Sunday, September 25, 2011

Building a Public Rose Garden: The Masonic Center Garden

by Steve Wieder

The Masonic Center, Newburyport, MA, September, 2011
It's hard to believe that 18 months ago, the garden pictured above was scarcely more than an idea inspired by a photograph.  During Square and Compass Day, a state-wide Masonic Open House held in October, 2009, a visitor dropped by the Masonic Center in Newburyport, Massachusetts with this photograph of the Masonic Lodge circa the mid 1930's.

The building itself has hardly changed in the 75 years since the photograph was taken.  Aside from the color of the doors, the only readily discernible difference is the grounds.

The vintage photograph depicted a well-established garden encompassing the existing lawn in its entirety.  None of the long-time most senior members could remember the plantings that had been totally replaced by lawn.

A designated historic landmark in the City of Newburyport, The Masonic Center building was originally a private residence designed in the Federalist style.  The grand colonial revival fa├žade was added in 1929 when the building was converted for use as a Masonic meeting place  and permanent home for several Masonic fraternal organizations.

The Masonic bodies currently headquartered in the Masonic Center have a history that predates the acquisition of the 31 Green Street location by more than a century and a half.

St. John's Lodge, one of the the Masonic Center's founding Masonic bodies, will celebrate the 250th Anniversary of its original charter in 2016.  One of the oldest Masonic Lodges in Massachusetts, St. John's was chartered in 1766,  the fourth lodge to be established in Massachusetts and only the second to be established outside of Boston.

In preparation for celebrating St. John's quarter-millennial, we have undertaken renovations that are primarily cosmetic - painting inside and out, polishing, organizing the museum rooms. But until we saw the photograph of the original gardens, no thought had been given to making any changes to the grounds themselves.

During the Square and Compass Day, presided over by Brother Spencer, our Cavalier King Charles Spaniel who serves as St. John's Lodge's unofficial but worthy mascot, I was asked if I could identify the plantings in the photograph and whether I thought we could recreate the gardens in the picture in time for the 2016 anniversary celebration.

I suggested consulting my wife, Cathy.  She designed our gardens and is far more knowledgeable about gardening than I am.  I generally follow her lead and try to avoid pulling up things that aren't weeds.

Cathy was of the opinion that the plantings that were in the photograph weren't suitable for the location and suggested that it might have accounted for the garden's demise.  She agreed to do some research and to put together a presentation for the Board.  A Board of Trustees makes all major decisions about the building and grounds, and since it is also a historic landmark, care had to be taken with the aesthetics of the project.

My wife is a paper artist and gardening and garden design are her avocations.  I admit to being somewhat biased but I think her skill rivals that of many professionals.  As she planned the layout and researched plant selections, I felt that Cathy was up against it because the area where this garden was to be built had many challenges that would be difficult to work around.

Barely a quarter mile from the waterfront, winter means Nor'Easters and gale force winds, abundant ice storms and not nearly enough snowfall to insulate a garden against winter, and flooding and salt from the street.  In the heart of the city on one of the busiest and most heavily trafficked streets, automobile exhaust, which coats plantings with toxic, oily pollutants, and heat reflected off the asphalt would affect everything we planted.  The building sits in bright sun with the grounds shaded only by the building itself.  One of the members mowed the lawn each week, but we don't have a formal groundskeeper.

Mindful of all of this, she chose plants that would be heat and drought tolerant, would stand up to the pollution generated by the volume of traffic on a busy city street, would be able to weather some very harsh winter storms, and wouldn't require hours of skilled landscaping care each week.

The other major consideration we had was financial.  Much of the discretionary funds available to the Masonic bodies who share the building were being spent on refurbishing the inside of the building. There was no real budget for the grounds aside from nominal amounts for snow removal and mowing the lawn. Not only did she put together a viable project, she did it with a minimalist budget.  Excluding the irrigation hardware, the total outlay for  materials to build the garden, including compost, mulch, and plants, was roughly $1,500, most of which was donated by brothers who are members of the Masonic groups who are headquartered at the Center.

I expected her to take a pragmatic approach so when she came up with a plan to build a low maintenance rose garden, it sounded like an oxymoron even to me.  I'm her husband and together we have 200 roses in our own garden.  They are gorgeous but far from "low maintenance".  I was very skeptical about her plan and envisioned many hours of spraying, deadheading, and pruning in my future.

I should have had more faith.  Her plant recommendations were perfect for the space. She suggested double knock-out roses for summer long color and incorporated both dwarf white rhododendrons and rose of Sharon shrubs to connect the white pillars of the facade with the rest of the garden.  In terms of a low maintenance garden, it doesn't get any better than Knock-Out roses.

A large sign was to be installed in the left bed and we needed something large to balance it and anchor the right bed.  She suggested a Cleveland ornamental pear tree.

As Cathy pointed out to the Board in her PowerPoint presentation (from which the accompanying slides are taken), this tree is covered in white blooms in early spring and has a perfect oval conformation that would fit completely within the space available.   And since it produces no fruit, it would not pose a temptation to mischief makers intent on crab apple fights nor would there be any messy fruit rotting on the sidewalk to pose a slip and fall risk for people walking by.

The Board was wowed by her sometimes tongue in cheek yet well researched presentation and the go-ahead was given to commence with the project last spring.

She came up with a materials list tht she turned into a poster-sized sign up sheet.  Members volunteered by signing up to pledge money for everything from a yard of compost to one or more roses.

There was also a section to pledge time and talent.  Many brothers volunteered their time and muscle power to assist me in actually building the garden.

This was a major factor in our being able to take on the project in the first place.  It would have been cost-prohibitive to have a professional landscaping company come in and build the garden.

Just as critical was the scheduling of the project.  The garden had to be built over the course of two days, start to finish, and on one of my weekends off from the hospital, but not Mother's Day weekend.  This meant we were locked into the weekend of May 1-2, 2010.  For readers not from around here, it's a great time to plant roses, but none of the local nurseries even have them in stock that early - they usually arrive the week of Mother's Day and even then, getting the numbers we needed locally, and already potted, would have been a very long shot.

Several of the members offered to install an irrigation system as part of the same project.  This added a third day to the project which had to be done the day before the two day garden make-over.  Work commenced to lift the sod and install the pipes for the irrigation system on Friday, April 30, 2010, the day before we planned to build the garden.

Building the Garden - Day One

Building the garden was accomplished in three days.  Day One consisted of lifting sod, a first pass with the rototiller, and laying pipes and installing heads for the irrigation system.

Cathy had drawn a landscaping plan to scale and one of the brothers took her diagrams and created a master plan that incorporated the pipes as well as the plantings.

During the planning phase, Cathy and I dug down under the sod to check the quality of the soil.  We were pleased not to have to dig clay out, but in order to add in the requisite compost, manure, and peat to amend the soil to support a garden, we needed to dig out and remove two truckloads of gravel.

A Masonic brother from a lodge in a neighboring town came to our aid with a small tractor and dump truck and hauled away the gravel.

Building the Garden - Day Two

We spent much of Day Two preparing the beds for planting.  We completed the installation of irrigation conduits and tilled in the amendments to the soil.   The entire lawn area was turned into garden beds.

Early Saturday morning, loads of compost and mulch were dumped in the driveway.  I bought bales of peat and manure to add in as well.  After we moved the compost to the beds with wheelbarrows, we spread the compost, manure and peat with rakes.

After it was all added in and spread fairly evenly, we rototilled again.  And again.  And again.  Then we picked out a few straggling rocks and rototilled again.

We purchased the compost from Martignetti's, where I buy materials for my own garden. They have a superior product that I often use in my own beds when I run short of my home made compost. The compost they delivered was rich and black.
That tan sandy dirt had to be transformed into a healthy gardening medium. It took two days to get it there.
We had seven cubic yards (3/4 of a truck) of compost delivered. In wheelbarrow loads, it's ... a lot.
Spreading compost, manure and peat over the bed, to be tilled into the remaining dirt.
Setting in the last bit of pipe for the irrigation system. Because of finances, only the first part of this project could be completed at the outset, meaning that we didn't have a functioning system last summer. But the necessary plumbing was installed before planting and we will be able to complete it by the end of this gardening season.
The amendments were tilled into the beds and I went behind, picking up rocks that got thrown up from the underlying dirt.
We also took the opportunity to clean and prune the hedge we share with a neighbor.  It had become an overgrown, weedy eyesore.

Several brother Masons pitched in to help and we were able to get the beds ready to plant by the end of the second day.  A small strip of grass and a short hedge serves as a buffer between the Masonic Center grounds and the building to our right. The hedge had been sorely neglected and one of the members trimmed out the weeds and shaped it.

Building the Garden - Day Three

Cathy had tried to get the plants from local nurseries but she couldn't find anyone who stocked the particular cultivar of rhododendrons she wanted, which are a dwarf white reblooming variety, and none of the nurseries expected to have potted roses available that early in the season and even two weeks later, while they might have some stock available, they could not guarantee the number of shrubs she needed.

We were on a tight time frame for the project. As the project manager,  I only had this one weekend free to coordinate the preparation of the beds and planting.   She found a mail order nursery that was able to commit to a shipping date that would get the roses and shrubs delivered on April 29th or 30th so they could be planted immediately after delivery.

Best of all, they were running an early spring special so we were able to get potted plants in gallon pots or larger at an eminently affordable price.  We fronted the funds, she negotiated both the sale price (she was able to get a significant quantity discount on top of the published sale price), and discounted shipping as well.  Everything, including the tree, was shipped to our home.  Her budget had looked at both bare root and potted shrubs;  ultimately, she was able to get three year old shrubs at bare root prices. 

The project was slated to commence on April 30th with bed preparation on Saturday, May 1st and planting on Sunday, May 2nd.  Originally, Cathy was supposed to be attending a papercrafter's convention that entire weekend and had planned to be away from Thursday through Sunday evening.

There was no flexibility in the timeline for the project so I was relieved when she offered to skip all but a couple of the late afternoon and evening sessions on Saturday so she could be there to give hands-on guidance.  The fact that she also thought to supply everyone with ice water, lemonade, and snacks was another perk to having her there.

Fortunately, the weather was not too much warmer than usual, sunny to slightly overcast, and very comfortable working weather over all.  Armed with her cane and her jug of SoilMoist, Cathy oversaw the planting despite her physical limitations.

On Sunday, Planting Day, we first laid out landscaping cloth for weed control and then Cathy set out the plants according to the diagram. We cut the cloth and dug out the holes for each shrub, and then added SoilMoist and composted manure directly into each hole.

After the plants were set into the ground, we spread a thick layer of mulch to help insulate the ground below to maintain a lower temperature around the roots and help prevent rapid evaporation of water. This proved crucial to the survival of the garden.  Later that summer, we experienced a severe drought and for the first time that I can ever recall, we had strict watering restrictions in Newburyport.  We had had a very wet, rainy spring and she was teased quite a bit that day for worrying so much about a possible drought.  But these steps insured that the garden would be able to weather that unexpected challenge when it occurred barely two months later.

We cut a large X in the landscaping fabric where each plant was to go. That way, we could bring the edges back around the plant to minimize the area where weeds could penetrate.
Once again, several brothers from the lodge pitched in to get the job done.
We had 10 cubic yards of mulch, enough to put about 6 inches on top of the landscape cloth and a couple of yards leftover. It was a lot to spread with wheelbarrows and rakes, but it has been effective at keeping weeds to a minimum.  She  had us mound the extra mulch it behind the plants, which were planted at least 18-24 inches from the foundation.  We were able to rake that "stockpile" down over the bed in subsequent years, saving on additional much and delivery costs.
We mounded extra mulch along the building and we were able to pull that down this spring and spread it over the beds.
After we picked up the tools and swept up the mulch, we stood back and admired our new garden.
Six weeks after planting, the change is dramatic. Cathy planted some geraniums to add some color until the roses could provide color on their own. 
Once the roses started blooming, they didn't stop until November and the shrubs more than doubled in size the first year.

When she laid out the project, Cathy was very cognizant of the amount of heat this downtown location would be subjected to and that weighed heavily into her plant selections.  Of all of the ideas she came up with to make this garden as low maintenance as possible, the steps she recommended to help conserve water - using the SoilMoist, and adding landscape cloth and a thick layer of mulch to keep the ground insulated - proved invaluable. Not even a month after the beds were planted, we were headlong into a drought that lasted for several months and ultimately led to the City initiating a ban on outdoor watering. For a newly planted garden, that could have been catastrophic.

The ban allowed alternate day watering for a brief period in the morning. With the added responsibility of our own extensive gardens to maintain, I only managed at most, a weekly watering at the Masonic Center garden during the time of the water restrictions.  The water conserved by the thick layer of mulch and retained by the SoilMoist got this garden through its infancy quite successfully.

When we had some problems with a few of the rhododendrons, we had to dig out a couple of plants.  At the height of the drought, when we dug down to lift the shrubs, the soil was damp and cool, the roots of the rhodies were supple, and the SoilMoist was swollen with water and gelatin-like.  I'm convinced that it played a crucial role in the survival of this garden, since the mulch was baked dry and hard and the grass was completely burned and brown.

Building the Garden - One Year Later - 2012

A year later, the Masonic Center garden is well on its way to being the beautiful garden my wife and I envisioned.

Last fall, she added spring flowering bulbs and some perennials that she got at the end of the season on sale.  Earlier this spring, while the tree was covered with white blossoms, pink and purple tulips and hyacinths bloomed around its base and in clumps throughout the beds.

We planted some pansies and they continued to bloom all summer. They have not bolted despite the intense heat we had through much of July and August.

Cathy's plan has evolved as the garden has matured.  Instead of the ivy she originally intended to use to form a foundation planting beneath and around the roses, we added white drift roses. We have also added several peonies and two  peony trees to anchor the far right corner of the building.

Someone in the lodge added some large rocks to the landscape which fit perfectly into the design and look very nice.   I'm happy to see other brothers taking some ownership and adding to the beauty of the garden. Cathy planted clumps of white bell-flowers in front of the stones and they've been blooming all summer.
Summer, 2011:  These are the same roses that were about a foot high and wide a year ago. They are a mass of pink and red color.
The white re-blooming  rhododendrons and drift roses pick up on the white trim of the windows and pillars.
Summer, 2011:  The garden has filled out immensely in just one year.
Cathy and I take care of maintaining the garden which consists of spring cleaning,  feeding, and some occasional pruning and watering when needed.  When we spray our garden at home (we use only organic methods), we spray the garden at the lodge.  The total amount of work involved is on the order of 2-3 hours every other week or less.

May, 2011:  Planting drift roses and doing some spring weeding and pruning earlier this spring.
Summer, 2011:  It was a very wet spring but I have had to water a couple of times over the summer when the weather turned hot and the precipitation decreased dramatically. I typically stop by on my way to the clinic so it is watered before the heat of the day.
One of the nicest things that has come of this project has been the interest and appreciation it has generated among both passersby and members of the lodge. When we are there, most people walking by stop to compliment the garden and comment on the beauty of the roses.

When my wife and I dropped by to water and prune a bit in mid-June, we were delighted to see that one of my Masonic brothers had placed flags around the perimeter in honor of Flag Day, which were left in place through the Fourth of July.

June, 2011:   Peonies bloom in the corner behind the roses on the right, and on the far left, a large rock has taken up residence between two of the roses.
The pansies have lasted well in the heat. The drift roses and peonies were planted a couple of weeks before these photographs were taken. The drift roses have nearly doubled in size and began to bloom in earnest this past month.
There is a rose of  Sharon in the corner on each side of the facade. Cathy felt that the shrubs' pure white blooms  would connect the pillars with the garden. The roses and rhododendrons will grow over the lintel but when full grown, will barely reach the bottom of the windows.  It was important to Cathy that the beauty of the stately windows not be masked by foundation plantings.
Two tree peonies will add vibrant spring color and anchor this corner.
The Cleveland Pear could have been designed for this spot.  We needed a tall, oval, self-contained tree that would not interfere with power lines nor overhang the walk.

Taken June 21st, the above photographs show the garden decorated with flags for Flag Day and Independence Day.

But nothing captures the effect the garden has had on the building and on the grounds better than these paired before-and-after pictures.

The left bed, looking toward the front door.
The left bed, looking toward the driveway.
The right bed, looking toward the walkway to the right side entrance.
The right bed, looking toward the front door.

With the fall activities commencing and the dedication of the sign scheduled in a week, Cathy and I spent about an hour last week doing some clean-up, deadheading, and minor pruning. I was amazed at how much the garden has matured over the summer. Here's what it looked like on September 19th, sixteen months (and one winter) after planting.

September 19, 2011:  The roses have been a mass of color all summer.
The white drift roses will be a beautiful ground cover after they mature.
The garden now takes a few hours a month to maintain.  We check on it weekly and schedule a couple of hours when needed to shape and feed the shrubs and clean up around the beds.

The Rose of Sharon blooms had precisely the effect she'd hoped for.
Note the Rose of Sharon in the corner and the pansies in the foreground under the tree.  The pansies never bolted and were a colorful addition all summer.


  1. Very impressive indeed! I cannot imagine how you manage 200 roses in your garden. Now you are involved with other gardens as well. You two got to be very capable!

  2. I echo One. This was a sizable project and it looks like it was very well prepared and planned. I am sure everyone is grateful for how it turned out, and you must be getting many compliments.

  3. One, and Donna, thanks for reading and commenting.

    One, the roses are not as much work as some people think. We'll do some posts in the spring about some of the easiest roses to have in a garden and how we manage to take care of 200 without breaking a sweat. So many of them are disease resistant and very hardy.... they don;t really need that much. Where you live, if it's more tropical, there are some other considerations, but there are some roses that should well for you with minimal effort.

    Yes, we do get lots of compliments, Donna, especially when we are there working. People stop to compliment the garden and they always have a smile. The garden puts a smile on everyone's face.

    We designed and organized it, but it was the hard work of many of the brothers of the lodge that got the job done. Everyone pulled together and the results are beautiful.

  4. Bravo! What you have accomplished here is amazing! Not only does it look so much better, but I'm certain it gives everyone that sees it a bit more civic pride. Well done. I'm so glad you included both before and after shots.

  5. Thanks, Holley. Everyone involved in the project can feel a sense of pride. I know we do. In another year, it will be that much more mature as a garden and prettier still.

  6. Steve and Cathy, congratulations for a wonderful job very well done! A blooming garden always invoke positive feelings for people and butterflies, and positive feelings are contagious. I think those are spill-over effects neglected and unquantified. Maybe after sometime some neighbors of the lodge will ask you to also do theirs!

  7. What a wonderful post of a job well done! I love stories with happy endings where things are improved. Your knock outs (didn't you say that was the Rose you were using?) are certainly prolific.

  8. Dear Andrea and Jeannie B., thanks for visiting our blog!

    Yes, the roses are knock-outs. They are very disease resistant, very low maintenance, drought and heat tolerant, and don't need continuous deadheading. They are perfect for a setting like this. And they certainly are thriving!

    And no, I am not hoping the neighbors will ask us to do their gardens as well LOL. We are hobby gardeners and our own garden is way more than enough for us to manage. But thanks for the compliment and the vote of confidence.

  9. Wonderful job done! It will grew prettier every year. I was not aware you have 200 roses in your garden? It must be really a beautiful sight when they are all in full bloom.

  10. Hi, Kalipso, and thanks for dropping by.

    Yes, we have 200 roses comprising over 100 different varieties. And yes, when the garden is at its peak in June they are an amazing site. Most of our roses bloom throughout the summer and fall and even now, they are all blooming and we are cutting bouquets for the house.

    Last year, we had a mild autumn and we had roses from the garden on the table for Thanksgiving! And no, they are not as much work as you might think, but they are definitely a labor of love. ;)

    The June GBBD post shows some of the beds in full bloom. You can see it here:

  11. Wow, teamwork! Well done you guys! And good job involving so much of the building's community too.

  12. Hey guys,
    What a stunning achievement for many years to come. And such good documentation.

    Cathy, I love the way you used white plant material to tie building and garden together.

    And after seeing the final product, I give my blessing to the use of knockouts. (inside joke)

  13. I have only 45 roses in my garden. Last year, I picked my last rose bloom (it was 'Paul Neyron') in November and, this year as it seems, it will be the same.

  14. Cathy and Steve, Thank you for your caption contributions. I have posted both of them; including the gray hair. :)

  15. The building was beautiful from day 1 and still is. I'm so glad everyone put some efforts into doing the flower beds again. Now, after all the hard work, it has all paid off, and is so beautiful. Thanks for sharing a part of history with all of us.

  16. What an epic write up. Roses apart, I am loving the dog, the wheel barrow and the Cleveland ornamental pear tree. What is the botanic name?

  17. Hi, linnie, and thanks for visiting! Honestly, without all of that help, we would never have gotten the project off the ground!

    Whew, Patrick! Glad we were able to change your mind on the knock outs, at least for this project!

    Kalipso, we had roses on the table from the garden for Thanksgiving last year. Until it actually snows or we have a several day hard freeze, we have blooms we can cut. And today, when I walked out to get the mail, Zephirine Drouhin was blooming yet again on the climber that drapes the mailbox! I'll be cutting that spray to put in Steve's office.

    One, I love your photos and captions! But the newest photos have me stumped for ideas so far. I need to think on those!

    Paula Jo, thanks for stopping by! The building IS gorgeous and since the sign and garden were dedicated this weekend, its new focus as more of a community center has been publicized and we expect the building to play a more active role in the community.

    Catharine, thanks for stopping by. The dog is definitely a sweet boy, and all the kids who come to the public events just adore him.

    As for the Cleveland pear, the botanic name is
    Pyrus calleryana.

  18. Cathy, thanks for your post on my blog about this project. You're right that it flags up all sorts of issues about historical sites and how far we can or should try to restore or recreate old gardens, when the conditions have changed so much (or the original wasn't very well planned in the first place).
    This looks a great example of creating something new in the spirit of the original, rather than a direct copy. It must be very pleasing to see it so well received.


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