October 5, 2021

Science Experiment

 How often does a Community Garden in a suburban town get to prove – and perhaps even to emphasize the importance of – an evolving understanding of an area of agricultural science?

Double-click for a full-screen view
Appreciation for the concept of the ‘food web’ is surprisingly recent. Here's a nutshell explanation: there is a biome in the soil beneath our plants that is crucial to those plants’ success. It is an interlocking network of microbes, fungi, bacteria and arthropods that are necessary elements of successful agriculture. When you mess with that food web, bad things happen.

Ads proclaim plastic mulch
is eco-friendly
Two years ago, one of the plot-holders in our Community Garden covered a 936-square-foot space (600 square feet of gardens plus a three-foot-wide pathway around the garden’s perimeter) with plastic mats, and was emulated by a few other gardeners. Betty and I began doing research into the topic and found opinions about their efficacy and impact were all over the map.

The gardening season ended and the mats came up.  Over the course of the winter of 2019-2020, we did a deeper dive and found an emerging theme: plastic mulch has a negative effect on the food web. It appears to benefit a crop the first year (by warming the soil), but harms it thereafter as the biome is sharply degraded by leaching petroleum distillates and excess heat which kill off the microscopic life in the soil.

The mats went down for a second year;
the gardener claimed 'hardship'
At the start of the 2020 season, we advised our gardeners not to use plastic mulch. As chronicled here, one gardener claimed to have already put down mats before we notified everyone of the ban, refused to take them up, and demanded a hearing before our town’s Conservation Commission, which approved our ban on plastic mulch but granted the gardener a one-year ‘hardship’ exemption.

In early September, the crops grown
with mats had fared poorly
Betty and I noted across the 2020 season that the crops in the plastic-covered plot didn’t appear to do as well as its neighbors, but there could have been other reasons in play. Without comment, the mats came up at the end of October; but the gardener notified us over the winter that,
An adjacent garden on the same date
because of the pandemic, the family planned to live out of state for the following twelve months.

Demand for plots, already high, exploded this spring of 2021. Many gardeners who had started with 300-square-foot sites wanted to upgrade to full-size ones. In response, Betty and I activated a plan to expand the Community Garden by an additional 3600 square feet – adding between five and ten new plots.

We have been no-till for eight years
and the results have been stunning
For the past eight years, the Community Garden has been ‘no-till’, meaning plots are cleared each fall of fencing and non-compostable garden debris but otherwise left alone for the winter. In the spring, we ask gardeners not to use rototillers and to disturb the soil only as needed to plant; explaining the importance of the food web that is disrupted by unnecessary tilling. The results have been stunning: our dark black soil is alive with organic material, worms and other beneficial organisms. Nutrients are at optimal levels (we take soil samples each spring from multiple plots and blend for testing by the UMass Soil Lab). By not tilling, we also won our war against bindweed, a nasty vine that readily regenerates a new root system when cut into pieces as small as an inch.

In planning for the 2021 season, we made an assumption that, over the winter and early spring, the ‘wildlife under the garden’ would re-colonize the formerly plastic-covered space. In March, we assigned the site to an enthusiastic second-year gardener moving up from a 300-square-foot plot.  She planted both seeds and sets for an intelligently designed vegetable garden. She watered regularly when warranted.

The garden in mid-June 2021. 
Vegetables simply wouldn't grow
in the plot and even weeds were sparse
Six weeks later, she had sparse germination and plants that refused to grow. Instead of lush and dark green, her cucumbers and squash were an anemic yellow. The dirt – ‘soil’ is the wrong word for the brown, dusty stuff that topped the plot – would not hold water. In late July, she gave up. I wrote her a personal check for the cost of her plot, seeds, and extensive plant sets.

At the end of September, Betty and I are allowing the plot to grow up in weeds. Next month, we will overspread it with, and dig in, manure.

Will the space be healthy next spring? It is surrounded by gardens with non-compromised biomes. No point is more than thirteen feet from soil teeming with life. Surely, seventeen months after the plastic mulch was removed from the plot (October 2020), the soil will have healed. Won’t it?

We’re not so certain. We’ll test the plot’s soil early in the spring; then decide if the space is ready to be gardened again.

September 24, 2021

Lookin' Out My Back Door


We offer migrating birds free bed and
bath, plus all the seeds they can eat
This morning, four migrating bluebirds are luxuriously splashing about in a raised bowl in our back garden. When I went out to fetch the newspapers at dawn, I startled half a dozen finches pulling seeds from out of our Rudbeckia. And a colony of mourning doves has spread out along the ground in military fashion seeking insects, seeds, and any other edible that wasn’t there last night.

Welcome to the start of autumn at 26 Pine Street. In this, the sixth year of our grass-free, 95% native-plant garden, we are apparently well established as a five-star stopping point for migrating birds. We clean and re-fill the bird baths regularly and, while we acknowledge the Audubon Society’s warning not to put out seed feeders, we offer suet for woodpeckers and other avians with a need for a McDonald’s-style fat fix.

The Felcos have been put away for now in
order to give migrating birds seed heads from
our Rudbeckia and shasta daisies
What the birds want most of all are seeds, and we have those in abundance. All summer, our front garden was a riot of color from sweeps of native Agastache, shasta daisies, Lobelia cardinalis, Monarda, Liatris, and the aforementioned Rudbeckia. In late August, as the last of the flowers passed, we made the painful decision to keep our Felcos in the garden bag. Deadheading the beds would have given us a pleasant, uniform sea of green punctuated with the autumn-blooming phlox and oak-leaf Hydrangea. As the nearby photo shows, there’s a lot of brown in the front garden. The brown stuff is seed heads, which is why the birds are here in droves.

Our rear garden, with its mix of
shade-tolerant plants
The rear garden is another, more pleasant, matter. It is too shady for the sun-loving perennials that dominate the front of our property, so there is not a lot of past-blooming ‘stubble’. Instead, we have a hodgepodge* of ground covers, shade-tolerant perennials and shrubs, most of which flowered over the spring and summer. Now, the remaining seed heads are a bird buffet. The Ligularia ‘Othello’ has been a favorite, as well as the several dozen Astilbe that dot the landscape.

Cornus florida in bloom, early May
There is still one more scene to play out, and I look forward to it with special satisfaction. Cornus florida – the American dogwood – got a bad rap a few decades back for its supposed susceptibility to spot Anthracnose, a fungal disease that produces leaf spots and blotches. That reputation gave rise to a demand for Cornus kousa, an east Asian cousin. Subsequent research shows Anthracnose can be kept in check by the simple expedient of giving Cornus florida ample light and air. In other words, don’t stick it in a shady area hemmed in by other trees,

Cornus florida fruit is small and brightly
colored, versus Cornus kousa
The American and Asian dogwoods differ in one crucial area: the size of their fruit. As the nearby photo shows, Cornus florida produces a small, bright-red berry; Cornus kousa, a much larger, duller fruit with a thick skin.

The subtle difference came into play one late September afternoon two years ago when our pink-flowering American dogwood began shaking as though it was alive. I watched in fascination through my library window for a while, then went out for a closer inspection. There were roughly 50 birds in the tree, gorging on the dogwood berries. After an hour, the tree had been picked clean. I called friends with the Kousa variety and asked if they were sharing my experience. No, they said, their fruit had mostly fallen to the ground where it was rotting (and required periodic raking to prevent odor build-up).

Our neighbor's back lawn is all grass
(photo from Realtor.com)
I close with a photo of an across-and-down-the-street neighbor’s back yard. They’ve just put their home on the market and I scrolled through the listing photos. The first 35 showed a pleasant home – the interior professionally staged as is the custom now, to remove traces of individuality that might turn off a potential buyer. The final two stopped me in my tracks. They showed a back yard that is nothing but a perfect, green lawn surrounded by a white fence. There are no shrubs against that fence; no flowers or plantings of any kind.

It is, in its own way, staged to show an ideal safe, suburban yard where a child can play without fear of injury. It is also utterly sterile. I cannot imagine a passing flock of birds giving it a second glance.

If we are truly stewards of the land, we ought to acknowledge that our property serves more than just a human audience. Our garden does that in spades – all the while giving the child in us (and, especially, our cat) hours of visual entertainment.

 * A partial list of the plants in the rear garden includes Actea, Astilbe, Asters, Aralia, Cimicifuga, Digitalis (foxglove), false strawberry, ferns, Heuchera, Hosta, Ligularia, Lobelia, Persecaria, Tiarella (foamflower), Vaccinium (blueberry), and Viburnum.

August 11, 2021

The Excess Lush-ness of the August Garden

 In horticulture, can there be too much of a good thing? I definitely think so.  My gardens this August are a case in point.

This month, everything in the garden is
lush, verdant, and overgrown
Here in Massachusetts, we had an entire summer’s worth of rain in July: more than twelve inches. Betty’s and my plot in the community vegetable garden exploded with growth. Squash vines grew a foot in two days. Tomatoes went from flowers to pickable fruit in record time. The zucchini – oh, the zucchini – was and still is out of control. We are freezing a multi-serving bag of green beans every day. We have Swiss chard with every meal – including breakfast.

But it is our garden at home where the chickens of excess of lush-ness have come home to roost. The Covid summer of 2020 came amid a drought. Every day I carried jugs of water around the garden, doling out just enough to keep both containers and perennials alive. By contrast, this summer each of our four rain barrels is filled to capacity, and there are no takers for the 220 gallons they hold. There are days when the ground squishes.

This beautyberry is engulfing our
delicate bog rosemary plants
Everything on the property is undergoing a growth spurt. A formerly well-behaved beautyberry (Callicarpa) added several feet to its girth and currently sports a six-foot diameter, smothering several of the delicate bog rosemary plants (Andromeda polifolia) that form a border for our sidewalk. The same beautyberry has also encroached into the turf of our native bush honeysuckle (Diervilla lonicera), which is on a similar growth tear.  Because both plants are blooming prolifically and therefore swarming with happy bees, we can’t get near them with our No. 2 Felcos to cut back either plant.

Before being cut back or staked,
these liatris looped across the
pathway like track hurdles
I spent four hours over the past two mornings weeding perhaps 40 of our 200 feet of walkways through our front garden. I tackled that job because the paths had become tripping hazards, with long, looping stalks of Liatris, top-heavy with blue flowers, arching down into the aisles like track hurdles. Once past the Liatris, would-be walkers then encounter a stretch of seven-foot-high, water-swollen Joe-Pye Weed (Eupatorium maculatum) muscling in from either side of the walkway. Last year, those same perennials were compact and topped out at four feet. This year, they’ll be higher than our adjoining, six-year-old Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis) ‘Burgundy Hearts’.  That’s not supposed to happen in the plant kingdom.

A leucothoe 'Girard's Rainbow'
in desperate need of a trim
While I tackled the walkways and adjacent perennial beds, Betty went to work on the foundation plantings. The area to the left side of our front porch has a rather elegant and colorful mix of several Leucothoe ‘Girard’s Rainbow’, Rhododendron ‘Weston Aglo’, mountain laurel (Kalmia) ‘Sara’, and a Hydrangea ‘Vienna’, with a dense ground-cover planting of enough tiarellas, heucheras, and bleeding heart (Dicentra) to stock a medium-sized nursery.

Under these prairie wine cups were our
ground covers - heuchera and tiarella
Betty’s observation was the Leucothoe, sometimes called ‘dogs-hobble’ was living up to its nickname. Getting the three shrubs back to something approaching their preferred size filled a 50-gallon canvas barrel with cuttings, and she had still not tackled the rhodies or mountain laurel.  In the meantime, Betty discovered a woody vine with a pleasant, dark-pink flower (Prairie wine cups or Callirhoe involucrata) had somehow insinuated itself in the middle of the ground covers in front of the shrubs, and was in the process of taking over the site.  Betty swears it wasn’t there last year – or even last month – yet its tentacles had covered roughly a hundred square feet of the aforementioned tiarellas, heucheras and dicentra. When removed, the vine filled most of another 50-gallon barrel.

One of our as-yet un-weeded paths
As of yesterday afternoon, our eight-hour investment in the garden clean-up had yielded only some walkable paths and one part of the foundation planting to show for our efforts.  In the meantime, we are compiling an ever-lengthening mental list of Things That Need To Get Done.  Our dwarf black birch (Betula nigra) needs to be thinned. The now-past-bloom Shasta daisies – about 50 square feet of them – need to have their flowers removed. The perennial ageratum (Conoclinium coelestinum) has strayed from its assigned area in the long perennial border along the driveway and is stealthily establishing colonies in places where it doesn’t belong.  

Oh, and we accomplished all this during the two ‘good’ days of this week; meaning the morning temperatures were in the 70s and the dew point was merely ‘oppressive’.  Starting today, Mother Nature decided to play one of her little tricks on us: thermometers are soaring into the 90s with ‘real-feel’ temperatures in triple digits. Our plan was to adjust our outdoor work schedule to perhaps 90 minutes between pre-dawn and 7 a.m.  Which is, of course, also prime mosquito feeding time. We would slather our bodies with DEET-based repellents (all the while knowing we would still be attacked incessantly).

The driveway border is coming into its own
Our outdoor foray this morning lasted ten minutes. Then, we scrambled back inside and showered. The heat will break this weekend.  We’ll take care of the garden then.

Why, then, do we do it at all?  In our case, it is to create a landscape that just might nudge some of the dozens of people who walk by our property each day into getting rid of part or all of their suburban lawns and replacing that grass with native plants and shrubs. And, sure enough, just yesterday morning, a walker spotted me on my kneeling pad, pulling out errant weeds and ambitious seedlings.

“Love the garden,” the walker said, giving me a thumbs up.  “Is it a lot of work?”

“Hardly break a sweat,” I replied, lying through my smile.  “These are native plants.  They practically take care of themselves.”

July 20, 2021

The abandoned community garden plot

Before we began managing the Community Garden, plots would
routinely be abandoned, like this one from 2008.

This week, after almost twelve years, I came to the belated realization my wife and I are running the gardening equivalent of a pet adoption service.

In March and April, garden plots are
like kittens and puppies: everyone
wants one.
Think about this: at an animal shelter or similar organization, there is a never-ending demand for kittens and puppies.  Why? Because, with a newly-weaned domesticated animal, all things are possible.  You will instantly bond with an adorable creature than will reward you with unstinting love and affection.

What’s wrong with an older animal? Sure, they’re still attractive, but you know from experience there are going to be vet bills, litter tracks in the laundry room, chewed shoes, and inexplicable sullen moods. Adult pets are a hard sell.

Above: a June 2021 flyover of the Medfield Community Garden
Click to start the video and be sure to click for a full-screen view.

Now, think about this: Every February and March, we announce the availability of our town’s 80 community garden plots. Returning gardeners and would-be newbies beat a path to our door to sign up. They uniformly have vision of lush, verdant plots overrun with pestilence-free zucchini, tomatoes, beans, and herbs. Humans, it seems, have a love affair with the gardens they have not yet planted.

Even in May and June, if a gardener finds his or her plans have changed, filling the space is as simple as putting out an announcement to existing plot-holders that an additional space is available. We choose a replacement by lottery from as many as a dozen applicants.

But, what about July?  That is another story.

At the beginning of this week, I received this email from a third-year gardener: Hi Neal, Our plot is all cleared out and available for someone else as we don’t need it anymore.

No explanation. Not even a ‘sorry to leave you in the lurch’ post script.  Just a 600-square-foot space with weeds. The fence had been taken down and the vegetables removed.

I had told the gardener the plot was getting
weedy; the gardener disagreed
There is no value in getting angry in such circumstances. It is possible some tragedy befell the departing gardener’s family (though leaving up the fence for the balance of the season would have been a nice gesture). I would feel awful sending out a blistering reply to the issuer of that email, only to learn of a death or life-threatening disease casting a pall over the family. On the other hand, it is also possible the gardener was offered a house on the Cape for the month of August, or just got tired of waiting for the rain to stop.

No matter the reason, we were left with the equivalent of a middle-aged dog or cat. The question on the table was, how do we make this animal adoptable?

The key problem is called ‘growing season days remaining’. The community garden nominally closes down October 31 but, by then, we’ve had a couple of hard frosts. The first frost can come in mid-September by which time we’re down to 12 hours of daylight (versus 16 right now). In short, the remaining growing season is 60-65 days.

Not to mention you can’t buy (short of emptying your IRA) fencing or stakes in July. Or plants. Or any seed package you’d be proud to plant. We didn’t have just a middle-aged dog on our hands: we had one with arthritis, worms, and a heart murmur.

The garden has been weeded, 
and has a fresh fence
So, what did I do? The only thing I could do. I headed straight to the garden. I dug a new trench for a fence. Betty weeded prodigiously. I raided the community garden’s shed (where gardeners can over-winter their supplies) for a gate and enough stakes and fencing to make the garden usable. I will send apology letters to those whose ‘reserve’ materials I purloined, with a promise to put the materials back where I found them.

Today, the fence went up. Tomorrow morning, there will be a gate and a fresh wood-chipped path around the garden border. Work investment? Between the two of us, about twelve hours of very hard and sweaty labor.

Then, I will start the process of giving it away.  Not all of it to one person: no one is willing to make that investment in energy.  Instead, it will be offered in pieces: a place for a 6’x10’ square of corn.  A mound for pumpkins. A sheltered fence line for lettuce or beets.  A good community garden manager keeps a mental inventory of plot holders who have sighed and said, “If I only had a little more sunlight…” or “I would love to grow tomatillos but they take so much space…”

Pumpkins are one option
By the end of the week, the garden will be filled.

A fair question to ask is why I didn’t see it coming. I sort of did. I regularly walk the paths of the garden’s acre-plus and look in on each of the 80 plots. I check for a lot of things but, mostly, I check for effort.  I am the Garden Ogre, but I try to be a patient ogre. We’re all volunteers here. I nudge, I cajole, I offer encouragement. I don’t want to throw people out of the garden; I want them to abide by the garden’s guidelines, enjoy themselves, and come back next year.

Most of my Ogre-grams are fairly gentle.
This one was intended to get immediate
action. Instead, I got an 'out of office' reply.
A few weeks ago, following one of my walks, I sent the gardener a note and a photo of a weedy area of the plot. Usually, my ‘Ogre-grams’ draw a response along the lines of ‘I’ll take care of it this week.’  The one to this gardener earned me the reply, “I disagree about the weeds. Other gardens look worse.” 

No, they didn’t, but I had put the gardener on notice. Two weeks later, part of the garden was covered with cardboard, but the uncovered area was just as weedy. Another photo and missive went out; this one saying the weeds needed to be taken care of immediately. I received an ‘out of office’ reply with a return date a week off.

Upon the gardener’s return, the weeds were noticeably reduced. But so, too, were the plantings: all that remained were some tomatoes and beans. That should have been the ‘tell’. Four days later came the ‘we don’t need it anymore’ note.

June 21, 2021

One Day in June

This is the bed anchored by our
yellowwood tree (Cladrastis
kentuckyea) with Penstemon
'Husker Red' in the foreground
The garden at 26 Pine Street received its first ten specimen trees six years ago this month.  By the end of that first season (late September), we had planted perhaps 40 shrubs and the few dozen perennials that survived being part of the Mole and Vole buffet of the winter of 2014-2015.

The well-known garden mnemonic is 'sleep, creep, leap'. Perhaps, for the sixth year of a garden's existence, there ought to be a fourth entry: 'reap'. It's the time when the garden coheres; when everything comes together and all the digging, dividing, nurturing, and editing swell into the orchestra that is a mature garden.  For our garden, June 2021 is that 'reap' moment.  

We hosted several groups this month - a product of making our garden known to Grow Native Massachusetts and to the state's garden club federation. In its listing, we stress the garden is 'only half an acre' and, because there are no grass expanses upon which gaggles of gardeners can congregate (we have only moss paths), we limit the size of visiting groups to about a dozen or so people. 

Cladrastis flowered this year
What that relative handful of members of the gardening world see is, finally, what we hoped for when we (primarily meaning Betty) set off to create a site that would be a) pollinator friendly, b) overwhelmingly native, and c) low-maintenance for its two caretakers.

Take, for example, the bed anchored by our yellowwood tree (Cladrastis kentuckyea), shown in the top photo (please double-click on the photo for a full-screen slide tour). Betty wanted one as soon as she saw a specimen on a garden tour in Boston's Jamaica Plain neighborhood eight or nine years ago. It was a monster of a tree; probably a century old - and it was in full bloom with droops of white flowers. We found the one we wanted, already twelve feet tall, at Weston Nurseries. Knowing it would need room, Betty settled on trios of fothergilla 'Blue Shadow' and clethra 'Hummingbird' to flank it at a safe distance; then an almost-yellow spirea, pink-blooming mountain laurel (kalmia), and a host of perennials, led by tall, blue-blooming Liatris spicata and Penstemon 'Husker Red'.  Oh, and a couple of hundred daffodil bulbs for early season color, whose dying foliage would be hidden by Alchemilla mollis (lady's mantle).

Competing color in the bed anchored
by Cornus florida and Oxydendron
For the first several years, the bed made me wince because it was so... empty. Then, the Liatris - its common name is 'blazing star' - began to fill in with self-seeded offspring, and the Penstemon ('beardtongue' for reasons I cannot discern), not to be outdone, set out to colonize every square inch of space not already occupied by something else. This year, Cladrastis produced its first significant flowering - a shower of pink-yellow panticles (see second photo above).

In the bed (shown above, left) anchored by our Cornus florida (American dogwood, which bloomed white and pink in May) and Oxydendron (sourwood, which will bloom white in August), blue and yellow Baptisia compete for the eye's attention, as do the pink blooms of Physocarpus (ninebark) 'Little Devil' and the emerging flowers for our two Quercifolia (oakleaf) hydrangea. As a backdrop, the purple-leafed Cercis canadensis (redbud) 'Burgundy Hearts' gracefully sprawls with its now-15-foot breadth. I could have only imagined it would all look this beautiful in 2015. I had no inkling it would be so colorful.

The Magnolia bed
The bed closest to out house is anchored by a Magnolia 'Elizabeth' that flowered soft yellow in May. Now, the bed's color palette has changed dramatically, with Kalmia (mountain laurel) in reds and scarlets, a 'river' of long-blooming Johnson Blue and Rozanne geraniums, both upright and climbing Lonicera (honeysuckle), and the last of our peonies and blue-blooming Amsonia.  Here also are also the most visible of the roughly 20 container gardens Betty created for this year. The bright yellow-flowering container in the foreground is one of a pair flanking the front porch, and incorporate both fragrant Nemesia and prolifically-flowering lemon Calibrachoa.

The back garden has taken the full six years to come into its own. It gets less than half the sun of the front of the property and is planted accordingly. The photo at left shows the Pennsylvania flagstone patio, now filled in with fern and moss, the Chioanthus virginicus (American fringetree) in full, white-flowered bloom, multiple specimens of native Viburnum in flower and, in the right background, six Vaccinium (highbush blueberries) laden with un-ripe fruit. This part of the garden backs up to protected wetlands. The area is alive with nesting birds.

All of these photos were taken on the same June day in 2021.  I could only have imagined how beautiful it would be after so relatively few years. I'm proud to be Betty's 'Principal Undergardener' and to have played a role in seeing it come to fruition.

May 18, 2021

Direct Democracy


Norman Rockwell's 
'Freedom of Speech'
If you are reading this from anywhere outside New England, you are likely familiar with the phrase ‘town meeting’ only from old Norman Rockwell paintings or obscure novels. In my adopted town of Medfield, Massachusetts, the town meeting is alive and well. Last evening, I witnessed a demonstration of the power of the ‘direct democracy’* town meetings encapsulate.

Medfield - a thinly disguised 'Hardington' in seven of my mysteries - is justifiably proud of its school system, which is consistently ranked as one of the best in the state. It has fewer than 3000 students in pre-kindergarten through twelfth grade, but delivers high quality education on a budget of a little over $30 million a year.

The existing Dale Street School
It also needs a new elementary school. The Dale Street School is one of three in town and houses students in the fourth and fifth grades. It dates to an era of heating oil at twenty cents a gallon and classes in rigid rows of desks. Renovating the school is not an option.

The question has always been where to build the new school and, to a lesser extent, how large it should be. In any other time, there would have been numerous public meetings to hear comments, ask and answer questions, and gauge the direction of public sentiment. In an era of Covid, those meetings were Zoom calls with little audience interaction. When there were questions, too often the answer was ‘we’re still waiting for that information’. Apparently, no one on the committee making the decision could sense the uneasiness or frustration of the townspeople on the other end of those Zoom sessions.

The Dale Street School is an easy walk
to the center of town
There were always just two realistic site options. One would be to build a new school on the same land as the existing Dale Street School, which sits opposite the town’s school housing pre-K, kindergarten and Grade 1. The site is easy walking distance to the center of town and is in the most densely populated part of Medfield. The second option would be to build adjacent the Wheelock School housing grades two and three.

The Wheelock School is in a rural area
Each site has plusses and minuses. For the Dale Street site, it would require two years of temporary classrooms while the new school was constructed, but a lower overall cost because the school would tap into the town’s existing infrastructure. For the Wheelock site, because of the rural setting, some $10 million of infrastructure would be required to accommodate the building, but grades two through five would be housed on one campus.

The decision was made by an 18-member School Building Committee which held, according to the school system's website, "seven public community forums, 28 open meetings of full committee, 34 meetings of the Communications Subcommittee, and 11 meetings of the Sustainability Subcommittee."  All were held via Zoom.

'Dale at Wheelock'. The new school is shown
behind the existing building
It was only at one of its final meetings at the end of September 2020, the School Building Committee announced its decision and unveiled the school’s design and price tag.  An $80 million facility would be constructed adjacent to the Wheelock School.

That is when, as they say, all hell broke loose. One member of the Select Board was quoted in the local paper saying, “I get the feeling it’s being jammed down their throats.” The Select Board member also said, “I’m worried about support” of the project at the Town Meeting.

Signs were everywhere
For the past seven months, the School Building Committee has moved ahead assuming the hubbub would die down. At the same time, signs for an organization called ‘Dale@Dale’ began appearing on lawns.  Their goal: to convince the School Building Committee to reverse its decision.

The new school has always faced two hurdles. The first is a two-thirds vote at a special town meeting, planned for this fall, to formally approve the project. The second is a special election to approve higher taxes to pay for the school. If either vote fails, Medfield goes to the back of the line for state funding that would pay about $28 million of the cost, and the delay is usually measured in years. A proposal for a new school in the nearby town of Hopkinton failed twice when residents balked at the price.

‘Dale@Dale’ successfully petitioned to include an Article in the Warrant for last night’s Town Meeting. Article 29 asked to see if the “Town will vote to recommend (the committees) amend its proposal to the (state funding authority) to keep Dale Street School at its current site.”

Over those months, using social media, mailed flyers, and email exchanges, ‘Dale@Dale’ laid out its objections to the Wheelock site which had been dismissed by the School Building Committee.  The School Building Committee responded by saying its decision-making process has been ‘completely transparent’, the town had already spent $800,000 on design and feasibility studies, and any changes at this point would derail the project’s funding.

Town Meeting was held on a football field
Usually held in the high school gymnasium at 7 p.m., the Town Meeting convened at 5 p.m. on the high-school football field. At the start of the meeting, the temperature was about 75 degrees under sunny skies. By the time Article 29 was brought up for discussion three-and-a-half hours later, the temperature had dropped to 63 degrees and it felt ten degrees colder sitting out on the field with social distancing. For 45 minutes, proponents repeated their mantra: the site is fine and it is too late to change. Opponents countered with their own studies and statistics, one of which was that, in two public surveys conducted by the School Building Committee, respondents favored the Dale Street site, as had the annual Town Meeting three years earlier.

To me, one of the most telling arguments was made by someone who counted ‘more than 50 bikes’ out in front of the Dale Street School that morning. The Wheelock site would be biking distance for only relative handful of students, and walking distance for even fewer.

The one-lane bridge over Mine Brook
I had my own reason for voting in favor of the Article, and it has to do with human nature. The Wheelock school is located on Elm Street, possibly the most scenic road in Medfield. It is a narrow, winding street dotted with Colonial era homes, and a narrow bridge over a brook. If the Wheelock ‘campus’ comes into being, it is only a matter of time before a group of parents begin advocating – in the name of the children’s safety – to widen and straighten the road, add sidewalks, and build a safer bridge. When that happens, the Elm Street I cherish will disappear forever.

The Henry Adams House on Elm St.
built in 1652
When the question was called, a show of hands did not make the outcome clear. We then stood while ‘counters’ tallied row by row. In the end, the vote was 229 in favor of the Article; 212 against. The Town has now voted to formally ask the School Building Committee to reconsider its decision.  The vote also casts a long shadow over the two future votes. As plebiscites go, it is one for the ages.

Will the School Building Committee change its mind? Will the Select Board weigh in?  A message from one Select Board member this morning noted only that the vote was “basically slightly favoring” the Dale Street location, and downgraded the language of the Article to merely “an advisory ‘sense of the town meeting' opinion.”

Where will all this land? I don’t know. But I’m proud to live in a place where direct democracy is still practiced. I wish more people had that same opportunity.


* This is the primer for those of you who have forgotten what you learned in Civics or, worse, are of an age where Civics was no longer on the curriculum.  We have what is called a 'representative democracy': we elect people who, in turn, make the laws we live by.  The ancient Greeks had the real thing: a system in which every citizen (read 'adult, free-born male) was expected to show up and vote on whatever needed to be decided.  When English colonists settled New England, they wanted a system that would bind the citizenry together. Thus was born the Town Meeting in which every citizen (read 'adult, land-owning male') got together at least once a year to approve budgets, enact laws, etc. The practice has been slowly dying out as towns got too large, or achieving a quorum became harder.  Medfield (pop 12,000) is near the upper end of towns with Annual Town Meetings.


May 10, 2021

Lord of the (Peony) Rings

 As part of our continuing reality series, ‘Neal Knows More than Martha’, we are soliciting questions from readers who need to know more about how to garden.  Today’s question comes from reader Lew Faircloth of Whatchamacallit, ME.

Hi, Neal. When is the best time to install rings around your peonies? Lew Faircloth

Peonies are genetically bred to flop
Hello, Lew. The best time to install peony rings is right after you’ve been declared incompetent and strapped into a strait jacket. Failing that, install peony rings immediately before an errant falling Chinese rocket is about to hit your town. In short, there is never a good time to install peony rings, because these devices’ lone purpose is to demonstrate there are certain tasks that are beyond the grasp of mortal man.

The basic problem with peonies is that, like bumblebees, they are aerodynamical impossibilities that nevertheless exist. Think about a flower that, when fully open, is the size of a Mamie Eisenhower corsage. Now, place it on a stem designed to hold the weight of a helium-filled balloon. Next, make that stem grow to the height of a Celtics point guard. Finally, put several dozens of these flowers on a plant with a base that may be as tiny as the waist of a ballerina, or as big around as Donald Trump.

We install peony rings because peony stems have a tendency to break over under four conditions:

1.      Excess wind

2.      Heavy rain

3.      Light, southerly breezes

4.      Morning dew

No matter how carefully
they are stowed, peony rings
get tangled
I can state these facts with certainty because, just this past weekend, I attempted to place rings around the peonies in my own garden. It took three hours and the result looks like something a three-year-old with Attention Deficit Disorder would have constructed.

You approach the task of installing a peony ring with trepidation because there are two types of peony rings – single height and double height – available to fit roughly 85 combinations of peony plant sizes. Because single-ring holders have a stake height of roughly 18 inches, but must be driven six-plus inches into the ground to be stable, the height of the ring will be barely a foot above the ground.  Double-height peony rings are 36 inches high, but have a hoop diameter of about 14 inches. There are no peony plants in existence that fit either of these configurations.

Getting your peony rings out of your garage or basement is also an exercise in futility. No matter how carefully you stored them away last year, all peony hoops will have interlocked with their neighbors, and you will spend the better part of an hour disassembling and re-assembling enough hoops and staves to complete your task. Amazingly, even as they lie in your driveway, some hoops will again manage to intermingle. For inanimate objects, they’re awfully frisky.

This svelte peony
required a single hoop
The first peony I tackled was of the slim-waisted variety. I selected a single height ring with a 12-inch diameter, and pushed the first of the three staves into the ground. It went in about an inch before hitting a rock.  So, I moved the stave a few inches and found it would go in two inches and then promptly bend. No matter where I moved the stave, I found two-inches-and-bed to be the limit of the system design. So, I got out a handy piece of steel rebar and, in ten seconds, pounded it six inches into the soil. I then spent the next five minutes trying to remove the rebar, which had determined this was where it wanted to spend eternity. I settled on a system of driving down and removing the rebar an inch at a time.

Elapsed time to install the first peony ring: 45 minutes.

This Trumpian peony required a double-
height ring and two joined hoops
The second peony was of the Donald Trump variety. For this one, I determined I would use a double-height ring and join two, 12-inch hoops together. I installed five staves in about ten minutes. Now, all I had to do was thread the conjoined hoops through the eye-of-a-needle size loops without damaging peony stalks or leaves. Twenty minutes later – and with the assistance of a pair of needle-nosed pliers – I had a passable construction. Excerpt I had missed one stave. The correction took an additional twenty minutes and allowed me to plumb the depths of my bad-words vocabulary to express my frustration.

With a steep learning curve behind me, I completed three more peonies in about 45 minutes.

All of this, of course, will be for naught. The peonies are well-enclosed for the present, but those stems will continue to grow. A peony at our former home produced a stalk four feet long topped with a softball-size bloom. No peony ring in existence could safely encase such a beast. I secured it with two six-foot stakes and it still flopped. I already know my recent efforts will be insufficient.

Alas, the Chinese rocket has fallen into the Indian Ocean. Your best hope, Lew, is for an errant meteor.

Good luck,

Neal Sanders, The Principal Undergardener.

April 22, 2021

This is the Difference Between a Spade and a Shovel

 From the New York Times:

Before the pandemic, the actress Drew Barrymore was not exactly known for her gardening skills. Still, last spring, she planted her first lawn. She bought some chickens, grew tomatoes, and “felt really empowered,” she told The Times. And now, she is among the celebrities capitalizing on the pandemic-induced gardening boom: She is the face of a lawn-care subscription service.

Many people turned to gardening last year, fueled by a desire for a hobby, self-sufficiency, or both. Celebrities and other brands took notice: Kate Hudson’s vodka brand teamed up with a plant delivery service to release a potted “love fern.” HGTV added shows on gardening, like “Martha Knows Best,” Martha Stewart’s reality series about life on her estate in Bedford, N.Y., and a coming topiary competition series.

Celebrities are vying for the lucrative role of guide to the growing audience of garden enthusiasts, as Ronda Kaysen writes in The Times. “Someone needs to explain the difference between a shovel and a spade.”

* * * * *

Hello, new gardening enthusiast! My name is Neal Sanders and I’m going to be your guide to the fabulous and lucrative world of home gardening. I am excited about this opportunity and I want you, as a consumer, to know my advice will not be tainted by any lawn-care subscription service sponsorship that might come along, nor my prospective affiliation with a premium vodka brand which I hope will sponsor me as soon as I develop a taste for the stuff.

Let us start with the question that apparently perplexes all novice gardeners: the difference between a shovel and a spade.  I’ll be honest here and admit that, until I looked it up on Wikipedia just now, I did not know there was a difference between the two.  But I’ll be damned! A spade is always shorter than a shovel and has a flat blade, while a shovel is angled and has a rounded scoop. You use a spade to edge stuff; you use a shovel to injure your back by digging out rocks. Spades are terrific for digging trenches (provided you don’t encounter any big rocks, which are called ‘potatoes’ in the trade). Shovels are best for leaning on while you consume quantities of ibuprofen (brand name sponsor to be substituted for generic drug).

Double-click for a larger image
Now, you could have learned this information by opening Google and typing in ‘difference between a spade and a shovel’, and it would even show helpful photos on the first screen. But you novices don’t seem to trust Google. You’d rather flood the HGTV message boards with a request for the answer or, better yet, hear it from a celebrity like me! That’s fine, and it gives me ample material for my forthcoming reality series, ‘Neal Knows More Than Martha’.

Real gardens are filled with rocks
I’m going to let you in on a secret: Martha doesn’t have a real garden. How can I be certain? When Martha puts a spade down into the soil to plant something (or, should she use a shovel?), she comes up with a rich mixture of loosely packed loam and compost, and plants a peony in two minutes. Real gardens – at least those anywhere close to New England, and Bedford, NY is nestled right up to the Connecticut border – aren’t like that, folks. In a real New England garden, your spade sinks down half an inch and hits a rock. And you spend the next two hours pulling out rock after rock, and then find there’s not enough soil to fill the hole and you spend two more hours searching for soil. After which your wife spots the leftover rocks and suggests you use them to mend one those quaint walls you fell in love with when you bought the property. But that’s another episode of my reality series, and it will likely require some caution for use of colorful, family-unfriendly language.

What else can we cover before our time runs out? How about this one: What exactly is a ‘Love Fern’, why would Kate Hudson be offering to deliver one, what does vodka have to do with it, and why would a gardener care?

Kate Hudson's Love Fern
Well, once upon a time (18 years ago), there was a film called, ‘How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days’ and Ms. Hudson was its female lead. In one scene, she walks in on her boyfriend’s poker game and spots a fern that has seen better days. She cries out, ‘our Love Fern!’ and takes it to the kitchen for resuscitation or, more likely, a proper burial. What does vodka have to do with it? Well, vodka is an exceptionally effective killer of ferns, which is something every gardener ought to know.  Beyond that, I have absolutely no information.

Maybe Martha can cover that one on her reality show.