June 30, 2012

The Principal Undergardener's Time to Shine

There are two competing explanations for where the idea of ‘the gates’ came from.  Mine is that we saw one at a Yellow Book garden in Kent seven or eight years ago.  Betty believes, just as firmly, that we saw one on a garden tour in a neighboring town.  Either way, I came home determined to build some gates of my own.

Each gate begins with two to three
times the material needed
‘The gates’ – they have no other, more formal name – are at once exceedingly simple and complex structures.  They are ornamental and decorative; functional only in the loosest sense of the word.  I build them from limbs of trees that have been cut down.  More than anything, I suppose, they are artistic.

I have built roughly ten in the intervening years.  Because the wood (typically oak and maple) is not seasoned and the trees or branches are cut when relatively small, a gate’s life span is two to three years.

I have just completed a new one for the pathway between the Manhattan and Long Island beds at the front of the property and the ‘wildflower walk’ garden room.  Readers of this blog know that there is a long stone wall behind the Manhattan and Long Island beds, a byproduct of the rototilling that produced those two planting areas a dozen years ago.  A break was left between the two segments of the wall to allow cart traffic from the east side of the property.  The newest gate is the third generation to grace that site.

The gate is laid out before assembly
Building a gate starts with scouting for material.  There are always tree branches that have encroached into places they are not welcome and saplings growing where they have become annoying.  These are the raw materials.  I’ve learned from experience that softwoods (and especially pine) disintegrate within a year and are to be avoided.

Two straight pieces are required for the fence posts.  They’re usually at least three inches in diameter and are secured in concrete.  Properly chosen, posts can last a long time; the ones to which the new gate is attached have been in place for six years.

The finished gate; the Manhattan bed
is on the left, Long Island on the right
For the gate, four straight and sturdy pieces are needed.  These form the perimeter or frame of the gate and are secured with three-inch wood screws. The interior pieces are selected for their interesting forms: a nifty ‘Y’ or even a ‘W’; a graceful arch or a good knot.  As the photo above shows, these are laid out once the perimeter is built.  I cut the pieces to size and secure them to the frame using narrower-gauge three-inch wood screws.  For the smallest interior pieces, I still use at least two-inch screws.

If you compare the preliminary layout to the finished gate below, you’ll see that compromises need to be made along the way.  A piece of wood may bend the wrong way or just look wrong as the gate nears completion. The goal is to have a finished piece that looks like it was meant to be there; not to meet a deadline.

Detail of the completed gate
I do not use hinges or latches.  Apart from the fact that they’d likely pull out in a matter of months, the goal is to look rustic.  Accordingly, I use hemp rope to secure the gate to its posts.

My tools are simple: a sharp saw and an antiquated power drill.  I suppose that, with a multi-speed reversible drill I could build a gate in a day.  As it is, the one shown here took about 15 hours of work to get right. 

The gates are the one creative element of our garden to which I can lay unquestioned ownership.  Betty is the superb designer with an excellent eye for color and texture.  In those matters – which comprise 99% of the garden, my role is to lift, carry and dig.  But on the subject of gates, I am the guy.  It’s the Principal Undergardener’s time to shine.

June 28, 2012

The Good, the Bad, and the Virtuous

There are three rain barrels connected to the downspouts around our house.  Those rain barrels are in use during the seven-month gardening season, after which they are drained and reside in our basement for the late autumn and winter months.  Because of those rain barrels (and coupled with recycling ‘gray water’), I can state with a clear conscience that not a single gallon of fresh water, pumped from our town’s underground watershed, was used last year in the maintenance of our large garden.  The same is true thus far this year.

The question is, is using a rain barrel an economical decision?  Or, is it one that we make because it’s the ‘green’ thing to do?

Our three rain barrels, all manufactured by the New England Rain Barrel Company, cost us a total of $145.  The least expensive one was purchased through a friend from the town of Dedham for $32.  The other two were purchased from the town of Medfield for $55 each.  All three purchases were subsidized by the state under a since-discontinued conservation program.  In the case of Dedham, the town further subsidized the cost.  At present, the company offers a 55 gallon rain barrel for $75 in ‘bulk deliveries’ to towns in Massachusetts; otherwise, a single rain barrel is $120.

This is the rain barrel that
waters our hostas
The beauty of a rain barrel is that it collects the rain that falls on a roof, flows into gutters, and goes into a downspout.  As little as a quarter-inch of rain falling on 350 square feet of roof will fill a 55 gallon barrel.  If there’s more than a quarter inch of rain, the downspout can be diverted so that the rainwater flows to wherever it would have flowed has the rain barrel not been collecting it.

Another rain barrel benefit is the water that you draw out of it.  It’s air temperature and chlorine free.  Your plants love it.

One of our rain barrels is tied to a drip hose and waters part of our hosta garden. I turn it on when the top two inches of the soil around the hostas is dry.  It takes about two days for the barrel to empty. Two of our rain barrels store water that will be used primarily to keep our 50-plus container gardens properly hydrated.  Since we can’t haul a rain barrel to the containers (55 gallons of water weighs 440 pounds), we fill a collection of two- and three-gallon plastic cat litter carriers; an innovative piece of recycling on our part.  Depending on the temperature and humidity, it can take between 20 and 40 gallons of water to ‘do’ all of our containers.

Let’s say, just to establish a baseline calculation, that each of our rain barrels are filled and emptied ten times over the course of the gardening season.  That’s 1650 gallons of water.  What did we save?

The answer is depressing.  In Medfield, ten thousand gallons of water costs $28.20.  Those 1650 gallons cost a little over $4.00.  The time to pay pack the initial purchase price of our rain barrels is 30 years.  If we lived in Boston, where ten thousand gallons of water is $57.30, the payback is a shorter, but still depressing, 15 years.  However, those barrels were purchased at a steep discount.  Had we paid $75 per barrel, the time to recover their cost would be 56 years; in Boston, 23 years.

Rain barrels also have one drawback that is not usually mentioned in the sales literature: unless they’re drained frequently, the water in a rain barrel can get rather dank.  Put less delicately, old rainwater smells and coats the inside of those cat litter containers with scum.  At the end of each season, any containers that are going to be over-wintered get bleached; the interiors of the rain barrels get washed thoroughly.

So, rain barrels are uneconomic and they can be a nuisance.  But they’re virtuous and, if your town has a water ban in place, they can also be a necessity.  Knowing what I know today (our rain barrels are six years old), would I buy them again? 

The answer: in a heartbeat.  They’re an easy way to practice conservation and to put water on your plants that is, well, pure rainwater.  Call it a small virtue.

June 11, 2012

Giverny in the Bronx

There’s a truism in the art museum world that, when attendance starts to flag or publicity has been sparse, curators have a ready, foolproof solution:  mount an Impressionist exhibition.  Borrow some Renoirs and Monets, throw in a Cezanne or a Pizarro, and the public will be standing in line every morning.  Impressionism sells.

I’ve been lured to a couple of those exhibitions.  A few were outstanding but most simply recycled the same highly overexposed paintings.  So, I was understandably dubious when Betty and I went to the New York Botanical Garden Saturday morning to see “Monet’s Garden”.  Why did NYBG, an institution with no dearth of resources or lack of visitors, feel a need to put on a six-month-long tribute to Claude Monet? 

What you see when you enter
the exhibit.  Double-click on any
photo to see it at full size.
I had a right to be suspicious.  Two years ago, there was another attempt to recreate a much-beloved nineteenth-century figure’s garden.   That time, it was Emily Dickinson and, in my opinion, it fell flat (I wrote about it here).  This time, however, my doubts were misplaced.  I love being proved wrong and, even more, I appreciate leaving an exhibition with more knowledge than I had going in. 

Straight ahead, the Japanese
“Monet’s Garden” has a simple premise:  In the latter half of his life, Claude Monet (1840-1926) worked in plants the same way he worked in paints.  Giverny, to which he moved in 1883 and remained until his death, became a canvas imbued with as much care, imagination and skill as the paintings that lined collectors’ walls; and bellflowers, hollyhocks, wisteria, water lilies and snapdragons were a palette as endlessly versatile as the one he carried when he painted.

The surprising part of the above paragraph is that it is written by someone who has made the trip to Giverny.  I have seen the Grande Allée, the pergolas, the Japanese bridge.  I thought it was very beautiful.  Somehow, though, it never connected in my tiny little brain that Monet’s garden was his passion and that he devoted as much time to it as he did to his painting.  Now, after a trip to the Bronx, I do.

Turn around, and there's a glimpse
of the main house at Giverny
“Monet’s Garden” unfolds in multiple parts.  As you enter NYBG and walk toward the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, you see placards bearing poetry that was written during Monet’s painting years.  Once in the Conservatory, you hear music; uniquely French and from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century (Ravel’s Bolero is a terrific accompaniment).  You go through a pair of glass doors and you are assaulted by colors.

Monet was meticulous in his record-keeping.  He documented his purchases of plants and his instructions to his gardeners.  His garden was extensively photographed in his lifetime.  NYBG brought in Scott Pask, a Broadway scenic designer, to create, in a few thousand square feet, a set piece that is both accurate and representational.  The Grande Allée has been condensed to approximately 250 feet but is packed with thousands of annuals and perennials, each true to Monet’s time and vision.  Overhead, on metal arches painted the ‘Monet Green’ used in Giverny, roses are beginning to climb.

Is it Giverny or the Bronx?
What is stunning is that a) everything in the Grande Allée is in perfect bloom and that b) growing in NYBG’s greenhouses are replacement plants to parallel the march of the seasons between now and October.  This day, the snapdragons were eight feet high, the bellflowers were in full purple flower and the hollyhocks had not a single spent petal.  According to the NYBG literature, more than 150 varieties of annuals and perennials are on display.  By October, the count will exceed 600.

It is an exhibit that encourages you to keep looking around.  If you turn around to admire the garden behind you, you see a two-story fragment of the main house at Giverny, perfect in its pink and green accents, the carriage lamps beside the shuttered doors just as they are in Monet’s paintings.  Ahead of you, through a double gate (again, in Monet Green, is the iconic footbridge, swathed in wisteria, bamboo and willows.

An abundance of water lilies.  Alas,
it was a different Ray Davies.
The second part of “Monet’s Garden” is outdoors.  The two pools in the Conservatory’s courtyard have been given over to water lilies.  I learned that  Nymphaea odorata underwent an seismic change in the 1880s as colorful North American specimens were cross-bred with their hardy European cousins to produced new cultivars with colors never before seen on the Continent.  Monet collected these lilies and overwintered them.

I thought for a brief instant that I had discovered a previously unknown footnote to the genius of Kinks founder Ray Davies.  One of the water lilies in the pool has the cultivar name, ‘Ray Davies’.  Alas, some research showed that the cultivar in question is named for the founder of Stapeley Water Gardens of Great Britain and not for the lead singer on Sunny Afternoon.

Amazingly, there is more to see.  We walked over to the Mertz Library where photographs and a pair of Monet paintings were on display.  In another room, Monet’s gardening notes, lists and letters were laid out and translated, with small photos providing visual reference points. 

It was while perusing his extensive notes that everything fell into place: this man was a passionate gardener who created a private Eden far from Paris.  Here, he could garden and paint (his series on the Rouen cathedral, poplars, and haystacks were all products of Giverny, as well as the masterpiece ‘Les Nymphéas’ now in the Musée de l’Orangerie).  Here he entertained friends and dignitaries.  Here, he was at peace.

Maybe it’s one of those ‘duh’ moments – everyone on the face of the earth already knew these things.  But I didn’t, or at least I didn’t know I knew it.  Now, I do.  Thank you, NYBG, for a lovely education.

*  *  *  *  *

We also spent time at the Rockefeller Rose Garden at NYBG.  It is at its peak in June and, on this day (June 9), it is as though every single one of the 1700 varieties were in simultaneous sensual bloom.  It was the perfect ending to a perfect trip.