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

Lessons from Other Beings

I feel a deep calling to learn from the other beings who share this earth with us. I was reminded of this calling by a new book I just started reading, Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals, by Alexis Pauline Gumbs. She is observing dolphins, whales, and other mammals who live in the sea, and learning the wisdom they might have for human beings–especially for black women, but also for all of us. “They are queer, fierce, protective of each other, complex, shaped by conflict, and struggling to survive the extractive and militarized conditions humans impose on the ocean.” It is a beautiful and meditative book and I am so grateful. Reading a chapter each night has fed my soul, as well as helped me remember how key it has been in my own path to listen for the wisdom of other creatures–though the ones I learn from are usually closer to home than the sea.

Yesterday morning, inspired, I began to read again my own book, Finding Our Way Home: A Spiritual Journey into Earth Community, remembering. I was remembering the many quiet moments I spent in my former back yard, listening to cardinals, watching slugs crawl through the grass, paying attention to trees, to stars, to the red light of dawn. It was a yard with many mature trees, a long row of huge lilac bushes, incredible privacy, and many critters who were our neighbors–turkeys, deer, birds, squirrels, chipmunks, and occasionally skunks. I was remembering how much those creatures taught me, when I was quiet enough to listen to them.

In our current back yard–we’ve lived here five years now–we can get caught up with work: pruning, planting, soil improvement, garden permaculture projects. It is land more in need of attention from us, ragged, more depleted, invasive vines and bushes clamoring around the edges and in the soil, imbedded in city life, though still surprisingly private once the trees on the edges leaf out. There is more room for gardening–the old place was too shaded by all those mature trees. So we have planted a little food forest, herbs and perennial vegetables, made room for hugelkultur and raised beds and even shared with our friends room to grow herbs and veggies.

But it is easy to get caught up in the work of it–a lot of work. It is easy to forget that other part–the listening to the land itself and the other creatures here, the plants and animals. I remember when we first found this place, feeling from it an unmistakable message: that through making relationship with this small piece of earth, I might learn more about what it means to be in relationship to earth and all her creatures. It was time to think small–right here I could find home, I could find earth community. The work is part of it–we are here to learn to be beneficial members of this tiny ecosystem. It has weathered much neglect and abuse from human beings in its history. But the work is not the only part of it–the listening is the most important part. Sitting quietly, watching, waiting. As spring makes it easier to be outside again, I am ready. I am ready to take my lead from what the land asks, what the land teaches.

View of the back yard through hazelnut bushes with catkins.

Garden Updates

Elderberries ripeThis week there were a few exciting new developments in the garden. We harvested our very first elderberries—maybe a whole half cup of them! Earlier in the summer, I was worried about whether something was wrong with the elder flowers, and perhaps there was, but eventually they created a spotty bunch of green berries. I must admit, I hadn’t gone by the bush for several days, but when I went out the other day, they were purple. I ate one that was quite sweet, but Margy tasted a sour one, not as ripe. Elderberry harvest 2019Not enough to make elderberry syrup, or really much of anything, but enough to be enthused about future possibilities. Margy and I will have to celebrate with a berry eating ritual.

Another new development: I saw a few catkins on our hazelnut bushes! I hadn’t known to expect them, but when I  looked it up, I learned that these are the male part of the plant’s reproductive system. They will stay on the plant through the fall and winter, and then in very early spring they start lengthening and unfurling.  When the female flowers open at the tips of branches, they pollenate. Hazelnut catkinsThere are only a few catkins right now, but they are a harbinger of future crops of hazelnuts. In my last batch of pesto, I used hazelnuts from the Food Coop to add to basil, parsley, chives and garlic from the garden, plus olive oil and lemon of course. So we can’t quite do it only from our garden, but maybe more and more.

I also processed oregano and thyme that had been drying in the basement herb dryer for longer than they needed to be, and did another batch of frozen chives, and frozen kale for the winter. Our harvest is limited more by my own energy than by the earth energy.

If anyone local would like oregano or thyme or chives, please let me know—they are flourishing in the garden still, and I’d be happy to share—also lemon balm, comfrey, and dill. They have all been very enthusiastic.

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.

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.