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In the Gardens Blog

Hurricanes I Have Known

by Neal Sanders
Leaflet Contributor

In the 1986 film, ‘Crocodile Dundee’, Mick Dundee and his girlfriend walk the streets of New York at night when they are accosted by a would-be mugger, who brandishes a switchblade and demands Mick’s wallet. His girlfriend urges Mick to give up his wallet and says, ‘He’s got a knife!” Mick chuckles and says, “That’s not a knife.” He pulls out his Bowie knife, suitable for skinning crocodiles. “Now that’s a knife.” The mugger runs away.

I have to confess I feel the same about New England hurricanes. Having grown up in south Florida, I was witness to some of the nastiest storms ever to cross the Atlantic. Fifty years ago this week, Hurricane Donna slammed into the Florida Keys with 150-plus-mile-per-hour winds, meandered its way up through the Everglades, stalled, then emerged at Daytona Beach and went on to wreak havoc up and down the East Coast.

Hurricane photoBecause of its erratic path, Miami was battered by sustained 120-mile-per-hour winds for more 12 hours. We emerged from our house to find half a dozen large trees snapped off a few feet off the ground and the leaves stripped from those that still stood. Our street was impassable for a week because the canopy of tall, brittle Australian pines that lined it had turned the thoroughfare into a giant plank road. And, when the trees fell, the above-ground power lines came down with them. Oh, and the storm dropped a foot of rain. To paraphrase Mick Dundee, now that’s a hurricane.

By the time hurricanes reach New England, they are fast-moving storms that, however powerful, don’t linger long enough to deliver widespread wind damage (storm surges are another, much more serious matter). Yes, I have seen the photos of the beach homes either destroyed or left precariously perched on eroded dunes. But the operative work is beach, and there are a set of well-recognized dangers to building on a beach or a barrier island.

The Great New England Hurricane of 1938 is in a category by itself. It made a bee-line across the Atlantic and made no other landfall until it pushed a storm surge into Falmouth and New Bedford that left those communities under eight feet of water. Seventy-two years later, it is still the standard against which northeastern hurricanes are measured.

We went through Hurricane Gloria in 1985 when we lived in Medfield. Gloria, you may recall, came up through the center of Long Island, then central Connecticut. We lost a few pines. More importantly, we lost power for five days (and vowed never again to live on a street with above-ground power lines). As hurricanes go, though, it was a dud. It blew in after dark and by the following morning, the sun was out. I can think of half a dozen nor’easters that did more damage to our landscape.

As this is written, Hurricane Earl is on course to pass east of Nantucket and brush the Cape with hurricane-force winds. The dirty little secret of hurricanes is that their greatest force is in their northeast quadrant meaning that, absent a major course correction, we on the mainland will see some gusty winds and an inch of two of much-needed rain.

Come to think about it, after living through Donna, Earl is my kind of hurricane.

Neal Sanders is a frequent contributor to the Leaflet. We encourage you to read his contributions to our In the Gardens Blog where he focuses on interesting cultivars that can found in the Elm Bank gardens. Neal's first novel, Murder Imperfect, has been published. You can learn more about it here or order it through


The Siren Call of the Garden Center Special

by Neal Sanders
Leaflet Contributor

As September turns to October, garden center owners fixate on their remaining stock of unsold trees, shrubs and perennials. They face the unappealing possibility that they might actually have to pay someone to replant those maples and azaleas lest their roots freeze over the course of the approaching winter.

The more appealing alternative, of course, is to get me to buy them.

And so, at this time of year, the offers come. First in a trickle and then a flood. Take 30% off. Buy one and get a second one at half price. HUGE markdowns. The really clever garden centers send me colorful, floral-themed plastic cards with my name pre-printed on them together with the massive discount to which I am entitled if I act immediately.

Then, they make it really irresistible: they throw in pizza or maybe ice cream.

I once succumbed to an invitation to a large garden center’s end-of-season sale because they parked an ice cream truck in the middle of their container display area. While I unwrapped a Dove Bar, someone loaded a viburnum in the trunk of my car. Another time, I ate a piece of delicious grilled corn and somehow purchased an amelanchier. One memorable year I enjoyed a slice of an open-oven grilled pizza and found myself the owner of a Japanese maple (acer japonica expensivus) so special that it requires its own trust fund.

None of this is the fault of garden center owners. By the end of September, gardeners’ thoughts have gravitated to the post-season, yet autumn is the near-ideal time to plant trees and shrubs. In reality, they’re doing me a favor.

My problem, of course, is that I’ve run out of room for new stuff. But because the prices are so good we go looking anyway… and invariably bring something home.

The most excruciatingly wonderful discovery is the ‘pallet sale’. This is the garden center industry’s finest invention; their contribution to the pantheon of marketing. Take a pallet. Fill it with roughly a dozen trees or shrubs and top it off with half a dozen perennials. Mark the price at roughly a third of full retail.

That’s how we acquired our fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus). This was, of course, back when we had room for new specimen plants. Betty really wanted that fringe tree but had chafed at the price for a decent-sized one. So, we bought the pallet (and got its contents home in a Saab convertible in only four trips) and suddenly, we had not only a great looking fringe tree, but also a pair of boxwoods, two rhododendron, three azalea, a climbing rose and enough summer flowering perennials to feed an army of birds. That was seven or eight years ago.

We bought the pallet because of the fringe tree. We didn’t really ‘need’ the other plants. But there’s always room for another attractive rhododendron, even though today I am hard-pressed to remember which of the twenty rhodies on the property are the two that came off that particular pallet (confession: we have succumbed to pallet sales more than once). The other plants found appropriate sites.

Except for the boxwoods. For years the boxwoods from that pallet sat at the edge of our woods, completely aloof from the rest of the landscape. What can you possibly do with just two boxwood shrubs? For most of that time, had we known of a home for unwanted Buxus sempervirens, we would have sent this pair packing.

But something unexpected happened: they thrived on neglect, probably muttering to one another how unappreciated they were by their owners. Today, they make a magnificent statement, twin pillars that are prominently visible from the window from which this is written.

The moral of the story is that serendipity ought to play a role in every landscape and those autumn sales can be the catalyst for a horticultural adventure. Carpe diem.

Neal Sanders is a frequent contributor to the Leaflet. We encourage you to read his contributions to our In the Gardens Blog where he focuses on interesting cultivars that can found in the Elm Bank gardens. Neal's first novel, Murder Imperfect, has been published. You can learn more about it here or order it through


Garden Ornaments, Memories of People and Places Past

by Neal Sanders
Leaflet Contributor

Berkeley the snail is getting ready to go away for the winter. This weekend he will join the World’s Ugliest Frog, Fish, and a dozen other garden ornaments in the safe confines of our basement. He will be first cleaned with a bleach solution and then placed carefully inside a pot or some other protective container.

Berkeley joined our garden menagerie as a result of a trip to London ten years ago. I was there as part of a financial road show in deepest, darkest February. Because of the road show’s grueling, two-week duration, Betty had been invited to join me for its final, transatlantic stop. The underwriters were responsible for all lodging and they chose for us a junior suite at The Berkeley, an extraordinarily luxurious Knightsbridge hotel a stone’s throw from Hyde Park.

Going to gardens was quite out of the question so, instead, we went shopping and to museums. Just down the street from our hotel was a shop that dealt in garden ornaments (they have such things in England) and the snail pictured on the left was prominently on view. We purchased it, promptly named it after our lodgings - pronounced, by the way, “BARK-lee” - and carried it in the overhead bin on the flight home. (In that pre-9/11 world, no one in airport security took notice of our carrying onboard a 12-inch-by-fifteen-inch cast-iron object.) Every year since, Berkeley has been positioned in a different perennial bed, waiting to be admired anew by us or a visitor.

The worlds ugliest frogThe World’s Ugliest Frog was a parting gift from a friend leaving Medfield. She was moving, and the frog had graced, if that word can be used for such a thing, her garden for many years. Its muted, polychrome décor had been the butt of numerous jokes. On the day that the packers came, Mary Anderson brought over the frog and said that World’s Ugliest Frog should come live with us. It has a permanent, seasonal home underneath a magnificent “Alfred’s Crimson” peony that blooms for Memorial Day every year.

I will not bore you with the individual stories for each of our other garden ornaments. I will only tell you that they all have back stories and that all those stories link us to times, places or people fondly remembered.

Turtle pondOh, all right, one more. An outrageously overpriced concrete turtle at the Winterthur Shop was knocked down to a much more realistic five dollars after we pointed out a chip on its nose. For fifteen gardening seasons now, the turtle’s chipped nose has poked out of the water in a bird bath. We suffer its imperfection with as much dignity as we can muster. The butterflies and dragonflies that land on its snout don’t seem to mind in the least.

Each spring, we take out these items much as we take out Christmas tree ornaments in December. We discover them anew and, with great deliberation, place them around the property, taking into account changes in the landscape. This season, a chamaecyparis in our outer sidewalk bed pushed into the space long occupied by the turtle and its bath. The pair became the first occupants of the new wisteria bed and they look terrific there.

These garden ornaments are links to travels. They are reminders of old friends. They are also practical objects that draw the eye to certain plants or that break up expanses of mulch. Some are put in plain sight while others are deliberately hidden, awaiting someone to part the foliage and find a surprise. With the 2010 garden season nearly over, their careful cleaning and storage are also part of an annual ritual as distinct as picking apples or harvesting the butternut squash.

Neal Sanders is a frequent contributor to the Leaflet. We encourage you to read his contributions to our In the Gardens Blog where he focuses on interesting cultivars that can found in the Elm Bank gardens. Neal's first novel, Murder Imperfect, has been published. You can learn more about it here or order it through

R.I.P., 'Thomas' Sanders Blue

by Neal Sanders
Leaflet Contributor

He wasn’t even thirty inches high and he had barely settled in as part of the family. Finding him that cold morning, savagely mauled and mutilated, I could only think of what might he might have become when he grew up. He was a victim of pointless violence and a public mindset that those who killed him are themselves innocent victims that cannot be held responsible for their actions.

Picea glauca ‘Sanders Blue’, a dwarf Alberta spruce with bright slate-blue needles, came to us in March; a gift from a friend who spotted it at a specialty nursery. Apart from its striking appearance, the ‘Sanders’ moniker is also our own. The ‘Thomas’ name was always an inside joke. For years, some marketing list-maker has suffered under the delusion that there is a teenager named ‘Thomas’ living at out address, and we get a steady stream of mailed offers for SAT test prep and technical school enrollment. When Sanders Blue arrived, we decided that this must be the long-awaited ‘Thomas’ prophecied by our postal carrier.

The tag said Thomas would do best in full sun and there is only one spot on our property that meets that requirement. And so we pulled out some uninvited, self-seeded rudbeckia from a planting bed by the street, giving Thomas a fitting site, a bucket of compost, and ample water.

Is that the tree you want
Artist's rendering of the culprit
Our property abuts several square miles of town conservation watershed and that land is infested with deer. ‘Infested’ is not too strong a word. There are hundreds of them and, like most suburban towns around Boston, hunting is prohibited.

We deal with the deer two ways. When we see them on our property, we run, scream and throw rocks at them. Because the deer would otherwise retreat just a few feet into the woods, we make a point of pursuing them until they are several hundred yards from our property line. But this is only effective during daylight hours when we can see them, or when we are home.

Our second, and more effective line of defense, is a product whose active ingredients are putrefied eggs and other nasty stuff. During the gardening season, we mix up as many as three gallons of the stuff and spray it once a month on everything that we care about. It smells awful for about three hours. Then it dries and the smell goes away, or at least abates to the human nose. To deer, it continues to smell and taste unpleasant. It is sufficiently effective that we have watched deer nose up to a hosta, start to take a nibble, then back off.

The plan is that the deer learn to avoid us, passing down accumulated wisdom from generation to generation. (“Pay attention, Bambi. The people who live here are crazy. They yell and throw rocks and their plants taste terrible.”)

Gingerbread Competition
Sanders Blue 11-23-10 after being mauled by Bambi
But this autumn we let our guard down. We cleared the perennial beds, then mulched them with chopped leaves, leaving little for any critter to eat. The vulnerable evergreens were fenced, but Thomas seemed too small to attract attention. Had we been more diligent, perhaps Thomas would have been spared. Then again, being out on the street made him visible – and therefore vulnerable - to the deer that populate our neighbors’ lawns and gardens.

The photo shows the extent of the damage. The deer ate not only the needles (which have no nutritional value) but also the bark. There is no recovery from such an attack. Thomas is a goner.

This weekend, I’ll dig him out and take the carcass to the compost pile at the back of the property. I’ll do so with a sense of resignation that a hunter with a bow and arrow might have saved Thomas. Or even a well-aimed rock.

Neal Sanders is a frequent contributor to the Leaflet. We encourage you to read his contributions to our In the Gardens Blog where he focuses on interesting cultivars that can found in the Elm Bank gardens. Neal's first novel, Murder Imperfect, has been published. You can learn more about it here or order it through

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