-raising for ‘The Garden at Government Center’).

In the end, though, I think Mayor Menino got it right back in 2008.  City Hall Plaza was an ill-conceived and horribly executed idea; the product of a design era of which, today, we shake our heads and wonder, "what were they thinking?"  After fifty years, it's time to admit that it was a mistake.  Sell the site to the highest bidder and require that it include a publicly accessible park, a la Post Office Square.  Use some of the proceeds to build a new City Hall, with the lone proviso that it look nothing like the current one.  In short, let a new Scollay Square bloom.

November 19, 2012

They Pulled Down a Parking Lot and Put Up Paradise

The pedestrian entrance to the garage
Yesterday morning, Betty and I went to brunch at Cafe Fleuri in the Langham Hotel in Boston. Just across the street, two tourists were puzzling over a map. I stopped and offered to help. They pointed to the escalators behind them, leading to something underneath the Norman B. Leventhal Park, a 1.7 acre oasis in the center of Boston’s Financial District. "We can't figure out which subway station this is," one of them explained. I straightened them out. "It's the pedestrian entrance to the garage underneath the park. It goes down seven levels." They blinked. I'm not sure they believed me.
Post Office Square Park
seen from above
For more than 30 years, one of the ugliest buildings in North America stood on this site. It was a four-story, city-owned garage; an eyesore of monumental proportions endured only because it offered relatively cheap parking in the center of town. It made a mockery of the Beaux Arts Federal Reserve Bank across from it (today the aforementioned Langham) as well as the art deco New England Telephone Building.  For the past 20 years, the site has been a park.  If theRose Kennedy Greenway is Boston’s most disappointing public space, the Norman B. Leventhal Park at Post Office Square (to give the park its full title) is, in my opinion, the most successful. 

Designed by Craig Halvorson of the Halvorson Partnership, the park may well be the most popular spot in Boston for office workers. The intelligence behind the design, plantings choice, and maintenance zeal show in every square foot. It has a fountain where you can get your feet wet, lots of places to sit, a cafe, ample shade, and terrific views. It is, in short, inviting - everything that the Rose Kennedy Greenway is not.

The Post Office that lent its name to
Post Office Square in 1887
What most people can’t believe (in addition to the 1400-space parking garage underneath) is that the park is just 20 years old because it looks like it has always been there.  It’s a site with a documented history going back to the 18th century, when it was where riggers made rope for the ships in adjacent Boston Harbor.  In the early 19th Century it was a prized residential area.  By the 1850’s, though, warehouses and tenements had replaced the prestigious homes. By 1866, the area was generally considered a slum.

The Great Fire of 1872 allowed the area to be redeveloped, centering on the new Boston Post Office (see photo above).  Streets were widened and extended and, in 1874, the majestic Mutual Life Insurance Company building opened on the site of what is now the park.  That building was demolished in 1945.  Nine years later, the instant eyesore that was the Post Office Square Garage was opened. 

The garage (1954-1988) that occupied
the site of the part.
I came to Boston in 1980 and my first foray into the city took me to an annual meeting held at an office building cater-corner from the garage.  I was struck by the trash-strewn parking structure’s consummate ugliness and lack of anything even remotely resembling maintenance or landscaping.  Directly across from the garage was a newly opened hotel, carved out of the 1922 Federal Reserve Bank (the photo at left would have been taken after 1980 because the bank building, visible at top right, sports the three additional 'glass' floors added when the building was converted).  The juxtaposition of something so beautiful with something so awful stuck in my mind.

It also stuck in the mind of Norman B. Leventhal, Chairman of the Beacon Companies, who had developed the hotel site and built a 40-story office tower next door.  In 1982, Leventhal created Friends of Post Office Square, Inc., with nineteen firms collectively donating more than $1 million of the initial funding needed to acquire the existing garage site and redevelop it as a park.  The garage was demolished in 1988; the new, underground garage was completed in 1990.  The park atop the garage was completed in June of 1992 at a total project cost - the park above with parking below - of $82 million.

There are three ways to look at and appreciate the park.  The first is financial, the second is engineering, the third is horticultural.


The 143-foot-long trellis sports
seven varieties of vines
The economics of Post Office Square park are not unique to Boston, but they are complex. On the one hand, Boston was given, for free, a beautiful new park.  On the other hand, allowing the park to be built meant Boston 'lost' tax revenue that would have been collected had the site become a skyscraper (at one point, a 70-story building was proposed for the site). However, it's a reasonable conclusion that the value of the buildings, shops, and hotels on and near the park has risen because of the park's presence.  It may also have kept businesses in Boston that might have otherwise decampd for the suburbs.

Although open 24 hours a day to the public, the park is private.  Revenue is driven by the garage.  In 2008 (the last year for which I can find figures), the garage generated $8.6 million of revenue, which pays debt service on the $82 million cost, a $1 million annual property tax bill, and $2.9 million annual operating budget.  That operating budget includes horticulturalists, park maintenance, security, universal wifi, and a year-round schedule of events, all of which are free to the public.  Those events range from weekly classical music concerts to daily exercise classes.


The park in fall.  If you look carefully
(double-click to see at full size)
you can see one of the air vents -
hidden in plain sight on the right.
The garage is an engineering marvel and hiding its ramps and ventilation apparatus is a feat of legerdemain.  Apart from the escalators that lead down into the garage – the ones that were mistaken for a subway entrance by the couple I encountered – there is no surface evidence that a garage is below.  Ticketing and payments are all handled underground, as is all garage administration.  Although nominally a landscape design firm, the Halvorson Partnership was given responsibility as general contractor, with the result that what would be visible above ground drove key below-ground decisions. 

The auto ramps into the garage, two up and two down, were among the greatest challenge to the park’s design. For one thing, they occupy 14% of the site. Moreover, because they squeeze the park in the middle, the ramps made it hard to unify the north and south plazas. Viewed from above, they are jarringly visible, but from within the park they almost disappear, thanks to layers of natural screening – grasses, bushes, flowers, and trees – and an ornamental iron fence.

One of the Halvorson Company’s subtlest but most satisfying solutions came about in response to the air vent challenge. A half-million-square-foot garage generates a lot of pollution and requires a continuous supply of clean air. Two vents, each 24 feet in circumference would be required to meet code, and would have to be at least eight feet tall. In short, what amounted to a pair of giant smokestacks had to be hidden in the park.  Halvorson placed them in a corner and hid them with a circle of thick evergreens. Further, instead of round holes, they are long and narrow, and fit in the space between the up and down auto ramps. Double-click on the photo above and look at the right-hand side of the park.  Even though they are eight feet high, the vents are functionally invisible; they're hiding in plain sight. 


An October Glory maple.
Trees sit in 42 inches of
rich loam.
Post Office Square is surrounded by shadow-casting tall buildings.  Also, it's a park on top of a garage - an enormous raised-bed garden.  Craig Halvorson specified 42 inches of topsoil over the whole site, a requirement that would allow trees to sink their roots into deep loam, but that would affect both the depth and the load-bearing capacity of the garage. The luxurious topsoil now supports scores of trees, some of them nearly 30 feet tall – one of the factors that makes the park seem so mature, broken in, and familiar. To make maximum use of available sunlight, Halvorson did solar studies and placed the Great Lawn and the perennial flower garden in the two sunniest locations.

The park's fountain on a spring day.
The park’s centerpiece is a walk-through sculptural fountain so whimsically user-friendly that, in summertime, office workers eating lunch often kick off their shoes to dip their feet in the fountain. A couple of yards away is a 143-foot-long formal garden trellis, supported by granite columns, draped with seven species of vines. The jewel-like Great Lawn is raised above the walkways by a granite curb, providing a relaxed retreat. There are seating styles to fit even the most finicky visitor – stately teak benches, curving steel settees, movable cast-iron cafĂ© chairs with tables, hundreds of linear feet of inviting polished granite wall, and half an acre of lawn. In summer, cushions are provided for those who want to sit on the lawn.  Here is a video about the cushions program.

Music in the park.
Post Office Square is a garden for four seasons and there are 125 species of plants, flowers, bushes, and trees in 1.7 acres. Halvorson's cultivar selection ensures that the park exhibits color every month: witch hazel blossoms in March, saucer magnolia petals and forsythia sprigs in April, numerous flowers all spring and summer, red maple leaves in October, and deep green Norway spruce needles and red holly berries in the snows of January.

Interestingly, four of the park’s largest and most beautiful trees are ‘on loan’ from the Arnold Arboretum, where they were considered ‘excess specimens’ that did not quite meet the botanical garden’s exacting standards. These trees, some of which had grown at the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain for forty years, include a Hybrid Red Oak, an Eastern Arborvitae, and two Giant Western Arborvitae.  Here is a link to complete descriptions of those trees.
If I haven't made it sufficiently clear, The Norman B. Leventhal Park at Post Office Square is on my list of favorite parks in the world.  I think highly enough of it that I made it a clue to solving the mystery in 'Murder Imperfect'.  If you've never seen the park, you owe it to yourself to pay a visit.  If you live or work in Boston and don't use the park regularly, you're missing something wonderful.

November 7, 2012

Thoughts While Planting Daffodils Along the Greenway

Planting daffodils on the Greenway.
That's Betty hiding under the
baseball cap.
This past Saturday morning, Betty and I joined a group of about 20 volunteers assisting an organization called Friends of the Greenway to plant several thousand daffodil bulbs at a site on the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway adjacent to Boston’s venerable North End neighborhood.  It was three hours of work for a worthy cause.  Because planting bulbs is not especially a brain-intensive task, it gave me some time to reflect on the Greenway.

The Central Artery circa 1980.
The Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway is the tangible benefit of somewhere between $20 billion and $24 billion (the number varies, but always rises) spent to place Interstate 93 below grade through Boston’s financial district.  The tunnel project was completed in 2009 and the Greenway formally dedicated in October of that year.  From the time of its inception it has been a political football and a prize.  It is a story with few heroes and a lengthy cast of villains.  Placing I-93 underground was proposed in the 1980s as a $4 billion solution to the malignant eyesore that was the Central Artery, a 1950s-era elevated highway that divided the financial district from the historic North End, South Boston, and the harbor.  The thinking was that in one act of public works, Boston would gain 22 acres of parks atop the expressway as well as a new airport access tunnel.  Under the guiding hand of then-Speaker of the House Thomas P. ‘Tip’ O’Neil, the necessary billions of dollars were diverted to the project.

The Garden Under Glass, as conceived
by the Massachusetts Horticultural
There’s no point dwelling on the chicanery that went on underground (subtract the original price tag from the finished one and you get a good idea of what happened).  Instead, I’ll address what is occurring aboveground.  Originally, there was to have been a Center for the Arts and Culture, a YMCA, a Museum of Boston, and a ‘Garden Under Glass’, interspersed by parks.  One by one, the civic buildings were scrapped as a soured economy made would-be benefactors close their wallets.  (Incompetence on the part of fundraisers doubtlessly contributed to the problem.)  In the end, there were no museums, only a large, linear open space, all administered by an organization called the RFK Greenway Conservancy. (Rose, mother of John F., Ted, and Robert F. Kennedy is revered in Boston.  Naming the park the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway was an act of sheer political genius.)

Part of the five-acre garden planted
by Mass Hort.  I spent about a
hundred hours as a volunteer.
The Massachusetts Horticultural Society was to have built the massive indoor garden.  It was formally abandoned in 2008 but Mass Hort instead built something else, and perhaps superior.  Because of a decade’s worth of mismanagement, the organization was functionally bankrupt by 2008.  However, using sheer willpower, hundreds of volunteers, donated materials, and an outstanding design from Craig Halvorson, the five acres that would have been ‘under glass’ became an outdoor garden.  I know all this because, in 2008, I was one of those volunteers. The design was a stunning success; an intelligently conceived space that invited people into it. The specimen trees were beautiful, the choice and placement of perennials exciting.  Mass Hort pulled the project together for about $750,000.

In February 2009, control of all development parcels on the Greenway passed to the Greenway Conservancy, and the Conservancy’s first action was to request that Mass Hort cease all improvements to the five-acre garden and remove anything that identified the project as having been created or maintained by Mass Hort.  Mass Hort had no choice but to comply.

Here are two blocks of the Greenway
as it is today - grass and concrete.
To judge by what has transpired on the Greenway since that date, it is evident that horticulture has always been down near the bottom of the Greenway Conservancy’s list of priorities.  The emphasis has been on hardscape – straight-as-an-arrow concrete walks, fountains, and walls.  There’s a carousel and a visitor’s center.  Where there are narrow strips of gardens, they lack imagination – think boxwood hedges with interior plantings of daylilies and echinacea.  The Mass Hort garden (now ‘the Fort Point Channel Parcels’) are poorly maintained and have been ‘improved’ by the addition of sculptures.

This is what the Conservancy has
planted... sculptures.
What the Greenway Conservancy does exceptionally well is spend money on administration. It has a budget of $4.7 million of which – as critics point out – less than $50,000 is spent on plants.  Five Greenway Conservancy officials have salaries in excess of $100,000 annually.  The Conservancy also lobbies hard for more state money (they say their budget should be more like $10 million a year).  The Conservancy also dreams of grandiose plans for various sites along the Greenway.  The plans, though, are never horticultural.  Rather, they’re for pavilions by world-class architects.

The daffodils we planted on Saturday were supplied by the Friends of the Greenway – not by the Greenway Conservancy - and the project was organized by the Friends group.  However, our work was overseen by Conservancy staff, who haphazardly threw out hundreds of bulbs into spaces that could accommodate a few dozen.  Fortunately, most of the volunteers working that day were Master Gardeners who know better.

Something has to change. 
While we were planting, Betty pointed out to one staff member that delicate, slow-growing arborvitae were being engulfed by much faster-growing yews.  The staffer – ostensibly part the Conservancy’s horticultural department – just shrugged and said that the parcel’s designer wanted contrasting texture in the hedge and that it was not for him to change things.

But something needs to change, and soon.  Four years ago, Boston received a precious gift of open space.  That space is being allowed to decay into blandness because, to the organization that oversees it, the ‘Green’ in the Greenway is money, not horticulture.


October 30, 2012

After the Storm

Sometimes it takes a hurricane to focus a gardener’s attention.  Until Sandy’s arrival became a question of ‘when’ rather than ‘whether’, I had been following a diligent schedule regarding end-of-season garden clean-up:  I emptied pots or cut down perennials only when I couldn’t come up with an excuse not to do so.

Sandy pushed me into a very different and infinitely more productive gear.  The fence around our 1200-square-foot community vegetable garden plot came down in about three hours versus the full day I had previously thought it would take.  The final dozen containers were emptied of annuals, potting mix and filler in a single morning.  The hosta walk was cut down in an hour.  I was a veritable beehive of activity.

Keeping 'Big Red Judy' (all four feet
of her) allowed me to believe
that it was still summer in October
There is a word here that I have tried to avoid using, but which there is no way around.  The word is ‘procrastination’.  As people who know me will attest, I am not by nature someone who puts off things.  Yet, every October, I let drag an important task that needs to be done.  Why is the closing up of the garden so different?

I suspect the reason is that, through the garden, I can cling to the notion that winter isn’t really on our doorstep.  Yes, there was an overnight freeze in early October that turned unprotected annuals and vegetables to so much limp mush.  But in anticipation of that frost I began parking a number of containers into our garage on cool evenings, including one containing an enormous coleus called ‘Big Red Judy’.  The sight of a four-foot-high tropical plant along the driveway brightened my day, even as the perennials around it turned yellow and brown and the maples faded from their brilliant reds and oranges to muddy yellows.

One day before Sandy’s arrival, ‘Big Red Judy’ went ignominiously into the compost pile.  I did not even save a clipping.  By the time the winds picked up and the first rain bands arrived Sunday morning, the garden, like Big Red Judy, was no more.

Lots of oak leaves, but a new
perspective on what remains
This is written on Tuesday; quite literally the ‘morning after’.  From my office window I can survey the post-Sandy landscape.  The first things I notice is that a month’s worth of oak leaves fell in a day and now carpet the lawn and the maples and other deciduous trees have been stripped of the last of their leaves.  But the second thing I see is that our cersis canadensis – forest pansy redbud – not only still has leaves, but has turned a majestic gold.  The ornamental plum that I routinely ignore has a riot of leaves in the red-yellow spectrum, dancing not five feet from my window.  In short, what was lost in the storm has been gained in the emergence of individual specimen plants. 

We have also regained our view of the pond at least two weeks early.  We are less than 200 feet from its shore, but two-thirds of that distance is town conservation land and, for six months of the year, trees that we are not permitted to thin obscure our view of a picturesque body of water.  From now until the end of May, we’ll have a panoramic vista just outside the banks of windows on the back side of our home.

Hurricane Sandy did put an emphatic ‘period’ to the 2012 gardening season.  But it didn’t mean the end of autumn or of our enjoyment of the season. Autumn in New England is a wonderful time of year, as well as a great state of mind.  We ought to make it linger as long as possible.
The return of the pond view