January 31, 2012

The Problem With Groundhog Day

On Thursday of this week - February 2 - you will hear on the radio or see on television that Punxsutawney Phil climbed out of his cage and either did or did not see his shadow which means there either will or will not be six more weeks of winter.  Amazingly, this will be the 126th year in a row that the town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, has re-enacted this bit of municipal schmaltz.  Even more amazing, Punxsutawney is just one of nearly a hundred towns in the U.S. and Canada that will hold such early morning stunts.

Before I go further, let me first say that I think the film, Groundhog Day, is one of the most original stories every told by the American cinema.  For that 1993 film, Bill Murray can be forgiven all manner of duds (The Royal Tennenbaums, Charlie’s Angels) and Andie MacDowell will forever remain in my mind as one of the sweetest actresses to grace the screen.

Know thy enemy... many names, same varmit
But, to the best of my knowledge, we do not celebrate Benedict Arnold’s birthday in this country (I cannot speak for Canada), not do we set aside a day to honor, say, the Japanese Beetle.  Why on earth do we have a day that commemorates a rodent whose sole purpose in life, I fervently believe, is to destroy vegetable gardens?

To begin with, ‘groundhog’ is simply one of the many aliases for a nemesis we know well in New England – the woodchuck.  Elsewhere in the country, this creature has set up shop using the monikers ‘whistle-pig’, ‘land-beaver’ and ‘marmot’.  The woodchuck currently sleeping in a burrow just outside your garden likely has ID cards from many states, including one issued by the Algonquins for its original name, wuchak.

Woodchucks gravitate to gardens the way Red Sox fans seek out Fenway Park.  As the Cornell Extension Service rather dryly states it, Woodchucks can become a nuisance when their feeding and burrowing habits conflict with human interests. They frequently damage vegetable and flower gardens, agricultural crops, orchards, nurseries, and areas around buildings. Damage to crops can be costly…”

Last year, my wife, Betty, designed a massive, 6,000-square-foot Chef’s Garden at the Massachusetts Horticultural Society.  Prior to its new incarnation, it was the Society's Vegetable Trial Garden, and it was a veritable Sunday brunch at Cafe Fleuri for the indigenous Elm Bank woodchuck population.  In 2010, the site's last year as a trial garden, I helped Gardens Curator David Fiske pull plastic for and plant a large site for a new hybrid watermelon Mass Hort had been asked to evaluate.  As the melons ripened, woodchucks would choose several to sample, leaving behind well-gnawed produce.  On the day before the melons were to be harvested, the Groundhog Gourmet Society invaded en masse and functionally destroyed the plot, not even leaving the seeds behind.  The new garden incorporates a fence that goes down a full foot into the soil.

I might feel differently about Groundhog Day if I suspected that the rodent involved actually had some prognostication ability. However, no less an authority than the Canadian Encyclopedia, using data from 13 cities gathered over a 30 to 40-year span, puts the prediction success level at just 37%.  In other words, you can do better flipping a coin.

So, on Thursday, please excuse me if I’m not glued to the live, 7:20 a.m. webcast from Pennsylvania.  Looking out at my green lawn this year, I can’t help but feel that winter was over before it began.

January 16, 2012

Would You Like a Townhouse to Go Along With That Garden?

The Boston Flower & Garden Show opens on March 14 - eight weeks and two days from today.   I know this because, in the next 58 days, I have to pull a gigantic rabbit out of a hat: to wit, a townhouse.  Perhaps I should explain.

My wife, Betty, is a superb horticulturalist and gardening lecturer.  She also dabbles in gardening as evidenced by our two acres of dazzling perennials, containers and specimen beds.  She knows garden design though she does not practice as a professional.  For the past five years, she has created exhibits for, first, the New England Spring Flower Show and, for the past two years, the Boston Flower & Garden Show.

A few weeks back, I was looking over her shoulder as she sketched the elements of a garden for the upcoming show, the theme of which is ‘First Impressions’.  Her problem wasn’t so much the garden as it was the backdrop.  The garden she was creating won’t be one of the lucky ones surrounded by other landscape displays.  Instead, it will back up to the ‘commercial’ part of the show – the vendors that pay the show’s bills.  She was thinking in terms of tall evergreens to block the view of the vendors so that people viewing the garden wouldn’t be distracted by someone hawking shovels or statuary.

My bright idea: add the facade of
a 20-foot-wide, two-story
townhouse to the rear of an
entry garden.
“Too back you can’t just put up a house in back of the garden,” I joked. “That would certainly block the view of the vendors.”

She kissed me.  Normally, this is a very good thing.  When she kisses me after she has been growling in frustration, bad things can follow.

To make a long story short, my job became to build a regulation-size, twenty-foot-wide, two-story townhouse.  Fortunately, the townhouse has to be only a foot deep.  Also fortunately, the ceiling of the Seaport World Trade Center is sixteen feet high so the townhouse I need to build is just a story and a half.  It will kind of disappear into the ceiling.  I hope.

I should also note that my budget for this house of very close to zero because the organization sponsoring the garden is a non-profit.

This is what I found at the warehouse
(no, that's not me in the photo)
Last week, I got very dirty crawling through a warehouse where various staging for the old New England Spring Flower Show is stored.  The first thing I found was a door in a frame.  Then, miracle of miracles, I found an 8’x8’ clapboard panel with a window in it.  Then I found another.  I also found a plethora of 4’x’8’ framed plywood panels.  I recognized one of the clapboard panels because I nearly got killed installing it at the 2007 show for another of Betty’s gardens.

Having these pieces of lumber is a far cry from having a townhouse fa├žade, but it is a start.  It will take the services of a couple of very good carpenters (volunteers, of course, like me) to turn it into a Beacon Hill townhouse.

This weekend, Betty found a perfect, half-round granite doorstep for it, plus a heptacodium that will be the 420-square-foot garden’s centerpiece.  She is now working with greenhouses to get forced plant material sufficient to fill the garden to appear like it is mid-May in the middle of March.  She has the hard part of this assignment.

And all I have to do is make a townhouse appear.

January 4, 2012

Now Is the Winter of My Discontent


On the second day of this new year, I plunged into the woods that make up part of our property and sawed a very large tree limb into roughly a dozen pieces.  The limb – more accurately, about a third of a tree – fell during our brush with Irene back in late August, and we have a policy that “what falls in the woods stays in the woods” unless it interferes with the sight lines from one of our windows.

I will freely admit that when we first noticed the limb, I made some kind of vague commitment that I would “do something about it, eventually”, which is commonly understood to mean that it will still be on my “to do” list in 2030. 

That's me, a year ago today, clearing away the newest
foot of snow.  This morning, there's nothing but lawn.
For me, the saving grace of most such promises is the advent of winter.  Once there’s a foot of snow on the ground, outdoor chores are reduced to one or two bouts of cutting firewood.  The wonderful thing about a good, old-fashioned New England winter is that five months of Mother Nature acting on something as ephemeral as a tree limb eliminates the problem without me having to break a sweat.  Come next spring, the problem would have mostly solved itself.

But this is – at least so far – the snowless winter, except for a cruel October storm that raised all sorts of false hopes about record snowfalls (and left much of New England without power for a week).  All the autumn chores that I put off with the full expectation of getting a pardon once the snow pack was knee deep are still out there, beckoning me.  Instead of curling up with a book on New Year’s Day, I spent an hour cutting down the ornamental grasses that should, by all rights, have been flattened by now.  This is patently unfair.

And, if you remember back just one year, we all spent the week between Christmas and New Years digging out from a pair of back-to-back storms that dumped nearly three feet of the white stuff across the region.  Once that snow was in the record books, all I had to do was point to the snow banks and wince a little bit about having pulled a muscle wielding our snow blower, and I was excused from all chores.  I got a lot of reading (and writing) done last winter.

This year I walk out to the mailbox and see the pile of branches that really needs to get taken to the town dump.  Out back, there is a mat of leaves on walkways that ought to get raked so that moisture can better seep down into the ground.  The list of uncompleted autumn chores is endless.

Somewhere out there is an Alberta Clipper that is going to merge with some warm, muggy moisture from the Gulf of Mexico.  They’re going to collide somewhere over Pennsylvania and shoot northeast.  When that happens, we’re going to get buried.  I, for one, can’t wait.