August 31, 2015

The Ogre and the Squash Vine Memo

Eight years ago, Betty and I made the mistake of complaining to one of Medfield's town’s selectman about the sad state of the volunteer-managed community garden.  We noted that the garden seemed to exist for the pleasure of a few well-placed friends of ‘the Committee’, who lavished multiple plots on themselves while neglecting basic services such as water and mowing.  Plot-holders abandoned their gardens in mid-season and those gardens grew up in weeds.  Couldn’t something be done, we asked?
Something was done.  A few weeks later, we found ourselves in charge of the operation.  Just the two of us.  The Committee had resigned en masse.
At first, the
squash vines
were a minor
We like to think that we’ve made the garden a better place in the intervening years. Now covering three-quarters of an acre, there are 62 gardeners and 62 gardens (all occupied, thank you) in two sizes.  The perimeter is mowed regularly, aged manure has been overspread on the site enough times that the garden is now a foot above the surrounding fields, wood chips are delivered to create paths, and the six water spigots all function properly.
There are no ‘rules’ for the garden, only guidelines; and they fit neatly on one page.  But even guidelines require some level of enforcement.  Enforcement requires an Ogre.  That’s me.  Every week, I walk the garden looking for problems.  What follows is a true story.  Only the name of the individual has been changed. 
It is the time of year when the gardening season is winding down.  The gardens, though, are lush with crops.  In some of the gardens, pumpkin and winter squash vines climb and/or go under fences.  Zinnias and cleomes press against groaning fences as do tomatoes heavy with fruit. Gardens that were spotless a few weeks ago now show noticeable weeds.  The result is the three-foot-wide walkways around certain plots become impassable. 
But then the
vines spilled over
the fence
It is time for the Garden Ogre to go to work:  I send out ‘The Squash Vine Memo’.
My first email is light and breezy:
Subject:  Garden maintenance
“Hey, Judy!  Can you get down to the garden this weekend and take care of the squash vines out in the walkways?”
I send out twelve such emails, each personalized and tailored to the specific problems in that plot.  Four gardeners quickly respond that they will get right on it.
On Monday morning I’m back at the garden.  Six of the gardens have been brought back to a semblance of order.  Excellent!  But six have not been touched and the vines are longer and more treacherous.  I go home and write:
Subject:  Please take care of your garden
“Judy:  The squash vines from your garden have spilled out into the walkway, making it difficult for people to get to their own gardens.  We would all appreciate your taking time this evening to clear your path.”
By the time of the
third email the
squash was out of
That email to the six miscreants will draws three responses along the lines of, “Sorry!  We were away!  I’ve sent my son down to take care of it.”
Two days later, I am again at the garden.  Two of the six gardens have been cleaned.  The other four – including one that promised immediate response – have vines that now are completely across the aisle and climbing the neighbors’ fences.  I go home and write:
Subject:  You need to clean your garden right now!
“Judy:  This is my third email about getting the vines out of the aisles around your garden. You owe your neighbors an apology and you need to get down to the garden today to clean up the mess.”
This was the state of
the squash vines when
I sent out the 'now
or else' memo
The next day, two of the remaining gardens have, in fact, been cleared of vines.  I even have a note from one of the offenders apologizing for taking so long to take action.
But two gardens remain holdouts.  Not only are the vines still a problem, the weeds have started going to seed.  And so I go home and write one final message:
Subject:  You are going to lose your plot at the community garden
“Judy:  Your garden has become a hazard for everyone else.  If, by the end of today, you have not completely cleared the weeds and vines that are clogging the walkways around your garden, I will take them down myself.  If I have to do that, you will lose your right to a plot next year.
Neal Sanders
Garden Ogre”
The next day, I go to the garden, hoe and clippers in hand.  But I don’t need my tools: both gardens have been ridded of vines in the aisles and weeds along the fence line.
I go home and open my email.  I find this message:
Subject:  My plot at the garden
“Dear Mr. Sanders:
Why do you have to be so mean about it?  All you had to do was ask.
As a writer, I spend my days exploring the mystery of human nature.  I invent characters who commit crimes.  I dream up sleuths who can see through the fog of warped motives and personal turpitude to point a finger of justice at the guilty party.  Then, just when I think I’ve finally got a handle on the inner workings of my fellow man, along comes a “Judy” and I have to go back to square one.

August 7, 2015

The Pine Street Progress Report

The property as it looked this morning
Slowly, piece by piece, the landscape of 26 Pine Street is beginning to take shape. 

This is a long-term project; undertaken by two people who are hell-bent upon being able to say that they did this themselves.  There is a shopping list for trees, shrubs, and perennials; but their purchase is dictated by season and getting not just the right cultivar, but also the right conformance and pedigree.

Here's a guide to the photos
that follow.  Double click on the
map to see at full-screen size.
For example, there is a designated space in our landscape for a cercis canadensis, the forest pansy redbud.  We have been to five nurseries of which three had specimens.  But the trees we found were leggy, too small, or had branches crossing so badly that the tree would need to be pruned close to extinction to have the right shape. 

One cercis met all criteria but, curiously, it was both balled and burlapped and in a container.  Also, its leaves had turned green though it was early July and there had not been the string of warm nights that are generally required to make that transformation.  Those oddities caused us to ask questions, which eventually revealed that the tree’s origin was South Carolina.  We were looking at a tree bred for Zone 7 or 8, about to be plunged into Zone 5.  Sensibly, we passed.

Photo 1
The lone cersis that passed all tests had a tag on it indicating that it was being held as a possible replacement tree.  We called or visited the nursery every few days, hoping to spring the tree free.  Alas, it was called away.  We will wait until 2016 to find our specimen.

Photo 2
This is also predominantly a native garden.  There are two kinds of chionanthus – fringe trees.  Ninety percent of what is in nurseries is chionanthus chinesis, the Asian cultivar which is more popular because it grows more quickly.  We held out for virginicus, the native version.  It’s smaller (for now) but it’s what we wanted.

Photo 3
There are non-natives in the garden.  Hostas and epimedium can be found in multiple places.  These are the ‘friendly’ aliens.  They won’t take over the garden; they won’t spread seeds in the woods. 

Photo 4
Most surprising to most visitors and passers-by is that ours is, by choice, a grassless garden.  Our goal is to emphasize trees and shrubs (most of them flowering) and perennials.  We sold our mower when we moved, cementing that lawn-less decision.  The 45 cubic yards of mulch we have put down ensure that few weeds pop up.  We’re also saving thousands of gallons of water in a town that, in summer, pumps more that 100% of the water being replenished in its aquifer.

Photo 5
In time, the additional shrubs and perennials we plant will grow to maturity. When they do, the absence of grass will cease to be an issue because the greenery will predominate. We’re willing to wait.

We know our garden is not for everyone.  It’s a statement about conservation; a demonstration that ‘thoughtful’ landscaping can also be colorful and attractive.  We’re out working in front of the property most mornings before 6 a.m. and we get hundreds of walkers, bicyclists, and joggers every week.  There are lots of ‘thumbs up’ and many encouraging words.

Photo 6
All gardening should be a labor of love.  This one is also a journey of educating ourselves and those who are open to a different vision of suburban horticulture.

August 5, 2015

You Can Go Home Again (But You Probably Shouldn't)

I’ve been thinking these past few weeks about the inevitability of change. 

It started last month when Betty and I visited Bedrock Gardens, which is easily the most visually intriguing garden in New England.  Located in Lee, New Hampshire, it sprawls across more than 30 acres and is created from equal parts intelligence and whimsy.  Its creator, Jill Nooney, has filled it with plant combinations that challenge the imagination, and garden art – sculptures forged from century-old industrial detritus – that inspire both laughter and thought.

She and husband Bob Munger have been working on the garden for roughly 30 years.  It is a labor of love in every sense of the word and I have enjoyed watching it grow and mature.  But Jill and Bob have been on this earth, by their own admission, for a combined 135 years.  What happens when they can no longer care for the garden?

The perennial border at Great Dixter.
Sir Christopher Lloyd left us nine
years ago but his garden is still alive
The late eminent English gardener, Christopher Lloyd, is credited with the wisdom “The garden dies when the gardener dies”.  Lloyd’s home, Great Dixter, was still going strong the last time I was in East Sussex so, perhaps, death does not bring down the curtain on every garden.  An entity called the Great Dixter Trust is charged with preserving the garden for generations to come.  Looking to the future, Bedrock Gardens has similarly established a non-profit entity to help fund the preservation of that treasure.

Which brings me to the fate of a much smaller garden; one with much more limited notoriety: the one Betty and I created at our last home.

As everyone knows, we downsized this year; moving from a Colonial on Steroids on one side of town to a brand new 2100-square-foot jewel of a home on the other side.  In a perfect world (meaning one where money was no object), we would have stayed put on our same piece of land and built that smaller house.  The reason we would have stayed involved great views, terrific neighbors, and a garden that provided vast and continuing pleasure to us.

Our gardens, though extensive, covered
less than half of our land.  The rest was
a woodland we restored
We sold our home to a couple with two young children.  They loved the site, loved the pond view and shared our thoughts about pesticide-free lawns.  The garden was buried under several feet of snow when we accepted their offer in February.  We invited them over to take a tour of the garden as soon as the snow melted so that that we could identify some of the very unusual trees, shrubs, and perennials in it.  They demurred, citing family demands.

When we closed on the house in April we reiterated the offer – a hands-on walk-through so that they wouldn’t accidentally cut down a rare specimen.  They thanked us but said the pressure of packing and the impending sale of their own home made it impossible.  A few weeks later we passed along another invitation through our Realtor.  Again, regrets.

Then, three weeks ago, we stopped by to see one of our former neighbors and saw the beginning of the transformation: a small copse of pines and oaks at the front of the property was gone.  For us, it had provided desired privacy; we were part of our small neighborhood yet secluded.  At the edge of the copse we had planted a number of specimen trees and shrubs.  Most of those were also gone.

Beyond our house was an acre of oaks
and pines.  The new owners have
cleared it.
Last week, we were again at our former neighbors’ home.  This time we saw that our ‘forest’ had disappeared.

We had nearly two acres at our previous home, but we gardened only one of them.  The other acre was maintained as a forest preserve, primarily of oak and pine.  Over the years we had painstakingly removed invasive plants and fostered native ferns, wildflowers and ephemerals.  The forest floor was comprised of a rich duff and slowly composting leaves.  When tree limbs broke off in storms, they lay where they fell. Because it adjoined town conservation land, our forest was full of wildlife and was a wonderful habitat, especially for birds.  Now, it had been clear-cut; with massive logs from beautiful, mature oaks stacked like cordwood waiting to be taken away. 

This is all that remains of the forest
Naturalist Doug Tallamy tells us that a single oak tree supports 500 species of moths.  Those moths feed birds and pollinate plants, which beautify our world while playing an important part in the cycle of life on which we ultimately depend.  The dozen or more oaks in our forest are gone, likely to be replaced by a lawn suitable for young children.

We understand we ceded the right to dictate how our property could be used the moment we signed the papers passing title to it.  As long as they obey zoning ordinances, the new owners are entitled to whatever they wish to the land.  They have paid for the privilege.

But it does not stop us from mourning – and ‘mourning’ is the right word – the passing of those woods and, likely in time, the rest of the garden. 

Sir Christopher got it only partly right: a garden does not necessarily die when the gardener dies, but a change of ownership will almost certainly do the trick.