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 Reflections-Next Steps

Photo: Adding water again, stones in planting ledge done. Isn’t it beautiful to see the reflection of the trees in the water?

This morning and this evening I finished adding stones to the planting ledge of our pond. And this evening, I began the second half of filling the pond, using water from our rain barrels! While I watched the water flow in, I used a pond skimmer to try to clear some of the debris that has fallen in–maple seeds, pollen, pine needles. I hope tomorrow I can finish filling it, and start to put in plants. Some plants have already arrived, I have them waiting in a bucket of water.

It was a really hot day today for Maine (88 degrees), and earlier in the morning, I mostly watered my vegetables and tended the fruit trees. I have spent so much energy on the pond, and I didn’t want to neglect the other parts of the garden. I checked on the cherry trees, thinned tiny peaches from the peach tree, and did a kaolin clay spray on both. Yesterday I had cut off some leaves on the cherry that were infected by black cherry aphids. I left a few, especially if I saw ladybugs near them. Ladybugs lay eggs, and when their larvae hatch, they eat the aphids. In this photo, the curled leaves have the aphids hiding inside. But see how bright the ladybug eggs are!

Photo: bright orange ladybug eggs

The next two days are predicted to hit 90–so there will only be a few hours in the morning and evening that I can bear to be outside. That seems to be our new rhythm here. Planting will be so much fun–updates later!

Deer Neighbors

Deer near our yard

The phone rang this morning about 8 a.m., and it was our neighbor Mary, calling my attention to a deer in the wild brush behind her yard. I came outside and walked behind our garage, to the edge of our yard, near where Margy had cleared bittersweet from all over the crabapple trees in the wild area. Mary had said it was a small deer, so I was surprised to see what seemed to me a rather large animal with antlers. He didn’t startle, but calmly looked at me, as I took photos from several yards away.  After a few minutes,  he slowly turned and disappeared into the bushes.

So beautiful! I had once seen a deer the first year we moved here, and that winter we also noticed some tracks in the snow, but we hadn’t seen any in our yard since then.  (However, Margy mentioned she has seen some deep in the undeveloped wild areas.) Of course, it has stirred up mixed feelings to see or not see them. We love our wildlife neighbors, but have also been concerned about our fruit trees.  The year we planted our first trees, I put up a fine fishing line thread between metal poles, at the back and side of the orchard, because I read that deer don’t like barriers that they can’t see clearly. So it was meant to be a gentle deterrent, and I haven’t taken it down, though this summer the line had sagged to about a foot above the ground.

And perhaps, this clears up a mystery that developed several days ago.  Earlier last week, I noticed that the ends of some branches on one of our cherry trees seemed to have been bitten off–just four branches in one area of one tree with their tips clean gone.  You might notice it in the center of the photo below. I also noticed the top bitten off of a raspberry shoot that had sprouted near our wood chip pile. I’ve been trying to figure out what might have done it, and I think maybe we have our culprit. Thankfully, he didn’t eat any more of anything. I’ve re-stretched the fishing line “fence” to see if that helps.

Cherry branches bitten off

We never know what adventures we’ll find in our backyard.  The other evening, during dusk, Margy saw a beautiful skunk wandering across the back of the yard.  I’ve seen a few holes in the garden where it came digging for grubs in the night.  Mostly, these days, we have scores of small birds who love to perch on branches and even tall flower stalks in the orchard, and peck for bugs in the mulch.

And can I say, finally, that I love that we have a dear neighbor who calls us to report a deer sighting!

Pruning

Cherry Tree prunedFriday and Saturday I pruned and trained our young fruit trees.  I did a lot of research beforehand, because it seemed so sad to actually cut them at all.  But the Holistic Orchard book, and most other resources suggest that pruning helps them to grow into a shape that gives them enough support and sunlight for fruit.

Of course, after the research, I realized it might have been better to prune the cherries more drastically last summer, when we first planted them.  But all we have is now.  Here is a photo of the Black Tartarian Cherry with its central leader cut at the top–to promote another tier of scaffolding (outward facing) branches.  The small bud near the top should grow into another central leader.   If I didn’t cut the top, the next outward facing branches would have grown too high up on the leader.

Next, I cut the ends of the first tier of scaffold branches, because they were too long and leggy and uneven.  On this cherry, they are also rather low to the ground, but the only way to remedy that would be to cut them all off, and I couldn’t do that.  I tied them back to encourage them to grow at a better angle to the central leader.  I did this for both cherry trees.  (We had also done this last summer, and took off the ties for the winter)

I also pruned our new young apple tree by making a heading cut on its central leader to promote scaffold branch growth.  For the peach, I did a more drastic cut on the central leader, to create a “vase” shape, where there is no central leader, but four or five main branches, which is the form most recommended for peaches.  Some sources recommend that for cherries too, but we had started with a central leader form last year.  After I was done with all this cutting, I said a prayer to the trees–I am so new at this, that I barely know what I am doing–so please forgive me for that, and grow and thrive anyway!

Funny to think that plants can thrive by being cut back so drastically.  Is there a message in that for humans too?  That the most difficult experiences of our life can shape us for greater beauty and fruitfulness to come?

I took a cut branch with cherry blossoms from the Lapins Cherry, and put it in a cup of water on our deck.  Maybe the bees will still want to visit them.  For now, it is a sign of the years to come, when we can let the flowers bloom and hope for fruit.Cherry Blossoms

Changes

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This coming summer, I plan to retire from my ministry at the Allen Avenue Unitarian Universalist Church.  I have loved being a minister and have loved serving this congregation for 12 1/2 years.  I think the congregation would also say that it has been a good match.  But last summer, I began to think I might need a change.  I have been dealing with auto-immune health issues for some time, and just don’t have the energy I used to have. I will be turning 65 this coming summer, and that means I will be eligible for Medicare–which in turn makes it possible to consider this change.

Unlike when Margy and I were searching for greener housing, and had such a clear sense of intention guiding our efforts, this change is more mysterious.  It comes from a deep place of weariness in my body, and a deep hunger for spaciousness in my spirit.  I am not sure exactly what the future will hold.  One thing I do know is that I need to tend the garden in our yard.

We’ve already ordered a bunch of trees and other perennials that will arrive in the spring:  one “Honeycrisp” apple tree, one “Contender” peach tree, an “Illinois Everbearing” mulberry tree (that one is mostly for the birds), three hazelnut bushes, two blueberry bushes–Blue Ray & Jersey varieties, a licorice plant, twenty-five Asparagus plants, and three goldenseal plants.

My spirit feels like the ground hidden under the snow, or the berries encased in ice.  I am trying to find quiet and solitude to listen to what it wants to tell me, to find out, as David Whyte says,

What shape waits in the seed of you to grow and spread its branches against a future sky?”

 

 

Future Fruit Trees

Wood chips JackWood chips LizThanks to help from Margy’s sister Liz and brother-in-law, Jack, we were able to spread wood chips over a part of our yard that we are envisioning for future fruit trees.  The soil in the yard is quite compacted, and we have a big pile of wood chips from the old maple tree that was cut down last year.  Lisa Fernandes of Resilience Hub had suggested that the best easy way to start improving the soil for growing trees was to spread wood chips now so they can percolate over the winter, and help the soil to develop fungal infrastructure.

It seemed like a huge job, and Margy and I hadn’t been able to start it on our own.  But when Liz and Jack came to visit for the weekend, they offered to help with a project.  Margy immediately thought of the wood chips.  The three of them began on Saturday afternoon, and then we all worked on Sunday afternoon to expand it and finish it.  Margy coordinated our efforts and documented it with these photos.

We had a wonderful visit, and this morning I feel so happy looking at the space that is no longer raggedy lawn, but imagined and hoped for cherries, apples and peaches, imbued with the spirit of the old maple, and the loving hands of family.dsc06784

 

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Permablitz

Permablitz

Photo by Julie, one of our organizers for the day

Yesterday, I helped build a rock wall at a Permablitz in Portland.  Permablitzes are groups of 15-30 people who show up to help one of our neighbors implement a permaculture design for their yard.  Organized by the Resilience Hub & Portland Maine Permaculture, they also provide an opportunity for learning more about permaculture options, connecting with others who share a love for the earth, and having a lot of fun doing a lot of hard work. By helping others, we also can put our names in the ring for future help with our own permaculture designs.

Yesterday was also Maine Permaculture Day, with statewide open houses and events.  I visited one yard nearby because they had fruit trees and hazelnuts, and I wanted to get a sense of what that might be like, since we’d like to do something like that for our yard.  They had peach, apple, pear and cherry trees.  They also had planted a row of hazelnut shrubs, hoping the row would eventually create a privacy wall as well as produce hazelnuts. You can learn so much more by seeing plants as they are being grown, than by reading about them. I look forward to the time when we start on our own gardens.

In the meantime, on Friday, we had gutters installed on our house.  We plan to add rain barrels but decided to wait until next year for that, since it will be a lot of work to build bases for them, and we won’t need them until we do more with a garden anyway.