September 5, 2017

We've Got to Get Ourselves Back to the Garden

There’s an old saw about grandchildren that goes, ‘if you haven’t seen them in a year, you won’t recognize them’.  I think the same can be said of the best gardens.  They continually evolve as they mature.  We hadn’t been to Bedrock Gardens in (gulp) two years but, this past weekend, we carved out a beautiful Saturday to see what Jill Nooney and Bob Munger have been up to.  The answer turns out to be ‘a lot’.

The garden deliberately breaks
design rules, but the effect is magical
To the best of my knowledge, Bedrock Gardens has no basis for comparison in New England.  It is the idiosyncratic creation of two people who have transformed 35 acres of one-time dairy farm land in rural southeastern New Hampshire into a space that is equal parts intelligent horticulture and sheer whimsy, with an accent on the unexpected.  It also an ‘art park’ – an expression I generally detest, but use here because it is a wholly accurate description.  And it is a garden that is not afraid of shade.  More than half of the property is heavily wooded, yet under the canopy of those tree lie some of Bedrock Gardens’ most beautiful and enchanting spaces.

Garden art
Jill is what the brochure describes as the ‘horticultural and artistic force’ behind the garden.  She designed the garden and largely chooses the plants for it.  She also builds the art you see all around the place.  And, ‘build’ is quite accurate.  Much of her work involves taking industrial and farm machinery and reimagining it as sculpture.  While I’ve included a few samples, you can peruse a more complete gallery here.  Bob has the more prosaic responsibilities of maintenance, digging holes and moving rocks (although he is also credited with creating and executing several of the intricate stone walkways on the premises).  He is definitely a Principal Undergardener.

Double-click for a full screen view
If I were to attempt to articulate the design philosophy that underlies Bedrock Gardens, it would go something like, “If you see a rule, break it.”  The garden abounds in plant and color juxtapositions that force the viewer to reconsider his or her idea of what is ‘right’.  Yet the overall effect is as glorious as anything you’ll encounter in, say, the New York Botanical Garden.

A profusion of blue pots
There are no fewer than 23 distinct gardens within the property.  Seeing them all requires half a day and sturdy walking shoes.  Truly appreciating them requires multiple visits.  This is the kind of garden that invites you to frequently turn around and see where you’ve been.  The perspective changes; sometimes subtly, other times wildly.  There are also two major axes.  A 900-foot-long one extends from a pair of thrones across a pond to an allée, a torii, and a spiral garden.  An 850-foot-long one extends from a barn across an acre of red, green, and blue grasses to the aforementioned torii and terminating at a CD tree (don’t ask). 

A shrine to hay rakes
The garden has evolved since our last visit.  The ‘acrobats’ sculpture is now preceded and framed by the beginnings of a beech arch that will take another five years to make its statement.  I do not recall seeing the ‘thrones’ on my past visit and the ‘Baxis’, a parallelogram-shaped arch is a stunning addition.

More garden art
Four years ago, Jill and Bob established a non-profit ‘Friends of Bedrock Gardens’ to begin a process to preserve the garden for future generations by converting the property to a public garden and cultural center.  The project is apparently well underway.  John Forti, who left his mark on Strawbery Banke and Elm Bank, was named Executive Director earlier this year.

Bedrock Garden will next be open in 2017 on September 16 and 17, and then one final time on Columbus Day weekend.  In the phrasing of the Michelin guides, this is ‘worth a journey’.

Here's a 45-second-long video of what the 'Wiggle Waggle' part of the garden looks like.

September 3, 2017

Gardening After Labor Day

I don't get pots of mums...
There’s an odd seasonal ritual most New Englanders appear to observe.  No, it’s not the one about not wearing white pants after Labor Day, although that’s also grist for discussion.  Rather, it is that Labor Day somehow marks the official close the gardening season.  People stop tending their vegetable gardens, they forget about their perennials, and they begin bringing home yellow and orange mums to replace their annuals.

I don’t get it.

Of course, I don’t get lots of things, including craft beers.  But to me, Labor Day is just the back stretch of the gardening year.  And as for mums, the idea of planting something in September that is guaranteed to croak with the first hint of frost just makes my head hurt.

We have 200 tomatoes
ripening.  I intend to
harvest every one.
If you are a vegetable gardener, this has been a strange season.  Betty and I normally sow ‘cold weather’ crops such as spinach and lettuce in mid-April.  Not this year.  Relentless bouts of frigid, rainy weather washed away two successive plantings.  We didn’t see our first pick-able leaf vegetables until late May.  Corn that is ‘knee-high by the Fourth of July’ was a cruel joke; we had three-inch-high sprouts on Independence Day.

But Mother Nature made up for her inattention to New England from mid-July onward.  We have frozen and bagged enough green beans to last until the Apocalypse, and we are able to keep abreast of our zucchini production only by being very generous to our local Food Cupboard and driving around parking lots checking for cars whose owners foolishly left their windows down.

On September 1, we
topped our tomatoes
Our garden is still going strong.  We have more than 200 tomatoes ripening as this is written.  Betty wisely cut off the growing tips of those tomato vines so the plants focus their energy on finishing the job they started.  The way I see it is that there are twelve hours of daylight until September 25 and eleven hours on October 16 which is, statistically speaking, the average date of our first frost.  As far as I’m concerned, the season isn’t going to end until the last tomato has ripened on the kitchen counter.

Moreover, I’ve got an entire square of corn that has only now ‘tasseled out’.  We expect to pick sweet corn well into the month.  We also have hot peppers that barely budge the needle on the Scoville scale.  I’m holding out for 500,000 SHUs and if it takes until October 16 to get there, I’ll gladly keep weeding.

One of the members of the community
garden we manage decided to stop
weeding or cutting back her squash vines
And weeding, I suspect, is why many gardeners conveniently decide that Gardening Is Passé just as the Patriots open their regular season.  Weeding is the dirty little secret that underlies all gardening, as well as the worst kept one.  Weeds must be pulled.  Weeds must be kept in check. 

For the past eight years, Betty and I have run a community garden that now contains 75 plots.  My scientific observation is that everyone weeds assiduously in May and June.  Come July, the gardening slackers begin practicing a kind of horticultural triage that distinguishes between weeds that the Garden Ogre will notice (and generate nasty emails) and so must be pulled, and those that are kinda-sorta of out of sight and therefore benign. 

This is our corn crop as of this
morning.  We should be able to
pick through the month.
Then comes August.  Everyone in the garden is away for some two-week period during the month.  Upon their return, they discover to their horror that the ‘benign weeds’ are eighteen inches high and forming seed heads, and that the Garden Ogre (that’s me) has filled their inbox with nastygrams. 

And so, rather than devote the two hours it will take to get their garden back in shape, over Labor Day weekend they take down their fence and declare that they’ve had enough for one year.  They go home and make gin and tonics.  Whatever produce remains is fodder for birds and woodchucks.  They clean their plots only at the end October after the weather is reliably cool.

Our garden will not only still be chugging along in October, we’re planting seeds now that will ensure we will have fresh lettuce, arugula, and spinach with our Thanksgiving Dinner.  Think it’s impossible?  Last year we picked our last lettuce on December 10.  That’s Week 14 of the NFL season for those of you who threw in the towel back on Labor Day.

And, while we’re at it, what exactly is so wrong about wearing white after August?