October 29, 2015

400 Down, 1200 to Go

There is an unwritten responsibility that one spouse is expected to be supportive of the other.  You’re supposed to see their point of view, offer them encouragement, and be their cheerleader.  If they come home one day and say, ‘I think we ought to move to Paris’, you should hear them out.
This week, I am exploring the limits of supportiveness, and at what point it becomes, well, enabling.  You see, I am now helping plant 1600 spring bulbs.
It all began back in the halcyon days of early September when all things were possible.  Betty sat down with bulb catalogs and a map of our property.  She read the breathless descriptions (“Poeticus Narcissi, traditionally known as the ‘Poet's Narcissi’, are fragrant favorites with very large, white perianths with small, dainty cups in contrasting colors. Great naturalizers from yesteryear!) that invariably conclude with the uplifting, “Narcissi are The Art & Soul of Spring.”
Our bulb order.  Double click
to see at full size
She would read me a description and show me a photo.  I would agree that I was looking at the most beautiful daffodil/hyacinth/allium ever bred.  She would say, “Wouldn’t that look great outside the kitchen window,” or “That would be perfect in the Magnolia bed,” and I would aver that she had chosen the ideal bulb for the perfect location.
Even after Betty tallied up her bulb ‘wish list’ and said, “You know, we’re looking at close to a thousand bulbs here,” I continued my reassurance that we were not overreaching. 
“We’ve got all autumn to plant the bulbs,” I said.  And promptly forgot about the whole thing.
We had duffelbags full
of bulbs
There is a point, though, where ‘being supportive’ becomes ‘enabling’.  Betty finished her bulb order and submitted it.  I know I crossed the line because, on October 20, three enormous boxes appeared in our driveway, accompanied by a few choice words from our UPS driver.  Each box weighed more than 60 pounds.  Inside were duffel bags full of bulbs, many of them doubles and triples.
As the whole world knows by now, we are installing a new landscape at a new house.  As such, it is reasonable that we are buying inordinate numbers of things like spring bulbs because, well, we have a lot of space to fill.  And, we’re filling those spaces in unusual ways. 
Here’s how it works: using a rake, Betty will sketch out an amoeba-shaped plot for bulbs.  My job is to remove the soil in that plot down to a depth of eight inches; leaving, of course, at least an addition inch of soil so that the bulbs have a ‘cushion’ for their roots to sink into.  After a top layer of mulch is pulled aside, I carefully shovel out the soil and place it in seven or eight large tubs, breaking up any clods I might encounter.
I removed the soil, Betty
planted the bulbs
Betty’s job is to place the bulbs, overspread about two inches of soil, add lime and fertilizer, and then refill the balance of the bed and re-place the mulch.  On a good afternoon, it will take about 90 minutes start-to-finish to excavate, plant, and re-fill a 100-bulb bed.
That assumes, of course, that there’s nothing to go through but soil. Back in May we paid a landscaping contractor to excavate out the ‘builder’s crud’ from our new home and replace it with high-quality loam.  ‘Builder’s crud’ is almost too kind a term: what we had on our property was a mixture of large and small rocks with just enough soil to disqualify our site as a quarry.
In a short-sighted effort to save a few dollars, I didn’t press the landscaper to dig as close as feasible to a retaining wall at the front of the lot.  Instead, I said, “Oh, six feet from the wall is fine.  We’re just going to plant some shrubs there.”  We left that particular strip of crud in place.
With the bulbs covered, it's
wait until spring!
As we began planting shrubs this summer, we realized that the area atop that retaining wall is our ‘welcome to the garden’ statement.  Each day brings hundreds of walkers, joggers, and cyclists by our house and the plants atop that wall are the first thing everyone sees.  We put considerable effort into making that area beautiful with an array of shrubs and perennials.  And now we have several hundred bulbs earmarked for that area.
If it takes 90 minutes to excavate and plant an area that is pure loam, how long does it take to excavate an area that is pure rock?
This eight-foot-long trench against
the retaining wall took four hours to
dig, yielded three cairns of rocks,
and was planted with 62 bulbs
On two afternoons I have devoted multiple hours to digging out a few pathetic feet of crud.  Just shoveling out the debris is arduous after which each shovelful has to be sifted for rocks, roots, metal rods, unexploded ordnance, and whatever else was deposited on the site.  As of this writing, there are something over 100 bulbs planted along the wall.  By the time it is completed, the number of hours consumed for that one area will be almost as much as that required for the rest of the property.
But there is unmistakable beauty in what we are doing.  Beginning in April, 200 crocus will begin blooming, to be followed quickly by nearly a thousand daffodils and then 400 muscari and hyacinths.  For six weeks, our property will be a riot of color and texture from those bulbs, after which the shrubs and perennials take over.
Sometimes, being supportive is accepting that your spouse’s vision is better than your own and, if it becomes ‘enabling’ then so be it.  Yes, there’s a lot of backbreaking work to execute that vision, but I have all winter for my back to recover.

(Undergardener's note: the last of the 1800 bulbs (don't ask) were planted on November 19)

October 22, 2015

What They Wrought

Groton - it really is this beautiful
New England is full of beautiful towns.  They are small gems; vestiges of another time and certainly another century.  The best of these towns are beautiful because of civic pride.  The towns have families or institutions that seek to preserve the best of the past while accommodating the present and planning for the future.
Edmund Tarbell's 'In the Orchard'
is said to have been painted in Groton
Any short list of the most beautiful New England towns would include Groton, Massachusetts.  It is a village of 10,000 people roughly 40 miles from Boston’s Financial District.  The Nashua River flows through it; Gibbet Hill in the center of town provides beautiful vistas of the surrounding countryside.  Groton is or has been home to people as diverse as painter Edmund Tarbell, William Prescott (who commanded his troops at the Battle of Bunker Hill not to fire “until you see the whites of their eyes”), and rock musician J. Geils.
In short, Groton is the kind of town you would think doesn’t need improving.  Just say ‘no’ to all development, shut out the world, and enjoy the beauty.  That, of course, is a recipe for stagnation and inevitable decline.  For every Groton there are half a dozen sad New England towns that time passed by, leaving only decaying buildings and faded memories. 
Groton preserves its history, but is
hardly frozen in time.  The Boutwell

House was home to Massachusetts Gov. 
George Boutwell, who also served as
Treasury Secretary under Pres. Grant.
On Tuesday, I had the opportunity to see one of the reasons why Groton remains so beautiful.  The Groton Garden Club invited me to come talk about books at the town’s library and, in the course of that visit, I got to be an adjunct on a tour of wayside gardens the Club has created and, in all but one case, maintains.
‘Wayside garden’ is (at least to me) a collective term for everything from formal gardens to planted memorials and pocket parks.  A good wayside garden can be appreciated from an automobile passing by at 30 miles an hour.  It can also be a place you can walk in, explore, or sit and contemplate.
This tree and shrub garden honors
native son William Prescott
The Groton Garden Club maintains five sites around town.  Each one has a unique history and purpose.  There’s a tree and shrub garden honoring William Prescott of Bunker Hill fame.  It is simple, dignified, and well designed.  In the center of town is the Hollis Street triangle, which transforms what would otherwise be an undistinguished traffic island into a memorable patch of color and low-growing shrubs. 
This Blue Star Memorial By-Way
Marker is a tribute to those who
served in the Armed Forces
There’s also a Blue Star Memorial By-Way Marker on Sawyer Common.  For those not familiar with the Blue Star Marker program, it is a long-standing project of National Garden Clubs, Inc. The program encourages local garden clubs to place markers – typically bronze plaques mounted on stone – that honor those who have served in America’s armed forces.  The one placed by the Groton Garden Club in 2011 is surrounded by arborvitae and fothergilla that looks good anytime of the year, but is especially colorful in the autumn.  The marker sits in the shadow of a rare, mature black walnut tree.  A simple nearby stone bench provides a place to rest and remember.
The Groton Garden Club's work at
Boutwell House earned the club
recognition from National Garden
Clubs Inc. 
Next to the town library is a poignant memorial garden for which the Club has care and maintenance responsibility.  On September 11, 2001, Peter and Sue Hanson, and their daughter, Christine, of Groton boarded UA 175 for Los Angeles. The simple plaque is surrounded by lilacs and fall-blooming perennials (timed to coincide with the attack’s anniversary).  The memorial is also adjacent to the playground where Christine Hanson, who was not yet three years old, spent many afternoons of her too-short life.
The 'Four Corners' garden at the busy
intersection of two state highways
required seven months of state review
We also saw the Club’s handiwork at the Boutwell House, home of the Groton Historical Society.  It isn’t formally a Club-maintained site, but the Groton Garden Club designed and planted a garden there and, this year received the Kellogg Civic Achievement Award from National Garden Clubs, Inc.  The project involved beautifying the area around the handicapped-access ramps.  Such ramps are usually a no-man’s land of concrete, metal, and asphalt.  Aided by a new, well-designed ramp, the Club designed and installed a garden focusing in native shrubs.  The result is an eye-catching area that enhances the historic building while effectively ‘hiding’ the necessary ramp.

A few of the people responsible for
creating and maintaining those
gardens.  From left to right, Barbara,
Laura, (guest) Betty and Ann.
The Club’s most recent project is also its most ambitious.  While the center of Groton is filled with charming small shops and offices, there is also a development east of town with a supermarket, drug store, and other commercial activities.  The development sits at the junction of two state highways and, as a result, the easements are all state property with stringent restrictions on preserving sight lines and such.  A lesser club might have taken a pass on trying to create something beautiful for such a site, but the Groton Garden Club persevered through seven months of state review and approvals.  Last fall, the Club installed a superb, roughly 700-square-foot perennial garden in a triangular-shaped traffic island.  Instead of a flat expanse of grass (or, more likely, weeds) there’s a beautiful raised-bed garden that lends a sense of place to an otherwise anonymous suburban site.  The result is a model for other towns to emulate.  

October 8, 2015

Revisiting the Scene of the Crime

Yesterday I revisited the scene of an imaginary crime and, in the process, committed an actual one.  Herein lies that story.
My fictional 'Brookfield Fair' looks a lot like
the very real Topsfield Fair
Anyone who has seen a map of the Topsfield Fair will immediately note a striking resemblance to the map of the fictional “Brookfield Fair” that appears on the flyleaf of The Garden Club Gang.  Further, anyone who has heard my ‘Gardening Is Murder’ presentation knows the circumstances under which that venerable annual event came to be the inspiration for the story of a heist that doesn’t go quite the way it was planned.
For those who don’t know the story behind the story, a brief synopsis:  The Topsfield Fair has, among its many attractions, a flower show sponsored by the Garden Club Federation of Massachusetts.  My wife, Betty, is a floral designer who periodically enters such competitions.  Once you have signed up to design at the Fair, you also are making a commitment to be at the Fairgrounds at the ungodly hour of 7 a.m., where you have two hours to create your design.
Medfield is 52 miles from Topsfield and the only sane route from Point A to Point B is the insane circumferential highway known variously as Route 128, I-95, and the Yankee Division Highway.  Rush hour on that particular roadway begins at 5 a.m. (I promise I am not making this up) and so, to be at the Fairgrounds by 7, you need to leave Medfield before 6 a.m.  And, to arrive there without the residual urge to strangle anyone driving a gray Honda Accord, you need someone to drive you.
Even at 6 a.m., Route 128
is not for the faint of heart
And so, on a morning seven or eight years ago, I did my Loving Spouse Duty and drove Betty to Topsfield.  Unfortunately, once she was ensconced in front of her pedestal to begin her design, my presence became distracting and she bluntly let me know that I should go somewhere else for the duration.  Where I went was out in front of the Flowers Building (yes, the Flower Show has its own barn-like building which also houses horticulture and mini-landscape exhibits).  Close by were two other features: the Fair Administration Building and the Fair’s Main Gate.  I thought it mildly interesting that the three landmarks made a tight little cluster.
Then, the ‘Aha’ moment occurred.  An armored truck pulled into the main gate, went around a little traffic circle, and stopped in front of the Administration Building.  Two men jumped out of the truck, walked into the building, then came back out in under thirty seconds carrying a pair of enormous saddlebags.  The bags went into the truck, and the truck pulled out of the Fairgrounds.  Elapsed time:  perhaps ninety seconds.  I realized the truck had likely just picked up the Fair’s daily gate proceeds. 
And then it hit me that I was in the last bastion of the cash economy.  In a world where debit and credit cards have replaced cash in our wallets, places like the Topsfield Fair continue to be ones where we peel off twenty-dollar bills.  In that moment was born the plot of The Garden Club Gang in which four ‘little old ladies’ will pull off the feat of robbing that truck in broad daylight (yet with no witnesses), leaving behind no clues, and injuring no one.
Well, yesterday morning Betty was again entered at the Topsfield Fair and, once again, I was her designated driver.  But things have changed in the intervening years.  I have gotten to know many of the designers who form the core of the amateur competitions (they are ‘amateurs’ in name only).  Further, I spent three years as Chairman of Blooms! at the Boston Flower and Garden Show, where I learned the intricacies of how these competitions operate (knowledge I put on display in A Murder at the Flower Show and Murder in Negative Space).  Instead of wandering the fairgrounds, I stopped to chat with the flower show staff.  Moreover, taking a cue from one of my most useful activity as Chairman of Blooms!, I helped designers carry in cartloads of flowers from their cars.
Betty's design captured
the essence of Connecticut
Most designers were at their work places by 7.  A few had already completed their arrangements by 7:45.  But there were still a few open spaces.  These late arrivers would have to work quickly.  I saw one of those late arrivers struggling to bring in a cart and armload of flowers.  Her name was Rita, and she is a very nice lady.  I immediately rushed over to help her.  I swept up her cart and carried it into the building, following her instructions about which station was hers.  I placed the cart in the proper location, feeling very proud of myself. 
Which was when I got my foot caught in a basket.
There are moments in your life that will endure forever in memory.  This was one of them.  I did not see the basket; I knew only that I was inexplicably falling down.  And so I grabbed for something to keep me upright.  The ‘something’ that I grabbed was a pedestal on which rested the completed floral design of one Bonni Dinneen.
I did not know this at the time.  Nor did I know I had simultaneously jostled yet another pedestal.  All I knew was that I was being drenched in water and covered with croton leaves.  From start to finish, my pratfall lasted perhaps two seconds.  To me, it lasted an eternity. 
I had just ruined someone’s entry.
In seconds, I was surrounded by women asking me if I was all right.  Physically, I was fine.  A little wet perhaps but none the worse for wear.  What I was, was mortified.  This was the thing Betty had been admonishing me about for more than a decade:  stay away from the designers – they don’t have time for chit-chat.  And, for heaven’s sake, don’t ever get near any of the designs…
I slinked out of the Flowers Building and sat in my car.  As I was doing my slinking, I heard people asking if Bonni was still in the building and heard that, yes, she was still somewhere nearby.  I did not have the courage to face her, nor anyone else.  This was my ‘You’ll-shoot-your-eye-out’ moment.  Oh. My. God.
Early in the afternoon, the judging results were emailed to the entrants.  Betty received a 90+ Red for her Connecticut door hanging.  A 90+ Red is a big deal.  It means you got second place, but your design was good enough that it could have won a Blue (first), except that someone else’s entry was just a skosh better. 
Bonni's reconstructed design
received a Blue!
Oh, and Bonni Dinneen’s entry in a different category won a Blue.  And, no, it wasn’t a ‘we’re-so-sorry-for-what-happened’ gesture for my clumsiness.  The judges don’t show up until 9 a.m. and they have no idea whose entries they are viewing, and they certainly have no idea that someone’s entry had to be re-done on the fly.
I sent Bonni a congratulatory note that also apologized for my causing such devastation.  This morning, I received the following reply:
I feel as though I owe you an apology.  As I saw it happen, all I could do was laugh.  It was a comedic episode played in slow motion, with my design splaying in all directions and you grappling for control, while the second pedestal was wiggling back in forth.  No one knew if the second stand would also topple.  It was truly funny to see.  I apologize that I laughed at your accident.  I had to walk away, my laughter was so pronounced; like watching someone slip on the ice, it was that funny.   
Please if you ever tell the story...  tell it with a light heart and without embarrassment.  I know I will, when I encourage others to pursue flower design.

Bonni, that’s just the way I’m telling it.