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.

Frogs and More Frogs!

Today I saw four frogs in the pond! When I went outside before breakfast, there was plenty of weeding to do in the orchard, but I was drawn instead to bring my camera and just sit by the pond. When I first walk back to the pond, the frogs often jump from where they’ve been sitting, and swim down into the deeper water. Two of them went under with a little squeak. But there were three plops both yesterday and today, so I knew there were at least three frogs.

Tiny frog #1 floating under reflected ferns yesterday
Tiny frog #1 sitting on a stone at the edge of the pond yesterday.

If I sit quietly next to the pond, eventually they come back to a sitting spot. So I wait. Today I was able to take pictures of three of them while I sat. But I find myself favoring the tiny little frog that was the first to come to the pond. Soon I imagine we will give them names, but for now, I am identifying them by number. This one is so very tiny. At most an inch and a half head to backside, and skinny. Also very friendly. She often perches near where I sit.

Tiny frog #1 swimming closer to where I sit today. You can see her feet clearly against the white of the rocks below.
Tiny frog #1 looks like she is watching me over the edge today.

Yesterday, I was also able to take photos of frog #2, who was a little bigger than frog #1. But today, I saw both #2 and #3 after they re-emerged, and came to sit/float near each other by the little beach. #3 looked so much fatter/bigger than the other two, but then I realized depending on the angle, frog #2 could also be somewhat fat. I think they were about 2 1/2 inches long.

Frogs #2 and #3 on the rocks near the beach.
Close up of Frog #2 from yesterday
Close up from behind of Frog #2 yesterday

So Frog #3 is the largest, and seemingly the shyest. Quickest to jump back into the water, so far. But I got several shots of #3 today. And then, just as I was about to leave, I saw another tiny little frog floating nearby, between me and the beach. So Frog #4. More like #1 in size.

Frog #4 floating near the pickerel weed.

It is just so amazing to watch the wildlife in the pond. I can sit and sit. I also saw dragonfly nymphs again. But eventually I got hungry so I came inside for breakfast. I feel so grateful.

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.

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!

The Magic in the Pond Stones

Photo: A bulk order of small round stones of many sizes

This week has been a big adventure in stones. In my last post about my pond project, I mentioned that I needed to get a pickup truck, to go to a store that had “2 inch round stones” in bulk. Well, I did some research, and put on my big girl pants, and rented a pickup truck from Home Depot. I drove to Estabrooks, where a clerk rang me up for a half cubic yard of the stones. But then they were informed by the people in bulk orders that they didn’t carry 2 inch round stones. Despite a clerk reassuring me two days earlier that they had them. So a manager came by, and explained that the previous clerk was wrong, they didn’t carry them any more, and had no way to order that amount from a possible supplier. She was very apologetic about the mistake, and gave me a $40 gift card to compensate me for the truck rental.

So truthfully, I was proud of myself for doing something I hadn’t done before–renting the truck–and they did treat me well and took responsibility for their mistake. But I was disappointed, and back to square one for finding stones. I started looking again at the notes I had made before, and noticed that I had written down another possible source for stones–but the information online wasn’t very complete. (I think people who sell stones in bulk don’t really like to work on websites.) So I called New England Specialty Stones, left a message and got a call back a few hours later. They were happy to deliver a half yard of 1 1/2 inch round stones to my house, with a delivery charge, and the total price was $76 dollars–less than what it would cost for my earlier Estabrooks adventure. The stones arrived on Thursday, and were expertly dumped on the tarp I had placed on our patio. I felt such relief and joy to see those stones.

Some parts of the pond project have been step-by-step, like digging a hole. But other parts have required a big push on my part, with some help from others–like laying the pond liner, or getting a bulk order of stones. Now that the stones have been delivered, I am back to the step-by-step processes. The person I spoke with about these stones mentioned that they’d need to be washed, to use them for a pond. So I started doing that today.

Photo: Stone rinse #1 of 5

It took five rinses before the water was relatively clear. But I did have the idea to dump out the “dirty” water onto the beds around my fruit and nut trees. I am thinking that this stone dust is likely a very good soil amendment–like the granite dust I put around the tree beds earlier on. Once rinsed, the stones are actually quite pretty and colorful, with a great variety of sizes and shapes.

Photo: rinsed stones

Once rinsed, I take them via the wheelbarrow back to the pond area to use. Load by load. First of all I rebuilt the stone “beach” that is an incline for critters to be able to access the water, to get in and out easily. I mentioned before that after my first attempt I was worried it was too steep. So I removed those stones, lifted up the liner and underliner, and dug it out deeper–I took away a whole wheelbarrow full of soil to make a longer gentler incline. Then I positioned larger stones at the bottom inner edge, and also at the lower outer edge, to be a stronger support for the stones on the incline. Now, it feels sturdy and very usable. Once the pond is filled, the water will reach about halfway up that incline.

Photo: Rebuilt stone “beach” for critter access

The beach completed, I started bringing back stones to put on the planting ledge. I positioned a few of the larger stones I had previously found into spots along the inner edge of the ledge, and then shoveled lots of the small stones behind them. Well, I did this wheelbarrow by wheelbarrow, after five rinses of the stones each time. I think I did about 5 or 6 wheelbarrows this evening. I have seen some beautiful ponds on the Building Natural Ponds Facebook group–with large rocks covering every part of the pond liner. I don’t think that will be my pond. I don’t have access to that kind of rock. My goal is to cover the planting ledge with these small stones, and then finish filling the pond. Then I will start putting plants there, and eventually, they’ll hide the pond liner going up the side from the ledge to the top. But that might take a while. Once I’ve put plants in, I’ll use whatever stones I have left to cover the liner at ground level. Or come up with another idea. But I am excited that critters will have access, and I am happy to be back in a step-by-step process.

The other day, I was talking to a group of friends, and articulated why this work is so important to me. With all of the pain of our world, the injustices past and present, the dangers of environmental degradation and climate change, why do I work in the garden, why do I make a pond? For me, to make relationship with this little piece of land, to love and care for this land, is a spiritual practice. I am only one small person, but I hope by learning to love this small piece of land I can make a prayer, make magic, for humankind to learn to love the earth. I pray that we can stop exploiting the earth and find a different sort of relationship to the earth. A relationship built on respect and mutuality and humility. A relationship in which we understand the sacredness of the earth. A relationship of gratitude, for water, for soil, for stones, for plants. That is the magic that lives in each stone.

Photo: Pond tonight, after putting some stones on the planting ledges

Pond decisions

Sometimes the mental work is as hard as the physical work of building the pond. If you’ve been following along with this project, you know that after digging the hole, after putting down old carpet to protect against invasive bittersweet roots, after placing the underlayment and then the pond liner, we started filling the pond with water a few days ago. That felt so great! But then I felt stuck. The Building Natural Ponds book, by Robert Pavlis, which has been such a great guide to this whole project, suggested using old carpet as an “overlayment” on the planting shelves, to protect against the stones that were to go there. But I had run out of most of the carpet, and also had misgivings about putting old carpet into the actual water of the pond. So what to do?

I thought and thought and then posed the question in two Facebook groups–the Building Natural Ponds group and the Northeast Permaculture Network. Then, I went outside and started gathering all the stones I’d been saving for the last five years from around the yard. I had some in five gallon buckets, and some in a pile next to the garage where violets had decided it was the perfect place to bloom. I had to dig under the roots to get all of those stones. But violets are very prolific in our yard, so I wasn’t worried about them. I also brought back the final bits of carpet I had–2 by 2 squares made of eco-friendly nylon.

Photo: Gathering all the stones to use in the pond.

Once that was done, I came back inside and checked my Facebook posts. I had gotten a variety of answers and suggestions from folks, and finally came up with my answer. I would use extra pond liner as an overlayment. Robert Pavlis had thought that idea would work well, so that gave me the confidence to do it. Some folks didn’t bother with any overlayment, but it gives just that added layer of protection against cuts or punctures from stones or little animal claws. So I went back outside, and I bravely made the first snips to cut off the extra pond liner around the edges of the pond. Because the pond wasn’t quite as deep as originally planned, there was quite a bit of extra liner.

Photo: extra pond liner

I started cutting it up and laying pieces of it all around the planting ledge, starting with the spot that I hope will be a little incline “beach” for animals to be able to approach. And as it happened, I had just enough liner to cover everything I needed. Then I started putting some stones into place. I did that in bare feet, and an old carpet square worked as a place to wipe off my feet before getting onto the planting ledge. We had some slate pieces that we found here when we first moved here, so I am hoping to use them around the edges of at least part of the circle. But I am also trying out using them for steps into the pond. Once the pond is full of life, it will be slippery, so maybe not. Decisions for later.

Photo: pond with liner overlay done, and stones begun to be placed.

I worked into the late afternoon, but finally came inside for another commitment. Today I am feeling all that work in my body–sore hands, sore muscles. I am eager to continue laying the stones I have–and then I will see how many more I will need. More decisions. The basic idea is to put larger stones around the center of the planting ledge, and larger stones near the outer ring of the planting ledge, then pea stones to fill in–those will be the growing medium for bacteria that clean and filter the water and aquatic plants that clean and filter the water. But as with this whole process, I am taking it step by step. I think if I had really known how much work it would be, I might not have had the temerity to begin. But here I am.