Tuesday, June 29, 2010

It Is A Good Thing

One of the best things about being a gardener is that YOU get to decide which plants are the weeds - sheriff, judge, jury and executioner.

Sometimes the villains are obvious, like in our town's public rose garden - no thorn, no fragrant flower, no good.

Along with several members of my men's garden club I was working there the other day. Our job was twofold: (1) do the deadheading and other pruning that we perform every week and (2) complete the annual spreading of cedar bark mulch, which we had begun last weekend and then, as nearly always happens, did not have enough decayed material to cover the entire area, so we were back this week with more - too much of course.

There were eight of us. We generally do a good job of informally and silently dividing up the workload. When I arrived I assessed the situation, grabbed my forked-tongue weeding tool, put on my thick leather gardening gloves, and began pulling out unwanted flora in advance of the incoming mulch.

Weed removal in a rose garden is a combination of yoga-like postures, and blood-dripping masochism. The wild plants seem to embed themselves as closely as possible to the flora that belong there. Getting to them requires the hunter to crouch down almost to ground level and insinuate his body in a serpentine manner through the maze of thorn-laden branches.

When I am pursuing something I have (depending on your perspective) either the gift, or the unfortunate habit, of fixating "like a laser" on that object - to the exclusion of everything else, including my target's immediate surroundings. ("Task oriented", said a former co-worker. "Tunnel vision" says Mars.) As a result I might stumble over an unseen Great Dane dog when meeting its master. Or trip on my lawn mower while reaching for a tool on hanging my garage wall. In my rose garden weed quest I kept forgetting to watch out for the sharp-pointed projections that jutted out from the surrounding shrubs.

My shirt got caught. My hat was grabbed and thrown to the ground. And my arms became scratched and bloody. But still, I got my prey.

The high point for me was a dandelion whose taproot was totally intertwined with the anchoring apparatus of its host rose bush. It was clearly a long-standing friendship - the leaves were more than large enough for a good-sized salad, and each one had affixed itself in some manner onto its favorite branch. It took several minutes of poking and picking to determine where the broad-leaf villain's lifeline to the earth was. And several more in order to finally wedge the uprooting tip of my tool under the dandelion without also lifting up its benefactor. When I did I shouted and waved my trophy in triumph.

The blood streaming down my bare, suntanned arms only made my victory that much sweeter.

Just the day before I had been pulling weeds from one of my perennial beds at home. There were very few vexing interlopers to extract, and those that were around, were very subtle in their self-presentation. I truthfully was a little disappointed, being more in the mood for a large scale, grip-um and rip-um foray, than a delicate fine-tuning operation. And I began to feel even worse when I couldn't find any enemy in sight.

Then I spotted two too-slender green blades in the midst of one of my iris beds. I removed my gloves and slowly slid my hand down the first stalk until I felt dirt. Then I gently removed it from the earth and laid it down next to me.

When in need, even grass can be a weed.

It is a good thing to be a gardener.

Monday, June 21, 2010

C.A.T. - C.S.I. Wethersfield

The one witness (me) saw the presumed perp (he or she) from the back intently trotting away from me across our backyard towards our compost bin corner. The tops of the plump victim's purple wings were visible swaying back-and-forth over the (alleged) killer's narrow shoulders.

I said something - inane most likely since I was talking to a fleeing feline felon who had never previously so much as acknowledged my presence even as it stalked its prey, on my property - but the escapee ignored me and continued on at its unhurried pace.

The cat began appearing in our yard over the winter - a weekly or every other sighting as it passed quickly through the area. Once or twice we found cat prints on the engine hood of our vehicles. He (or she) is a small, delicate, gray with grayer striping animal who has never ever evinced the slightest interest in striking up a relationship with either mars or me - not even a passing one.

As the weather warmed and (a) more birds appeared at our feeders and (b) the underbrush within which he/she could hide became spring-season think, the gray grimalkin became pretty much a regular in that one particular portion of our property.

Our neighbor J* - who drops by daily as a part of his dog walks with E*, his docile pit bull - says that the cat lives one street over and has a fence-free, straight commute through the adjoining acreage into our hunting preserve.

Concurrent with (a) and (b) above its movements had become almost exclusively panther-like - slinking stealthily, below the radar, underneath the potted petunias that decorate the south side of our driveway. Then, darting across the tarmac, it dove into the hydrangea that grows adjacent to our bird-feeding tree - the main gathering place in our yard for pigeons and other ground-feeders.

Frequently Mars and I would sit on the shaded pathway next to the blue-flowered bush totally unaware of the cat's presence until the large green leaves would being to move in a way that could not be inspired by the wind. A careful check of the hunting shelter would reveal a glimpse of gray fur pulled tight by the tensing muscles beneath it.

Suddenly the stalker would lunge into the open and the birds would take to panicked flight, cooing excitedly and scattering feathers. The cat would stare at the now empty space around him or her with a look of total disbelief at its failed attempt.

But this time it worked. And Mars and I were not there to see it.

We had just returned from shopping and delivered the first wave of bags containing the perishables into the house and into our refrigerator. There being but two more to retrieve I went out by myself and spotted to my left the sinewy gray stripes returning to its home.

I looked to the right and saw the pile of torn feathers under the feeders. Then, as I looked along my imagined path from the murder scene to the escape route, I saw the exsanguinations in the perennial bed, and the blood trail across our driveway.

I quickly called Mars out to witness the results of the carnage that had been committed in our absence. Then, because I doubted I could get Marg Helgenberger in a tank top to do it, I forensically documented the crime scene. Even though I did not hear that loud "Fwump!" sound that accompanies such photographic efforts on television, I think the evidence will still hold up in court.
Although I suspect that, for whatever reason, the case will never actually come to trial, I do not think that the pictorial evidence will be wasted. I am hopeful that a reality show could be in the offing for both of us, and the kitty. Just think of it as "NOVA" modified into a disgustingly bloody police procedural program - "C.A.T. - C.S.I. Wethersfield."
I know at least one of us is willing and able. The gray assassin was lurking furtively at its post under the hydrangea the very next morning when I went outside. Now if I can just get Mars to pick up a couple of those close-fitting sleeveless tops, we should be well on our way to becoming the next "must see TV."

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

(Largely) Let It Be

Frequently Mars and I are unsure as to the identity of many of the perennial flowers we grow on our property.

It is not because we are ignorant of floriculture. In general we know what the plant is when we put it into the ground, and roughly what it can be expected to do. We apparently just don't consider it vital enough information to store it in our long-term memory neurons.

Nor is it because our gardens are unplanned. They are - to a degree. Then inevitably a friend gifts us with a new shrub. Or an abandoned plant begs to become a member of our forever family. And we find a place for them.

But this time we know exactly what we are talking about. It is a "mophead" type, "Endless Summer" hydrangea. It is the plant that's confused. Actually it knows that it's a hydrangea. It just can't decide what color it wants its flowers to be.
"Flower color in hydrangeas is influenced by the presence of aluminum, as well as soil pH. For blue flowers, the plant must have access to aluminum. If the soil naturally contains aluminum, the pH must be slightly acidic for the plants to access it. A range of 5.1 to 5.5 is ideal. To get the bluest hydrangeas possible, a solution of 1 tablespoon of aluminum sulfate per gallon of water can be applied to plants throughout the growing season. To avoid burning the roots, water plants well before applying solution.

"When the pH is 6.0 to 6.2, hydrangeas will turn pink. Adding dolomitic lime to soil several times a year will raise the soil pH. However, take care not to raise the soil pH above 6.4, as an iron deficiency may turn the plant's leaves yellow." (Hartford Courant 6/11/2010)

Our bush is getting pretty well stocked in flower heads. But the hues of the individual ones vary from Al-loving blue to dolomite-absorbing pink - with some solidly in one camp or the other, several attempting to accommodate both (either half and half, or all purple) and a few white ones.

When we planted the shrub we put it into a well-turned plot of native dirt, topsoil, compost, and peat moss. But we've never done anything "Chemical" to influence the results.

Last year Mars saw something in the paper about using coffee to lower the pH level. I looked on the Internet and, not surprisingly, found some websites touting the breakfast beverage as an acidifier, and others equally convinced it was an acid neutralizer. Neither the newspaper article nor the web pieces explained whether it was the caffeine or some other ingredient that caused the effect - whatever that effect turned out to be. All we have is decaf anyway so - with really steady nerves - we gave it a try. Why not?

Every morning, for a couple of months beginning in early spring, I faithfully scattered the wet grounds from our cone shaped little Braun basket around the base of the plant. The squirrels and ground feeding birds looked quizzically at the dark brown pile that was accumulating adjacent to their feeding area. A couple of them gave it a sniff. But none of them paid any more attention than that.

In June blue flower heads began to appear. Mars and I were quite pleased. And we probably would have been even happier if we had been able to remember whether the new hues were more vivid, or the same as, or duller than those of the preceding year.

Whatever it was - and we never did decide - it was good enough for us.

So this annum, in the end (without the aid of coffee), I suspect the hydrangea will once again choose to adorn itself in azure. But whatever color choice it makes will be just fine with Mars and me.

We have become quasi-laissez-faire gardeners. "Quasi" because we still weed, and maintain favorable social distances between our shrubs by pruning the intruders back and sequestering them behind wire barriers. Laissez-faire because we trust the plants to take care of the rest.

This type of gardening is easy when the flora grow in good soil, get enough rainwater, have sufficient room to be themselves, and (most importantly) know exactly what they are supposed to do - year after year after year.

It is our version of intelligent design.

Monday, June 07, 2010


I do not think of myself as a conspiracy theorist -- no CIA/JFK cover-up, no 9/11 false flag operations. But when something that seems like it should be soooo! easy, turns out to be an impenetrable mystery, you just gotta wonder!

The source of my frustration is the origin of the name Wintergreen Woods for the nature park in my hometown of Wethersfield, Connecticut.

I was asked to research and write about the history of the preserve by a neighbor who is a member of the town Conservation Commission. To jumpstart my investigation she provided me with a set of reports on the area done by geography students at a local university. Although these papers concentrated mostly on the land, flora, and fauna of the woods, they did provide a chronology of most of the key twentieth century events that led to its establishment.

They did not however discover when or why it received its name.

I looked at town histories, old town maps, and Parks and Recreation Department planning reports and was not able to find one single reference to "Wintergreen Woods" prior to 1960 when it is mentioned in one of the above planning reports as "to be acquired". On most maps the area is simply not labeled. Others from the 1600's show it without a clear boundary and terms like "The Great West Field", "Tappins' Hill", "The Great West Swamp" and "Wolf Swamp" written over portions of what is now the park territory.

The major newspaper in our area was started in 1764 ("oldest continually printed" paper in America) and has lots of information about the early days of our village, which was founded in 1634. And it is all online.

For the first 196 years there is nothing about Wintergreen Woods. Then I found a 12/4/1961 article, "Council To Get Request For Renaming of Park", which said that The Wethersfield Town Council had received a request from the Committee on the Preservation of Old Wethersfield to "give the Folly Brook park area back its old name of 'Wintergreen Woods'".

I went to read the minutes of the town council meetings, which are stored in a locked, gray metal storage cabinet at the Wethersfield Town Clerk's office. The typed documents -- you could feel the imprint of each letter on the back of the page -- are stored in red leather binders that cover varying periods of time depending upon the number of pages required to document each gathering. There is a manually prepared index, which listed Wintergreen Woods as a topic.

On 12/4/61 the petition was tabled for discussion and the matter lay dormant until the January 21, 1963 council meeting at which the "Manager said the historians in town had suggested that this area was originally known as Wintergreen Woods and they had suggested that the park be called Wintergreen Woods Park."

The motion was passed.

Now all I needed was the letter from the Committee on the Preservation of Old Wethersfield wherein they undoubtedly gave documented evidence for their claim as to the appropriate name. The Town Clerk's copy was destroyed, probably in 1962 since such papers legally need only be retained for one year.

The Wethersfield Historical Society, source for most of the maps and other historical material mentioned above, had boxes of correspondence from hundreds of town organizations, but no information at all on the Committee on the Preservation of Old Wethersfield.

It is almost as if they didn't exist.

So here are my theories as to how Wintergreen Woods got its name -- neither of which will even be hinted at in my final paper to the commission.

(1) Several twentieth century reports and newspaper articles refer to the land in question as Folly Brook Park, or the Folly Brook area. My house is on the corner of Folly Brook Boulevard. That name, and that body of water, resulted from a failed attempt in the mid 1700's to reroute another stream, Beaver Brook, which runs through that part of town. Town residents affixed that name derisively to the unintended resulting rivulet.

Some traditionalists (every town has them) never took to the Folly Brook appellation and its connotation of foolhardiness. One even forced the town to replace signage identifying the waterway with a guidepost reading "Beaver Brook", and attempted to have the eponymous street renamed "West Swamp Parkway".
One night over gin and tonics a group of these folks concocted a plan for ridding the park of its odious name. It probably started as a drinking game, but quickly escalated into a full blown political movement. They came up with a name they liked, invented a fictitious provenance, formed an imaginary "commission", and knowing how in the land of steady habits precedent is everything, mailed their demand to the Town Council.

The rest is history.

(2) It was a senior prank pulled off by members of the class of '61 at Wethersfield High School. My wife Mars graduated from there that year, but disavows any knowledge of such a hoax -- exactly what she would do if it really happened.

Her fiftieth reunion is next year. Now I have a legitimate historical reason to go with her. After pouring a few Mojitos into some primary sources I am positive I will get to the truth at last.

Kind of makes you wonder why the Warren and 9/11 Commissions didn't try that. Hmmm.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Contradictory Terms in Conjunction

Truth gnaws away at
oxymoronic sales hype.
"Squirrel Proof feeder!!!!"

(Click photos to enlarge them)