Helping people take back their yards
Eminent landscaper Tom Strangfeld urges homeowners to avoid the repetitious, the soulless, the boring
EAST HARWICH — Some people walk dogs for a living. Tom Strangfeld walks yards.
Strangfeld, 66, is a respected landscape designer — “a big shot,” according to Chuck Baker, a former colleague at Weston Nurseries of Hopkinton, who has known him for 40 years.
He has planted trees in Boston’s Public Garden, and appeared on the PBS series “This Old House.” He installed a landscape, complete with a cave, for Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler. He designed and built the garden at the Concord grave site of gardening guru and TV star James Crockett. He has lectured at the Arnold Arboretum and Radcliffe Seminars, and is a former president of the Massachusetts Nursery and Landscape Association, an industry trade group. He has taken top prize — five times — for his exhibits at the New England Spring Flower Show.
“Tom is one of the top five landscapers and horticulturalists in the state, absolutely,” according to Jim McManus a manager of that event, now the Boston Flower & Garden Show.
Yet for as long as he can remember, Strangfeld has wanted to reach out to people directly in their homes, to avoid what he sees as the “repetitious and soulless and boring” landscaping he believes is common in many suburban yards.
He has an encyclopedic knowledge of plants. He’s a natural teacher who sees lessons in every bud and blossom, enjoys telling stories, and has very strong opinions, not all of them about flowers.
About a year ago, his wife, Marian, came up with a job title for him — “Yardwalker ”— and Strangfeld has now become one, offering one-hour “walking” lessons to introduce people to their own gardens.
“There’s a very limited number of people who get excited about gardening versus cooking and decorating,” said Strangfeld, a burly, bearded man who comes off as gruff at first, but isn’t. “A lot of people need a little help.”
Some are looking for big-picture advice on their yard’s potential. Others have technical questions — how to rescue a sagging arborvitae hedge, or plant a perennial without killing it. Many people are pruning-phobic.
Don Buchholtz of Dover has walked his yard with Strangfeld. “Usually I can figure things out pretty well,” Buchholtz said, ‘but pruning is something I’ve tried to figure out and read about and basically it sounds ridiculous but I could never get it.”
One walking lesson later, and he got the hang of it. “I haven’t done anything complicated at all, but what I have done is fine,” he said. “It grows back and you do it again.”
It doesn’t surprise Strangfeld that so many people feel disconnected from their gardens and yards. “I don’t think people think a whole lot about the fact that they have choices,” he said. This is a prelude to Strangfeld’s major pet peeve, namely that in his view suburban landscaping “went off the track” a few decades ago, and has never recovered: People choose their shrubs and plants less because they are pretty than because they’re purposeful.
He blames this on the construction industry, specifically on the advent of the poured concrete foundations which gained popularity in the 1940s with mass-produced housing for returning war veterans.
“My theory is that this post-World War II construction change led to a change in the horticulture industry,” said Strangfeld. “The foundations got higher and higher [and] that’s when the landscaper was supposed to come in and hide the ugly concrete.” Old standards such as lilacs, spirea, and roses weren’t up to the task of camouflaging foundations, so the new standard became what Strangfeld calls “SFBs” — short, fat, bushy shrubs like yews, rhododendrons, junipers, and boxwoods.
“Too often the public perceives good landscaping as 10 thousand dollars’ worth of ecologically unrelated evergreens set off by an annual application of fresh bark mulch,” said Strangfeld, who worked for nearly 30 years at Weston Nurseries where he was manager of sales and marketing, and director of development.
Over the years he’s amassed other pet peeves, many of them related to what he sees as earnest but misguided efforts to make homes appear well cared for. These include “mulch mounds,” or “mulch muffins,” which are tall piles of mulch around the base of a tree that get added to every spring until they’re a foot or two high. There’s what he calls “the wrapping of the evergreen” — the superfluous shrouding of trees in burlap in the winter, ostensibly to protect them from the elements. He also has a beef with big box stores which sell plants yet neglect them: He refers to these as “bush pushers.”
As is often the case, he’s reminded of a story. It’s about the time a man came into Weston Nurseries one day complaining that the birch tree he’d bought was in bad shape. Strangfeld asked him for the order number. “I didn’t buy it from you people,” the man huffed. “I bought it from Home Depot.”
(Stephen Holmes, a spokesman for Home Depot responded, saying: “We work diligently to exceed our customers’ expectations every day by providing high quality, healthy plants, as well as the care they need to remain that way.”)
Strangfeld is sitting on a small deck — more like a platform, actually, just big enough for two chairs — in the small entry courtyard in front of his East Harwich house. The garden has been featured in Better Homes and Gardens magazine, yet it’s unexpectedly unassuming, only 20 by 30 feet and framed by a white picket fence.
It started out as a shade garden but after the flowering cherry tree fell down two years ago, it became a very sunny garden. No matter: Strangfeld plans to completely redo it over the next few years for his grandchildren. Plans include a playhouse, maybe a treehouse, a space ship, and some sort of secret hideaway.
The garden is subtle without strong contrasts, and intentionally low-maintenance. (He’s a strong believer in low-maintenance gardens. Also, that the landscaping of a house should function the way the inside does, as “a series of intimate little areas in a range of sizes.”)
In his own garden, every plant seems to have a story behind it. The enkianthus is his current favorite because of its shape, flower form, red stems and the lovely lime green leaves when they first appear. He points out the alchemilla with its velvet green leaves and explains it got its name because sparkling water droplets collect in them that look like silver, and alchemists thought they had special properties.
He loves the contorted shape of his Japanese white pine. Other favorites are witch hazel, fennel, heuchera, and astilbe. There are not many SFBs in the garden, except for three Vardar Valley boxwoods, and by the way, “just because a species is overused as an SFB doesn’t make it a bad plant.”
He built the deck and fence himself, and he also made his distinctive “killer tool” which he refers to as a “cultinator.” It’s a menacing-looking object that does everything from slice weeds to clean ledge and he made it by grafting the broken blade of a roto-tiller onto a piece of Chinese chestnut he picked off a collapsed bridge in an old Japanese garden at Elm Bank.
“As it came together, it started to resemble ancient war clubs I’d seen at the MFA,” he said. “So I went in that direction.”
Baker, the longtime Weston Nurseries colleague, describes Strangfeld as “an old-fashioned renaissance kind of guy. He is very creative and hates the mundane things in life. He sees every day as an opportunity to create something. People in the industry were always elated he never had an interest in having his own company because no one would want to compete against him.”
Strangfeld is at an age now when other landscapers might be contemplating hanging up their spades, or in this case, cultinator. Not Strangfeld, though, who is both delighted and astonished that he’s still in good enough shape to do landscape work. He said the “biggest kick” he gets is driving bulldozers, excavators, and backhoes.
Plus, there are all the stories he gets to tell. Gardening gives him great material. There’s the one about his father who pruned everything in the yard till they resembled bright light bulbs. “The forsythia lit up.” The one about his old neighbor Snuffy, “the human mulch machine” who would decompress from a stressful day at work by shredding branches with a hand pruner into tiny pieces.
There’s his all-time favorite story, the one he calls the Public Garden Artist Caper. In the mid-1980s he planted four flowering cherries in the Public Garden, one by each corner of the bridge. A month later, he got a call that they’d disappeared. Eventually he found them, one planted in each remote corner of the park, perfectly planted, staked, mulched, and watered.
It turned out the culprit was an artist who did oils of the bridge. Apparently the trees got in the way of his vision, so he hired a crew to transplant them.
“I’ll tell you another quick one,” said Strangfeld, now on a roll. It’s about the time he was working on a job with a contractor named Big John and a ground manager named Russell.
“I was on a bulldozer and I see John waving at me to stop, stop, stop. “ Behind him was Russell, flat on the ground. Convinced he’d run over him Strangfeld leaped from the bulldozer and leaned over him. Russell looked at him and grinned. Drunk. So they dragged him over to a tree, leaned him against it, then wrapped a rope around him so he wouldn’t flop over.
Shortly thereafter, the boss drove up. “Big John said, ‘Go away. You don’t want to know about this.’
Evidently he didn’t. He got back in his truck and drove away.