May 30, 2013

Going Native in the Bronx

The entrance to the new
Native Plant Garden 
It took two false starts but, this past weekend Betty and I finally made it to the new Native Plant Garden at the New York Botanical Garden.  The consensus opinion?  Two very solid thumbs up for a garden that is as intelligent as it is low key.
NYBG has had a ‘native plant garden’ for decades and it was always in the same place, adjoining the Rock Garden.  It was a product of a different era; one that displayed plants in the same way that zoological parks once displayed animals.  Here is a tiger, here is a bear, here is a stand of caryx grasses.  We last visited the ‘old’ native plant garden in probably 2003.  It left no impression despite the fact that Betty has a strong affinity toward using natives in our own garden.
This 230-foot-long pond is central
to the garden's ecosystem
The ‘old’ native plant garden closed in 2009 and a board fence went up around the site.  If memory serves correctly, the original opening date was spring 2012.  Somewhere along the line, that became 2013.  The garden formally opened in early May.
The first impression is that the place is huge.  It is three and a half acres, but it looks even larger by designing out to the full borders of the site and ‘borrowing views’ from adjacent gardens.  It is billed as a ‘cutting-edge’ installation.  That definition is almost an understatement.  To create the garden, its designers went back to a blank slate; reimagining the site as a shaded woodland; a dry, open meadow; and a wetland.
Yellow trillium - a mid-Spring-
blooming native - have been
planted in among grasses
The aspect of the garden that is – at least to me – most jaw-dropping is the underlying, invisible engineering.   A visitor sees a central water feature; a dramatic 230-foot-long pond surrounded by wetlands.  Rising from the pond is a meadow and the woodland.  What is invisible to the eye is a vast system of recirculating pumps that push 600 gallons of water through the garden every minute.  (You may want to re-read that last sentence and think about 600 gallons of water – almost all of it recirculated – flowing every minute). 
The water feature is, in reality, a man-made bit of ecology.  Water is pumped into the wetland where it is pushed up through layers of sand, gravel and plant roots to reach the upper basin, then over a weir to reach the lower basin.  Underground cisterns collect excess rainwater for release as needed.  Natural processes keep the water clean, filtering out excess organics and maintaining oxygen levels. 
Mature oaks provide a canopy for
the garden's shade plantings
There are nearly 100,000 plants in the garden, arranged with intelligence as well as an eye to inspire home gardeners.  There is harmony as groupings of cultivars give way to new groupings, and the groupings promise to change with the seasons.  In late May, we were treated to sweeps of yellow trilliums, rue-anemones and lady slipper orchids.  The meadows were rife with a carpet of Sisyrinchium – blue-eyed grass.  The flow is visually inventive; a delight, and NYBG promises that the plant color palette will change with the seasons.
The choice of plants is also designed to showcase that ‘nativars’ can be as attractive as any exotic import for a home garden.  The perennials we saw featured bright colors (and based on Betty’s acquaintance with them, long bloom periods).  The NYBG Shop in the Garden carried an excellent assortment of the plants we had just seen.
The garden is also about native trees.  Mature oaks were left in place to provide shade to stands of rhododendron and understory trees and shrubs.  We found a stand of amalanchier with an explanatory text to tell why they’re also called ‘shadbush’.  There was also a great specimen of a mature oxydendrum (sourwood) that should be glorious in late summer.
The carpet of sisyrinchium.  By
being at the garden at 10 a.m., we
had the place to ourselves for
much of our visit
What we did not encounter was a crowd.  NYBG opens at 10 a.m. and, when visiting, we make a point of being in line at the main parking area when it opens at 9:45.  As members, we’re waved into the entrance which means we’re in the garden proper at ten.  We made a bee-line for the Native Plant Garden and were its first visitors.  We saw the garden at our leisure, exploring each of the side trails with opportunities to linger over especially interesting vistas or plants. When we departed the garden an hour and a half later, there was a steady flow of visitors entering.
Five days after our visit, the Native Plant Garden is still vivid in memory.  What stands out the most is its tranquility (too-loud music coming from a birthday party at the adjacent ‘Children’s Adventure’ area notwithstanding).  In the rhododendron glade, the paths are very narrow and winding; you can’t walk it briskly.  Gazing out at the dry upland meadow, we saw an unbroken expanse five hundred feet wide and seemingly just as deep (the depth is something of an optical illusion).

In short, it’s a beautiful addition to the New York Botanical Garden.  In the parlance of the Michelin Guide, it’s worth a journey.

May 29, 2013

Caught In a Bind

Growing up in Florida, I was painfully aware that my home state was – pest-wise – a national laughingstock.  Every week, it seemed, the pages of Time magazine or the evening news had stories about walking catfish; giant African snails that could eat the paint off of your house; and a large toad, bufo marinus that, when licked, produced a hallucinogenic reaction (although exactly how this was discovered remains a mystery I have declined to ponder). 
I learned not to trust
everything I saw on the
cover of the Saturday
Evening Post
My assumption was that the rest of the country was some kind of an agricultural paradise and that New England, with its wholesome Norman Rockwell image, was a place where having a garden was a pleasure.  The growing season would begin on the first day of spring and conclude with a golden-hued harvest at Thanksgiving.
Time has taught me that you shouldn’t believe everything you see on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.  At the end of May, we consolidated the fifteen miserable kernels of corn that had sprouted (a one-third germination rate) into a single square and re-planted, hoping against hope that, perhaps by the middle of June, the soil temperature will warm up to 70 degrees and it will stop raining.  Moreover, we have yet to pick a single leaf of lettuce or spinach off our miniscule plants and entire rows of other crops in our garden are nowhere to be seen.
But these are minor irritants compared to what is growing in my vegetable garden.  What I have is a bumper crop of bindweed.
In April, I took out an entire
wheelbarrow filled with
bindweed roots
Bindweed, or Convolvulus arvensis to give the plant its proper name, is something that the national media chooses not to report on.  It’s a New England specialty, a weed with a ‘particularly aggressive root and rhizome system’, to quote the Cornell University Extension Service.  What that means in plain English is that, once you get bindweed in your garden, you are consigned to pulling it out for all eternity.  The reason you don’t want bindweed in your garden in the first place is that it will climb other plants and kill them by taking their sunlight and water. 
We never had a bindweed problem until this year; it arrived via a neighboring plot.  But here is how bad it is:  a month ago, I systematically turned over the soil in our vegetable garden and took out a wheelbarrow full of bindweed roots.  This morning, I noticed that little green shoots were poking above the surface in unplanted areas of the garden.  And so, I decided to dig out the shoots, roots and all.  I followed one slender, white root down a foot, where it began running horizontally, ending in a two-inch-long piece of ‘old’ root from our neighbor’s garden that had been turned under by the tractor that plowed our garden last fall. 
Bindweed and its root system.
Double-click on the image to see
at full size.
Think about that:  a tractor chops up a piece of bindweed root and buries it a foot down.  That little piece of root survives being frozen over the winter.  Come spring, it has the energy to send out a tendril eighteen inches in search of light.  Now, repeat this concept several thousand times.  I think I know where the idea for The Invasion of the Body Snatchers came from.
You are probably asking yourself, ‘what about herbicides?’  What, indeed.  A friend recommended an organic solution, a product that is primarily clove oil.  Spray it on anything.  A day later, the leaves of the invasive weed or plant look like they’ve been scorched by fire and the root shrivels into nothingness.  I sprayed this product on a patch of bindweed.  Two days later, the leaves were crispy as advertised.  I followed the roots down into the soil.  They were prospering; pumping iron.  A dozen new shoots already headed for the light.
How about one of those ‘kills everything’ kind of herbicides?  I don’t especially care to use them in my vegetable garden, but this was getting serious.  The Royal Horticultural Society (bindweed, like Simon Cowell, is an unwanted European export to America) offered the bad news:  Spraying in the early spring is ‘generally less successful’.  Instead, the RHS recommends that one wait patiently, sprayer in hand, until bindweed produces its morning glory-type flower (by which time it had taken over your garden).  Even then, the Society cautions, because bindweed roots can reach out twenty feet or more, the herbicide may not reach the ‘mother’ root.  In other words, abandon hope all ye who enter here.
I did find one glimmer of hope in my research.  An enterprising gardener reported that she had eradicated bindweed from her garden.  She diligently dug out every root every time a shoot broke the surface.  She did this day after day, depriving the plant of photosynthesis.  I should add, though, that it took eight years.

Florida ultimately capitalized on its exotic pests by creating things like the ‘International Walking Catfish Derby’ in which fish with rudimentary lungs travel several feet on their pectoral fins.  I have sincere doubts that any such fun events are planned by New England gardeners wondering what to do with their bindweed.

May 16, 2013

Help Me Celebrate the Big 25,000 - Win a 'Principal Undergardener' Polo Shirt

This blog has been in existence since 2009 and now has nearly 200 essay-length posts on it.  I created it as an 'etude' for my fiction writing: a mental finger-stretching exercise to limber up for penning mysteries.  In the beginning, I was lucky to get ten hits a week and I marveled that anyone would take the time to find it.

This year, 'The Principal Undergardener' is averaging a hundred hits a day.  Yesterday (May 15) the visitors came from the United States (57 visitors), Canada (9), the U.K. (7), plus a handful each from France, Australia, Russia, China, Brazil, Indonesia, India and New Zealand.  How broadly is it read?  On one memorable day in March, I had visitors from six continents.

I humbly recognize that, on a blogging readership scale of one to ten, mine barely makes the needle move.  My wife's website,, now routinely draws 300 visits every day and is Google's top-of-the-heap sites for information on topical things like impatiens blight.

But if today is an average day for me, something neat is going to happen:  I'll get my 25,000th visit.  And, to honor that milestone, I'd like to give away a couple of 'Principal Undergardener' polo shirts. I usually let people know via Facebook that there's a new post on the site but, to keep the playing field level, I'm not doing so this time.  Also, I know that most visitors have found the site because they're looking for information on a specific subject or photo ( for some reason I seem to have the world's best photo of a squash borer) and so go directly to an archived post without seeing this top item.  Anyway, if you see this post, drop me an email at n_h_sanders (at)  I'll get back to you and ask for shirt size and color preference.  As of today (August 12th), only one polo shirt has been claimed - yet there have been 5,000 additional hits!

Thanks for reading,

Neal Sanders

May 9, 2013

Goodbye, Old Friend

Thirty-two years ago, the Boston metropolitan area was very different than it is today.  With a handful of exceptions, ‘civilization’ ended a few miles outside of Route 128.  Beyond ‘civilization’ was a collection of small towns reached by country roads. Those towns, in turn, dated back to the colonial era. 
Carlisle, Massachusetts
in 1875.  A hundred years
later, it had changed little.
And, land was inexpensive.  Out near Route 495, you could purchase five acres, drill a well for water, put in a septic tank for sewage, and have a home in the country.  Boston was an hour or so away when you needed to go into ‘the city’.
Carlisle, Massachusetts was one of those little towns.  In 1980, it has a population of 3,306 spread out over 15.5 square miles.  Leo Blanchette took five acres and built something much better than a home.  He built a nursery.  And, not your run-of-the-mill garden center kind of nursery; he created a destination.  He specialized in hostas and epimediums and daylilies; and then added things he got interested in: hard-to-grow things and hard-to-find things.
In a few years, Blanchette Gardens had become a ‘destination’ for plant aficionados.  Open from May to October, it was a Holy Place where you went and discovered a plant or cultivar you had never heard of or only read about in an obscure book.  Leo would have found that plant a few years earlier, purchased one, and then started propagating it until he a) had made certain it would grow in New England and b) he had enough of them to sell. 
Blanchette Gardens - thousands of plants from which to
choose, all grown at the nursery
Sell plants he did.  He put up screens to provide shade for the hostas and epimediums, so that Blanchette’s was a great place to be on even the hottest days of summer.  If you picked up an unfamiliar plant or cultivar and brought it to him (he parked himself on a stool next to a small shed by the entrance), he would declaim the plant’s virtues and weaknesses without having to resort to a computer or a book.  Leo made it his business to know every plant in his inventory.
Need information on a plant you've
never heard of?  It's right there.
For a nursery selling the rare and exotic, Blanchette never charged what the market would bear.  There were a few corners of the garden where prices above $25 could be found but most plants were $7.95 and $8.95. 
But times change.  Boston’s technology and financial industries exploded and a new-money elite went in search of quaint, country estates where they could be squires.  Carlisle was ground zero for that demographic shift.  By 2010, the town’s population had risen slightly to 4,852.  But its average household income soared to $244,544, the third highest in the state, behind only Weston and Dover; two other sparsely settled ‘country’ towns bypassed by anything as vulgar as a shopping center or supermarket.
That's Leo on the left.
In April, Blanchette Gardens announced that the 2013 season would be its last.  Leo is approaching 65 and wants to retire.  His kids aren’t interested in the business and he isn’t going to force it on them.  The value of Blanchette Gardens in inextricably linked to the land it occupies.  No one who would want to operate it as a nursery can pay what the land is worth, and no one who can pay what the land is worth is interested in running a nursery.
We were at Blanchette Gardens this past weekend.  The place was crowded and we saw many people we knew; fellow plant lovers.  They were drawn by the 25% discount on everything in stock but also by a need to say goodbye.  Leo will keep the place open until everything is gone.  Based on what I saw this weekend, that could be as early as June.
There are no villains in this story.  A nursery that was a godsend to serious gardeners is closing its doors.  It wasn’t done in by the Big Box Stores or by greed.  An owner aged and elected to retire.  The value of the land under the business makes maintaining it as a nursery uneconomic.  In all likelihood, by this time next year the land will have been sold.  In two years, the site will sport a grand home.
But I will remember Blanchette’s and Leo’s enthusiasm for everything he sold.  The world of horticulture will be a little poorer for the loss of his dedication to the joy of growing the unusual.