June 23, 2015

The Pine Street Status Report

A year ago this month a dilapidated, 70-year-old-house surrounded by end-of-life pines, burning bush, and swallowwort was torn down.  In the town where I live, such demolitions are the precursor to the building of a grand house, typically four thousand square feet (or more) in size.  Surrounding the foundation of that house will be a fringe of evergreen shrubs and, beyond that, a perfect green lawn with a handful of ‘usual suspect’ trees.  The care and maintenance of the property will left to a landscaping company that will deliver on its promise of a verdant, manicured lawn and a mailbox surrounded by annuals.

Part of the 30 cubic yards of mulch
we've put down.  That's Magnolia
'Elizabeth' in the center.
Our new home has not followed that script.  It is just 400 square feet larger than the 1700-square-foot house it replaced.  It is that size because we moved out of a so-called ‘starter castle’ when its size no longer suited our needs (if it ever did) or our lifestyle.  In our new home, we actually use every room.

But if the new house that rose from the debris of the old one pleased our neighbors, it is the landscaping now taking shape that is drawing stares. 

My contribution is a stone wall that
will be the backdrop for a perennial
I’ve already chronicled the transformation of the ‘builder’s crud’ on the site into a suitable gardening medium (here and here).  Now, we’re starting to populate the roughly half acre of ‘usable’ (i.e., not wetlands) property with plants, trees and shrubs.  Ours is a street filled with walkers, and the number of ‘thumbs up’ we get from passers-by is gratifying.

The biggest hurdle people have is the notion that there will be no lawn.  What isn’t planted is mulched – a beautiful, dark brown wood mulch that holds in the moisture and keeps the weeds at bay.  Once down, it is zero-maintenance.  The mulch, in turn, will improve the soil; adding organics as it breaks down.  We’ve spread thirty cubic yards so far with an additional fifteen waiting in the wings.

Construction of the sidewalk, patio
and driveway start tomorrow.  Until
they're finished, most of the
perennials will stay in pots.
Already visible are the paths within the mulched area that divide the garden into distinct planting zones.  Eventually, those paths will be pea gravel; for now, they’re just beaten-down soil.  Each zone, in turn, is anchored by a native specimen tree.  The oxydendrum, amalanchier, and cornus florida have now been joined by a Magnolia ‘Elizabeth’ (already truncated to ‘Liz’ in honor of one of my fictional sleuths), a blue-green concolor fir, and a cladrastis kentuckea – the same Yellowwood I described from the West Roxbury Garden Tour. 

We found the latter tree at Weston Nurseries where it had sat unsold because no one was certain of its name and, therefore, of its growing habits.  Betty took one look at the now-past wisteria-like racemes and squeezed my hand so tightly it nearly broke a bone.  We planted it this morning.

The shrubs are going in according to a scheme that Betty is devising as she walks the property.  Perhaps thirty shrubs are now in place, scattered in various beds as she determines that they ‘look right’.  It is a small fraction of the eventual population.

Next week, this will look quite
Perennials are mostly being held in abeyance for the construction of the sidewalk, patio, and driveway.  We’ve installed a few of the peonies and amsonia, but there is an army of heuchera, tiarella, and hosta awaiting the ‘all clear’ signal on the construction front (which commences tomorrow and will last about a week).

My own contribution to this effort is the building of a stone wall.  It is roughly fifty feet long and rises to a maximum height of about three feet.  Every stone came from the property; a remnant of that ‘builder’s crud’ we removed.  It will soon be the backdrop of a perennial border.

June 15, 2015

The Summer Garden Tour

In 1848, a farmhouse was built in Roxbury, Massachusetts, a farming community a few miles outside of Boston.  Around the time of the farmhouse’ construction, a black walnut tree was planted twenty feet or so from the home’s front door.

The black walnut tree
That tree would see a lot of history.  West Roxbury would secede from Roxbury in 1851 and West Roxbury would be annexed by Boston in 1874.  With the annexation would come new roads and streetcar lines.  The farm would be subdivided and re-subdivided until it consisted of only a grand house and a barn (converted to a garage) on a short street called Grayfield Avenue.

The black walnut, though, remained.  It grew until it both towered over and covered the house and, indeed the entire front of the property.  Successive owners came to realize they were stewards of a piece of Boston history.

Christie Dustman does an impromptu
horticultural lecture at a garden on
the West Roxbury Garden Tour
I was unaware of that tree’s existence, let alone its history, until this past weekend when I went on the West Roxbury Garden Tour; a fundraising event sponsored by the Evening Garden Club of West Roxbury.  Because I had a ticket for the tour, I had the opportunity to chat with David Godkin, the home’s owner for the past quarter century, who went on at length about the tree’s maintenance.  I learned that black walnuts are finicky trees, given to dropping branches (and walnuts).  A tree of its size and age requires cables to stabilize branches.  I suspect being a steward of a piece of history is an expensive proposition.

The house on Grayfield Avenue was just one of ten properties on view that weekend and, indeed, the West Roxbury Garden Tour was one of several in the Boston area competing for attention.  Betty and I also journeyed to the South Shore town of Pembroke for a garden tour the next day (more about that in a few moments).

A garden tour is an invitation
to poke around
Garden tours are a wonderful thing.  They are invitations to poke around and ask questions.  Docents (or, better yet, the home’s owners) provide the unabridged answers.  Sometimes, you don’t even have to ask questions.  At a second property on the West Roxbury tour, Christie Dustman, who had designed the garden (a professional, in this case) was offering a hands-on seminar about the things that made the garden special.  She used a knife to slice off a branch from a hedge and challenged a crowd to identify the unusual shrub used (it was a longstalk holly, ilex pedunculosa).  She also showed how the growth of ornamental pines were managed by manually truncating the ‘candles’ produced by the pines each year.

The century-old Kentucky
Most people go to garden tours to see flowers; we kept encountering glorious trees that stole the show.  In addition to the black walnut, a home on Montview Avenue featured a century old cladrastis Kentuckea – the Kentucky Yellowwood.  Yellowwoods are magnificent, tall trees anytime of the year, but in late May and early June, they produce a prodigious display of white flowers that stops you in your tracks.  Moreover, while the tree can produce flowers every year, the display is stronger in alternating years.  The yellowwood gracing the home was just past its peak flowering cycle, but the shape of the tree – massive and gnarled yet still as grand and proud as any tree in its prime – was a ‘teachable moment’ in horticulture.

West Roxbury featured gardens on small lots; a quarter acre is considered ‘huge’ within the Boston city limits.  On Sunday we ventured out to Pembroke where the Mattakeesett Garden Club was hosting its second annual tour.  Pembroke is 30 miles from the center of Boston and lots can range into multiple acres. 
An antique house on Brick Kiln Road was the site of both history and an expansive, meandering garden that showed care, imagination, and proof that vegetables can be an integral part of landscaping.  There were no fewer than half a dozen sites where vegetables had been tucked into unsuspecting sites, including adjacent to a swimming pool.  But perhaps the biggest surprise came when the homeowner insisted on showing us the interior of a shed.
The shed, as it turned out, was older than the house and was originally part of a shipyard that once sat on the property (itself on the meandering and historic North River).  Inside the shed was a piece of shipbuilding history – an intact lathe from the eighteenth century that was used to turn out the intricate wooden parts for the sailing ships built at the shipyard.  It was the most unexpected encounter I’ve ever had on a garden tour, and one that will stay with me for a very long time.
Garden tours are fun events; a great way to spend an afternoon with a mix of adventure and education.  They’re also important ways that garden club raise funds for civic beautification and educational programs.  Over the next month in eastern Massachusetts and on Cape Cod, there are garden tours in Sharon, Kingston, Dennis, Salem, Gloucester, and Osterville.  (I suspect that a Google search would produce an avalanche of tours in every state).  You can get full information on the Massachusetts tours at http://gcfm.org/Calendar-News/Calendar.aspx. 

Of special note, in the Berkshires, the Lenox Garden Club will hold its biennial “Hidden Treasurers of the Berkshires” tour on July 11.  I wrote their last tour here.  This is the Queen Mother of garden tours and while it is "only" six gardens, they are always spectacular.  This year's tour takes place in and around Stockbridge.  You can get information about and tickets for the tour at http://www.lenoxgardenclub.net.
If I were to pick one “don’t miss tour” though, it would be the July 11 Generous Gardeners tour of Annisquam.  Located on a peninsula within the town of Gloucester on Cape Ann, Annisquam is a stunningly beautiful village that meets everyone’s vision of the idealized New England coastal town.  Generous Gardeners, in turn, is an amazing philanthropic organization that exists to raise money for worthwhile horticultural projects.  You can get full details about the tour at http://www.gloucestergardentour.org/.

June 3, 2015

Three Down, Eight or Nine to Go....

For the past few weeks, there has seldom been a day when there has not been a copy of William Cullina’s ‘Native Trees, Shrubs and Vines’ or the American Horticultural Society’s ‘Northeast Smartgarden Regional Guide’ open on Betty’s desk.  Alongside those two tomes have been catalogs from several area nurseries.

It isn’t that Betty is expecting to find some heretofore unknown specimen of maple or oak lurking within those books.  Rather, she is looking for roughly a dozen very special trees. Specifically, native trees that will serve as the anchors for a brand new landscape.  The books are akin to audition tapes; a means of winnowing hundreds of candidates down to a few finalists.

Our oxydendrum will have flowers
on distinctive white panticles
We are starting with a blank canvas at our new home.  In the past two weeks we have carted away hundreds of cubic yards of rock and dirt officially classified by the University of Massachusetts Soil Laboratory as incapable of supporting plant life, and replaced it with eighteen inches of organics-rich screened loam.  We topped that loam with several inches of mulch, which now awaits a garden.

The garden is being designed to combine beauty with ecological sensitivity and low maintenance.  “Ecological sensitivity” translates to a strong emphasis on native trees and shrubs that will support the local population of birds and insects.  “Low maintenance” means exactly that: a garden that, once in place, doesn’t require long hours of maintenance to keep it looking attractive. 

This is amalanchier
'Autumn Brilliance'
The trees are the anchors.  There will likely be eleven or twelve of them.  On a recent weekday, we rode with senior horticulturalist Henry Schmidt of Weston Nurseries around their ‘back lot’, looking for the trees on Betty’s list.  The first tree we spotted was an oxydendrum, sometimes called a sourwood tree.  It’s a tree native to the northeast that is seldom seen, and that’s a shame.  An oxydendrum produces white flowers on long, distinctive panticles in midsummer; those panticles remain in place even as the leaves turn a vivid red in fall.  The tree before us was a magnificent specimen, standing nearly twelve feet tall.

Deep in the tree holding area, Henry stopped in from of a group of cornus florida.  Flowering dogwoods can be found everywhere in New England, but most of the dogwoods we see are the Asian kousa varieties, and Massachusetts is considered the northern limit of the native variety. Betty specified one that was not only native but with pink bracts or petals. We found a perfect specimen, more than ten feet tall, and it was duly tagged.  The third tree on the list was an amelanchier, or shadbush.  We spotted a multi-stemmed clumping version of this beautiful ornamental tree that feeds early pollinators, then the birds, and finally turns a rainbow of colors in the autumn. 

Two days later, we returned to the nursery with a borrowed pickup truck and our three purchases were effortlessly loaded by a guy driving a nifty machine that functioned like a giant hand.  The ‘hand’ picked up the tree, tilted it just so, and placed it in the truck.  We got them home.  So far, so good.

Here are first trees planted, our
oxydendrum and cornus florida
The problem was getting them off of the truck.  In the past, we’ve purchased much smaller trees.  If their root balls were wrapped in burlap, the width of the ball was usually a foot to eighteen inches.  These three trees, by contrast, had root balls two feet wide or even larger.  Moreover, they were wet.  I tried lifting one.  It would not budge.

After ten minutes of flailing and grunting, Betty grudgingly allowed me to go across the street to where our neighbors – a family roughly half our age – were entertaining some muscle-bound friends.  It turns out they had been watching our travails and were discussing whether to offer their assistance unprompted.  They were pleased to be asked to pitch in.  Even so, it took three of us to get the trees to their planned planting sites.  Had it not been for their intercession, those trees would likely still be on the truck.

Digging holes for the trees was another revelation.  Current theory says that you should dig “a saucer, not a teacup”.  Once upon a time, you dug a hole slightly larger than the root ball, lowered the tree into the hole, and filled the hole with enriched soil and water.  The problem with that practice was that the tree roots would get to the edge of that rich soil, encounter the lesser-quality surrounding stuff, and decide to stay put; resulting in a stunted tree with a poor root system.

Hence the saucer, which provides the tree with ample room to stretch out its roots.  The problem is that it require removing two to three times as much soil as the “saucer” technique.  The hole for each tree required up to an hour of digging, despite all that new loam.

But the trees are in.  They all stand up straight and face in the correct direction.  My one piece of advice to all assistant tree planters reading this is to always make certain that the Chief Tree Planter has specifically signed off on the tree direction, even at the risk of annoying the Chief Tree Planter by asking that unseemly question, “Are you sure?”  The alternative is trying to wrestle a tree’s root ball in a morass of mud; an exercise that can result in the uttering of many Bad Words.

And, did I mention that out expedition produced three trees?  And that there are eight or nine more to be located?  It’s going to be a long June….