Archive for the ‘Animals’ Category

The seedling was a Pierpont, and its parent weighed-in at a whopping 1,196 pounds. And sometime within its first 24 hours in my garden, in the dark of night, a villain stole in, dug in the rich soft dirt, and killed the seedling. Pierpont is gone.


MH the Grower (formerly blogged about as Michael Horst) responded: “It is what it is.” And he gamely went back to the Pinkham Plantation nursery…




…and selected one of the few remaining seedlings left. A Powell, this time. And one whose parent weighed 1,548. A more impressive lineage and perhaps the reward for perseverance.




Another reward for this second attempt was that I was present to document The Planting in complete, possibly excruciating, detail. Let’s start with The Digging of the Hole:




Note the incredibly dark rich organic compost that will be the home of this lucky Powell 1548. (I like naming it that. Alpha + Numeric = the pumpkin version of an R2D2 or a C3PO.)


The hole was dressed with a fertilizer called Bio-Starter, an organic multi-component mix that includes mycorhizzae, a beneficial fungi. Those little white bits? Evidence of the addition of Bio-Starter. Let there be no doubt.


The Hole


Next, one modest tablespoon of Superthrive, mixed with a full gallon of water. Superthrive is a hormone-type plant growth stimulator. Trust that MH the Grower is not interested in cultivating an “Oh, isn’t that a cute little pumpkin!” No, he’s going for a Powell 1548 – an Atlantic Giant. A monster. This is, after all, an entry into the Pumpkinfest Weigh-Off in October, so there’s no messing around. Superthrive it is.




And in it goes, a robust healthy pumpkin seedling with its first set of true leaves, one of which is large and points in the direction that the main stem wants to grow.




And my dog MacKenzie watched from afar, content to be near all of us, happy that she’d found some shade, and not quite certain what all the fuss was about.




MH paid full attention to this leaf and its demonstration of intent. The seedling was planted with the leaf facing the greatest area of open space in the reserved portion of the garden. That vine will have nothing in its way for at least 20 feet. For the purpose of humor, I wish the seedling was facing west, but it isn’t. It’s facing north, and so I must say, “Go north, young seedling! Go north!”


Here’s a photo of the open area, the wide wilderness that the Powell 1548 will explore:




Because this was a do-over, the decision was made to protect the seedling from nighttime marauders. I offered my stash of tomato cages, but that proved both ineffective and silly. MH decided that four stakes, a roll of chicken wire, a length of rope, and a recently unearthed brick would do the trick. Here’s the entire sequence:







And the result:




This photo is comforting to MH and myself, and we hope it is deeply disturbing to the assassins of the night, the ones that care not for infant pumpkins and care more for the grubs, worms, and other burrowing creatures they are certain reside deep in the compost. They will not get the chance to try again. The Powell 1548 is caged. For a day or two, at least. That baby’s gonna grow, and FAST.


Stand back, and stay tuned.



“It’s not how many times you get knocked down that count, it’s how many times you get back up.”


— George A. Custer, Cavalry Commander (1839 – 1876)



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Oh, how I wish this WERE a fable. But it’s not. It’s a true story of yet another victim of the winter of 2014-15. The story goes like this:

The former owner of our house was quite a gardener. She planted lovely perennials, trees, and shrubs, and very few of them were to my liking. (But to be fair, she didn’t plant them for me.) I am living with most of her choices because I do recognize her skill, and the health and vigor of the plants. This includes two dwarf Japanese maples (acer palmatum) that flank the driveway-side of our house.

These two trees met the winter in a similar way: healthy and fully clothed in bark. But sometime, during a dark winter night before the first blizzard, a porcupine (erethizon doratum) started snacking on the bark of one tree. When the snow receded, the extent of the damage became clear. And I now know why this critter’s Latin name is so apt. “Erethizon doratum”? Your translated name is “quill pig” and that’s about how I’m feeling towards you right now.


The one maple tree that survived unchewed:


And the stripped maple tree that was far enough from the doorway to escape our notice so that the cowardly rodent could pig-out:


Here is a close-up of a chewed branch. Note the teeth marks:


Am I upset? You betcha. But perhaps not for the reason you imagine. Husband is very very upset that we have lost a beautiful tree. Me? Not about that. Remember, this wasn’t my favorite inherited planting. I’m more upset that we have a porcupine close to our house and to our two dogs.

I am not alone in my dismay about these prickly beasts. They have been referenced by comedians, poets, and Communist leaders alike, and all seem to agree: These are tough customers. Two more quotes to accompany my “Words from Others” widget:

“If you start throwing hedgehogs under me, I shall throw a couple of porcupines under you.”

  • Nikita Khrushchev (Russian politician, 1894-1971)

“The porcupine, whom one must handle gloved, may be respected, but never loved.”

  • Arthur Guiterman (American writer and poet, 1871-1943)

Lest you think that I am a heartless, unfeeling porcupine hater, I will share two facts with you that prove that even porcupines are creatures that a mother could love (a Quill Pig mother, I mean).

Fact #1: Baby porcupines are called “porcupettes.” (awww)

Fact #2: A baby porcupine’s quills are ready to use 20 minutes after they are born. (It is that 20-minute delay that earns them a mother’s love.)

The snow has finally retreated, and the full extent of this winter’s damage is known. I’m hoping this is the last hurrah for our porcupine neighbor. If I have to write a blog about rushing our dogs to the vet in the middle of the night for Quill Removal, you can bet I will not be including any cute facts about these little prickly pigs at the end of that post.


“I’m a little hoarse tonight. I’ve been living in Chicago for the past two months, and you know how it is, yelling for help on the way home every night. Things are so tough in Chicago that at Easter time, for bunnies, the little kids use porcupines.”

— Fred Allen, (Comedian, 1894-1956)

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“It’s an event like no other.” Agreed. It is a place where rural life is celebrated, and where three days aren’t nearly enough to see everything.

It’s a place where no one over 30 dyes their hair, and so salt & pepper are suddenly not just condiments. It is a place where people under 30 frequently do dye their hair, to colors not natural to man. Kool-Aid red, peacock blue, and eggplant purple are much more common than, say, blonde highlights.

It is a place where the livestock is often enormous, the food portions are generous, and no bottled water is sold. (Yes, they’re making a point.) The event is organized seamlessly, perfectly, thoughtfully – outside of Disneyland, I’ve never seen the like. Drinking stations where you can fill your own water bottle are plentiful, as are hand-washing stations, toilets, and parking spaces. All of these things combine to create an atmosphere of peace and calm. What more could anyone possibly want?

How about a quiet walk to the entrance, described by one sign-making wag as a “10 minute walk of wooded bliss”? It looked like this:


Then look over the program. There are approximately 150 presentations/demonstrations/talks given EACH DAY, over the course of three days. What are you interested in? Farming/Gardening? Livestock? Cooking/Herbs/Health? Environment/Community/Education? Traditional Arts/Fiber & Fleece?

Here are a few of the better titles from the categories above:

Weave Like It’s 1699
Basic Dowsing
Getting Your Goats
Old Tales of the Maine Woods
When the Horse Says, “I am not leaving”

You get the idea. With the exception of “Basic Dowsing”, the presentations I attended were a little more mainstream. Beekeeping, heritage apples, medicinal herbs, gardening for birds and wildlife. And as for the dowsing course, I may or may not write about it. I came home with two brass dowsing rods and a complete inability to explain what I experienced in that class. I am still unsettled.

Let me show you some of the wonders of the fair. Of course, there was the lovely 2014 poster, which highlighted medicinal herbs, all of which I have grown except for stinging nettle. I remedied that (ha) by buying some nettle tea.


There was the expected Exhibition Hall with proudly displayed vegetables and flowers from local farmers, including the “Judges’ Award” perfect leek:




There were incredible crafts, including swags of switchgrass, lovely baskets, and items made from felted wool, such as this whimsical mask:


And there were the animals:


Including piglets, with a generous offer to name the 6 mulefoot hog piglets. My suggestions added to the Name Jar? Tallulah and Walter.



There were the tents housing crafts, political agendas, and the offerings of companies large and small. One of my three favorite companies was there, the glorious Fedco:


There were the heritage apples on display, presented after attending a talk on heritage apples, and a discussion of how to find and offer scions (cuttings) of rare apple varieties:



And then, of course, there were the people. Every flavor and style imaginable. Here are a few photos. The first shows the tenacity of the fair-goers despite the rainy blustery weather on Sunday. Crowded into a tent, with only their legs in view. Their heads were, I am certain, deeply engaged in the presentation.


Then there was the total stranger who wore a t-shirt that I found so compelling that I tapped him on the shoulder and asked if he’d mind if I took a photo of the back of his shirt. It said:


The front of his shirt said “Camp Wellstone”, as in the late Senator Paul Wellstone from Minnesota.

And finally, to end my day, this photo of what one fair-goer used as a bumper for his truck. Because, after all, why not do for yourself, take care of yourself, and be creative – if you can? Only in Maine.


I came home with three scarlet runner bean seeds (Jack never had magic beans like these), my dowsing rods, tea, presents, heaps of business cards and brochures, and a desire to research the background of Switchel – an old-fashioned haying drink that was offered at one booth. A concoction of water, vinegar, maple syrup, and ginger, it was as bright, delicious, and surprising as the fair itself.

I’m going back. I just wish I didn’t have to wait a whole year.

“If you’ve ever been to the Fair, you know — and if you haven’t been, anyone who has will tell you — it’s an event like no other, that brings together so many people from so many walks of life, all in the spirit of celebrating the rural and agricultural traditions of Maine.”

–from the MOFGA (Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association) home page, describing the Common Ground Country Fair

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Worm Wrangling 101

How did you spend YOUR Sunday afternoon? I spent mine in a room with about 30 “children” (ages 5-85), one instructor, and hundreds of worms.

The worms (eisenia fetida, or “red wigglers” for the less lofty) have become my garden partners. I will feed them scraps from my kitchen, keep them warm and contained, and they will produce castings that will feed my plants. I think this is a very good deal.

I took a class on raising worms from F.A.R.M.S. – Focus on Agriculture in Rural Maine Schools. These folks offer classes in gardening, cooking, healthy living, and as if that weren’t enough, offer free movies about food and farming every Friday night. The age range of students in that classroom was astounding, and a testament to the interesting and important work they do. Check out their website: http://www.mefarms.org/

In addition to information about what they’re up to, the site includes recipes and an interesting blog.

This class is useful at any time of the year, but is particularly poignant when offered to Mainers at the end of a very long winter, when spring is still many weeks away. (Mainers know that the calendar is a cruel mistress. What she says is virtually never what you get. So, March 20th is labeled the first day of spring? It is to laugh.) But thanks to my worm wrangling class, I can actually start on my garden, even when I shouldn’t start my seedlings until mid-April and I shouldn’t set my seedlings out until Memorial Day. No matter. The worms and I have plans.

It begins with humble ingredients:
— a plastic bin with air holes on all sides (including the bottom),
— a lid for that plastic bin (to keep the worms in. Yes, apparently they will wander if allowed),
— shredded bedding made of paper, coconut fiber, or woods chips (anything that holds moisture and allows the worms to burrow)
— a little grit, water, and organic food
— worms!

Here are a few photos from my happy Sunday. I’ve known about vermicomposting (using worms to transform kitchen scraps into compost) for years, but this was my first hands-on experience. It was a lovely reason to get my hands dirty.

First up: Filling my bin with shredded paper. The instructor confessed that she had just shredded mountains of bills, and brought them to class. One of the benefits, I’m sure of having a class scheduled close to April 15th:


Next step: enough water to make the paper spongy but not wet. This was a delicate operation, and I confess I needed a rag to clean up the water that leaked out of the bottom of my bin. Yet another example of “More Enthusiasm Than Skill” (the name I’ve chosen for my autobiography, if I ever get around to writing it).


Worms need grit to help them grind up their food. We were offered cups of garden limestone to sprinkle over the bedding.


The instructor had brought in a large bin filled with worm castings and worms. We were given sieves to tap the castings into round balls that were then easily scooped into Baggies to save for our gardens. The worms were left exposed and were easily picked up and dropped into our bins.

The instructor’s large bin was also available to the class for additional wrangling. One young girl was so thrilled at being allowed to collect worms that she offered to get mine for me. Of course I said yes!


And this is what my hand-selected worms looked like in my newly made bin today:


My big compost bin is not yet set up in my garden, because I’m not sure where the beds will be laid out. And every time I’ve tossed coffee grounds and eggshells into the trash, I’ve cringed at the waste and lost potential. But now, thanks to my red wiggler pals, my kitchen scraps have a new home and a new purpose in life.

I think I’m gonna need a bigger bin.

“I used to say that one ton of worms could eat one ton of garbage. I was always thinking big like that. Then I found out that Seattle had distributed four thousand worm bins. I did some figuring and realized that worked out to ten tons of garbage going into worm bins. That’s when I realized—it’s happening!”

— Mary Appelhof, American biologist (1936-2005) — worm composting activist and author of “Worms Eat My Garbage”

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Planning the Garden

We have moved and things are different. Our mortgage is gone. Our taxes are halved. And my garden has doubled.

I left behind a 40’ x 50’ garden in New York, and now I have a 100’ x 180’ garden in Maine. I had better plan this carefully.

Here is a photo of the sketch Husband did of the area I will be working on this year. The scale: 1” = 10’.


The rectangular shapes are stone walls, and the poofy swirls are trees.

From left to right, starting in the back: that smaller rectangular area has woods to the back and our neighbor’s field to the left (northeast). My plan is for this smaller area to have sunflowers, herbs, a seat for quiet contemplation, lots of fragrance, and lots of butterflies.

The larger area to the right will be the flower garden, with the wooded area at the far-right becoming the shade garden.

The area in the left foreground will have the orchard (we have apple, peach, and pear trees coming on April 30th!), and that circular area is the base of a silo. I’m thinking of a rose-covered arbor across the back half of that curve.

How will I tackle this enormous area? Here are my first thoughts:

Step 1. Don’t plan to do too much this first year.
Because we are starting two new businesses, which includes Husband’s art gallery and studio, and a rental apartment above the studio, and because we are having the outside of the house painted in the spring, I cannot plant everything I would like this first year.

I will not be planning or planting anything that is next to the house. I’m going to let the painters come and go as they will, trample anything they want, and I will not be biting my fist in an attempt to stop screaming. I will let this area go entirely.

I have planned 11 flowerbeds out in the back field, and I will be happy if I get 4 of those beds up and running this year.

Step 2: Know the enemy — earth.
What is under that lovely dark, formerly-a-horse-farm soil that I have out back? Is it rich dark loam, enriched over the years by those long-gone horses? Or is it one or two inches of dirt sitting on top of rock ledge? We have lots of granite rearing up that we can see, and that I’m already planning to use as flooring or backdrop for seating in the garden.

But the rest of that vast expanse….will I be able to dig beds there, or will I be begging Husband to supervise the construction of 11 raised beds?

Husband prefers I dig into the ground rather than go to the expense of building raised beds. So as soon as the ground thaws (April?) we will be out there with a metal spike and a mallet, and will tap our way across the field, trying to determine how deep the soil is. We will be graphing the underground lay of the land.

Step 3: Put my thoughts on paper.
Done. I filled several pages in my notebook with lists of the plants I wanted, with the goal of having something blooming all season long. Here’s a look at one corner of one page:


Step 4: Shuffle the cards, and stack the “beds”.
After I write, I need to see. I wrote the name of each plant on an index card, and borrowed Husband’s colored pencils to mark the color of the bloom. Here are the pencils he so graciously loaned me:


I mixed and shuffled and reshuffled these cards for days and days. I wanted the tallest of the plants at the top of the stack, with the spring-bulbs at the bottom. Once I was happy with the 11 stacks of cards, I taped them together so that I could then move the “beds” around and arrange them.


And here’s a closer look at a few of the “beds” I have planned:




I am planning to scatter shade-loving woodland plants under the trees at the southeast corner of the garden. While I have these gathered into a “bed” stack, I’m going to plant them individually. Here’s what I’ve chosen:


Step 5: Know the enemy – roots
I want a bed of mints, which means I need to plan ahead to thwart the invasive roots of these plants. I figured I would gang them up in one area, and install some kind of gulag around them. I’m planning to have monarda didyma to welcome the hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies, and flank it with lemon balm, and mint. While I wanted peppermint and spearmint specifically, I now know that mint plants do not produce true from seed, and so my seed packet is labeled, humbly, “Common Mint.” If I want specific mints, I will have to buy plants. I may do that.


Step 6: Think tall.
I ordered some shrubs, trees, and plants from FedCo, a cooperative seed and garden supply company in Waterville, Maine. My neighbors rave about them. My garden heroes (Barbara Damrosch, for one) recommend them. FedCo offers the plants and shrubs and trees that I want, and their catalog is jammed with wonderful advice. And their prices are astounding. I had to exercise enormous restraint when filling out my order form. I got all of my taller plants from them.


Step 7: Know the enemy – Odocoileus virginianus and Meteagris gallopava silvestris.
These super villains have secret identities: white-tailed deer and Eastern wild turkeys. They have free run of the place when my dogs are inside.

I need to keep the deer out of my garden at night, and the turkeys out of the garden during the day. I have considered and rejected installing an electric fence. I am concerned, of course, with the safety of our garden’s guests, but truthfully, the most likely casualty of an electric fence ZAP would be me. I tend to look down when I am in the garden, and I’m certain I would walk directly into that fence daily.

The plan, for now, is to buy yards and yards and yards of deer netting, and fasten it to the trees on 3 sides of the garden. If that isn’t effective, I will add a 4th stretch of netting across the house-side of the garden, and will add another chore to the daily list: walking the “4th wall” across the garden and fastening it at the end of each day. I will be, I guess, tucking my garden in for the night.

And so there you have it, my Plan to-date. What’s next? My favorite task of the year: Making soil cubes and planting seeds. That will happen in mid-March, and I am counting the days.

This last plan solves T.S. Eliot’s dark observation of the despair and frustration gardeners feel each April: “April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain.”

My plan is to thwart cruel April by tending my seedlings inside. When May comes, I will have my memories of gardens past, and my desire answered by the seedlings. I will be ready.

Stay tuned.

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Robins on the Lawn

Today was a long day, and I am tired. I walked the dogs along the Damariscotta River, which I have done before, but today we ventured further than we’ve ever been. The newness proved exhausting. The woods were too close, dark, and cold for that early in the morning, and the river-dampened dogs were as unhappy as I was in my light sweatshirt. Later, I worked at my desk. I unpacked 2 boxes of books and emptied 4 plastic bins of my son’s clothing and desk accessories. And I marinated chicken for tonight’s dinner.

But the most tiring event was gently cleaning beloved decorative plates that we found yesterday by surprise. The box was badly labeled, and I find these incessant surprises more wearing than exciting. (Perhaps if I could find the juicer for the kitchen, and my warm sweaters for my closet, I would not be as petulant.) The plates were from my mother’s household. I was happy to wash them in preparation for putting them out on display.

What made me tired was the emotion these dishes brought to the surface – memories of my gentle mother and how she loved these things, of the house in which I grew up, the scent of the lemon furniture polish she used, the untimeliness of her death. All from rinsing a few plates.

I went to the kitchen window, not to look out, but to think about what I should do next. It didn’t seem right to start the evening with my husband in this tired, unsettled state. But of course, I did look out.

On the lawn, in the fading light of this cool autumn day, were 8 robins. Robins! The birds I associate with spring and new beginnings. And while I am the very definition of New Beginning in this house, and had spent a good part of the day unpacking items to roll into my New Life here in Maine, it is autumn after all, and the world outside my window is winding down for the year. Seeing birds of spring was surprising.

And yet, those robins were there, quietly dipping their heads into the deep grass, in short determined motions. I’m certain they’re feeding and hoping to pack on a little weight to hold them during their long trip south. A lot of Mainer’s are doing that now: getting ready to go south. Our new next-door neighbors will be leaving shortly. I’m sure the lines at the grocery store will reflect this new state of affairs soon. My life will be empty of close neighbors and robins.

The birds are preparing for a new beginning in the sunny south. My new beginning will be my first autumn in Maine. I am looking forward to leaves that turn earlier, and a longer season of cinnamon donuts and pie. I am eager for this longer season of cold, when much of the warmth comes from the brighter color of the food – squashes, pumpkins, turnips, beets.

How lovely that this season of rest and quiet healing will be new to me. I plan to sleep well tonight so that I am fully ready for tomorrow’s surprise outside my window. I will take my place in this new family of things.

“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.”

― Mary Oliver (1935 – ), American poet

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I am starting to say good-bye. My garden is part of my very essence. We came to this home five years ago: a lovely house, and an untended yard. Husband built me a 50 X 40′ garden on a south-facing slope. It was perfectly positioned, with rich, black soil. We planted, tended, harvested, and breathed. Here is how this garden fed me, body and soul for the last 5 years.

2009: The grass is removed, the borders are defined, and the deer fencing is up.

2009: The grass is removed, the borders are defined, and the deer fencing is up.

The trellises are in place, the paths are lined with newspaper to suppress weeds and covered in straw to please the eye.

The trellises are in place, the paths are lined with newspaper to suppress weeds and covered in straw to please the eye.

After one year, I’d settled in, and 2010 was the most spectacular year in the garden. I had enough time on the weekends and during the week to tend to the garden. I planted, experimented, harvested, stored, shared, and reveled.

2010: Lush!

2010: Lush!

Here are a few of my favorite crops:

Good Mother Stallard beans are an heirloom variety of dry shelling bean.  I love working in the hot summer garden to have something delicious to eat in the frozen winter.

Good Mother Stallard beans are an heirloom variety of a dry shelling bean. I love working in the hot summer garden to have something delicious to eat in the frozen winter.

Good Mother Stallard beans, shelled.  A feast for the eyes, too!

Good Mother Stallard beans, shelled. A feast for the eyes, too!

Broccoli, dicicco, the Italian variety.  I preferred this variety and the Lacinato variety of kale, as both were sweeter and lighter in presentation than their American counterparts.

Broccoli, the Italian variety. I preferred this variety and the Lacinato variety of kale, as both were sweeter and lighter in presentation than their American counterparts.

I chose flowers, herbs, and vegetables for many reasons. One of the most delightful was to attract pollinators:

The buddelia bushes attract everything with wings.  It is living art.

The buddelia bushes attract everything with wings. It is living art.

Bumblebee on Marigold.  I'm also happy to report that in the last 5 years, I've seen the population of honeybees increase significantly.

Bumblebee on Marigold. I’m also happy to report that in the last 5 years, I’ve seen the population of honeybees increase significantly.

I experimented with different techniques in planting, staking, and harvesting. My favorite exploration was with the Florida Weave: a method of staking tomato plants that supports their branches at regular intervals by weaving string between posts.

The first row of string supports the new plant.

The first row of string supports the new plant.

I did battle with pests. Let’s start with the insect variety. I learned that products that show the initials OMRI on the label are environmentally safe to use. I used Captain Jack’s Deadbug Brew to rescue my brassicas from the ravages of moth larvae:

BEFORE:  Ravaged kale.

BEFORE: Ravaged kale.

AFTER:  The recovery was dramatic.

AFTER: The recovery was dramatic.

I did epic battle with chipmunks. The little varmints discovered my delicious, young bean plants one year, and completely wiped me out.

The growing vines were cleanly nipped, and the plants never recovered that year.  NO GREEN BEANS. Disaster.

The growing vines were cleanly nipped, and the plants never recovered that year. NO GREEN BEANS. Disaster.

I spent the summer trapping and releasing (miles away) 37 chipmunks.  MacKenzie was interested in this process.

I spent the summer trapping and releasing (miles away) 37 chipmunks. MacKenzie was interested in this process.

I discovered and used fabulous tools. My favorites:

Compost Turner:  Insert deeply into compost, turn, and lift.  The compost is fluffed and aerated.  I admit it, only a Garden Geek would find this thrilling.

Compost Turner: Insert deeply into compost, turn, and lift. The compost is fluffed and aerated. I admit, only a Garden Geek would find this thrilling.

The broadfork.  It aerates the soil without disturbing the tilth.  Place, step down, rock back, remove.  Again, thrilling.

The broadfork. It aerates the soil without disturbing the tilth. Place, step down, rock back, remove. Again, thrilling!

I made cloches out of milk jugs to get a jump-start on the growing season. I cut off the bottom of the jugs, cut a hole in the handle, pressed a stake through the handle into the earth, and made a mini-greenhouse around delicate seedlings. My neighbor asked if I was growing a crop of heavy cream. 🙂

Pea plants are sprouting under those jugs.

Pea plants are sprouting under those jugs.

I took great delight in starting seeds indoors and Husband made me gorgeous wooden seed trays. Like everything he puts his mind to, the results were both functional and beautiful:

3 out of 8 trays: Pre-polyurethane.

3 out of 8 trays: Pre-polyurethane.

The trays in place, by my office window.

The trays in place, by my office window.

Another fabulous tool is the soil-block press. This particular one makes four 2″ square cubes at a time. These cubes allow the seedlings to grow without becoming root bound.

The first soil cubes go into the tray.  Ready for planting!

The first soil cubes go into the tray. Ready for planting!

I had bountiful harvests. We ate like kings, I had more than enough to share, and I tried my hand at canning. An enormous amount of work up-front, but we reaped the rewards all winter long. Another benefit of canning: you do not fear power outtages and losing an entire harvest in the defrosted freezer. Here are a few photos of the bounty:

A basket of beans next to a heavily laden zinnia.

A basket of beans next to a heavily laden zinnia.

Harvested green, because frost threatened that night.  These were wrapped in newspaper to ripen, and made into sauce.

Harvested green, because frost threatened that night. These were wrapped in newspaper to ripen, and made into sauce.

Too many tomatoes to can immediately?  I froze them, and canned at my leisure.  They resembled bags filled with croquet balls!

Too many tomatoes to can immediately? I froze them, and canned at my leisure. They resembled bags filled with croquet balls!

Garlic, hanging to dry.

Garlic, hanging to dry.

Jar after jar of pickles.  Dill and sweet!

Jar after jar of pickles. Dill and sweet!

Jalapeno peppers, the Dulce (sweet/mild) variety.  I froze many and canned even more.

Jalapeno peppers, the Dulce (sweet/mild) variety. I froze many and canned even more.

I took the overflow into my office on a regular basis. Here is one morning’s offering:

This was in 2010, so to my 2012-13 office-mates, please forgive!  I was growing flowers almost exclusively during my time with you.

This was in 2010, so to my 2012-13 office-mates, please forgive! I was growing flowers almost exclusively during my time with you.

I experimented with craft projects from my gardens. Two of my favorites:

Ristra peppers became...

Ristra peppers became…

...a curtain of sorts.  I harvested enough to make curtains for both windows.  They dried, and were a cheery decoration that looked especially nice during the holidays!

…a curtain of sorts. I harvested enough to make curtains for both windows. They dried, and were a cheery decoration that looked especially nice during the holidays!

And then there were the decorative gourds that became bird houses:

I dried them until you could hear the seeds rattling inside.

I dried them until you could hear the seeds rattling inside.

I used a dremel to grind a hole, tapped out the innards, brushed them with polyurethane and hung them to dry.

I used a dremel to grind a hole, tapped out the innards, brushed them with polyurethane and hung them to dry.

And yes, we had birds move in!

I had the Summer of the Snakes. 2011 was the year when Black Rat snakes made frequent appearances, getting tangled in deer netting, and tangling our heart strings. Husband and I rescued 4 and had to bury two. It was emotional, more than a little unnerving, and ultimately gratifying to see the survivors slide away. MacKenzie was a little too interested in these events, and was banished inside the house.

Going back to where he belongs.

Going back to where he belongs.

Banished MacKenzie, broken-hearted at being removed from all the fun.

Banished MacKenzie, broken-hearted at being removed from all the fun.

Of course, the most wonderful part of having a garden is sharing it. No one shared it more regularly, and with so much enthusiasm as my dogs. Gordon, Puppy Extreme, sometimes was a little too enthusiastic, and had to be banished, for the safety of the seedlings:

On the wrong side of the fence.

On the wrong side of the fence.

And sweet MacKenzie just wanted to be near me. As long as a bed wasn’t planted, I had no objection to her using it as, well, a bed.

MacKenzie warms the soil, prior to planting.

MacKenzie warms the soil, prior to planting.

All of these topics have been discussed in past posts. You can find more info and more photos by searching for key words/phrases.

My beautiful garden. I am leaving you! I hear the new owners are thrilled with what they saw when they came to see the house, and I hope they feel about this small patch of soil as I do:

It is a place of beauty, food, scent, and solace. I hope to carry what I have learned and felt to my new garden, one gardening zone north, and a whole new Life away.

“A garden is a grand teacher. It teaches patience and careful watchfulness; it teaches industry and thrift; above all it teaches entire trust.”

–Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932) British horticulturist, garden designer, writer

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You Get What You Pay For

There is no such thing as a bargain when it comes to bird seed. I learned this the hard way.

Bargain-priced seed mixes are mostly seeds-that-no-bird-will-eat, like the round, red seed called Milo. To quote the Cornell Lab of Ornithology:

“A reddish-colored, round grain, milo is often a major component of inexpensive seed mixes. Unfortunately, it is not a favorite of most birds, and the seed often goes to waste. Western birds tend to consume milo more than eastern birds. In the east, it is best to avoid mixes with large amounts of milo.”

I have proof that this is so. I was organizing my seed buckets, in happy preparation for spring. I opened one bucket, and found an unhappy surprise: the seed was wet, and not worthy of my feeders. So I dumped the lot out onto the hillside, where it has remained, untouched by any birds (or beasts). No one has come near:

Maybe everybody loves Raymond, but I promise you: Nobody loves Milo.

I noticed over the last season that different seeds attract different birds. When I switched from the top-of-the-line mix that contained mostly black-oil sunflower seeds, safflower, and peanut chips, my feeder was graced with a variety of birds, including cardinals, jays, nuthatches, finches, chickadees, and woodpeckers.

Enter the recession, and I switched to a bargain brand. I noticed that my feeder was now busiest at the base, with ground feeders like sparrows and juncoes that hopped about the spilled millet. And, as I noted earlier, the round red milo was both spilled and untouched.

I tried another economical mix from BJ’s, and found to my dismay that it contained mostly corn. Enter the grackles and starlings. My feeder looked like the B-version of “The Birds,” with these smaller blackbirds pushing out every other species.

After doing a little research on the internet, I learned about milo (and my folly), and I learned that safflower seed has an amazing ability to attract the birds I especially like (cardinals) and discourage the birds I find pushy and annoying (grackles and starlings). The site http://www.buzz.com had this to tell me about safflower seeds:

“…there do exist some species which avoid eating these seeds for their bitter taste. These include the grackle – the long-tailed American blackbird typically characterized by iridescent black plumage, starlings – the small to medium-sized passerine birds which have been recently introduced in North America, various species of blackbird, etc. All these species are notorious as ‘feeder hogs’ – a term bestowed upon them owing to their tendency of chasing other bird species away from the feeders.”

So off I went to a small store in the neighboring town: “Feed the Birds!” in Croton-on-Hudson. I had a nice chat with the owner, who sold me a blend called “Backyard Best” and a sack of nyjer seed (more on that later).

I put the new seed in an empty bucket and spooned a bit of the older, less-worthy mix on top of it, so you could see the difference in quality:

You can easily tell the not-much-of-a-bargain brand: It's mostly corn. The better brand is black-oil sunflower, safflower, and peanut chips.

I have filled my feeder with the better mix, layered with some of the inferior stuff, because I cannot bear (or afford) to waste seed:

The layers are visible -- a bird seed parfait!

Now to the nyjer. This seed, often called thistle seed, is beloved by gold finches (which are beloved by me). Spring is coming, and one of my favorite harbingers of the season is to watch the finches arrive in their olive-drab winter garb, and leave wearing their finest bright yellow plumage. Little drops of cheer at the feeder — I love them!

But my nyjer feeder was a mess — cracked, damp, and musty. I took it down, undid all of the screws, removed the perches, and scrubbed it clean.

Disassembled, and drying in the brisk February wind.

I filled another feed bucket with nyjer seed:

Beautiful stuff, and I always feel rich when the buckets are full!

Here is a photo of my two feeders, side by side:

I cannot wait to see who comes to visit, and I’m feeling a bit better about my credentials as Hostess. I am laying out a bountiful table, of elegantly slim nyjer, bitter-and-discriminating safflower, and robust black-oil sunflower. Dinner is served!


“My favorite weather is bird-chirping weather.”

— Loire Hartwould

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Spring Housing Market

The songbirds and I are in agreement: Winter, such as it wasn’t, is over. Time to make way for Spring, and for me that means hanging out the real estate.

In the autumn of 2010 I made bird houses out of the decorative gourds I’d grown in the garden. I put the bird houses into service in the spring of 2011 with limited success. Half of them were attractive enough to sparrows, chickadees, and wrens to have nesting material in them. But, full disclosure, I don’t think any of them were used to completion. I never saw mother birds flying back and forth with food for nestlings.

I think part of the problem was that I hung the bird houses too late in the season. I think the industrious mothers were disheartened by my tardiness, and nested elsewhere. I also think I hung the bird houses too low and in too-conspicuous locations. I guess the mother birds were a lot like my Husband — they wanted privacy and elevation.

So I took out my gourd bird houses from last year, and set them out to appraise their condition:

At first glance they looked in reasonably good condition; however, on closer inspection:

The smallest gourd, and also one with the thinnest wall, had a crack.

Husband walked through the room as I muttered, “Dang!” He suggested that all was not lost. He pointed out that I had drilled holes in the bottom of each gourd for drainage, and so what was another crack? Think of it as ventilation. I agreed, but thought I would hang this compromised, sub-standard housing in the most sheltered area. You will see in a moment where I placed it.

The second flaw noticed was that two of the gourds had lost their wire hangers. I use wire and bend the ends at sharp angles to slip into the holes drilled in the necks of the gourds. I snipped and bent a new wire in preparation:

Then I inserted one end:

The gourd bird houses were now ready to be placed.

I walked outside to see my options for neighborhoods. The back of the house boasts a very steep hill, too wild for the dogs, and way too tough for the humans to frequent except in dire circumstances (like retrieving dogs that forgot that the hill is too wild for them):

There is a Beauty Bush up the hill that is a favorite gathering spot for songbirds. They rest there when visiting my bird feeders below. In the winter I can barely see the birds because their brown and gray feathers blend so well with the leafless branches. In the summer I can barely see the birds because the leafy branches provide perfect cover. I hope that expectant mother birds find the proximity to food (for them) and the dense cover (for the babies) to be attractive.

I struggled up the hill and hung the first bird house of 2012:

Here is the view the mother bird will have:

And this is what I will see from my vantage point waaaay down below:

As I looked about to find the next likely spot to hang a bird house, I was distracted by the moxie of a white-throated sparrow at the base of our bird feeder. Copious amounts of millet had spilled, plenty for the tubby mourning doves, elegant slate-colored juncoes, and the one sparrow. But he wasn’t having any of this Kumbayah Sharing nonsense. Spring is about Love and Love often means Crabby Behavior (ask any teenager), and so this tiny bit of alpha went after the other birds and cleared the area. I was impressed. I hope he finds one of my bird houses worthy. I bet he’s the one to start a Neighborhood Watch.

The second bird house graced the cherry tree in my vegetable garden. I needed a ladder to reach the best branch for hanging:

And here is a closer view. I positioned the opening so that I can see it from the house (making me a Nosy Neighbor, I suppose):

The third bird house was placed above what will become my Squash Garden of 2012. Zephyr summer squash and kabocha winter squash below, and….chickadees above?

And the view from afar, so you can appreciate how high I had to reach!

The final bird house was placed closest to my house — on the front porch to be exact. I did place it away from the front door entrance, hoping that the less-frequent activity would be more to the liking of an expectant mother bird. As this was the bird house with the cracked body, I felt any residents deserved the most sheltered location and the most peaceful location I could provide:

And now I wait, expectantly. (sorry)


“A man’s home may seem to be his castle on the outside; inside, it is more often his nursery.”

— Clare Boothe Luce (American playwright, editor, journalist, 1903-1987)

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The Sweeter Side of Soil

I love my dirt. Actually, I am proud to say that I don’t really have dirt in my garden, I have soil. For evidence, I offer these definitions (both from thefreedictionary.com):

dirt (dûrt)
1. Earth or soil.
a. A filthy or soiling substance, such as mud or dust.
b. Excrement.
3. A squalid or filthy condition.
4. One that is mean, contemptible, or vile.
a. Obscene language or subject matter.
b. Malicious or scandalous gossip.
c. Information that embarrasses or accuses.
6. Unethical behavior or practice; corruption.
7. Material, such as gravel or slag, from which metal is extracted in mining.

[Middle English, variant of drit, excrement, filth, mud, from Old Norse.]

Honestly, after you get past the first definition, why would anyone claim to garden in the dirt? Now look at the second definition:

soil 1 (soil)
1. The top layer of the earth’s surface, consisting of rock and mineral particles mixed with organic matter.
2. A particular kind of earth or ground: sandy soil.
3. Country; land: native soil.
4. The agricultural life: a man of the soil.
5. A place or condition favorable to growth; a breeding ground.

[Middle English, from Anglo-Norman, a piece of ground (influenced in meaning by Latin solum, soil), from Latin solium, seat; see sed- in Indo-European roots.]

I claim the latter!

It started with my compost bin. I grace it with kitchen scraps several times a week, and grass clippings as often as my husband fulfills his footnote in the marriage vows.

Here is what the inside of my compost bin looks like:

Note the cavity below. That's because I recently removed several shovelfuls of beautiful compost and spread it on the bed formerly known as Zephyr Squash.

All of these ingredients cook away, and are aided by red wiggler worms. I have only seen these worms in my compost bin, never in the wilds of my garden. It is as if they spontaneously generate from coffee grounds and egg shells. They are slim, red, and they do wiggle.

Two, wiggling on my trowel. I'm certain they wiggle because they are proud of their fine work.

I planted several rows of potatoes this year, and as I harvested them, I was delighted to find a second harvest: worm castings. The earthworms are good neighbors to the potatoes, turning the soil under and over, aerating, fertilizing, and making it a powerhouse for whatever will be planted there next. Look at what I found this afternoon when I went looking for a side dish for the family:

If a Red Wiggler is a Lamborghini, then this guy is a Yukon Denali.

Look at the beautiful job this worm has done, turning dirt into soil:

Dark, crumbly, as pretty as soil gets!

When the soil is this loose and fluffy, you can harvest potatoes by hand. In fact, it is easier to do so, because your hands can feel the potatoes, whereas a trowel cannot.

Like all births, this red potato has a messy entrance into the world.

In closing, I want to share a quote from Thomas Jefferson that begins one of my favorite books, “Small-Scale Livestock Farming: A Grass-Based Approach for Health, Sustainability, and Profit,” by Carol Ekarius. Published by Storey Books in 1999, it describes and instructs the art of raising animals on grass. It reads like Truth.

And Jefferson could have been speaking of our times today. Listen to his thoughts on what work should be done by Americans, and what might be best left for others, and his thoughts on the value of citizens that love the earth…and I’m certain he was thinking soil, and not dirt.

“While we have land to labor, then, let us never wish to see our citizens occupied at a work-bench, or twirling a distaff. Carpenters, masons, smiths are wanting in husbandry: but, for the general operations of manufacture, let our workshops remain in Europe…. The loss by the transportation of commodities across the Atlantic will be made up in happiness and permanence of government. The mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do the strength of the human body.

Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country, and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bonds.”

— Thomas Jefferson

I feel proud.


“A good farmer is nothing more nor less than a handy man with a sense of humus.”

–E.B. White

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