December 8, 2014

Christmas for a Worthy Cause

This past week I had the opportunity to see three garden clubs in action.  Each put on an ‘event’ designed to raise thousands of dollars from the public.  Each involved dozens of club members working toward a common goal and each was, in my estimation, a class act.  The remarkable thing is that in each case the money raised will go right back into the community.

* * * * *

For the Easton Garden Club, the event was a Festival of Trees.  The venue was the Governor Ames Estate, a Trustees of Reservations property in the town some 25 miles south of Boston. 

‘Festivals of Trees’ have been around for more than two decades.  Money is raised through a modest admission plus the lure of winning one of the trees on display.  Typically, a sheet of 25 chances costs roughly $8.  The more imaginative the tree, the more tickets it will draw. 

All of the trees at Easton's Festival of
Trees will be raffled off December 14
Easton held its first Festival of Trees in 2011.  The club is fortunate to have a number of gifted designers, chief among them a diminutive bundle of energy by the name of Gloria Freitas-Steidinger.  I have had the pleasure to know Gloria for several years now and she is not only an internationally recognized floral designer; she also decorates a mean Christmas tree.

This year’s Easton Festival of Trees features 45 trees, each one sponsored by a local business or a family.  The event opened November 28 and runs through December 14.  Last Sunday I had the pleasure to talk with Nancy Cohenno, the club member who organized this year’s and last year’s Festival, and who ‘wrangles’ several dozen club members who do everything from decorate trees for sponsoring businesses to selling tickets and being docents during every hour the event is open.

Nancy began working on the 2014 event even as the 2013 edition was concluding its run.  She has spent the intervening year devising a series of special events designed to bring people to the Ames Estate who might not otherwise gravitate to a garden club event.  These include a ‘Kids Day’ that drew hundreds of families, a ‘Walk Back in Time’ featuring antique cars, and a ‘Jazz Night’.

What will the club do with the proceeds?  For one thing, the club will pay for the installation of 174 planters, urns, hanging baskets and window boxes along Easton’s Main Street in 2015.  That is in addition to the ten public sites currently maintained by the club.

* * * * *

For the Garden Club of Hingham, the special event was a ‘holiday hour tour and boutique’ called ‘Deck the Halls’.  That cursory description does not do justice to what was going on in the town on the south shore of Boston last Saturday.

Part of the Holiday Boutique at
Hingham's 'Deck the Halls' tour
Hingham, in the interest of full disclosure, is an affluent town rich in history.  Its garden club is a good match for the community it serves.  The club maintains a sunken parterre garden at The Old Ordinary, a 1688 house museum; as well as multiple showcase gardens at the town library and other historic sites; plus traffic islands in Hingham Centre.  This year, the club donated greenhouse equipment for a new greenhouse at the town’s high school and a ginkgo tree to an elementary school.  It puts up Christmas wreaths at civic sites as well as weekly flower arrangements at the Hingham Library.  You get the idea.  The Holiday House Tour and Boutique – held on the first Saturday in December – pays for all this and much more. 

I have been on many garden club house tours.  They range from frankly poorly planned to quite good.  Hingham’s effort is first class in every regard.  The homes are a mixture of modern and historic and range from a pair of seaside manses to large suburban homes miles inland.  Each home gets a team of decorators.  Up to seven club members choose a theme in consultation with the homeowner and then go to work for several days to turn as many as seven rooms into festive holiday showcases.

The Garden Club of Hingham
decorating team responsible
for the 'snow bears' vignette
If I had to choose one vignette to represent the effort that goes into making the tour it would be a scene of polar bears.  An annoying feature of many new houses is a leftover space where architects have placed massive windows, typically over the front entry, to allow natural sunlight into grand foyers.  In many such homes the windows create ledges six to eight feet long and often two to three feet wide.  Their sole purpose seems to be to gather dust bunnies.  But the decorating team that went to work on a Bel Air Road home had a different kind of animal in mind.  They created a scene of polar bears frolicking in a glen of cottony snow.  The all-white creation was equal parts whimsy and great use of space. 

Andrea Wilson, at left, managed the
Holiday Boutique this year
My true appreciation for the club’s effort, though, came at the Boutique.  When I walked into the sprawling South Shore Baptist Church, I saw a long table where tour tickets were being sold, and another table with boxwood trees for sale.  I thought to myself, ‘Holiday Boutique, check.’  Instead, I was informed that the Boutique was upstairs. 

Sure enough, there were several vendors in the corridor.  But these turned out to be the overflow.  The Boutique was housed in a cavernous assembly room:  18 extremely handsome booths selling everything from hand-thrown pots to miniature Christmas trees made from mussel shells.

I asked who was in charge of this and was directed to Andrea Wilson.  Andrea was in the church kitchen baking cookies.  Yes, she had assembled these vendors, one of whom was her husband whose post-banking retirement enterprise is handcrafting lamps from antique brass fire hoses.  She has spent the past year going to other markets, looking for vendors that would ‘fit’ with the tone the club wants to set.  In this case, ‘fit’ meant personable, chatty, quick to hand out samples, and selling things that no one would mistake as having been imported from China.

* * * * *

I have a personal connection to that third and final holiday fund raiser.  The Medfield Garden Club has been running a Holiday Greens Sale for so long than no one in the club can remember when there wasn’t one.

When the doors open at 10 a.m., the
Greens Sale is a madhouse.
The Greens Sale runs for two hours.  The planning for it takes months and utilizes the skills of most of the club’s able-bodied members.  There’s a bow-making workshop and this year’s November meeting was devoted to teaching members how to make candle rings, boxwood trees and basket arrangements.  There are expeditions to cut cedar, juniper and other evergreens in the town watershed, old state hospital and other open lands.

Beginning Tuesday morning, the basement of the First Parish Church becomes an assembly line that is as much about catching up with garden club friends as it is making baskets and centerpieces.  Betty was the anointed ‘Basket Queen’ for many years, overseeing the production of as many as 130 gorgeous arrangements.  She taught me the basics and, this year, I turned out fifteen or twenty pretty good arrangements incorporating pine, spruce, cedar, and arborvitae that, when augmented with a Santa or a bow, would sell for $12 to $25. 

Proceeds from the sale pay
for decorations at
Medfield's Town Hall
What does the Medfield Garden Club do with the money it raises?  It goes right back into the community.  The club has an ambitious program of creating and maintaining more than twenty wayside gardens around the town.  Proceeds of the sale help purchase the annuals, perennials and shrubs that make the roadside gardens a prominent feature of the community.  It also pays for large wreaths for Town Hall, decorations for a gazebo in a town park, and many other touches that, in other municipalities might be done at town expense.

The Holiday Greens Sale is part of the fabric of Medfield.  Saturday morning dawned cold, raw, and rainy; yet a line began forming outside the First Parish Church 45 minutes before the 10 a.m. opening.  Once the doors opened, people grabbed paper trays (the bottoms of beer cases, actually) and began filling them with candle rings, boxwood trees and anything else that caught their eye.  Before 11 a.m. the ‘inventory’ would fit on two tables.  At noon, everything was gone.

* * * * *
Three events.  Three garden clubs.  Thousands of hours of planning.  All targeted at serving the community.  Call it Christmas for a Worthy Cause.

December 1, 2014

The Fine Art of Moving a Garden

Moving furniture from one house to another is a snap.  You call a moving company, you sign a check, and experts do the rest.  On the appointed time and day, your furniture shows up at your new home.

Moving plants is a little more difficult.  To be completely accurate it is a lot more difficult.

The house - and garden - we will be
leaving behind.  Beautiful, but too
large for two people.
Last July I wrote of our plans to downsize; to leave the beautiful house we have called home for fifteen years in favor of a smaller abode in which we can (attention euphemism police!) ‘age in place gracefully’.  But this would be no ordinary home.  Its garden would be front and center in the planning process.

Our new home... maybe this month?
The house is now rising quite nicely on an acre and a half of land.  We optimistically think we’ll have an occupancy permit some time in December.  Our current home is on the market and we are equally optimistic that the right buyer will walk through the door any day now.

In preparation for our move we spent more than a hundred hours this autumn digging up and dividing plants – in addition to the hours Betty spent during the spring and summer doing exactly the same thing.  More than a hundred hosta divisions went into one- and two-gallon pots as did numerous Siberian iris.  Plugs of ginger and ground covers found their way into quart-size pots.

We have been dividing plants for the
past year.  Then the pace stepped up.
When we ran out of things to put plants in, we put out a plea to gardening friends who responded with an avalanche of pots – some of them gigantic.  Cuttings Betty made in the spring of climbing hydrangea had, by early October, formed strong root systems.  We now have an entire tub of climbing hydrangea, ready to cling to our new porch.  The largest containers became the home for grasses, peonies, epimedium and astilbe, all of which had migrated from their original planting sites and needed to be culled in order to restore order to the garden. 

By mid-October our portable garden – with pots spread out to allow leaves to soak up sun and water – had outgrown the fifteen-foot-by-forty-foot transplant bed and was spilling out into the walkways beyond.  We went to our neighbors and asked if they could take in the overflow.  When they agreed the potting continued. 

In the meantime, Betty created a dual tracking system for the plants.  Each pot bears a small wooden stick on which is written the name of the plant.  It also gets a second stick with nothing but a number on it.  In Betty’s computer is a growing list of what numbers correspond to which cultivars of plants.

The overflowing trench for the plants
that will be a small part of the
new garden.
In late November we began transporting our plants to their new home.  A Bobcat was being used to fill the trench created to bring in our water and sewer.  I cajoled its driver into carving out an eighteen-inch-deep hole ten feet wide and thirty feet long.  Four truckloads of plants later – and even pushing round pots so tightly they became squares – I had to hand-dig a second plant repository.

Next came the loads of leaf mold and pine needles.  This is to provide additional insulation against the winter wind and temperatures.  Then came soil to fill in any holes between pots.  Then more leaves. 

You should keep in mind that, while we’re lavishing this attention on our plants, we have not yet chosen colors for rooms in the actual house.

With the ground now beginning to freeze, the garden work at our current home is done.  We realize we are doing its next owners a huge favor:  for at least a year, there will be little need to do anything beyond routine garden maintenance.  Perennials will have room to stretch out their roots.  Shrubs will find less competition for light and nutrients.

For the past two months, the soil
around our new home has been
contacted into lifelessness.
Conversely, the work at our new home is just beginning.  All those plants now in their protective trenches need to find permanent homes come March or April.  The top two feet of our homesite’s soil has been compacted into an oxygen-free brick by a succession of cranes, trucks and bulldozers.  It will need to be coaxed back into life through aeration and augmentation. 

And, of course, the contents of those trenches are just a small fraction of what will be needed to fill a new garden.  Come the spring of 2015, the real work begins.