December 19, 2013

Oh, Christmas Tree – the 2013 Edition

Putting up the Sanders Family Christmas Tree is always a complex operation, and this year’s production is no different. 
First, there is the search for the tree.  Then, there is bringing the tree home.  After that, there is the storing of the tree until the proper date, after which comes placing the tree in the stand.  Finally, there is the decorating of the tree.  None of these are simple tasks where the Sanders Family Christmas Tree is concerned.
The tree comes into the house.
That's 'The Lemon Drop Kid'
playing in the background.

Double-click on any of these
photos for a slideshow.
I should interject a little background for the unwary reader.  Mine is a mixed marriage.  Betty is a born-and-bred New Yorker from the Finger Lakes, where horse-drawn sleighs drag magnificent, fresh-cut firs through crisp, fresh-fallen snow to homes on Christmas Eve.  I am a native Floridian and my circa-1957 vision of the pathetic, parched, brown-needled Scotch pines that slumped listlessly against fences in Kiwanis-Club-operated lots in my hometown is permanently seared in memory. 
This is a drawing on an
egg of our first house, 

a brownstone in Brooklyn
In the Finger Lakes, multiple generations of a family gather around a roaring fire to roast chestnuts before going out to skate on frozen ponds.  In Miami, we picked up a couple of #2 Christmas dinners at the drive-through window at Bubi’s on our way to the beach.
Betty has always been a true believer.  She only had to give me a taste of the Real Thing to bring me around.  I cut my first Christmas tree in 1974 on a tree farm north of Albany with Betty as my guide to distinguishing between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ trees.  It was a revelation.  I was hooked.  I saw the light, and there no greater zealot in the Christmas Tree Universe than a convert. 
A decided mix of cultures: at
lower left, a Ukranian egg from
our days in Chicago; at center,
an Indian on an elephant; one
of Betty's parent's ornaments
from the 1940s.
This year, we began scouting Christmas trees before Thanksgiving and made an exploratory visit to our first lot soon thereafter.  For several years – at the height of my mania – we traveled fifty miles to southern Rhode Island to cut fourteen-foot behemoths at Big John Leyden’s Tree Farm (inexplicably, there are no cut-your-own tree farms in Boston – go figure).  Going to Big John’s involved borrowing a truck and spending upwards of three hours finding ‘the right’ tree.  And, while the cost of the tree was a very reasonable $35, the gas involved made the excursion less of a bargain.  And, Big John eventually ran out of fourteen-foot Fraser firs, plus Betty put her foot down that we would never again devote two solid days just to getting a tree to stand up straight.
There's something for
everyone on the tree
We found this year’s tree at Weston Nurseries, a nine-plus-foot Fraser fir that smelled like the Great North Woods.  It was baled and placed atop our car for the fifteen-mile drive home. That was on December 8.  We do not, however, put up our tree until exactly one week before Christmas, and I am unable to fathom why putting up trees – real or artificial – in late November has become both commonplace and acceptable.  To me, a tree has a two-week engagement where it occupies center stage in a house.  It should go up on December 18 while an appropriate Christmas movie or three plays in the background and come down while watching the Rose Parade on HGTV.
The density of ornaments
reflects travel and eclectic tastes.
Once home, we un-baled the tree and parked it in our woods to regain its proper form.  This involved cutting a fresh bottom, standing the tree up in a tub of water, and securing it at four points to nearby trees.  Tying ropes in sub-freezing weather is not fun but we accomplished the feat in a little under an hour.  There, the tree stood for eight days, which included one bout of snow and sleet. 
On Monday, though, there was a warning for a fresh three-to-six inches of the white stuff the following day and we thought it unwise to carry a snow-encrusted tree into the house.  So, we cleared a space in the garage and devoted two hours to anchoring the tree to the railing of one of our garage doors while tying the base of the tree to the other railing so the tree could not kick out and hit a car.  Elapsed time:  ninety minutes. 
Then, late Tuesday afternoon, after the tree had shed its accumulation of snow (and while heavy snow fell outside), we carried it into the house.  We must be getting better at placing trees in stands (it requires an extremely heavy-duty stand to accommodate a tree of our size and girth) because we got it standing perfectly straight on the first try.  We tightened the tree in its stand.  We also deploy a pair of guy wires to augment the stand because, in years past, cats had gotten inspired to scale the tree in search of whatever it is cats climb trees to find.
A koala from Australia, an angel,
an ornate ceramic egg and my
drawing of our Stamford home.
Once guy-wired, we inspected the tree one last time.  It was magnificent, with a circumference at its base of more than twenty-five feet.  It was perfect… except that it was facing the wrong way.  And so, with guy wires removed, I wiggled my way into the tree and picked it up in its stand, slowly rotating a hundred-pound tree (plus stand) one hundred and eighty degrees. Guy wires were re-attached.  Miraculously, the tree was still straight.  Elapsed time:  two hours.
Tuesday evening, we added nine hundred lights.  Wednesday, we started decorating.
It is decorating a tree that is the true joy of having one.  Opening each box of ornaments is a voyage of discovery through time and space.  There are the tiny vases we acquired in Greece and the prayer balls from Japan.  There are matched glass lamps from Harrod’s in London and terra cotta jugs from Sorrento.  There is a tiny Champagne bottle from old friends in Virginia and one of my baby shoes. 
Box after box is opened and memories are unleashed:  tiny koalas from Australia and a carved tiger in a Santa cap from the San Diego Zoo; crystal icicles we bought on sale after Christmas at B. Altman in the late 1970s and delicate ornaments from the 1940s that graced Betty’s tree when she was a girl.  Hand-painted Ukrainian eggs from our days in Chicago and a Russian one featuring a red fox framed against a snowy night from a street fair in Augusta, Georgia.
The finished tree.
Merry Christmas!
There are more than 600 ornaments in all (a computerized list keeps track of each one and its origin).  We add a few new ornaments each year; both ones we are given and ones we acquire.  Sadly, a few become too delicate to use and so are taken out, admired, and returned to storage.
This is our ritual.  Christmas means many things to different people.  For me, the tree is a symbol of both timeless and evolution; of change and of constancy.  I look at the decorated tree and I see a diorama of my life preserved in precious bundles each weighing a few ounces.

Christmas trees come but once a year, but the enchantment is eternal.

November 28, 2013

Why We Garden - The Thanksgiving Edition

One of Betty’s most popular programs for garden clubs has the cumbersome title, “Planning, Preparing and Planting the Vegetable Garden”.  In it, she takes clubs through all the stages of getting involved in creating a home garden, imparting considerable wisdom along the way. 
Norman Rockwell focused on
the turkey.  We focus on
the vegetables.
The program ends with a slide titled ‘Why We Garden’ and the bullet points are ‘Remembering where food comes from’, ‘Eating truly fresh vegetables’ and ‘Eating well long after the garden is gone’.  Betty expounds on each benefit before raising the lights and asking for questions.
The illustration for that slide is an array of home-canned fruits and vegetables in a larder.  After today, I have an idea for a much better one: a photograph of our Thanksgiving dinner.  We have just completed a sumptuous dinner and the remarkable part is that nearly all of it came from our garden – that same garden that was plowed under four weeks ago.
We started with a superb vichyssoise – potato leek soup for the uninitiated.  Hours before the garden was eradicated for 2013, we pulled the last of our leeks – more than a dozen plump, succulent and fragrant specimens that shrugged off the sub-freezing nights.  We have been eating those leeks ever since.  Today’s repast used the last of them and they were delicious.
Our main course included creamed onions, green beans, corn, turnips, butternut squash, turkey and dressing.  Everything on the table grew in our garden except the turkey and dressing, and those two items were liberally seasoned with rosemary, thyme and sage from our kitchen garden.  The dressing contained onions and celery from our garden.  I draw the line, though, at growing wheat.
Three squares of corn meant
enough extra to freeze
The corn bears special mention.  During the prime corn harvesting season in August and September, we ate two or four ears of corn every day as each ‘square’ ripened.  Inevitably, though, there was an overlap when one square was not completely picked while the next was clearly ripe.  During that interregnum, we picked, shucked, blanched and quick-froze the excess corn.  A day later, we sheared the cobs of their kernels and froze them in plastic bags.  The resulting product is startling: it tastes nothing like the frozen corn you find in supermarkets.  Rather, it is just a shade off what was picked back in August and September: incredibly sweet and crunchy.
We had our salad course after the main meal.  I had sincere doubts whether the lettuce we transplanted to our cold frame in September would survive the pair of 15 degree nights and 40 mph winds we endured last week.  I covered the cold frame with a tarp and crossed my fingers.  To my surprise, several of the lettuce heads came through without freeze damage.  It tasted grand.
This is our post-Thanksgiving
squash and sweet potato supply
Dessert was a sweet potato chocolate nut cake; a recipe straight out of the Victory Garden cookbook.  I confess we did not grow sweet potatoes this year.  However, I did watch them grow in an adjoining plot on our community garden.  One enterprising gardener purchased several hundred ‘slips’ and parceled them out among more than a dozen plot holders.  In September, we bartered red peppers and okra for half a dozen plump specimens grown by a gardening neighbor.  They were terrific in late November and will be even sweeter in mid-winter.
The squash we ate will, at the rate we are consuming it, last until spring.  We harvested more than two dozen Waltham Butternut squashes, each weighing several pounds.  Like the sweet potatoes, winter squash ‘sweetens’ as it rests following harvest.  I see a lot of squash soup in our future.

What will be on the table next year?  During the main course, Betty casually noted that the only reason cranberries are grown in bogs is for ease of harvesting; cranberry bushes grow just fine on dry land.  Stay tuned for further developments.

November 18, 2013

All the Leaves Are Brown

We are coming down to the end of the garden clean-up.  The perennial beds have been cut back to stubs and even the grasses are looking weary.  What we are left with are… oak leaves.
We have perhaps two hundred trees on our two-acre property.  There is a healthy mix of specimen trees we planted over the past 14 years (oxydendron, forest pansy redbud, heptacodium, dogwood, cornelian cherry, etc.), but the preponderance of our little forest are trees that were on the property when we got here. 
This fifty-foot oak on our
property still has some leaves
to shed.
Among the latter group are twenty or more oaks.  The largest are over fifty years old and sixty feet high but we have them in all sizes.  What all of the oaks have in common is that they all wait to drop their leaves until after the other trees on the property have done so. Around our home, the maples, ash and birch all shed their leaves in October.  Even the pines completed their needle drop by the end of the month.  It is now mid-November and a good gust of wind can still bring down a cascade of oak leaves.
The lawn was mowed yesterday.  Last
night's storm left it looking like this.
Oak leaves are the savior of lawn services.  Maples, for example, drop their leaves quickly:  typically in two weeks or less.  Moreover, they are ‘thin’ leaves and their C:N ratio (carbon to nitrogen) is around 20.  This means they break down very rapidly when simply mowed into the lawn.  The mulched leaves return the same nutrients needed for next year’s growth.  Lawn services, or course, are not in the business of letting Mother Nature do for free what three guys with a truck can do for a fee.   When the maple leaves fall, there’s a single visit to rake/suck up the leaves and leave the lawn looking neat and tidy.  Lawn ‘nutrition’ will be added later in the form of a ‘fall (chemical) fertilization’.
If not cleared, oak leaves will form
a mat that smothers whatever is
underneath it, like our rock garden.
Oak leaves, on the other hand, can take a month or more to drop.  Their C:N ratio is 60:1 and the leaves are both thick and heavy with tannin.  What this means is that the leaves decompose very slowly (because of the preservative property of the tannin) and, once on the ground, they stay there.  A diligent lawn care company can milk oak leaf season for half a dozen clean-up trips.  Clients pay because there are few things as ugly as an oak-leaf-strewn lawn.
We, of course, don’t use a lawn service.  The earlier, non-oak leaf drops were all mowed into the lawn and have long since disappeared.  The oak leaves, on the other hand, have another fate: we turn them into mulch.  It’s a laborious process but well worth it.
Here’s what we do:  first, we rake all of the leaves out of the various beds and onto the lawn.  We do this because oak leaves tend to mat.  Because they’re not drying out after they fall, they’re still pancake-flat after several weeks.  If you get a layer of oak leaves six or eight thick, it turns into a smothering blanket over your lawn or perennial bed and little moisture gets through.  The result is snow mold and other diseases.
These chopped-up oak leaves are
spread on our beds as a protective
mulch for the perennials.
Next, we chop up the leaves with our lawn mower and bag them.  Then, the well-chopped leaves go right back onto the beds as a mulch.  They won’t mat because they’ve now been torn into tiny pieces.  Bacteria have a lot more edges to chew on, hastening their composting. The oak-leaf mulch provides insulation for the plants in the beds (preventing heaving), a moisture barrier to keep water in the soil from evaporating, and a slow-acting compost to enrich the soil.

By spring, the oak leaves will have mostly disappeared and we’ll put down a layer of brown wood mulch for the season.  In the meantime, we’ve taken a problem (those drab oak leaves) and turned them into an asset. 

November 10, 2013

The Garden Ogre Goes Back Into His Cave

Betty and I secured a plot in the Medfield Community Garden a year after we moved back to New England in 1999.  From our first year, though, we noticed that the garden seemed to be run for the benefit of a few families who staked out multiple plots for themselves, did little maintenance, and imposed a three-page-long list of rules that amounted to a screed against the use of anything contrary to their idea of ‘organic’ principles.
A Google maps view of the
garden, circa 2009.  It has
since been enlarged.
We complained – to no avail – to the ‘committee’ and then to a town selectman who looked into it and found that the garden was under the auspices of the town’s Conservation Commission.  We spoke to a member of the Commission who nodded in all the right places.  A few months later, we were called into the Town Clerk’s office and sworn in as members of the Community Garden Committee.
Which is when we found out that we were the only members of the Committee; the others having finally found suckers to take their place, and promptly resigned.  The one who had written the garden rule, as it turns out, wasn't even a committee member.
That was six years ago.  I dredge up this bit of ancient history because, this weekend, the garden was plowed under for the season by a farmer from a neighboring town.  The garden’s year is officially over.
The garden in April...
I like to think that Betty and I have made some improvements in the running of the Community Garden.  For one thing, it is now considerably larger: 30,000 square feet of gardens plus ancillary walkways, compost piles, and whatnot; call it an acre in all.  There are fifty, 600-square-foot plots; about ten of which are further subdivided into 300-square-foot plots so that those with smaller gardening aspirations can still get their hands dirty.  We can offer plots to up to sixty families each season while charging just $20 per full plot or $15 per half plot (which pays for two plowings, the delivery of compost and manure, and on-site water).  For another thing, the gardening ‘guidelines’ fit nicely on one page.
... and at the end of June
We work with the town to bring in wood chips to keep weeds out of the paths, and well-composted manure to provide fertilizer.  A soil test done on the garden last spring showed that the garden is 18% ‘organics’ – no other fertilizer is needed.  The garden is plowed under in the fall, overspread with manure over the winter, and then harrowed in the spring.  That fact that after twelve years at its current site, the garden is now a full foot higher than the surrounding field speaks volumes.
Betty’s job is garden advisor.  She gives a vegetable gardening lecture to a standing-room crowd each March at the Medfield Library, and then fields a continuing string of questions as the season progresses.  For her, the questions are a gold mine:  they tell her what is on the mind of both beginning and experienced gardeners which, in turn, allows her to fine-tune her presentations to garden clubs and civic groups. 
She fields many queries while she works our plot.  Most questions, though, arrive via email and Betty responds with page-long answers that include links to university and extension service websites.  As a result, Betty has been given the title of 'garden guru', and properly so.
Back in the bad old days, garden
plots would be abandoned
In addition to mowing and weed-whacking the garden perimeter, my job is garden ogre.  Garden communications are via email and the ones I send out over the course of the season are invariably of the nagging variety. In April and May I am telling people that they need to show ‘evidence of gardening’ or else their plot will be given away. This is because, in the bad old days, people would sign up for a plot, find it actually involved effort, and abandon their garden to the weeds.  Those weeds would become everyone’s problem.  Now, any garden that is not worked by the middle of May gets turned over to someone on a waiting list.
... and in August, when
everything ripens.
As the season progresses, I tell people, gently at first and then stridently if follow-up communications are needed, to clear weeds from the walking aisles, trim back vegetables that are causing their fences to bulge into the aisles, get the excess weeds out of their plots and, in August, to get their blankety-blank sweet potato and squash vines out of the aisles.
Then comes the end-of-season cleanup campaign.  I am aware that many community gardens allow permanent fences.  To me, this promotes insularity and a sense of a closed community.  In Medfield, all gardens must be taken down by the end of October. “Taken down” means fences, but also includes stalks and vines that must be bagged up and completely removed from the vicinity together with anything that might be diseased.  Weeds should be chucked to the perimeter of the garden.  All that should remain is stuff that the tractor can easily plow under.
It is during October that I begin signing emails with the title ‘Garden Ogre’.  The vast majority of our gardeners are responsible.  A minority have either an unwarranted sense of entitlement or some aversion to meeting deadlines.  I walk the garden every week noting who is putting off their cleanup work and I start sending out ‘reminders’.  If it gets to be the middle of the month and the garden still shows no sign of cleanup activity, the tone of my emails becomes downright unfriendly.
The response to these emails varies from a wake-up call that finally gets them out on a chilly Saturday morning to a petulant reply from one family that “they have small children and preparing for Halloween is more important.”  Guess which family will not be invited back for the 2014 season?
Ready for next year.
I walked the garden one final time on Saturday morning.  I pulled a dozen or so stakes and some landscape fabric that had been buried by mulch. The garden was otherwise clean of debris.  Later this month, I’ll send out notes to each plot holder asking if they want to return for 2014 and, if so, to what size garden.  That survey will tell me how much ‘marketing’ needs to be done to fill the spaces next year.

It is a satisfying bit of public service.  A fair number of the notes I receive from my fellow gardeners make a point of praising the work Betty and I do to keep the enterprise running.  Best of all, my fellow gardeners are a great group of people whom I would otherwise likely never get to know.  
What more can an ogre ask?  Well,, a donkey sidekick would be nice...

October 31, 2013

A Gardener's Work Is Never Done

Yesterday morning I was awakened at 5:35 a.m. when our cat walked into our bedroom and let out a single, very loud ‘meow’.  The cat then went downstairs where it emitted multiple noises that sounded for all the world like a cement mixer missing one or more ball bearings.
Our cat is not normally so talkative, so we put on our robes and went downstairs to see what had upset our normally (except at mealtime) placid pet.  The answer was immediately obvious: outside our front door, two deer were sizing up our holly bushes as a breakfast entrĂ©e.
Welcome to the gardener’s world, where the end of summer and the growing season are just pencil marks on a continuum of chores that span the year.  I categorize those chore into four baskets:  things we don’t know we have to do until reality slaps us upside the head and tells us we better do them ‘now’; things we put off doing during the summer because it was too damned hot; things that you can’t hurry; and things that need to get done, and autumn just seems like the right time of year to do them.
You do not want to see these on
your doorstep.
For example, yesterday’s meowing cat begat an hour of spraying every evergreen in our garden with a nasty commercial concoction of putrefied eggs and garlic and a red-circled reminder on our calendar to repeat the process in six weeks.  That’s a prime example of a chore that kind of sneaks up on you.  Spraying is second nature while the garden is in its full flower.  It takes a couple of tick-bearing ruminants on your doorstep to drive home the reminder than deer repellent needs to be applied even after the tastiest morsels are history.
This rock border project was
saved for cooler weather.
The late autumn is also when projects that were put in abeyance because of the summer’s heat come home to roost.  We had a portion of our driveway repaved in July.  Now that the weather is cooler, we are re-installing a rock drainage border around the driveway.  It sounds like a simple task until you consider that the contractor performing the repaving work made no effort to preserve our earlier border.  As a result, new drainage channels must be created, shaped and filled with rocks that have sat in crates for several months.  Is it a gardening project?  Absolutely.  The drainage borders protect the gardens that surround the driveway from rainwater that would otherwise wash those gardens away.
Taking down the gardens in the autumn is a gradual process that requires respect of both nature and reality, and so stretches well beyond the end of Daylight Savings Time.  A large bed of daylilies was cut down in late September when the foliage yellowed.  Honeybees, however, still feasted on the asters that were interspersed among the daylilies. And so that part of the cleanup was put off.  Now that the asters have passed, I am going around dutifully completing that part of the project.
These grasses are in their glory
right now.  Why cut them down?
We also have tall grasses that come into their glory in October and November.  They wave in the breeze at the front of our property and are impervious to frost.  Cutting them down early would be senseless.  But the first snow of the season will leave them looking disheveled and forlorn. As soon as that first snow of the season has fallen and melted, those grasses will need to come down.
Finally, late autumn is also the time for those projects on the ‘long term’ list.  Several years ago, I insisted that a part of the back of our property be cultivated as ‘Seedeaters’ Heaven’, a stand of tall rudbeckia, hellenium and other plants that would provide a wealth of seeds for the avians that keep down the insect population of our garden. 
It was a great and noble idea in theory.  In practice, it never looked good and quickly became an overgrown mess filled with weeds and unwanted interlopers.  Now that the days are cool, my responsibility is to grub out the area so that it can be replanted more sensibly.
In undertaking these projects, we race against the calendar. Sometime in November or December, it will be too cold to work outside and the days will be too short to get work done.  When that happens, we throw in the towel and retreat indoors to contemplate seed catalogs for the 2014 season.

But not, of course, until I’ve split enough wood to get through the New Year.

October 28, 2013

The Party's Over

We’ve been living on borrowed time for the past month.  Daytime temperatures have risen as high as the sixties and low seventies while the all-important nighttime temperatures dropped into the thirties but fell below 35 only once or twice.  The result has been a best-of-both-worlds autumn: lots of color on the things that are supposed to change color (trees and shrubs), with an extended season of green for our annuals and temperature-sensitive perennials. 
The Japanese waxbells that were still
attractive just a few weeks ago...
Three nights ago, though, a cold front came through Boston and we awakened to temperatures in the low twenties.  In just six hours, the last vestige of the 2013 summer gardening season vanished.
... turned to brown stalks overnight.
The change was startling.  The Carolina Silverbell (Halesia tetraptera) behind our house dropped every one of its still-green leaves in the space of a few hours.  Our Japanese waxbells (Kirengeshoma palmata), though somewhat straggly in appearance because we’re down to ten hours of sunlight, were looking fine Thursday afternoon.  Friday morning, they were limp brown stalks.  Except for the most sheltered specimens, our hostas collapsed into yellow mush.  Overnight, the leaves on our hydrangeas turned limp and black.
The inner sidewalk bed on
Memorial Day...
Those few hours of a hard freeze greatly simplified our end-of-gardening-season clean-up strategy.  A week ago, I was cutting down perennials as they passed from green to yellow.  This past weekend, Betty and I clear-cut entire beds.  The only perennials that stand unscathed are the hellebores and heucheras (both winter-hardy), and a group of plants that are marked to be divided.
... and after it was cut down
over the weekend.
The vegetable garden is now just a small clutch of frost-tolerant root crops (turnips, carrots) and cold-indifferent specimens like chard and leeks.  The fence is gone, and we can only hope that the deer are occupied elsewhere.  The day before the hard frost, we were in the Berkshires and raced back in the later afternoon, picking two dozen gorgeous butternut squash just as the sun set.  Had those squash remained in the garden overnight, they would have been damaged.  Instead, they’re now in our basement, cleaned and ready to age into perfection and ready for use over the next several months.
There’s no rhyme or reason to the date of the first hard frost.  It has come as early as the middle of September and as late as early November.  Given a choice in the matter, I prefer the lingering autumn, with a gradual cooling that is finally punctuated by that freeze.  We have at least four months before we see the first crocus and snowdrops, and five months before winter gives up its hold on our corner of New England.  Knowing what lies ahead makes me appreciate this October respite all the more.

October 14, 2013

Twilight Time

In May, more than a hundred
varieties of annuals awaited containers.

Double-click on any image to see
the slideshow at full-screen size.
From the middle of May through the end of August they are the ambulatory roving ambassadors of the garden.  Our containers filled with mixed annuals line the driveway, get massed and un-massed depending upon what is in bloom, fill in holes in beds where perennials have passed, and bring bright splashes of color to our deck where only containers can thrive.
At the height of the season, a
grouping of more than a dozen
containers are massed
The containers are inexpensive, single-season experiments for plants trying out for a permanent place in the garden scheme.  This year we welcomed back coleus ‘Big Red Judy’ for a triumphant return while deciding that a lobelia Laguna Sky Blue bloomed and passed far too quickly to be put on the ‘repeat’ list.  We discovered Kangaroo Paw (anigozanthos) and it immediately earned a gold star for its bloom-till-it-hurts attitude while fragrant nemesia (nemesia aromatic) became a staple in half a dozen containers.
More than a hundred different cultivars of annuals went into the creation of roughly thirty large container gardens.  Another twenty containers have fixed specimens – a loropetalum, a cape plumbago, a crape myrtle and an acuba, for example – that we overwinter in the garage because the shrubs (some now seven or eight years old) are not hardy to zones 5 or 6.  Our water garden plants, too, are overwintered; trimmed severely and placed in a bank of basement windows where they will hang on for seven long months.
By the end of September, the
annuals are fairly well shot
But come the beginning of September, the annuals are spent.  They have spent the summer on steroids; continuing doses of plant food to force blooms and heavy trimming to encourage branching.  By the middle of September, the sun no longer climbs directly overhead and, after the autumnal equinox, daylight shrinks at an alarming rate.
In each of the past five or six years, a September frost has provided a final answer to the question of ‘when should we take apart the containers’.  This year, while temperatures dipped into the upper thirties several times and frost nipped at our vegetable garden, our containers emerged in the morning unscathed.
Ballast that made pots lighter
is removed and cleaned for
use next year
Today was the day we chose to bring the container season to a close.  In a several-hours-long marathon, I placed containers in a cart and brought them, assembly fine fashion, to our ‘potting’ area.  There, Betty ruthlessly yanked out entire plants or broke off tops.  Depending on the size of the pot, either she or I dumped the pot into one of our transplant beds where she methodically tore apart roots, salvaged ‘ballast’ material for reuse next year, and spread the spent potting mix over the bed’s base of topsoil, where I then dug the two planting mediums together.  By next spring, the bed will feature well-aerated soil enriched with peat and vermiculite.
Containers await cleaning
Tomorrow, we begin the second part of the process: cleaning the containers with a mild solution of bleach to ensure that no insects overwinter with the pots that will hibernate in the basement until next May. Those that are destined for the garage will be inspected for both tiny hitchhikers and insufficient room for root growth.  By the end of the week, only a handful of the 50+ containers that were in the garden at the peak of the season will remain on view.

This container will
stay in place for the winter
Two of those will be a pair of cast iron urns that, at present, contain a vigorous coleus ‘Alabama Sunrise’, perennial strawberry (with fruit), and a calibrochoa ‘Lemon Slice’ that has been in continuous bloom since the second week of May.  When that hard frost hits, the coleus and calibrochoa will be taken out and evergreens will take their place.

If this sounds like a lot of work, it is.  But the time elapsed in taking down this part of the garden is a fraction of the weeks that are spent finding and assembling the right plants each year that make this a special part of our garden. 

September 27, 2013

Little White Lies

Do you want to hear someone tell a lie?  Just ask any gardener how much time they spend maintaining their garden. You can be absolutely certain that the answer they give – no matter how large or small the number – will be understated.  The actual time may be ten percent longer or twice as much as they tell you, but it will never be less than what they say.
We tell these fibs for three reasons.  First, we may genuinely think that gardening takes less than five hours a week.  That’s because the gardener is thinking about April or November when chores are light.  Or, they may be averaging in the winter months when, at least in New England, the only gardening is indoors.
The second reason is that gardeners aren’t looking for pity, brownie points, or convoluted looks when the honest answer is, “Oh, twenty hours a week in season, five or six at the beginning and the tag end.”  The gardeners I know are proud of their work and they don’t want to be seen as having some form of mental illness for devoting so much time to making things look really good.
The third reason – and the one that causes me to write this – is that gardeners forget about the ‘big push’ activities that come at the beginning and end of the season. 
The list above (double-click on it to see it at a larger size) is not contrived.  It has been posted to our refrigerator door since September 21.  On that date, Betty and I did a walk through the property and she called out things that need to be done as we get toward the end of the season.  I was the scribe and, because my handwriting is barely legible under the best of cases, I typed up the list after the walk.
This yellowing daylily foliage makes
the garden look ragged
New England gardens at the end of September show their age.  Most annuals are shot, as are perennials like hosta and daylilies.  There are also plants we put up with during the growing season – such as allowing milkweed to run rampant in places – that now look like poor gardening now that the birds, bees and butterflies that fed on them have decamped for warmer climates.  Performing this end-of-September cleanup greatly improves the look of the garden and extends its season by several weeks.
With the daylily foliage cut back.
Manhattan bed shows off the
still-blooming sedum and asters
The list consists of both things that can be done in a few minutes (‘cut hosta flowers in white garden’) and tasks that are backbreaking (‘turn 5-bin composter’).  There are chores that can be done in pieces, such as taking apart those leggy containers, and ones that are best done in one fell swoop, like cutting down daylilies.
Some of the chores are Trojan Horses.  I cut the dozen or so branches that overhung our forest pansy redbud (cercis canadendis) and a Rose of Sharon (hibiscus syriacus).  But taking down those tree limbs brought to light a similar number of ‘problem’ branches that were heretofore hidden.  And, allowing those two cultivars to get adequate light started me thinking about the fate of the shrubs in out Long Island bed that are starting to ‘lean out’ because the copse of trees behind the bed is also sending out intruding branches.
And, some chores only seem simple.  One bed had both bee balm (monarda) and black-eyed susans (rudbeckia) to be cut down.  But the monarda is prone to diseases.  It must all be taken out at once and clippers cleaned with bleach afterward to prevent the spread of the powdery mildew that affects it.  Only when the monarda has all been cleaned and bagged can the balance of that bed be worked on.
I am not doing this alone; Betty is dividing hostas and moving grasses.  She’ll also take on the ‘skilled’ work on the list.  But it is the undergardener’s job to plow into the stands of daylilies and get rid of their now-yellowing foliage.  (See the ‘before’ and ‘after’ photos to understand why this needs to be done.)

So, all in all, how long will it take to complete this list?  I don’t know, probably half a day.

September 18, 2013

Something in the Air

The blue area is a frost warning
Autumn was in the air this morning.  The calendar says there is still another week of summer but it has not felt like summer for several weeks.  Moreover, there is a frost advisory tonight for the Worcester Hills (some 40 miles northwest of here).  If there’s frost about, it’s definitely no longer summer.
In our vegetable garden, the corn has been pulled and the green beans (and the bean beetles – good riddance!) are just a memory.  Zucchini that grew from a flower to a baseball bat in three days now takes a week or longer to become picking size.  Tomatoes and eggplant continue to ripen but no longer get larger.  The winter squash is ready to pick.  Only the leafy greens are happy with this weather.
The maple across the street
has turned color prematurely
Most of the trees on the property still have that voluptuous, late summer look but, here and there, the leaves have started to turn.  There’s a diseased maple across the street that has turned color prematurely.  One of our itea ‘Henry Garnet’ is getting a jump on the season, with a quarter of the plant already speckled with red and orange.  At the rear of our property an ash is also dropping yellow leaves – on schedule.
The hummingbirds have departed.  Just a week ago they were dive-bombing one another at our feeder in some senseless ‘if-I-can’t-have-it-then-neither-can-you’ ritual that must be programmed into their DNA.  Hummingbirds know when the fat lady is warming up in the wings.
Yellow ash leaves - on schedule
The hostas are turning yellow.  They’ll turn to yellow mush with that first frost, and those hostas that wish to go out with a semblance of dignity are doing their thing now.  Presumably with the expectation (valid) that Betty or I will cut them down in the next few days.

Itea 'Henry Garnet'
getting a jump on
autumn color
Just as there is a point in March or April for ‘firsts’, now is the beginning of the time for ‘lasts’.  I have re-directed the fill valves on our rain barrels; when they’re empty they’ll be put away.  I weed-whacked the community garden this morning, knowing it was for the last time this season.  I’ll take up the soaker hoses, clean them, and put them away for another year’s duty.

It’s not a melancholy time – far from it.  Apple picking has started and we’ll be headed out to get a bushel of Macouns next week.  Autumn brings its own excitement in New England.  I’m ready.

September 9, 2013

See You in September

I walked out to get the newspapers this morning, got fifty feet down the driveway, and headed back into the house for a camera.
The conventional wisdom is that New England gardens are shadows of their summer glory by the beginning of September.  Annuals are overgrown and rangy and perennials are spent.  Trees and shrubs are saving themselves for an October burst of dying splendor.
The accompanying photos (double-click on any one of them to get a full-screen slideshow) demonstrate that the conventional wisdom sometimes gets it wrong.  Each of these shrubs and perennials are within fifteen feet of our driveway.  Some notes about each one: 
Asters:  I’m not certain that we’ve ever actually purchased any asters.  Those that are in the garden – like the ones at left in the outer sidewalk bed – were transplants from elsewhere, but they’ll bloom from now until the first hard frost.  The trick to getting them to bloom like this is to cut them back hard in the last spring and early summer.  The other trick is to pull them out when they self-seed. 
autumn clematis
Autumn clematis: This is the only clematis on the property and one of a handful of perennials still around that were here when we purchased our home in 1999.  This grows up a shady corner of our library and our lone contribution to its success is to provide it with a trellis to reach a height where it can get adequate sunlight.
Caryopteris ‘Sunshine Blue’ is one of the three cultivars of that shrub that we have growing on the property.  From mid-April when it leafs out until the end of August, it is an unobtrusive part of the shrub bed at the front of our 
Caryopteris 'Sunshine Blue'
property. Then, overnight, pale blue flowers appear and the bees go bananas.  The blooms fade by the end of September but are worth the wait.

Daphne ‘Transatlantica’ has both dazzling clusters of long-duration white flowers and the added bonus of an intoxicating perfumed scent.  It will keep blooming right into winter.  The shrub’s lone shortcoming is that its evergreen leaves collect 
Daphne 'Transatlantica'
snow and so the branches are prone to tearing.  Each October we build it a burlap enclosure to keep its branches upright.  The pink phlox in the background is the fading remnant of an August bloomer.
Japanese anemones (Anemone hupehensis var. japonica) are more of a curse than a blessing.  We keep them in one spot only through a rigorous process of digging out their runners several times a year.  Yes, the flowers are lovely, but no other fall bloomer requires so much maintenance.
Japanese waxbells
Japanese waxbells (Kirengeshoma palmata) are a terrific plant to have around.  You see them here at their maximum height and vigor.  Once we get a hard frost, they’ll die back to their roots.  Why is this good?  Because it means I can dump six feet of snow on them from our driveway’s turnaround every winter and the plant doesn’t resent it a bit.  The beautiful yellow flowers are a September-only event. 
New York ironweed,
with hydrangeas below
New York ironweed (Veronica noveboiracensis) is, amazingly, a member of the daisy family.  We have two stands of it and, after seven or eight years, it is well established and sturdy.  The strong purple/lavender color is striking, and the bees cover it from dawn to dusk.  Some gardeners may be put off by its height (ours’ is nearly six feet) but you just don’t get color like this in autumn.  The photo at right also shows some of the late-blooming hydrangeas in our garden. 

Sedum 'Autumn Joy'
Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ may be the most overused stonecrop in gardens today, but you can’t argue with success.  From early May to late August, it’s a terrific ‘filler’ in several of our beds; providing beautiful green-gray succulent stems and leaves.  Then, at the beginning of September (hereabouts), the flower head opens deep pink and stays that way for at least a month, then gradually turns a coppery color that provides structure even when the flower is spent.
Pink turtlehead
Pink turtlehead (chelone obliqua) is another garden standard that hides in plain sight until the end of August when, seemingly overnight, it is covered in blooms that persist through September.  Until last year, we had a companion white turtlehead (chelone glabra) that is a less aggressive grower and got crowded out of the shade bed where it was attracting the rare Baltimore checkerspot butterfly.
Joe Pye weed (eupatorium) comes in many varieties, and this variegated cultivar with
Variegated Joe Pye Weed
white flowers that graces our xeric garden (probably’ Jociuis Variety’) at the front of the property is a show stopper.  We also have eupatorium ‘Chocolate’.  They bloom profusely from September until well into October.

That’s a literal snapshot of the September bloomers.  I have omitted a few that have been blooming since midsummer such as agastache (also called the ‘giant hyssop’), rudbeckia, and various helianthius.  Among shrubs, we have a plethora of hydrangeas (notably the 'City Lights' series) that have been blooming since June and will keep up their show through most of the month.

What I hope I've shown is that September doesn’t have to be the intermission between summer blooms and the 'main attraction' autumn spectacle that attracts the leaf peekers.  If you garden in New England, take a look for these gems. 

September 6, 2013

The New Neighbors

Our new next-door neighbors moved in a few weeks ago.  Last weekend, glasses of wine in hand, we took them on a tour of our garden.  It was an unexpected educational experience for all of us.
This is where our new neighbors
moved from
They moved to Medfield from Boston's South End where they lived in a condo at the corner of Mass Ave. and Columbus.  Now, they have two acres in the suburbs, a toddler, a second child on the way, and a hyperkinetic dog with a worrisome attachment to its chew toys.
They were drawn to Medfield by the sense of community.  When they were driving around, looking at places they’d like to live, one of our neighbors took the time to talk with them about our little cul-de-sac.  They also say they took a long look at the part of our garden that is visible from the road and liked what they saw. 
This is their new home.  Both photos
encompass roughly two acres
of land.
Now, they have the opportunity to put their stamp – in reality, the first-ever stamp – on a 17-year-old home’s landscaping.  The house’s previous owners – financial services professionals who both worked long hours and were frequently out of town – left all landscaping decisions to a firm that apparently believed that it was a sin to spread anything less than a dump truck full of mulch on a bed.  What our new neighbors bought is basically two acres of over-fertilized grass.
I expected we’d be asked a lot of questions and we would provide sound information.  What I didn’t expect was to discover that the questions they asked us would be as interesting to us as the answers we gave them. 
Don't call a forest pansy redbud
a cercis canadensis.  You sound
like a garden snob
Here’s what I learned:  as gardeners, we take far too much for granted.  We use an intimidating shorthand and jargon that we should securely lock away in a vault when we talk to someone who is just getting started.  We believe that pointing in the general direction of a plant from fifty feet away is as useful as walking up to the plant and touching it.  No, it isn’t.  Touching is a very good thing.
Here’s what else I learned:  sometimes, we’re inadvertent snobs.  We assume that everyone has long since sorted through the false marketing claims and emotional appeals that bombard consumers, and can filter facts from hype.  No, we can’t.  Never assume that the person you’re speaking with has read a certain article or heard ‘that expert’ speak.
Nowhere does this insider/outsider gulf become more evident than when talking about ‘organic’.  At the top of our neighbors’ wish list for their lawn is having a safe, pesticide-free environment for their children’s long-term health and well-being.  But what, exactly, is ‘organic’?  My somewhat cynical answer is that ‘organic’ is a more expensive version of whatever a marketer is already selling; a means of picking the pockets of unwary homeowners.
But, at the same time,
'oxydendrum' sounds a
lot better to the ear
than 'sourwood'
So, for two hours, we explored the garden.  We talked the benefits of ‘natives’, of compost and of water barrels.  We said it was OK to have clover in the lawn and that a modest amount of insect damage to trees and shrubs means moths, butterflies and beneficial insects are finding food.  We talked drainage and plants that hold hillsides in place.  We went shrub-by-shrub through one bed, talking about each one’s virtues and limitations.
Along the way  I learned that ‘forest pansy redbud’ is a lot easier name to remember than ‘cercis canadensis’ but that ‘oxydendrum’ is a much more appealing name for a tree than ‘sourwood’. 
It has been thirty-five years since Betty and I purchased our first home, a brownstone in Brooklyn with a concrete front yard and a back yard that had been used as a dog’s ‘convenience’ for more years than any bib of grass should be asked to endure.  I think about everything we didn’t know and all the misconceptions we brought to those first projects.  A number of houses later, we know a lot more than we did in 1978.  The wonderful thing is, we’re still learning.

I like our new neighbors.  They bring energy and enthusiasm to a big job.  Fair from being naive, they understand that theirs is a long-term undertaking and they’re going to tackle it one project at a time.  Watching and helping will be fun.