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!

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Plants are amazing

Comfrey

Comfrey Plant in our Orchard

Last night, I watched (again) the documentary, What Plants Talk About. Did you know that plants change their chemistry based on the environmental stressors they experience? So, for example, if a certain caterpillar is munching on their leaves, they can release chemicals into the air, scents, that attract the insect predator of that caterpillar.  Or they might offer nectars that shift the scent of the bug itself, and that scent attracts predators. They also share nutrients with their child plants and other tree species in a forest.

This got me thinking about our human use of plants for healing. We benefit from their chemical wizardry and can use their medicines for our own challenges. Over thousands of years of human “prehistory” and “history,” we learned the benefits of so many various plants in our environment. A body of knowledge has accumulated for the medicinal use of herbs.

Plant medicines can also be used to help other plants. Michael Phillips, in the book Holistic Orchard, recommends making fermented teas of comfrey, horsetail, stinging nettles, and/or garlic scapes to use as a foliar spray to help orchard trees during the summer.  Comfrey provides large amounts of calcium. Horsetail has natural silica which helps the plant cuticle defense against certain summer fungi.  Nettles are a tonic of overall nutrition with trace minerals, vitamins, nitrogen, calcium, and potassium. They also have silica, with levels skyrocketing when seeds formation is just beginning, so that is a great time to use it. Garlic helps to carry other nutrients.

It just so happens that I was in the orchard last week, thinking I needed to trim back the comfrey because it was getting too big.  Then I noticed that the nettles in Sylvia’s herb garden were flowering, maybe starting to form seeds. (We’d rather that they didn’t spread nettles everywhere.) And lo and behold, the garlic plants had formed scapes. So maybe it was time to make some herbal tea. (We don’t have any horsetail, sadly.)

Comfrey Nettles Garlic brewTo make the fermented tea, you use a five-gallon bucket.  Cut plant leaves into the bucket and loosely pack them in.  Then, pour a kettle of boiling water over the leaves to get things started, and add unchlorinated water to fill it to the top. I used water from our rain barrels. Then “let sit for seven to ten days somewhere outside, loosely covered to prevent significant evaporation. This fermentation period makes the constituents that much more bioavailable for foliar absorption.” It gets pretty smelly with sulfur compounds–that’s how it is supposed to smell. You strain it when you use it. Once brewed, you dilute it, using about a cup of the tea per gallon of spray.

So I made the tea on July 6. It is likely ready to use about now, though I went ahead and added two cups to the spray formula I did on July 9th.  Having such a small orchard, I might not be able to use all of the tea in a timely way, so I figured that partially brewed tea would add something beneficial in any case. I will add whatever I don’t use to the compost pile.

A few other thoughts were brewing in my mind after watching What Plants Talk About. If you think about how plants change their chemicals to fit their environmental stressors, you have to conclude that the medicines in the plants might be changing day by day, hour by hour. So when you harvest that plant, and in what condition you harvest it, might make all the difference in the world about whether that plant has the medicine you need. And perhaps that is the source of the “old wives’ tales” about when and how to pick various medicinal herbs. When the moon is full, or first thing in the morning? (By the way, I think that old wives’ tales are often the source of much hidden wisdom.)

If I were a young person just starting out as a scientist herbalist, I would want to ponder how we might experiment and cooperate with plants to create particular medicines that we need. We’d have to start by understanding and measuring the differences in their chemical composition under various conditions. Try to better understand why the old herbalists knew the best times for picking. That might take a while. But then, once we better understood these marvelous beings, maybe we could learn to communicate back and forth with them, and then, perhaps we could invite them to create new medicines for the diseases we face in these times. What a line of research that would be!

Stinging Nettles

Stinging Nettles 

Pruning

Our friend, Mihku, who is a master gardener, gave me more advice about pruning last Sunday.  We looked at all the orchard trees, and she reminded me that these first few years are all about creating a good shape for the tree, thickening up the trunk, and creating strong scaffold branches, while not letting them get too leggy or long.

So for example, here is the peach tree before pruning (on May 27th).  It looked bright and happy, and even had a few flowers, (which you can see if you zoom in). But the branches were quite long, and the tree is too young to give energy to making fruit this year.  On the right foreground of this photo, you might also notice a very leggy branch from one of our cherry trees, dividing into new shoots at its tip.

Peach tree before pruning

Peach Tree before pruning

The next day, I went back to my Holistic Orchard book to read what Michael Phillips had to say about pruning, too.  It seems I need to read it at least once a year, because in between, I forget.  There are different methods for different fruits.  Apples and cherries prefer a central leader, with several scaffold layers of branches nicely spaced out as you go up the trunk.  Peaches prefer an open vase style, in which there is no central leader, but the center is opened up to give good sunlight to the flowers and fruit.  But it is far beyond the power of any book to give what a wise friend can give–especially for gathering the courage to actually do it.  (It seems counterintuitive to do all that cutting of new branches.)

This kind of pruning at this season of the year is meant to encourage growth in the right form and direction.  Mihku suggested cutting about 1/3 off from the long branches, and once again staking the cherry branches to make a better “crotch angle” (where the branch angles from the trunk.)  They tend to grow almost straight up, and should be reaching out to form a 45-60 degree angle.  Flat cuts at the end of branches will also help them to thicken up. Header cuts on the central leader, will encourage lower branches to grow–which was especially important for the Lapins cherry, which had a big gap between lower branches and higher shoots. I was excited to see that there were some new branches starting to form at a better height.

After I did the cherries, I went to the peach, picked off the blossoms, and cut away branches that were growing inward, to favor those that were growing outward. And those that I wanted to keep got about 1/3 headed off to help them become stronger, choosing a spot just above an outward facing bud.

Peach Tree after pruning

Peach after pruning

Finally, I checked our semi-dwarf apple tree, which is still quite small, and found that there were three branch shoots reaching upward at the central leader–just like Michael Phillips suggested there would be, and I chose the strongest to be the leader, and snipped off the other two.

Pruning accomplished for the season! Thanks Mihku!

Myke & Mihku in the garden

Photo by Margy Dowzer

 

Breathe Beauty

This spring, I go from “hard work in the garden” days, to “collapse on the couch” days. With so little sun and so much rain, I feel an urgency on those good days to do as much as possible.  Monday, for example, I was able to inoculate the orchard with Wine Cap mushroom spawn.  That involved shoveling and hauling lots of wood chips from the pile, via a wheelbarrow, over to the trees, laying layers of wood chips in patches near each of the four trees, then spreading the spawn, then more wood chips on top.  (This is on top of old wood chips that are already around the trees.) I also put some compost in patches that I had missed last week.  I also planted chamomile and sunchokes that I had received in trade at the Plant Swap on Saturday.

Then, after, while I am taking a hot Epson salt bath for my aching muscles, I imagine that I will blog about it the next day–but I just haven’t have the energy for much more than Netflix for two days after any garden work days.  So I haven’t blogged about the Fedco tree sale, or about repurposing the garden bed behind the garage for three new blueberry plants, or about spreading seaweed mulch near the trees, or adding compost, or planting kale and more peas.  I haven’t blogged about any of it.

Meanwhile, between the work and the collapse, it is easy to miss the ephemeral beauty of it all.  The other day, I noticed I was missing something. I stopped to sit on the deck, and then walked around the yard, not working. I just looked at bushes and flowers and ferns, paying attention to what was there, appreciating the miracle of plants and their growth.

Violets

These violets came up on their own in a crack in the pavement near the bulkhead.

Fiddleheads coming back!

I thought the fiddlehead fern I planted last year had died, but here they are coming up again near the big old pine tree.

Golden Seal coming up

And here is the golden seal that I planted last year, also coming back after seeming death!

I finally sat down again on the deck, and after I had been there awhile, the hummingbirds boldly flew in to drink from our feeders.

It is hard for me to have so little energy this spring.  I wish I could do much more in the garden, and not be so exhausted every time afterwards.  I guess this is my new reality, this balancing act. But I am reminding myself to appreciate the beauty around me, to notice the color purple on the patio (as Alice Walker might say), to be grateful, and quiet enough for the birds to fly around taking no notice of my presence. To breathe slowly enough for shadows of joy to sneak in.

Hummer shadow

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.

What We Give to Each Other

Yesterday I met a Passamaquoddy woman, S—, who talked about how she is trying to remove herself as much as possible from the money economy, to live with the values of a gift economy.  One way she does it is to volunteer a lot in her community.  I was moved by the conversation, and it stirred up questions in me about its application in my own life.  We were part of a gathering hosted by Maine-Wabanaki REACH for Wabanaki and Maine residents to explore together the topic of decolonization.  (If that term is unfamiliar, take a look at my earlier post called Living into History.)

Dish with One Spoon Wampum

Photo from IndianTime.net

Colonization brought the capitalist economy to this continent.  Another Wabanaki participant told us about the One Dish with One Spoon Wampum belt, which was a covenant acknowledging mutual care, first between the Haudenosaunee and then with other Indigenous communities prior to settlement.

The Great Law of Peace speaks of it:

We will have one dish, which means that we will all have equal shares of the game roaming about in the hunting grounds and fields, and then everything will become peaceful among all of the people;

We also heard about how in the Passamaquoddy nation, they are creating a community garden with an orchard of fruit trees, and teaching people how to cultivate them.  As people learn to provide for their community’s own food, true sovereignty becomes possible.

I was thinking about how back at my own home, we are also creating an orchard, but it is a difficult process to undo the individualistic capitalist systems.  To be connected to this land we have to “own” it in the capitalist manner.  We can share it with our friend who has a garden here with us, and we’ve also been blessed by the permaculture community’s support through our Permablitz work party last June.  And we received many of our companion plants in the plant swap last spring.  So we are trying to imagine community as a part of our relationship to this land.  But there is so much further to go.

I had brought flyers with me to the gathering about my book, not sure if it felt like the right place to share.  (Our invitation had mentioned we could bring materials about our related work if we wanted.) The content of the book is so much about how we journey into earth community–how we restore that spiritual relationship with the land and with our neighbors on this land.  How we acknowledge and heal the harm caused by the history of this place. But the book is also a product that I sell. So I was torn.

After our conversation about gift economy, I was moved to give a copy of the book as a gift to S—. I had so appreciated her sharing, and it felt to me like this would be a way to plant a seed–to shift something within me that might grow the possibility of a gift economy in this world, and in my life.  I was surprised when she responded by giving me a gift of her beadwork–beautiful turtles. There is magic in this. May it be blessed.

Composts & Mulches

Who knew that there were so many kinds of compost?  According to Michael Phillips in The Holistic Orchard, tree fruits prefer a fungally dominant compost, which you can get by using lots of leaves and not turning your pile.  So that is the kind we’ve accidentally been making at home, since we use lots of leaves and hardly ever turn our pile.  Vegetables prefer bacterially dominant compost, which likes to be turned a lot.  To quote:

Orchard soils ideally contain a fungal presence ten times higher than that of bacteria…. Fungi respond to surface decomposition, whereas bacteria prefer soil disturbance.  We are building a fungal duff of organic matter where the biological action desired is going to take place.  Compost, deciduous wood chips, seaweed, and raked leaves can be added atop [the soil.]

So, last fall, when we spread the wood chips from the old maple tree, we were beginning to create this fungal duff.  Margy topped the wood chips with cut grass and seaweed and leaves.  But when we planted the cherry trees, we had to dig a big hole, so all of that was disturbed, and we put regular compost as part of the soil back fill in the holes; I guess that is not actually recommended so much.

I also learned that the type of mulch matters.  Margy had arranged for us to get some free wood mulch, (hurray!) which turned out to be from evergreen trees.  She had put some of that mulch, along with straw, around the newly planted cherry trees.  But I learned, in The Holistic Orchard, that fruit trees especially love mulch made from wood chips from deciduous trees–most particularly “ramial” wood chips made from twig wood less than 7 centimeters in diameter–because that contains soluble lignins.  The evergreen mulch actually contains compounds that suppress other plant growth.  Who knew?

Fungal DuffSo the very next day, I went out and moved that evergreen mulch away, and dug up some of the starting-to-decompose deciduous wood & leaves mulch, piling it up in a six-foot diameter circle around each tree, careful to leave open space around the trunks themselves.  Next time, Margy can ask our wood chip supplier to save us some of the ramial chips.

All this to say, we just got 4 yards of compost delivered today from Wilshire Farm, composted manure to be exact, which we hope to use for creating growing medium for companion plants for the trees, some surface feeding for the trees, and for Sylvia’s herb garden.

I learned about The Holistic Orchard and Wilshire Farm from a workshop on fruit trees by Aaron Parker of Edgewood Nursery, held at the Resilience Hub.  It all seems much more complicated than just planting a tree and getting fruit a few years later.  I am trying to take it one or two steps at a time.Composted Manure