July 17, 2019

"Not Another One of Those F-ing Meadows!"

Here's a 30-second walk-through of the front garden on July 17, 2019
Four years ago this month, Betty and I began planting our new garden in earnest.  It was going to be a monumental undertaking with four goals: attract and be a home to pollinators (birds, bees, butterflies, etc.) by emphasizing natives, respect the wetlands adjoining our property, be attractive, and be low (or at least lower) maintenance than our previous one.

The front, sunniest part of the garden
is at its peak in mid-July.  Double-
click to see a full screen slide show.
One way of achieving all four goals was to skip the lawn.  Go cold turkey; no grass at all.  To make our resolution stick we sold our lawnmower.  And so, as the first trees and shrubs went in, there was a conspicuous absence of either sod or sprayed-on grass seed around our property.

Though we had been in our new home since April, we still had only a nodding acquaintance with one of our next-door neighbors.  We knew he was a Boston police officer and his hours were erratic, as might be expected of such an occupation.  On that early morning as we were working on planting shrubs, he appeared in our driveway.  He surveyed the work done so far.  Then, he grabbed his chin in one of those manly poses and asked, "When does the lawn go in?"

Native perennial border
along the driveway
Betty was quick to say, quite proudly, "There isn't going to be one."

A look of consternation came over his face as the words took root.  He looked around the property, then looked back at his own lawn.  Finally, to us, he said, "Not another one of those f***ing meadows!"

We did our best to assure him we weren't randomly strewing wildflower seed across our property.  He left unconvinced.

Four years later, the jury has come back.  No, it's not a meadow.  Rather, it's a carefully thought out garden that is abundant with life.  Everywhere we turn there's a clutch of interesting and unusual plants or shrubs, or a tree that is under-used and a benefit to wildlife.  The garden transitions seamlessly to the wetlands behind us, and those wetlands are flourishing.

Definitely not a meadow!
Different parts of the garden strut their stuff at different times of the season.  This week, the star of the show is a 'full sun' area with tall perennials- multiple cultivars of Asclepias turberosa (butterfly weed), Agastache (giant hysops), multiple forms of RudbeckiaStachys officinalis (betony); as well as native shrubs; especially Quercifolia (oakleaf hydrangea), but also Spirea and Physocarpus (ninebark).  The 30-second walk through this area at the top of the page, as well as the adjacent photos, were shot this morning to record its full glory.

July 5, 2019

Struttin' With the Peacocks

The Newport Flower Show

One of the pleasures of being married to a serious gardener who also happens to be a Master floral design judge is that you get to tag along to the darnest things.

The Newport Flower Show is held annually toward the end of June.  It’s a wonderful event, held for a worthy cause (the Preservation Society of Newport County), and held in a jaw-dropping setting (Rosecliff, an oceanfront estate owned and maintained by the aforementioned Preservation Society).  I’ve been to the show several times and even once helped to build an exhibit there. 

Betty, Dave, and Sandy at Crane Beach
This year was special:  Betty was invited to judge its flower show, and two good friends were arriving from the Midwest who were also judging.  Being asked to judge at Newport is a big deal; judges fly in in from all over the country.  Sandy, our friend from Kentucky, and Dave, our friend from Illinois, agreed to come a few days early so we could take them to our favorite beach and clam shack, and otherwise show them a small slice of ‘our’ New England.

I thought my role in all of this ended when we had dinner before we dropped them at their hotel on our third evening together.  Instead, they casually asked Betty (and, politely, included me) if she had a few spare hours the next day to, well, assemble a pair of peacocks.  Betty enthusiastically agreed.  The following afternoon, we were on the magnificent grounds of Rosecliff.

Dave directs Sue Redden, our
fellow volunteer
The project seemed simple: here is a four-foot-wide fountain on a pedestal; part of Rosecliff’s original design and, more or less, the centerpiece of its front lawn.  Here are the wire-frame heads and bodies of two over-sized peacocks, ready to be covered with green moss, plus an assortment of additional wire cages.  Here is a box of Oasis, a water-retaining product used by floral designers to keep their material fresh.  Oh, and here are a dozen buckets filled with roses, orchids, sea holly, hydrangea, eucalyptus, thistle, and other materials whose names I can only guess.

Betty puts the finishing touches
on the first peacock
Dave had been given a vague design of what the finished peacocks were supposed to look like.  The design, unfortunately, ignored some basic laws of gravity and physics.  The peacock perched on the edge of the fountain would never stay upright.  Moreover, the wire cages meant to hold the Oasis didn’t include openings large enough to insert blocks of the stuff.  My first job as ‘helper’ was to canvass the estate to cadge wire cutters.

With monumental bags of sand and rocks, plus enough florist and duct tape to wrap a mummy, the first peacock was made to stand at the lip of the fountain, and an assemblage of Oasis-filled cages were ingeniously joined to anchor the bird to the ground.  The peacock’s tail, five feet long and two feet wide, was created.  Dave and Sandy worked together, calling for floral material prepped by Betty and another volunteer, Sue.  I cleared debris and fetched additional flowers from buckets kept under a tent some distance away (did I mention Newport was encased in fog so thick you couldn’t see Rosecliff a hundred yards away? Or that it periodically rained?)

The second peacock takes
shape, as it rains harder
The first peacock was finished and Dave and Sandy set out to create the second one, thankfully located on the ground at the base of the fountain, but with a five-foot-wide fan of floral ‘feathers’.  Sandy worked from the back; Dave from the front.  Betty was ordered into service placing flowers, and I prepped material while keeping the mounting pile of debris in check. 

Meanwhile, people wandered by and many stopped to stare with a sense of awe at what was being conjured up from sleight-of-hand plus a wealth of design knowledge.  Two teams of landscape judges were disappointed they couldn’t give our work an award (this was ‘sponsored art’ for a Newport bank and, thus, ineligible).  

Sandy does a final
inspection, including a
'fountain' from leftovers
After nearly three hours (including several ‘rain delays’), the peacocks were finished.  Although not in the original design, Dave and Betty used leftover flowers to create a ‘fountain’ from which the first peacock was drinking.  The completed vignette was stunning – for which I take no credit – and free of debris (my proud contribution).

That night at the judges’ dinner, the peacocks were the talk of the room.  Dave and Sandy shared credit freely, but I think everyone knew who were the artists and who were the worker bees.  Emboldened, though, I asked the Chair of Judges if she might be able to use an extra set of hands the following morning when judges assembled to do the work for which they had traveled from afar.  She gave it some thought and tapped her chin.  “You know,” she said, “we could use another runner.”

But that’s a different story.

July 2, 2019

I Was a Male Flower Show Runner

It all started with the receipt of an email.  My wife, Betty, was cordially invited to judge at the forthcoming Newport Flower Show in Rhode Island.
An invitation to judge at Newport is a genuine honor. Judges are chosen from around the country and the preponderance of those selected are members of clubs affiliated with the Garden Club of America, or GCA. (Betty’s ‘home club’ is affiliated with National Garden Clubs, or NGC. GCA is older, NGC is larger.)  But Betty is a Master flower show judge known to have a good – and fair – eye.  She, of course, accepted, and promptly blocked off June 20 and 21.
The floral peacocks
Fast-forward two months.  Two friends from the Midwest, also chosen to judge at Newport, came to New England early and Betty and I showed them the sights. On the day before judging, they were tasked with creating floral representations of two, larger-than-life-sized peacocks in a fountain on the grounds of Rosecliff, where the show is held. Somehow, Betty (logically) and I (improbably) were asked to pitch in.  It was a great engineering feat and a fine artistic effort, which would have been a lot more fun were it not for the pea-soup fog that encased Rosecliff’s grounds, plus the periodic bouts of rain the Weather Channel said were not happening anywhere in Rhode Island.
Because I was Betty’s designated driver (all right, because I whined for several days), I also attended the Judges’ Dinner, an annual event held on Rosecliff’s back veranda.  The table at which I was seated was a busy one because many judges had seen the peacocks on the front lawn and wanted to congratulate their creators.  Dave Robson and Sandy Robinson freely shared the credit.
Rosecliff, a 'Gilded Age' mansion. 
The Newport Flower Show helps
support the upkeep of this and other
historic properties in Newport.
Somewhere along the way, I built up my courage to ask the show’s Judges’ Chair, Vera Bowen – who, fortunately, is a fan of my books – if she needed any help the following morning.  Vera thought about it for a moment and then asked Vicki Iannuccillo, the show’s Clerks’ Chair, if she still needed another runner.  Vicki didn’t have to think about it.  ‘Yes,’, she said, obviously not knowing it meant she was getting me.
A few words about the world of standard flower shows.  When, as a visitor, you walk into a show, you see the end product of a process that took, at minimum, several months to create; and, in the case of Newport, a full year. Someone wrote a schedule for the show, someone else trolled for entries, and still another group made certain all the right ribbons and banners were printed.  Others pulled together and painted pedestals and tables (‘staging’ in flower show parlance). 
Rosecliff's back lawn, with its
ocean frontage
Some parts of a flower show unfold in a relatively easy timetable but a few are jammed into a few hours – or even minutes – of work.  There are highly visible roles (docents come to mind), and there are low-profile but very necessary ones.  In a crowded kitchen just steps from the Rosecliff ballroom sits the most necessary of unsung heroes: the computer staff.  At 6 a.m. on the morning of judging, four women, including a mother/daughter team, start with nothing other than the titles of the classes and the fact there are four entries.  And so, they type ‘Fork Tailed Flycatcher, Class 8, Entry 1’ into a data file.  Then, as designers make their appearance, they hand in sheets containing the plant materials they are using.  The computer staff goes feverishly to work, adding the information to the file for Class 8, Entry 1 which will appear on the placards everyone sees when the public is admitted.
Judging starts ten minutes late, at 8:40 a.m. and, for more nearly two hours, nothing whatsoever happens inside the computer room.  Then comes the tsunami as judging panels complete their work and choose who gets which award and what to say about each entry.  The information is reviewed for appropriateness and accuracy.  Oh, and fifty or more placards have to be printed out, letter perfect, and posted by 11:30 a.m.
Enter the clerks.  Each judging panel – usually three people – is accompanied by a clerk, whose job it is to write down what the judges are saying about each entry.  Not verbatim, of course, but within those critiques will come the nuggets of thought that convey to the general public (as well as to the designers) what caused Entry 2 to get third and Entry 3 to get Honorable Mention.  Clerks get run ragged for three hours.  They race back and forth between the panel to which they were assigned and the Powers That Be who are allowed to question anything that seems out of place.  Clerking is definitely not a glamor position but, in the flower show world, being a clerk can be necessary to becoming a judge.
Speaking of non-glamorous positions, I was one of two runners.  My job was to do whatever Vicki told me to do.  I twice ran through a driving rainstorm to fetch an extra box of ribbons from a trailer.  I got copies made of something important.  I kept out people who ‘just wanted a peek’.
The placard, in place, for the Fork-
tailed Flycatcher winning entry
And I also helped place those placards.  This is nerve-wracking.  As judges examine designs, they see only a yellow sheet of paper with hand-written information about materials used.  They know only this is Class 8, entry 1.  In the computer room, names and results are attached and, now, there is a placard saying ‘Fork-Tailed Flycatcher, Entry 1, First Place, Janice Gardner and Julie Mather. Green Fingers Garden Club, Greenwich, CT.’ I and my co-runner were handed stacks of placards and we dashed from one end of the room to the other, matching those yellow sheets to the final placard.  When it was done, Vicki went back and checked to verify we did it right. 
At one point, one of the judges on Betty’s panel apparently noticed me on one of my missions, wearing a blue apron.  “Who is he and why is he here?” she asked, apparently miffed that a man was wearing the cherished blue apron.
“Well,” Betty explained with a smile, “he’s my husband and he knows something about flower shows. He ran the Boston Flower and Garden Show for three years. Oh, and one of his books is called, A Murder at the Flower Show.
The woman gave Betty an odd look.  Maybe she believed Betty, maybe she didn’t.  But she didn’t ask again.