Friday, September 30, 2016

The Bees and Me

Unfortunately the best times for me to work in our sunflower gardens are the same periods in the day when the neighborhood bees decide to sop up their daily supply of nectar and pollen.

Luckily for me thus far, none of these members of the Apidae family have chosen to defend their dining areas by planting their powerful stings in any of the exposed parts of my body.

Mars has however not been that blessed.  We have three varieties of sunflowers, among them Maximilian (Helianthus maximiliani Schrad, aka michaelmas-daisy), which she and I surreptitiously spirited across country on Southwest Airlines from their original home in northern New Mexico.  According to “It was named for the naturalist Prince Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied, Germany, who led an expedition into the American West in the 1830s.”  We do not actually know what the other two are.  If left to their own devices all three will grow to an elevation of about ten feet.  So when they get to about two-thirds of that height in early June we lop of the top three-quarters so that by season’s end the Maxes have maxed out at about my size – a few inches over six feet.

By then of course the yellow flowers are blooming and the bees are buzzing.  The nature of our work necessitates us getting into the midst of the plants, and the bees.  So, although Mars had on her hands protected by her pink leather garden gloves, she did not have any covering around her neck – on the back of which she “just felt a bite.”  Mars does not actually recall that part of the story but, either way, I remember seeing the aposematically coloured, orange and black pollen collector writhing on her nape and me saying,  “You’ve been stung.”

We both have been similarly pricked at prior times in our lives with no serious side effects (i.e. no anaphylaxis or death).  But still somehow even a non-lethal stinger lodged in the top of the spinal column didn’t seem like something to be ignored. Had we known then what we know now we would have bought a gross of Epipens, maybe used one or two, and saved the rest as a retirement investment – another case of woulda, coulda, shoulda.  Instead we put on some ice to reduce the potential swelling and went into a state of what the medical profession likes to call ‘watchful waiting” – with no negative results.  And Mars returned to her work with no further incidents.

My own gardening experiences with bee stings are twofold – neither involving sunflowers.

On one occasion I was home alone and decided to undertake my semi-annual task of pulling back the ivy from the foundation and siding of the house – something that I used to do without gloves in order to be able to better distinguish the roots of the groundcover from other objects such as stray cable connections, etc.  I stuck my right hand into a mass of ivy, felt the sharp piercing pain, saw the tiny black object in my finger and realized what had happened.  This was probably my first such occurrence since boyhood and being by myself I rushed into the house trying to remember if it was Adolph’s Meat Tenderizer, or Gravy Master, or what, that was the natural home remedy for bee stings.  We had neither.  I decided against driving to the nearest Chinese cookery and shouting “Yes MSG!” in favor of the same frozen water and calm patience that years later worked so well for Mars’ wound.  And it did then also.

My other bee adventure actually was a wasp attack, which I touched off by attempting to retrieve, for the first time that season, some of fermenting compost from by uncovered compost bin.  Before I could say “oh s***, I’m being attacked”, the ground wasps, which had happily adopted my rotting pile of vegetable scraps, grass and leaves as their subterranean condo were after me like the combat airships in Star Wars.   I like to think my lightning fast reflexes and Usain Bolt like speed outran them but I suspect in reality I simply had gotten myself out of their relatively small protective zone, at which point they lost all interest in the chase.

 Following the advice of a compost expert at a lecture I attended shorty thereafter I sealed the entire bin in plastic and let the vicious little varmints cook to death over the long, hot summer.  And next year my compost supply was once again good-to-go – and perhaps ever better thanks to its hothouse conditions.

Outside our family room window we have a small bed of phlox, each of which attract the largest, slowest, and most diligent bees either of us has ever seen.  These “hinden-bees” arrive early and stay late every day – beginning as large, becoming larger, and going home morbidly obese at eventide.

Neither Mars nor I have any interest in any kind of gardening involving the phlox.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Following Your Spirit Animal

The first hole on the North Nine at the Goodwin Park Golf Course in Hartford runs parallel to the driving range, which at that time of the day was totally devoid of ball-strikers.  After I had hit my tee shot and as Mars was preparing to hit hers she noticed some non-golf movement in the practice area and pointed it out to me.  We both stopped and watched a fairly large hawk on the ground, worrying some unidentifiable object.

After completing the initial hole we made a sharp right turn to the second tee where, just as I was about to place my small wooden peg in the ground, I saw the shadow of a large winged object passing overhead.  This time I alerted Mars and we saw the same predator bird flying away from us – seemingly with both a brown feathered tail and a bushy, fur, gray one – the former held motionless for flight stability, the latter waving listlessly in the wind like a 1950s car antenna decoration.

The big bird landed in a tall oak tree immediately behind our target green and disappeared into its thick leaves, which on the second day of autumn had not yet begun to turn color, or to fall.  We never saw either devourer or devouree again, but we did hear what we assumed were little hawk screeches of delight as we chipped and putted. 

Hawks are not an unusual sight at this venue – although I do not believe we had witnessed any similar carnage on these links before.  Squirrels, oddly enough, are less plentiful here.  In fact we have more of them living in our much smaller front yard than we have probably seen all season here.

 Ironically on this day however a pair of the tree rodents interrupted Mar’s fourth hole pre-shot routine by gamboling heedlessly up the fairway to the edge of her tee box – at which point they both stopped with that startled “wtf” look and scampered back to the high grass and trees alongside the fairway.

One animal interruption could be a coincidence, but three is definitely a trend. 

Over the time we have spent vacationing in New Mexico Mars and I have developed an affinity for Native American fetishes – “animal carvings that have been used by the [Pueblo Indians] for over a thousand years. By honoring the animals and acknowledging their special ‘medicine’ (their natural traits), we may summon our own similar attributes.” (

So what messages are to be read from these living on-course omens?  According to “The hawk encourages us to suspend the habit of distraction, and become more aware of the present moment”, – perfect advice for the game of golf which some would say is at least 99.99% mental.  The tree rodent spirit on the other hand reminds us to – “ooh, there’s a squirrel!”  Totally un-hawklike, and definitely not good behavior in the middle of a backswing.

On this occasion Mars and I were both Hawks on the course.  We didn’t play perfectly – but, for whatever reason, we were (in today’s jargon) pretty much in a state of golf mindfulness. 

End of story?   Not quite.

A couple of days later, as I was chauffeuring Mars and me down one of Hartford’s main thoroughfares after Brunch at a restaurant in another of the city’s parks, I spotted two more hawks.

The first sighting was on the grassy area of the park alongside the street and, similar to our initial encounter at the golf course, it was of a large brown bird of prey pecking away at a formerly animate object grasped between its feet.   The second occurred about ¼ mile later and involved a slightly smaller, empty-handed, feathered predator swooping purposefully across the road in front of our car.

My dominant spirit animal quickly took control and I calmly – “ooh, there’s a hawk!”  

Thank God I wasn’t driving a golf ball.

Friday, September 23, 2016

A Matter of Interpretation

The parterre formal garden smelled.  But not the pleasant fragrance you would hope to find in such a lush array of flowers.  The odor was ­– even the head gardener in answering my question as to its source struggled to avoid using the word – unpleasant.  (I later read it described on as “like cat urine. Unneutered male cat piss to be exact.”)
But she had no difficulty telling me the answer, “Boxwood” – the slow-growing evergreen shrub maintained here at a two-foot height to edge the multiple "compartimens" that comprise the flowerbed.

Mars and I were touring Roseland Cottage in Woodstock Connecticut – the bright coral pink, 6,000 square foot Gothic Revival former summer home of Henry and Lucy Bowen and their young family built in 1846.  The site is now owned and operated by Historic New England, “the oldest, largest, and most comprehensive regional heritage organization in the nation.”  Although occupied until the late 1960s Roseland Cottage is presented (“interpreted” in the jargon) as it was in the mid 19th century.

According to the HNE website, “Roseland Cottage epitomizes Gothic Revival architecture, with its steep gables, decorative bargeboards, and ornamented chimney pots. The interior of Roseland Cottage is equally colorful, and features elaborate wall coverings, heavily patterned carpets, and stained glass, much of which survives unchanged from the Victorian era.”


During a one-hour tour of the home with our exuberant guide Sandy we learned that Henry Chandler Bowen (1813 – 1896) was a well-respected and well-connected successful New York businessman, born and raised in Woodstock as a member of what calls  “an old established New England family whose roots were watered by faith and commerce.”   Henry’s identically named ancestor was one of the “Thirteen Goers” who on April 5, 1686 founded what was then called New Roxbury, the first European settlement in the area that became Windham County. 

 In New York City Henry C founded Bowen & McNamee, later Bowen Holmes & Co. – sellers of dry goods, silks and ribbons.  He also owned two newspapers.  Henry married Lucy Tappen (the daughter of his initial New York employer and mentor) and together they had ten children.  After Lucy’s death Henry married Ellen Holt with whom he had one child.  The Bowen’s permanent home in BrooklynHeights on the corner of Willow and Clark Streets was considered one of “The Heights” most beautiful homes.  It is unfortunately no longer standing.  Henry C was an abolitionist and one of his papers, The Independent, was a prominent voice for the movement featuring columnists such as Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe– for which it is said to have lost over 3,000 subscribers but, in turn, gained nearly twice that many new ones.   In 1850, in order to keep their trade with the South going, over 5,000 merchants in New York City signed “the call” opposing the elimination of slavery.  The Bowen & McNamee Company refused to sign.


During the 1870s, in Woodstock, Henry C Bowen annually staged what became recognized as the largest Independence Day festivity in the country.  These celebrations continued for more than two decades and in 1876 (partially to accommodate these crowds) Bowen opened the sixty-acre Roseland Park along Roseland Lake with a boathouse, private bungalows, fountains, and statuary among its facilities.  The park is still open to the public.  At this and other occasions he entertained friends and political connections such as Presidents Ulysses S. Grant, Benjamin Harrison, and Rutherford B. Hayes, and future Chief Executive William McKinley.  Other guests included Henry Ward Beecher, Julia Ward Howe, Oliver Wendell Holmes and John C. Fremont. 

One source of entertainment for these visitors was what is now the nations’ oldest surviving indoor bowling alley located in the Cottage’s Carriage House.  On his initial visit to that facility President Grant supposedly threw a perfect strike with his first ball – then declined to continue the game having already succeeded at it.  He was allowed to “achieve and leave”, however his attempt to light a victory cigar was quashed by his host who did not allow tobacco, alcohol, or card playing in his residence.   After dinners, as was the custom of the time, the women would repair to the parlor to discuss feminine topics while men would go to the den and talk politics and business.  But no one partook of alcohol or tobacco during these gatherings.  Bowen was a devotee of a healthy lifestyle and he and his family played various games on their large lawn, and golfed on a course in town that he helped to construct.  There was also a stable on the grounds and sports equipment displayed today in his son’s closets includes polo as well as croquet mallets. 


The HNE website tells us, “The entire complex of house, furnishings, outbuildings, and landscape reflects the principles of Andrew Jackson Downing, a leading nineteenth-century tastemaker.”  A prominent advocate of the Gothic Revival, he is memorialized by the Downing Urn in the Smithsonian's Enid A. Haupt Garden, on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.  He believed "There is a moral influence in a country home.”

In his book “Cottage Residences”, Downing published the designs for twenty-eight houses plus plans for laying out the gardens, orchards, and grounds including lists of various plants to be used.  Presumably following those guidelines Henry Bowen planted his formal gardens in the 1850s including, according to the gardener with whom we spoke after our tour, many of the very same boxwoods that still exist today.  The 175 years of wear and tear did not however account for the unpleasant aroma of the bush – that’s just the way they are.

“The three decades from 1830-1860 showed greater progress in horticulture in America than in all the time before.”  U.P. Hedrick, A History of Horticulture in America to 1860.

In the mid nineteenth century gardening was man’s work, and Henry along with other prominent and successful town residents met frequently to discuss state-of-the-art horticultural ideas – much like my Men’s Garden Club only probably with a nicer meeting place and better snacks – but no cigars.  The garden at Roseland Cottage however ultimately fell into disrepair under the watch of the house’s last resident, Miss Constance Bowen.  And in 1969 when Historic New England purchased the property the boxwood was over five feet tall in several places.

In addition to severely cutting back the hedges, the bigger task was determining what plants grew here and therefore should be grown in this historic site in order to interpret it as the 1850s.  Horticulturalists from Yale University and the University of Connecticut came in to forensically analyze the soil, and Henry Bowen’s records of seed purchases were studied.  (Note to self – keep all those receipts from Stonehedge Nursery just in case Mars and my humble abode ends up on the National Historic Registry.)

The good news is that the result of all this work is a relatively perfect replica of Henry’s original garden – including the exact varieties of the plants (most of which are annuals) that were available at that time.  The bad news is that the garden contains the exact varieties of the plants that were available at that time – meaning flowers that are less resistant to disease (both modern and 19th century) and less hardy.   Plus it is not that easy to get authentic seeds.  Modern organic treatments are allowed, but even so the geranium bed – the centerpiece of the garden – contracted a makes-the-plants-dried-and-ugly disease a few years ago, which they have not yet been able to get a grip on.  The gardener is currently searching for an historically accurate substitute to use instead of geraniums for next year.   Mars asked if there were any roses.  The gardener pointed to a seven-foot tall tangle of stalks with occasional clusters of orange berries, which she said were rose hips.  There were no blossoms.  The bushes from that era produce considerably fewer flowers, bloom considerably less frequently, and have longer, leggier stems than today’s varieties.  Oh, yeah – they get sick a lot also.

As a member of the Wethersfield Men’s Garden Club and Wethersfield HistoricalSociety I have an interest in both worlds that Roseland Cottage is striving to keep alive.

Coincidentally two days prior to this visit I was doing some volunteer work in our town’s Rose Garden and noticed once again, as I have frequently in the past, the complete lack of fragrance surrounding me.  That’s just the way modern roses are cultivated to be since, unlike wild ones, they no longer need to attract pollinators in order to reproduce.  Like the wealthy one percent, they have people who take care of that for them.  The current varieties also produce lots of flowers, with virtually no finicky attention from us other than watering (which happens in the background via in-ground irrigation), dead heading, and weeding.  As a visitor to this garden I miss the perfumey aroma, but when I am laboring in the hot summer sun to nurture the prickly bushes and present them “at their best” I do appreciate the reduced amount of special care the modern versions of the thorny perennials require.   

The terms of the trust that established this spot was to “make and maintain a hardy flower and rose garden to be planted on a slope of good soil” – fortunately for us makers and maintainers there are no historical interpretation requirements.  We however did, on our own, try a few of the older roses several years back with similar results to those at Roseland Cottage.  Unencumbered by any historical restrictions we decided they were not in keeping with the purpose of the garden, and replaced them with bushes that provide a “better show” for our audience.

A couple of days before my rose garden work Mars and I were volunteering for the Historical Society at a 350th birthday party and house tour for our town’s second oldest dwelling – a privately owned residence originally built in 1666 as a “two-room” structure (two up, two down) in the center of our village.   Since then it has been moved in toto, within town, on two different occasions (1711 and 1952) – and then added on to at its current (and presumably ultimate) location.  The last mover was local author and artist Eleanor Buck Wolf, one of Wethersfield’s leading preservationists and nature conservationists who lived there with her family until her passing in 2002.  Before Mrs. Wolf relocated it the building was scheduled for demolition in order to make way for highway construction.  The residence now sits on a spacious sloping lot overlooking Wethersfield Cove. 

Mrs. Wolf added a modern yet traditional-looking wing with large windows from which she could see the Cove, while leaving some of the original rafters exposed so that visitors could see how the house had been constructed.  “The purpose of saving an old house was to give it new life,” said Anne Kuckro, a friend and town historian/preservationist.  “She was not rigid in her respect for the past. She wanted to enjoy it.”  The self-imposed goal of the current owners, M & M, is to preserve the historical condition of the house, and to enjoy living in it.  M says that waking up each morning in this house “just makes me happy.”

Our Historical Society’s Curator is fond of saying that “historical buildings should have a job.”  And when that job is to be an active, lived-in, 21st Century home, while still remaining a living representation of the past, the balancing act can be quite tricky.  One change that M & M did make was to convert one of the added-on bedrooms into a Pilates studio for her business – a repurposing of which I am certain Eleanor Buck Wolf, Henry Bowen, and Andrew Jackson Downing would all have approved – a game of tenpins not being as popular today as core-strength, flexibility, and body-awareness exercises.   

The idea for the celebration and open house came from the homeowners, who wanted to share their unique homestead and its story with the people of Wethersfield.  After the event there was birthday cake for everyone.  The women and the men sat outside together looking out at the sunlit landscape and talked to each other.  There were no cigars.

(photos by Mars) 

A longtime friend and Woodstock native sent me the following correction and story.

Your referred to the last occupant of Roseland as Constance Bowen.  No, she was Constance Holt, the last of two spinster sisters to live in the home.  The other sister, Sylvia Holt, died several years before Miss Constance.  They had at least one brother, Hamilton, who founded Rollins College in Florida.  His large home was diagonally across from Roseland and located next to Woodstock Academy. 

When I was in my very early teens, the sisters brought the daughter of the famous John Drinkwater from England to live with them during the WW 11.  Her name was Penelope (really now, could that be any more British?) and by coming to the USA, she was safe from the German bombs.  Penelope attended Woodstock Academy during her brief stay with the Holt sisters. 


Friday, September 16, 2016

What Makes People Watch a Baseball Game?

Mars noticed the headline in the morning paper for the Red Sox
1 – 0 loss to the Baltimore Orioles.  “Must have been a boring game”, she said.  Obviously she doesn’t understand….

What Makes People Watch a Baseball Game?

The excitement of

the anticipation of

something happening.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Why Haikus?

I’m not deep enough

for soul-searching poetry –

so I write this stuff.

Something We Learned at Golf School

We all need our goals.

On the golf course and in life 

hit more good shots than bad.

Thanks Frank!

“Unique Will Aids Needy Single Men: Eight Institutions Also Benefit From $100,000 Fund Provided in Will of F. W. Weston” read a headline in the Hartford Courant of November 11, 1939.   The “unique document admitted to probate by Judge Russell Z. Johnston” was the will and testament of the late Frank W. Weston of 138 Elm Street in Wethersfield, Connecticut, which created a trust fund with the Hartford-Connecticut Trust Company and stipulated, among other things:

-       “beginning 50 years from the date of Mr. Weston’s death, the Village Street Mission and the Open Hearth Mission, both of Hartford, and their successors are each to be paid $100 a year, ‘such sums to be expended solely for the assistance of needy male single persons residing in Greater Hartford’”

-       a bequest to the Town Wethersfield to “make and maintain ‘a hardy flower and rose garden to be planted on a slope of good soil and to be known as the Frank W. Weston Flower Garden” – such hereditament to be nullified “in the event the name of the street known as Elm Street, where the decedent reside, is changed.” 
In August 1978, town Mayor Cynthia Matthews announced to the Courant that work on “the Frank W. Weston Rose garden in front of the Silas Deane Junior High School will begin to take shape in the spring.”  Roses would be included in an area begun the Wethersfield Garden Club, whose members would be bringing water from home to nourish the plants until the town installed an outdoor faucet.
 Apparently nothing came of this because six years later Bill Pitkin, Wethersfield’s Parks & Rec Director, contacted me as then President of the Men’s Garden Club of Wethersfield to ask if we would develop and maintain the garden.  "We started with a few bushes but by that time the money in the account had grown so we just kept adding to the rose bushes, terracing the land, adding the brick walkway, benches, the stone walls, and the arbor," recalled club member and Rose Garden Committee Chair Rocco to the Hartford Courant on June 28, 2004. Rocco, who was also the head of the town’s Taxpayer Association and (according to the article) “can't resist turning the topic to the goings-on in town hall when given the chance” added “[the town government] could all learn a lesson from these roses….’You take care of them,’ he said, ‘and they'll take care of you.’”
Twelve years after that interview Elm Street’s name is intact, the endowment is flush, and the slightly older Men’s Garden Club of Wethersfield continues caring for the garden. 
With one small exception the flower bed is100% roses.  As a result the ground rules for maintenance are pretty straightforward – simple enough to be codified in this Haiku that we chant as call-and-response work song while toiling among the thorns:

Weston Garden rules –
Fred’s Astilbes exempted.
Not a rose.  It goes!
Actually we don’t really do that – but we could!  Even though it doesn’t rhyme – or have a decent cadence.  We totally could!
In any event, on a recent Tuesday I was laboring by myself at “The Frank” and anxious to try out my new Blue Magid Glove TE194TXL Men’s Pro Rose Gloves, which I hoped would end my three-decade string of bloodied arms and hands – and yet still be supple enough to pull out the multitude of small weeds that sully the soil beneath the fragrant flowers.  A couple of weeks previous I had bumped into club VP Howard working at the garden and noticed that he was sporting leather gauntlets.  So, because I was using too much hydrogen peroxide and Neosporin after each workday at the rose garden, I inquired as to the source of his sturdy-looking safety mitts.  The answer, as it so often seems to be today, was of course – from whom, after getting the particulars from Howard I procured a pair.
I am happy to report that they do indeed do what I hoped they would.  Delighted that now I could extricate dandelions and other tall weeds that had insinuated themselves alongside the root and within the thorny stalks of the roses, I worked myself into a sweat-drenched-frenzy for the next hour or so removing previously unapproachable aggressors.
Then, satisfied with my work I snipped off a couple of flowers for Mars at home, put my tools in my bucket, and was heading off to the car when I noticed that the two tall climbing roses in the arbor area at the top of the garden area appeared instead to be one rose, and one eight-foot tall, multi-stemmed bush.  I could not identify the shrub, but I did know (a) it was not an astilbe and (b) it was definitely not a rose.  So, definitely it goes.  When I looked more closely at the situation I discerned several thorny stalks enwrapped within the thicker stemmed outsider – an even more challenging rescue operation.
Fortunately I had my new rough-and-ready garden gauntlets and my trusty Japanese pruning saw in its hand-dandy sheath – with which I vanquished said intruder and stuffed it into the upper halves of two plastic barrels already 50% full with garden debris, and already too heavy for me to hoist up to the nearby (but uphill) trash dumpster.  Other empty barrels remained however for others to use.  So the actual dumping could be deferred until multiple able-bodies were available to do the heavy lifting.
My gardening addiction satisfied for the moment and my body hot and tired – but for the first time my arms not bloodied – I sought the comfort of home and a relaxing warm shower.
 On behalf of those of us allowed the joy of working on your slope of good soil – thanks Frank!