June 2, 2022

A Remarkable Garden Begins its Eighth Season

Our 'garden' in June 2015 

Double-click on any photo to see a full-screen slideshow

In early June 2015, the firm of Scott Dolan & Company carried out an unusual project: instead of creating a landscape for a new residence (his usual assignment), Scott was charged with removing one. Over the course of two weeks, he removed the top 18 inches (947 cubic yards) of what is accurately called 'builder's crud' and brought in 950 cubic yards of screened loam. He also built a permeable, crushed-stone driveway; an elegant, geometric sidewalk; and a Pennsylvania flagstone patio. When his crew departed, there was half an acre of ready-to-plant soil; lately covered with two inches of brown mulch, but nary a hint of green.

The Magnolia bed
When we designed our 'dream retirement house' Betty made it clear she had in mind a very different landscape: a native plant garden without a blade of grass anywhere within its perimeter. I said it was a great idea, and I would provide at least half the labor. By the end of that first summer we had planted nine specimen trees to serve as anchors for beds, and several dozen shrubs. It looked, frankly, rather forlorn. Each year we added additional shrubs, together with bulbs, perennials and ground covers. Gradually, the garden began to form a coherent whole. Year by year, Betty's vision became more apparent.

The same view in 2022
The garden has now reached something approaching maturity. In a month it will be dominated by sweeps of flowering perennials as rudbeckia, penstemon, monarda, shasta daisies, and betony bring their colorful blooms. Right now, though, there is something different (and, in its own way, more elegant) to see: dabs of color made by shrubs, ground covers, and early-blooming perennials collectively forming an every-shifting canvas.

Viewed from the front porch
In the 'Magnolia bed' closest to the house, from one vantage point there is a succession of blue-flowering Amsonia, behind which are white and yellow peonies; all framing a flaming red honeysuckle (Lonerica sempervirens) that climbs fifteen feet up one wall of our garage. Walk up the sidewalk a few feet and that same honeysuckle is now the backdrop for white Baptisia, a yellow-flowering bush honeysuckle, and purple and blue geraniums.  Getting closer to the front porch (see photo at left), the color comes from flowers of  brilliant red mountain laurel (Kalmia 'Sara') and the multi-colored foliage of Leucothoe 'Girard's Rainbow' with its tiny, ivory flowers.

Our redbud with Baptisia
Elsewhere in the front garden, our redbud (Cercis canadensis 'Burgundy Hearts') has show-stopping dark red foliage. Depending on which path you take through the garden, it can be the backdrop to a stand of blue Baptisia, the stark white flowers of a maple-leaf Viburnum, or the brown leaves and pink-white flowers of a pair of ninebarks (Physocarpus opulifolius 'Diablo'). At the far corner of the front garden, a dwarf black birch (Betula nigra 'Little King') presides over a brilliantly yellow bed of golden ragwort (Packera aurea). 

The rear garden with fringetree in bloom
In the rear garden, our diminutive fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus) bloomed with white flowers for the first time this year. Beyond it is a sea of unusual, colorful groundcovers ranging from columbine to phlox to false strawberry (Potentilla indica) and blue ajuga. Multiple viburnums are coming into flower.

This essay is being written from that porch
All this was just Betty's vision in June 2015; a gamble, really. Could a retired couple in their mid-60s possibly plant such a large space?  How would they maintain it? Who would every buy it if they had to sell? Well, we did manage to plant it on our own (thank you, ibuprofen) and its maintenance is considerably less than a 'traditional' lawn and shrubs (and a lot more fun). As to selling it, we built a home into which we could age gracefully. We only wish everyone could have a garden as well-planned for long-term enjoyment coupled with ease of care... and a home with views as beautiful as the ones we enjoy every day.

April 4, 2022

Rites of Spring

 Two important events marking the arrival of spring took place over this past weekend. The first involved a cast of a dozen intrepid gardeners. The second was a more personal one for Betty and me.

The Medfield Community Garden
This is our (gulp) thirteenth year managing the Medfield Community Garden. Before we became the lone members of the Community Garden Committee (the existing members all resigned), town employees handled almost all aspects of the garden; collecting fees, mowing the perimeter and, especially, marking out the garden plots. One by one, we assumed those duties or, in the case of mowing, doled them out to gardeners in exchange for waiving plot fees. The result is an extremely high degree of self-sufficiency. We ask the town to deliver supplies of wood chips. Other than that, we’re on our own.

Town Department of Public Works employees marked out the garden the first few years. Then, Betty and I tried it on our own, with painful (literally and figuratively) results. When an entire weekend is devoted to the task of pounding 160 stakes into the ground, something is profoundly wrong. So, we asked for volunteers and the task became easier.

There are three-foot aisles
around each garden
As the garden expanded from 40 plots to 50, more volunteers were invited to join the effort, sometime with comical results. All gardens have a three-foot-wide perimeter around them. One year, an enterprising volunteer with an inexact grasp of the concept of elasticity brought a six-foot bungee cord to allow three plot corners to be marked simultaneously. A one-inch error in a 30-foot measurement is forgivable. When the fifth plot measurement was off by a cumulative ten inches, we were forced to declare the use of bungee cords non grata.

My staking diagram
This year, we had 60 plots to mark, and 11 volunteers in addition to the two of us.  Two-thirds of the crew assembled on Saturday morning were veterans armed with yardsticks, mallets, tape measures unspooling in lengths up to 100 feet. I brought 240 stakes, 60 pie plates with names and plot numbers already affixed, and – most important – a Plan. Betty and I had already laid out two long strings indicating the axis of the garden. Now, using the corner plot where the strings intersected, I showed how using the outward faces of the stakes was crucial to ensuring accuracy. Everyone nodded their understanding.

Then, I produced my singular act of genius: a flow chart. While Group 1 put down pie plates (held in place with heavy rocks) in each plot, Group 2 would move southward along the first row of plots, and Group 3 would begin marking the westward column. When Groups 2 and 3 had each marked their second plots, Group 4 would go to work laying out the second row!

And so, we staked the garden
And, lo and behold, it worked. The entire garden – more than an acre – was completed in almost exactly two and a half hours.

We thanked everyone profusely, went home, and took a long nap.

Then, on Sunday morning, we started the task of waking up our own home garden.

Beneath these leaves and pine needles,
perennials are waiting to emerge
Conventional wisdom – at least according to people who make a living taking care of other people’s lawns and gardens – is that at the end of the season, grass and shrubs should be pristine and free of leaves. That belief is horribly wrong on multiple counts, not the least of which is that leaf ‘litter’ protects bulbs and the roots of shrubs, while providing overwintering homes for valuable insects.  Accordingly, in late October and early November, we not only ‘allow’ leaves to congregate under our shrubs, we also deposit pine needles and chopped leaves over our perennial beds.

During the winter, much of that garden detritus breaks down by the natural actions of temperature, bacteria, and precipitation to become future soil and compost. In early April, we remove the excess from our home garden. Leaving everything in place isn’t really an option: a layer of wet leaves will form a mat that keeps the ground cold and prevents air, water and light from getting to the sleeping bulbs and perennials under them.

The stone wall, partially cleared
I began at the long stone wall at the south end of our property.  It collects a lot of leaves. I work with 50-gallon plastic bags, and I filled three of them jump-in-and-stomp-down full (the leaves are emptied into the woodlands that make up the back acre of our property). In front of that wall is a long perennial bed with multiple clumps of spring bulbs.

Each gentle pull of the rake revealed a waiting surprise: Nepeta (cat mint) putting out its first tendrils, wood ferns looking for sun, and daffodil shoots trying to push through the leaf mats. Three Polemonium caeruleum (Jacob’s Ladder) plants we added last spring not only made it through their first winter, but were half again as large as what we planted in the spring of 2021.

This clutch of white crocus was
under a covering of leaves
Betty began her tasks in a different part of the garden, removing leaves from areas where bulbs and perennials were pushing up. In the process, she gave clutches of yellow, white, and purple crocus; scilla, brilliant yellow winter aconite; and Chionodoxa an opportunity to show their colors.  The long border of Muscari (grape hyacinth) was freed of a winter’s worth of blow-in detritus. In a few weeks, we will be rewarded with a two-foot-wide, seventy-five-foot-long sea of blue.

Over the course of the next week, we will tackle each bed in turn, removing excess leaves and trimming perennial stalks we left up so seeds were available for birds. We do all this to please ourselves and the hundreds of walkers that pass by each week, smiling and waving their thanks.

The best part of this garden-awakening process is, when May arrives and our neighbors get out their lawnmowers for the first of a six-month cycle of weekly cuttings, we will be out on the porch enjoying the view, and admiring the very different path we took with our own property.

January 31, 2022

The Blizzard of '22 (or was it '21? Well, it was twenty-something)

They don’t make blizzards the way they used to.

The blizzard of '78 shut down Route 128
How did they make them once upon a time? On February 5, 1978, my wife, Betty, and I boarded a 7:30 a.m. flight from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport to New York LaGuardia. The forecast for New York was ‘light snow’. As we circled LaGuardia waiting to land, our pilot announced the airport had just closed and we were being diverted to Hartford. There, we were the last plane to land before Bradley Field was also closed. The airline put us on a bus, which skidded off snow-and-ice-covered I-91 15 miles south of Hartford. A second bus got as far as New Haven and we were told to take the train for the rest of the trip into the city. We managed to squeeze ourselves and our luggage onto the only Boston-to-New-York train that completed its run that day. We arrived at Penn Station at 8 p.m. with New York reeling under two feet of unplowed snow. And, we were the lucky ones: an untold number of motorists were trapped in or abandoned their cars on Boston’s Route 128 when snowplows were unable to keep up with the three feet of snow that fell.

That was a blizzard. It came, seemingly, out of nowhere; catching everyone by surprise. It created real-life tales of hardship endured and heart-warming stories of families taking in strangers. Forty-four years later, The Blizzard of ’78 is still one of the life-defining events for those who were there.

We had a blizzard here in Massachusetts over the weekend. It came complete with white-out conditions for hours on end, hurricane-force winds along the coast, and up to 30 inches of snow with drifts as high as a Boston Celtics center. Medfield, where I live, got about 20 inches over twelve hours – about half of it falling in a three-hour period in mid-afternoon.

This map was published three days
before the storm hit
The difference was, we knew it was coming. In fact, we knew the storm’s track six days earlier when it was nothing more than some scattered snow showers over the Pacific Northwest. Aided by sophisticated computer models, forecasters predicted this system would intensify as it moved east, then dip south to pick up energy from the Gulf of Mexico, combine with a low-pressure system that would form off the North Carolina, dump modest amount of snow in the Appalachians, then explode east of Long Island in something called ‘bombogenesis’.

Two days before the storm
The storm did exactly what forecasters said it would do. The only question was what would happen when it passed over some longitude and latitude marker south of Nantucket. Like a ‘Y’ intersection, it could take the left fork and dump its load of snow over one part of New England, or the right fork and clobber Cape Cod. The only speculation was over the site of the ‘jackpot zone’, which turned out to be the towns of Sharon and Stoughton, some twelve miles east of here. Something called ‘the European Model’ got the track exactly right 72 hours before the first flakes fell.

The day before the storm
Obedient to the forecast, we stocked up on groceries and wine two days before the storm. Knowing the storm’s duration (8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday), I did not go out and shovel when there was a lull. The electricity never went out (and we have a whole-house generator to back up Eversource). With a warm house full of books and streamed entertainment, we could fairly ignore what was going on outside.

And, apart from snow, what was going out outside? Nothing. The highways were empty of traffic. Our favorite bakery had a notice on its website they would be closed on Saturday, but re-open Sunday at 6 a.m. No one showed up at our door seeking shelter.

Is it still a blizzard if there’s no uncertainty concerning its outcome?

If you live on the coast...
There are some for whom the above is an outrageous statement. If you live on an ocean or bay – or worse, on a barrier island – every storm is an existential threat. But living in such a location is a conscious decision. You knew what you were getting into when you built or purchased your home, and have been reminded of that bargain every time a house up the shore from you disappears in a hurricane or nor’easter.

Me, shoveling Sunday morning
But I digress. The simple fact is, I just went through the first New England blizzard in three years, and it felt like a re-made-for-Netflix version of a movie I’ve seen a dozen times before. With Betty still incapacitated from her foot surgery, I dutifully used our snow blower to clear the driveway Sunday morning then, with a shovel, tackled the sidewalk, mailbox, and end-of-driveway plug of ice deposited by the town’s plows. My reward for three hours work was my first cup of hot chocolate of the season... and lots of ibuprofen.

It’s a sad state of affairs when you can go through a day-long snow storm and know with great certainty that, a year from now, you’ll have absolutely no recollection of it. The National Weather Service now gives winter storms names. This one should have been called, ‘Meh’.

November 30, 2021

The Report to the Commissioner

Once each year, generally in December, Betty and I are asked to provide a report to our town’s Conservation Commission on the state of our town’s Community Garden. It is usually a fairly placid affair, documenting how many gardeners had plots, how much the garden took in, and how much it spent. Not exactly a snoozefest, but neither is it a page turner.

The report for 2021 will be an exception.

We started the year with a major public works project, or at least major by community garden standards. We’ve been at 55 plots for the past seven years (65 when you include gardens subdivided into half plots), all snugly conformed into an acre-sized space. There is talk of creating a second community garden on the grounds of the old state hospital on the north side of town, but that is at least five years in the future.

In 2020, we squeezed in 70 gardeners
Last year, Covid turned the United States into a country of gardeners; everyone wanted to be outside, but in a safe space, and what could be safer than a secluded community garden? The number of applications for gardens spiked, but we also had a like number of RSVPed regrets from long-time gardeners: a number of plot-holders elected to ride out the long quarantine in summer homes elsewhere. Cape Cod’s gain was also our salvation. By limiting all new applicants to 300-square-foot spaces, we squeezed in 70 gardeners, 20 of them new.

With the garden extension
we had a record 80 plots
and 86 families
It was clear, though, we had a one-time solution. At the end of the 2020 season, almost everyone wanted to come back, and most of the refugees who moved temporarily to Dennis and Falmouth let us know they would be returning home for the summer gardening season. We asked the town to allow us to add 3000 square feet of gardens – ten new plots if all were half-gardens. And, it isn’t that we couldn’t afford it. There is actually a line item in the town budget for the Community Garden Revolving Fund. All excess revenues over expenses go into the fund and, at the start of 2021, the account held sufficient funds to pay for the work. The Conservation Commission approved the expansion and, in April, we added the new spaces. It was excellent timing because we had 18 new applicants for gardens. We opened the season with a record 80 plots and 86 gardening families.

Had that been the end of the story, we would have filed our report in early November, taken our bows, and accepted the accolades of a grateful gardening nation.

Betty's talk was canceled
two years in a row
There were, unfortunately, a few hiccups along the way.

The first one can be blamed on Covid and human nature. Each March since 2009, Betty has given a talk at the town library on how to design and plant a vegetable garden. Attendance is required of new gardeners, but there is always a standing-room crowd from returning gardeners picking up pointers and 20 or more home gardeners that want to hear from an expert.

Her 2020 talk was cancelled on the Wednesday before her Saturday morning lecture as the world closed down. The poster for her talk was still the dominant feature of the library bulletin board almost a year later when the library opened on a limited basis. The 2021 edition was also a non-starter because of social

Our handy 'how to' guides
were unread, and 'old hands'
didn't want to move to plots
that received morning shade
distancing requirements. Instead, we emailed a dozen wonderful documents showing why and how to bury fences, use sturdy corner posts, and all the other things that turn novice gardeners into experts. Apparently, they weren’t read.  And, because returning gardeners were happy with their existing plots, no one was willing to move into the new section of plots or the front row of gardens that, because of trees along the road, get less sun. The folkways and mores that are passed down to new gardeners missed a generation. As a result, much mis-information was passed among the new gardeners. I will leave it at that.

New gardeners can borrow
'Ogre fencing' rather than
spending $50 or more
The second problem was one of our own making. Our town is perceived by the outside world as fairly well-to-do. There are Patriots first-round draft picks standing in line at the local Starbucks, for Pete’s sake. The average sale price of a home in town is nearing the million-dollar mark. Not everyone in town owns a Tesla Model S, though. We also have modest homes and apartments, and gardening is not a cheap undertaking. We may charge just $18 for a half plot, but thrown in a $20 start-up fee, $50 for steel posts and fencing, and $20-30 for seeds and starter sets, and you are quickly well north of a hundred dollars.

For the first time ever, four
gardeners walked away from
their plots mid-season
To that end, we offer first-year gardeners the loan of ‘ogre fencing’ – 50 feet of fencing, stakes, and tomato cages left behind by long-departed tenants. We will also quietly waive the start-up fee. While it levels the playing field for everyone, it also decreases what can best be called ‘skin in the game’. Something that has never occurred before happened in 2021: four gardeners abandoned plots in mid-season. Those plots were cleaned at the end of October by volunteers. Our question to the Commission is, do we implement a refundable plot-cleaning fee for first year gardeners, or count walk-aways as part of the cost of being equitable?

Finally, the Commission’s 2020 decision to grant a hardship waiver to a gardener who said he had already laid down plastic sheeting before a ban went into effect, came back to bite us in 2021. Covered with plastic for two seasons, the plot was biologically dead this year. An experienced gardener, moving up from a half plot, found nothing would grow in the space and pulled what remained of her plants in July. We reimbursed her fees and the cost of her vegetable sets, and promised her a new space for 2022.

We address the Commission in January. This year we expect a wide range of questions.

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.

Abigail
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.”