December 7, 2016

Rescue Me

Being the spouse of the President of the Garden Club Federation of Massachusetts brings multiple Honors and Benefits, not the least of which is the frequent opportunity to be Presidential Arm Candy for garden club events (‘arm candy’ being a much better job description than ‘driver’).  In a given month, Betty receives as many as twenty invitations to various events, which she accepts on a first-invited-first-accepted basis.  In the peak months of November and April she frequently does two events a day (she once did three events in three widely separated towns in a day and swore she would never do so again).
The topiaried
cypress, about
which more will
be said in
a moment
November and December events are usually festive ones built around a holiday theme.  Clubs bring in ‘big name’ designers or otherwise pull out all the stops.  It’s also a time when clubs in the same or neighboring towns get together and pool their resources for a big splash; the better to make that big event affordable to even small clubs.
And also, by some unspoken protocol, the Federation President is offered the opportunity (some would say ‘obliged’) to take the best seat in the house for whatever presentation is being done.  Betty invariably protests that no fuss need be made.  Then she is shown that front-row seat with her name taped to it.
All of the preceding is necessary background to understand the events of about three weeks ago, and how I came to rescue three cypress trees from cruel and unusual punishment.
The Spring Grow Expo in 2016
Each year in November, five clubs in Topsfield, Boxford and Middleton hold a “Tri-Town meeting”.  It’s a rather elegant soiree held at an appropriate site.  Betty was especially pleased to be invited this year because one of the participating clubs holds an environmental fair each spring, and she was looking forward to talking with that club’s members.  This 2016 edition of the event was held at Topsfield Common, an historic building on that town’s original town green.  We arrived to find more than a hundred women dining on canapes and thoroughly enjoying themselves.  Betty was immediately swept into multiple conversations and so I tried to make myself inconspicuous; no small feat when you are the only person of the male persuasion in a rapidly growing crowd.  When the program began, Betty found herself ushered to the front of the hall and I found that a seat had been marked off for me beside her. 
Topiaries at Snug Harbor Farm
A brief word about garden club holiday programs. While a 'normal' month’s program may feature a speaker on the environment, landscaping, gardening, or even gardening humor; a holiday program invariably centers on floral design.  One of the 'big names' in design is booked and never fails to delight the audience.  Betty has been to enough of these events that one of those big names, Tony Todesco, believes she is stalking him. 
To be a 'big name', you must be more than just a good designer: you must also have a great 'patter'.  Watching anyone – even the most talented designer – put together five or six floral arrangements over 90 minutes can be a deadly dull experience.  What makes it enjoyable and even riveting is the accompanying patter.  The designer tells stories as he or she works, and it is those stories – always humorous and also often autobiographical – that are just as memorable as the designs.
Tony Elliott
The name on the program that evening, though, was a new one to me: Tony Elliott.  The topic, though, seemed a familiar one: ‘The Holiday Table’.  It turns out that Tony is the owner and proprietor of a specialty garden center called Snug Harbor Farm in Kennebunk, Maine, some 50 miles up the coast from Topsfield.  On the stage in front of us was a mass of vegetables, plants, and flowers.
Tony began by showing the audience how to make a topiary.  He did so because one of Snug Harbor Farm’s specialties is topiary.  To demonstrate, he brought out a beautiful small cypress, perhaps twelve inches high.  The plant was beautifully proportioned and in wonderful condition.  It was the kind of plant anyone would be proud to own.  Tony began to cut it.  Not nice little cuts to perhaps shape it; he took off an entire branch. 
The audience gasped.  Being in the front row, I saw the carnage from a distance of just five feet.
He cut more of the cypress.  Another branch fell to the floor.  The audience cried out for him to stop.  He kept cutting, whacking, hacking, until all that remained of that beautiful cypress was its stem and a small top knot.
He held it up for the audience to see.  The audience was in shock. 
He picked up another cypress.  “Shall I show you again?” he asked.  There seemed to be a gleam in his eye.
The two un-molested cypresses will
spend the winter as indoor ornamentals.
They are not hardy in New England, so
their long-term fate is uncertain.
The audience begged him to spare it.
The balance of the presentation, at least to me, was a blur.  I know he used a blue squash as a container for a floral centerpiece, but my mind was still on that poor cypress.
To defray the cost of a program, there are always 'opportunity drawings'  (the approved IRS terminology) and the creations of the designer are auctioned off.  An hour after he began, Tony Elliott had filled a large table with designs.  The auction began.
Three cypresses – the one turned into the beginning of a topiary – and two that had been given a stay of execution in the interest of time were part of the auction.  Bidding began.  I raised my hand.  I wanted to spare those poor cypresses.  Someone else raised their hand.  I raised mine again.  And so it went until the bidding reached $40.  Mind you, I could buy those three cypresses for six or seven dollars each at any decent nursery.  But these cypresses were being held hostage by a man who would butcher them without a second thought.
I raised my hand one more time.  “I will rescue them for $45,” I shouted.  The audience broke out in laughter. 

The three cypresses will grace the mantle over our fireplace this winter.  In the spring, we will find a place for all three outdoors.  They're not hardy hereabouts, but whatever fate awaits that cypress, it will know a kinder future than it experienced on a stage in Topsfield one evening in November.

December 1, 2016


We all want beautiful gardens, but is one – however gorgeous – that doesn’t consciously make room for wildlife a good idea?  That thought first came to mind back in October.  The native dogwood tree (cornus florida) we planted eighteen months earlier outside our library window seemed to be having an epileptic fit.  The whole top of the tree was shaking violently.  It turns out that the tree’s fruit had just ripened and a dozen birds were noisily staking their claim to it.
We are now a certified wildlife habitat
I mentioned the ruckus (which went on for three days) to a friend and asked if he had experienced a similar display.  No, he had not.  But he also said his was a cornus kousa, the Asian dogwood cultivar.  The response puzzled me and so I did some research.  It turns out that the fruit of the kousa dogwood is larger than that of its American cousin; too large, in fact, for most birds.  We had set out an autumn buffet for multiple bird species.  My friend’s tree was just an attractive ornamental tree with large, bright red berries.
I was reminded of that conversation last week when we drove a wooden pole into the ground at the front of our property and affixed to that pole a sign.  We are now a Certified Wildlife Habitat.
A bowl cast from a hosta
leaf provides fresh water
Certified Wildlife Habitats are part of the National Wildlife Federation’s ‘Gardens for Wildlife’ program.  Surprisingly, certification isn’t limited to people with acres of land.  You can certify an apartment building balcony or a college campus as well as a suburban home site.  In all, there are more than 200,000 such spaces in the U.S. encompassing 1.5 million acres.  That’s a lot of wildlife-friendly habitat.
Our property likely goes to the extreme end of the wildlife-friendly spectrum.  For example, to be certified your habitat needs to provide three of the following food sources: seeds from plants, berries, nectar, foliage and twigs, fruits, sap, pollen, suet, a bird feeder, a hummingbird feeder, a butterfly feeder, a squirrel feeder, and nuts.  We can tick the box for all but two of those.  We have no intention of ever feeding squirrels, and so we will never put up a feeder for them; and putting out nuts will attract squirrels, so ix-nay to that idea, too.
We feed the birds, but
draw the line at squirrels
Properties should have a source of clean water.  It could be a birdbath, a butterfly puddling area (perfect for a balcony), a river, a rain garden, a spring, or a seasonal pool.  We had no fewer than three birdbaths in operation, plus we have vernal pools on the land we own behind our home.
The NWF says that wildlife needs at least two places to shelter from predators and the weather.  It could be a wooded area, a rock pile or wall, cave, roosting box, brush or log pile, water garden or pond, evergreens, or a meadow or prairie.  We don’t have a prairie or a cave, but we check the box on all of the rest.  Some we created as we built our landscape.  One was the product of my laziness: when we acquired the property on which we would build our new home there was a pile of logs and brush adjoining the wetlands.  Betty told me to clear it out.  I said I wasn’t getting anywhere near it.  It remains; a perfect wildlife shelter.
This pile of wood and brush is both
shelter and a place to raise young
And a habitat should have a place for critters to raise their young.  These include mature trees, nesting boxes, dead trees or snags, thickets, wetlands, or host plants for caterpillars.  There are roughly fifteen acres of wetlands behind our home that are permanently protected.  We own an acre of that wetland.  We’ve also left up several dead trees specifically for nesting sites.
This dead tree was left
in place for bird roosts
Sustainability is also part of the certification process.  How about soil and water conservation?  Do you capture rain water from your roof?  Do you practice water-wise landscaping?  Do you have a rain garden? Use mulch?  In our case, we could check every practice. Boy, do we have the mulch question covered.
Is your property organic?  Have you eliminated chemical pesticides and fertilizers?  Do you use compost?  For us, the answers were yes, yes, and yes.  And, finally, are you controlling exotic species?  Ways to do that include practicing integrated pest management, removing non-native plants and animals, using native plants (like that American dogwood), and reducing lawn area.  I don’t know if having no lawn at all earned us extra points, but it should have.

Our pollinator garden
will stay up for the winter
Garden certification is both a good and a clever idea.  It rewards good behavior with a sense of satisfaction (and a sign) and provides gardeners with a tangible list of achievable goals to help them do more for the environment.  If you’re interesting in seeing if your property qualifies, check it out here.