Your resume, your life

Categories: Random Thoughts

Nancy got an email the other day from a former student/co-worker at the Grille asking for help with a resume, and she shared the email with me. Rather fortuitous, as I’d been assigned to write my ‘personal biography’ for my upcoming TEDx talk, and I’d also been reading Ryan Kellet’s recent MiddBlog postings on job searching, (and one on starting, but for the sake of this post we’ll assume you’re already there) so my own resume was on my mind. I’ve been on both ends of the resume game, I’ve been at it a while, and I’ve had some excellent teachers along the way, so I thought this would be a good time to share some thoughts. Melody, this one’s for you.

First secret? You don’t have one resume, you have hundreds, one for every job you apply for. A resume is not a static document, but it’s a sales pitch, and one that you should customize for every job. Nancy is a great example. She’s done carpentry, house restoration, boat building, cooking in restaurants, supervising, senior care, day care, even landscaping (not for me, I’m a terrible boss). If she is applying for a cooking job, her resume will reference most of that experience, while a construction job will focus on her degree and experience in Historic Preservation.

And this works on a smaller scale as well. Let’s say you are applying for a job supervising a small work group. Your summer job as a camp counselor is probably more experience than you realize at supervision and it only takes a couple of words to make the cut into the ‘call’ pile.  Or maybe you are over-qualified for the position, but you’d really like to eat next week. Think carefully when describing your experience, and tailor each copy you send out. A resume is not a make it or break it document that will get you a job, but a well crafted one will get you noticed. The Career Services office has a list of ‘core competencies’ language that is excellent.

Another secret. You’re about to graduate, and you don’t have a lot of experience, so you may be afraid your resume may be a little empty. In reality, even a skimpy resume speaks volumes. When I am plowing through a stack of resumes, even for an entry level job, a well crafted document says a lot about the applicant. Spelling errors, bad grammar, and/or poor layout shows a lack of attention I find troubling in an employee, and don’t waste my time interviewing.

I won’t talk about formatting, style, etc. There is heaps of bad advice out on the net about resumes. The best way to separate the good from the bad? Any template that suggests a ‘mission statement’, ‘job objective’ or ‘personal goals’ section of a resume should be ignored with all due haste. I don’t care what your personal goal is-I know it’s to get a job. Give me and my tired eyes a break.

The best template I’ve found, with excellent advice to boot, is found at the Career Services Office right here at Middlebury. Keep your resume to one page. Don’t exaggerate. Don’t’ get fancy. Did I say keep it to one page?

What are other ways to fill out your first resume starting out in the big scary world? I’m not a terribly big fan of the activities and interests section most resumes have, but it certainly is a good area to fill out a lack of experience. Please, though, call the sectional  ‘additional’. What kinds of things am I looking for? Once again, it depends on the job I’m looking to fill.  Are you a member of a trade organization in my field? Do you spend your nights coding for free on an open source software project, or are you just laying about in your jammies playing X-Box? Are you an active participant in your life?

The best resume secret, though, is the hardest. You need to keep your resume updated. Constantly.  Maybe it’s your birthday, maybe New Years Day, or tax day, but once a year look over your resume. Maybe you have something to add. Maybe, like me, you look it over and see a subtle, but deeply embarrassing grammatical error. You may get asked for a resume in an elevator while making small talk. The person asking will forget who you are by tomorrow, after you spent the previous night re-writing your moldy, dusty, stale life. The same person will be impressed if your resume is in their in-box in half of an hour. Attention to detail, being an active participant in your life.

In the same vein, keep a list of extraordinary things, items that didn’t make it into this draft of your resume. Time spent volunteering, times you’ve been quoted in the newspaper, anything where someone paid attention to you. You’re special, so literally don’t forget it, and write it down.

My last piece of advice would be to constantly look for work, even when you aren’t. Always read the help wanted ads. They tell you more than you realize. A restaurant continually looking to hire line cooks has potential to be a terrible place to work, or a food co-op with high turnover might not have the atmosphere they think they do. Help wanted sections are the pulse of a community, the news behind the news. Trust me, the job of your life may come around when you think you aren’t looking.

New Year, More Damage

Categories: Landscape

I was asked (and jumped at the chance) to join Community Council this year, and was in a meeting last Monday when I was asked if there was any vandalism this year to the landscape. I happily reported we haven’t seen anything this year. I’d spoken too quickly, as the guys in the landscape department hadn’t been around the entire campus that day, but had been by tuesday.

We’ve certainly had our problems in the past (even have a tag for vandalism on the blog), but I was hoping the student (or students) had moved on, or at least come to see the error of their ways. I’d even heard through the grapevine that one of the perpetrators may have been caught.

‘Satomi’ Kousa Dogwood, a nice little pink flowering tree, was planted in Ross Commons near the plaza this spring. Someone tried their best to rip it up out of the ground last weekend.

You can see the broken branch on the ground, but the real issue here is the root system. Look at the root flare, where you can see the tree was repeatably pulled back and forth in an attempt to pull it out of the ground.

We had no choice but to dig the tree up and replant it. About 40-50% of the roots were broken in the process, all on one side. Hopefully youthful vigor will rally the tree and it will recover, but the outlook is grim with that much root loss.

More senselessly, two shrubs were pulled up out of the ground next to their holes at Battell South. They were Summersweet, a shrub so nice I wrote about it a little while back. We replanted those as well.

Let’s try and make this the one random incident this year, please.

Autumn Wood

Categories: Outdoor Art

The Class of ’97 Trail, part of the Trail around Middlebury, winds through young woods. Forests age, and this section is in its toddler years, skinny Sugar maple and oak showing potential, but with an invaisive understory of buckthorn and barberry clawing at your legs, asking to be held.

Among this youthful energy lies a poem, playing off the ancient renga form, called Autumn Wood. A renga in the strictest sense is a linked 100 stanza poem, with a meter grandparent to the haiku. It’s an ancient collaboration form of the poem-the first renga recorded was a shared experience between a buddhist nun and Ōtomo no Yakamochi, one of the 36 Poetry Immortals, in the 8th (!) century. Our Middlebury renga shares only the collaboration part, but is an installation through the woods along the TAM trail.

Walking through the woods one confronts poetry hanging from the trees in white lacquered paper. The poems, at least the ones I had the brief time to read, share the common theme of the environment they hang in, but don’t strictly make up a single cohesive unit like a true renga. Interspersed among the poems are photographs, some even of the item they hang upon.

Along the path lies art, almost hidden in the forest, peering out. Buds, berries, bark, and branches are woven together, or even just artfully lying on the ground, with rock and soil used to ground them. Some of these are subtle, and may only been seen on the walk back, while others jump out on the trail.

My favorite piece is naturally by my wonderful wife, a crocheted net hanging on some buckthorn. Should I worry about the direction her art is taking?: last years scarf is called Marley’s Ghost, a felted knit chain, and now a net…

My favorite poem is a timely piece written by John Elder-

Warm September woods-
all these lovesick mosquitoes
from Irene’s pocket.

To visit, go park up at Kirk Alumni Center (the golf course) and carefully walk across Route 30 to the big sign on the start of the TAM trail. The installation is scheduled to be up through the random date of October 27th, a thursday, so this is your weekend to go experience it. Hopefully the organic art will remain to meld with the forest floor.


Atwater Finished, for now

Categories: Atwater Contest

We’re declaring a truce on Turf Battle, taking a break until next summer. Left for next year will be the planting around the northern retention pond, and the sidewalk removal and re-configuration south of Allen Hall, and completing the wall next to the patio.

This was my fifth growing season at Middlebury, and Turf Battle was the largest landscape project I’ve been involved with here. Feedback on all of the projects I’ve worked on is familiar and welcome, (first thing I learned here? Everybody has an opinion, many of them opposing each other), but I’ve never gotten so much positive feedback from a job than this one. Students smiling at me, thanking the crew, saying how much better the area looks.

So I feel the need to let you know of the immense amount of people that helped this project come together. I’m the one with the loud mouth, but many more people behind the scenes at Middlebury deserve much more credit than I. Let’s start with Tim Spears, the driving force behind the Turf Battle contest, and Sarah Franco, his partner in crime. Also Dave Berthiaume, the crew chief in the landscape department for that area of campus, who listened to me talk through a lot of the nitty gritty design work on the plantings, and told me when I was losing my mind.

Most important, though, is Luther Tenny, an Assistant Director of Facilities, and our resident civil engineer. The landscapers get all the glory work-we come into a job site that essentially looks like well-placed piles of dirt, and when we’re done, the area is gorgeous. The devil is in the engineering, though. Drain placement, sidewalk and ADA ramp layout, handrail construction, job scheduling, budgeting, timing, and talking me out of crazy ideas, yeah, that’s the idea. Atwater would be a big hot mess were it not for Luther.

I’ll attempt a photo tour, and explain some of the changes we made during construction to the actual plan. As always, click on the picture for a larger view. Let’s start at the Atwater Dining plaza.

This is an overall view, from the Atwater Dining hall roof. (In all these pictures, you’ll have to imagine the dirt patches as grass. It’s up now, but not when I took the pictures) The new handrails show on either side of the stairway, with the brown mulched beds on either side. Originally, the landscape architect’s plan called for the entire area from Allen Hall to the stairs and the island formed by the ADA ramp to the right of the stairs to all be one giant planted bed, with shrubs and some flowers. In talking it over with Dave and his landscape crew, we decided this would be far too much to take care of, too much weeding and maintenance until the beds get established.

This is in line with much of our landscaping we perform at Middlebury now. With less crew and more areas to maintain, the old style landscaping of large planted beds are no more. Instead, we prefer to have small focused beds in high traffic areas, and take very good care of those. In this spot, though, we were having troubles designing how these smaller beds should look. No matter how we laid the shapes out, it all seemed a jumbled mess.  After fussing for a while, we stumbled across the brilliance of the Wagner plan. His layout of the beds to either sides of the stairs were in straight lines off of the stairs. The problem we were having was the multitude of lines in the tight area; the curving roof line, the arch of the ADA ramp, the columns on dining hall. How did we mesh all of that together in the landscape? Simply put, we didn’t. Straight lines off the stairs relate the importance of that feature in the landscape, making the passage the dominant feature. The confusion of the curve of the ramp fades in significance.

Alternating these beds on either side of the stairs with grass gives the walk down a sense of rhythm, and simplifies the landscape. These beds are followed through across the area formed by the ADA ramp, blocking a shortcut we didn’t want to turn into a grass path.

We also carried one more bed to the dining hall side of the ramp, matching both the parallel sides and the size. This should help in making the plaza area feel more enclosed in a garden space.

River birch trees (Betula nigra) were planted throughout the dining plaza area, much like the grove at Ross Dining. We modified the locations of many of them, in part to enhance the garden feel, but also to provide screening from the area above. We’re hoping for an intimate feel down on the plaza, and limiting the views of the upper areas, and of Battell  Beach.

Admittably, the least popular bit of landscaping we did is right next to Allen Hall, blocking the dirt path that leads down to the Johnson Parking lot. While we would have liked to have put a sidewalk here, the topography made it impossible, and for a variety of reasons, including erosion, dorm window privacy, and accessibility, the area was planted in native White pine and Red Twig Dogwood, and will blend with the native retention pond below.

Moving up the stairs, I once again had the pleasure of working with Brad Lambert, our stone mason at Middlebury. A flaw in the sidewalk layout with no graceful way of fixing means people cut the corner across the grass as they turn to descend the stairs. Pouring a triangle of concrete would have wrecked the graceful lines, and while some were advocating for a well-placed BFR, Brad and I instead did a simple little Panton stone wall, to limit the area of dead grass. The stone used is a match to the ledge behind, and is recycled from a stone wall that surrounded the Proctor deck before its renovation several years ago.

I became fixated on approaches and entrances. Notice above how the two flower beds to either side of the first stairs are placed. The further one comes all the way out, while the closer one with the birch is placed further away from the main walk, subtly leading you into the stairs, implying the inevitable turn.

Above is the new sidewalk across the west side of Allen Hall. It’s one of those “aha” moments you have, when  you can’t believe this sidewalk wasn’t always there. The large bed on the left has a disease resistant ‘Accolade’ elm in the center, and the contrasting focal point in front is a Dwarf Hinooki Cypress, as I’m a fool for dwarf conifers. This is a fairly large bed by our standards, but the space deserves it.

Here’s the view from the front of Allen, with that new sidewalk leading off to the right.The gardens in front of the ledge are to the left. We’re picking up on the same effect here as at the top of the Atwater Dining, with more gardens on the left subtly steering toward the dining hall.

Looking toward Atwater dining, across the Panton stone ledge, so you can see the gardens around the ledge. And remember Brad Lambert? I forget the student that came up with the suggestion to have pathways through the garden to the ledge, but I roped Brad into making a couple. They look good on the photographs, but really should be seen in person. Once again, they are composed of recycled wall stone from Proctor.

Here’s a view toward Atwater Dining from the top of the ledge. The plants in the garden are mainly summer and fall flowers and grasses, including Black Eyed Susan, White and Pink Coneflower, Japanese Anemone, and several varities of grasses. The effect we’re looking for is to echo the roof planting, composed of wildflowers and grasses, with the gardens surrounding the ledge, joining two major landscape elements.


The gardens wrap around the stamped concrete patio next to Hall B. Like the Dining Hall plaza, we’re hoping for the feeling of being enclosed by the garden.

One of the most asked questions I’ve been getting on the project is the reason for the large berm behind Chateau. The long answer is that the hill breaks up the relativly flat topography in the area, and offers a new perspective for views in the landscape. Short answer? Needed some soil to grow a grove of trees. The plans called for a grove of single stem River birch, but we changed it to Honeylocust. The pH of the soil was too high for Birch, and we were also concerned about overplanting one species in the landscape. Honeylocust is one of my favorite shades-a dappled light dark enough to be cooling in the glare of summer, but bright enough so it doesn’t feel cave-like.

The Honeylocust were planted in lines specifically to preserve views of Chipman Hill. The stairs on the plan turned out to be recycled granite that facilities had in storage.

Top of the berm looking north, down toward the parking lot. Anyone with a history in Atwater are probably wondering what that foriegn green is between the halls-it’s grass. The trees shown below are Sycamore, a great fast growing shade tree. The wall, without the stone face, is visible to the right.

Standing on the sidewalk in the middle looking toward Battell Beach. Up at the top are more elms, also to the west of Chateau, to provide some screening between the Atwater area and the quidditch pitch.

One final picture, more grass, and a view down towards the lower retention pond. We’re going to get to the planting around the pond next year.





Seven Son Flower

Categories: Blooms, Trees

I don’t know if I’m a lazy, slothful gardener, or just a brutally honest one, but either way I’m hoping for a hard frost pretty soon. I’m tired. My garden is tired. A good significant freeze, a cleaning of the summer slate, an official change of the seasons, that’s what I need.

Given my perennial neglect, fall flowers always hold a soft spot for me. Anything that can brighten the garden in September is a bonus. Take Asters, rising up above the weeds of late summer. Sure, go ahead and curse the Aster yellows causing the lower leaves to fall away all summer, making the plant look ridiculous, but the bright pinks and blues as a surprising upper tier to the late garden redeem almost any neglected space. Grasses hold their own all season, but shine in the fall as vertical accents even as other plants droop and hunch like my sore autumn back.Trees and shrubs, though, are truly a lazy gardener’s friend. For a minimum of work, they blossom and grow dependably. In the plant world, it’s like something for nothing.

Heptacodium minicoides - Seven Son Flower

Seven Son Flower, Heptacodium minicoides, is a recent introduction into the plant world. Originally discovered by the famous plant explorer E.H. Wilson in 1907, at Hsing-shan in western Hubei province in China. Found on cliffs about 3000 feet above sea level, only one seed was found, so dry specimens were collected and brought to an herbarium. Another expedition found the plant in the Hangzhou Botanical Garden in 1980, and two seed collections were made from a single plant and distributed to various arboretums. Most active in spreading the plant around was the Arnold Arboretum in Massachusetts. (Read the complete history ) As far as I can tell in my reading, all plants in the trade trace back to that single plant.

Seven Son flower gets its name from the seven headed inflorescences on the flower cluster. The white flowers wouldn’t draw much attention in the spring, as they honestly don’t hold a candle to a lilac. In September, though, they draw the eye through the tired landscape, showing off against the pale tattered leaves of most trees and shrubs in the late summer.


The plant seems to grow somewhere between 10-20′ high, and about 10-12′ tall. It’s one of those gangly plants that defy the easy tree/shrub category, although the finest specimens seem to be pruned into attractive multi-stemmed small trees. The advantage to this little bit of work is the ability to show off the bark, which peels in long strips in alternating cinnamon and light brown shades. The leaves hold opposite each other along the stem (showing off its familial relation to Honeysuckles, the Caprifoliaceae) and stay dark green, pest and disease free all season. Some books claim no fall color, but we seem to get a dependable, but not stunning, gold.

Seven Son Flower-bark

Further south, once the flowers fall, the calyxes stay attached, and while the seeds are forming, turn bright red, looking like a second bloom on the plant. Honestly, I’ve never noticed this in Vermont, and the book Landscape Plants of Vermont states that the the season ends too soon for this Cape Myrtle effect, but I’ve managed to photograph some last week, and I’m watching.

Heptacodium calyxes

For the observant, there is one planted near Painter Hall, just off of Old Chapel road, pruned to a single trunk. Other clump forms are on the south side of Munford, the east side of Pearson Hall, and a couple other places I’m forgetting. Heptacodium seems to do best in full sun, but is at least partially shade tolerant as well.

Atwater Construction-Turf Battle

Categories: Atwater Contest

Doing large construction projects at Middlebury comes with a unique challenge, that of time. Most colleges and universities have various programs running throughout the summer, like summer camps and classes. Middlebury, though, has an entire college, the Language School. This intensive 6-9 week program requires the full attention of the students, so we in Facilities try not to tear the whole place up. Therefore, most of our large projects, like the Atwater landscape, we schedule for the couple of weeks from the end of August to the start of Fall Semester.

So Turf Battle begins. We’re winning, by the way, turf tends to lose when faced with an excavator. I will admit its been quite an experience. Most landscape restorations I’ve done at Middlebury are all uphill-starting from the beginning to the very end, the continual process is one of improvement, the next day looking better than the first.

The Atwater landscape at present looks like hell.

Fear not. We’re laying a good foundation, and things will come together quickly. Much of what we’ve done is laying a good foundation (literally, in some cases) for the landscaping on top. I took a bunch of pictures last week to share on the progress.

One of the first parts was the renovation of the ADA ramp to Atwater Dining Hall. The old ramp, made of blacktop, was ripped out, and after regrading, replaced with concrete, now meeting proper codes for width, pitch, and a flat landing area at the bend.

This sidewalk, on the west side of Allen Hall, was added. To the left of the sidewalk in the triangle formed by the walks will be a large planting bed.

Another view of the new walk. This area previously was all crushed stone, put down to prevent mud, as the area was so heavily trafficked that no grass could grow.

This was the beginning of the patio, after layout. The grades here are tricky-the natural lay of the existing ground wanted to send water right toward the building. This is where the excavator came in handy.

View of the patio looking north. This type of patio is tricky to pour and stamp. The concrete is pre-colored in the truck, then stamped on site with what for all intensive purposes look like giant rubber stamps. The process takes a while, so only a square a day can be done, lest the concrete set up before it all gets stamped.

A freshly poured corner piece. We kept the sidewalk through the center of the patio looking like sidewalk in order to keep it’s function. Hopefully tables and chairs won’t be placed on the sidewalk to keep the way clear for access.

A view of the berm looking north. The berm is made of topsoil removed from all the sidewalk and patio excavation, so is a sandy/rocky mix. The berm will be topped with 6″ of good topsoil, to help the trees and lawn that will be planted there. It is hard to get a feel for the size of the berm on pictures, but suffice it to say it is quite large in person.

Here is a view of the berm looking south. The rise at present is pretty close to 4′

One of my favorite parts of the project, not showing up well with my weak cell phone camera. This view is from the top of the berm looking towards Chipman Hill. While during the design competition we’d discussed saving the view of the hill, what surprised me that I hadn’t thought of is the new perspective of the Atwater Dining green roof afforded by the higher topography of the berm.

The project won’t be done by the time the semester begins. Our goal is to have most of the loud construction finished shortly. There are a couple of squares of patio to finish, as well as the two sidewalks leading west from the patio. The next step, which should begin this week, is the planting. We’ll be starting with the planting around Atwater Dining, and will expand out from there as other pieces of the project fall into place.


Irene Still Hanging Around

Categories: Weather

Like a guest that just won’t leave, the effects of Irene the Hurricane still seem to be around Middlebury. Primarily what we’re watching now is the Otter Creek.

South Street-flooding in the fields

It takes a while. All the headwaters that feed into the creek have been slowly dropping, like my own muddy Lemon Fair River, and so the Otter Creek is rising. How fast? The football team, at Middlebury for pre-season practice, skipped the weight lifting today and went to fill and stack sandbags at Jackson’s on the River (the old Tully and Marie’s to you alumni) ( The old Woodie’s to you older alumni). (Great little article here).

Another stream feeding the deluge is the North Branch River, the one that falls along Route 125, heading up to Breadloaf and the Snow Bowl. Last I heard, the road is still closed (picture here), although Breadloaf is still accessible by back roads.

Otter Creek Levels-via National Weather Service

As I write, the Otter Creek in Middlebury is at 6.9′, within the top 20 crests of all time, and is thought to reach peak tonight around midnight. Not wanting to wait that long, I took some pictures downtown to try and capture the feel of a simply amazing amount of water, brown and muddy, crashing through town. One of our seasonal landscapers was a dairy farmer in Orwell for 30+ years, and in his experience he’s never seen water so muddy. Another guy in our shop is at home, an island experience, surrounded by water on all sides unable to come to work.

On Battell Bridge Looking East

Jackson's on the River

The Falls

Looking under Battell Bridge

The Bottom of the Sluice



Irene visits Middlebury

Categories: Weather

Given all the flooding and destruction in the state, I feel very fortunate here at Middlebury, and at my house overlooking the Lemon Fair (flooded, but looks like a normal spring). While we certainly had some damage on campus, it feels relativly minor compared to friends in East Middlebury in need of a new backyard.

Irene brought 3.21″ of rain to the main campus weather station, to bring a wet August total to about 7 3/4″ of rain. The peak wind registered was 37 mph, at about 6:30 yesterday. Breadloaf campus saw 5.13″ of rain, bringing their August rain to 11.27″. They saw a peak wind gust of 39 mph, later in the evening than down in the valley.

No major problems occured on campus. Facilities was busy with their usual leaks here and there, but it didn’t seem any more significant than another big rain. We’d spent a chunk of Friday mobilizing for the storm; gassing and sharpening chain saws, getting wet vacs ready, checking pumps.

Monday morning dawned clear and fresh, and revealed a mid September amount of fallen leaves, along with a plethora of sticks. Some large branches broke in the wind, as well as having a couple of trees topple over. Overall, however, I was pleased with the relative lack of tree damage. This late in the year weak trees are already shedding their leaves, or have thinner than usual crowns, so the more storm prone trees have less “sail” to catch the wind. A large limb heavy with black walnuts fell behind Turner house, but other fruit bearing trees did fine.

The immense rain in a short amount of time causes the most damage for trees. The soil below the tree turns to soup, roots lose their holding capability, and trees can topple in the wind. A good example is a Basswood lost right below Gifford, at the base of the ledge. All the water percolates a little ways down the soil profile, until it hits the ledge, then drains downhill right towards this tree. Combine that with the lack of roots on the ledge side of the tree, and the reason this tree fell is pretty clear.

Basswood below Gifford Hall and Mead Chapel

Another tree with a compromised root system was a Poplar growing out of a stone wall behind the Hadley House Barn. One of our crew members commented how the roots went right through the wall, and this was a good reason to remove sucker trees before they get too large.

Poplar Tree at Hadley House

The rotting root system in the wall

Overall, we did fine. Here’s another couple of pictures of some damage, we’ll have it cleaned up in another day or so.

Blue Spruce by Fletcher House

This one was tricky. A Black Maple on the east side of Old Chapel lost a large limb, breaking another couple, but the limb was held up in the tree by an old cabling system, so extracting the limb from the tree involved some minor rigging and rope work.

Last picture-weeping willows always look so dramatic when broken. This one, located behind the esteemed Francois’ house, lost two major limbs, but had the good grace to avoid the power line right below. He and his dog watched it fall. No, the dog was not in the crate at the time…


Categories: Blooms, Landscape

Memories of first loves can sneak up, then slam into the consciousness, triggered, perhaps by the sound of a song in a car at a stop light, the sight of a certain color hair, or, most strongly, a scent slipping into your brain upbiden.

For me, smell. Summersweet may well be my first plant love. The unique scent reminds me of a Connecticut childhood, wandering in the woods mid-summer, and smelling the spicy flowers for half a mile or more before coming upon the colony of undergrowth, sometimes a half an acre in size. Blooming now, and in fact for most of July as well, the plant sports long 3-4″ spikes of white (or pink, we’ll get to that) flowers, with a fragrance of, oh, vanilla and cloves together. Maybe that doesn’t even describe it, but is as lovely as it sounds.

Others know it as Sweet Pepperbush, for its small seedheads that look like little peppercorns, but without the taste. The latin is the rather unwieldy name of Clethra alnifolia, and is a native shrub to the east coast, from Florida all the way north to Maine and Nova Scotia. In fact, the only northeast state where Clethra is not found seems to be Vermont. Its marginal hardiness in zone 4 probably prevents it being found wild in our state, but this certainly doesn’t preclude use in the landscape.

Clethra alnifolia 'Compacta'- Summersweet

Given the bright audacity of so much in the late summer landscape, the subtlety of Clethra in bloom is a refreshing change of pace. It comes from a forest understory provenance, so they naturally do best in shade, and prefer some moisture. Smart gardeners are drawn to shade in the heat, and while the hostas are looking tired and beat, summersweet glows bright and fresh. My lone plant at my house is in a dry shade, but the species seems to grow well in sun given sufficient moisture.

Even the leaves stay clean and lustrous all season, in various shades of mid to an almost black green, with a slight sheen on top. Fall brings a bright yellow gold, holding late in the year. Full grown plants range from 4-8′ tall, depending on moisture, and tend to be wider than tall owing to its suckering nature, sending new plants up from the roots.

Yes, by all means, dig those suckers up and pass them to friends you like.

Michael Dirr, in his Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, writes of seeing Clethra next to a water feature while shopping at L.L. Bean in Freeport, and “I got so excited I amost fell in taking photographs. L.L Bean is a terrific company plus they know their plants.” He raves on “if a retailer says he/she cannot find Clethra tell them Dirr said it is one of the easiet plants to grow at the commercial and garden levels and excuses will not be tolerated.”

In my 1990 copy Dirr lists 3 cultivars, and my 2009 copy over 25. I’ve grown some, and have opinions. The marginal hardiness of the species means some may not grow quite as well as others. A popular cultivar, Hummingbird, while a gorgeous dwarf at only about 3′, was discovered by Fred Galle in Northern Florida, and suffers from severe dieback in our northern state.’Hummingbird’ can also succumb to a nearly unforgivable genetic floppiness, which hopefully the sibling ‘Sixteen Candles’ has not inherited. I prefer ‘Compacta’ for it’s better hardiness- it was found in Tom Dilatush’s brother’s garden, the seed transported from the New Jersey Pine barrens in some leafmold-although this is a harder find in a garden center,.

Pink is another color worth persuing in the Clethra cultivar world. Ignore ‘Rosea’ and ‘Pink Spires’, both hinting of a light pink, but barely blushing, and look for ‘Ruby Spice’, a sport off of a Pink Spires discovered at Broken Arrow Nursery in Connecticut. The rich rose red color holds throughout its entire bloom cycle, even in the heat of August.

Ruby Spice Summersweet

So why isn’t this just grown everywhere? As a plant for sale, Summersweet suffers several minor flaws that drove us crazy back in my garden center days. One is the fact it blooms late. While I can argue until I’m blue in the face that Clethra is integral to Any Garden, I was generally talking to myself, not customers, in the dog days of July and August, and our September shoppers were lured instead by the cheap thrills of red leaves and pumpkins. Springtime brought another headache. The species is very late to leaf out and show growth. So late, in fact, I’d taken to warning customers to not give up on the plant until the fourth of July, after too many experiecnes of seeing live plants return “dead” in May, an irate customer wanting their refund. They grow out of that. The plant, not the customer.

And when it does leaf out, it may leaf out low on the branch, suffering dieback. This seems to also happen to younger plants, although even my 10 year old plant still does this to some extent. The late bloom follows a long, late growing season, so this tender new growth may not have sufficent time to harden off before the Vermont winter. The plant blooms on new wood, so any dieback (or spring pruning) will not decrease flowers.

I’m sticking Summersweet everywhere I can on campus. Compacta is next to the main door at Emma Willard, tucked against the north side of the building. Ruby Spice is at the lower door. More plants are at Battell, and in a new planting in front of Pearson Hall. Another cultivar, Sherry Sue, sporting bright red stems and a large size, is planted on the north side of Axinn, where the last two winters have been a little tough on them, but I’m still rooting for it.

Annuals in the Landscape

Categories: Annuals

A couple of months ago I’d found myself up in Burlington. I’d been planting some of the flower beds on campus, so annuals were on my mind. We (miraculously) got a place to park right outside the store, and I jump out. Looking towards the road, I see an abomination of an annual planting, one of the cliches in the modern landscape, the sign planting. I’ll let the picture do the talking here. (click on all the pictures to view a larger size)

I’m not an expert, but I will admit to an opinion or two. Granted, planting annuals commercially, on a large scale in public places, is somewhat trickier than it appears. But it seems like so many people are lousing it all up. So over the past month or so I’ve been taking notes on what makes successful flower plantings, and, after crossing off the bits that made me sound like a cranky old guy,  I’ve come up with some guidelines on how to make annual plantings that matter. Like all things, you’ll probably read some that apply to all sorts of plantings, even if you never find yourself with a 10′ by  50′ bed to fill with color.

1. Consider your audience.

Where are people viewing your planting? This is the very first step to consider before planting. Gardens can be viewed in very different ways, depending on where the viewer is located. Like the flagpole planting above. I count 6 kinds of flowers mashed together. The viewer for this garden? Drivers and passengers on Dorset Street. The viewer here is driving at 30 mph. It’s not a time to be subtle. The myriad of different colors in a small area at best look like a greenhouse just threw up on the lawn and, at worst, won’t even be seen.  Scale is important too-what’s the backdrop? Here’s another example.

I count five of six kinds of flowers here, kinda mish-mashed together in about 3 feet. It’s a nice combination, certainly something I wouldn’t have come up with (too subtle for my outlandish guy taste), and looks nice while walking right next to it. But look at it in the context of the rest of the landscape-

Can you even see the subtle pinks, blues and yellows? Or is the scene dominated by the giant yews, and the annuals have lost the battle?

Take this better example, the front of a flower border in a formal backyard setting. The masses of flowers, while pretty when up close, are still beautiful from a distance, in this case, the back porch and sitting area where most functions take place.

2. Buy larger.

I fully realize it’s 90 degrees outside right now. That’s why I’m inside writing. But to a plant, summer in Vermont is pretty short. Why wait? Particularly on large plantings. Go ahead and treat yourself to larger plants, maybe annuals that come in 4″ pots. They are in bloom right when you plant them, look like something immediately. The little plants from 4 and 6 packs just look silly out in the landscape, and take a month or so to start looking like anything. Save them for filler in your landscape, or the vegetable bed. This is some lost looking 6 pack flowers in the midst of some large perennials, taken about a month ago. They still look a little lost even now.

3. Buy more of less.

This relates to what we’ve already discussed up above-planting large groups of plants to make a statement. I will admit to that heady spring rush, the first trip through the greenhouse when everything looks so vibrant and new after snow all winter. Resist that temptation to buy one of everything. More impact can be had from massing a couple of types of plants together.

And when you fail, you can fail big. Like this mass planting of a large leaved red Oxalis planted in front of Proctor hall last year…

4. Avoid straight Lines.

Quite a while ago on an estate in Charlotte I planted a spectacular row of peonies. My memory says the line stretched for hundreds of feet, so it was probably about 50. They started to fill in great, flower all about the same time, and was beginning to look like the hedge we intended. After a couple of years, a water line broke in January directly underneath the line. We dug the peonies (they weren’t screaming, but I thought I saw the roots shivering), fixed the line, and planted them back. To this day, the dug plants are a little smaller, and the hedge dips a half of a foot where they are.

Staight lines are stressful. Ask anyone that has a boxwood hedge. They cower in fear that some random car will plow through the line. What if one or two of the flowers die? You’re looking at a hole all summer long. Maybe you can live with that.

5. Read the tags that came with the plants.

There are hundreds of varieties of annuals. The goal of growing them in a greenhouse is to get them all saleable for the end of May, so they need to fill out the pot. So yes, they all look about the same size. What you may not know is that some had to be started in March to look that big (geraniums), while others may have been started only a month or so ago (Bacopa), and still others may have been thrown on the greenhouse floor, stepped on a couple times, deprived of water, cursed at, and thrown in the pot last week so they don’t get too large too fast (petunias). One of my favorite flowers, Anagalis, looks small and dainty in a four inch pot, cause they don’t really like greenhouse life. The tag recommends a 14-20″ spacing, and they indeed grow all of that. You wouldn’t know it looking at them in May. Go look at the front of Emma Willard now, though. It looks like this-

6. Ignore the tags.

Some companies are better with their tags than others. Of course, they are looking to sell more plants, so spacing may get fudged a little bit. Some companies, though, are totally inexcusable. Proven Winners, for example. One of my standards in planting are Supertunias, a new hybrid of Petunias that spread quickly with large flowers in nice shades that don’t require much fuss (trimming, deadheading). An average Supertunia at Middlebury gets spaced 2′ apart, and they are still touching in a month. Even the ones where the tag says 6-10″ spacing.

Maybe they mean in a pot.

But don’t get too worked up about spacing. And please don’t use a tape measure. I can remember passing by a landscaper in Shelburne lining a sidewalk in front of a funeral home with two kinds of perennials, both spreaders (that’s a nice way of saying invasive, one of them was an artemisia.) He was out there with a tape measure, moving each plant a quarter inch this way or that, until they were just right. Within a month, they were filled out. The next year, the plants were all mushed together. Cound’t tell they were perfect anymore.

7. Use perennials and shrubs.

Annuals are expensive. And they don’t come back. And while large beds are nice, and massing flowers makes the most impact, budgets don’t always allow. So selective use of perennials and shrubs can fill in a lot of space and still give a flower garden effect.

Here’s a good example from a bed on Court Street-notice the Shasta Daisies in the center of the bed. That’s a good choice, as they bloom in the middle of the summer, and, with one deadheading (see below) they will rebloom in the fall. Even not in bloom, they stay an attractive green providing a nice backdrop.

Another example is in front of the Johnson Art Building. This is a large bed, in an area of campus that desperately needed a splash of color. Planting this bed strictly in annuals would be cost prohibitive, and a bear to maintain, so we planted the center. Sticking with the bright color idea, that’s a Bloodgood Japanese maple in the center, with a gold Juniper at it’s base, and a matching set of a dwarf Blue Spruce, flanked by a dark blue Salvia. It’s enough of a color palate that we aren’t hemmed in each year in color choice.

It’s tough to see in this picture, but the gold Juniper is offset , slashing diagonally across the bed. This gives four zones in the bed, a large and a small, so we can can go with two different color schemes and not have them clash. Pink, peachy, and purple on one side, and then golds and reds on the other.The blue spruce is the separator between the two.

8. Take care of your plants.

I’m a firm believer in tough love. I water new landscape plantings infrequently (water less, but more at one time). Annuals, though, live a coddled life in the greenhouse, with water and fertilizer daily. Taking them from an oreo and pop tart diet to the harsh realities of real soil can be difficult for them, like learning to do your laundry freshman year. In the fall we remove bark mulch from the annual beds, and put on about 3″ of compost. Over the winter cold earthworms draw the compost down into the soil, and we are able to plant right into compost/soil next spring.

Water. A lot, then a little. This year I watered twice the first week, once the second (rain or not, it didn’t matter), then the rest of the growing season if it hasn’t rained for week I’ll water. And we’re talking a real rain, more than a half of an inch. Anything less doesn’t count.

I don’t get too worked up about fertilizer. The compost does a good job of that. If I had to make an inorganic recommendation, though, I’d say something in a slow release.Organic fertilizers are wonderful, but if your annuals are deficient, you probably don’t want to be waiting for the right soil temps, enzymes, and mineral breakdown of organics.

9. Avoid cliches.

Not only planting the base of a flagpole, but I’m talking about the tipped planting pot with flowers in the ground “spilling” out of it, the cast iron bed frame in the ground  making a “planting bed” (bed? Planting bed? Get it? Huh? Huh? Get it? Huh?), the toilet bowl filled with flowers (Route 125 in Hancock), or the death march of marigolds lining a walk to a front door.

Cliches can be a more subtle, too, but just as tiring. Like rock plantings. Here’s a local example-

A rock in the middle of nowhere, and two each of the three most popular perennials-Silver mound Artemisia, Autumn Joy Sedum, and Stella D’Oro Daylily.

10. Ask a grade school kid about the color wheel.

It takes a LOT of flowers in a small area to be able to safely ignore color combinations, more than you are willing to plant. And the range of colors found in annuals now means that just because a color wheel says the two go together, it may not.

I will admit to landscaping like a guy. I’m just not very subtle. Bright, contrasty colors are my signature in flower plantings. Like yellows and golds next to Middlebury Blue college signs, or tacky reds and pinks underneath a Japanese maple. My favorite colors in perennials seem to be peaches and apricots. My favorite annual colors seemingly come out of a kindergarteners crayon box.

This goes back to the audience concept as well. All flower books seperate “hot” colors like red and orange from “cool” colors like blues. What they don’t say? Hot, bright colors look good from a distance, like shocking reds. Pale subtle colors look good closer up.

How about one color? Like Morning Star Grass, a green grass with a bright white streak up the center, with a white Bacopa at it’s base.

Another example-Rainbow’s End Dwarf Alberta Spruce, a rare spruce where the new growth comes out gold, with a gold Bidens crawling around the base.

11. Fuss a little bit.

If you are making an investment in annuals, you are going to have to invest in some time into them as well. It’s worth it. A mid-summer haircut goes a long ways to keeping the plants looking fresh and happy for the haul to fall. Some modern annuals don’t need deadheading (removing spent flowers), but chopping off flowers and seedheads at once scares them into better blooms in a week or two. Petunias will branch and flower more if trimmed.

12. Use something big once in a while.

Start with something tall, and work down from there. Unfortunately, many annuals all seem to be about the same height, and that gets dull. Mess around with some grasses, or old fashioned plants like Datura or Night Flowering tobacco. Not only will they fill up a lot of space (cheaply!), but they’ll provide a focus point for the whole bed. Here’s a night flowering Tobacco in a pot with an Oxalis at the base. Even in the daytime, green is a color, and theOxalis has plenty of presence on it’s own.

12. Have some fun.

Humor in the landscape can, and shoud be subtle. (remember what I was saying about cliches?) Annuals are such a broad catagory, that it’s easy to have fun with them, and like a joke, doesn’t need to live from year to year. I’ve seen all Black flowered gardens, for example, or all blue beds with one red “accidental” flower in the center. Or this-a funky grass called King Tut-an Egyptian Papyrus, that I decided to plant in front of the formal stone entrance to Old Chapel Road. It looks like I’d lost my mind. Naturally, I have.

13. Steal ideas.

Horticulture has a grand tradition of theft. One of my favorite plant combinations I ever used was actually just discovered by the plants on a greenhouse bench being adjacent to one another.

Steal ideas Draw inspiration from other sources, like art. Remember about the color wheel above? Ignore it, like that hack Claude Monet, and be brave enough to pair blues with pinks, or even use a surfeit of silver, even though it’s not on the color wheel at all.

14. Ignore everything I say.

I thought this coleus would look good in a bed.