August 23, 2013

On the Road Again

Last September, I was invited to give a talk on ‘The Garden Club Gang’ at the New Meadows Garden Club in Topsfield, Massachusetts.  The member of the club had read the book as their summer reading ‘project’ and they thought that hearing about how the book came to be written would be a nice ‘ice-breaker’ for their first meeting of the new club year.  I readily agreed.
Then, about two weeks before the meeting, I received a call from the club president.  “You know, we’re a horticultural club,” she told me.  “We want to hear about your book, but could you also make it a horticultural talk as well?”
“Sure,” I said.  And then immediately started wondering what business I had speaking about gardening to garden clubs.  Betty is the horticulturalist in the family; I’m the mystery writer. 
But then I started thinking about ‘The Principal Undergardener’ and my idiosyncratic take on the subject through that lens.  For those who may not be regular readers, this blog is my ‘etude’ – a warming-up exercise for writing fiction; akin to a pianist’s finger-stretching pieces.  I write about gardening because I spend a lot of time in gardens, and the internet is already overly full of learned discourses on wine and politics.  What I frequently write about is gardening as humor.  I create a tight, 900-word essay and then polish it as relentlessly as I would the chapter of a book.
And so I began weaving a dozen or so essays into a talk – ‘The Rule of Three’ and ‘The Slug and I’, for example – and found illustrations in my blog files.  With forty-eight hours to spare, I had a talk completed. 
The talk was a success.  And then clubs started discussing among one another about what programs they had enjoyed and my name came up.  Then I went to a few libraries and they, too, began posting reviews.  To make a long story short, I have forty-five talks scheduled between late August and May.  Most are at garden clubs but a number of my talks will be open to the public.  Here’s the schedule of upcoming ‘open’ presentations as I currently know them.  If a garden club is hosting the event, that too is noted, which means you may have the pleasure of also sitting through a club meeting (I find them fascinating).   All locations are in Massachusetts except as noted:
September 19  7:00 p.m.         Billerica Library
October 9        11:45 a.m.       Jenks Center, Winchester (Winchester House & Garden Club)
October 15      6:00 p.m.         Dickinson Library, Northfield
October 16      7:00 p.m.         Norwell Library
November 5    7:00 p.m.         Northborough Library (Northborough GC)
January 15       10:00 a.m.       Belmont Library (Belmont GC)
January 15       7:00 p.m.         Millis Library (Millis and Norfolk GCs)
January 16       11:00 a.m.       Andover Historical Society (Village GC of Andover)
January 21       9:45 a.m.         Needham Library (Needham GC)
February 4       7:00 p.m.         Carlisle Library (Carlisle GC)
March 26         7:00 p.m.         Milford Library

April 14           7:00 p.m.         Chelmsford Library (Country Lane GC)
May 21           7:00 p.m.         Hopkinton Library 

August 19, 2013

Fair Territory

I don't begrudge fair-goers their
fried foods...
This morning’s Boston Globe features a photo spread on the Marshfield Fair, which opened this past weekend and runs through August 25.  The photo on the front page shows the Midway with its Ferris wheel and other carnival rides; the interior photos are of other fun events such as a glass-blowing exhibition and a llama at a petting zoo.
... but 'my' fair is the one that harkens
back to its original purpose
I had the pleasure to be at the Marshfield Fair this weekend, but it was the one that exists in an alternate universe; the one that harkens back to the original Marshfield Agricultural & Horticultural Society.  I don’t begrudge fair-goers the thrill of discovering that Snickers bars can be deep fried or of seeing glass geegaws be
Agricultural Hall, then and now
created before their eyes, but I think my fair is a lot more fun.
New England lives in a state of grace when it comes to fairs.  Once upon a time, agricultural expositions were a staple around the country.  The Marshfield Fair, for example, got its start in 1862 when three local farmers formed what was then called the Farm and Garden Group to discuss ways to improve farming.  By 1866, returning war veterans going back to farming needed a means of pooling their ideas and formed the South Marshfield Farmer’s Club.  A year later, the club’s annual summer event had grown so large it was attracting the manufacturers of agricultural implements, while club members showed off their best farm animals and produce.  By 1869, a piece of land had been purchased for a permanent exhibition site and a fine building, Agricultural Hall, was under construction.  In the following decades, the Marshfield Fair ruled the South Shore of Massachusetts.
Quilts and crafts in the
Agricultural Hall
Here’s a description of the fair, circa 1890:  “Before the children saw the flag even, they often heard the band. Coming through the pinewoods, by train, by horse-drawn carriage of every description, and on foot, just before they emerged into sight of the Fair grounds, they heard that joy-thrilling music of the brass band. Here was where Fair really began. Anticipation had reached its height and was soon to give way to the actual joys of Cattle Show. And reality can never touch anticipation…”
But times changed.  The Great Depression killed off many fairs, World War II caused others to suspend operations, and the great Suburban Diaspora of the 1950s and 1960s rendered most of the rest obsolete by converting exurban farmland into subdivisions.  In their place came the state fairs; soulless, antiseptic behemoths that sprawled over a square mile of land and were totally bereft of any sense of their rural origins and purpose.
A display in the holiday mantel
Remarkably, a number of expositions that still look and feel a lot like their century-ago forebears have survived in New England.  In addition to the Marshfield Fair, the Woodstock Fair in Connecticut traces its origins to 1860 and will be held over Labor Day Weekend.  The Fryeburg Fair in Maine dates to 1851 and will be open this year from September 29 to October 6.  And the granddaddy of them all, the Topsfield Fair, which held its first event in 1818, opens October 4 for an eleven-day run.
I spent the bulk of my time at the Marshfield Fair inside that venerable Agriculture Building.  Upstairs, there are displays of quilts; some quite old and others brand new.  There were hand-knitted sweaters – not for sale but, rather, submitted for judging in hopes of securing a blue ribbon.  The whole floor was a tribute to creativity and skill with fabric.
Betty's tri-color
award winner
The real fun, though, was downstairs.  There, Ronnie Lehage presides over what is simply known as ‘Horticulture’, the evolution of the Marshfield Agricultural & Horticultural Society’s original mission.  Gardeners are invited to bring in their best examples of zinnias, cleomes, and anything else that flowers on their property.  There’s a proper ’standard’ flower show hosted by the Garden Club Federation of Massachusetts (point of pride:  my wife, Betty, not only won the ‘blue’ first-place ribbon, but the ‘tricolor’ ribbon for the best floral design within several classes). 
There are competitions to design a small grouping of container gardens and another for holiday mantel arrangements.  There is a horticultural competition for the school-aged set and categories for flower arrangements in purses, watering cans, and recycled objects.  In short, the competitions going on within Horticulture is about skill and creativity.
A 'Books in Bloom' display.
I think I've read that book...
I first came to these fairs as an adult.  As I wrote earlier, I think everyone ought to have the opportunity to try that deep-fried candy bar but, personally, I’ll take a pass.  Ditto the funnel cakes and cotton candy.  But you have never had French fries until you’ve tasted the ones at the Fryeburg Fair.  The potatoes are freshly dug, still with clods of dirt on them.  They’re washed, put through a hand-cranked machine that turns them into strips, and put in a deep fryer.  In less than five minutes, a potato is turned into its finest incarnation.

If you live in New England and have given up on fairs as corny relics, it’s time to give them another look.  And, if you’re thinking of a vacation in New England this fall, keep in mind the dates of those upcoming ones.

August 8, 2013

Doing the Garden, Digging the Weeds

A question for the day:  does gardening keep you young?
Me, in May 1967
I was seventeen years old in June 1967 when the Beatles released their masterpiece, ‘Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band’.  I had just graduated from high school and was on my way to college in September.  That summer, I had a job working for the town of Miami Springs, Florida, riding on the back of a trash truck.  It was, without question, the most physically demanding work I’ve ever done for pay.
To maintain my sanity, I kept a transistor radio strapped to a belt loop of my sweat-drenched shorts, and ‘Sgt. Peppers’ was the soundtrack to that summer.  I had no favorite track; they were all stunning, from ‘A Little Help From My Friends’ to ‘Sgt. Peppers Reprise/A Day in the Life’.  AM radio stations, though, preferred the shorter selections, and that meant I heard a lot of ‘Lovely Rita’ and ‘When I’m 64’.
I mention all this because I will turn 64 this month and that song has been much on my mind of late.  According to Steve Turner’s A Hard Day’s Write, Paul McCartney wrote the melody when he was ‘about fifteen’ and a version of it was being played by the Quarreymen as early as 1960.  McCartney refined the tune over the years (John Lennon dismissed the song as ‘twaddle’ and would have nothing to do with it) before it appeared as track two on side two of ‘Sgt. Peppers’
The gist of the song is that a somewhat socially inept young man ardently wants to win the affection of a young lady.  To do so, he poses questions about what their life will be like “when I get older, losing my hair, many years from now”.  And that life, at least as it sounded to my seventeen-years-old ears, was pretty dull.  “We shall scrimp and save” in order to rent a cottage on the Isle of Wight, and going for a ride on a Sunday morning would be the highlight of the week. Huh?  Knitting a sweater by the fireside?  Please!
But here’s the problem:  I’m about to turn that magical number, and my life is nothing like that.  Betty and I think nothing of popping down to New York for the day, where we’ll cram in shopping, museums and a stop at a garden or two.  If we haven’t been on an extended vacation of late, the reason has to do with our respective schedules.  I’m trying to finish my seventh book while juggling a speaking schedule that I couldn’t have imagined a few years ago; and Betty has a three-year calendar with a full slate of talks, demonstrations and garden club federation events blocked out through 2016.
And here’s the further problem:  I don’t feel like I’m 64.  I don’t even feel like I’m 54.  Maybe 44.  Perhaps it is all a matter of luck:  I have not suffered a major disease or accident and my business career was one that utilized my mind rather than my back (that stint on the trash truck was an eye-opener).  On the other hand, my life has been anything but sedentary.  We have traveled the world and had our share of ‘interesting’ experiences out there.  This weekend, we’ll be kayaking the DeerfieldRiver.  Yeah, it’s only Class 2 rapids, but still…
I’m willing to go out on a limb and credit gardening for keeping me young, or at least young at heart.  In McCartney’s words, “doing the garden, digging the weeds, who could ask for more?”
Digging out the stump of a
birch in, I think, 2006
Gardening is, by definition, largely an outdoor activity.  Active gardening is physical.  We maintain a two-acre property that comprises lots of individual gardens plus an off-site 1,000 square foot vegetable garden.  In creating the garden around our home I have dug out 500-pound boulders and I routinely move fifty-pound containers.  I take down and cut up small trees, dig out stumps and, twice a year, spend one or two days hauling multiple truckloads of brush to the town dump.  I dig trenches and excavate for new beds.  I mow my own lawn.  While I give myself the right to come in during the worst parts of the afternoon heat, I am no stranger to coming in from a gardening session with my clothes soaked through.
I keep up this activity eight months of the year (and, during the winter months, I dig out my own driveway, albeit with the aid of a snow blower).  Unless it is a physical danger to do so (we leave the tall trees to arborists), Betty and I do all the heavy work around the yard.

So, send me a postcard, drop me a line, stating point of view.  I’m turning 64 and, despite everything my seventeen-year-old self sneered at, it feels terrific.

August 2, 2013

Long Summer Days

This has been an awful summer for New England gardeners.  It wouldn’t stop raining in June and three weeks of July were blisteringly hot and dry.  Much of what we first planted in our vegetable garden never germinated and the blooms of many of our perennials were dramatically truncated first by rain, then by heat.  Only the weeds flourished.
It has taken until now for some semblance of horticultural equilibrium to be restored.  Only a third of our first square of corn broke the earth’s surface but our second square has ripened nicely and the third is already tasseling.  Our green bean harvest was awful and our lettuce bolted too quickly (leaving us the humiliating necessity of making our July salads with store-bought lettuce) but our beets are luscious, our zucchini is firm and sweet, and hundreds of tomatoes are growing plump.  There will be chard until the first frost.
This is the inner and outer sidewalk beds as they
looked on August 1.  Double-click for a full-screen image.
Around our home, the Orienpet and rubrum lilies as well as the rudbeckia and helleniums have exploded.  The clethra shrubs are heavy with their bottle-brush flowers and the phlox stands tall and proud.  White and purple Stoke’s asters and yellow coreopsis and corydalis are spreading into every empty space.  The hydrangeas are voluptuous.  Ferns have run amok.
Gardening is about being patient and rolling with what nature gives you.  We replanted our corn not once but twice and kept our green beans under row covers until what was underneath bulged against the fabric (the bulge turned out to be mostly weeds and the bean beetles managed to sneak their way into the crop despite our best efforts).  But we are now enjoying four ears of corn a day; a pace that seemed destined to last into September.
Nature has also held some surprises in reserve.  Our astilbe is usually a June and early July event.  This week, there are still an abundance of purple plumes.  An unusually large number of hostas in their glory at the beginning of August.  With all these blooms, the bees and butterflies are having a field day. 
Tomatoes are ripening
daily.  These are about
two weeks from picking.
After two lean months, this August appears to be shaping up as one of excess. It is almost too much, really.  The late crop of lettuce and spinach has already sprouted and will be pickable by mid-month.  We will soon have more tomatoes than we can possibly eat or process and so our local food cupboard will be the beneficiary of our excess. The flowers in bloom today are built to last through both heat and heavy rains that define this month. 
Most of our annuals are in containers. They were planted in May and early June and, through the incessant rains of June they suffered; stunted and sullen.  Then came July and they grew rangy.  In the past two weeks they have been trimmed and shaped and now, finally, they are fulfilling their promise.
Finally, there are the ‘winter’ crops – winter squash, principally, but spinach, kale, carrots, turnips and beets as well. The winter squash vines are still relatively modest – a product of too much rainfall and too little sun, but they have taken off in the last two weeks.  As quickly as we pull out spent corn stalks, the squash vines claim the empty space.   Last September, we picked dozens of huge Butternut squash that filled several wheelbarrows. Stored in our cool, dry basement, they were a tasty reminder of summer until April.
All this bounty will all be over too soon. The New England flower gardening season is effectively over shortly after Labor Day because, here at 45 degrees north latitude, the daylight starts to shrink at an alarming rate.  Perennials turn their attention to putting food into their roots to provide the 2014 season’s display.  Because frosts appear with impunity in September, any evening could be the final one for tender annuals.

So, I intend to enjoy this excess of August.  It’s the payoff month for New England gardeners.