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.