Sunday, November 12, 2017

Saretta Barnet

Saretta Barnet

My dear friend Saretta Barnet died just before spring.  We had been friends since 1963 and shared a great deal during our years together – holidays, birthdays, weddings, funerals, new babies, power outages, storms, pranks, museum and gallery visits -- but they are part of a different story.  This is about our gardens, the basis of a friendship from which all else grew.

We lived in Port Washington, Long Island and met because of our daughters, Liz and Jane, were entering kindergarten together. They still remain close.  A year or so later, Saretta and her family moved only one house away from ours -- if you took a shortcut through backyards.  We both planted perennial gardens at the same time; Saretta’s was a long sweeping bed in an open setting, mine was a 20’ x 40’ rectangle defined on three sides by a screen porch, a garage, and a lilac hedge.

If you can imagine a time when hardly anyone gardened, it was then –- the early 1960’s.  Besides us, there were only two other people to talk to in our village:  Evelyn Blankman, a second-generation iris grower who generously divided her stock with us every few years; and Nathaniel Hess, a rhododendron hybridizer with a modernist garden designed by James Rose, and who was much too formidable for us to approach. 

Saretta and I, full of the English garden books of that time, and casting ourselves in the image of Vita Sackville-West at Sissinghurst, planned and planted from our only two sources:  Martin Veitte’s Nursery on Rte 25A and Falconer’s, our local nursery in Port Washington.  Martin Viette’s plants were field-grown; we selected our plants when in bloom and they were tagged for us and dug later for fall or spring planting.  Falconer’s specialized in hanging baskets, a market with so little interest that Mr. Falconer would winter over our fuschias and plumbagos in his greenhouse.

We grew some of the same plants, but Saretta was more experimental than I.  She loved clematis and roses and tree peonies and platycodon and rose mallow.  Her bed was wide enough to necessitate a path for weeding, and scattered with stone markers brought back from European trips. Somewhere there must be photographs, and if I can ever find them I’ll make sure to post.

Her garden was on a flat, bare two-acre site, and over the years white pines, apple trees and rhododendrons were added to give heft to the property.  But it was the perennial border that caught your eye and brought your afternoon walk to a halt.  There was an advisor, I can’t remember his name, who would come once or twice a week to keep it all tidy and would bring her plants that he had started from seed in his greenhouse.

In later years Saretta spent more and more time in the city, and eventually the house was sold.  I had left long before, and we never revisited our old gardens.  In her last years she became a bit unmoored as her memory slipped.  But it was only her memory of the immediate.  The past remained clear, and that’s what we continued to talk about to the last. 

Monday, October 23, 2017

At War with the Squirrels

Dear Reader,

My apologies; I’ve been absent too long.  During the missing months I purchased the house I’d been renting and started a new garden.  It took a year of planning and months of construction and installation.  The result so far has been more successes than failures; not a bad scorecard.  I have much to report, but illogically I’ll start at the end and work my way back to the beginning during the winter. 

At War with the Squirrels

As Washington careens towards conflict with North Korea, I have launched a pre-emptive strike against my enemy -- the squirrels.  They are in the middle of their seasonal cycle, laying waste to a crop of walnuts.   My garden is beautifully shaded by the dappled light of black walnut trees, but I pay a steep price when the nuts start to fall. 

My terrace is one of the areas so beautifully shaded.  Why did I choose to locate a terrace directly in the line of fire, you might well ask?  Despite having a few years to observe the pattern of falling walnuts and the habits of squirrels, I did this out of sheer stubbornness and the belief that is it my right to sit outside my kitchen door. And, evidence to the contrary, I was convinced that I could outwit the marauders. 

Newly-laid Bluestone

But they are so clever.  Last year my neighbor couldn’t start his car, and lifted the hood to find his engine compartment neatly packed with walnuts.  My plan was to head the squirrels off at the pass, collect the nuts and deliver them to the dump before the squirrels could get to them.  But I underestimated their determination. 

For weeks last year I collected each day’s crop of fallen walnuts and stored them in the car for delivery to the dump.  The squirrels, infuriated, would wait for me to emerge for the morning collection and shake the overhead branches so furiously I needed a hard hat to work outdoors.

My squirrels are not inclined to store their nuts in my car’s engine compartment because, unlike my neighbor’s house, here they have paving to work on.  They are busy collecting the nuts, piercing the shells that have not smashed open on the paving, taking off the shells on the long front bluestone walk or the new rear terrace, laying the nut meats on the tree branches to dry, and eventually storing them for the winter.

For those of you unfamiliar with the product, the walnuts are encased in a hard shell wrapped in a green husk, the inner layer of which is composed of inky black extraordinarily messy soft matter.  For six to eight weeks in the early Fall the walnuts come crashing down at the rate of 50 to 100 per day.  When landing softly in grass or soil it is only a matter of collection, but when they hit pavement it is with a shattering force, spewing black dye on paving and house walls alike, often landing on the chair in which I used to enjoy my morning coffee.

Walnut Ink Stains on Bluestone

My daughter, a zoo veterinarian, says squirrels are trainable. Her suggestion was to rig up a cloth across the blue stone terrace, cut a hole in the middle and put a large basket under the hole to collect the walnuts.  Then build a bench of the same stone alongside the terrace; hang a small basket level with the new bench; transfer the nuts from the large basket to the small and the squirrels will learn to use it.  This plan did not pass muster.

I believe her theory in principle, thus the first line of attack is to train the squirrels.  This year I am collecting all the walnuts and depositing them in the rear corner of the garden; a pantry if you will.  Having observed the squirrels shelling the nuts on the aforementioned single slab of bluestone that is my front walk and the 4’ bluestone squares of my now unusable terrace, I’ve paved an area adjacent to the walnut pantry with bluestone; a kitchen table if you will.  It is too soon to tell if it’s working.  So far there has been no sign of activity, but I remain optimistic. 

Squirrel Training Station

The second stage of the offensive is to cover the terrace with some garden-esque form of protection.  There is already an arbor to the east of the terrace offering tactful screening of the house next door.  We could build another arbor on the west side, cover it with lathe and plant vines.  The lathe alone would not be sufficient to prevent walnut husk fragments from falling through, but if we erected an open frame peaked roof, and then covered that roof seasonally with a strong shade cloth … well, you can see where this is going.  Who are the “us”and “we”?  Whoever will take on the construction of this folly.

In the meantime, there is a lot of scrubbing of trim and collecting of walnuts.  The only bright spot in this story is a wonderful new tool from the Lehman’s Catalog:  The Nut Wizard.  It’s a round wire basket with a long handle that rolls merrily across the lawn with only a gentle push, effortlessly collecting all in its path.  It is available in Small, Medium or Large, depending upon the size of your nuts, crabapples or golf balls.   

The Nut Wizard