June 30, 2014

Watch This Space

Two years ago, Betty and I came to the conclusion that our home was just too big for two people.  Like many aging Baby Boomers, we decided it was time to downsize. 

But being an avid gardener makes downsizing complicated.  Neither of us wanted anything to do with those ‘active adult communities’ where gardening is restricted to what you can put in a pot on your front porch, or where the ‘community garden’ is shared with, well, the community.  We needed some property to go along with that new home.  An acre at least.  And maybe two.

The old house we found.  Note that the
center of the roof is two feet lower
than the sides.
Have you gone looking for raw land in eastern Massachusetts recently?  Maybe we’re too picky, but after 18 months of looking at lots bisected by wetlands, lots sidled up to utility long-distance transmission lines, and lots where the roof peak would sit at eye level with the street, we made the reluctant determination that the lot we wanted probably already had a house on it.

Six months ago we found that perfect site.  A private acre and a half on a winding street.  A sad, 74-year-old house beyond repairing.  A neighborhood of attractive older homes of the same size we want to build.

We were, of course, promptly outbid for that property by a developer, who had in mind to erect a grand Starter Castle suitable for a family of ten.  But we persevered and in early June we found ourselves the proud owners of a now-vacant lot.  This autumn, our new ‘right-sized’ home will rise on the site.

What has happened since we signed the purchase and sale agreement says a lot about who we are.  Most people would throw themselves full-time into designing the perfect compact house, worrying about how furniture will fit into fewer rooms and pondering choices of paint colors.  We’ve done our share of that, but an equal amount of time has been devoted to siting a raised-bed vegetable garden, determining which if any trees on the property are worth keeping and positioning a porch that will provide three seasons of natural light for houseplants.

A very small part of the transplant
garden now taking shape along
one side of our house
Meanwhile, back at our current home, a vast project is underway to populate the new garden even before the adjacent house’s foundation has been dug.  We have already divided and conditioned upwards of a hundred hostas.  They sit in a special bed, potted and identified.  Other perennials have been divided or marked for division in the fall. 

The runners of favorite shrubs, once unceremoniously pulled up and composted, are now lovingly potted with the maximum amount of root.  One especially prized and uncommon shrub, a chamaecyparis ‘Snow’ that has grown to monumental proportions in our back garden, has a now-four-inch-high, well-rooted cutting. 

This peony Alfred's Crimson'
came with us to Medfield
from Alexandria.  It will follow
us to our new home.
Fifteen years ago, we did this on a much more modest scale.  A few favorite perennials were dug up and thrown into pots.  They rode from our home in Virginia to our new one in Massachusetts along with those household belongings (e.g., wine) we refused to entrust to movers.  The aquilegia (columbine) ‘Biedermeier’ and peony ‘Alfred’s Crimson’ we brought from Alexandria are still part of our landscape a decade and a half later, and will have honored locations at our new home.

This beautiful chamaecyparis
'Snow" and itea 'Henry
Garnet' stay with the house.
Cuttings and runners go
with us.
The satisfaction in going through this admittedly time-consuming process has little to do with saving money.  What is in our transplant bed is just a down payment on a landscape.  Betty all but stopped adding to our garden a year ago and, instead, started making lists of trees, shrubs and perennials she will purchase in the spring of 2015.  Populating a 60,000-square-foot property is going to make the owners of a few select nurseries and garden centers very, very happy.

This is what we will be leaving behind.
The good news is that it will look
just this good for the next owner.

No, the satisfaction is that we are doing a favor for whoever purchases our home.  For example, a wonderful patch of delicate blue Siberian iris is just now passing out of bloom.  That Siberian iris needs to be divided.  It is now eighteen inches in diameter and has a small but definitely ‘bald’ center.  This fall, we will take up the entire colony, clean out the center and break the resulting ring into three or four segments.  One of those segments will go with us to our new home. The remaining iris will be replanted with a fresh helping of compost.  Like the hostas we have already divided, the re-planting should be good to 2019 or 2020.

The best part is that when we begin planting that new garden in earnest next spring, we will intermix a group of familiar old friends with a larger cast of new ones.  Those old friends will be touchstones; a reminder of what we left behind.

June 23, 2014

The Summer Garden Tour

Back in February, I was invited by the Danvers Garden Club to present ‘Gardening Is Murder’ at the organization’s monthly meeting.  As frequently happens, I spoke at the end of the evening and so had the opportunity to sit through the club’s business session. 

Although the snow was piled high outside, the primary subject for the evening was planning for ‘Enchanted Gardens’, a tour of ten member gardens that would not take place for another four months.  This was not a new topic; rather, this was the final logistics session.  The tickets, garden descriptions and tour map had all been printed.  That evening’s discussion was about docents, refreshments, raffle items and ticket sales.

The tour program.  Double-click
to see at full size
As I listened, I was struck by both the level of planning for the event and for the assumption that the chosen date would bring good weather.  The back-and-forth went on for half an hour: a checklist with a list of responsibilities that ensured nearly every able-bodied member of the club would be pressed into service.

This past weekend, Betty and I had the opportunity to see what was wrought by the club.  It was beautiful, and was augmented by falling on one of those ‘ten perfect days of the year’ that never seem to fall on a Saturday or Sunday.

The Collins garden is all about color
Until the 18th Century, Danvers was part of neighboring Salem and, for the record, the ‘Salem’ witch trials took place in what is now Danvers (many of the historical homes of the period still stand).  It is a town of older, small houses on village-sized lots, but it also has its share of estate-sized properties.  ‘Enchanted Gardens’ focused on those small, intimate properties where homeowners creatively used shrubs and walls to create distinct ‘rooms’ that invited exploration.

Here are some notes on three of the ten gardens:

We started with a suburban garden, where the Collins family showed they believe in color and unusual plant selection to make a statement about gardening.  On the front porch was a chartreuse-color container overflowing with yellow, peach, pink and red calibrochoa.  By the garage was a plant stand with pots in colors of plum, orange, pike and chartreuse.  Though most contained simple petunias or New Guinea impatiens, the overall effect was to create an entire, memorable wall of color.  The garden also incorporates some cultivars with which I was unfamiliar, such as a Delphinium ‘Summer Blues’ that trades the larkspur’s usual stake-it-or-else flower spikes for a mound of beautiful blue flowers.

The Skane garden was about texture
Any garden that features a table laid out with freshly made mimosas gets a ‘thumbs up’ from me, but the small village garden of Ian Skane would have been memorable even without drinks.  The guide indicated this was the garden of “Melanie and Ian Skane” but Ian immediately acknowledged that he is the gardener and not his spouse. His co-gardener is his mother, who was also on hand to talk about the property.  She is English by birth and grew up with gardens; she transmitted that love of growing things to her son. 

Geometry plus color at the
Sanborn garden
The Skane garden uses a fence to divide one planting area visible from the street from other, more private places to the side and rear of the home.  Much of the rear garden is shades of green, but with textures and leaf size providing the drama.  The lone bright bursts of color come from clutches of yellow oenothera, which Ian gleefully says he pulls out by the armload after the bloom passes. 

At the foot of the verandah, a
vegetable garden
Kathy and David Sanborn have a home on the part of town that touches the Danvers River leading into Beverly Harbor.  The home is gracious and, down a glorious geometric stone and gravel walkway lined with hosta and hydrangea, there’s a wonderful verandah.  And what is at the base of the verandah is anything but the expected:  there’s a beautiful, working vegetable garden in raised beds.  There are also containers overflowing with flowers at every turn.  This is a home where every square foot of the property has been thought through.

Bright containers overflowing
There is a purpose to all the hard work that members of the garden club went through to make that day happen.  I learned that more than 300 tickets were sold (at $20 for advance purchases and $25 on the day of the tour).  Tours also incur expenses, but it would not be unreasonable to conclude that the club netted several thousand dollars for its considerable effort.

And what does the club do with that money?  Give it away, mostly, by re-investing it in the community.  The balance of that business meeting I sat through in February was about planting sites around the town, scholarships awarded, donations to garden-related causes, and garden therapy at area nursing homes.  I would guess that virtually every dime raised for the tour gets put back into making Danvers a more attractive place to live.

So the next time you see a clutch of balloons and a sign saying ‘garden tour this way’, take an hour or two out of your schedule and go help a worthy cause.  It’s a little beauty that may brighten your day.