August 22, 2012

The Deerfield River, a Year After Irene

Occasionally, the Principal Undergardener needs to get out of the garden.  But, even when he does, horticulture is never far from his mind.  So it was yesterday, when Betty and I took a day trip to kayak the Deerfield River in western Massachusetts.

The Principal Undergardener and
the Master Gardener
The Deerfield River is usually a broad, placid rock-strewn stream coming down from the Berkshires.  Rising in southern Vermont, it parallels the very scenic Route 2 for much of its 76-mile route toward the Connecticut River.  Part of its tranquil nature is man-made:  nine hydroelectric dams, some of them more than a century old, dot the river. 

Several times a week, one or more of these dams releases excess water and, for a few hours, the Deerfield River bears a passable resemblance to one of those wild western rivers where it’s Man Against Nature.  Several commercial outfits have sprung up to take advantage of those man-made rapids.  We went with CrabApple Whitewater, which offered us a four-hour ‘self-guided’ tour in an inflatable kayak through eight miles of river including Class I and II rapids.

It was supposed to be fun and it definitely was, but along the way, I saw a reminder that when it’s Man Against Nature, nature is invariably the winner.

This is Route 2 in Charlemont. 
Portions of the roadway were
washed away
A year ago this week, a weak, slow-moving storm named Hurricane Irene plowed into New England.  It was barely a hurricane when it made landfall and was quickly downgraded to a tropical storm and then a depression.  The track of the storm was also considerably west of the predicted track.  Once expected to hit Eastern Massachusetts, it missed Boston (I wrote about it here and here) and, for several hours, The Weather Channel wrote off the storm as a ‘near-miss’ and its blue-jacketed reporters headed off for the next meteorological calamity.

The Bridge of Flowers in Shelburne
Falls.  See the video link below.
What happened next was almost unthinkable.  The great, soggy tropical mass headed up the Connecticut River Valley and stalled for hours.  Western Massachusetts and southern Vermont received ten-plus inches of rain - 100 trillion gallons (15 trillion cubic feet) in the Deerfield River watershed alone.  Already saturated from much higher-than-normal rainfall in July and August, the rain from Irene flowed down mountainsides and into valley and rivers. 

The result was a catastrophe. On the weekend of August 27 and 28, rivers in southern Vermont and western Massachusetts (and, most spectacularly, the Deerfield River) turned into monsters, creating the worst flooding in recorded history in the region.  You can see video footage from the height of the flooding here.

Most of the subsequent news coverage focused on rebuilding roads, but the damage to the river was also substantial.  When the flood waters receded, farm fields adjoining the river were buried under six inches of silt.  Debris dams consisting of trees ripped out by their roots and large boulders blocked the river at multiple points.  Where there were no debris dams, there was ‘stream reaming’ where fast-flowing water created a newly gouged riverbed that made the river unusable for recreation.

The Deefield River on Monday. 
The trip was spectacular.
A year later, there is still lingering damage evident, and navigating the river came with some warnings.  On our eight-mile kayak journey down the Deerfield in Charlemont, we saw the damage up close.  Jen Mooney, who runs CrabApple’s operations in Massachusetts, warned us before we set off of silt deposits and tree debris that, even after a year’s work, made respecting the river all the more important.  “Keep to the left at an island in the river channel; avoid silt and rock buildup just a few inches below the water’s surface,” she told us.  We saw areas where the riverbank was pocked with small ravines and gullies.

Me on the river
But the river’s restoration is also remarkable.  In most areas, it is as though there was never a storm.  The restoration has been a joint effort by the state and volunteer organizations.  What they have accomplished is to be commended.

We had a wonderful trip.  It was a reminder that our ‘near miss’ was western Massachusetts’ horror.  A year ago, I wrote, “The next person who calls Irene a dud will get nothing but a cold stare from me.” 


August 12, 2012

Green Mountain Gem

Roughly seven years ago, Betty went to a lecture at the Massachusetts Horticultural Society.  I was still deeply engrossed in something called “the corporate world” and so merely raised my hands in a helpless gesture when Betty asked if I’d like to accompany her.  She came back from the talk raving about the speaker and his topic, which was “how to tour a garden”.

The speaker that evening was Gordon Hayward, and his thesis was that visiting a garden ought to be considered a treat because it can help us see our own garden more clearly.  His simple premise: keep an open mind.  Too often, he told his audience, we walk into a garden just to see what we like and we don’t like.  Our prejudices get in the way of learning anything, be it a different principle of garden design, color choice or ornamentation. 

On Saturday, we visited Gordon and Mary Hayward’s garden in Putney, Vermont, which was open as part of the Garden Conservancy Open Days program.  Their garden is an acre and a half of inspiration, and humbling inspiration at that.  In addition to lecturing and writing on horticultural topics, Gordon Hayward also designs gardens, and his catalog of projects is nothing short of stunning.  If a ‘great’ garden is one from which you can take away inspiration, then this one is truly superb.

Here is the garden plan. 
Double-click to get a
slightly larger image.

The garden contains eight distinct areas (the diagram at left is, unfortunately, a very low resolution image).  The Haywards have incorporated a woodland garden, an outdoor dining area, a spring garden, a pair of mixed borders as well as long borders, dry and moist shade gardens, and a formal herb garden.  Parts of it are very formal, much of it is highly informal, and all of it is designed to encourage wandering as an aid to discovery.  Paths are everywhere; they become visible only when you come upon them, then promptly disappear from view a few steps further on.  (Here are some photos of the garden in other seasons.)

Frogs play musical instruments
Whimsical elements are pervasive.  There’s a Druidic image of the Green Man, carved into the stump of a butternut tree, representing the meeting place of the worlds of man and plants.  Frogs play musical instruments on birdbaths.  Wire-frame sheep ‘graze’ on the lawn.

Clipped boxwoods lend structure
to the garden
But everywhere is also a keen eye for design and the creators’ knack for visually leading the visitor from one garden space to another.  Gravel around a tree base sends a subliminal command to pause – “this is important”.  Paths lead to vistas of the surrounding fields and mountains.

Paths lead everywhere
The garden has been nearly thirty years in the making but is still growing.  Fifteen years ago, the Haywards uncovered a cracked concrete floor behind their barn where perhaps a half dozen cows would have stood in their stanchions. Less innovative minds (certainly including my own) would have ripped out the  concrete and started fresh.  The Haywards filled the cracks in the concrete with drought-tolerant, ground-hugging perennials.  Today, the area is a tapestry of succulents and flowering perennials, with the gray concrete reduced to a few small areas that bespeak its original purpose.

Betty with Mary
It is a garden that encourages the taking away of ideas and, in turn, this garden was inspired by others.  Mary Hayward grew up across the fields from the Hidcote Manor Gardens in the Cotswolds; Gordon grew up in Connecticut farm country.  The Haywards’ garden incorporates the concept of ‘rooms’ that are one of Hidcote’s principal features.  It also includes apple trees that were part of Gordon’s boyhood.

It was, in short, an enchanting day in a gem of a garden.

August 5, 2012

Hot August Morning

The forecast for Boston yesterday morning was for 95 degrees and oppressive humidity.  In other words, a perfect day for a day trip to someplace cooler and with a lower dew point.   Lesser sorts would have gone to the beach, the Cape or the White Mountains.  Betty and I packed a picnic lunch and headed for Stonecrop Gardens in New York’s Hudson Highlands, elevation 1100 feet and ‘only’ 184 miles away.
A planter idea you could
try at home
Stonecrop Gardens and the Garden Conservancy are inextricably linked.  Located in Cold Spring, NY, the garden was the home of Anne and Frank Cabot, who founded the Garden Conservancy in 1989 with the goal of “preserving America’s finest gardens for posterity and to enhance public appreciation of gardens.”  Today, it is a public garden, open every day except Sunday between April and October.

The Cabots built their summer home at Stonecrop in the late 1950s and began creating twelve acres of gardens.  Frank Cabot (who died in 2011) was an avid plant collector and the unusual structures he built to display his collections are still in use (a pair of half-sunken greenhouses are especially attractive).  The idea of turning Stonecrop into a public garden began in 1985 and, over the next seven years, the property was gradually transformed to create an ‘educational’ garden where people could learn about horticulture, experience his enthusiasm for fine gardening, and take inspiration back home to their own gardens.

Getting to know one of the
Stonecrop staff?
Stonecrop opened to the public in 1992 and, twenty years later, it is glorious.  Maintenance is top-notch, the horticulture is in prime condition, and every visitor gets a sheet with a listing of more than a hundred ‘points of interest’ showing what’s in bloom or otherwise shouldn’t be missed.  In turn, discreet numbered tags next to plants tie to the sheet, leaving garden vistas uncluttered.


The Cabots were not your usual exurban gardeners.  For example, there is a glorious pond with cascading pools, each filled with carefully selected aquatic plants.  The pond is bisected by a stone bridge, the centerpiece of which is an irregular slab of granite roughly thirty feet long, six feet wide and three feet thick.  Standing on the stone, looking across the pond, you realize that the entire facing wall of the pond – including all those cascading pools – is made up of other enormous chunks of granite, carefully placed to create a ‘look’. 


The stone bridge in the pond
The stonework was done by masons over several years, but the raw stone came to the Cabots as the result of blasting on the Cold Spring Turnpike (SR 301) which connects the property to the nearby Taconic Parkway and the Hudson River. When New York State allows you to take away the blast debris from a public road project, this speaks of a very good relationship, but then you have to keep in mind that Anne Cabot’s family donated much the land that became Fahnestock State Park and her grandfather helped create the Palisades Interstate Park Commission. 


Succulents massed in a
sunny courtyard
As a garden that gives homeowners good ideas, Stonecrop is top notch.  There are attractive containers that look like something that anyone with a little Portland cement and some spare pieces of stone could throw together.  There is a massing of succulents in a sunny courtyard than has probably been photographed by everyone who has a terrace or a patio and six cacti in pots.  The intricate woodland trail is something that can be emulated by anyone with a preponderance of shade and a love of perennials. 
Water cascades down a man-made
hillside into the pond
All that was missing from our trip were fellow visitors.  We arrived a few minutes after the opening time of 10 a.m. and were the garden’s second guests.  We stayed two hours and stopped to chat with the friendly docent who had taken our five dollar admission.  Glancing down at the sign-in sheet, there were still just two more names.  On a beautiful weekend morning at the height of get-out-of-New-York season, the garden should have overflowed with people.  Instead, we had the place to ourselves.  A garden this beautiful deserves visitors – lots of them.
This coming Saturday (August 11), the garden will be open as part of the Garden Conservancy Open Days Program, with tea and refreshments.  Please go. 

Note:  We opened our property for the Garden Conservancy Open Days program in 2008.  Four years later, it still ranks as one of our proudest days as gardeners.

August 1, 2012

The Bressingham Garden Turns Five

For the 150 people who were there, August 3, 2007 is one of those days they’ll remember for a very long time.  The temperature was in the upper nineties, the humidity was unbearable, and the sun beat down relentlessly.

The 'souvenir' yellow shirt
given to everyone who
worked that day
That was the day the Bressingham Garden at the Massachusetts Horticultural Society was born.  And those 150 people weren’t there to dedicate the garden.  They were there to build it.  I know all this because I was one of them.

Most gardens are built over months or even years.  The acre-plus Bressingham Garden was planned to be built in a single day. (It wasn’t, and more about that in a moment.)  The idea of the garden came together over several months.  To better acquaint Americans with the spectacular cultivars being developed by U.K.’s Blooms of Bressingham, renowned plantsman Adrian Bloom had hit on the successful idea of creating small demonstrations gardens around the United States.  ‘Small’ meant approximately 4,000 square feet, such as one at Ohio State University, also completed in 2007.  All were built in a day by volunteers.

In the spring of that year, Mass Hort approached Adrian about creating one of his signature gardens at Elm Bank, and Adrian agreed.  Sketches were exchanged and the project grew.  A 4,000-square-foot garden became a 10,000 one, and then 20,000.  By the time Adrian arrived in Boston to oversee its construction, the ‘canvas’ had become 45,000 square feet; slightly over an acre.

The site was a pancake-flat field of grass, part of which had once been a clay tennis court.  In the days before those 150 people assembled, that field was sculpted into sinuous mounds of earth and hundreds of truckloads of soil were brought in.  Boulders were added as visual anchor points and a handful of specimen trees were planted.

At the end of day one, less than half
of the garden had been planted
(double-click to see the photo
at full-screen size)
The scale of the project can best be summed up with numbers: 100+ trees, 300+ shrubs, and 8,000 perennials.  For each item, a hole had to be dug, the item conditioned and planted, then the area raked and watered.

There were a few unforeseen problems with the project. First, 150 people cannot be properly employed at one time in a one-acre site.  They bump into one another and step on plants.  Second – and this was both good news and bad – Adrian Bloom came with one plan on paper, but devised a better one as he saw the site.  Implementing this better plan meant that Adrian would walk around, look at an area, and say, ‘get me fifty of those (fill in the name) perennials’.  A runner would fetch the plants, a spotter would carry a plant to the starting point specified by Adrian, and then the fifty plants would be arranged according to his specification.  Areas would be left blank so that he could come back an hour later, evaluate the look of the bed, and then call for thirty of a different plant to complement the adjacent area. 

A third problem was that the searing heat baked the top inch of the loam into which we were to plant those perennials and shrubs to the consistency of terra cotta pottery.  My enduring memory of that day was jumping up and down on a shovel, trying to break though that outer shell.

The Bressingham Garden
in 2012.  Mature, yet
subtly changing
The net result was that at the end of the day, less than half of the garden had been planted.  The accompanying photo (above) shows the site at the end of day one.

Thirty of us came back for a second day, and this time we started at 7:30 a.m.  We were now ‘seasoned’ volunteers who knew what we were doing, or at least we followed Adrian’s directions to his satisfaction.  And, there was a new secret weapon added: several power augurs capable of making a hole a foot wide and a foot deep in about twenty seconds.  By the end of day two, we had more than 6,000 perennials in the ground.  Not bad for heat-stricken, sunburned volunteers.

It would take several more weekends of work to complete the garden according to Adrian’s plan.  In the intervening years, much more work has been done on the garden (including accounting for the pesky remnants of that clay tennis court). 

In early July, Adrian was back at the Bressingham Garden as part of a tour of Elm Bank by the Perennial Plant Association’s national convention.  Today, the garden is thought of as mature yet, even in its maturity, it subtly changes.  Seeing and appreciating those changes are what make it worth coming back to, year after year.