February 6, 2024

Another February Morning, 44 Years Ago

Forty-four years ago this morning, my wife and I started on a fantastic journey, which turned out to be a little more ‘unscheduled’ than we expected.  After living in Chicago for two years, I had accepted a job in New York City.  On the morning on February 5, Betty and I boarded a 7:30 flight at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport bound for New York LaGuardia.  Our flight time was supposed to be 90 minutes.  We were told there was ‘some snow’ in the New York area but that we should arrive on time at 10 a.m.  We carried four large suitcases plus two carry-ons with us (this was before airlines discovered they could mint money by charging for such things).

The Blizzard of '78 shut down the
Northeast for more than a week
At a few minutes before ten, we were circling LaGuardia and the ‘some snow’ was getting much more serious.  At one point we were told we were next in line to land.  Then, after half an hour of circling, the announcement came that LaGuardia had just closed due to weather conditions and that we would be diverted to Bradley Field north of Hartford.

We landed at Hartford in blinding snow, the last plane to do so before that airport, too, was closed.  Our airline (I believe it was American) gave passengers the option of being taken by bus the fifty miles to New Haven where we could get the train for New York, or being put up ‘overnight’ at a hotel near the airport.

Betty grew up in the Finger Lakes of New York state, the land of ‘lake effect’ snow that can drop two feet of the stuff overnight.  She took a look at the snow and said, “We can do this.”  At noon, thirty intrepid passengers stowed their luggage on the bus and we headed south.

Double-click to see snowfall
totals - we landed right in the
thick of the thing.
Fifteen miles south of Hartford in swiftly deteriorating conditions, our bus skidded off the road and – very fortunately – into a guard rail.  It was fortunate because the guard rail was all that stood between us a steep ravine.  The bus could go no further.  Miraculously, another bus was dispatched, picked us up, and we slowly made out way down to New Haven.

It took three hours to reach New Haven and we feared we had missed the last New-York-bound train.  But there were people on the platform and so we lugged our many suitcases and waited.  A few minutes later, an Amtrak train pulled in.  It was now 4 p.m.  The train had left Boston at 6 a.m.  and would, as it turned out, the only train to make the trek that day.  Had we been a few minutes later, we would have been stranded in New Haven for the duration.

Note the fifth bullet...
There were no seats on the train; we sat on our luggage in one of the passenger compartments.  But at least we were inside the train.  Most of those who boarded at New Haven spent the next several hours in the unheated vestibule between cars.  Pushing snow in front of it, the train made it to Penn Station at about 8 p.m.

I had done one intelligent thing that day.  At Bradley Field, I had called my employer’s Manhattan office and pleaded for someone to walk over to the Statler Hilton and pay for our room, get a key, and leave it with the concierge.

It turned out to be a prescient move.  We arrived to a city that had shut down, stranding tens of thousands of travelers and commuters in the city.  Seventh Avenue was covered with two feet of snow and almost nothing moving.  A porter helped get our suitcases across the street to the hotel where we found a mob of people occupying every square foot of sleep-able surface.  I went the concierge desk and held my breath.

A minute later, I held up the key for Betty to see.  Twelve hours after we left Chicago, we were finally in New York.
* * * * *
This is what we saw when we
got off the subway in Brooklyn
The blizzard turned out to be a fortunate event for us.  While the city was paralyzed, the subways were running on the subterranean part of their routes.  Two days after our arrival, a Realtor met us in Boerum Hill in Brooklyn. “If you can get here, I’ll show you houses,” she told us.  We emerged from the subway to a landscape of unplowed streets, with a police car – immobilized up to its windows in snow – blocking an intersection.  A bus sat abandoned in snow drifts in front of the brownstone we were there to see.

It was the house we had looked for in vain in Chicago.  Betty and I squeezed one another’s hand so tightly I nearly broke her fingers.  We made an offer that day, counter-offered over dinner that evening at the then-newly-opened River CafĂ©, and had our offer accepted over dessert.

211 Bergen Street in Boerum Hill.
We planted that tree in front, at left.
That was 40 years ago.  It was a time before cell phones, the internet or reliable forecasts.  Today, of course, everyone knows to stay home .  Passengers on the 7:30 flight from Chicago to New York are called the night before and told their flight has been cancelled and they have been re-booked for Thursday.  In short, apart from ones based on stupidity, there are a lot fewer ‘blizzard stories’ today.

But I wouldn’t have had it any other way.  It was an adventure – albeit a harrowing one at the time.  We got through it and we found the house of our dreams, made possible in large part by our perseverance.

February 1, 2024

Fifty Years Ago, Today

 The passage of time throws a haze over most of our adult lives.  Months blend into years that are smoothed into decades.  Can you say with any certainty what you did on your birthday in, say, 1997?  Unless it was the date of the birth of a child or some other such milestone, can you recall what you did on a specific date two or three decades ago?

What was going on in the world on that
fateful day. Double-click to see details.
With enough research I can approximate where I was and what I was doing during a given month of a year; I went somewhere on vacation or completed a project for work.  A newspaper headline might jog a memory.  For me, though, as for most people, our adult lives are a continuum; a blur.

I can, however, remember one day with perfect clarity.  That date is Friday, February 1, 1974.

GE's Schenectady Works on its heyday
For me, the year 1974 did not start off auspiciously.  I had been out of college nearly three years and I was spending my second winter in Schenectady, New York.  I had gone to work for General Electric in a management training program with the promise that, after a year in North Carolina, I would be transferred to an office in San Jose, California.  That promise was turning out to be hollow.  Moreover, I discovered that the branch of GE that was my employer was a stagnant backwater and that my skill set was ones that the company valued only as an afterthought.

My goal upon graduation from college had been to get as far away from Florida – the state of my birth and the place I had ever known – as possible.  At least on that score, I had succeeded.  However, in the middle of yet another upstate New York winter, my plan was looking increasingly ill-thought-out.  Mostly, though, the year was starting off poorly because I was alone.  Apart from a few friends at work, I had no one in my life.

80 Wolf Road, Colonie, NY
On the morning of February 1, my attendance was required at what was called a ‘section meeting’ in Colonie, where my office had recently moved from the massive Schenectady Works.  There, the sixty or so of us who could not find an excuse to be somewhere else got to hear about the importance of filling out time sheets and filing weekly activity reports.  A subsection manager delivered a half-hour talk outlining an exciting (to him) new business opportunity.

Then, at about 10 a.m., a small group of people joined the meeting.  They were from an office in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, some 40 miles distant.  I would not have noticed their arrival except that they were forced to sit in the front of the room (I was ensconced in my preferred spot in the back row) and that one of the group’s number was a striking looking blonde. 

For the next two hours I did little but look at her (well, at the back of her head and shoulders) and wonder who she was.  The meeting broke up shortly after noon and she was one of the first people out of the room.  My heart sank.  Then, I found her sitting in the lobby.  She was waiting for her ride back to Pittsfield. 

She said that her name was Betty Burgess and that she had been late because she had been at a Bob Dylan concert at Madison Square Garden the previous evening and had returned to Pittsfield with an empty gas tank (courtesy of a now-four-month-old Arab oil embargo, this was an era of odd/even gas rationing).  Her smile was radiant.  She was intelligent and funny; knowledgeable and quick.  I asked if she could excuse me for a minute, but that I would be right back.

I went back to my cubicle and pulled out my copy of the employee phone directory.  There she was.  And, in the grand, sexist tradition of GE and of the era, employee names bore one of three prefixes: ‘Mr.’, ‘Mrs.’ and ‘Miss’.  Betty Burgess was a ‘Miss’.

I was back in the lobby in seconds.  She was still there, though she was gathering her coat and briefcase for the trip back.  I gathered every ounce of courage I could muster and asked the dumbest question I had ever put to a member of the opposite sex in my life: “Are you dateable?”

Eleuthera, Bahamas, later that year
She paused for a moment and said ‘yes’.

Two years and two weeks later, we were married.  Two weeks after our wedding, we escaped from General Electric and began a new life together.

That’s what happened 50 years ago today. 

It was the luckiest day of my life.

November 1, 2023

The 2023 Gardening Season Ends

The following letter went out to the members of the Medfield Community Garden today. I thought it was worth sharing...

Good morning, everyone,

The Medfield Community Garden officially closes today. This year, 81 families gardened on 75 plots, putting up with one of the rainiest seasons on record, yet harvesting gorgeous fruits, vegetables and flowers.

Our acre of land has always been called the ‘Community Garden’ but this year it truly proved to be a genuine ‘community’. Let us explain.

There was a time when the town pretty much did everything for us. We applied for a plot and paid our fees to a town employee. We came to the garden on the first of April to find it newly harrowed, staked, and ready to plant - all done by town employees. Piles of wood chips appeared and a town tractor sporadically mowed the perimeter. There were just 40 plots.

Beginning in 2010, we began fending for ourselves. This year, twelve volunteers braved 40-degree weather and stiff winds to stake the garden. Christian Donner and Eric Pender mowed the perimeter. Chris Hogan kept four lawnmowers (some operational, some kept for cannibalizing) in great condition. Allyn Hubbard maintained a fleet of wheelbarrows; perennially stalking the Transfer Station for wheels, axles, and other parts.

And, speaking of Allyn, he suffered a compound foot injury before the season began. In March he contacted us to say he was unlikely to be able to garden. We asked him not to be so hasty. By the end of April, volunteers had put up a fence, tilled, and planted a garden. Then, the garden was weeded and regularly harvested. When Allyn made his first appearance at the garden in June, he was rightly astonished.

We (Betty and Neal) had to step back from food cupboard duties this season due to out-of-town commitments. Cathy Summa stepped in, giving up what we suspect was a substantial part of her sabbatical year, to make the operation work flawlessly. ‘Flawlessly’ means putting out wheelbarrows, sweeping for produce as many as four days a week, and making either one or two deliveries to food pantries. Assisting (and sometimes substituting for) Cathy were a cadre of volunteers, chief among them Hy Greenbaum and Jeanne Hill. If there is a ‘Rookie of the Year’ award for food cupboard service, it is first-year gardener Ellen Vigoda, who threw herself into the project. Dina Russell not only gave generously from her own plot, she also planted and harvested from a half-plot given up early in the season. Edmund Prescottano, Mary McCarthy and Heather Cochran gave weekly. Other regular contributors were Lena Stonkevitch and Rob Doe (who also asked their plot be picked when they could not be at the garden on collection days). Susan Perry, Jennifer Hern, Chris Hillenmeyer, Yulin Liu, Lauren Bietelspacher, Mary Ann Vann, Kim Catlin, and Lisa Wood all deserve thanks for their generous, regular contributions.

As the season closed, Barbara and John Collins, and Yulin Liu volunteered their trucks and, more importantly, their Saturday mornings, to make it possible for all of us to more easily get our garden detritus to the Transfer Station.

There were many other acts of kindness – large and small – throughout the season; and many touching, personal stories told to us by members who told us why gardened. Suffice it to say we are proud be able to say we ‘oversee’ this garden. In reality, though, what we do is to empower so many others in the Community Garden to grow – in every sense of the word.

See you in 2024,

Betty and Neal Sanders

Co-managers, Medfield Community Garden

August 25, 2023

The Peril of Perennial Ageratum

One of the most memorable of the original ‘Star Trek’ episodes involves an itinerant space peddler who barters for an alcoholic beverage with a small, fluffy creature called a Tribble, the likes of which no one had ever seen before. The Tribble likes to be stroked; it coos and makes people feel good; perhaps too good. The Tribble’s chief downside is that is fecund to a fault. In the words, of Dr. McCoy, “Jim, as near as I can tell, these things are born pregnant.” Tribbles soon overrun the space station and threaten a shipment of a valuable grain seed stock. I won’t spoil the plot, but at the end of the episode the Tribbles are dispatched to a Klingon war ship.

Perennial ageratum
I was thinking about that episode yesterday as I spent the better part of an hour getting rid of my own Tribbles; specifically, pulling out patches of Conoclinium coelestinum, better known as perennial ageratum, from my garden. Thus far I have filled two, 50-gallon cloth barrels with the nasty stuff. I suspect my work is not yet done.

'Good' Ageratum houstonianum
A quick tutorial: Ageratum houstonianum, as anyone who grows summer annuals knows, is a wonderful filler plant for containers and a great ‘boots and socks’ border for beds. It has a lovely, bluish-purple flower than draws the eye. Alas, it dies with the first frost. It is a wonderfully well-behaved annual, prized for that unusual color. I can recommend it unconditionally.

Note the area circled in blue:
the perennial ageratum was
half the height of the Fothergilla
'Blue Shadow'
Now, let’s talk about perennial ageratum. While both it and its annual namesake are members of the aster family, their only common attribute is their similar-colored flower. Conoclinium is anything but well-behaved. It spreads by rhizomes; it spreads by flower seeds. It may even spread by word of mouth. But, once it is in your garden, controlling it is a full-time job come the end of summer.

To the best of my knowledge, neither Betty nor I have ever purchased a pot of perennial ageratum, yet this August it is everywhere in the garden. It is crowding out our beautiful Astilbe, upstaging our Fothergilla, and colonizing a bed of spring bulbs that, without human intervention, would be suffocated by a mat of roots. How did it get here? Maybe an itinerant peddler traded a sprig if it to one of our neighbors for an alcoholic beverage.

This false strawberry ground cover was
engulfed by perennial ageratum. Time 
will tell if I got it all.
What I do know is it has to go. But the Conoclinium has its own plan. Pulling it out is a piece of cake: it appears to come out with its roots intact. But, if you pull out a stand and then sift the soil, you’ll find pieces of roots and rhizomes cleverly left behind. I found that out because I thought I had completely eradicated perennial ageratum from the top of our driveway bed. Three weeks later, there were hundreds of replacement stalk coming into flower. (The plant apparently thrives in rain, of which we have more than our share.)  Now, whenever I remove a patch of Conoclinium, I immediately also dig around in the surrounding soil to see what may have been left behind. I am seldom disappointed.

Note the perennial ageratum
(circled in blue) hiding in
the Rudbeckia goldstrum
What is worse, the more I look, the more of it I find. The plant loves the sun. It also thrives in deep shade. It had insinuated itself in a bed of Potentilla indica (false strawberry) where it was keeping a low profile, as well as in a clump of just-past-bloom Clethra alnifolia (summersweet), where it had stretched to a height of four feet. Perennial ageratum is an ambitious interloper.

As of yesterday, I believe I have, at least for the moment, gotten it under control.  Which is, of course, a foolish statement. We’ve had two inches of rain in the past 24 hours. I know darned well the perennial ageratum is using the time to take stock of where its remaining troops are recovering. Reinforcements will be called in, perhaps from neighboring properties. I don’t know exactly when this war was declared. What’s more unsettling is that I don’t know if I’m winning or losing.

June 25, 2023

A Late June Walk in the Garden

 Sleep. Creep. Leap.

The garden at 26 Pine Street, June 2023.
Double-click for the slideshow.
Those are the words all gardeners learn to live by. You put something in the ground. You pamper it, water it, weed it, and keep it free of disease and interlopers. And, in return, you get… nothing (at least for that first year and, sometimes, for two or three years).  Everything is going on below ground: your plant/tree/shrub is establishing roots. It is exploring its surroundings. It doesn’t care that you want instant gratification. Ultimately, you accept that, at least above the soil line, that thing you planted is sleeping.

Itea 'Little Henry' in full
flower. Three shrubs have
merged into a single mass
Then, after a few years, you see the tangible growth. Your frustration eases – except that you wish you could get more flowers/branches/fruit. Your precious plant is ‘creeping’.

Finally, one spring morning you come out and find you can’t believe your eyes. That scrawny plant is now gorgeous. The awkward teenager has come of age. It flowers in profusion, its branches are sturdy, and its fruits hang heavy. You know all those years of pampering have paid off.  You are proud as punch.

The garden at 26 Pine Street has reached, if not full maturity, a grown-up status. Eight years after the first trees and shrubs were placed, they look as though they’ve always been there. Shrubs planted on three-foot centers with what seemed like yawning chasms between them are now a glorious, full-leafed mass. Trees that were slender saplings are twenty feet high and limbs are touching their neighbors.

The sidewalk's hard edges are
softened by border plants
Best of all are the surprises: the bluestone sidewalk’s edges are softened by geraniums and lavender. A dozen, bare-root asclepias ‘Hello Yellow’ milkweed plants that seemed doomed not to make it through their first year have multiplied to become a glorious colony, dense with flowers – and butterflies. An original plan to use metal borders and gravel for paths within the garden fell by the wayside when moss thrived where we walked. Today, those moss paths traverse the property; gloriously unplanned but far superior to the original concept.

Carolina lupine and asclepias
'Hello Yellow' milkweed
We have taken chances on ‘un-pedigreed’ plants and have been rewarded for being adventurous. Betty spotted Thermopsis villosa – Carolina lupine – at a Grow Native Massachusetts plant sale three years ago. We put it in the front of the garden where it would get full sun. It grew to an impressive seven feet with spikes of brilliant yellow flowers. We let some of the seed pods remain in the soil. This year, a dozen specimens form a brilliant cluster.

Moss walkways weren't part of the
original plan - they were a better idea
Betty was recently asked to give a talk about the garden at a convention in Michigan. Her sponsors made a request that her talk include ‘mistakes’. Betty and I put our heads together and made a list. We started with a reliable one: accepting gifts from friends. While Betty intended the garden to be nearly-all native, she graciously accepted an Asian interloper: a variegated Petasites japonica. It forms a lovely, visually arresting mound of green-and-white leaves. We placed it in a shady site adjacent to a clump of Podophyllum peltatum – Mayapples. All went well that first year. The next spring, we noted with pleasure the Mayapple’s range had almost doubled in size. The Petasites, however, had tripled in area, including a foray into the Mayapples.

Petasites. Now long gone,
and good riddance.
It took three years to completely dislodge the last vestige of the Petasites.

Another error – and it is one we have made with every garden we have had – is to not be sufficiently stern with what I call ‘the Cute Little Interlopers’; plants that hitch-hiked onto the property. At 26 Pine Street, the CILs are the violets. They emerge in early March and are quickly in flower… and almost as quickly in seed. My task each April and May is to grub out every trace of those violets; which by now have insinuated themselves with and intertwined their root into hundreds of ‘good’ plants.

Be wary of Packera aurea
The third mistake is to believe that all native plants are well-behaved. They are not. Exhibit ‘A’ is a thug called Packera aurea, or golden ragwort. Because we have no grass in the garden, we need something else – actually many something elses – to provide a pleasing, low-growing ground cover. Most of these have been quite successful. For the bed comprising our black birch and clump of Clethra (aka summerweet) ‘Hummigbird’, we purchased four pots of Packera.

The dominant ground cover plants in the
rear garden are strawberries, tiarella,
and astilbe.
It is indeed a pretty groundcover with dense, dark green leaves and an attractive golden flower on a tall spike. What is not pretty about it is its intention to take over the entire garden. Three times a year, I venture out with a large cloth barrel and remove Packera from underneath the summersweet, the walkways and half a dozen other places far removed from the mother plants. If you are ever tempted to grow this hoodlum, run – do not walk – to the nearest nursery exit. And, if you already have it growing in your garden, never ever let that golden flower turn into a dandelion-type seed head.

Eight year ago, this is all 
there was...
But the garden is a joy as the accompanying photos will attest. Except for the Petasites photo and this Google Earth view of the garden from September 2015, all images were taken on June 24, 2023 – almost exactly eight years after the first specimen trees were placed in this, their new home.

June 2, 2023

Tales from the Garden

The 4-H shed and, nearby, the
Medfield Community Garden
Running a 75-plot community garden is a delicate balancing act, and Betty and I take our responsibilities seriously. Despite my self-appointed title of Garden Ogre, I attempt to enforce guidelines with as soft a touch as possible. Betty’s role is one of rendering assistance on all matters horticultural, and she will take all the time necessary to debunk bad internet myths and offer advice based on actual science and real-world experience rather than something dreamed up by a clueless would-be Tik-Tok star.

Yesterday brought events from both ends of the management spectrum.

First, the good news. Four years ago, a new gardener, recently retired from the academic world, joined the Community Garden family. An engineer by training, he also became part of the garden’s corps of volunteers; mending hoses and refurbishing our fleet of wheelbarrows. He further agreed to help stake the garden in the spring and clear ‘problem’ plots in the fall. All of these activities fall under the heading of thankless tasks.

The injured gardener maintains our fleet
of a dozen wheelbarrows
In late March, that gardener had a fall that left him with serious injuries to a leg and foot. He notified me he was unlikely to be able to have a garden this season as he would need one or more surgeries and rehabilitation that would last into summer. My response to him was that it was too soon to make such an irreversible decision. Two garden friends put up his fence; including digging a 100-foot-long trench around the plot’s perimeter to ensure critters could not sneak in uninvited.

That first good deed was the start of many more. His plot neighbors began planting the garden he had envisioned for the season. They weeded and they watered. I have counted no fewer than four helpers whom I have spotted in his plot; working diligently to ensure all is well in his absence.

Volunteers put up the fence around the
injured gardener's plot, including
digging a trench for it
Three days ago, I made a walking tour of the garden and made notes on plots where either no gardening has yet taken place (an ominous sign) or weeds have started appearing among vegetables planted at the season’s beginning in April. I also noted the sterling appearance of our wounded gardener’s plot and wrote off a note to him.

A few hours later I received a reply. I will not quote it out of a respect for a private communication, but his reaction was one of sheer awe that so many people cared. I can honestly say I was choked up as I read it. In a world where altruism is supposed to be passé, a group of people whose sole connection to one another is a shared love of gardening have come together to give one of their own a continuing helping hand.

While watering this morning, I ran into one of the benefactors. She had in her hands several tomatillo plants ready to go into the housebound gardener’s plot. They were, in turn, a gift from yet another benefactor. Truly, there is hope for mankind.

On the other side of the garden, though, something quite different was going on.

Gardeners can over-winter fencing and stakes
in the 4-H shed
Not all of our gardening families have houses with spacious garages, sheds, or basements. And, so, the community garden offers off-season storage of garden fencing, stakes, and tomato cages in a small building across from the garden. The shed will hold material for roughly 25 families and preference is given to people living in multi-family dwellings. All material has to be tightly tied together and labeled with the owner’s name. The shed is locked on November 1 and re-opened only when the garden formally opens April 1. From then on, it is open for the season as gardeners retrieve their supplies.

Before I lock the shed for the season, I make certain all those stakes and fences are tagged, and the names are legible. There is a list of the people who have requested space and I make certain no interlopers have decided one more roll of fencing among 25 won’t be noticed.

The system worked exceptionally well… until this year. On April 1, I unlocked the shed and checked to see everything was still where it was supposed to be. All was right with the world.

Loaner 'Ogre' fencing was available
in an adjacent lean-to
Ten days later, one gardener notified me he had gone to the shed and his fencing bundle was missing. I went to the shed, did my own search, and came to the same conclusion. Yet I knew the bundle was there at the beginning of the month.

There were two possibilities. The first was that someone, likely a new gardener, had erroneously concluded the fencing in the shed was part of the ‘Ogre Fencing’ available for loan to first-year gardeners and stored in an adjacent lean-to. The second possibility was someone filched it.

I queried the garden community but no one had any information. In the meantime, the gardener with the missing fencing purchased new material – spending just over $200 (that’s what it costs!). He put up his new fencing. I said I would try to seek reimbursement for him from the Community Garden Revolving Fund into which all our plot fees are deposited.

Then, the gardener – let’s call him Gardener #1 – took a walk through the now-mostly-fenced community garden and spotted what he was certain were his materials. He contacted me and told me the plot number. It took some time, but I made contact with the individual – a new gardener who would have invited to use Ogre Fencing. I asked the new gardener if there might have been a mistake. The gardener – let’s call him Gardener #2 – stated unequivocally, that the fencing was his.

To me, that closed the issue. I didn’t demand receipts. Somehow, for the first time in more than a decade, someone from outside the garden community had gone into the shed and pilfered someone’s fencing. I reported this to Gardener #1 and repeated that I was going to seek restitution on his behalf.

Restitution, unfortunately, was not as easy as reaching for a checkbook. First, a decision had to be made by someone in authority that such an unprecedented reimbursement was a good idea. The second was actually getting the check written. (I know this because it took six weeks to get reimbursed for the stakes and string used to mark out the garden.) I communicated all this to the gardener.

Unfortunately, as the wheels of progress ground slowly and inconclusively, Gardener #1’s belief hardened that Gardener #2 was using purloined material. It so happened that, yesterday morning, the two gardeners (who had never met) were in the garden at the same time. Gardener #1 went to Gardener #2’s plot and… heated words were exchanged.

Each party emailed me; Gardener #2’s note included a copy of the receipt for the fencing he had purchased. I wrote an apology to Gardener #2, which settled at least that side of the issue. I also wrote Gardener #1 reiterating my earlier statement that, in my mind, the ‘stolen fencing’ question had been resolved as soon as Gardener #2 said the fencing was his own. I further wrote that, if Gardener #1 had an argument with anyone, it should be with me.

Before I became a Garden Ogre in 2009, I had a 35-year career in the corporate world, complete with fancy management titles. I sometimes witnessed (or had a hand in) cooperation across groups that already had a full plate of responsibilities and no spare manpower to lend a hand to struggling peers. Somehow, in hindsight, those examples of selflessness were less inspiring than what I saw this week in the actions of half a dozen gardeners. I also resolved many problems where I had to determine who was right, who was wrong, and enforce my decision. For reasons I will make no effort to explore, those long-ago clashes of ego and power seem less consequential to me than the problems between two gardeners.

March 20, 2023

Acts of Kindness on a Southern Sojourn

My best guess is that it fell off the back of one of the campers racing toward a weekend on the Gulf of Mexico. I had seen several such caravans in the preceding hours: chairs, bicycles, umbrellas and other bric-a-brac that had no assigned storage space, and so were tied or bungee-corded to the vehicle. If you hit enough bumps and don’t inspect your lashings every time you take a break from the road, something will inevitably come loose.

The ’something’ was an aluminum beach chair; the kind you can buy at Ocean State Job Lot for ten bucks. The chair had already been struck at least once; likely by a high-riding SUV or truck which crushed and bent it. In the instant I saw the object before our car, too, ran over it, I remember the gaudy colored plastic mesh that formed the seat and back of the chair.

A Prius rides very low to the ground
Our vehicle, though, is a Prius; and part of the design of the Prius that adds to its well-deserved fuel-sipping reputation is that it rides lower to the ground than those ubiquitous SUVs and pickups. When one of our tires passed over the debris, one or more pieces of aluminum obeyed the laws of physics and angled upward, snagging the undercarriage of our car. Betty and I heard the crunch but assumed we had merely further flattened the carcass.

Fifteen seconds later, our assumption was proven wrong. HYBRID DRIVE COMPROMISED – PULL OVER IMMEDIATELY AND SEEK ASSISTANCE appeared on the Prius’ display. We quickly did so, guiding our vehicle to the breakdown lane. Getting out of the car, we discovered a clear liquid was puddling underneath it.

Thus began eight days of discovering that there is a stunning amount of kindness in this world.

We were on that road – Interstate 59 in Hattiesburg, Mississippi – because, a year earlier, I had accepted an invitation from the Deep South Region of National Garden Clubs to be the speaker at the Friday luncheon of their annual convention, to be held in New Orleans. I would present ‘Gardening Is Murder’ to an audience where few (if any) of the attendees knew of me or my books. I was being presented with an opportunity to reach 150 prospective readers by delivering a humorous talk about gardening from a spouse’s point of view.

Our 1526-mile drive. We almost made it.
It is 1526 miles from Medfield, Massachusetts to New Orleans (22 hours and 48 minutes of driving, according to Google Maps) and Jet Blue will get you there in 3 hours and 40 minutes. But, in addition to providing laughter coupled with a modicum of horticulture to a receptive audience, my mission was also to sell books. The cost of separately shipping books, displays, and banners would make the trip economically impractical. With a vehicle that averaged 64 miles per gallon though, I could make the trip within the travel stipend agreed to by the convention organizers.

Betty made it clear there was no way I going to make the journey alone. We would share driving duties; leaving our home early on Wednesday, stopping overnight in Tennessee, and arriving in New Orleans in time for a 4 p.m. reception on Thursday.  It was a good plan and, but for that beach chair, we would have made it with an hour to spare.

A call to AAA got us a tow to Toyota of Hattiesburg. I had already been on the phone with one of the dealership’s service advisors, Michael Metzger. He quickly understood our predicament and offered to intercede to help with a car rental. Ordinarily, such a task would be easy; but this was the beginning of spring break for area colleges and all cars in the region were spoken for. Through a series of direct calls to local agencies rather than through impersonal call centers, he found a vehicle we could have for two days; but must be returned to Hattiesburg by noon Saturday. Once our Prius was at the dealership, Mike also got us to the car rental agency ten minutes before its 5 p.m. closing time.

The second kindness came from the organizers of the convention, and especially from Convention Co-chair Elizabeth McDougald, who had hired me a year earlier. We arrived after 7 p.m. – long after that reception and also as dessert was being served at the evening awards dinner.  We were quietly seated and fed, our room key already in our hand. The following morning as I set up my books display, I found everyone at the conference knew of our on-the-road travails; a general announcement had been made. It would not be an overstatement to say more than a hundred people said they were glad me made it to the convention and wished us a safe return home.

We were left with a dilemma, however. Our Prius had been thoroughly examined early Friday morning. The lawn chair had damaged our radiator, A/C coolant line, fans, and fan housings. None of these were in-stock parts; all had been ordered but would not arrive until at least Monday. Repairs and road testing would push our departure to Tuesday at the earliest - possibly until Wednesday - and Thursday if additional problems were found. Our rental car had a hard return time of Saturday at noon. We could be stuck in a hotel room in Hattiesburg with no means of transportation for at least four days; possibly six.

Better this than five days in a
Hattiesburg motel room
Thus came the third kindness. While I delivered my lunch presentation, Elizabeth McDougald’s husband, Glenn, researched travel options. By 3 p.m., Betty and I had seats on a Jet Blue flight back to Boston leaving that evening. Elizabeth offered to gather and store all the books and other paraphernalia we would be unable to take with us on the flight. The McDougalds also said they would arrange for the return of our rental car.

Once at the airport, we emailed our neighbor, Jane Cobb, who was performing cat-sitting duties, to let her know we were arriving home a day early and so she need not give Abigail her morning feeding. Ten minutes later, our cell phone rang asking what time out plane landed at Logan Airport and how did we plan to get home? We said we would take a taxi because of the post-midnight arrival. Jane replied she would meet us outside baggage claim and would not take ‘no’ for an answer.

On Monday morning, Mike Metzger let us know the parts were in hand and a body shop was already straightening out housing brackets. Mike suggested our Prius could be ready as early as Tuesday afternoon. I have never known a repair to go so quickly. We had assumed we would fly into New Orleans, use an Uber to collect our stranded belongings from the McDougalds, and then continue in the Uber to Hattiesburg at some astronomical price.

An act of kindness
Instead, we had yet additional acts of kindness. If we could fly into Mobile, Alabama, instead of New Orleans, Elizabeth and Glenn would meet us at that airport with our peripatetic possessions and drop us off in Hattiesburg on their way back to New Orleans. A quick look at a map showed Hattiesburg is ‘on the way’ to New Orleans from Mobile in the same way Albany is on the way from Boston to New York City. We gratefully agreed to the offer.

Our final hurdle: 20 minutes to go 
3600 feet (2/3 of a mile)
More kindnesses: Jane Cobb’s spouse, Dennis Amtower, drove us to Logan for an 8:00 a.m. flight (for which you leave Medfield at 5:45 a.m. to cope with morning rush hour traffic and TSA inspection). We made our connection in Charlotte – a 3600-foot sprint – with just minutes to spare and arrived in Mobile just after noon. Mike Metzger had our car prepped and ready when the McDougalds dropped us off in Hattiesburg. We were on our way back to New England at 2:30 p.m.

So many things could have gone wrong along the way. But they didn’t. And, thanks to a group of people – most of whom we had never met before last week – what could have been an unmitigated disaster was instead only a time-consuming (albeit expensive) mishap. I have three more speaking ‘road trips’ on my schedule this Spring, with destinations in South Carolina, Illinois and Michigan.

There are three more 'road trips' 
scheduled this Spring.
In hindsight, at 1500+ miles each way, New Orleans was probably too far to drive. Illinois will almost be certainly done by air, and I will figure out a way to ship books ahead of schedule. But Myrtle Beach is an (almost) leisurely 850 miles and Michigan (819 miles) features a dual speaking engagement with me at noon and Betty at 2 p.m.

Though I have lived 'up north'  for almost all of my adult life, I am a son of the South, and this trip reinforced the notion there is something both real and very special about 'Southern Hospitality'. No matter how the rest of this speaking season goes, I will forever remember the kindness we discovered on our sojourn to New Orleans.

March 6, 2023

Gardeners Wanted

For the past 14 years, Betty and I have performed an end-of-winter task that is equal parts sheer joy and pulling teeth: We’ve filled a community vegetable garden with gardeners. This year, we’re finding that job isn’t an easy one.

In an age of sticker shock in the vegetable aisle,
a garden ought to be a no-brainer
In an age of sticker shock in the vegetable aisles and an emphasis on eating wholesome foods, you would think that finding 75 gung-ho gardeners ought to be as easy as announcing the availability of plots and then jumping back to avoid being trampled… especially when 90% of your gardeners from last year tell you in November they’re ‘definitely coming back’.

The reality, for reasons I’ll attempt to explain, is quite different. Let’s start with the 90% ‘count-us-in-for-next-year’ rate. If that statistic held true, we would be looking for seven or eight new gardeners each year. Why did that handful of last year’s gardeners drop out? Mostly, they tried the garden for a season and discovered it was harder than they thought, or not as much fun. That is to be expected. In addition, at least one or two gardeners ‘age out’ each year because of their own decreased mobility. There’s also another kind of ‘aging out’ in which six-year-olds who once thrilled at the idea of going to play in the dirt with Mommy were now tweens who would rather lose their screen privileges for a week than be seen in a vegetable garden – and Mommy’s biggest reason for having the garden was to educate her children. That scenario plays out several times a year.

The other problem is that people’s lives get in the way. Over the winter, three full-plot holders – all excellent gardeners – moved out of town and so are no longer eligible for a space. Two other long-timers are having Big Events this summer and need to take the year off. A mother and daughter who had separate plots decided to share one. Add to all those stories the three abandoned plots that became food pantry gardens last year and we found ourselves with twenty vacant spaces for the 2023 season.

Fortunately, three long-time gardeners who until this year had made do with half-plots (300 square feet) asked to upgrade to full ones. I quickly emailed them and granted their wish. In theory, all I was doing was swapping one vacancy for another; I still need to find a new gardener for their old plot. Well, yes, but I’ve filled a vacant full plot that might otherwise be carved into two smaller ones (as a policy, we ask first-year gardeners to begin with a half-plot).

To fill these twenty spaces, we started a media blitz. Medfield has a weekly ‘shopper’-style newspaper delivered to every home. I wrote an article and submitted some great photos. We made the front page! There is an online news outlet called Patch dedicated to all things Medfield which published a second article. There are also two or three Facebook groups dedicated to things going on in Medfield. Those sites are being peppered with photos of happy gardeners, lush gardens, and cornucopia of perfect vegetables.

The result of that publicity barrage, as of this morning, is eight gardeners who have sent checks and a few more who promise to do so. Which leaves nine gardens still to fill.

'Weeding' went to the top of the
'Gardening Guidelines'
There have been other queries. Everyone who calls or emails is sent a peppy, encouraging response that encourages would-be gardener to take the next step. But my response also includes an attachment – the Garden Guidelines.

We don’t have ‘rules’. ‘Rules’ smack of dictatorships. ‘Rules’ are totalitarian. ‘Guidelines’ are things everyone can agree to do, especially when they fit on one page. Each year Betty and I review and re-write the Guidelines with a view to addressing things that caused problems the previous season.  For example, a woodchuck wrought destruction in one garden, so burying fences six inches was elevated from a ‘nice thing to do’ to something expected of every plot holder.  Weeding aisles was also a problem last year. The gardener’s obligation to keep aisles weeded went from the middle of the page to the top.

We make certain everyone
knows the gardens do
require work.
Do the Guidelines scare off would-be gardeners? I think a more accurate description is that they are a reality check. A few years ago – and I promise I am not making this up – a husband and wife seeking a plot for the first time informed me they intended to plant their garden in mid-May but were thereafter going to their vacation home in Maine for six weeks with no plans to return to Medfield until late June at the earliest. Betty (who is the family diplomat) gently told them their expectation they would return to a weed-free garden lush with ready-to-pick vegetables was probably unrealistic. The couple passed on the garden.

In an average year, though, all the plots are filled by the second week in March and we have started a wait list for the inevitable handful of people who change their minds about gardening after the season begins.

The world has re-opened
This year, I have a queasy feeling those last plots are going to hard sells. During the pandemic, we had a virtual monopoly on ‘acceptable’ outdoor mask-free activities. Even if you were tepid about the idea of vegetable gardening, the idea of getting out of your house and into the sunshine three or four days a week for a few hours was irresistible.  Three years later, the world has re-opened and Spain or Yellowstone National Park or New Zealand beckon. Being tied to a garden is an obligation fewer people are willing to undertake.

We will make it work. As noted above, last year’s abandoned plots became gardens dedicated to growing produce for food pantries. That turned out well because of the dedication of half a dozen participants with hearts of gold. Let’s see how this year unfolds.