Friday, July 31, 2009

Buck's (More) Beautiful

     The reader may recall from Junes’ Toonmoose blog, that the Milford Historical Society’s garden tour, in which we were invited to participate, was canceled for this year. What the June blog did not point out, was that for the second time, we would be participating in the annual Bucks’ Beautiful summer garden competition, in which we were awarded second place in the combination flower/vegetable garden category last year. Anticipating the work involved, I delayed entering until the last minute. Then, when Debbie Hays of the Central Buck’s Chamber of Commerce wrote to inform us of the garden judging schedule, the pressure was on.
So began what seemed like months (it was actually a few weeks) of frenzied scrambling around in the dirt, in positions only a yogi master could identify. It is a wonder that my poor fingers, crimped up from days of wrestling the roots of noxious weeds from the ground, can take pen to paper!
     As with so many things, J led the way, often appearing in the garden before seven AM, outfitted with straw hat, rubber-coated, stretch gloves, a foam knee-pad and his favorite gardening tool, a wooden-handled “claw” bought at a flea market for fifty cents. “Crocs” for our feet, of course. Jeans, that started the summer with mild wear at the knee, would, in the coming days develop gaping holes, surrounding our exposed kneecaps with heavy, fringe-like dangling strings. Which brings up the question, “What is your favorite “garden-get-up?” The first five responders to send a photograph of themselves in full gardening regalia will receive a free “Toonmoose” garden” treat.
     Jasper, our Irish Terrier, monitored our progress from the shade. A “trug” was ever at the ready, to cart away the seemingly endless number of bags of weeds that will, in time, become compost. We could hardly be blamed for identifying with the proverbial “prisoners, “ digging their way to freedom! Of course, at the beginning, a task like this – preparing a garden for judging – seems hopeless, given that for weeks, the weeds have run riot over ones intended plantings. Even so, one begins the campaign, waged one root at a time. Bit by bit, leaf by leaf, we made progress, editing out the weeds and giving definition to our desired plantings. Without getting into the “zen” of weeding, suffice it to say that we each developed a true relationship with the soil, what the French would call the “terroir.” In these days, the garden became the focus of our shared obsession. Simply put, we wanted the garden to look it’s “personal best,” independently of how any judge might assess it. That said, having been awarded Second place in last years Buck’s Beautiful competition, we felt a certain challenge to improve on our presentation. But, would we do enough? All of our efforts built to a crescendo in the week leading up to Friday, July 17, when the judges were scheduled to appear between 9AM and 2PM. Counting back the time required to accomplish our tasks, we identified a list of goals and set about accomplishing them, often working from sun up until the lightning bugs began to flicker. In one radical stroke, J ripped out a bed of Hollyhocks in the side-yard, beneath the kitchen window. He realized that the appeal of their blossoms would be overshadowed by the ugly “rust” attacking their leaves, and with a few deft strokes – chop, chop, chop – they were history. He was careful to gather the fallen leaves to minimize the presence of the disease in the soil. Where those plants had been, we now introduced a bench, creating a new seating spot in the “orchard” with potted oleanders , one red, and one white, on either side.
     Only the worst of the midday heat drove us inside, and then only to fuel up for more weeding. The day of the judging, after a fitful nights’ rest, which I interrupted to make a pitcher of fresh lemonade for the judges, I arose before five AM. It would become a sunny, hot day, but first, there was one more list of things to do, that I was convinced would help define the atmosphere of the space: the sphinxes needed to be put in place, astride the walk, but only after the sun had dried the morning dew from the grass. A weighted string needed to be dropped from the sleeping porch to the ground for the morning glories to be trained upon. What seemed like another mile of the walk still needed to be edged, by hand-ripping out the overgrown grass. The rabbit-guard fencing needed to be opened, to give the judges access to the “potager.” Lastly, I had the recommended balloons to tie in front of the house, to identify the location for the judges, and a “Garden Open Today” sign to tack to the front gate.
Last year, the judges began their rounds at our house, arriving shortly after 9 AM. This year, when first 9:30, then 9:45 passed and no judges had arrived, I became concerned. Were they lost? Not likely in the age of GPS. For another two hours, till 11:40, J and I paced about the garden, pulling a weed here, deadheading a spent blossom, there. I tried to do the Times crossword, but found myself unable to concentrate. An encounter with a baby Praying Mantis, my first such sighting of the season, I took as a good omen. Considering that we had begun this garden just four years earlier, from scratch, we felt good about what we had achieved. We just hoped the judges would appreciate our efforts.
I was inside when the judges’ car pulled up in front of our house, unmistakable with its “LUV2PLNT
license plate. Two ladies got out, clipboards in hand, and again, for the second time in two years, I was amazed that neither of these ladies was wearing a hat! On a bright, sunny day, when one planned to be outside, weren’t they required? Apparently not. I went out to welcome the judges, and to thank them for coming to visit the “potager” at Penrose Bungalow, “an American garden, reflecting a world of ideas.” I was eager to provide some context for the garden, but soon realized that, if we had done our work, the garden would do that for itself. I pointed out the orchard, the “potager,” the herb garden, asparagus and flower beds. I informed the judges of the presence of the honey bees, lest one of them be allergic, then left them to experience the garden for themselves. About this time, J appeared, bearing a tray with the pitcher of lemonade and ice-filled glasses; a refreshing treat that the judges and I appreciated. In twenty minutes time, it was all over.
Then, the waiting began. After such intense focus on our gardening chores, it was a struggle to redirect our energies. It had become “second nature” to start the day with a trowel in hand. In fact, after a brief respite, we reverted to our “old habits,” beginning and ending the day in the garden, though at a more relaxed pace.
This week, ten days later, the judges decision arrived in the mail. Below, you can read the results for yourself. My personal favorite quote comes from judge Estee Franks, who wrote “the passion is evident!”

Friday, July 3, 2009

June is "Bustin Out All Over!"

To quote from Oscar Hammerstein III in Carousel, June is indeed "Bustin Out All Over!" Those leaps of faith we started making in March, April and May, when the process of tilling the soil and planting seeds began, (our garden season officially begins on St. Pa tricks Day, March 17, when Progress # 9 peas are planted, for luck), have begun to pay off in the form of silken lettuces, succulent sweet peas, piquant radishes, and a myriad of green and red sprouts, that in the coming weeks will mature into delicious, nourishing vegetables.
In our neck of the woods, latitude 40.45 degrees N, longitude 70.35 degrees W, Junes garden growth was aided in no small part by the near record rainfall we received this month, 10.6 inches at last count. At times, it has felt more like Seattle than the Northeastern United States.
But, before we go on, there are two important items of news: First, the Milford (Pa.) Historical Society's planned garden tour was canceled, for want of enough participants. It is hoped that this tour will be rescheduled next year. More exciting news was the opening in New York of the High Line Park, the newest addition to the city's park system, on June 9th. I visited this elevated esplanade the day after it's opening and prepared a slideshow of it's reception by an eager public. To view it, please go to:
From the cold and snow of the winter, when, for the most part*, green growing things out of doors existed only as dreams in the minds eye, we have now passed the Summer Solstice, and those dreams have taken on corporeal substance, nutritional value and taste. (* I say "most part" because the boxwood border surrounding the potager continues to provide the "bones" of the garden, giving it shape and organization even in the winter when the beds are empty.)
This time of year, the garden has become our true outdoor "living room," where I enjoy having my coffee in the morning, tea in the afternoon and cocktails in the evening.
If I may suggest, consider the garden a theater set, on which Nature enacts her ancient role as "Bounty," Provider of Sustenance, to the body and soul. As with any "set," this one must be dressed. That process too, began in March, when we brought our iron, vintage 1930's American table and chairs from their winter storage spot in the studio, back outside. Now, they sit in their usual spot, under a red maple tree, a part of the "borrowed" landscape, but at the time the tree had not yet begun to get it's leaves.
When the spinach went into the ground, so too did the benches leave their winter storage and take their places overlooking the western end of the potager. When it was certain that we had passed our last frost, the lemon tree and other potted tropical plants were brought from the basement "limonaia," adding height and the element of "intention" to the unfolding drama.
By Memorial Day, when the peony's (Festiva Maxima) erupted into bloom, the first round of planting was complete: arugula, beets, broccoli, carrots, Brussels sprouts, peas, Swiss chard, spinach, string beans, endive, garlic, tomatoes, sweet peppers (yellow, green and red) okra, (green and red) radishes and fennel. These plants are the real actors in our drama.
But, our set dressing isn't complete, yet. One Saturday, along came some elements, ostensibly for the garden but equally attractive as interior decoration, as desirable as they were unexpected, so ancient in their inspiration as to be ageless, that they immediately fell into that special category we refer to as "MHI's" - "Must Have Items!"
Am I speaking in riddles? Appropriately so, for the elements I am discussing are a matched pair of sphinxes, the traditional guardians of temples and other sacred places, that since at least the eighteenth century have been coveted as garden ornaments. The sight of them stopped me in my tracks as I wandered about a country flea market in a Saturday morning. I don't know what surprised me more, that they were there at all, or that none of the other hundreds of people who were walking past them were as entranced by them as I was. Initially,, I didn't know their cost. I only knew that there was no going home without them. Despite the cobwebs that clung to them, they shone like beacons, drawing me closer to them, obliterating awareness of any other vendors wares. They are composed of a creamy white shade of cast plaster, twenty-seven inches long, seventeen inches high and eight and one half inches wide. They have no markings to indicate a place of origin, manufacturer, or their age. They are beautifully modeled, with fine musculature in their leonine bodies and serene, inscrutable human faces. Large enough to have great "presence" yet small enough to be portable, they have seemed "at home" since the moment they arrived, whether outside in the garden, astride the central walk, or inside staring at each other from atop their bookcase perches. They lend an air of history/mystery wherever they are.
Every garden is a deeply personal reflection of it's creators imagination. That said, everyone enjoys having sources they can reference from time to time, even if only to confirm their natural inclinations. Here, then, are two books that I have stumbled on - one was a present, the other I picked up at a street fair - that I think any gardener, novice or expert, will find inspirational. For those interested in flower borders, A Garden Bluebook of Annuals and Biennials, by Henry Stuart Ortloff, (Doubleday, 1931) is a rich source of information about color, habit and combinations of flowers.
Those whose botanical interests run to the edible landscape, would do well to seek out Gardening for Good Eating, by Helen Morgenthau Fox, (MacMillan, 1943). This is a compendium of her thirty years of gerdening experience, including many vegetable varieties that are long since out of vogue. Either or both of these volumes will give a curious gardener lots to think about.
Happy gardening!