July 29, 2016

Watering with an Eyedropper

I remember back when it used to rain.  I distinctly recall looking at computer weather maps with angry red, orange, and even purple rain pounding all of eastern Massachusetts.  There were days when we awakened to a soft, gentle rain that soaked the soil down eight or ten inches.
But not recently.
Medfield in a drought.  A Stage 2 drought according to the U.S. Weather Monitor.  New England is 25% under its normal rainfall – 6 ½ inches short and counting – with a long term trend for more of the same.  Our town has imposed strict watering guidelines that will likely get even more draconian in August. 
Water collected from the air
conditioner goes into jugs
If we lived in an apartment or condo, we’d shrug, water the plants on our deck, and count our blessings.  If we lived in a house with a long-established garden, we’d ride out the dry spell and consider ourselves lucky.  But we don’t live in a condo and our garden is brand new – nothing in is more than a year old.  We have a dozen young trees that are just starting to establish root systems.  We have sixty or more shrubs and several hundred newly-planted perennials.  If we don’t water, they’ll die. 
Almost all of New England is dry
So, here is what we do.  Every morning at 5:30 a.m. we are dressed and out in the garden.  Our four rain barrels would hold 200 gallons of water if there had been rain to fill them, but they’ve been dry since Bastille Day.  (That storm at the end of July that the radio promised would drop two to four inches of rain went south of us.  Rhode Island got lucky.  We got sprinkles.)  So we collect the water condensate from our air conditioner.  We collect the water that we ran while the shower warmed up.  We pool the water in which we washed vegetables saved in a pail.  There are mornings when those three activities generate six or seven gallons of water.
It just hasn't rained around here.
Double-click for an enlargement.
To get the rest of the water we need, we begin filling re-purposed cat litter jugs with tap water.  One day, we water the plants in the front of the property.  The next day, we water the plants in the back.  Each tree, shrub, and perennial gets a specific allotment of water.  There is no waste.  We’ve built little berms around the plants to ensure that there is no runoff.  Betty applies the water, I refill the jugs and run them to where they’re needed next.  And ‘run’ is an accurate descriptor: I carry two, three-gallon jugs at a time, and a jug is filling while I sprint to the next drop point.
Yesterday, the radio spoke of 2-4" of
rain today.  It went south of us!
The jug-watering brigade goes on for up to two hours because we also have to water our vegetable plot two miles distant.  (There, we’re allowed to use a hose, but Betty is just as precise in her watering.)  At 7:30 or so, we line up the empty containers.  We are both covered in sweat and ready for a shower.

Where, of course, we will start collecting the water for tomorrow morning…

July 11, 2016

Free to a Good Home

Betty and I were “corporate gypsies” during much of my working career.  At various times we lived in Chicago, New York City, Virginia, Connecticut, and Massachusetts.  It was all a matter of moving for opportunity.  Until our move back to the Boston area in 1999, we had never really put down roots anywhere.
For much of the 1990's we lived in Alexandria, Virginia.  We had a very nice house on a cul-de-sac and wonderful neighbors.  But gardening our half-acre property was nearly impossible; the problem was the heat and humidity.  Vegetables and annuals died horribly from diseases.  Perennials were eaten to the ground by voracious Insects Of Unusual Size.  Already ecologically conscious before it was fashionable, Betty refused to spray the necessary chemicals on plants to deter these pestilences.  She was well aware that the same fungicides that allowed roses and phlox to survive were deadly to the beneficial insects that were attracted to their flowers.
Our loropetalum in full bloom
And so our landscape consisted of heat-tolerant azalea and evergreens, and a handful of trees and shrubs that were bred for Zone 7A.  Three shrubs in particular were continuing delights.  Loropetalum, an Asian native, was at the lower edge of its hardiness zone, but its tiny burgundy leaves and periodic displays of ruby-red or fuchsia flower clusters made it a pleasure to look at.  Lagerstroemia, better known as crape myrtle, was another import – from Indonesia and northern Australia.  Most cultivars of crape myrtle are found along the southeast coast, but newer, more cold-tolerant ones were appearing.  We enjoyed the summer-long display of pink-to-red flowers that made our shrubs seem ablaze.
The third shrub that we hated to leave was a large acuba, also called spotted laurel.  Native to China and Japan, it’s a Zone 7 to 9 plant that had two ‘wow’ factors.  The first was that it was happiest in shade.  The second was that its natural leaf color was an almost banana yellow with green spots.  It happily grew under a large wisteria trellis and was the focal point of the view out our kitchen window.
On warm days in winter, we took our
'southern garden on wheels' outside
We returned to the Boston area in 1999 and, for the first time in eight years, Betty could design and plant a ‘real’ garden.  But she missed those southern plants and was disappointed to learn that, except for Cape Cod, eastern Massachusetts is solidly in Zone 5B.  Her favorite Virginia shrubs would perish even in an average winter.  And so she got busy and filled two acres with hardy New England plants.
Then, in October 2008 or 2009, Betty and I were visiting a friend, landscaper Paul Miskovsky, on Cape Cod.  We were walking through his Falmouth plant yard when Betty noticed a pile of discarded shrubs.  They looked exactly like loropetalum.  There were easily a dozen of them, thrown into a pile. Her inquiry brought a shrug from Paul.  “My customers use them as annuals,” he explained.  “I put them in in May and pull them out at the end of the season.”  Betty asked if she might retrieve one.  She was told to help herself.
A year after coming home, our acuba
got its fist 'up-potting'
We brought home the best looking of the shrubs, trimmed it back severely, and placed it in a large container. We watered it well until the weather turned colder then, lacking a greenhouse, we brought the shrub into our garage and positioned it by a window that got morning light.  Our garage wasn’t heated, but it was well insulated and, presumably, some heat radiated from the adjacent house wall because our garage never got below freezing all winter.  The loropetalum lost its leaves but, the following spring, it produced both new leaves and flowers.  We were delighted.
Then, in May 2011, Betty was set to receive an award at the National Garden Clubs convention being held in Washington, D.C.  I tagged along and so we elected to make the nine-hour drive rather than flying.  On our way home, we passed the Route 1 exit off the Beltway in Maryland and Betty said, “Didn’t we used to get really good plants at a nursery up here?”
Three years after
coming home, the
acuba is thriving
Five minutes later, and despite the passage of more than a decade, we unerringly found Behnke’s Garden Center in Beltsville.  And, 45 minutes later, we were back on the highway, now carrying a small acuba and a crepe myrtle cultivar called ‘Burgundy Cotton’.
For five years, our ‘southern garden on wheels’ thrived.  For seven months of the year, the crepe myrtle, loropetalum, and acuba luxuriated in our garden; then ‘wintered’ in our roomy garage, coming out only on days when temperatures rose into the 40's or 50's.  The loropetalum and crepe myrtle grew to a modest size and then seemed to find an equilibrium.  The acuba, though, quadrupled in size.
Then, last year, we moved into our new home.  Suddenly, two things were different.  First, there was no shady area for the acuba; everything in the garden was new and the trees did not yet have a shade-producing canopy.  The acuba had to stay in the shade of the house but, even there, its leaves scorched because of six hours a day of direct solar exposure.  Second, our new garage lacked the extra insulation of our old one, plus it had a northern exposure.  Nighttime winter temperatures fell into the twenties on several occasions.
The acuba in 2016.  Now
5' high, it needs a new home.
This summer, we have realized that our acuba, despite being ‘up-potted’ several times, requires a much larger container to hold its ever-growing root system.  And, because of its size (nearly five feet tall with its new, 2016 growth), it has also outgrown its place in our plant family.  It needs a new home where it can grow and thrive.
How do you tell a plant you’re putting it up for adoption?

Of course, next year the NGC convention is in Richmond and, to get to Richmond, you have to drive around Washington.  And Benkhe’s is still right there in Beltsville…