}

May 15, 2019

MY SPRING VISIT TO SNUG HARBOR FARM IN MAINE

A couple of weekends ago I was thrilled to have been invited to Snug Harbor Farm on the coast of Maine for a book signing. A gem of a specialty nursery. and worth a visit if you can make it - just an hour and a half north of Boston.

We have some wonderful nurseries and sources for plants and accessories here in the Northeast but one, in particular, is quite extraordinary. Snug Harbor Farm located in Kennebunk Maine is one of the more special places worth a visit in you ever find yourself in New England.  I've known owner Tony (Anthony) Elliott for years, and while I've written about Snug Harbor Farm from the first year that it opened I have never actually ever visited there. Why? I don't know other than I'm a pretty busy guy and now that my parents are gone I never seem to make time to go to Kennebunkport (where we spent every summer as kids).

Tony invited me up to speak about my book and to participate in a seed sowing workshop.

I was surprised then when I visited this weekend of where Snug Harbor Farm was. - right on route 9 about a mile from the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge -  a place where I would ride my bike often to go watch birds (geeky bird-watcher-Matt at age 12). I have to say that Snug Harbor brought back plenty of memories of Maine for me from the smell of the tidal plane and marsh grass to the sounds of gulls and terns. But what makes Snug Harbor special is what Tony and his talented team of horticulturists, stylists and workers have created - a menagerie, a botanic garden, a nursery - I'm not sure what to call it or how to describe it other than it's magical, and it recalls early visits I had made to the now infamous. Alan Haskell nursery in New Bedford, MA if any of you readers have ever had experienced that 'pleasure'.


Salvias, cut branches of crab apples and other shrubs forced into bloom along with cut flowers made the barn where I spoike and talked about my new book so beautiful.
Snug Harbor appeals to a wide audience, from flower lovers to succulent fans,there is hand made pottery and an entire indoor section with home goods that are well curated and stylish, but what they excel in are topiaries. Their signature look are tall, slender, pointed topiary and they are so well trained and tight that even I almost left with a few. I doubt that I could do any better - even though I have lots of experience in topiary craft.

Rosemary globes outside one of the greenhouses ready for sale. Each one perfectly and painstakingly trained.



Some greenhouses had long displays of potted plants that would run the entire length of the greenhouse. If you haven't noticed already, Tony styles every square inch making this plant very Instagram worthy.

Succulents and other sturdy plants for container planting are also a specialty. Tony offers selections that are rarely found at big box stores or garden centers, and most are displayed in long greenhouses.
This place is like your favorite lifestyle magazine or book come-to-life. Every corner reveals something else just as a good, inspirational book does. Hand crafted pottery, rare poultry, ccute animals, amazing hedgery,  outdoor sculptures, original installations - hidden  ideas are absolutely everywhere.

Tony designs pottery and it's everywhere around the farm. There are barns with old English pottery too.

Handmade pottery in one of Tony's barns.

As if the plants and pottery weren't enough, how about rare pigeons?  This loft alone was photogenic, but these Frillback pigeons are a rare breed - check out their curly-feathers. 

Our colder than average spring means that seedlings should be started later. Something you won't find at big garden centers who are all trying to push tender annuals far too early. Here, small seedlings will be perfectly timed for planting out at the proper size - which is small and based on weather trends, not marketing numbers. I love that. No growth regulators to stunt or force early flowering, and everything properly pinched and hardened off.
The craft of topiary isn't as easy to master as one may think, but as these myrtus show us, weekly. clipping and cold temperatures help create a tight, and proper specimen.

Few greenhouses offer such a selection or displays of succulents like this. I like how Tony's team displays plants on the upper shelves but then offers smaller plants below for sales.

Wow!

At Snug Harbor, the succulent collection is like the shoe department at Barney's or Nordstroms.




A trip here entertains, inspires and fulfills any need for regeneration of ideas. If you are a creative type like me, it's just. what one needs on a long, cold spring where it seems everything is behind. Now I want privet hedges, more cold frames, larger pottery, succulent collections on stairs and a psychedelic peacock.

At every turn, there is brilliantly sited artwork for sale.



Even these concrete spheres in front of the old chicken coop are fabulous and thoughtfully set out.

Inside the farmhouse store, more product in every room from fragrance to home goods. 


Back to topiary. these are some of those trademarked shapes that Tony and his team at Snug Harbor do so well.

Hello! A lavender hedge.

Curry Plant sphere topiary - imagine the wedding that might get these?

Lemon cyperus hedgery - for the special client who wants to have an extra special terrace.

It was so nice to see other topiary that were more like something a real plantsperson might create too. LIke these Flowering Maples, which would take me a full year to get to flowering size for my containers.



Topiary filled at least three greenhouses. How perfect is this? If you could choose only one...which one would it be?


May 5, 2019

The Art and Craft of Mapling with the folks from MapleMama


MAPLE SYRUP IS ABOUT AS OLD FASHIONED AS ONE CAN GET IN NEW ENGLAND BUT LIKE MANY ARTISIONAL PRODUCTS, INNOVATION IS CHANGING EVERYTHING. HERE IS A STORY ABOUT HOW ONE FAMILY NEAR ME IS USING MAPLE SYRUP TO CREATE A COMPLETELY NEW CRAFTED PRODUCT.


It's hard to avoid maple sugaring in much of rural New England, a season that sometimes begins as early as mid-February or as late as the end of March, as it was this year. Sugaring season is when the daytime temperatures rise above freezing during the day but drop below freezing at night, and it ends once the sugar maples bloom.


MAPLE SUGARING SEASON STARTS WHEN THE DAYTIME TEMPERATURES RISE ABOVE FREEZING BUT THE NIGHT TEMPS DIP BELOW 32° F. JOE LAUR, OWNER OF THIS PROPERTY CHECKS HIS SAP BUCKETS DAILY WAITING FOR THE SEASON TO BEGIN. THIS YEAR IT STARTED IN MID-MARCH.



The scent of maple steam wafting out of sugar shacks is everywhere, and it's just one of the joys of living in the Northeastern US. Sugaring is being rediscovered by an entirely new generation of course, just as other craft movements are so it's really not unusual to see sugar bushes (groves of sugar maples) with the blue plastic pipes running for hundreds of yards near most any farm. But thanks to my friend Cheryl who used to work with me at Hasbro, I was given a chance to see a real old fashioned maple sugar shack in action a few weeks ago - and now I think I am kind of addicted (as if I don't need another reason to move to the Berkshires or Vermont!).


I REALLY APPRECIATED THESE METAL. SUGARING PAILS AS MOST NEW ENGLAND SUGAR BUSHES USE BLUE PLASTIC FLEX TUBES WHICH ARE MORE PRACTICAL, BUT SOMETHING GETS LOST IN THE EXPERIENCE GAME. WHEN SUGARING ON YOUR OWN FARM, THIS ENHANCES THE PROCESS.

NEW SUGARING TAPS ARE PLASTIC LIKE THIS ONE, AND ON COLD NIGHTS, THE SAP ACTUALLY FREEZES. (WHICH INCREASES THE SUGAR CONTENT WITH THE LIQUID THAT IS LEFT IN THE PAIL - YOU CAN ACTUALLY TASTE THE SWEETNESS!


My friend Cheryl convinced me (with just a phone call as it really doesn't take too much convincing) to go with her to a sugaring facility in western Massachusetts - and what I discovered was that conventional and traditional methods can be used today, especially if one is only making  a few dozen gallons for home use (or for friends).



JOE LAUR OWNER OF THE MAPLE MAMA BRAND AND THIS GREAT AUTHENTIC SUGAR SHACK.


The owner of this small sugar shack is Joe Laur, and while I was not expecting what I discovered (the old-fashioned tap and bucket method he uses around his property), I was told by Cheryl that he (like us) was once in the corporate world, but now lives on a nice private farm-like property on a river and through the woods in the Berkshire mountains of western Massachusetts. Yes. I wanted to see this, for it will add to my dream of owning my own place and making maple syrup one day.



A SUGAR SHACK NEEDS LOTS OF DRY, AGED FIREWOOD. LOTS.


What I discovered was that while Joe makes syrup for friends and neighbors, what he does is own another company that produces not syrup at all, but a maple soda (oops, I mean a craft maple beverage- gotta love a completely new product!). Joe and his wife invented it themselves quite simply one day while trying to make a lower-sugar drink for their kids. Sparkling water flavored with maple syrup and whatever other fruit they had in the kitchen.  What they invented was actually a healthy soda because as you probably know, maple has a ton of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.


JOE COLLECTS THE SAP DAILY ONCE THE SEASON BEGINS, AND THIS YEAR IT WAS LATE. SUGARING SEASON IN THE NORTHEAST USUALLY BEGINS IN FEBRUARY AND ENDS WHEN THE SUGAR MAPLE TREES BEGIN TO BLOOM, WHICH THIS YEAR WAS JUST A FEW WEEKS AGO.

In case you are interested - MaplemMama is relatively new, I know that he is offering it at some food festivals this coming year so look for it, and a few of our local Whole Foods carry it he says.  Oh, there are flavors too.  I didn't try the raspberry as for some reason I don't like the taste of raspberry but I think I could live on the Vanilla Bean and Lemon Ginger flavored flavors!  I even looked for it at the Whole Foods in Cambridge this week (but couldn't find it), but it's now on Amazon too.



JOE STARTED MAPLE MAMA WITH A SIMPLE PREMISE - TO MAKE A HEALTHIER DRINK FOR HIS KIDS. IT HAS NOW GROWN INTO A BIGGER BUSINESS, BUT AT HOME HE STILL TAPS HIS OWN TREES AND BOILS HIS OWN SAP FOR FRIENDS, FAMILY, AND NEIGHBORS RIGHT HERE IN MASSACHUSETTS.


I'm not exactly sure why they named it 'MapleMama', but out in the forest, Joe showed me something that might be why. ( A 250-YEAR-OLD SUGAR MAPLE!). Joe asked us if we wanted to see the whole sugaring process up close from beginning to end. Of course!


WE WERE ABLE TO PRESSURE MY FRIEND CHERYL TO TAKE A SWIG STRAIGHT FROM THE SAP BUCKET. OF COURSE, IT HAD ICE IN IT TOO, WHICH WHEN IT RELEASED FROM THE BOTTOM, SPLASHED HER. SHE HADTO AGREE THAT IT DID TASTE VERY GOOD.



Now...if you knew Cheryl - this might just be the best part of our day in the woods.  First, the entire idea of Cheryl in the woods is something worth photographing. First off, she didn't even have boots let alone sneakers or socks. What she was wearing was something like patent leather Chanel flats.  Oh, Cheryl.

Holding her elbow though we helped her be a good sport and trudged through the snow, letting her step in the tractor ruts. Yup. Cheryl. Tractor ruts. I think she found it totally worth the effort though for a few hundred feet out behind the barns we came across the classic New England calendar motif of giant ancient sugar maples with gorgeous old galvanized buckets on them, each one full of maple sap. These weren't just for decoration, clearly, Joe was all about the total experience of sugaring. I get it. I would be too.


HOW PERFECT IS THIS - SUGAR MAPLE WOOD HEATING THE EVAPORATOR THAT REDUCES MAPLE SAP!


Maple sap is like water before it is evaporated over a few days in the sugar shack, but as Joe demonstrated - when it freezes, it condenses the unfrozen part which then tastes a bit sweeter and even a touch mapley. He handed me a bucket to taste (yes, right out of the frozen bucket) and then he handed it to Cheryl. Always a good sport, she sipped a few swigs but then the ice that was frozen to the bottom fell and maple sap splashed all over her Dior coat (or whatever coat it was). We all laughed, and I just wished that I had caught that image on my camera.



THE SAP THAT JOE LAUR COLLECTS IS BROUGHT DOWN NEARLY THE OLD FASHIONED WAY (BUT NOT WITH HORSE AND SLEIGH, BUT WITH A TRACTOR). IT IS THEN FED INTO A TANK THAT CAREFULLY ALLOWS IT TO FEED INTO THE EVAPORATOR.


Joe then took me deeper into to woods to see some other buckets and a few very old sugar maples - Acer saccharum - which he felt were over 200 years old. Given their girth (7-8 feet), they were indeed the 'Maple Mama's' of this farm. We carried some sap back to Joe's sugar shack to add to the evaporator that he has already had fired up.



FRESH MAPLE SAP LOOKS LIKE WATER, BUT IT DOES TASTE SLIGHTLY SWEET EVEN STRAIGHT FROM THE TREE. EVEN SWEETER IF IT FREEZES A BIT WHICH CONCENTRATES THE SUGARS.


Sap needs to boil down for a few days, moving from one chamber to another before being bottled. A slow process, but this is a leisurely lifestyle. We who still work can only dream of having the luxury of just sitting in a chair, sipping some maple tea (syrup poured into hot water) and watch the fire, stoking it from time to time from the wood pile. Ahhh. 



IT TAKES A FEW DAYS FOR THE SAP TO REDUCE BUT WHO CARES BECAUSE THIS SLOW PROCESS IS WHAT MAKING MAPLE SYRUP IS ALL ABOUT. FEEDING THE FIRE, THE SMELL OF WOOD SMOKE, THE SCENT OF MAPLE STEAM. IT DOESNT GET MORE NEW ENGLAND THAN THIS.


JOE LEFT A JOB IN THE CORPORATE WORLD. (LIKE ME AND MY FRIEND CHERYL) TO DO WHAT HE LOVES MOST. ON THIS SMALL FARM IN THE BERKSHIRES OF MASSACHUSETTS WHERE HE HAS A LARGE VEGETABLE GARDEN, FRUIT TREES, A SWIMMING HOLE, SOLAR ENERGY, AND A SMALL BEVERAGE BUSINESS. PRETTY PERFECT LIFE, I'LL SAY.


I wanted though to give a shout out to Joe's Maple Mama Craft Beverage (it's non-alcoholic so don't let the word craft throw you!).  I hope it takes off, not only because it's good but because I liked the whole family story behind it. There are other flavors like Cold Brew Coffee and more to come I hear, so look for it - maybe in a Whole Foods or in an organic section of your market.



LASTLY, JOE SHOWED ME SOME OF HIS OLD MAPLE TAP COLLECTION. HE HAS DOZENS AND DOZENS OF THESE, MANY MADE IN THE 1800'S WITH DATES ON THEM. AS A COLLECTOR OF. 'THINGS' MYSELF,  THIS WAS ALL I NEEDED - TO DISCOVER SOMETHING ELSE TO COLLECT!



April 24, 2019

The Perfect Spring

Primula elatior, the English Oxlip simple yet so rarely seen in American gardens. If you want your garden to look like the hundred acre wood, this is the plant to seek out. Will you find it? Probably not unless you raise it from seed or join the American Primrose Society. It isn't rare. Just hard to find as commercial growers ignore it.  There is no Proven Winners Primula elatior. Popular in Shakesperian England, and still common there today.   I grow mine from seed bought online from Jelitto in Germany. The easiest of all the primula, I think. Sow indoors or under glass in February, grow on and set out in early summer and they'll bloom next spring. Very cold hardy perhaps to zone 4. or even 3.


Gardeners love to complain about the weather. New Englanders love to complain about the weather, but this year, dare I admit that it is indeed the perfect spring, at least here in New England, and at least, for the plants.  What is 'a perfect spring'? A long, slow and gradual thaw (with no surprise freezes which here in the Northeast still can happen until mid-May) and few extreme fluctuations. I can add no drought, although we are about 2" over our average rainfall. With all of this, the native plants are emerging slowly and steadily, and the imports (remember, so many of our ornamental plants are Asian) are gradually opening up.


The giant Butterbur or Petasites japonicus ssp. giganteus just emerged two weeks ago with cobs of purple flowers. Now, a couple of weeks later, the flowers are extending upwards and the giant leaves - which will gradually expand to nearly 3 feet across, are all on schedule.


Last week I spoke in Denver at the Denver Botanic Gardens for two days. - landing in snow or what they called a Bomb Cyclone, our plane was the last to land before they closed the airport, and what I experienced is very much the sort of spring we usually get here just outside of Boston. That would be a spring with surprise snow storms, ice and freezing temperatures that make mush out of magnolia flowers and bend over even tulips and hyacinths. Here? The primula species are emerging just as if they were growing in the Himalaya, or in the French Alps. The Asiatic species of garden perennials like the Rodgersia, Lilium and even the Petasites japonica are coming out of the ground and blooming later than normal, but nice and slow. The way it should be.

I am always picking up rare plants at plant sales or getting some as gifts. Here is one I completely forgot that I had (and there are two clumps!). Galucidium palmatum. Sometimes it's just nice to see everything before it opens up.



We had a mild winter here in Massachusetts but that didn't help our rampant population of bamboo which has become so invasive. This Sasa veitchii (the brown leaves at the bottom of the image) is now everywhere in our garden, and with culms and roots that reach down deep (nearly 2 feet) I cannot get rid of it. I am open to any suggestions. Please.



While often challenging as a bulb plant, the mostly native North American Dog'sToothViolet can be highly collectible and highly challenging. But this one isn't. Erythronium 'Pagoda' is a commercially (Dutch) grown common selection that is hardy and easy. You can get the look of an alpine meadow in the Cascades without spending 35 dollars a bulb.

I know, I know. Lots of invasives, but this native Podophyllum peltatum, our local and family Mayapple, is always a welcome sight in the spring. It never grew here on our family property and woodlands, but it was from a clump in a wild colony that Joe and I found back in the 1980's near his parents' house in Northborough, MA. Seeing it always reminds me of him digging a bunch and filling up the trunk of my new 1984 Fiero. Shut up.

We're all native now. Our native bloodroot, Sanguinaria is often overlooked for the fancier and showier double forms, but this one - again, from a wild-collected stock that I got while I was in College at UMASS. Of course, in the late 1970s and as a 18 year old, digging something from the wild wasn't frowned upon. In fact, our professor encouraged it. At least I still have the colony.

I guess digging from the wild is a theme here. Clearly don't do it boys and girls. Never dig in the wild. I was kid and not very responsible. Plus, I was a plant nerd and there was no stopping me.  We now know better. Protecting our native and wild populations is what we are all about. Really. Still, there is a story here. This was collected by Joe and I around 1987 when we lived in upstate New York near Tuxedo Park and I was working in the city. Dutchman's Breeches or Dicentra cucullaria was running all over our property. Now, this population has spread throughout our woodlands. 



Epimedium. This one from my friend Darrell Probst is from western China, but I include it because in today's gardens we often combine wildflowers from similar climates elsewhere in the world. Collected? Yep. But carefully propagated from seed not plants, and just like our diverse human population, our gardens can and often are just as diverse.

Even though I've been very busy with my new job in Boston, I need to be creative in finding any free time as I am still speaking on most weekends on my book tour. Not to mention that I am writing another book which has had to have it's deadline slightly extended (no worries, it will still come out next February). A book a year. - that's my goal. Here, English Spencer Sweet Peas are set out into the garden, this time in a column of pea brush (fothergilla).  I chose 6 shades of purple and blue for this collumn. Curated colors look best.

I'm growing many annual poppies again, but remember -Irish Terriers rule the land here. I am being clever and using chicken wire and netting to keep these tiny seedlings safe. Sown a few weeks ago just as the snow melted, these Shirley Poppies were sown with sand and seed mixed together, and then sifted through a kitchen sieve onto lightly raked soil. They look big here but believe me they are tiny. This lot will need to be thinned soon, with the excess tossed because one cannot transplant poppies.

The classic Matt Mattus shot, right?  I need new props.   Oh...I. bought one - look in the photo below and see if you can see the new flat black Haws English watering can from Terrain. (it was an exclusive and limited edition color!).

Last year I started training some red-flowered rosemary into globes using armature wire. They are looking fine now. A classic English method that one can see at Great Dixter, and now here in Wormtown, MA.

Oh, Genista canariensis. You make the greenhouse so lemony! Really - true story. For my entire life, I could never smell this but Joe would always tell me that it scented the entire greenhouse with a rich lemon Pledge furniture Polish scent, yetI could never smell it. At all. Nothing. Yet, this year? I can smell it. Weird, right? Although, I would say that it smells like lemon scented Lestoil floor cleaner. Not exactly a yummy lemon flavor, but still somewhat an artificial lemon scent.

My pots of what are some of my most favorite bulbs. - Rhodohypoxis baurii are beginning to bloom again in the sand beds inside the greenhouse. 

I am growing many hard-to-find annuals this year. Flowers that one can rarely find anywhere (mostly for my book, but many for clients who might be interested in trying some). This Malope (in the hibiscus or mallow family) should be lovely with bright pink, wide flowers all summer long on bushy plants. 

A bit of rarity and joy. Agepetes blooms on some very long and vine-like branches.  I've been waiting 2 years for this to bloom.

We acquired some very rare Primroses from Japan. Primula sieboldii is hard enough to find, but these are very special and while I can't say too much about them as the grower made us promise not to sell or share them (they are very precious in Japan), I felt that I could show some here. This double is called 'Elegant'.

This P .sieboldii double is a cultivar named 'Oni. Gokko'

This double with an odd flower is named 'Maimomiji'. I think we have about 60 but they are small, and I am waiting for the others to bloom.

There are so many nice begonias available now. I zipped down to Logee's last Friday to stock up for myself and clients for summer containers, summer porch displays and,well, OK, yes, for myself too.

Lily bulbs are beginning to be shipped in spring as well by some lily nurseries. I had been looking for the large, orange and rust colored trumpet lily named 'African Queen' and found a (secret, sorry) source. I ordered 20 bulbs for one giant clump. OK, I got them from the Lily Nook, in Canada.  They ship to the US, but typically in late autumn.

It's going to be a fragrant summer!  Trumpet lilies can grow 6-7 feet tall with many blossoms. Planted in clumps of 10 or 20 (as they grow in the wilds of western China) is how they look best. Extravagant?Maybe, but they take up about the same space as a hydrangea does but who in your neighborhood does this?  Imagine how it will look!