Peach Abundance

Peaches are ripening, bright red and yellow, crowded together on the branches.

Those of you who perhaps followed my peach tree saga last year might remember that after hours and hours of tending–including several organic sprays, thinning the small green peaches, putting little mesh bags on the remaining ones–the squirrels ran off with every single green peach, or knocked them off the branches as they tried to get into the bags. We got zero peaches to eat.

Well this year, I didn’t have the heart or energy to do all that tending. I did one holistic spray early in the season. I felt very non-attached to any outcome, since one might assume that squirrels would eat them all again. But that didn’t happen. A few weeks ago, I started picking a few small random peaches, so that others would have more room to grow, and the branches wouldn’t break under their weight–but only a few at a time, not systemically. I put them in paper bags, which is the actual way to help them ripen. (Not on window sills as I had previously thought.) A few weeks ago, the squirrels started eating some peaches too, sitting in the tree, or taking ones with broken spots that I left on the patio table. I found their leavings on the deck railing. It was fun.

Broken peach bits on the deck railing.

But they didn’t take all the peaches. And the peaches started to really ripen. Now they are bright red and yellow, crowded though they are on the branches. Now, we are processing all the bags of ripening peaches in the house, as well as gathering peaches literally dropping from the tree. I have cut them in slices to freeze–first on a tray, and then put into freezer bags. Yesterday I made a gluten free peach cobbler. We have invited friends and neighbors over to share in the abundance. More people are coming by this weekend. This morning, I saw this little bird pecking for its delicious breakfast. There is plenty to share!

Bird eating a peach on the tree.

I feel grateful and humbled by this turn of events. Sometimes gardening feels like a battle between the gardener and the “pests.” I didn’t have the heart to try too hard to fight this battle this season. (And our cucumbers and zucchinis are succumbing to bugs-so it goes.) I was surprised that the peaches thrived so well without my efforts. I was surprised that the squirrels took some, and it seems they felt okay about sharing. Maybe they sensed that we were not enemies this time. Margy and I feel so good to be able to give them away to others. The garden is such a great mystery! I continue to feel humble and grateful by all it teaches us.

Oh, and here is the recipe for gluten-free peach cobbler. I searched the internet, and then adapted this one from several I had seen:

Peach Cobbler: preheat oven to 375 degrees

Slice peaches and place in a lightly buttered 9 x 13 pan. Basically use enough to cover the bottom well, or more if you like. Sprinkle with cinnamon, and a tiny bit of ground cloves.

Whisk together 1 & 3/4 cup almond flour, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 2 teaspoons baking powder. Blend together 1 large egg, 1 teaspoon vanilla, 1 tablespoon honey, 1/4 cup Greek whole milk yogurt, and 2 tablespoons softened butter. Add that to the flour mixture and blend, and then spoon over the peaches–it won’t cover them completely, but spread it around as you can. Bake 25-30 minutes or until golden and bubbling. Remove and let cool a bit so you don’t burn your tongue. You can serve as is, or with cream, whipped cream, or ice cream.

Peach cobbler in a glass pan, with some pieces removed.

The Gifts of Birds and Berries

Blueberries and raspberries from our garden

Right now the garden is happy with berries: the raspberries are loaded with fruit, and this is the first year for a blueberry harvest. We planted these blueberry bushes in 2017. This year, I put up some fence posts and draped the berry bushes with gauzy fabric after the berries started to form. (Tried it first without the posts, but the weight bent the bushes over when it rained.) This is to keep the birds from eating all the berries. But we have three younger plants in the back that I left open. And the raspberries do fine on their own. So every other day, I go out and pick a bowlful of ripe berries.

Blueberry bushes wrapped with tulle fabric

The fabric barrier is a bit ironic really. I don’t mean to discourage the birds at all. But expert gardener’s advice says that they will eat all the blueberries before we can. I think of myself as a very novice gardener. Our garden only provides us with a very modest harvest. Last year the squirrels took all the peaches, and cabbage moths are now eating a lot of the kale. I have given up on the idea of creating a food forest that will provide all our needs. This year, I haven’t had the energy to give any of it much attention at all.

But somehow, in the midst of it all, the garden keeps giving back to us in unexpected ways. The orchard has become a bird heaven. We now regularly see cardinals, a robin couple (who, after two failed attempts, are again playing with the nest on our porch), gold finches, house finches, sparrows, chickadees, catbirds, starling visitors, not to mention the turkey mom and her two babies that keep coming through, and so many more. The small birds love perching in the fruit trees–and I love seeing them there. They ate the few cherries, which I didn’t try to protect. I think they are also eating a lot of bugs. They even love perching on top of the stakes in the zucchini bed. We provide sunflower seeds in the bird feeder, and they planted sunflowers all around it with the droppings. So we are gifted with all this beauty.

Sunflowers in bloom around a green bird feeder with a small sparrow on it.

This has been a summer of much gifted beauty. Another example is the wild evening primrose. I pulled all of the primrose plants that had sprouted up in the orchard, because I knew they would be too tall and block the paths. But I purposely left the ones on the other side of our back porch, this one in front of irises that bloomed earlier. And now they sparkle a bit like a Christmas tree in July.

Tall evening primrose in bloom

Each year I do learn a bit more about how to garden. This year, it seems that what I am learning most of all is how much the earth gifts to us and to all her creatures, how generous and abundant she is, when we merely open to her and open to other creatures, and stop trying so hard to make something specific happen. I am feeling the interconnected family of beings, and especially the joy of birds who now find a home in our yard. It’s amazing! Finally, I just want to also express gratitude for a monarch butterfly who came to visit a few days ago.

Monarch perched on volunteer elecampane flowers

Robin’s Eggs

Three robin’s perfect blue eggs

Yes! The robin has been sitting on the nest more consistently and today I confirmed that she has laid three eggs! She stays in place when we go out the back door, as long as we go down the steps near the driveway, which is on the opposite side of where she is nesting. But she does occasionally go away, and in one of those moments, I lifted my phone up above my head and was able to take this photo of the eggs. Little joys in the midst of the lovely day outside.

Peach blossoms

In other developments, the peach tree blossoms are beginning to open, and many sorts of bees are hovering around the cherry tree blossoms, the violets, the pansies, and the dandelions. I’ve been slowly cutting down dead stalks of the oregano plants that have proliferated around the trees, and noticing how the low growing herbs and flowers are spreading onto former paths–but maybe it’s time to let them be the path ground covers. I’ve used wood chips for the paths, but living ground covers are actually the most ideal. Clover, pansies, oregano, thyme, violets. I’m trying to listen to the plants, to the land, to see what might be the happiest.

I didn’t have a ton of energy today, so mostly I lay in the hammock just noticing the orchard and how it is changing. I’ve been going through old blog posts to archive them as pdf files, and was looking at photos of the yard before we planted most of the trees, (the cherries were the first). So much has been transformed. It is a good feeling.

Cherry blossoms and leaves

A Nest in the Peach Tree

Photo: a nest in the branches of the peach tree, surrounded by leaves mottled with kaolin clay

Life is getting exciting in the orchard. The other day, a friend noticed an empty nest in the branches of the peach tree. It must have just appeared that day–the Summer Solstice–because I had been spraying the tree a couple days before with an herbal foliar spray and would have noticed it. But it seemed like it might be abandoned, and I wondered if perhaps its creators had noticed the toy snake I had hung from the tree the day before to warn off squirrels.

Today, I began to wrap and tie little woven net bags around the peaches–another strategy to keep them protected from burrowing bugs and poking birds and of course, squirrels. This year, I am trying all the things!

Photo: Peach tree, somewhat whitened by kaolin clay, with net bags around some peaches.

While I was slowly adding a few more bags, this little sparrow was chirping in the next tree over, as if she were trying to get my attention. (Later, I did some research, and she seems to be a native chipping sparrow.)

Photo: chipping sparrow behind leaves

Curious, I carefully put my finger into the nest (which had been empty the day before) and ever so gently touched the smooth shell of an egg. Holding my camera above the nest, I confirmed it.

Photo: one light blue egg with spots inside a nest

Of course, this left me with a dilemma. Do I pay attention to protecting the peaches? Or do I take care not to disturb the chipping sparrow and its nest? Hoping to do a bit of both, I kept putting more net bags around the peaches, but only on the side of the tree away from the nest.

With the bags around the peaches, I won’t need to spray the tree again with kaolin clay, and that seems like a good idea as far as the nest is concerned. These net bags require quite a labor intensive process though. The design of the bags could have been better. I decided to make a small cut in the top of each bag, on the opposite side of where the drawstring tie comes out, so I can pull the tie string out from two sides. That way I can secure it across the branch closest to the peach. (Otherwise, if I just tied it around the stem, I am afraid it would pull the delicate peach right off the branch.) So bit by bit I added perhaps 15 to 20 bags on peaches. I have many more to go.

And then I saw that the sparrow had returned to her nest. Maybe to lay more eggs? Maybe to keep one or more eggs nice and warm until they hatch. I read that it takes two weeks for the eggs to hatch, then 9-12 days for the young to fledge. I think we’ve reached a truce. I hope so.

Photo: head of sparrow is just visible over nest, behind bright green leaves

Cats and Joy

Billie sunbathing

Billie sunbathing in the window, looking out at the orchard.

Cats can teach us so much about living in the present moment, about feeling the joy of life! The other day I opened the window, to let the fresh breeze come in through the screen.  Billie stretched out in the space between and luxuriated in the sun, watched the life going on in the orchard.

Meanwhile, I have to work hard to shift from a “to-do-list” mentality–we humans with our necessary projects, our ambitions, our responsibilities, our anxieties. Even the abundance of the garden can become demanding–raspberries and zucchinis each day are waiting for me to pick them, the herbs are growing crazily, weeds want my attention.

But can I take a lesson from my cat, can I enter into joy at the warmth of the sun, the refreshment of rain, the beauty of the orchard? I tell myself: “Step into that window now.” May you find such moments today.

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!

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.