June 23, 2017

A Gem of a Garden in Maine

There’s a little piece of paradise a few miles west of the town of Boothbay, Maine.  Two decades ago, it seemed to be destined to become a housing development.  Fortunately, a recession intervened and, instead, it became a treasure called the Coastal Maine Botanical Garden.

Neither urban nor affiliated with a university, CMBG is in
a sparsely populated area of coastal Maine.  But its
location is ideal for a botanical garden.
A botanical garden is usually thought of as an urban oasis (think New York and Chicago) and, if not urban, then the preserve of well-known (and endowed) universities (think UNC-Chapel Hill and the North Carolina Botanical Garden).  But the Coastal Maine Botanical Garden (CMBG for short) had its start as a discussion among friends along Maine’s midcoast region.  Looking at the garden today, you would assume its cost was underwritten by deep-pocketed folks who call Maine home for a month or so each summer.  Such people would eventually jump on board, but CMBG was always first and foremost a local initiative among residents who did more than just dream about creating a world-class garden; they figured out how to build it.

Every turn offers a new perspective.
Double-click for a full-screen view.
CMBG opened ten years ago this month and I am embarrassed to say that it took me until this week to make my first visit (Betty, on the other hand, has been several times).  But an invitation to speak at the Garden Club Federation of Maine’s Annual Meeting in nearby Freeport led me to decide to finally get me initiated into the cadre of fans of the institution.

Most of CMBG's 270 acres had been
left in its natural state, but is readily
accessible via well-marked trails.
CMBG’s site encompasses some 270 acres, including a mile of waterfront along the Back River.  The core of the garden is about 30 acres; the balance is laced with educational trails but has otherwise been left undisturbed.  

If there’s an overarching theme to the garden, it is one of surprise.  This is Maine, but it’s also southern Maine and CMBG’s microclimate is a product of its location on a south-facing ocean inlet.  This is Zone 5B to 6A; akin to eastern Massachusetts.  While it is at their northern limit, plants thrive here that common sense says ‘no way’. 

A view of part of the fern garden
along the Haney Hillside Garden.
Double-click for a full-screen view.
The other surprise is the intelligence in the design.  The best single ‘garden’ is the Haney Hillside Garden that, from the hilltop display gardens, zig-zags down toward the Back River.  No one blasted a path down the hill.  Instead, someone (or a group of someones) with a great deal of environmental sensitivity found the natural paths and switchbacks.  At each of its three bends there is a ‘study’ garden that invites you to pause and look around.  In between are sweeps of plants than can thrive in the thinnest of soils.  We likely spent more time pondering those mini-gardens than any other location.

A thirty-second look at the waters around CMBG.  
The rocky shoals at the beginning of the clip are filled
 with seals digesting the lobsters they take from the local waters.

As much enjoyment as we found in CMBG’s gardens, I had my most fun on the water.  At the admissions desk, there was a sign indicating that visitors could enjoy a discounted price for a combined boat tour and garden admission.  It sounded intriguing.  Half an hour later, we were shuttled down to a boat landing.  What followed was at least a full hour of sheer enjoyment on a perfect afternoon.  Captain Shawn Griffiths of the ‘Beagle’ took us downriver and into inlets where we learned to identify (and sampled) different kinds of kelp, learned the geology of the Maine coast, got an education about the region’s logging history, paused to watch seals sunning themselves on a shoal, and generally had a spectacular time.

Our leisurely boat trip added to our
perspective of the garden and of
the region and its history.
The most surprising part was that it was just the two of us and Captain Shawn on the Beagle.  The garden was overflowing with visitors, but no one else was apparently interested in the boat tour.  That is an unmitigated shame.  To me, that boat tour was an integral part of understanding the garden.  In other words, if you go to CMBG and you do not avail yourself of an hour on the Beagle, you’ve denied yourself both a pleasure and an education.

Beautiful gardens, lovingly care for
and superbly curated.
Which leads me to the staff.  I’ve seldom met a more talkative group of employees and volunteers.  We spent more than five minutes with an older lady who was rescuing a patch of lowbush blueberries from encroaching grasses along the Haney Hillside Garden.  We didn’t interrupt her work; we just listened to her commentary about the nature of what she was doing.  Was she an employee or a volunteer?  I have no idea.   But she was enormously knowledgeable about the garden.  We encountered people like her all across the garden and in the visitors center.  No one was too busy to stop and thoughtfully answer a question.  This is a garden where everyone involved clearly loves their work.

The clip below is a 360 degree pan of the Cleaver Event Lawn and Garden.  

June 9, 2017

Making Good for the Chunky Monkey

Before becoming the Principal Undergardener, your humble correspondent had a day job in technology, specializing in an arcane subject called ‘corporate development’.  While the hours were frequently long, the job had some noticeably good perks.  One of them was an annual trip in late October to a financial conference sponsored by the American Electronics Association.

There, technology companies and institutional investors (many of them Masters Of The Universe) got together on what could be fairly described as a ‘level playing field’.  We all had breakfast and lunch together but, in the morning and afternoon, companies told their stories in a more formal setting.  There were perhaps 150 presenting companies trying to get the attention of roughly 400 institutional investors.

Brokerage firms, too, were seeking attention.  The usual suspects plied companies and institutional investors alike with lavish dinners every night.  One small firm, though, hit on a more novel approach.  Still building name recognition and lacking the ‘pull’ of the banking giants, the brokerage firm set out a Ben & Jerry’s cart on the hotel’s plaza, where they handed out ice cream cones.  Senior managers of the brokerage firm used the thirty seconds or so that it took to scoop a cone to give what has come to be called an ‘elevator pitch’; a concise summary of their qualifications.

The genius of the cart was that there was always a line.  Even Masters Of The Universe who made zillions of dollars a year could not resist the lure of a free scoop of New York Super Chunk Fudge.

I began going to the conference (initially held in Monterey, then moved to San Diego) in the mid-1980s.  Like everyone, I lined up for ice cream.  Then, in the mid-1990s, the cart was missing.  I asked the conference director what had happened. “They decided it wasn’t sufficiently dignified,” I was told.  Having grown in size and stature, they now held a dinner, just like the big boys.  “Well,” I asked, “could a company sponsor the cart?”  The conference director thought for several long moments. “I don’t see why not,” was the final reply.

The next year, I was back at the conference with a four-day lease on a Ben & Jerry’s cart and twenty tubs of super-premium ice cream.  All I needed was someone to help scoop.

Think globally, act locally.  'Plant
America' became 'Plant Massachusetts'
(Double-click for a larger view)
My boss was the Chairman and CEO of the company.  He thought my idea was a stroke of genius.  He also had no intention of scooping ice cream (he claimed a bad back).  The company’s CFO also went to the conference.  He was slightly more game for the project, but claimed to be tongue-tied. 

Which left my wife, Betty, as the assistant scooper.  And, because I was making presentations eight times a day on two of those days, Betty was frequently the main scooper.

Our respective spouses had frequently accompanied us on the trip.  Betty would take off with the others to see gardens or historic sights, have lunch, and join us just in time for dinner.  When I first broached my problem with Betty, she said something to the effect that I ought to have worked out the fine details before I leased the cart.  But she agreed.  And, for three years, she more or less willingly scooped ice cream; even the rock-hard Chunky Monkey.  Also for the record, she was superb.  Our sessions were held to standing-room-only audiences.

I spent a day cutting apart tablecloths
I tell this story because of what took place in our home over the past five days.  On Wednesday, June 7, Betty chaired her final meeting as President of the Garden Club Federation of Massachusetts (GCFM).  Present to install the new GCFM President was Nancy Hargroves, the President of National Garden Clubs, Inc.; herself also newly installed.

National Presidents hit the ground running.  President Hargroves’ theme for the next two years is ‘Plant America’ with a focus on horticulture and gardening. 

The problem with all this was 30 table centerpieces. Traditionally, GCFM annual meetings show off the considerable talents of floral designers, and taking home one of the centerpieces is a big deal.  Floral design, by definition, deals with cut flowers.  You can’t exactly ‘Plant America’ with cut flowers (most of which were grown in South America).

A dianthus with its flag
So Betty hit on an idea.  Instead of cut flower centerpieces, she would use plants.  There would be nine plants for each table so that each attendee could take home (and plant) an annual, perennial, or vegetable.  To meet a tight budget, Betty went to a wholesale nursery with the employee of a friend and, two hours later, hundreds of plants were in our garage.

The plants needed a flag.  Betty decided the idea of ‘Plant America’ could be made more forceful by having a ‘Plant Massachusetts’ flag.  My first job was to design and have printed such a flag, which sounds easier than it is.  An area print shop turned around the flags, printed on glossy paper, in a few hours.  Next, the flags had to be mounted on flagpoles, which ended up being bamboo skewers.  On Sunday morning, four members of the Medfield Garden Club, Betty, and I set up an assembly line that turned out 300 flags in about three hours. 

But now the pots of plants needed covers.  Fortunately, Betty had saved 20 gingham tablecloths from a long-ago event.  I spent most of Monday cutting the tablecloths into squares.  On Tuesday, while Betty purchased more plants (due to higher than expected attendance), I loaded as many plants, cloth squares, and flagpoles as would fit into a Prius and began ferrying them 45 miles to the conference center where the annual meeting would be held.  On Tuesday evening (after dinner with President Hargroves), Betty, her good friend who deserves a halo, and I began placing the squares on the plants, securing them with a rubber band, and then fluffing the squares to look more decorative.  The flags were then affixed to the finished pots.  This took until nearly midnight.

The centertpieces (red arrows), with
Betty (in pink) presenting an award
On Wednesday morning, the final covers were affixed to the final pots and everything was placed on carts.  While 250 garden club members networked before lunch, the carts were wheeled in and the plants decoratively arrayed on tables.  When the attendees filed in for lunch, there were the 30 tables, each festooned with colorfully-bibbed plants bearing ‘Plant Massachusetts’ flags.  It all looked effortless.

Five days of helping Betty get ready for a meeting doesn’t fully atone for those years of scooping ice cream.  But helping her last meeting be a success was a pleasure I won’t soon forget.  

June 2, 2017

Presidential Arm Candy

On June 7 at around 3 p.m., my wife, Betty, hands off the Presidency of the Garden Club Federation of Massachusetts to her successor.  And I stop being presidential arm candy.

At the dedication of a wayside
garden in Groton, MA.  That's Betty
second from the right.
Maybe ‘arm candy’ is a stretch.  All right, it’s a huge stretch.  But, for the past two years, I’ve had the opportunity to be Betty’s designated driver when she was committed to doing two-a-day events and badly needed for someone else to be behind the wheel.  The position - hers and mine - has been an eye-opener for me. 

How often has Betty been on the road?  Try this: Betty took her car in for its routine, 5,000-mile service earlier this year and the dealership rep did a double-take when he saw that the car had been in just three months earlier, and three months before that.  “Are you in sales?” he asked.  “That’s a lot of miles.”  Betty said she thought about it for a moment and replied, “In a sense, yes; I guess I’m in sales.”

The Federation has more than 11,000 members in 182 clubs from the Outer Cape to Williamstown.  Betty had visited 135 of those clubs over the past two years, and met the balance at regional annual luncheons and district coffees.  She has logged over 15,000 miles a year without ever leaving the state.  Her job, as she describes it, is to “show the flag” and be the face of what could otherwise be a faceless organization.  She has also relentlessly pushed the subject of education; urging clubs to take advantage of the schools, workshops, and talks sponsored by the Federation (where she shows up to ‘give greetings’ and, not coincidentally, talk up the next workshop or school).

Has she been successful?  In late March, a one-day workshop on designing wayside gardens drew 135 participants… and had to turn away 90 more because of a lack of room.

This park in Chelmsford was built
by one of the town's garden clubs.
For me, the remarkable part has been seeing what garden clubs do when they exercise their collective imagination to take on a project.  One day last June, I drove Betty to the dedication of a park in Chelmsford.  The new park sits on the site of a former fire station.  Two years ago, it was a rubble-strewn lot.  The Chelmsford Garden Club volunteered to make it an inviting site.  They did much more than that: it is a civic showcase and a horticultural gem.  Oh, and they did it in nine months. 
In Topsfield, a garden club with fewer than 25 members decided to put on an environmental exposition.  This year, the fourth iteration of the ‘Grow Spring Expo’ lured in more than a hundred exhibitors, and sprawled across three historic buildings around Topsfield’s Town Green (and that doesn’t count the tractors, animals, and Morris Dancers on the Green itself).  In Tewksbury, I saw a Blue Star marker unveiling turn into a town-wide, morning-long celebration of veterans… all due to the hard work and diligent planning of that community’s garden club. 

I was present at the dedication of numerous wayside gardens.  One, in Groton, was nearly a thousand square feet at a prominent intersection and was so intelligently designed and beautifully planted it couldn’t possibly have been done by a garden club… except it was. 

Planting the landscaping for a
Blue Star Marker in Tewksbury
There were countless ‘art in bloom’, ‘books in bloom’ and club flower show events, and Betty went to every one that would fit on her schedule.  She helped clubs celebrate their 100th anniversaries; as well as their 90th, 75th and 50th.  All are going strong, continually drawing a new generation of members interested in gardening and community service.

Seen in isolation, a town’s garden club is a beneficial part of the civic tapestry.  Put together 182 of them, and you have an extraordinary group of individuals that make a lasting impact on Massachusetts.