February 27, 2013

"Do You Miss It?"

I remember February 27, 2012.  A year ago this morning, I left my home in Medfield, Massachusetts and drove 45 miles to Raynham to check on the progress of several hundred pots of tulips being forced in a greenhouse.  From Raynham, I drove another 40 miles to Cape Cod, there to see with my own eyes how badly a whitefly infestation had ravaged some flats and gallon-pot containers of annuals and perennials.  From Falmouth, I drove 90 miles to Wellesley to inspect the painting of staging and to meet with the indefatigable Clark Bryan to discuss budgets.  I then drove 10 miles home to deal with several dozen emails relating to a dinner for out-of-town judges.

I relate the above because, for the past week, there hasn’t been a day – and sometimes several times a day – when someone has asked, “Do you miss it?”

My answer is always, “Yes, and no.”

Joanne Caccavale
creates an Ikebana
For three years, I was the Chairman of Blooms! at the Boston Flower and Garden Show, an ungainly moniker for the person running the Massachusetts Horticultural Society’s many activities at the giant mid-March flower show at the Seaport World Trade Center.  I fell into the job because I possessed the four critical bullet-point skills enumerated in the job description.  Not necessarily in order of importance, I possessed a passing knowledge of horticulture, I understood project management, I had a lot of free time on my hands, and I was willing to do the job for free.  I might add that nobody else wanted the honor.

Mass Hort had imploded in 2008.  The organization announced it had no cash and a mountain of debts.  In one day, the organization laid off 70% of its staff.  Then came the electrifying announcement that the 2009 New England Spring Flower Show was cancelled.  This was an organization on the verge of extinction.

I had been in Mass Hort’s peripheral orbit because of Betty’s work as a Master Gardener (in Massachusetts at the time, Master Gardeners were essentially indentured servants to Mass Hort) and I had helped build exhibits at three flower shows.  When Mass Hort put out a call for volunteers to mount a not-quite-a-flower-show event called ‘Blooms!’ in Boston’s financial district in 2009, I offered to help.  The next year, after The Paragon Group, an events company, announced plans for the 2010 Boston Flower & Garden Show, I was asked to run Mass Hort’s activities.

Displays of amateur horticulture
are at the heart of the flower show.
Paragon had agreed to pay Mass Hort a fixed amount of money to stage ‘amateur horticulture’, a term broad enough to encompass the judging of plants, two judged flower design competitions, Ikebana, plant rooms, a day of speakers and a Mass Hort exhibit.  My charge was, using volunteers and donated materials, to create a credible presence for Mass Hort while spending as little money as possible.  The mission was accomplished thanks to hundreds of volunteers and heroic efforts by Mass Hort’s staff.

I had a simple goal:  get people to
come into the exhibit, relax, have
their picture taken... and become
Mass Hort members.
I was asked to reprise my role in 2011.  Mass Hort’s presence expanded to include a photography competition, a book store, and miniature gardens.  The Mass Hort exhibit expanded in size.  So did my time involvement.  What had been a thousand-hour project in 2010 became more than a thousand hours in 2011.  But thanks to that ever-growing cadre of volunteers and that wonderful staff, it was another great show.  And, in addition to the funds retained by Mass Hort, membership swelled.

I had been given a free hand during those two shows to organize and run Mass Hort’s activities as I saw fit.  As planning for the 2012 show progressed, change was in the air.  Many suggestions were offered to ‘improve’ Mass Hort’s exhibits, many of them well not well thought out.  I accommodated those that made sense and rebuffed those that I knew from experience would not work.  There came points when those differences boiled over into public display.  By the time the 2012 show opened, I knew it would be my last one.  Two days after a very successful show ended, I informed Mass Hort that I could not and would not return for 2013.  At that meeting, I was shown a plan for a new, large Flower Show Committee structure that would make all decisions about Mass Hort’s involvement.  There would be no more one-man bands.  My era had passed.

Shirley Minott, in front,
whose two-sided floral
design blew away the
What do I miss?  I miss the people and their dedication.  Three days before the 2012 show opened, one of my floral design demonstrators had a death in her family.  I called a gifted designer by the name of Shirley Minott.  She promptly agreed to fill in and then put on a display that drew standing applause.  Two days later, Shirley was entered in the most difficult class of the floral design competition; a two-sided display.  I had the pleasure to watch her create her design, and then the experience of seeing the judges’ reaction to it.  Shirley’s design swept every major award.  And, just two days earlier, she had agreed to drop everything to help a friend in a time of need.

The photography competition. From
the start, it was a class act.
I miss the passion of the small cabal that midwifed the birth of the photography competition.  Beth Hume, Arabella Dane, and Vicki Saltonstall started with a blank sheet of paper and created a show that drew stunning entries from around the country.  The result was photography on a par with that of the Philadelphia Flower Show, the gold standard. 

I miss the ‘we can make this work’ attitude of committee chairs.  People like Julie Pipe and Yvonne Capella (and their predecessors, Maureen Christmas and Joyce Bakshi) worked miracles with small budgets for the two floral design divisions and produced outsized results.  Their determination to deliver quality should be studied by business schools.

I miss the zeal of the plant societies and their desire to educate the public. People like Wanda Macnair, Art Scarpa, Pat Beirne, Ellen Todd and Martha Clouse are treasures.  Listening to them is a treat; working with them is memorable. I miss the near-mystical quiet as Ikebana designers go about creating their spare designs.

The 2012 Mass Hort garden.  It was
simply stunning.
I miss the thrill of watching an exhibit rise from a bare concrete floor to fully-imagined garden in three days.  My wife, Betty, designed and shepherded three such displays, aided by a crew of skilled volunteers like Paul Cook, and professionals like Paul Miskovsky.

And I miss working with Garry Edgar and Carolyn Weston of the Paragon Group, who have a palpable understanding of the place that ‘the flower show’ has in the hearts of New Englanders; who understand the need for profits but who are not driven solely by a requirement to maximize revenue per square foot.

And, while I pleased to have back the 1200+ hours of my life that went into last year’s show, neither would I have traded it for the world.  All that I’ll not miss is the politics.

February 25, 2013

Faith-based Gardening

The small box arrived in the mail from White Flower Farm in early December.  In the box was a large, dull bulb in a pot, hidden by a small pad of Spanish moss.  The instructions said to place the pot in a sunny window, keep it watered, and wait.

Amaryllis 'Red
We waited through Christmas and the New Year; the bulb did nothing.  It wasn’t until the end of January that a green nodule peeked up a quarter inch.  It was a leaf.  Then, a fatter nodule began to emerge.  A flower stalk.  More weeks followed.

Finally, the last week of February – twelve weeks after the bulb arrived – we were rewarded for our patience.  Amaryllis ‘Red Peacock’ opened its first flower: a huge, double scarlet bloom with a thin white accent line running down the middle of each petal.  The red is so startling that it is visible from across a room.  And, wonder of wonders, what has bloomed thus far is just the beginning of a show that will go on for weeks.  Four more flowers are just beginning to open on one stalk, and a second stalk is just now rising out of the bulb.

When we garden, we take a leap of faith that, sometimes, waiting is the right thing to do.  We could have purchased a red amaryllis, already in flower, from a store; but that’s not gardening.  The pleasure is in seeing what comes from our efforts.  Everything else is just ‘accessorizing with plants’.

Just as ‘Red Peacock’ was opening its first flower, a truck came down our driveway bearing a large box of seeds from Johnny’s of Maine.  It is not yet March yet we are already taking the first of a series of leaps of faith that we believe will lead to a summer’s worth of vegetables.  This first leap is just an economic one: we have paid for some seeds. 

The vegetable garden in April.  Will
May showers wash it away?
Those leaps will get higher and harder as time goes on.  We will plant in May having no guarantees that we won’t encounter a Memorial Day frost, or that we will not have a re-run of a few years ago when it rained incessantly in June, washing out our first vegetable crop.

We garden by experience.  We sense that this season will start earlier (or later) and that this week – whatever week that is – is the right one to put those seeds in the ground.  We can eliminate much of the risk by starting seeds indoors (or purchasing them as plant sets).  Sometimes, as with tomatoes, the length of the growing season virtually demands that we dispense with starting with seeds in the ground.  But, on the whole, we play the odds.  At heart, gardeners are gamblers.

Pots of hyacinths become a table
We are also savers.  When ‘Red Peacock’ has strutted its last bloom, we will follow a different set of instructions and store the bulb in our basement.  It will take at least a year, and it may take several, but we will try to coax a new set of blooms out of the bulb.

Many years ago, my wife told me that buying roses for Valentine’s Day was a waste of money.  I asked what she would rather have.  “Hyacinths,” she said.  And so, for a dozen years, I have brought home pots of blue hyacinths.  For a week or longer, they fill the house with perfume.  When they become ungainly, they’re cut and placed in a vase where they provide further enjoyment.
...and the bulb are planted to provide
years of continued enjoyment.

But in the spring, those hyacinth bulbs get planted in our garden.  A year later (sometimes two), the hyacinths bloom again, and again.  After a dozen years, we have a bed that has a startling number of blue hyacinths in it.  Visitors look at the bed and see a pleasing array of flowers.  I look at it and see memories of Valentine’s Days past – and leaps of faith taken.

February 8, 2013

February Made Me Shiver

The Blizzard of 2013.  It is coming as
a surprise to no one.
(As this is written, the Blizzard of 2013 is descending on the Northeast.  It is predicted to drop at least two feet of snow on Boston.  The key to the preceding sentence is ‘predicted’.  Computer models suggested a blizzard five days ago and the lone question since that time has been ‘where’ and ‘how much’.  Thirty-five years ago this week, the Northeast was buried by another blizzard.  Incomprehensible in an age of satellite imaging and sophisticated computer modeling, the Blizzard of 1978 came as a surprise.  What was light snow on a Monday morning with a prediction of ‘a few inches’ turned into a two-day-long monster event.  In the absence of anything interesting to write about in gardening, herewith is a record of the Principal Undergardener’s journey through that storm.)

Thousands of cars were 'snowed in'
on Route 128
Anyone who was out of diapers at the time and lived in Boston has a Blizzard of ’78 story.  As the photos of autos stranded on Route 128, rear-view-mirror deep in snow will attest, it was a harrowing storm.

But it was not just an eastern Massachusetts event, though a strip of real estate encompassing the southwestern suburbs got the ‘jackpot’ totals of three-and-a-half-feet of the white stuff (augmented by ten-foot-high drifts).  The whole Northeast got hit. 

I know.  I was there.  This is my story.

The Blizzard of '78 was a regional
event.  Double-click to see snowfall
totals.  Hartford received 24", New
York, 18".
In February 1978 I had accepted a job in New York City.  On the morning on February 5, Betty and I boarded a 7:30 flight at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport for New York LaGuardia.  Our flight time was 90 minutes.  We were told there was ‘some snow’ in the New York area but that we should arrive on time at 10 a.m.  We carried four large suitcases with us.

At a few minutes before ten, we were circling LaGuardia and the ‘some snow’ was getting much more serious.  At one point we were told we were next in line to land.  Then, after half an hour of circling, the announcement came that LaGuardia had just closed due to weather conditions and that we would be diverted to Bradley Field north of Hartford.

We landed at Hartford in blinding snow, the last plane to do so before that airport, too, was closed.  Our airline (I believe it was American) gave passengers the option of being taken by bus the fifty miles to New Haven where we could get the train for New York, or being  put up ‘overnight’ at a hotel near the airport.

My wife grew up in the Finger Lakes of New York state, the land of ‘lake effect’ snow that can drop a foot of the stuff overnight.  She took a look at the snow and said, “We can do this.”  At noon, thirty passengers stowed their luggage on the bus and we headed south.

Fifteen miles south of Hartford in swiftly deteriorating conditions, our bus skidded off the road and – very fortunately – into a guard rail.  It was fortunate because the guard rail was all that was between us a steep ravine.  The bus could go no further.  Miraculously, another bus was dispatched, picked us up, and we slowly made out way down to New Haven.

It took three hours to reach New Haven and we feared we had missed the last New-York-bound train.  But there were people on the platform and so we lugged our four suitcases and waited.  A few minutes later, an Amtrak train pulled in.  It was now 4 p.m.  The train had left Boston at 6 a.m.  It was the only train to make the trek that day and, had we been a few minutes later, we would have been stranded in New Haven for the duration.

There were no seats on the train; we sat on our luggage in one of the passenger compartments.  But at least we were inside the train.  Most of those who boarded at New Haven spent the next several hours in the unheated vestibule between cars.  Pushing snow in front of it, the train made it to Penn Station at about 8 p.m.

I had done one intelligent thing that day.  At Bradley Field, I had called my employer’s Manhattan office and pleaded for someone to walk over to the Statler Hilton and pay for our room, get a key, and leave it with the concierge.

It turned out to be a prescient move.  We arrived to a city that had shut down, stranding tens of thousands of travelers and commuters in the city.  Seventh Avenue was covered with more than a foot of snow with almost nothing moving.  A porter helped get our suitcases across the street to the hotel where we found a mob of people occupying every square foot of sleepable surface.  I went the concierge desk and held my breath.

A minute later, I held up the key for Betty to see.  Twelve hours after we left Chicago, we were in New York.

* * * * *

Our home in Brooklyn, bought
in the aftermath of the blizzard.
The blizzard turned out to be a fortunate event for us.  Two days later, a Realtor met us in Boerum Hill in Brooklyn. “If you can get here, I’ll show you houses,” she told us.  We emerged from the subway to a landscape of unplowed streets, with a police car – immobilized up to its windows in snow – blocking an intersection.  A bus sat abandoned in snow drifts in front of the brownstone we were there to see.

It was the house we had looked for in vain in Chicago.  Betty and I squeezed one another’s hand so tightly I nearly broke her fingers.  We made an offer that day, counter-offered over dinner that evening at the then-newly-opened River CafĂ©, and had our offer accepted over dessert.

That was 35 years ago.  It was a time before cell phones or the internet.  The Blizzard of 2013 may leave a lot of snow, but as I listen to the radio this afternoon, the highways are clear because everyone knew to stay home today.  Passengers on the 7:30 flight from Chicago to New York would have been called last night and told there flight was cancelled and they were being re-booked for Sunday.  In short, few dramatic ‘blizzard stories’ will be generated by this year’s storm (apart from ones based on stupidity).

But I wouldn’t have had it any other way.  It was an adventure – albeit a harrowing one at the time.  We got through it and we found the house of our dreams, made possible in large part by our perseverance.

February 5, 2013

A Winter Respite II

The weather in eastern Massachusetts – indeed, in all of southern New England – has been on a roller coaster ride for the past ten days.  It has dipped into the single digits and soared into the upper fifties.  The warm weather melted the slender snow cover that had given us a sense of dignity.  Now, the temperatures have returned to sub-freezing levels, but it is a world of grays and browns.  It will take a good snowstorm to restore equilibrium.

A floral design by friend
Marisa McCoy
And so, this past weekend, we set off in search of color and warmth, and found it in Worcester and West Boylston, Massachusetts.

If you are reading this locally, then you can skip this paragraph.  If not, here is a little history:  Worcester and the surrounding Blackstone Valley was, from the time of the Industrial Revolution until the 1950s, the industrial center of New England.  It can claim inventions as diverse as the monkey wrench and the textile loom.  Today, it is only a shadow of that glorious past, but two venerable institutions remain: the Worcester Art Museum and the Worcester Horticultural Society (WHS).  The WHS’s identity has, for the past quarter century, been submerged with that of Tower Hill Botanic Garden but, established in 1840, the WHS is the third oldest horticultural society in America.  The Worcester Art Museum opened its doors in 1898 and is symbol of the largesse of the industrialists who built the city. 

At the Worcester Art Museum,
floral designers created
pieces inspired by the
museum's collection.
Held annually since 2002 as a four-day event, Flora in Winter is a joint production of the two institutions.  The Worcester Art Museum invites amateur and professional floral designers to create arrangements inspired by specific pieces of art.  Professionals also contribute stand-alone, frequently oversize, pieces.  Out at Tower Hill, the show continues with more designs, placed amid the subtropical greenery of the Orangerie and Limonaia.  To my color-starved senses, it was all a feast. 

Flora in Winter is not a ‘standard’ flower show, meaning the designers do not have to conform to any organizations set of design rules (e.g., “only fresh material”, “no manipulated material”).  We ran into Elaine DiGiovanni, one of the region’s top designers, who said that the allure of entering the show is that, “the only rule is that there are no rules”.  It’s an opportunity for floral designers to cut loose, with no ribbons at stake.

'The Worcester Hunt' is a 6th Century
mosaic excavated from Antioch.  Its
presence is a symbol of the museum's
heyday (double-click to see full size)
It was also an opportunity to assess the relative fortunes of two institutions.  The Worcester Art Museum has the second largest such facility in New England.  It has a storied past, as evidenced by the massive ‘Worcester Hunt’ mosaic from early 6th century A.D., excavated from a villa above Antioch.  But little ‘classical’ art has come to the museum since Worcester’s heyday, as evidenced by the acquisition dates on the paintings and sculptures.

The Orangerie at Tower Hill
Botanic Garden.  A taste of
the subtropics amid the
Worcester Hills.
Tower Hill, by contrast, represents the re-invention of a venerable society. In 1986, WHS left Horticultural Hall in Worcester for the Tower Hill Farm, 10 miles northeast of the city, and started over with a blank piece of paper: a 132-acre former apple farm atop a windswept hill.  A 50-year plan was drawn up and buildings were erected, one by one, as funding assured their completion.  There are still more buildings and gardens planned, but what is there represents a triumph of good management coupled with vision.

On a cold Saturday, though, all I could think about was color and a respite from a winter that has at least six more weeks to go.  For a few hours, I was surrounded by beauty, created both by nature and by imagination. 

What a great break from that gray and brown.