February 27, 2019

S'no Fun at the Old Homestead

In this unusual winter of 2018-2019, it took until Winter Storm Quiana to finally bring the Boston area enough snow to make it necessary to fire up our snowblower.  That event also began the annual nature-versus-nurture ritual in our family of arguing that Neal Cannot Possibly Know Anything About Snow Removal Because He Was Born in Florida.

I grew up in a snow-free environment
Yes, it is true.  I am a native of Miami.  I did not experience snow until I was 20 years old, and then only because I drove two hundred miles for the specific purpose of personally witnessing actual flakes of snow falling out of the sky (it seemed like a good idea at the time).

But that was in 1969.  Since 1971 I have lived exclusively in snowy locales.  I once lived in Schenectady, NY, where it is rumored the snow never melts.  I dwelled in Chicago where it begins snowing on Halloween and does not stop until late April, if then.  And I have spent 30 of the past 38 years in New England; sixteen of them with a 220-foot-long driveway that most decidedly would not clear itself without my intervention (Betty's rebuttal is that for seven of those years, I managed to be away on business every time it snowed).

For 16 years, we lived in a home
with a 220-foot-long driveway
Surely my adult tenure as a ‘northerner’ counts for something.  But not according to my wife, who was raised in the Finger Lakes region of New York; the anointed Snow Capital of America.  While I was busy tending the family mango and avocado plantation in January, February and March, Betty was working shoulder-to-shoulder with her father to clear six-foot-high drifts of the white stuff.  I freely admit she had a head start on me; but I’ve had nearly five decades to catch up.

I am not allowed to use the snowblower because I ‘don’t do it right’.  What, exactly, is the ‘right’ way?  You point the snowblower down the driveway and put it in gear.  You turn the crank on the gizmo that throws it left or right.  What could be easier? 

I invented a snowblower on
skis for our gravel driveway,
but I still 'do it wrong'
Well, our driveway is not macadam.  It is loose stone (to allow precipitation to percolate down into the water table rather than into storm drains).  Three years ago, I invented – and may yet decide to patent – a means of mounting the ‘maw’ of our snowblower onto a pair of skis so the business end of the machine rides an inch above the stone.  It is a sight to behold and it works wonderfully well.  But I am not allowed to be its wrangler because (it is alleged) I picked up too many stones on the lone pass of the driveway I was allowed to make.

Because of all the plants along it,
even shoveling the sidewalk requires
spousal supervision
I am instead consigned to the hand-shoveling of the sidewalk.  But even that requires close spousal supervision.  You see, we have no grass.  If we did, we could pile snow on it from now until Memorial Day.  Instead, we have trees, shrubs of many sizes, and perennials.  It’s never OK to put snow on a shrub (duh), but snow must also be spread out within perennial beds, never allowing snow to become too deep.  Also, to prevent accidentally covering small shrubs, snow should preferably be transported to the moss pathways that divide our garden into planting beds.

If I sound like I’m griping, it’s only because I think I’ve earned another shot at the back end of our Ariens Deluxe 22” machine when Winter Storm Ryan comes around.  I’ll even keep shoveling the sidewalk.  And besides, the family mango plantation has long since been bulldozed to make way for a shopping center.

February 6, 2019

You Can Take the Gardener Out of the Garden, But...

My wife, Betty, and I took a much-needed and long-delayed vacation last month.  Our original plan had been a month in New Zealand (where it’s midsummer) but, coming just four months after a total knee replacement, Betty’s surgeon advised against 20 hours on a plane and strenuous hiking. 

As it turned out, she made a remarkably swift and full recovery, but we made our January reservations in November.  And so instead, we chose a week in London and a week in Paris.  The forecast for London was chilly and damp.  For Paris, it was chillier and with a chance of Yellow Vests.

Expecting to be primarily indoors, we built our itinerary around a series of special art and culture exhibitions in those two cities.  In all, we visited fifteen museums and galleries, several with those ‘once in a generation’ kind of blockbuster events.

Why, then, did we keep ending up in gardens?

Snowdrops in bloom in January in St. James Park, London
It started in London.  We walked everywhere and, England being England, we kept running into things in bloom.  There were unexpected blooming irises in St. James Park.  Millbank Garden, a long, narrow park opposite the Tate Britain beckoned with a pocket garden where daphne and camellias were in flower despite the short days and chilly nights. 

It became a part of our day: finding small, protected parks where tough, seasoned plants were showing their stuff.  Park Crescent, at the southern tip of Regent’s Park, yielded a hedge with a white bottlebrush-type flower we could not identify.  A winter vegetable garden valiantly hung on at the Duck Island Cottage opposite the Horse Guards Parade, and a scattering of Galanthus (snowdrops) bloomed nearby.

A flower market in the Marais District
Paris provided more unexpected gardens, albeit of a different kind.  It was colder in Paris – not Boston-cold, but with daytime highs in the low 40s – and we were even greeted with a burst of sleet our first day.  We spotted our first garden on the south side of the Notre Dame Cathedral, where a pair of large raised beds provided homes for cold-weather bedding plants like Stachys byzanta (lambs ear) and hellebores.

Walking along the Seine on our way to the Musee d’Orsay, it seemed every houseboat on the river sported large boxes of brightly-colored flowers.  The Marais district sported dozens of window boxes and a large weekend flower market.

Can you really get a gardener out of the garden?  I don’t think so.  You can go to see art but, in the end, you can’t stop also seeing all the color that nature unexpectedly surprises us with, even in the depths of winter.