June 30, 2016

Garden Season

June is all about gardens.  Everything blooms, everything is verdant, nothing looks tired.  It is the perfect month to show off your own garden or to see someone else’s.  It’s also the perfect month for a flower show.  Which is why I’ve spent so much of the past month (when not moving compost), looking at other people’s blooms and other people’s gardens.
Rosecliff is more than just a backdrop
for the Newport Flower Show: it is
intrinsic to its success
I’ll start with the Newport Flower Show.  It is held every year at Rosecliff, one of the grandest of the oceanfront Newport ‘cottages’.  The multi-acre ‘front lawn’ is given over to display gardens and horticultural vendors.  The cottage (including porches and a formal garden immediately adjacent to the front entrance) provides the backdrop for floral design, photography, and other specialty competitions.  The rear lawn has tents for amateur horticulture and lectures; the balance of the magnificent sweep that goes down to Sheep Point Cove and the ocean beyond is given over to food and vendors. 
Vendors by the sea...
Newport is closer in spirit to the Royal Horticultural Society’s Chelsea Garden Show in London than to the late winter flower shows in Boston and Philadelphia.  Because so much of the venue is outdoors, nature is always underfoot, overhead, and all around you.  And, because it is Rosecliff and Newport, you don’t go to the show wearing jeans or tee shirts.  I know of no formal dress code, but I saw no one who did not look as though they had dressed for the occasion.
Roses judged for perfection
Finally, the Newport Flower Show has a Brigadoon-type existence.  The show runs just three days (Friday through Sunday); exhibits come into being in just two days.  (I know because I helped build one.)  Then it disappears as completely as that magical village.
There are more garden tours in June than I can keep track of.  I had the pleasure to attend one last Saturday for the Rockport Garden Club on Cape Ann.  Garden tours are both a summer mainstay for clubs as well as the principal fund-raising event for many.  Tours typically comprise six to ten gardens with a mixture of ones designed and maintained by professionals, and those that are the product of the imagination of dedicated amateurs.
A professionally designed garden
on the Rockport tour
I have nothing against professionally designed gardens.  I have seen many that stopped me dead in my tracks and caused me to pull out my camera to try to capture the essence of what a talented designer had accomplished.  More often though, I see ‘safe’ landscapes that bespeak large budgets that echo conservative tastes.  Every garden tour has two or three such gardens.  I can’t begrudge the tour planners; such gardens tend to be crowd pleasers.
Nancy Johnson's small garden was
the highlight of the tour.
The garden that stopped me in my tracks last Saturday belonged to Nancy Johnson.  Hers is not an oceanfront estate or a ten-acre preserve.  Rather, it is a small colonial on what is probably half an acre of land.  The genius of what she has accomplished over an eight year period is to think through every square foot of her available land and to make use of it accordingly.  The overarching reality of the site is an outcropping of granite – this is Cape Ann, after all. From this granite she has created a rock garden filled with perennials, shrubs and ground covers that flow together seamlessly.
It is a whimsical garden with a home for chickens (where an ash tree fell in a storm), some beautiful specimen trees, a small vegetable plot, and a row of fruit trees.  The overall effect was nothing short of magic.  Ms. Johnson was on hand to answer questions and also to ask in a low voice how her garden compared to the others on the tour.  She need not have concerned herself: it was head and shoulders above the competition, and worth the price of the tour ticket all by itself.
(Incidentally, if you missed this tour but enjoy Cape Ann, the Generous Gardeners tour covering Gloucester’s Eastern Point will be held July 9th).
The entry to Jill's garden
My final notable garden visit of the month came when I tagged along with Betty as she attended the annual meeting of the Garden Study Group, one of the Councils of the Garden Club Federation of Massachusetts.  It was held at the home of Jill Sczepanski.  I first saw Jill’s garden eight years ago when it was part of the “Mass Gardens on Tour” project Betty headed for the Federation. Back then, it was stunning.  It has only gotten better with time.
You could be forgiven for thinking
you were in the Cotswolds
What Jill and her husband have accomplished on their two-acre property is nothing short of transporting a corner of a great Cotswold estate to a town adjacent to Cape Ann.  There are meticulous stone paths with cobble borders, fountains, hidden vistas, glorious sweeps of color, trellises, and places to pause, sit and enjoy.  It is a garden that you have to walk twice; once in each direction, because the garden changes so dramatically from a different perspective.  I have never seen a more enchanting garden.

Formality segues to informality...
When I first saw the garden, Jill was immersed in a biotechnology career and her garden was an avocation.  With her kids out of college and out in the world, she has embarked on a second career: as a garden designer.  If the sketches I saw in her studio are any indication, she is going to be a very busy lady.

June 20, 2016

"A Gem Within a Gem"

Members of the Chelmsford GC receive their award.
That's Betty in pink in the center, presenting the award
Update:  At the Garden Club Federation of Massachusetts' Annual Meeting on June 7, 2017, the Chelmsford Garden Club received the National Garden Clubs Inc.'s top award for a civic development projects.  In the view of the judges, the club's project of creating a new park on the site of an old fire station represented the most significant project by a club of any size, anywhere in the country.  Congratulations to the Chelmsford Garden Club!

The Centre School circa 1890.
the fire station in 1953
The first recorded use for the small piece of land in the heart of Chelmford, Massachusetts was as a blacksmith’s shop in the first decade of the 19th Century.  By 1851, the quarter-acre site housed Chelmsford’s central school.  The school was razed in the 1920s and, in the early 1950s, a fire station rose on the site.
But by 2014, the fire station was outdated and, worse, “glued together” to reinforce significant weakening and cracking of the structure, according to Patrick Maloney, co-chairman of the town’s Permanent Building Committee.  At the Chelmsford Town Meeting in November of that year, Malo
ney’s advice was, “We think it’s best to rip the building down, figure out the use at a future time. Make it another gem within a gem,”
The fire station was demolished in
April 2015
In April 2015, the fire station was torn down, leaving behind a forlorn, rubble-strewn lot. The 7 North Road Committee was established by the town to find the best use for the space.  Options considered were a parking lot, an information center, and the new site for a historic house. 
One community group presented another option: the Chelmsford Garden Club suggested a garden.  The club had done its homework.  While the triangular Town Green was across the street, that park was largely inaccessible because it was hemmed in by busy roads and had little seating or greenery beyond a scattering of trees.  The fire station site, on the other hand, offered the possibility of a more intimate, inviting, and tranquil space.
On September 28, 2015, Chelmsford’s Board of Selectmen unanimously voted in favor of the park idea, and turned over the project to the 79-member club for implementation.
It was about that time that I first heard about the project.  Betty received a phone call from Chelmsford Garden Club member Brenda Lovering, who chaired the committee that was charged with making the park a reality.  A few days later, Betty visited at the site.  She came home and described it as “weeds and rocks, but a terrific location”.  But she also spoke of the group’s determination to marshal the resources to turn that desolate site into a first-rate garden.
The new park was dedicated June 14
Last week - on June 14 - less than nine months after the garden club was handed responsibility for the project, I attended the dedication of the Chelmsford Public Garden.  More than a hundred people were on hand for the event.  The finished (or nearly finished) project is a testament to determination of what a group of “garden club ladies” can accomplish.
First there was the fundraising.  Even the best-endowed garden clubs have finite resources.  Building a park would require a substantial outlay of funds.  Chelmsford’s Town Preservation Committee supplied a portion of the seed money, but the Garden Club canvassed both families and businesses for a more substantial donor base.  The Club’s pitch: you could be a part of something that was beautiful and enduring, and with a positive impact on the community.
The park site highlighted in red.  As
recently as April, this is all there was.
Creating the park meant turning a lunar landscape of rocks and nutrient-free dirt into something hospitable to plants and trees.  Chelmsford’s Department of Public Works (DPW) and an excavation firm hauled away truckloads of compacted debris left over from the fire station, brought in loam, and re-graded the property.  The nearby Google Maps photo shows the site (outlined in red) in April.  The photo shows loam in place, but nothing else done.  That photo is less than two months old.
Before the first trees were planted, the infrastructure needed to be in place.  A fence was built around three sides of the site; and a patio and walkway built from pavers were installed; all done with the Town Preservation Committee providing funding, and local construction firms providing materials at cost.  An irrigation system was installed as was lighting.
Monica Kent
Ultimately, a park’s worth is in its design and its horticulture.  As Monica Kent, another member of the committee said at the dedication, “We were good at choosing eye-catching plants.  We sought expert advice to choose plants that would survive in this location.”
The “landscape design and tree consultant” for the project was Weston Nurseries, which in 2012 had established a satellite garden center in Chelmsford.  When the Mezitt family was approached about the project, they responded enthusiastically and encouraged the Chelmsford staff to be both generous and creative.  Weston’s Jim Connolly and Terry Duffy were the principal liaisons to the project.  Bypassing the standard retinue of park landscaping staples, they proposed a palette of trees and shrubs that would thrive in the site yet offer a bloom calendar that would attract the eye from early April through the last hard frost.
Weston's Terry Duffy (L)
and Jim Connolly, with
an unplanted blueberry
The plant list for the garden is as intelligent as it is a treat for the eye.  A not-too-tall blue spruce (Picea pungens) called 'Fat Albert' welcomes you at the front of the site, and a beautiful 'October Glory' red maple (Acer rubrum) will provide shade for generations of visitors.  A great, underused native, the Oxydendrum, will have showy white racemes of flowers in mid-summer.  There's even a Magnolia 'Elizabeth' to offer beautiful yellow blooms in early spring.  Among shrubs, Weston proposed several natives that should make the park a year-round bird magnet, including an Ilex verticillita 'Red Sprite' with its bright red winter fruit for avians; a Fothergilla 'Blue Shadow' with its vivid, blue-green foliage that turns (and holds well into autumn) to brilliant gold and reds with the change of season; and multiple specimens of highbush blueberries.
Club president
Carolyn Langevin
The dedication was a joyous affair - over-the-top hats were the order of the day -  and was capped not with a ribbon cutting but, rather, the severing of a garland made with greens and flowers.  Afterward, I spoke with Weston's Terry Duffy, who stresses that the park will be a work in progress, and who also credits the landscaping firm of Branches and Blooms for their more than 100 hours of work in planting the greenscape to meet a tight timetable.
“We’re taking a hiatus for the summer,” he said.  “We’ll carefully monitor the traffic the space generates and the patterns it creates, then go back in and add more perennial and ground covers.  This time next year, the space will be fuller and have even more variety.”
At the center of it all:
Committee Chair
Brenda Lovering
Which is to take nothing away from the park as it was on June 14.  What the Chelmsford Garden Club has created is a small wonder: a space that seems destined to be filled with people every day.  To echo those hopeful words of that town official uttered a year and a half ago, it is a gem within a gem.

My congratulations on a job well done.