July 12, 2015

Gardens for a Worthy Cause

Yesterday (July 11), with the temperatures in Boston expected to touch 90 degrees, Betty and I did what all sane New Englanders do: we headed for the coast. 

Cape Ann is 'the other cape'
For the uninitiated, Massachusetts has two ‘capes’ on its coast.  The one people refer to when then say they are ‘going down to the Cape for the weekend’ is Cape Cod and, yesterday morning, the backups on the Bourne and Sagamore Bridges were four and six miles, respectively. 

The other ‘cape’ is Cape Ann.  Cape Ann is an afterthought for most New Englanders and it barely registers if you are from outside the region.  As it turns out, this state of affairs suits Cape Ann residents just fine.  Unlike that ‘other’ Cape, the citizens of Gloucester and Rockport can traverse the A. Piatt Andrew Bridge spanning the Annisquam River that separates Cape Ann from the mainland without fear of hours-long delays.

The pedestrian bridge into Annisquam
Our goal yesterday morning was not beaches but, rather, gardens.  Specifically, we went on the Gloucester Garden Tour of Annisquam Village.  Annisquam, in turn, is a hidden gem: a beautiful seaside village dating to 1646 that is suspended in time.  Its houses are a mix of grand and humble.  Streets are narrow, winding, rising, and falling.  There are stone outcroppings everywhere that dictate where homes can and cannot be built. 

A garden on the Annisquam tour. 
Double-click for a full-page show.
Most garden tours are held by garden clubs.  This annual tour (which features a different part of Cape Ann each year) is the creation of a unique organization: Generous Gardeners, a Gloucester-based philanthropic organization that raises funds for beautification projects.  Some are carried out by the organization’s members, other projects are funded through grants to other groups.  And we are not talking about modest sums.  As you come into Gloucester on Route 128, you encounter Grant Circle, a large and, until last year, graceless traffic rotary.  This year it sports a new series of glorious beds.  Three area garden clubs banded together in 2014 to raise more than $100,000 to beautify the rotary; Generous Gardeners provided a hefty contribution that kick-started funding.  Four other projects are targeted for assistance this year including expanding the plantings in the center island of Gloucester’s principal downtown boulevard.

Several of the gardens included
painters at work
But however worthwhile the cause, a $25 garden tour ticket needs to provide an experience that is both fun and inspiring.  Generous Gardeners delivered on both counts, and it did so with a professionalism that made the day effortless (except for walking) on the part of tour goers.

A garden with a sweeping ocean view
There are two ways into Annisquam Village: narrow Leonard Street and a pedestrian footbridge across Lobster Cove. We parked and checked in at a school two miles away, and boarded a school bus that let us off on the Gloucester side of the footbridge. It was an appropriate way to start the tour, a 300-foot ramble past dozens of boats with the hill upon which the village is built as a backdrop.

In Annisquam, houses adapt to the
geology of the region
I had been to Annisquam just once, as a speaker earlier this year for the Cape Ann Garden Club.  I had gotten a sense of the village’s architecture, but not of its gardens. July is unquestionably the peak of the area’s gardens.  Spirea and hydrangea groan with blooms and spill over walls and fences.  Perennial borders blaze with daylilies, lavender, sage, hosta, fern, and epimedium.

This was my favorite garden:
small but intelligent with
a framed ocean view
There were 15 houses on the tour of which we saw 13.  While there were several large, beachfront homes featuring meticulous gardens with sweeping views of Annisquam Harbor and Wingaersheek Beach beyond, my tour favorite was a small house with a compact garden.  The homeowner compensated for a small space by emphasizing the vertical drop from the front to the back of the property.  The front garden gave way to a lushly planted bluestone patio with espaliered pear trees on the side; stepping down to a narrow, intelligently designed rear perennial border separated from the small lawn by a winding row of cobblestones.  The piece de resistance?  A well-framed view of the ocean.  It was perfect.

Our appreciation for the tour was heightened by the opportunity to chat with Susan Kelly, founder of Generous Gardeners and organizer of the tour.  As we waited for the bus to take us back to the school where our car was parked, she spoke of the daunting logistics required to make the tour happen (for example, a week before the tour, she was informed that only a single bus would be available – ultimately she negotiated three).

A great tour requires commensurate signage and an explanatory guide.  Every garden had multiple docents, the winding course was superbly marked, and the tour book included a concise ‘what-to-look-for’ in the garden as well as a quick sketch of the house’s history.

* * * * *

Beneath the 'acrobats'
Instead of heading home for a cool drink and a well-deserved rest, we made a 50-mile detour on our way home to another garden Saturday afternoon.  Bedrock Gardens in Lee, New Hampshire, is a nearly thirty-year-long effort by Jill Nooney and Bob Munger to create a space that marries art and horticulture.  (I first wrote about Bedrock Gardens here.)  We were inspired to visit yesterday both to see how the garden has changed and by the fact that the Garden Conservancy had chosen to sponsor an Open Day at the property.

Horsehead sculptures guard the
parterre garden
Bedrock Gardens need to be on every serious gardener’s bucket list.  It is unique as far as I know; a 20-acre garden that is equal parts whimsy and horticultural intelligence.  It is also a garden that grows and changes.  To put it another way, seeing Bedrock Gardens once is like seeing your grandchildren once.  You need to make a pilgrimage every year or so to see how it has evolved.

Unusual plant combinations are the rule
When you go, plan to stay at least two hours.  It will take you that long just to see, from various vantage points, the 21 ‘points of interest’ listed on the garden map.  If you are serious about horticulture, add the amount of time appropriate to your knowledge level.  Very little in this garden is ‘the usual suspects’.  Instead, unusual variations are the rule.  Take a camera (or a phone with a high-rez imager) and a notebook.  You’ll find unexpected but imaginative planting combinations that will send you to nurseries that specialize in lesser-known cultivars.

Part of the 'wiggle-waggle'
The ‘garden’ part of Bedrock Gardens is primarily the work of Jill Nooney.  Her spouse, Bob Munger, is credited with creating the walkways, water features and patios that dot the garden, though he will confess to no greater contribution than the digging of holes and operation of farm equipment.  I’m willing to accept that division of labor at face value without further investigation.

The Dark Woods feature
flying objects
The ‘art’ at Bedrock Gardens is both the interplay of plants and the inspired genius of Jill’s ‘sculptures’.  As the accompanying photos show, Bedrock Gardens is stiff with metal creations made from industrial scrap.  There are some recent pieces that appear to be the result of binge-watching ‘Game of Thrones’, but every piece is a delight.  Many are for sale.  Suffice it to say that had the arc welder not been invented, it would be necessary to do so to encourage the creations on display.

Two items of note:  First, in the past few years, the Friends of Bedrock Gardens has been organized as a 501(c)3 non-profit.  This both make it easier to support the garden financially, and to ensure that it survives its two creators.  Second, the garden has four more open weekends between now and October.  Those dates are July 18-19, August 15-16, September 19-20 and October 10-11-12.

July 6, 2015

The Hardscape Comes Together

Our landscaping plan. 
Double-click to see the plan
at full size
Until three weeks ago, they were lines on a piece of paper, paint on rocks, and suggestions nudged out of mulch and stones.  Today, they are real; and they make a huge difference in defining our new home and garden.

‘They’ are the hardscape.  ‘Hardscape’, for those not familiar with the language of the ‘green’ industry, is that part of a landscape that is built not from plants and trees but, rather, from stone or concrete.  Hardscape can be subtle or it can be front and center.  It can be the concrete plaza around a swimming pool or the hint of rocks in a sea of greenery.

Workmen from Dolan & Co.
installed a cobblestone border to
define the driveway perimeter
For us, the hardscape took on four elements:  a stone wall defining a change in elevation at the front of the property, a patio off our screened porch at the back of the house, a driveway, and a sidewalk from that driveway to the front door.

There are default choices for each of these items: almost all driveways are an asphalt strip from street to garage, for example.  We had a very different idea for ours.  Most people choose asphalt because it is durable.  You can tear out of it in your 4x4 and cause no damage, and a ten-ton truck can park on it with complete confidence.

The completed driveway: ecological,
tasteful, and great to look at
We don’t have a 4x4 and don’t intend to purchase one.  And, anyone tearing out of our driveway has better have flashing lights.  Trucks can idle on the street-side parking pad.  These are the joys of building a home to your own specifications.  And our wish list for our new home included an ecological component:  we wanted a driveway that a) occupied the minimum ‘footprint’ possible and b) was permeable to rainwater.
We got our wish.  The driveway allows us to back out of a side-loading two-car garage and drive into the bays in one motion.  But there is not an extra square foot of unnecessary or unused space and the 70-foot-long path from street to garage narrows quickly to just ten feet.  Cobblestones define the perimeter of the driveway and the ‘pavement’ is nothing but crushed stone.  There are big stones at the base and progressively smaller stones until you reach an inch-deep layer of half-inch stuff.  You can pour water onto it all day long and it will not puddle or run off.  Another plus is that you can hear a car pull into the driveway.

Installing the bluestone sidewalk
Oh, and it looks beautiful.

The default choice for sidewalks is concrete.  I grew up in a home with a three-foot-wide walk that ran straight as a shot from the town’s sidewalk (also concrete) to the front door.  The sidewalk was as uninviting as warm lemonade on a hot afternoon, but at least it got used.  In 21st Century New England, sidewalks to front doors are ceremonial because front doors and entry foyers have become ceremonial.  Everyone goes in through the garage or a ‘mud room’ door.  Don’t ask why; it’s just the way it is.  But we wanted a sidewalk that would invite usage by providing a walk through our garden on the way to the front entrance.

The finished sidewalk offers a
walk through the garden
For our sidewalk we chose bluestone, which meshes very well with the color of the house.  Instead of the polished stone, though, we chose ‘cleft’ stone with a slightly irregular space.  Over three days, a team of stonemasons from Dolan & Co. (who also replaced the ‘builder’s crud with loam), created a gorgeous four-foot-wide walk (with flares at either end) incorporating a Mondrian-like geometric pattern.  It’s enough to make you want to take up hopscotch.

Assembling the jigsaw puzzle that
will become the patio
Patios are all the rage these days.  They’re outdoor living rooms, dining rooms, and kitchens with pizza ovens, weatherproof sofas, and grills the size of a California King bed.  We wanted something simple: roughly round (but not round), about 14 feet across, and made of stone that could be inter-planted with moss or ferns. 

The completed patio, just add chairs
Scott Dolan sent us to a place in a nearby town with pallets of stone from everywhere. We saw what we wanted almost immediately:  irregularly-shaped pieces of Pennsylvania fieldstone in colors that changed within the same piece of stone. 

That stone was assembled into a jigsaw puzzle that left gaps a few inches wide between each piece.  The surfaces are sufficiently irregular that no one will be plonking down an outdoor sofa and loveseat on it.  But for sitting in simple chairs outside on a summer evening and admiring the outdoors with a glass of wine, it’s well-nigh perfect.

The stone wall and a perennial border
along the street side of the garden
The final piece of the hardscape is the stone wall, the plan for which started off about thirty feet long and one-to-two-feet high.  By the time I finished it, the wall ran to 70 feet and rises to a height of more than three feet for half of its length.  It is the one hardscape element that Betty and I can say we not only envisioned, but executed.

The completed hardscape; the start
of a landscape.  Please excuse the
giant pile of mulch.
In the last few days, we’ve started planting all the perennials and small shrubs that have waited patiently in pots for too long.  We work mostly in the early morning (a 5:30 start time is not unusual), drawing the approving notices of the walkers who like the ambience of our street.  We’ve rewarded them with a colorful shrub and perennial bed right up against the street.

The plants that were in these pots are
now in the ground
The garden is finally taking shape.

July 1, 2015

Green Is the New Orange

My wife, Betty, is walking on air this afternoon.  I mean, clicking-her-heels-three-times-in-the-air happy.  Turning-somersaults-with-glee pleased.

The orange fence is down.

The orange fence first went up in mid-
September 2014 as our foundation
was being prepared.  Double-click
any photo to see an enlargement.
The fence appeared in mid-September of last year as workmen began preparing the site of our new home for its foundation.  We had gone through a two-month permitting process that ended with the issuing of an Order of Conditions, or OC by our town’s Conservation Commission.

The OC is a lengthy document that spells out what the builder, landscaper, and homeowner much do to preserve the area beyond the immediate house.  Because our home would abut wetlands, the OC was quite specific about preventing the construction process from encroaching on those wetlands.

A silt barrier
Specifically, the OC called for the placement of a 300-foot-long silt barrier to keep construction debris and landscaping materials from spilling over into land that we own, but cannot alter. The silt barrier, in turn, is a continuous tube of straw-stuffed plastic netting.  It does an excellent job of keeping Bad Stuff on one side of a line while keeping the other side of the line pristine.

To mark that silt barrier for all to see and respect, the OC requested that we put up a four-foot-high orange fence.
For those of you reading this who know Betty - and especially those of you who have seen her do her superb container gardening demonstrations – you know that she dislikes orange.

No, dislike is too mild a word to describe her feelings on the subject. ‘Hate’ is not too strong a word.  ‘Abhor’ is just about right.  We have no orange flowers in our garden.  Orange is anathema.  Why?  Betty says the color orange stops the eye in a garden.  That's the way it is.

The orange fence disappeared under
the snows of winter, only to return
with the spring melt
And so, every time we visited the construction site as the house rose from the ground, Betty would avert her eyes.  Then, winter came and, for a while, the fence was buried.  But in March it reappeared; a specter of bad taste, a blot on an otherwise beautiful piece of property.

We moved into our new home in April, but the fence remained.  Every time Betty looked out our back windows, the fence was there, shouting out its unwanted presence.  Why did it stay?  Because the OC specified that final grading for landscaping must be ‘substantially complete’ and hardscape items like our patio and driveway must be in place.

A Jack-in-the-Pulpit planted at the
woodland edge is just one of dozens
of natives we added
With the bringing in of loam in May and the construction of the patio and driveway in June, we neared our compliance goal.  We purchased dozens of native and woodland shrubs and other plants to blend our property into the woodlands beyond.  Betty tagged each plant so there was no question that it added to our standing as Stewards of the Land.

This afternoon, Leslee Willitts, our town’s Conservation Commissioner, came to pay a call.  She is a wonderful and knowledgeable lady who shares Betty’s scorched-earth policy on the subject of invasive plants. 

She and Betty walked the property for roughly half an hour, pausing to look at plants, discuss drainage and water barrels, and admire the new oxydendrum.  Interestingly, Leslee’s eyes went well beyond the silt barrier to see what was growing in the woodlands and wetlands beyond.

At the end of the tour Betty asked, as casually as she could muster, whether the orange fence could come down.

“Oh, sure,” Leslee said.  “You don’t need that now.”

Ready for the dump
To her credit, Betty waited until the Conservation Commissioner’s car was out of sight before starting to rip out the fence.  But in less than twenty minutes it was in a pile in our driveway, ready to go to the transfer station.  The workmen completing our driveway offered to take it away for us. 

There is still one step remaining before the OC is lifted.  The engineering firm that surveyed the land last year and drew up the construction plan must now do a final ‘as-built’ plan showing that we adhered to the letter of the Conservation Commission’s orders.  It will be a joy to write that final check for the report. 

Almost as much of a pleasure as ripping out that fence.