River Otters at Evergreen Ponds

River otter eating a fish, within a small rock enclosure in the small pond.

Our area of Maine loves nature news. So when we heard in the news that there were visiting river otters in the ponds at Evergreen Cemetery, we joined many other Portland residents to go to the cemetery to see if we could see them. And we did! We saw this one in one of the small upper ponds, diving under the water to fish, and then emerging in this little rock cave to eat. We also saw one in the big pond, walking on the iced areas in between diving beneath the open water to fish.

River otter on the ice near a thawed opening in the water.

It has been a while since we’ve been to the cemetery. I used to walk over to these ponds frequently, but haven’t had the energy for an hour-long walk lately, so we drove over this time. Sometimes it is wonderful to be alone in the natural world, to see the secrets of plants and animals revealed to a quiet human visitor. But sometimes it is just as wonderful to be with other humans who love these secrets, and can’t resist our animal relatives. There is a sense of kinship with each other, we chat about the sightings, we notice how skilled the otters are at catching fish, we share our tales with new arrivals. There are children and elders, and every age in between. Outside with each other.

Finally, when the otters had hidden behind the back of a little island, I took a walk around the big pond, carefully making my way over tree roots. I couldn’t resist also taking photos of this lovely blue heron–much easier to catch than otters, since it likes nothing better than standing still on its perch on the log.

Great blue heron standing on one foot, perched on a dead log in the pond.

When we first arrived, before we saw the otters, I also happened to catch her scratching her head. Maybe wondering about the sudden abundance of humans wandering around her pond. But not letting that disturb her equanimity and perfect balance.

Blue heron scratching her head, while standing on a log in the pond.

May our animal relatives find all they need to thrive that they may live long upon the earth. May we human animals wake up to our interconnection with all beings, that we may find a way to turn from destruction to mutuality.

Pond Flowers and more

The cardinal flower is starting to bloom, bright red against the dark of the water.

Two of the pond plants are starting to flower: the cardinal flower, and the arrowhead plant. The cardinal flower is supposed to be a favorite for hummingbirds. I hope they find it. The frogs continue to bring delight by their patient sitting poses, or quick jumping into the depths when startled. One day I counted a total of 13 frogs–usually I can find 3 big ones, and from 5 to 10 small ones, depending on the day and time of day. My little Zoom camera stopped working, so I am using the iPhone camera, which doesn’t work well for close-ups. But check out the flowers on the arrowhead plant. And, can you find the hidden frog in this photo?

Arrowhead plant with tiny white and yellow flowers.

If you are still looking for the frog, here is a clue: her eyes and head are hidden by green plant leaves, and only her legs and body are barely visible against the stones. At first I thought her legs were dead plant leaves. With all of the pain and sorrow in the world, these simple beauties bring nurture to my spirit.

Margy and I were delighted to be part of the Resilience Hub‘s Permaculture Open House last Saturday, and welcomed about a dozen people to our yard to share the highs and lows of permaculture gardening. Including, of course, sitting by the pond and talking about pond building. Everyone was careful about our COVID protocols, and we met some really great people.

Since then we have harvested our elderberries–Margy cut the berry clusters one evening, and then the next morning I read online that they should be processed or frozen within twelve hours. So my morning was spent gently separating the berries from of their clusters, rinsing them in a big pot, and then freezing them until I had time to make elderberry syrup. This was our first harvest from the bush, which grew huge this season.

Elderberry clusters in a brown bag
Separating the berries from the cluster branches.

My other big harvesting job this week has been processing more kale. Because of the netting I put over the raised bed, I am cutting the lower leaves of all the plants at once, rather than bit by bit as I have done in prior years. I put them into this blue plastic bushel basket. Then, one by one, I cut them up, rinse a batch in a salad spinner, and then sauté them batch by batch before freezing in quart freezer bags. I’ve only finished about half this bunch–and there will of course be more to harvest later.

A huge plastic bushel basket filled with kale, on the floor next to the stove.

Finally, I will say that our zucchini harvests have been just the right amount so far for us to be eating as we go, but our cucumbers are going wild! We don’t pickle them, but just eat them raw–if you live nearby, please come and get some from us! They are really delicious, but we’ll never keep up. The photo below is only some of them!

Cucumbers and zucchini in a wooden bowl.

Still, Abundance

Zucchini plants tied to stakes and pruned

After grieving for the lost peaches, I wanted to remember that many other harvests are doing abundantly well. I am trying a new method with my zucchini plants: tie the stems to stakes, and prune the leaves below the active flowers and fruits. So yesterday, I pruned out many lower leaves, and finally tried the staking idea–the zucchinis seem to grow with a mind of their own, rather than with anything like straight stems, but I was able to do a bit of it. The method is supposed to reduce powdery mildew and maybe other issues. As I write, I am trying out a recipe for zucchini/cheddar/chive bread. Our zucchinis have been abundant.

Raised bed with kale and carrots, under a staked and supported netting.

After putting a netting over the raised bed when the ground hog came by, we haven’t seen her again. The kale is doing fine–since it takes a bit of work to undo the netting, I have only harvested in big batches. I’ve sauteed some batches to freeze. There is more in the fridge waiting for me to do another batch.

Cucumber plant on the hugelkultur mound, with wood chip paths on every side.

We’ve already harvested several cucumbers from this lovely set of vines growing on the south end of the hugelkultur mound. We have just been eating them raw–so much sweeter than the ones we can buy at the store. And a few weeks ago, I put down cardboard and old grocery bags to lay out paths all around the mound, and from the garage door to the patio and the paths, then covered them with a thick layer of wood chips. These wood chips were from the invasive Norway maples we took down earlier.

The raspberries are finished bearing fruit. Finally, I just want to mention the chives, parsley, thyme and oregano, which continue to yield throughout the summer. I truly am grateful for these gifts from the plant world, that bring us such tasty and healthy food.

Can I Forgive the Squirrels?

Squirrel relaxed and resting on the railing of our deck

This morning, I watched out my window as a squirrel climbed into the branches of the peach tree, going up and down several branches until she or he stopped at a bagged peach. She nibbled through the small branch it hung from, cutting the branch right off. I could see the leaves and twigs fall to the ground, even though the squirrel was hidden by other branches. Then, she took the unripe peach in her mouth–still in the bag–and carried it down and away from the orchard to some other roosting post in another tree. I didn’t yell or bang on the screen or try to stop her, as I have done on other mornings, because all the peaches have already been destroyed.

Over the last couple weeks, I had to remove over twenty of the bagged peaches after birds or squirrels left bite marks and the fruit had dropped off its stem, to the bottom of the bag. Some of the peaches had only a c-shaped mark that made me wonder about curculio. A couple seemed untouched. But I had seen the squirrels in the trees going after them. Then, a couple days ago I discovered that virtually every peach in a little protective bag had dropped to the bottom of the bag, and all of the peaches that I hadn’t bagged had disappeared completely. The peaches were all still green and hard, nowhere near ripe. I had just read about people using a spray made with peppermint oil and cinnamon sticks to deter squirrels, and was about to try it, when I discovered there were no peaches left to save.

Green peach with a bite missing, dropped to the bottom of a mesh bag, with another nearby.

I’ve been grieving the last few days. I put so much effort into this peach tree all through the spring and summer. Pruning it carefully. Six holistic sprays with beneficial nutrients. Three “Surround” kaolin clay sprays. Picking off leaves with peach-leaf-curl one by one. I was so hopeful when hundreds of little peach-lets started growing! I thinned the peaches so that none was too close to another. I put 80 little protective mesh bags on individual peaches. I even bought toy snakes and an owl to try to scare off the birds and squirrels. None of it stopped them. I had gotten only 3 cherries from the cherry trees, but the peaches seemed to be the saving grace for the little orchard I have been tending so carefully. Last year Margy and I had been able to eat only one ripe peach–and it tasted so good. So this year, I tried all the things to care for and protect them, imagining that taste in my mouth. And now they are gone.

I’ve also felt deeply shaken in my capacity as a permaculture gardener. Here is this little food forest with 2 cherry trees, one peach tree, and two baby apples. And no food. (Well–the raspberries did fine–but I already knew how to tend raspberries. And there were a few blueberries on our young plants. We thought we might get some hazelnuts but the squirrels also grabbed those before they were even close to ripe.) I do come away with a deep respect for organic gardeners and farmers.

But I have been harboring much anger and hate in my soul for these squirrels, and I feel very troubled about that. The original purpose of tending this land–this small place on the earth–was about finding our way home to earth community. Putting into practice the desire for healing the broken relationship between our society and the natural world. But when I try to grow food, so many critters become my enemies. Well, they probably don’t share the enmity–they probably think I run a fabulous restaurant. But meanwhile, I am watching them and hating them.

This morning, after the squirrel ran away with the bagged peach, another squirrel started playing with a stick on the path in the orchard. Literally playing–rolling over and over, turning the stick this way and that, chewing on it, then rolling over again. In a very cute way.

There is a lesson in this, I am sure. So I am trying to grieve, to let go, to open my heart. But I am still not sure I know how to forgive the squirrels. I am trying to listen to the deeper lessons.

Early Harvesting

Photo: two cherries and a bowl of raspberries

Well, after all my efforts with the sweet cherry trees, I harvested a total of three cherries. Very sad. That is all for the season. I had given them foliar sprays, compost and seaweed on the ground, and companion plants. I sprayed them with kaolin clay to guard against pests, put out yellow sticky paper for black cherry aphids, and hung about 50 red wooden fake cherries to deter birds coming round. I watered them when we were having this drought. We didn’t start out with a lot of blossoms, and I think there were only 10-20 cherries that started forming this season–not very many. But by the time they ripened, I could only find three. I ate one, and the other two are in the photo next to the raspberries.

The raspberries, on the other hand, I do hardly anything for–I pruned out the old canes in the fall, and they got a couple foliar sprays when there was some left from the trees. I watered them a couple times during the drought. But now they are producing abundant berries, and this harvest was just the one day’s worth. So frustrating. Especially since I like cherries more than raspberries. I’ve grown raspberries before, but cherries are still new. I do not seem to know the secret. If anyone can tell me, please comment!

I also harvested a big bunch of kale today. After the groundhog sighting, I covered that raised bed with netting and stakes. And a good thing I did! The next day, I caught sight of the groundhog standing up against the framing looking through the netting at the kale. I chased him off, and I haven’t seen him the last few days. I’ve also put urine liquid around the area. So far it seems to be working.

Today, I took off the netting, harvested a bunch of the lower leaves of the kale, did a bit of weeding, and finished thinning the carrots that are also growing there. With kale, I will sauté a bunch of it, and then immediately freeze, for use in winter. I eat kale almost every day! I’m so happy it is doing well. But if you know the secret for sweet cherries, please tell me!

Photo: kale harvest from today

Munimqehs! Groundhog!

Margy and I were chatting in the coolness of our kitchen, when suddenly I thought I saw a squirrel on our back deck, running right under the plastic “owl” that I had bought, supposedly to scare squirrels away from the orchard. That’s what caught my attention. But looking closer, we realized it wasn’t a squirrel, it was a groundhog! I ran outside onto the deck, and it ran too, but I managed to catch this slightly blurry picture to confirm our suspicions. It ran across the patio, through the back yard and over to the trees on the edge.

Photo: Groundhog running across the patio, in the shadow of the bird bath, near a chair.

Margy and I are often torn between totally loving the critters that come into the yard, but also wanting to eat the food we are growing. Munimqehs is the Passamaquoddy word for groundhog, which I learned in the fall of 2018. In Wabanaki stories, Munimqehs is the wise grandmother who has many lessons to teach us about how to be good human beings. How desolate we would be without our animal neighbors!

We haven’t had any groundhogs in the yard for the last few summers. The last one disappeared, we believe due to the intervention of a neighbor. With a groundhog in the yard, however, it is a whole new ballgame for gardening. I immediately went out in the heat, and put together a netting contraption to try to protect our bed of kale, from which I had harvested the first leaves earlier this morning. I happened to have these metal arches and nylon netting, and fastened the netting to the ground with metal stakes. There is already a wire mesh under the raised bed, so no animals should be able to dig up from underneath. We’ll see if this deters our little friend. I might have to also go back to the pee protection scheme that I used to partial success a few years ago.

Raised bed with kale, covered by metal arches and nylon netting

Meanwhile, today I am grateful for the excitement of a critter on the deck, a young one it seems. Let’s see what lessons she/he will have to teach us. We have lots of clover that we’re happy to put on her table. Let’s see if we can be good neighbors.

Crows at the Pond

Photo: one crow perched, another below to his right, dipping her head in the water, tail up

Yesterday, I was excited to see a few crows visiting the pond! I was looking out my window from the house, and there is a string-and-bamboo trellis (for our snap peas) about halfway between the house and the pond that partly blocks the view. But if you look carefully, you can see one crow taking a bath, while the other is perched on a log on the edge behind it.

Photo: Crow in the water lifts up its head

I have been slowly gathering more stones from country roads, and adding them to cover the pond liner all around the edge, along with placing some aging branches there, from around our land. Seeing the crows perched on the branches, I am so glad I included them. This process of covering the liner edge is about two thirds complete now, and the plants in the water are also beginning to grow some new leaves and shoots.

Photo: crows on the branch, one with a stone in his beak, one wet from her bath

I didn’t notice until I saw these photos, but one crow has picked up a little stone in his beak! He reminds me of me as I go around looking for stones the right size for the edge. I wonder if he brought it with him to place somewhere himself. (By the way, I don’t know whether these crows are male or female, but they are not “its” so I prefer to give them personal pronouns. I wish English was like the Wabanaki languages in that the personal pronouns are not gender specific.) After placing a new batch of stones in the morning, I felt really exhausted and rested for the afternoon. But in the evening, I came out and just sat down next to the pond, enjoying the reflections in the water.

Humbled

Photo: Future Peaches?

I have been having a few days in the garden that humble me to my core. This process of finding our way home to earth community is so difficult. Trying to care for fruit trees involves learning about so many insect pests and disease processes. Observing the trees carefully every day. Yesterday and today I was thinning the tiny peaches leaving only one every 6 inches, so that the branches can support them to grow. Often I am trying to figure out which organic solution goes with which problem. And yesterday morning, I saw one of our squirrel neighbors climbing the peach tree–a whole other issue. Will we get to eat any peaches, or will the squirrels take a bite out of each one? Or will birds peck holes in them? Or some other insect pest eat them from the inside?

I hate how gardening sets me at odds with the other critters on this land–figuring out which are “beneficial” (to us) and which are “enemies” (to us.) I remember that when I first had a little garden, many years ago now, I was surprised that so much of it was about killing–pulling weeds, drowning slugs in beer, and so forth. And now that I am caring for an orchard, a permaculture food forest, it’s the same thing. A constant battle. So how is that teaching me how to live in a mutually beneficial relationship with this land?

I start to wonder if human beings should ever have shifted from hunting/gathering to agriculture. Hunting and gathering certainly included the taking of animal life, but it seems like it was more in balance, it was received with gratitude, it was a kind of partnership. I am thinking about the different role of the groundhog in the lives of different cultures. The bane of many gardeners’ lives, groundhogs are incredibly inventive and persistent garden eaters. It was amazing to me that here on our land, the groundhog whose den was next door seemed to respect the orchard as our place, while the garden bed behind the garage she claimed for her own. But I have a friend who built a fence deep into the ground around her entire garden, and still the groundhog family dug a tunnel and emerged right in the center of the garden to eat her vegetables.

However, the groundhog played a different role in Wabanaki cultures, in tribes that were traditionally hunting and gathering. I only know a few of the stories about the legendary figure for good, Koluskap (Glooscap), the creator of human beings. But I learned that his grandmother was the groundhog, Munimqehs, and she guided him and taught him the wisdom he needed. What a different perspective! She taught him that people and animals relied on each other, that hunting was necessary for the people to be strong, but that taking more than was needed was destructive to both.

Photo: The groundhog who used to live near our yard.

Likewise, deer might be a blessing for hunters, but destructive to trees and gardens. We see about one deer each year passing through the back of our yard. We used to have a gang of turkeys that roamed the streets of our neighborhood. They are gone now. Eventually, the groundhog disappeared too–I think a neighbor had something to do with that. Now, it seems, along with birds, we only have squirrels and a little star-nosed mole that tunnels under our wood chip paths, and an occasional chipmunk. But the squirrels are very adept at causing trouble to our garden. All winter long, for example, they climbed up our hazelnut bushes, eating the catkins that would pollinate the flowers in spring. After, they would act drunk and run around wildly in circles. Eventually I put some nets over the two smaller shrubs, to try to protect them. Maybe it worked? The smallest shrub now for the first time has some “future hazelnuts” forming on the end of its branches. I don’t know why the larger two do not.

Photo: Future hazelnut?

Sometimes I am amazed at what grows, what we can harvest. I just cut a whole bunch of soft thyme to dry, and I’ve been finding wine cap mushrooms hiding under clover to add to meals. The sea kale was delicious, and now its flowers smell like honey. There are green berries on the blueberry plants. I got the advice to buy some fake rubber snakes and hang them in the trees to scare off the squirrels–as long as I move them every few days. Last night, Margy and I sat in the back of the yard and watched fireflies signaling to each other in the tall grasses and weeds. In this garden, I am bewildered, sometimes discouraged, often exhausted, and always humbled by how little I know, and how difficult it is. What are you trying to teach me, little squirrels?

Photo by Margy Dowzer: Squirrel sitting, eating, on a sunflower last fall

Pond Progress

Photo: The pond on June 11

I am slowly adding stones and plants and developing the top edge of the pond, to cover up all the liner. I did a minor adjustment to the overflow channel to lower the water level by about an inch, and added some soil (underneath the liner and layers) to an edge that was a little bit lower than other parts. I’ve been using my pile of small stones for the edges, but stabilizing them behind larger stones. I decided to use the larger stones to also cover the vertical slope between the planting ledge and the top. This was in the original plan, but I didn’t think I would have enough stones to do it. And I don’t. The other day, Margy and I went to another rural road and brought home another batch of larger stones from the side of the road. But it doesn’t take long to use them up.

By the way, in the background, from left to right, you can see a ninebark shrub in bloom, a summer sweet shrub, and a little elderberry that’s barely visible. I am trying to start some hazelnut bushes from off shoots of our big ones. Also, there is a lot of goldenrod that will flower later in the season, and on the far right back, our mulberry tree–which after a couple rough starts is finally doing better this year.

Back to the stones for the pond, even though I don’t have enough of the larger stones, it seemed smart to do as complete a finish as possible, section by section. Here is a close up of the most completed section, behind the cardinal flower, where I also incorporated an old piece of a branch. I am enjoying this design process.

Photo: pond detail with stones and log

I also ordered and received some more plants–this time I got some pickerel rush (or pickerel weed), Pontederia cordata. This native plant will grow 2-4 feet tall and have blue flowers. I ordered five, but received eight little root and stem starts. So then I decided to rearrange the arrowhead plants, moving them closer to the “front” from where the photo is taken, and where we’ll sit to watch the pond. I planted the pickerel rush mostly where the arrowhead had been, on the back left, and then put a couple of the smallest ones in front of that log. Here is what it looks like right now, and this is the largest one. It takes faith and imagination to see them growing and flowering in the summer and fall.

Photo: Pickerel Rush held in place in the water by stones

In other news, I have twice seen (from my window) a crow walk up to the pond and get a drink of water. Tonight I also saw a few little water bugs of some kind swimming around. Animal life is starting to arrive. The other day, when it was so hot, there was some green algae in the water, which is to be expected until the plants grow bigger–but then it disappeared again today. Time to think of another place to find some more of the larger stones. It all feels magical.

Pond Water Plants

Photo: Pond with new plants, and also pine pollen covering the whole surface.

This morning I was up at sunrise, which seemed such a sacred time to finish filling the pond! While the hose was running, I planted several plants that I had previously purchased, and then added three ferns from our yard. Sometimes, I just had to sit and watch, amazed at its coming to life in this way.

I used our city water from the outdoor spigot because the rain barrels nearby were empty from yesterday’s filling. City water is less ideal because of chlorine, but the chlorine will evaporate quickly, especially in our 90 degree sunny weather today. Plus it is being intermixed with the water already there. I filled it until it just started to drain into the overflow channel. Hurray! The overflow channel worked.

The method I used for planting was that recommended by Robert Pavlis in Building Natural Ponds. No soil, just anchor the roots of each plant with some stones. That meant rinsing off the plant roots from the soil they were packed in. I added some more stones in one area because the recommended depth was less than what I had. Here are the plants I planted:

Photo: Sweetflag

Sweetflag was first. It was a bit unclear whether this was Acorus calamus, or Acorus americanus. Online where I purchased it, it was listed as Acorus calamus (Americanus). I was hoping to buy the plant native to here (americanus); the other was brought by Europeans, but naturalized, and then it was also used by Indigenous people. I learned the Passamaquoddy name for this plant in the class I took. Kiwhosuwasq, (which now can refer to either plant). It means “muskrat root,” because the muskrat would eat it, and it was an important medicinal plant.

Next I planted Cardinal Flower, or Lobelia cardinalis, which will have a bright red blossom that is beloved by hummingbirds. It is a native plant. Both Sweetflag and Cardinal Flowers will grow tall, so I placed them toward the back of the pond, across from where we tend to sit.

Photo: Cardinal Flower

The next plant is Arrowhead, or Sagittaria latifolia, which is a shorter plant. It will have white flowers. When I rinsed off its roots, it divided into two plants, so I planted them near each other. It is native plant, but also an aggressive grower so I placed it on the narrower planting ledge where it can spread out on its own. I hope that all of these plants will spread out to fill their areas, but also make room for each other. The goal is to cover half the water surface with these plants on the planting ledges.

Photo: Arrowhead plants
Photo: Blue Eyed Grass

I had two pots of Blue Eyed Grass, or Sisyrinchium atlanticum. This one is also a smaller plant, and in the spring it blooms early with delicate blue flowers. I placed it in the part of the pond nearest to where we will sit.

Because it is so late in the season, a number of the plants I wanted to buy were no longer available this year. I am hoping I can find some Marsh Marigold sometime. (Calthus palustris.) It is another shorter plant, with spring blooming bright yellow flowers.

I was able to purchase a hardy white water lily, on Etsy. (Nymphaea spp.) The hardy variety of lilies can survive the winters in Maine, especially if their roots are deep in the pond. They sent me two root tubers. They arrived in my mailbox on one of the hot days, and were warm when I opened the package, so I hope they will be okay. But I planted them in temporary pots filled with stones, and placed those pots on the planting ledge. When they get bigger, I will move them lower in the pond. Water lilies are important parts of a natural pond, partly because their pads cover the surface of the water, providing shade and inhibiting algal growth. Plus, maybe frogs will sit on them. But for now, they are tiny.

Photo: Water lily in pot

After planting all these, I found two types of ferns among the many growing at the back of our yard, dug them up, rinsed off their roots, and planted three of them in the pond. I tried a few different ones–one tall, one small, one mixed, to see which might transplant best. A friend has offered me some Blue Flag Irises from her pond, so I’ve saved a space in my plan for them. Of course, now the question is, shall we try to buy some more plants to fill in more space right away, or wait for these to grow into larger versions of themselves? In the meantime, by 10 a.m. I had to come inside to get away from the heat, so all future parts of this project have to wait. Maybe this evening, we’ll just sit by the side of the water and enjoy.