July 21, 2018

Garden Courtesy and the Lost Art of a Willingness to Listen

I have two questions for the women readers of this blog: when was the last time you were dismissed by a man by calling you ‘Honey’?  And, does that person still walk with a noticeable limp?

My wife, Betty, and I manage Medfield’s community garden.  We’re in our ninth year of a volunteer job we never asked for, but which we do out of the sense of satisfaction we get from watching people’s gardening skills grow, and seeing parents teach their children to partake of the special pleasures of coaxing food from the soil.

We have 71 plots this year on an acre of land, and those plots are gardened by 80 families.  It’s a heterogeneous group that is representative of a diverse community.  The common bond is gardening.  But keeping everyone on the same page isn’t easy.  Our retirees can devote hours to their plots each day while those with hectic careers see their garden as a brief, zen-like retreat where the outside world doesn’t intrude and weeds are tolerable.

The community garden
Betty’s role is the ‘garden guru’.  Yesterday, she spent ten minutes examining someone’s tomato plants, determining why some are robust and others are in the nightshade equivalent of intensive care.  I am the garden ogre.  I email gardeners asking them (at first) or telling them (if they don’t get the hint) to weed, clip back vines, or perform some other task to keep their garden from becoming a menace to those around it.

This week, two incidents in the garden brought our roles into sharp focus while testing our skills. 
The first test was a failure and entirely my fault, with roots dating back a year.  A long-time gardener got lazy or distracted as the season went on.  He grew things that weren’t allowed and hid them behind a corn perimeter.  Then, in August, he stopped maintaining the garden.  Multiple ‘nastygrams’ from me went unanswered.  At the end of the season I was forced to spend an afternoon clearing out his plot.  He wasn’t invited back for this season.

The community garden - large plots
are 600 sq ft, small ones are 300
The person who took over the plot told me he was an experienced gardener.  His 600-square-foot garden had an intelligent design, even if it was ‘way overplanted with tomatoes.  In early July, though, I noted the weeds in the plot were overwhelming the plants and I sent him a polite note asking him to take some time to bring the plot back to a weed-free state.  He quickly wrote back saying he had been traveling but would attend to the problem. 

 Two weeks later, I walked by the plot and it was evident no work had been done.  I sent off a Defcon 3 nastygram saying he had until this weekend to clean the plot, after which I would do it for him – and would cause him to lose his right to garden next year.  I sent it off with a righteous sense of satisfaction.  That plot wouldn’t be mis-gardened two years in a row.

An hour later, he telephoned me.  He explained his son was in the hospital.  The garden wasn’t his priority at the moment, but he promised to get to it as quickly as possible.

Chastened, I offered him a sincere apology.  I ought to have called to see if there was an explanation.  Instead, I used email to vent a frustration that pre-dated him as a gardener.  The garden, by the way, is now free of weeds.  I’m the one who learned a valuable lesson.

But I don’t know how to characterize what happened yesterday in the garden.

Here’s the background: after a wet spring, the rain stopped falling in eastern Massachusetts.  Our town, like many others, declared a drought emergency.  But three days ago, the heavens opened up and we got more than three inches of rain.  The ground was saturated.

What we’ve told gardeners – repeatedly – is this:  water only when you have to.  Put a trowel in the ground and see how far down the ground is damp.  A dry top inch may well be hiding lots of water down where your plants have their roots.  Common sense says you also look at the forecast to see if more rain is expected.

Late yesterday afternoon Betty and I went to the garden to pick vegetables.  Several gardens over, a man we didn’t know was watering what we assumed was his garden (we know most, but not all, gardeners).  Betty went over to him and found he was essentially soaking his garden to the point of having standing pools of water.

Betty is a horticultural educator.  She speaks all over New England and charges a fee commensurate with the quality of her information.  She is in high demand.  I mention those qualifications because no one invites back someone who ‘lectures’ an audience or speaks in a way that people feel they are being hectored or spoken down to. 

She told him the ground is already water-saturated, that he’s likely doing damage to his plants, and that there’s a water ban on in town.  She also threw in that we’re a community of gardeners, and we’re all paying for the water he’s wasting.

His response was to keep watering, and to start referring to Betty as ‘Honey’.  In the rudest possible language, he told her he had paid his fee, it was his garden, and he’d do what he pleased.  This went on for about three minutes.  I saw Betty walking back to our garden, ashen-faced and shaking.

It was my turn.  I walked over (he was still watering).  Upon seeing me, his first words were, “What do you want, asshole?”  I provided the same information and got the same dismissive result. 

I composed a careful email to him last evening.  Using well-modulated tones, I made the same points, but I pointedly added that my wife’s name isn’t ‘Honey’ and mine isn’t ‘Asshole’.  I offered him an out, saying maybe the reason for his rudeness was that he was having a rotten day and we approached him at an especially bad time. 

He responded this afternoon.  He didn’t give an inch.  No one ‘bullies’ him and no one told him, specifically, not to water.  He also added a few gratuitous personal insults.

I have a theory.  This man reports to a woman where he works.  He hates her and therefore probably hates his job.  Betty got the vitriol he can’t heap on his manager, and so she got the sobriquet ‘Honey’ he doesn’t dare use at work.

What do we do about him?  I don’t know.  But I noticed this morning that his peppers are wilting – a classic symptom of overwatering.

July 7, 2018

Garden Tour at the Sanders'!

Garden tours are educational and instructive.  They open your eyes to new vistas and ways of thinking about horticulture.  They are, in short, wonderful.

Except when it’s your garden that’s on tour.  I know this because, last month, our garden was the one everybody wanted to see. 

Three years ago it was a blank slate
Betty and I began planting our ‘dream retirement garden’ in June 2015.  As readers of this column know, we started with a true ‘tabula rasa’ – we had taken out 947 cubic yards of what could politely be called ‘builder’s crud’ and replaced it with 18 inches of screened loam into which we would plant trees, shrubs and perennials… and not a single blade of grass.

On the back patio
Fending off requests to see the garden was easy for the first two years – there really wasn’t a lot to see.  Last year, we pleaded for more time with the explanation that, well, we needed more time.  Trees needed to grow some more; shrubs still had to spread out their roots, and perennials were just starting to fill in the gaps between them.

The back garden
But this is the start of the garden’s fourth year.  That old but accurate aphorism about “sleep, creep, leap” has proven true.  And so, Betty agreed to open our garden for two hours for Master Gardeners. 

You would think that having a group in your garden would be a snap… put out signs, bake some cookies and set out the lemonade.  No, that’s not the way it happens.  And it especially doesn’t happen that way if the group in question has more than a passing knowledge of horticulture and a keen eye for detail.

The view from the bench
For three weeks before the event, Betty labeled plants.  We have three viburnums behind the house.  We even know what kind of viburnums they were because we’ve saved all their paperwork.  But which one is which?  This is why Google Images exists, and I suspect the fine folks in Mountain View are compiling quite an interesting, if puzzling dossier about our internet search habits.  And, of course, common names are so… common.  Why call it an ‘arrowwood viburnum’ when ‘Viburnum dentatum’ is more botanically correct?

Shasta daisies are at the 'leap' stage
And then, of course, there’s the weeding and deadheading.  Every bed was gone over multiple times, and paths were plucked of everything even resembling a weed.  Of course, our paths are also supposed to be ‘natural’.  Our heucheras and tiarellas are prolific self-seeders.  One especially fecund cultivar had cute brown and gold seedlings popping up everywhere.  How many stayed and how many were composted was a question being answered up to the morning of the tour.

The asclepias bloomed just in time
There is also the ‘prayer factor’, otherwise known as “will it bloom in time?” and “will it still be in bloom?”  We have a stand of gorgeous Asclepias tuberosa, also knows as butterfly weed.  It is golden yellow and is a magnet for every pollinator in town.  Up until Saturday morning, it appeared as though only a single stem would be showing color.  But nearby, an entire colony of Asclepias syriaca – rose milkweed to the rest of us – blossomed with white flower clusters that, while not as showy as its cousin, perfumed the air magnificently.  They were a perfect complement to the Asclepias tuberosa, which opened a dozen flowers just as cars began arriving.

No one seemed to believe there's
not a blade of grass on the property
Finally, there was the scourge of parking.  We are on a narrow, winding road that is a favorite of bicyclists and walkers.  We have a parking pad at the front of the property that will hold three cars and a driveway that will accommodate four more.  Fearing being blocked in, no one wanted to use the driveway and, when the pad filled up, visitors began parking on the street (Betty had provided detailed instruction of how to park at a nearby elementary school). 

A river of geranium
Visitors ignored the school parking option.  They not only parked on the street; they parked on both sides of this narrow, winding road.  It did not take long for the local police to take notice and we soon had two cruisers, one with flashing lights, in front of our house.  It took all of Betty’s charms and persuasive powers to get everything back to normal.  I am in awe of her for this.

Was it worth it?  Of course.  The compliments were both genuine and numerous.  People said they learned and called what Betty has created, ‘the new American yard’.  Am I in a hurry to do it again soon?  If you have to ask….
And then, we had the garden to ourselves again!