Garden Lessons

Today is the Celtic celebration of Lammas, the early grain harvest festival. I’ve always connected it to the early corn harvest–the time to start eating local corn on the cob in the places I have lived. Our little group that celebrates earth rituals together hasn’t met since COVID, and I feel sad not to see them today. But this morning I was able to bring some zucchini and kale to the Resilience Hub, where a volunteer was collecting produce from gardeners to share with immigrant families in the Portland area. That truly felt like the best way to celebrate this holiday–sharing the surplus of our own harvest for those who need it, in the spirit of reciprocity.

Myke behind the zucchini

Myke standing behind the hugelkultur zucchini! Photo by Margy Dowzer

Lately, I’ve been feeling rather overwhelmed by the gardening endeavor. Take note of my photo behind the hugelkultur zucchini–you almost can’t see me at all. There is watering to do each morning, and I’m harvesting raspberries, the last of the snap peas, chives, zucchini, and kale. Oh–and one cucumber so far.  I learned how to freeze zoodles (zucchini noodles) so that we can save some for the future. I am also freezing most of the raspberries and chives. So all that is wonderful, but still a lot of work.

Added to that, however, has been discovering that each new plant I add to the garden seems to come with its own ecosystem of insect pests and diseases. I was used to Japanese beetles, and shaking them from the leaves of trees into soapy water. I was used to picking off cabbage worms from the kale and squishing them. But then I learned about the squash bug and the squash vine borer. I don’t see any significant damage yet on the zucchini plants, but I’ve seen the bright red and black flying parent of the grubs that can burrow into the stems. This morning, there were some zucchini leaves with powdery mildew. Another yuck.

Now we also seem to have grasshoppers eating the carrot tops and the kale–except for a new variety of kale that I got from a friend, which is too prickly for my taste. (That is ironically maddening! Why don’t you eat that one, grasshoppers?) I did some research and if I wanted I could try garlic spray, or flour on the leaves. But right now I’m just hoping they don’t eat enough to wipe out all the plants. Also, I put more bird seed in the feeder in hopes that some of those birds might also eat grasshoppers.  But there is so much to know, and so many possible pitfalls, even in the context of our organic permaculture polyculture systems.

So like I said, I’ve been feeling overwhelmed by all of it lately. I was thinking back to my original intention with this land–I wanted to restore our mutually beneficial connection to the earth, via this small piece of the earth we are lucky to live upon. And what I am learning is that it is not so easy–I’ve lost so much of the knowledge of plants and ecosystems that my ancestors might have had in the places they called home. I am sure there are long-time gardeners who find a way to learn what they need from the practice of gardening–but I am coming to it late in life, and I can feel that it could take a whole lifetime to become adept at working with ecosystems to nurture wholeness and balance.

It’s not all flowers and romance, this relationship with earth. It’s crabgrass and ticks and mosquitos and so many unknown insects, (beneficial or destructive?), not to mention diseases, viruses, bacteria.  Some aspects of earth are not so easy to love. It’s invasive species and drought and climate change. It’s beyond what I can learn and I’m discovering the limits of my capacity.  So I come to the garden like a prayer: sometimes with awe, sometimes with gratitude, but often with a cry for help, often with a deep painful longing for all that has been lost, often with loneliness. If I can pay close enough attention, finally, I come to the garden with surrender, surrender to this larger dance of life of which I am only a very small movement.

At Home

Picture by Arla Patch, James Francis

With these last few quiet days at home, Margy and I were finally (after almost four years) able to take down from the attic all of our wall pictures, and decide how we wanted to decorate the walls of our living room and kitchen. It was especially wonderful to place over our fireplace hearth this print, Stewardship of the Earth, by James E. Francis and Arla Patch. We had purchased it several years ago in a fundraiser for Maine Wabanaki REACH.  Here is more information about it from an article in the Friends Journal.

This work of art is a collaboration between James E. Francis, Penobscot artist and director of cultural and historic preservation for the Penobscot Nation, and Arla Patch, artist, teacher, and [at that time] member of the communications subcommittee of the Wabanaki Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

It was made for a western Maine community celebration of the native woman Molly Ockett (c. 1740–1816, Abenaki nation, Pequawket band). The theme of 2013’s MollyOckett Days Festival was “Stewardship of the Earth.” James created the central image of the tree that becomes the earth. Arla created the context based on the European American tradition of quilts. James provided the symbols, which represent the four remaining tribes in the Wabanaki Confederacy: the Penobscot, the Passamaquoddy, the Maliseet, and the Micmac.

A theme of the four directions, which comes from both Native American spirituality and ancient Celtic tradition, is depicted as the night sky for the north; the sun rising over “second island” next to the Passamaquoddy land of Sipayik; the midday sky for the south; and the sun setting over the White Mountains for the west. “Agiocochook” (home of the Great Spirit), also known as Mt. Washington, is included in the western sky.

Blueberries are included for the role they have played in sustaining Maine native peoples historically and to this day. Maple leaves are in the upper corners to honor the development of maple syrup by the Wabanaki.

When we put this picture on the wall, along with a few others around the room, I found myself feeling rooted and joyful, at home in a deeper way than before. It was as if some mysterious magic had created a circle around us, and we were aligning into harmony and beauty.

May that beauty bring us hope and strength as we enter a new decade, a decade that will be pivotal in our collective stewardship of the Earth. May we human beings find a way to live in harmony with all of our relatives on this planet that is our home.

Raccoon/Espons

One of the great things about our cats is how they alert us to visitors in the yard.  This morning, Billie suddenly leaned over into the bedroom window, all focused attention, and then she hurried off to the kitchen.  I looked out the window, and then I too ran to the kitchen–to look out the French door windows to the back.  We had both seen a raccoon, walking right onto our deck, checking things out.Raccoon on the deck

Sadly, this was not a great nature photo–I didn’t capture the raccoon’s adorable face.  And when they saw us at the window, they decided to move along, leaving only small wet footprints behind. I barely caught their distinctive striped tail as they hurried past on their way toward the steps to the driveway.  Raccoon tail

Compost barrel holeThe Passamaquoddy word for raccoon is Espons, and it means the one who leaves a mess. I pulled on my boots to go outside to see if Espons had left any messes anywhere in our garden–but the only thing I found was a tiny hole dug into the side of our compost barrel.  It looks like that compost is ready.

I think this is the first time I’ve seen a raccoon in the yard, though I saw one in a tree down by the brook a while back. As much as Margy and I love to play in the soil, plant trees and bushes, and tend to the growing plant life all around us, the most thrilling part of connecting to this land is when the critters visit us.

Many small birds and squirrels live here all the time, but we’ve also seen turkeys, a very occasional deer (and not in the last year), the skunk, the groundhog, a few chipmunks, the fox, the hawks, the turkeys (they visit a lot–though not this spring–they must be raising young somewhere else right now), not to mention tiny toads and salamanders. I call them visitors, but really, we share this urban environment. They live here as much as we do–but not usually on the deck!  We try to find a balance between welcoming them, and reserving certain garden foods as our own “territory.”  (Since we don’t yet have much food in the perennial food forest we’ve been slowly creating, it hasn’t yet been a big issue.)

I am reminded somehow, by the joy of this unexpected visit, that my spiritual “marching orders” during this past cycle of seasons have been rather clear.  I was not to try to “make magic”–which I understand as to focus my intention and will to create something or to make change in this world.  Rather, I was to flow with the already flowing magic of the deeper River, to let the Earth move my feet, let the Wind guide my mind. I was to rest, and let the Fire of joy carry me through the days.  That joy has carried me into some marvelous learning–the Wabanaki language class comes to mind.  That joy has carried me out into the garden to plant and tend and haul wood chips around.  That joy has carried me to the pages of this blog site, to write and reflect.  But it isn’t really about creating a garden or a blog.

It is about observing, being quiet, listening to the trees, tuning in to the flow of interconnected life. It is about moving beyond doing into a different way of being.  A way that is alert to the many beings who visit us, whether we notice them or not. It is about noticing.

Margy's clover & daffodils

Margy’s clover & daffodil garden in the front yard.

May Day the old way

May Day treeYesterday evening, eight of us danced around the pitch pine in our yard, dressing it up with rainbow ribbons for May Day.  Did you know that the original Maypoles were not cut wooden poles, but live trees?  It makes sense to me, coming from people who worshiped among the trees, who honored and revered the trees. And so what better way to celebrate the full arrival of spring, the arrival of the May, than to celebrate the tree with an ancient dance?

Earlier, I had attached eight ribbons to a small metal ring, and then Sylvia tossed a rock-tied string over a branch so we could lift the ribbons to a good height for dancing. Margy went to a field close to where we used to live to pick forsythia branches to decorate the bottom of the tree. In this time of the earth awakening, we joined our life energy to that of the earth, that we might all be full of life and regeneration.  It was a magical moment to be weaving in and out between each other, with our bright colors, dancing on the earth, and finally surrounding the tree, hands joined in a circle.

After a rain-filled night, I took photos this morning. We keep hoping for more warmth…it is only in the 40s today.  But we’ve finally finished planting all the bushes. I set up the rain barrels (by putting in their spigots and re-attaching their overflow hoses), and yesterday I found smaller containers for storing a big bag of Kaolin clay (an organic product used for certain orchard pests). Tending and planting and tending.

When I pay attention to what is happening to our planet, I feel so much despair, I feel overwhelmed. I know it is better to plant trees, than to cut them down.  I know it is a good thing to tend this small plot of land.  But even with many of us planting trees, or protesting, or changing our lives, do we have the power to stop the destruction?  No, I think not.  But what came to me the other day was this.  If we are out there, planting a tree, putting our hands in the soil, watering a seed, dancing on the ground, or even lying in a hammock under a pitch pine, perhaps we can learn to hear the voice of the earth.  Perhaps she will see us there, and take pity on us.  Perhaps she will open our ears and hearts and guide us into regeneration and healing. This is my hope.May Day Pitch Pine

Local Beauty

When we moved to our current neighborhood we were surprised and delighted to find so much natural beauty within walking distance of our home.  I felt like a kid again in those first morning walk explorations of the surrounding terrain.  I learned that we are nestled between small brooks that feed into Capisic Brook, and that there is a path through the woods between the brook and the Rowe (formerly Hall) school. I learned I could walk into the woods that were part of Evergreen Cemetery, up to the ponds where turtles, frogs, and birds abound.

But one treasure I wouldn’t have found if I hadn’t learned about it first, and then tried to hunt for it.  It is quite hidden, except to those who are hiking on the Fore River Trail, which is just beyond my usual strolling adventures.  But if you know where to find it, you can also access it off the side streets on the other side of Brighton Avenue. This is Jewell Falls, and I walked there yesterday morning.  Can you imagine?  A waterfall in my own neighborhood in Portland! The spring snow melt and rain gave it a great flow and the rushing sounds were like music, morning sunlight dancing to its rhythms. Gratitude.

Jewell Falls

Moments of Joy

Capisic Brook invisible cardinals

I saw a group of cardinals on my walk today! I haven’t seen them all winter, but as I stood still, watching the beauty of Capisic Brook, first one and then another and then more appeared in the distance.  You can’t really see them in the photo, but after the brook bends to the right, and then to the left–they were there in the bushes near the water. Then, as I was walking home, I heard a cardinal sing in the trees nearer my house. Joy!

I was thinking more about the fun wheel I created the other day. I put “Walk” as something to do under the element of fire, but really, my morning walks include all the elements. Fire is for the movement of my body, and sometimes, the bright sun rising.  But I almost always walk to the brook–which is water.  And I am connecting to the trees and the land and sometimes little animals–which is earth. Hearing the songs of birds, breathing in the invigorating air, well that is air.

Sometimes the walk feels like a chore–getting out there in the cold–it’s exercise, you know, good for me, I should do it, etc.  And my usual definition of fun is something I don’t have to do–no “shoulds.” But often, even usually, once I get out there, a walk is a doorway into moments of delight, moments like seeing the cardinals today, or finding turkeys in the street, or sometimes near the brook, catching a glimpse of a fox or a raccoon. Moments of surprise and moments of joy.

What might you do today to open a doorway into possibility, into moments of joy?

Wheel of Fun

Fun Wheel

Today, Margy and I made art together.  She was coloring Celtic goddesses, and I made this fun wheel.  It is on the model of a chore wheel–you know, where you spin the dial and know who is doing dishes, or laundry, or sweeping the floor.  Only this is for activities that bring joy.  Since that is not always my forte.  So this way, I can spin the dial, and have a suggestion for a fun thing to do.

I constructed a wheel out of cardboard and paper, and then I brainstormed a list of ideas for activities.  I decided to categorize them by the four elements–Earth, Air, Fire and Water.  Because I am a witch and that is how my mind works.  Plus it occurred to me that to care for ourselves, it might be good to have nourishment in all four elements.  Then I decorated with stickers.

We were listening to music while we made art! Plus I took a break to drink a cup of tea and play with Sassy… so that is air, fire, water and earth in one afternoon.  In the center is traditionally the element of spirit, and I thought to add new places, new ideas, new activities, and gratitude to fill out the center of the circle. Today, doing art is our new activity.

What I noticed:  in my original list of activities, the fewest were for water–I had to ponder that and add a couple more.  In my everyday life, most of the activities for earth and air already happen every day, fewer for fire and water.  What do you do for fun and self-care?

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Hummingbirds?

Hummingbird Feeder

Margy got a new hummingbird feeder for us!  I put it up today, plus our old one too, attached to opposite sides of the beams on our new roof on the deck.  I hope we aren’t too late to catch the migration–we used to put out the feeders when the viburnum near our door (in North Yarmouth) started blossoming, the first week of May.  We’re still figuring out the best timing for here in Portland.  I’ll let you know when we see any.

In the meantime, lots of watering to do, and I also divided some comfrey and some oregano to take to the Plant Swap tomorrow at the Resilience Hub.  Last year we got all of the companion plants we needed for our cherry trees.  The comfrey and oregano seem like basically fool-proof plants, and grew abundantly in the food forest.  So I was confident enough to take some out to share.  This year, I hope to find some kale seedlings, perhaps, and just see what might be there.  Maybe elderberry starts?  It has been a beautiful day in the garden.

Hummingbird Feeder small

Trout Lilies

Trout Lilies

With all my working in the garden, I didn’t have a chance to walk by the brook for a few days.  When I came back, I found these little beauties.  The woods is absolutely carpeted with Trout Lilies.  I even thought about transplanting some for our yard, but read that they take several years to settle in and bloom.  So why not just enjoy them where they are?

There is so much beauty everywhere I walk–singing catbirds and cardinals, flowering cherries and magnolias, even just the leaves opening up on the trees are so magnificent.  The ferns are stretching out, and swamp cabbage is green along the brook.  Violets, dandelions and wild strawberries are flowering in the lawn.  Meanwhile life is busy, but I have to steal some moments to stop and enjoy it all.

Planting the Orchard

Peach Tree

[Contender Peach]

The new trees are here!  Once the frost was off the morning, I went out and started planting.  I took the eight bare root trees out of the box first and letting their roots soak in fish/seaweed solution, while I started digging in the beds we’d already prepared last June.

I had a fright before I went outside–I thought to take a look at planting suggestions in the Holistic Orchard book, and he suggests putting Rock Phosphate and Wood Ash in the holes–I hadn’t been thinking of that.  But then I found a bag of Rock Phosphate in the garage from last year, and we have a can of wood ashes, so we were all set.  These help the roots to get a good start.

I started with the “Contender” Peach tree, since it seemed to have the biggest roots.  It was a job to get all of them spread out and under the soil.  I feel my age when I am digging and kneeling in the dirt moving things around, and then getting up again.  I was happy to use water from our rain barrels to give it a good soaking.  This is a self-fertile tree, so one will do fine by itself.

Myke & Jersey Blueberry

[Myke & the Blueberry, Photo by Margy Dowzer]

After a short rest, I decided to plant the two blueberry bushes next–because they were little and easy.  We got one “Blueray,” and one “Jersey.”  Then I moved on to the “Honeycrisp” Apple.  The apple needs another tree for fertilization, but we’ve got a lot of wild crabapples around so that should do.

Finally, I planted three Hazelnut bushes. We decided to get an experimental hybrid hazelnut, Corylus Cross.  These shrubs are produced from crosses of three hazelnut species: American hazelnut, Corylus americana; beaked hazelnut, C. cornuta; and European hazelnut, C. avellana.  The nuts from these shrubs will likely be larger than American hazelnuts, because they are crossed with the European variety–(which is the kind that we usually can find in the store–small enough as it is.)

Margy diggingMeanwhile, Margy came out, and we talked again about where to position the “Illinois Everbearing” Mulberry tree.  We decided to get the mulberry because birds love them, and they can draw birds away from the other fruit. Plus the fruit is good for people too.  But we didn’t have a bed ready, and we decided to put this one further back in the yard–partly because it is a standard size and we don’t want it to shade the solar panels. Our other fruit trees are dwarf or semi-dwarf.  Margy took on this project and is still working on it.  After planting 7 trees or bushes, I am taking a break!  We still have the small plants to do, but I can hardly lift my arms.