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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Such an exciting moment when we began to put water in the pond yesterday! It was a sunny hot day, so being in the cold water was great. I found I had to get right into it to do the folds of the pond liner which are necessary when you take a square liner and put it into a round hole. We filled it up to just under the level of the planting shelf.
But back to the earlier parts of the process–the first thing I did yesterday was install the pond liner underlayment–a very light felty fabric thing that protects the pond liner. We might not have needed it, because of the carpet strips, but the pond liner is guaranteed for life if you use the underlayment. I had purchased a 20 by 20 foot 45 mil EPDM liner, and the underlayment came in two pieces of 10 by 20. I overlapped them about 3 feet. After that, I also dug further and deeper on the overflow channel, and made sure it sloped away from the pond. You can see it in the left on the photo.
Then, midday, our neighbors came by to help with installing the pond liner itself–the liner is very heavy, but with the three of us (plus a kid!), it wasn’t hard to position it over the hole. So grateful for helping hands! Because the pond wasn’t quite as deep as planned, I knew we’d have extra liner on the sides, so we didn’t have to worry about getting everything exactly centered.
As it turns out, black rubber gets very hot in the sun, so we all wore gloves, along with our masks for COVID.
After the liner was roughly in place, the neighbors went home. I got into the hole and adjusted everything so it was flush with all the surfaces underneath, creating folds where needed. It was recommended by my Building Natural Ponds book to not step on it with shoes, but socks weren’t enough to protect my feet from the heat–so I pulled out my fuzzy slippers and a blanket.
After a short break, we started filling the pond with our garden hose. Water from the house has chlorine in it, but the chlorine will evaporate quickly and so this water is fine to use especially before we have any life in the pond. Eventually, we’ll use water from the rain barrels you can see in the back of the photo, but we’ve had no significant rain for a while. While the hose was running, Margy and I wandered around the back of the yard looking at plants, and then finally pulled up chairs to watch the water fill. And I got in a few times to keep adjusting the liner–glad to have an excuse!
It isn’t the end of the process by any means. I have been doing this step by step, not knowing how long each step would take. The next thing to do, and why we only filled up to the planting shelf, is to cover the planting shelf with stones and pebbles. I’ve collected lots of rocks from around the yard, but will definitely need to purchase more. And that is a bit more complicated than I realized, likely involving borrowing or renting a pickup truck. But in the meantime, I went online and ordered 5 native pond plants that will arrive in about 10 days. It is really happening! And there is water in the pond!
I had a slow start today. I haven’t talked much lately about living with chronic illness, but for some reason I’ve been feeling much better energy than usual this spring. Still, I have a method for energy use: First of all, I rest when I need to. But what seems to work with garden projects is that I exert myself for a short while–say 10 minutes, or one wheelbarrow load. And then I sit and rest for 10 minutes. I don’t time myself, that is just a guess. I stop when I need to and rest until I can start again. While resting, I drink some iced licorice-root tea–that is a big help. I make a big batch of the tea (boiling licorice root for 15 minutes), and cool it to keep in jars in the fridge. Then I put together a big plastic glass (with a cover to take outside) adding ice and some lemon juice. Licorice root is said to be good for adrenal glands, so maybe this is why it has been so good for my energy.
But for example, this afternoon about 3 p.m., after my slow start, I was able to make my way outside. I started on the next step for the pond–cutting the old carpet (that I collected for free) into strips about 2 feet wide. I started with the biggest carpet piece I had received. Margy bought me a really good pair of carpet cutting scissors. Oh my gosh–they are so sharp and nice and easy to use. So I cut one 8 foot (?) strip, and then I rested. Then I cut another one. It went like that. After I had finished cutting that carpet piece into about 8 strips, I decided to see how it might lay on the pond surface.
But then I had another thought while experimenting. Since the pond is no longer going to be 3 feet deep, but rather about 2 1/2 feet, and since I have a pond liner that is 20 by 20, why not make it a bit wider at the top. (Since the equation for the pond liner size takes into account depth and width and length.) So instead of 11 by 11 1/2, just add a bit more on the half that has a one foot planting shelf, let the pond be closer to 12 by 12, and the planting shelf be a bit wider too. So I started digging again around the top edge. And then I remembered the advice to make a sloping “beach” edge for small critters to be able to get in. So I did some of that. Again, bit by bit.
While doing this further digging, I again saw more bright orange bittersweet roots. This is the biggest reason why we are using carpet strips as an underlayment. Some folks like sand better, but we need something that can stop the roots from puncturing the pond liner.
So the next photo is what it looked like when I called it a day. I was lying in the hammock a bit, resting, and then when I got up I could barely move. That is the other part of this process. I get really exhausted and sore all over. So I came in and took a hot shower, and then took two aspirin, which lately always seems to help. I’ll be down for the evening, but tomorrow, probably ready to start again. Unless I am not. I am sharing all these details to say that I am so grateful I am able to do this outside work, in this rhythm of work and rest. And also, maybe it might be a helpful suggestion for others who don’t have stamina for whatever reason. Work and rest, work and rest, in little segments. It has been a good day.
If you’ve been following my work on digging the pond, I will mention that I took a little break, first to find out what to do about the water that has seeped into the bottom, and then because I twisted my ankle on Friday while I was digging. So annoying! My ankle is not so bad–after a couple days of rest, I can hobble around now, and I will be digging again soon.
In the meantime I wanted to share this photo of the flowering peach and cherry trees in our food forest. They flowered a bit earlier this year than last. In the photo, the peach blossoms are pink, and it is hard to see the white cherry blossoms amid their green leaves in the photo. But they are so beautiful! There are more cherry blossoms this year than last, when we got just a few.
However, I’ve been concerned about pollination. Our neighbor keeps honey bee hives, and usually we have lots of her bees visiting over here, drinking nectar and drinking water from our bird baths. But this year, it has been very sparse for bees. I found out that our neighbor’s hives died in a cold snap earlier in the spring and she hasn’t replenished them yet with new bees.
One day, I did see bees of all sizes in the Lapins cherry tree (on the right in the photo), but I didn’t see them in the peach tree. (Not that I sit and stare all day.) But I’ve been doing so much TLC with the trees this year, with Kaolin clay, and holistic foliar sprays. It would be a shame if we didn’t get fruit because of pollination problems. It is too late now to try to hand-pollinate. The other potential glitch is that while the Lapins cherry is self-fertile, the Black Tartarian cherry needs the Lapins to cross-pollinate. They are both sort of blooming now, but the Lapins had peak blooms earlier, and the Black Tartarian has new blooms that just came out yesterday. So we wait and see.
It reminds me of the sad danger to pollinators everywhere because of climate change, environmental pollutants, pesticides, and development. All of our human food is dependent on these little creatures who pollinate the plants. If the bees die, so do the humans.
Today I pray for the pollinators, with gratitude and humility. Part of this prayer is offering to the bees so many other plants in our food forest: daffodils, dandelions, and violets are blooming now; soon we will also have chives, oregano, clover, thyme, and many more. All of us can do more to provide food for bees and other pollinators throughout the season. Only then can they also provide food for us. May this circle of life be blessed.
This past week’s big garden project was making pesto. I’m not an expert on preserving food from the garden, but discovered that while oregano and thyme were easy to dry, things like chives and basil didn’t work for me to dry. But making pesto and freezing it has been great. We just finished using the last of our pesto from last summer, and it was time to make it again.
So here is my very loose recipe for anyone who might want to try it. First of all, cut big bunches of stalks of basil, parsley, and chives from your garden. And really, any combination of these will work, though I think of basil as the primary ingredient of pesto.
Basil & Chives & Olive oil
Pinch the basil leaves off the stalks and place in a salad spinner–you can wash and dry them in the spinner. Do the same for parsley–I just cut the leafy parts off the stalks. Our garden is organic, but rinsing deals with any random bugs or dry leaves or other impurities that might be attached.
Parsley in the salad spinner.
Chives can be rinsed briefly, and cut with a knife into couple inch lengths. Once these are ready, start with a blender. First, put in 1 cup of olive oil, and then reserve 1/2 cup for use as needed to keep the blender stirring easily. Add the basil and blend, add the parsley and blend, add the chives and blend. Or do this in any order you like. I also added 4 Tablespoons of lemon juice, salt and peper, 1 clove garlic, and some garlic scapes. I don’t do well with too much garlic, but you might want to add more if you like it.
Finally, I added one cup of raw hazelnuts. Traditionally, people use pine nuts, but they are more expensive and since we have hazelnut bushes, it seemed fitting, though our bushes haven’t produced any nuts yet. Later, when we use the pesto, we will add parmesan cheese.
Finally, I line a baking pan with wax paper, and put the pesto mixture on this paper in small lumps–like cookies. Place the whole pan in the freezer until the mixtures have frozen, and then I fold them up in the wax paper and store in freezer bags.
Through the winter, we take out the pesto cookies and use as many as we need with baked chicken, with zucchini noodles, with anything that could use a bit of bright flavor. I ended up needing to make two batches because I had so much basil. And the basil plants will grow back again, so we could make more later on. So much fun.
We have always had birds in our back yard in the winter, coming to our feeder, or rooting around on the ground. But this year, we’ve seen almost none at all. We didn’t fill the feeder over the summer–but many birds visited during that time, in the orchard and in the nearby trees and all over the place. So we expected that filling it up again would bring the usual winter birds. But I can count on one hand the birds I’ve seen. And no cardinals.
In trying to comprehend this, I noticed that only one other thing has changed. The lot behind our neighbor’s house–not visible in this photo–had been overgrown with bittersweet, and then the vines took down part of a big maple tree. Plus Margy had been cutting a lot of the invasive bittersweet. So that field has less tree and vine cover, which some birds may have preferred. More ominously, I’ve read that in North America the total number of birds has declined by 25% in the last fifty years. Is it finally affecting our own yard?
I have seen a few birds here and there on my walk in the neighborhood, and there have been a few in the crabapples in the front yard. But despite our full feeder, plus a thistle feeder, and even a suet cake, no one is around. It seems so strange and empty. Have you noticed fewer birds where you live?
All of this got me thinking sadly about extinction, and I happened to see a documentary about the early Neanderthal humans, who lived in Europe and Asia for several hundred thousand years, before becoming extinct about 40,000 years ago. According to the DNA testing company “23 and Me”, all modern humans, except for those from sub-Saharan Africa, have between 1 and 4 % Neanderthal DNA, from interbreeding of the two related species. So the Neanderthals can be counted among my ancestors too. By the way, they were much smarter and more cultured than the myths that were taught about them early on.
There are a lot of theories about why they went extinct. But this particular documentary, Neanderthal Apocalypse, made the hypothesis that one factor was the eruption of a super-volcano near present day Naples 39,000 years ago. However that might have effected the Neanderthals, I found myself more focused on what it might do to us today. If a super-volcano were to erupt in our time, ash and debris would cover miles and miles of land, and kill all vegetation, crops, and the animals who rely on them (including us.) Ashes and toxic gases would rise up into the upper atmosphere and block out sunlight, plunging a large portion of the earth into a volcanic winter. Civilization over.
Now this might be a depressing thing to think about, but for some reason, I didn’t feel depressed. Instead, I was reminded of how very powerful the Earth really is. We are so small, and so reliant on all of the Earth’s interwoven life. So, in a funny way, I felt less afraid. We humans know some things, and the activity of our species is causing damage to the climate, and wreaking havoc everywhere. But so much is beyond our control and even our understanding. It is profoundly humbling and reminds me to be grateful for how the earth provides everything we need.
So I come round to this Winter Solstice holiday, today, and say thanks to the Earth for birthing us, for feeding us, for fire that warms us in winter, for so much beauty that inspires our lives. And I say a prayer for the birds: please come back to once again feast with us in this little patch of land we call home.
During the spring, Margy was talking about wanting to plant sunflowers this year. But as it happened, she was busy with too many other garden projects to actually do it. So imagine our delight when the garden planted its own sunflowers! They came up under the bird feeder, now sitting empty for the summer, but where sunflower seeds were the food we offered to the birds (and squirrels) all winter.
Lately, the garden plants have felt mostly like children who need our care and attention. With the dry hot weather, they’ve needed a lot of watering. Yesterday, I did another foliar spray for the fruit trees, to help them ward off Japanese beetles, which I also have been picking off every day and dropping in soapy water. And there have also been lovely raspberries to harvest each day, and snap peas (almost gone now) and kale and basil to gather and preserve.
So this gift of flowers emerging without any effort on our part–perhaps the land is reminding us that she loves us as we love her?
It has been one year since my retirement began. One of its themes has been to find connection with this small portion of the Mother Earth, this land we are so lucky to call our home. As non-Indigenous people, we are trying to heal a long wounded history of our people’s disconnection from land. Our ancestors left their home places generations ago. If our society had an understanding of earth connection, it could not destroy earth life as it destroys, with such thoughtlessness–pollution, clearcutting of forests, poisoning of soil with pesticides, trash dumping, mining, fracking… the long list of ecological destructions that are endangering us all.
So in our small corner of the world, we are trying to reweave those threads of interconnection, reawaken the truth–long dormant in our bodies–that we are not separate from the earth–we are the earth. As we tend the land, as we care for the plants, as we pay attention each day, we hope that a shifting occurs–that we move from domination patterns to partnership patterns in our relationship to Earth. We know how small we are–yet hope that if we can shift our own patterns, it might in some way ripple out to the larger patterns. Because we are interconnected. Because that is the magic.
The gift sunflowers remind me that the land herself is eager to be in partnership with her human children. She loves us and wants wholeness for all.
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.
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!