April 30, 2016

If You Go to a Flower Show with a Gardener

(With profound apologies to Laura Numeroff)
The heucheras caught her attention
If you go to a flower show with a gardener, she’s going to suggest that the two of you return to the show on Sunday afternoon.  She’ll also suggest you fill the car with empty crates.
When you return to the flower show on Sunday, you’re going to find that she has made a sharp deal with one of the landscape exhibitors to purchase 125 of the heucheras and tiarellas that populated an exhibit she admired.  She’s going to ask you to carry the now-plant-filled crates back to the car.
Tiarellas come home
When you get home, she’ll ask for your help planting the heucheras and tiarellas.  But not right away because it's too cold.  So you'll move them in and out of the garage every day to give them light but protect them at night against frost.  Once they're planted, she’ll also notice that while they make a nice ground cover, she's going to need accent plants.  She’ll ask you to accompany her to a nursery. 
At the nursery, she’ll remember how much money she saved on those heucheras and tiarellas.  She’ll therefore decide that your landscape could also use some fothergilla, viburnum, itea, kalmia, and other native plants.  She’ll ask your advice on which ones look best.  She’ll also ask your help in planting them.
So we needed compost...
All these new plants and ground covers will require compost.  She will order ten cubic yards of compost which will be delivered to the front of your property.  She will ask you to move the eight unused cubic yards of compost to the back of the property.  You will require lots of ibuprofen.
When the new native plants are arrayed around the property, she’ll discover that certain other shrubs, planted the previous year, no longer look attractive in their original locations.  She will ask you to dig them up and re-plant them ten feet away.
Native plants going to a new home
When the new fothergilla, viburnum, itea, kalmia, heucheras, and tiarellas are in place, she will be exceptionally pleased.  She will be so pleased that she will go to a nursery specializing in native perennials and come back with a car laden with dozens of ferns and wildflowers.  She will ask your help in planting them in special locations.  Some of these locations will require digging through what seems like solid granite. 

When the new ferns and wildflowers are planted you will need a long nap.  While you nap, she will bake you a chocolate cake with raspberry filling.  When you awaken from your nap and enjoy a slice of the cake, chances are you will remember that the next flower show is just ten months away.

April 13, 2016

What Sandy McIntyre Saw

What happens at a presentation of "Gardening Is Murder"?  Yesterday I was at an event where garden clubs have the opportunity to meet with prospective speakers.  One club program chairman came up to my table and, with an arched eyebrow, said, "I've heard you're very funny, but what exactly do you do?"  I stammered out an answer and the the club officer made a note on her copy of my brochure.  The look on her face did not convey whether I'll be getting a call.

Last evening, an email arrived bearing a wonderful gift: a first-person account of my speaking at the Manchester (Mass.) Garden Club back in January.  Originally intended for the club's newsletter, it is so delightfully written that I am taking the opportunity to reprint it here.
                                     *  *  *  *  *  *  *
Men’s Night at the Manchester Garden Club
by Angus (Sandy) McIntyre
Hanging out before the meeting with
spouses of members of the MGC
(all photos by Sandy McIntyre)
Thursday evening, January 14, I had the great pleasure of attending the Garden Club Meeting as Jeannie McIntyre’s husband, charged with attending, observing, taking pictures(?!), and later, writing it up, as she was busy with another meeting that evening.  Not withstanding the difficulty in finding a parking spot in Manchester, I arrived at close to the appointed hour of 6:30 p.m. to find Trask House in full swing with a room full of lively conversation and a truly sumptuous spread of baked ham, cheeses, and many other treats.  Huddled in a corner by the wine table I also found a group of other husbands in their own conversation and occasionally glancing around somewhat furtively, as though uncertain who might recognize them and whether it was all right to be seen at a Garden Club meeting.
Signing books in Manchester.
That's Betty on the right.
At the end of the social hour, we were treated to an engaging presentation by Neal Sanders, husband of Betty Sanders, President of the Garden Club Federation of Massachusetts.  He regaled us with tales of his life as an assistant gardener, helping maintain two acres of suburban gardens at the Sanders home. Then somehow he managed to segue into his new career as a writer of murder mysteries.  He started off by getting the men engaged, asking who could come up with the Latin name for the Eastern Forest Redbud.  One of the men had the correct answer of “Cercis canadensis,” which elicited murmurs of surprise and approval from the ladies.  However suspicions were raised when a second question was again answered by one of the men, eliciting accusations from several of the ladies (befitting a Garden Club meeting) of, “he’s a plant!”
The Garden Club Gang
As Neal then laid out for us, it seems that the main role of an assistant gardener is to dig holes and move rocks.  As we all know, the New England soil is full of rocks, and furthermore, the small obstruction you hit with your shovel a few inches into the soil may only be “the tip of the iceberg.”  There was also “the rule of threes.”  Any new plant brought home will, in the course of finding a new spot for it in the garden, require that three other plants be relocated. We heard about how to sift through 5 million responses to a Google search when seeking gardening advice on the internet.  Finally, he talked about battles with varmints, including a slug infestation, and, of course, a battalion of squirrels attacking his composter, illustrated with a reconnaissance photo of a squirrel with an Army helmet, flack jacket, field binoculars, and a bazooka.
From this, Neal shifted into murder mysteries, his new career.  It was rather a leap, but he did point out that he got some of his best ideas from the garden (I hope not literally.)  We heard about some of the plots and the characters from “The Garden Club Gang” and “Murder in the Garden Club” and others.  I was so intrigued, I had to purchase one of his books, which he duly autographed for me.
Jeannie and Sandy McIntrye
So concluded a delightful evening.  I did manage to get a few pictures and my only regret is not getting more raffle tickets.  It was a wonderful way to spend a few hours and get a glimpse of what my wife is up to.  I gather that opening up the meeting to husbands was a first for the Garden Club.  I for one will be waiting for another invitation to attend, and I would encourage all other spouses out there, if the opportunity arises, not to miss it.  You might come home with a new novel, a recipe for iron phosphate to eliminate slugs, or even a raffle prize.
Angus McIntyre

                                * * * * * * *
I would add just one memorable moment to a very memorable evening.  Roughly the fourth time a male member of the audience correctly produced the correct Linnaean form for a shrub (Quercifolia angustifolia for the oak leaf hydrandgea), the man's wife said to him, quite loudly, "There's no way you know that!"  Immediately thereafter, a woman in the back the room said (accurately), "I think we've been punked."

April 11, 2016

Creative Synergy

Fitchburg, Massachusetts is one of those small New England cities that boomed with the first three-quarters of the 20th Century but has struggled in recent years.  Its largest employer decamped in 1998 for cheaper labor and taxes, taking 4,000 industrial jobs with it.  Too far (48 miles) from Boston to be a commuter suburb, Fitchburg – population 42,000 – has had to reinvent itself.
Fitchburg retains architectural charm
Reinvention is aided mightily when a town preserves the best of its architecture from its heyday.  It is beneficial when those industrial barons from a century ago were collectors of art and bequeathed their collections to local museums.  And it is a decided plus to have a garden club with a half-century-long illustrious history and a mission that is heavy on “giving back” to the community.
I saw these disparate elements come together on Friday evening, when I accompanied my wife, Betty, to the reception for the 18th “Art in Bloom” at the Fitchburg Art Museum.  There, 36 works of art – paintings, sculptures, tapestries, photographs – had been interpreted by members (and invited non-members) of the Laurelwood Garden Club.
It was a festive evening: 200 invited guests imbibed above-average wine and seriously good hors d’oeuvres while listening to a jazz band.  The mayor was there; Fitchburg’s state representative was in attendance as were a goodly number of the Museum’s Board of Trustees.  In short, this was a serious event.  Betty was there
A small part of the Art in Bloom reception
because she is President of the state Garden Club Federation (of which Laurelwood is a member) and, as an accredited floral design judge, she had been asked to select one entry for a “best in show” blue ribbon. 
The premise of an “Art in Bloom” is fairly well understood (I explored it last month in “Reaching Out”).  The “art” half of the equation can be anything from grade school drawings to the multimedia creation of an honors student or a Picasso blue nude.  The “bloom” side of the ledger is a garden club member being assigned (or choosing) a piece of art and creating a floral design inspired by it.  The two stand together for everyone to see for form their own judgement about whether the interpreter “got it”.
One of the Triiibe pieces.  The curly
willow branches in the floral
interpretation seem to flow into the
photo triptych
Two things set Fitchburg’s “Art in Bloom” apart from its peers.  The first was the art.  The museum is light on Picassos, blue or otherwise.  But it has an energetic and imaginative loan program.  One of exhibits, called “Triiibe: Same Difference” spans multiple galleries and employs life-size photos, videos, and props to make its frequently satirical points about equality, gender, and politics.  You might think that “garden club ladies” would steer well away from such topical art.  You would be wrong.  Museum Director Nick Capasso told me the 14 artworks chosen for interpretation in the Triiibe exhibit were the most coveted slots. 
Another of the Triiibe pieces.  The
floral design at left interprets the
visible artwork.  An interpretation
of a different work is at right.
Similarly, a photography gallery filled with both vintage and modern silver gelatin prints drew a rush for entries.  Black-and-white photos do not immediately lend themselves to floral interpretation.  Do you follow a monochrome palette?  Do you fall back on a pavĂ© design that stays true to the image in front of you?  The short answer is that none of the designers played it safe.
The second thing that makes Fitchburg’s program noteworthy is synergy.  Last year’s “Art in Bloom” drew 1300 visitors to the museum, making it the highest attendance weekend of the year.  Director Capasso said he agreed only to “take a test drive” about the event when he arrived at the museum four years ago.  Today, he is fully on board.  “There is so much creative energy,” was his summing-up comment.

I’m in awe of what the Laurelwood Garden Club did, as well as the resources – people and organizational – devoted to the project by the Fitchburg Art Museum.  It is very rare for two institutions collaborating on a once-a-year project to have such a profound and tangibly beneficial effect on one another.  Kudos to both.

April 2, 2016

Why I Know It's Spring...

Gardeners determine the first day of spring in many ways.  Some see a robin or hear a woodpecker and think to themselves, “Spring is here”.  Others mark it by spotting crocus, dandelions, or daffodils.  The evening serenade of marsh peepers from the nearest vernal pool has its own cheering section.
Crocuses are one way...
I brook no argument with those milestones, but I have my own:  the first day of spring is when the fence goes up for our vegetable garden.  Last year, the Winter That Would Not End did not give way to spring until May 2.  This year, that date was March 26.  What a difference a year makes.
A good garden
needs a trench
While the process has changed, for us, putting up that fence is a tradition that goes back decades. Once upon a time, the fence raising was preceded by rototilling the garden plot – a day-long process in and of itself.  For the past ten years, though, our vegetables have been grown in one plot of an acre-size garden and the town has thoughtfully provided the tilling service as part of our community garden fee.
Anyone who thinks a fence is just hastily-put-up stakes and netting has never had the experience of coming out to see everything in their garden chewed to oblivion by burrowing varmints.  Our fence begins with wielding a sledge hammer to pound ten stakes 18 inches into the ground, and it followed by the digging of a trench at least six inches around the perimeter of the site.  In a 600-square-foot site, that one task consumes an hour or more. 
The first six inches of the fence
is below ground to deter varmints
Only when the trench is done does the four-foot, half-inch mesh fence get affixed to the posts.  Rocks are added along the fence line to further deter would-be subterranean intruders.  The top of the fence is secured to the steel stakes and tightened where needed.  Four hours after the process began, the gate is installed.
Betty’s seeds arrived months ago (she orders early every year to ensure getting everything she wants).  The seed packages, in turn, get arranged and re-arranged on the dining room table as the layout for the garden takes shape, and a few elements of the garden don’t wait for the fence.  Leek seeds went into egg-carton incubators in mid-March, for example.
The fence is up and peas are in
We also have the complication that we’ve created two small raised beds at our new home.  The beds total just 64 square feet, but we’re starting spinach and lettuce in them with the idea of making that our “kitchen” garden while leaving the community plot for corn, squash, and other space-hogging vegetables.
But as soon as the fence was up, Betty was planting a row of peas and otherwise working the soil inside our plot to make it ready for the onslaught of planting that will come as the month progresses.
Outside Farnham's on the Essex River
Five hours after we started, we had a fence, a gate, and our first crop in place.  We celebrated by driving up to the North Shore for our first plate of fried clams and onion rings of the season at J.T. Farnham’s. 

Which, of course, raises the possibility that the beginning of spring may also have something to do with eating beach food…