November 30, 2017

Winter May Be Coming

The jet stream spent much of October
touring the Maritime Provinces
I cannot remember a more pleasant autumn.  The jet stream spent the month of October touring Quebec and the Maritime Provinces, giving southern New England the longest growing season (and warmest October) in the record books.  When you’re still picking arugula and harvesting chard the day after Halloween, it’s easy to convince yourself that winter may be postponed indefinitely.

My wakeup call that this was wishful thinking came with a thud the evening of November 11.  That night, the temperature plunged to 23 in Boston and as much as ten degrees colder in even close-in suburbs.  The thermometer on our porch read 17 degrees.  Overnight, the leaves on our hydrangeas went from green to black and that arugula turned to mush.

I am not by nature a procrastinator (my wife’s laughter at this notion notwithstanding) but I had, quite justifiably, been putting off a lengthy list of end-of-season chores because, well, I thought we might still need those 280 gallons of rainwater in our rain barrels and cat litter jugs.  Imagine my surprise when I found the water in those jugs was frozen solid and it took a hammer and chisel to break the ice in the rain barrels.  Three sets of outdoor hoses were also frozen; fortunately, none had split.

NOAA is on record as saying this
will likely be a warmer than
normal winter...
I had also deferred picking up the various ornaments that populate our garden on the grounds that they are attractive and bring joy to our lives. They are also quite heavy.  My procras… excuse me, my reasonable delay in bringing them in cost a concrete turtle a leg and a fish a fin.  When I get around to gluing them back together, they’ll be just like new.

It took ten days (you may remember it rained a lot), but the barrels eventually were emptied and bleached.  A few days later, the newly sanitized jugs went into winter quarters in the basement.  I even helped take apart the summer container gardens despite my pointing out that several of them still had guara and salvia in bloom.

We don’t rake leaves as a rule.  Rather, we treat them as a winter mulch for plants and home for beneficial insects.  However, Betty pointed out that the maple tree at the front of our property had dropped all its leaves on the gravel, off-street parking pad.  Moreover, the wind had blown those leaves into two-foot-deep drifts along a rock wall.  I said they would be much lighter and easier to move after they dried for a few more weeks.  The day after Thanksgiving I was handed a rake and a tarpaulin. 

... While the Weather Channel has
New England being colder...
I still am waiting on putting out the driveway markers.  You see, there’s a La Nina setting up shop in the Pacific Ocean.  The Old Farmers Almanac predicts seasonal temperatures with above-average precipitation, but NOAA just released a map showing New England with a 40% chance of warmer than normal temperatures.  But a Boston-area meteorologist and blogger named Dave Epstein points out that when November is colder than average, the odds of a snowier than average winter…  You get the idea.

I think I’ll wait until these forecasters reach a consensus.  Then I’ll decide when it’s time to put out the markers.  Unless, of course, the ground is frozen, in which case I’ll have to find the metal stake I use to punch through the soil.  And the mallet.  I think I’ve misplaced that, too.

October 30, 2017

Thank You, Dorothy Jasiecki

Dorothy Jasiecki, circa 1967
This weekend I will make a pilgrimage to a place that will always hold a special meaning to me, and to see people I came to know in the first two decades of my life.  It’s my 50th high school reunion.  Interestingly, I suspect the people with whom I’ll spend the most time will have a common denominator: a teacher named Dorothy Jasiecki.

Me in 1967.  The less
said, the better
I am by trade a writer, and I say that with pride.  For 35 years, I plied a very different craft that occasionally required me to put words to paper, but which I can say with complete honesty never gave me anything like the personal and professional satisfaction I have felt for the past twelve years.  The reason this blog exists is because writers, like (for example) pianists, need to practice.  Just as a pianist does not sit down at a concert grand and begin playing ‘The Appassionata’, so a writer does not go to his or her keyboard and begin writing that Great American Novel.  The pianist begins with ‘etudes’ – literally, study pieces - that stretch the fingers and make the mind warm up. 

This blog is my equivalent of an etude.  It is about gardening because I am married to a virtuoso gardener and I am her helper, and also because writing about gardening is considerably more interesting than opining about, say, politics or wine.  Each entry is as carefully thought through as a short story and is polished to fit within a prescribed length.

Me, earlier this
month.  The less
said the better
I am a writer because, from September 1964 until June 1967, Dorothy Jasiecki taught me to love language, literature and words.  She had been recruited by a young principal named John M. Jenkins to teach at a spanking new school, Miami Springs Senior High School.  I was in one of her classes that first year strictly by happenstance.  The following two years, she was my English teacher by design.

Miss Jasiecki (the notion of calling teachers by anything other than ‘Mister’, ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs.’ lay many years in the future) created and followed a lesson plan that ensured we read and mastered the material that would appear on tests.  What made her so extraordinary was how she conveyed that information and that she demanded we go far beyond what was required by the Dade County Board of Public Instruction.  She effectively had a second syllabus, one of her own devising, that was intended to stretch – and open - our minds. 

Our reading list was designed to
stretch the mind
Part of her methodology was to reach deep into her own knowledge of literature to awaken our own senses.  She spent much of one class session reading Beowulf in a way that I felt I was gathered around a hearth fire, listening to oral tradition being made.  We delved into poetry far beyond Emily Dickinson or Robert Frost and spent several days dissecting The Wasteland and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock; titles that almost certainly were not sanctioned by the bureaucrats at Lindsey Hopkins.

The balance of her teaching style was to challenge us to think about what we were reading.  To be in her class meant you came to school prepared, and ‘prepared’ meant you had not only read the assigned book but that you had understood it.  And God forbid you came into class spouting something from Cliff’s Notes.  (I tried that once and was found out almost immediately.)

All of this was leavened with philosophy and humor.  The final five minutes of class could comprise a discourse on the importance of shaking hands or a treatise on elbows.  These ‘sermonettes’ as we called them stretched us further still, if for no other reason than because we had no idea of what was coming next.

Miss Jasiecki was a tough grader.  I made very few ‘A’s’ in her class.  But I tried harder than I did in any other subject both because she expected it and I knew it pleased her. 

She was recognized for her skills.  Florida named her a ‘Star Teacher’ and sent her on a statewide tour with a similarly high achieving student from my class.  My great hope is that she inspired other educators as much as she inspired us.

At the 2007 reunion with Ms. J.
That's classmate Jane Greer at right
I last saw Miss Jasiecki ten years ago at my 40th reunion and spent much of one evening doing nothing but listening to her reminisce about her years in the classroom.  Time had taken its toll on her body, though not on her mind.  It turns out that her best memories were of her first years at Miami Springs and at her predecessor school, Norland High. 

She passed away in 2015.  Were she alive, she would have turned 92 today.  And, in an important sense, Dorothy Jasiecki is still very much alive in 2017.  She touched thousands of lives and, for a certain number of them (including mine), she left an indelible impression that transcends time.  She still looks over my shoulder as I write; ‘tsking’ at lax grammar and use of ‘easy’ adjectives.

Ms. J circa 2015
We did not all become writers or poets.  We went into computer science, sales, engineering or education; we raised families or went into the military.  But we all learned how to think and, regardless of future occupation, that skill made us better individuals.

Principal Jenkins attracted a pool of talent in those first years that made Miami Springs a school unlike any other.  I had many teachers – Jack Gonzalez, Agustin Ramirez, and Phil Giberson come immediately to mind – who were outstanding and committed to quality education.  But I can draw a direct line back to Dorothy Jasiecki and say, without hesitation, that she was the teacher who most inspired me.  I would not be the person I am today were it not for her.

Happy birthday, Dorothy Jasiecki, and thank you for being the teacher you were, and the inspiration you still are.

October 17, 2017

A River Runs Through It

When we making the final plans for our ‘retirement dream home’ three years ago, we put a fair amount of thought into water management and our environmental responsibilities.  Our overriding goals were to a) keep water from our property out of the sewer system, b) preserve water for an extensive in-ground garden, and c) put as much water as possible into the wetlands we adjoined. 

The new stone culvert.
Double-click for a
full-screen slideshow
To that end, four rain barrels would capture roof runoff from the rear of the house before diverting the leftover water to underground pipes that let to the wetlands that form the back two-thirds of our property.  We did our best to make all ‘hard’ surfaces permeable: our driveway was crushed stone rather than asphalt; even our patio was designed with open spaces for water to soak in.  We agreed that gutters would spoil the look of a house and so we avoided them in front; opting instead for a two-foot-deep, rock-filled catch basin the stretched the length of the roof line.

We were left with one unaddressed problem area: a downspout from a gutter servicing the roof over our garage.  For the first year we allowed water from the downspout to splash unmolested out into our stone driveway.  It wasn’t a problem: rainwater easily perked through the rock and helped recharge our ground water.  The problem was that it did nothing for the nearby garden plantings.  We tried diverting the downspout to empty directly into a perennial bed.  The force of the water promptly washed away the surrounding mulch.  Houston, we have a problem.

That's Magnolia 'Elizabeth' in front
Fortunately, there is a civil engineer that resides deep with Betty’s soul.  There is a stonemason that lives within mine.  Betty yearns to harness Mother Nature’s energy.  I love to move rocks.

And so was born the Great Culvert Project.  On a crisp early October day, I dug a winding trench: 25 feet long, a foot deep, and a foot wide.  A masterpiece of design, it skirts the root systems of three clethras, a peony, and large amsonia ‘Blue Star’.  It terminates at the root line of a yellow-blooming magnolia ‘Elizabeth’ and the opening stretch of a ‘river’ of geraniums. Next spring, everything in its course will bloom like a New England Eden. 

Oh, and some rocks would be a nice idea.  simple math from the above description says I removed 25 cubic feet of soil.  All that was left to do was to direct the drain pipe into the culvert and add some rocks to keep the walls of the culvert from gradually caving in.  Allowing that the goal was to have water flowing through the culvert, we likely needed a total of maybe 20 cubic feet of rock.  

The culvert connects into
a river of geraniums
Where to get rock?  Normal people go to places where various sizes of rock is sold.  There is even one such place right here in Medfield.  You drive up and someone loads up your car or truck.  You take it home, get the job done in a day, and retire to the back porch for a gin and tonic.  We are not normal people (except for the gin and tonic). Buying rocks is abhorrent to our nature.  Rock, like music, wants to be free. 

Instead, we began scrounging rock from around our property, then from the Community Garden where we have a plot, and finally from (what we think is) a town-owned area where piles of rock mysteriously get deposited on a regular basis.  Over two weekends we filled tubs with large rough rocks for the bottom of the culvert, small smooth rocks to top the culvert, and flat stones to form the riverbank.

Our problem was that after filling six, five-cubic-foot tubs, we were less than half finished with the project.  Why would it take more rocks to fill the culvert than the volume of soil we removed?  OK, the ‘riverbank’ might account for some of the overage, but this was getting ridiculous.  In the end it took twelve tubs and five trips.  Why, I haven’t the faintest idea.

We finished the project over the weekend.  A lot of Advil was consumed in the process.  Was it all worth it?  Of course.  How often do you have the opportunity to build your own river?

October 7, 2017

Gardening Rocks

20,000 years ago, New England
was under a mile-thick sheet of ice
Twenty thousand years ago, New England lay under a mile-thick layer of ice.  Glaciers pushed down from the north, sculpting the land as they pushed southward as far as what is now southern Illinois.  Then, some ten thousand years ago, those glaciers gradually retreated, leaving behind terminal moraines that became Long Island and Cape Cod, and creating the Connecticut and Hudson River valleys.  Playing sand castles on some cosmic scale, glaciers gouged out the Great Lakes and New York’s Finger Lakes.

Louis Agassiz
The glaciers also occasionally ‘burped’, leaving piles of rocks in odd places.  Areas of bedrock proved to be the immovable objects against which the otherwise irresistible force of the glacier was forced to go over rather than through.  As the glacier moved, it pushed along sometimes enormous chunks of rock it had gathered from more pliable formations. 

Until the nineteenth century, the above paragraphs would have been considered something between nonsense and heresy, especially in the United States. Everyone ‘knew’ that Noah’s Flood had been responsible for the shape of lakes, rivers, and mountains.  Then, in 1837, Swiss Professor Louis Agassiz proposed the theory of glaciation.  His work caught the attention of Boston philanthropist John Amory Lowell, who induced him to emigrate to America, where the ‘Noah’s Flood’ theory was still firmly entrenched.

In the background is 'Little' Agassiz.  Double-click to see
the family at its base.
Agassiz settled at Harvard and found the New England coastal plain to be a proving ground for his theory.  Over several decades, glaciation came to be the only rational explanation for ‘errata’ like giant rocks atop hills that were hundreds of miles from their point of origin.  One of the prime examples of such ‘errata’ was a pair of rocks in Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts.  In 1874, at the end of his career, Agassiz visited the site and confirmed what his students had found: a glacier had pushed up and left behind these rocks.  The site was named for him.

On Saturday, Betty and I hiked half a mile from the nearest road to observe these rocks, which more than lived up to advance billing.  We were at the top of a prominent hill overlooking the countryside and there, in two locations, were these barn-sized rocks, the smaller of which was resting at an improbable angle.

A Google Maps view.  The white area marks the site
surrounding 'Little' Agassiz.
We were able to do this because, decades ago, someone gave a large chunk of land (which was later augmented by additional gifts) to an organization called Trustees of Reservations.  In Massachusetts, the Trustees own vast swaths of ecologically sensitive or historic land.  Their goal, stated elegantly, is to protect the region's heritage for future generations. 

The Agassiz Rocks Reservation is a rounding error in the Trustees holdings, a few hundred acres in a part of Massachusetts that has dozens of similar sites (including the Trustees’ ‘crown jewel’, Crane Beach).  While there are marked trails and an evident effort to ensure that ordinary walkers can get from the road to the rocks (and beyond), there’s no admissions gate or other barrier to entry.  On an early October day at noon, there was just one other car in the parking area.

Clethra grows wild, too
I write all this because, when the gardening season draws to a close, it is time for gardeners to go exploring new places and see what nature can teach them.  Saturday offered a few eye-opening lessons.  The first was seeing a grove of clethra surrounding ‘Big Agassiz’.  To me, clethra is a ‘suburban’ shrub; we have half a dozen compact specimens in our garden.  But there it was: an expanse of clethra growing as nature intended in a boggy area at the base of the rock.  It was, in its own way, an epiphany.

The ferns at the top of a rock
Then, there were the ferns.  Betty saw them first: they were improbably ensconced fifteen feet up at the top of an enormous rock.  The ferns were thriving where they ought to be washed away with every rainfall and erased out of existence with each winter.  Were they growing in a quarter inch of leaf litter, or had their roots found purchase in unseen crevices?

With luck, yesterday started a new season of discovery and of learning.

October 6, 2017

Ready for Fall

Fall is finally in the air.  The autumnal equinox came as scheduled on September 22, but ever since, the calendar has said one thing and the New England weather has spoken something quite different.  We were still picking the last of our luxuriously sweet yellow corn from our garden just last week.
The last gasp of one of our hostas
Now, though, things are changing swiftly.   In our vegetable garden, the corn has now been pulled and the green beans (and the bean beetles – good riddance!) are just a memory.  Zucchini that grew from a flower to a baseball bat in three days now takes a week or longer to become picking size.  Tomatoes continue to ripen but are no longer growing. Conversely, the cool-weather crops – spinach, lettuce, arugula – are hitting their stride.
Suddenly, our garden is blooming
purple, like these asters
Things are still blooming in our garden… almost all of them purple.  Asters, geraniums, vernonia, callicarpa (beautyberry) and aconitum (monkshood), having been nothing but greenery all summer, have come out of nowhere to declare autumn their private domain. The perennial season is going out with a decidedly violet bang.
Most of the trees on the property still have that voluptuous, late summer look but, here and there, the leaves have started to turn – an omen of the color explosion later this month that gives New England its seasonal distinction.  One of our itea ‘Henry Garnet’ got a jump on the season; it is a brilliant red and orange.  Our amelanchier (shadbush) seemingly overnight went from all green to speckled yellow and rust.  A single branch of one of our high-bush blueberries has turned a brilliant red – a semaphore of things to come.
Beautyberry and
geraniums, all purple
The hummingbirds have departed.  Just a week ago they were dive-bombing one another at our feeder in some senseless ‘if-I-can’t-have-it-then-neither-can-you’ ritual that must be programmed into their DNA.  Hummingbirds know when the fat lady is warming up in the wings.
And, almost overnight, the hostas are turning yellow.  If we do nothing, they’ll turn to yellow mush when we get our first frost (though the ten-day forecast shows nothing lower than the mid-40s).  However, we allow our hostas to go out with a semblance of dignity.  This coming week, we’ll cut them to the ground, the better to prevent any bad bugs from overwintering in their foliage.
Aconitum (monkshood)
with perennial ageratum
for a backdrop
Regardless of the weather, the beginning of October begins a series of ‘lasts’ just as early April was the time for ‘firsts’.  The rain barrels that provided supplemental water for our garden all spring and summer will be drained later this month to give our young trees a ‘big gulp’ to ensure their root systems are as full as we can make them before the ground gets too cold to perk water.  The fence around our community garden plot will get taken down because there will be nothing left to tempt two- or four-footed marauders. 

We pick our first luscious macouns last week from this tree
It’s not a melancholy time – far from it.  Apple picking has started and we've already picked our first peck of macouns.  We'll pick at least one more peck before the month is out.  Autumn brings its own excitement in New England.  I’m ready.

September 5, 2017

We've Got to Get Ourselves Back to the Garden

There’s an old saw about grandchildren that goes, ‘if you haven’t seen them in a year, you won’t recognize them’.  I think the same can be said of the best gardens.  They continually evolve as they mature.  We hadn’t been to Bedrock Gardens in (gulp) two years but, this past weekend, we carved out a beautiful Saturday to see what Jill Nooney and Bob Munger have been up to.  The answer turns out to be ‘a lot’.

The garden deliberately breaks
design rules, but the effect is magical
To the best of my knowledge, Bedrock Gardens has no basis for comparison in New England.  It is the idiosyncratic creation of two people who have transformed 35 acres of one-time dairy farm land in rural southeastern New Hampshire into a space that is equal parts intelligent horticulture and sheer whimsy, with an accent on the unexpected.  It also an ‘art park’ – an expression I generally detest, but use here because it is a wholly accurate description.  And it is a garden that is not afraid of shade.  More than half of the property is heavily wooded, yet under the canopy of those tree lie some of Bedrock Gardens’ most beautiful and enchanting spaces.

Garden art
Jill is what the brochure describes as the ‘horticultural and artistic force’ behind the garden.  She designed the garden and largely chooses the plants for it.  She also builds the art you see all around the place.  And, ‘build’ is quite accurate.  Much of her work involves taking industrial and farm machinery and reimagining it as sculpture.  While I’ve included a few samples, you can peruse a more complete gallery here.  Bob has the more prosaic responsibilities of maintenance, digging holes and moving rocks (although he is also credited with creating and executing several of the intricate stone walkways on the premises).  He is definitely a Principal Undergardener.

Double-click for a full screen view
If I were to attempt to articulate the design philosophy that underlies Bedrock Gardens, it would go something like, “If you see a rule, break it.”  The garden abounds in plant and color juxtapositions that force the viewer to reconsider his or her idea of what is ‘right’.  Yet the overall effect is as glorious as anything you’ll encounter in, say, the New York Botanical Garden.

A profusion of blue pots
There are no fewer than 23 distinct gardens within the property.  Seeing them all requires half a day and sturdy walking shoes.  Truly appreciating them requires multiple visits.  This is the kind of garden that invites you to frequently turn around and see where you’ve been.  The perspective changes; sometimes subtly, other times wildly.  There are also two major axes.  A 900-foot-long one extends from a pair of thrones across a pond to an allée, a torii, and a spiral garden.  An 850-foot-long one extends from a barn across an acre of red, green, and blue grasses to the aforementioned torii and terminating at a CD tree (don’t ask). 

A shrine to hay rakes
The garden has evolved since our last visit.  The ‘acrobats’ sculpture is now preceded and framed by the beginnings of a beech arch that will take another five years to make its statement.  I do not recall seeing the ‘thrones’ on my past visit and the ‘Baxis’, a parallelogram-shaped arch is a stunning addition.

More garden art
Four years ago, Jill and Bob established a non-profit ‘Friends of Bedrock Gardens’ to begin a process to preserve the garden for future generations by converting the property to a public garden and cultural center.  The project is apparently well underway.  John Forti, who left his mark on Strawbery Banke and Elm Bank, was named Executive Director earlier this year.

Bedrock Garden will next be open in 2017 on September 16 and 17, and then one final time on Columbus Day weekend.  In the phrasing of the Michelin guides, this is ‘worth a journey’.

Here's a 45-second-long video of what the 'Wiggle Waggle' part of the garden looks like.

September 3, 2017

Gardening After Labor Day

I don't get pots of mums...
There’s an odd seasonal ritual most New Englanders appear to observe.  No, it’s not the one about not wearing white pants after Labor Day, although that’s also grist for discussion.  Rather, it is that Labor Day somehow marks the official close the gardening season.  People stop tending their vegetable gardens, they forget about their perennials, and they begin bringing home yellow and orange mums to replace their annuals.

I don’t get it.

Of course, I don’t get lots of things, including craft beers.  But to me, Labor Day is just the back stretch of the gardening year.  And as for mums, the idea of planting something in September that is guaranteed to croak with the first hint of frost just makes my head hurt.

We have 200 tomatoes
ripening.  I intend to
harvest every one.
If you are a vegetable gardener, this has been a strange season.  Betty and I normally sow ‘cold weather’ crops such as spinach and lettuce in mid-April.  Not this year.  Relentless bouts of frigid, rainy weather washed away two successive plantings.  We didn’t see our first pick-able leaf vegetables until late May.  Corn that is ‘knee-high by the Fourth of July’ was a cruel joke; we had three-inch-high sprouts on Independence Day.

But Mother Nature made up for her inattention to New England from mid-July onward.  We have frozen and bagged enough green beans to last until the Apocalypse, and we are able to keep abreast of our zucchini production only by being very generous to our local Food Cupboard and driving around parking lots checking for cars whose owners foolishly left their windows down.

On September 1, we
topped our tomatoes
Our garden is still going strong.  We have more than 200 tomatoes ripening as this is written.  Betty wisely cut off the growing tips of those tomato vines so the plants focus their energy on finishing the job they started.  The way I see it is that there are twelve hours of daylight until September 25 and eleven hours on October 16 which is, statistically speaking, the average date of our first frost.  As far as I’m concerned, the season isn’t going to end until the last tomato has ripened on the kitchen counter.

Moreover, I’ve got an entire square of corn that has only now ‘tasseled out’.  We expect to pick sweet corn well into the month.  We also have hot peppers that barely budge the needle on the Scoville scale.  I’m holding out for 500,000 SHUs and if it takes until October 16 to get there, I’ll gladly keep weeding.

One of the members of the community
garden we manage decided to stop
weeding or cutting back her squash vines
And weeding, I suspect, is why many gardeners conveniently decide that Gardening Is Passé just as the Patriots open their regular season.  Weeding is the dirty little secret that underlies all gardening, as well as the worst kept one.  Weeds must be pulled.  Weeds must be kept in check. 

For the past eight years, Betty and I have run a community garden that now contains 75 plots.  My scientific observation is that everyone weeds assiduously in May and June.  Come July, the gardening slackers begin practicing a kind of horticultural triage that distinguishes between weeds that the Garden Ogre will notice (and generate nasty emails) and so must be pulled, and those that are kinda-sorta of out of sight and therefore benign. 

This is our corn crop as of this
morning.  We should be able to
pick through the month.
Then comes August.  Everyone in the garden is away for some two-week period during the month.  Upon their return, they discover to their horror that the ‘benign weeds’ are eighteen inches high and forming seed heads, and that the Garden Ogre (that’s me) has filled their inbox with nastygrams. 

And so, rather than devote the two hours it will take to get their garden back in shape, over Labor Day weekend they take down their fence and declare that they’ve had enough for one year.  They go home and make gin and tonics.  Whatever produce remains is fodder for birds and woodchucks.  They clean their plots only at the end October after the weather is reliably cool.

Our garden will not only still be chugging along in October, we’re planting seeds now that will ensure we will have fresh lettuce, arugula, and spinach with our Thanksgiving Dinner.  Think it’s impossible?  Last year we picked our last lettuce on December 10.  That’s Week 14 of the NFL season for those of you who threw in the towel back on Labor Day.

And, while we’re at it, what exactly is so wrong about wearing white after August?

August 25, 2017

Fair Territory

Tomorrow (Saturday) afternoon, my wife, Betty, will deliver a horticultural lecture on the topic of ‘Water-Smart Gardening’.  In and of itself, that’s not an unusual event; Betty will give dozens of talks on horticultural topics to groups over the next twelve months.  But this one will be unusual.  Instead of a garden club or environmental organization, Betty’s audience will be people attending the Marshfield Fair.  They’ll come into the Agriculture Building because they saw a sign outside it advertising a talk.  With luck, they’ll leave with a large dollop of education.

I have nothing against fair food,
but it's not why I go
I’ve had the pleasure to contribute at the periphery of the Marshfield Fair for the past few years.  Rather than the one most people think of when they such events (deep-fried Snickers bars, Tilt-a-Whirl rides), the one I love exists in an alternate universe; it harkens back to the original Marshfield Agricultural & Horticultural Society.  I don’t begrudge fair-goers the thrill of the Midway, but I think my fair is a lot more fun.

Agricultural Hall in the 1920s...
New England lives in a state of grace when it comes to fairs.  Once upon a time, agricultural expositions were a staple around the country.  The Marshfield Fair, for example, got its start in 1862 when three local farmers formed what was then called the Farm and Garden Group to discuss ways to improve farming.  By 1866, returning war veterans going back to farming needed a means of pooling their ideas and formed the South Marshfield Farmer’s Club.  A year later, the club’s annual summer event had grown so large it was attracting the manufacturers of agricultural implements, while club members showed off their best farm animals and produce.  By 1869, a piece of land had been purchased for a permanent exhibition site and a fine building, Agricultural Hall, was under construction.  In the following decades, the Marshfield Fair ruled the South Shore of Massachusetts.

... and today.
Here’s a description of the fair, circa 1890: “Before the children saw the flag even, they often heard the band. Coming through the pinewoods, by train, by horse-drawn carriage of every description, and on foot, just before they emerged into sight of the Fair grounds, they heard that joy-thrilling music of the brass band. Here was where Fair really began. Anticipation had reached its height and was soon to give way to the actual joys of Cattle Show. And reality can never touch anticipation…”

I had an exhibit at this year's fair...
But times changed.  The Great Depression killed off many fairs, World War II caused others to suspend operations, and the great Suburban Diaspora of the 1950s and 1960s rendered most of the rest obsolete by converting exurban farmland into subdivisions.  In their place came the state fairs; soulless, antiseptic behemoths that sprawled over a square mile of land and were totally bereft of any sense of their rural origins and purpose.

Remarkably, a number of expositions that still look and feel a lot like their century-ago forebears have survived in New England.  In addition to the Marshfield Fair, the Woodstock Fair in Connecticut traces its origins to 1860 and will be held over Labor Day Weekend, September 1-4.  The Fryeburg Fair in Maine dates to 1851 and will be open this year from October 1 to October 8.  And the granddaddy of them all, the Topsfield Fair, which held its first event in 1818, opens September 29 for an eleven-day run.

Quilts and crafts at the Fair
I spend the bulk of my time at the Marshfield Fair inside that venerable Agriculture Building.  Upstairs, there are displays of quilts; some quite old and others brand new.  There were hand-knitted sweaters – not for sale but, rather, submitted for judging in hopes of securing a blue ribbon.  The whole floor is a tribute to creativity and skill with fabric.

Flower Show entries
The real fun, though, is downstairs.  There, Ronnie Lehage presides over what is simply known as ‘Horticulture’, the evolution of the Marshfield Agricultural & Horticultural Society’s original mission.  Gardeners are invited to bring in their best examples of zinnias, cleomes, and anything else that flowers on their property.  There’s a proper ’standard’ flower show hosted by the Garden Club Federation of Massachusetts. 

There is whimsy all around you
There are competitions to design a small grouping of container gardens and another for holiday mantel arrangements.  There is a horticultural competition for the school-aged set and categories for flower arrangements in purses, watering cans, and recycled objects.  In short, the competitions going on within Horticulture is about skill and creativity.

Where else can you see a
butterfly hatch before your eyes?
I first came to these fairs as an adult.  As I wrote earlier, I think everyone ought to have the opportunity to try that deep-fried candy bar but, personally, I’ll take a pass.  Ditto the funnel cakes and cotton candy.  But you have never had French fries until you’ve tasted the ones at the Fryeburg Fair.  The potatoes are freshly dug, still with clods of dirt on them.  They’re washed, put through a hand-cranked machine that turns them into strips, and put in a deep fryer.  In less than five minutes, a potato is turned into its finest incarnation.
A quick look around one corner of the Fair

If you live in New England and have given up on fairs as corny relics, it’s time to give them another look.  And, if you’re thinking of a vacation in New England this fall, keep in mind the dates of those upcoming ones.

July 21, 2017

The Woodchucks Are Back

Marmota monax, aka woodchuck
(among many aliases)
Only slightly less predictable than the yearly return of the swallows to Mission San Juan Capistrano each March 19 is the mid-July annual pilgrimage of woodchucks to the Medfield Community Garden in Massachusetts.  Unlike the California event, tourists have yet to take notice of the east coast invasion by multiple members of the extended Marmota monax family, so there is still time to get a ringside seat.

While I had not circled the event on my calendar, I was not the least bit surprised to receive an email Thursday morning from one of the plot holders at the community garden that Betty and I manage.  The gardener, Heather, wrote, “When I arrived at the garden this morning there was a chubby woodchuck munching away in my neighbor's (Ed’s) garden. It looked like he went under the fence so it will need some repairs…”

My immediate response was to dash off a memo to each of the 75 gardeners who grows vegetables in the town-owned garden, reprinting Heather’s email, and warning everyone that the woodchucks (there are always more than one) would not be to content to eat just Ed’s vegetables. I warned he or she will follow their nose and seek out other, vulnerable gardens and will likely post reviews on Yelp!   That, in turn, generated a panicked response from Ed, who said he is on vacation, and asked if I could effect some of those emergency repairs.  I said I would do so.

Before I continue with this story, here is what humankind knows about woodchucks.  The first thing is that they have many aliases.  They have fake IDs identifying themselves as groundhogs, whistlepigs, marmots, and half a dozen lesser-known names.  They are endemic in Canada and call home a swath of the United States running roughly from Minnesota south to Arkansas; swooping down into Mississippi, Alabama, and North Carolina.  They are thick as thieves in New England.  They are, technically speaking, a large ground squirrel.

The Medfield Community Garden is
more or less a woodchuck's idea
of heaven
Woodchucks prefer open country and the edges of woodlands.  They live in underground burrows with multiple entrances.  The Medfield Community Garden occupies a one-acre site in a former farm field (the aforementioned ‘open country’) surrounded, in turn, by woodlands that are protected town conservation land.  And, did I mention that hunting is prohibited in Medfield?  “Location, location, location.”

In my warning memo, I wrote that everyone should make certain the fence around their garden was buried.  I said, Yes, I urged you to do this back in April, and most of you took that advice to heart.  So, the real advice is to make certain your fence is still buried in the ground at least three or four inches.  If it is not, or if you did not bury it because it was too much trouble or you assumed the only hungry wildlife you needed to thwart were sheep or capybaras, take the time to bury it now.”

The gap under this fence at the
community garden is three inches.
Anything can crawl in and out.
A quick survey of the community garden this morning revealed that my estimate was a little optimistic.  Fewer than half of the 75 gardeners had buried their fences; including, of course, Ed.  While Ed’s fence at least sat on the ground, many fences in the garden began a good two or three inches above the soil line.

I further wrote, If your plot is on the perimeter of the community garden, consider driving wood or bamboo stakes through vulnerable points of entry.  Make them four to six inches apart and drive them down at least six inches.  Woodchucks are fundamentally lazy.  They won’t try to figure out why they can’t get into your garden; they’ll just go for easier pickings.  And make certain you gate isn’t the Achilles Heel of your protection plan.  Make certain it is tight at the bottom, has no obvious gaps, and consider those wood or bamboo stakes.”

I repaired Ed's garden as best I could
This is what I did for Ed.  I found the two points of entry where the woodchuck had moseyed in, and added ten or twelve stakes to seal those points.  Of course, since none of Ed’s fence is buried, that woodchuck or his cousin Ralphie has another 96 liner feet of fence to crawl under.

Bobbex-R won't kill
woodchucks, but it will
annoy them mightily
My next piece of advice involved chemical warfare.  “Invest in a spray bottle of Bobbex-R.  Bobbex-R doesn’t kill woodchucks; it just smells awful to them, causing them to avoid your garden for a more palatable one.  Apply it around the perimeter of your garden – not on anything you plan to eat.  A 32-ounce ready-to-spray bottle will cover 1,000 square feet, which means a full-size plot can be sprayed ten times; a half-size plot can be sprayed 14 times.  As an application lasts two to three weeks, one bottle will see you through to the end of the gardening season.”

Will people in the community garden buy a rodent repellent?  The uniform price seems to be $32.47 for that ready-to-spray solution.  Given that each garden has several hundred dollars of produce growing in it, it seems like a bargain.  I sniffed the air this morning for the tell-tale scent of putrefied eggs and garlic.  Nothing so far.

“If you find a place in your fence where an animal has entered, repair the site immediately, which does not mean piling up mulch or stone around the affected area,” I wrote.  “Woodchucks may look dumb, but they’re not.  They have good noses, unerringly return to the same locale, and pawing aside some loose debris helps build up an appetite.”

This morning, I observed several gardens with closely-spaced wooden stakes around what may have been previously unnoticed entry sites.  I also found a depressing number of places where gardeners had piled up mulch.  I have to learn to make my declarative sentences shorter.

My last piece of advice to my troops was this: “If all else fails, be prepared to stand guard around your garden for the rest of the season with two metal trash can lids at the ready.  I do not advocate this approach.”

It isn’t that banging garbage can lids is time-consuming (although it would likely get very old, very quickly).  It is that I can imagine that, rather than driving woodchucks from the vicinity of the garden, it would encourage families of adults and chucklings to gather at the periphery of the site, spreading blankets and bringing picnics, waiting for the rest of the band to arrive.