I walk through the orchard and marvel at the beauty of violets which have naturalized all over the ground. Dandelions offer a scatter of yellow along with a few daffodils, and clover has spread over the beds and paths in a swath of green. Chives and oregano and thyme are coming up in their clumps. I can’t capture it in a photo, but perhaps the one above hints at how lovely it has grown, mostly all on its own.
The cherry trees actually now have a few blossoms–maybe a dozen new buds have opened after initially all of the buds were empty. Not enough really for a fruit crop, but I wanted to note it. However, our Honeycrisp apple tree is covered with buds, for the first time. Maybe this will be the year of our first apple harvest?
I haven’t tried to do any veggie planting yet. Mostly I just walk around enjoying how the wild flowers shine in the sun. Yesterday I lay in the hammock reading for a while, and we had a lovely visit with a friend by the pond. We haven’t seen any tree frog eggs there, despite the repeated singing in the night. It is all a process of discovery–will they choose our pond or not? Meanwhile, the marsh marigolds have bloomed! My favorite flower colors are yellow, blue, and violet, so right now I am in paradise!
Four years ago I attended an apple grafting workshop, and created four grafted plants to bring home. I planted them in a “nursery” bed in the orchard, a Black Oxford variety in the center to remain there, and the others to later transplant. The root stock was called M111, a semi-dwarf variety. But I wasn’t sure where to put them, so it has taken until now before I transplanted any. Two didn’t survive, but today I move this Blue Pearmain variety about 12 feet over to a new bed.
Both of these are heirloom varieties for New England. According to Fedco, Blue Pearmain is a fall/winter apple, “our favorite for baked apples—it was made to be stuffed. Moderately juicy flesh, firm, dense and slightly crisp, sweet with a bit of a tart background flavor. Incredibly beautiful medium to very large fruit is streaked and splashed with purplish red, mottled with russet and covered with a distinct dusty blue bloom. In a pie, it has just enough firmness and a good balance of sweet and tart with hints of pear. Tart coarse yellow sauce cooks up in a couple minutes. Tasty eaten out of hand. One of New England’s most famous varieties. Mentioned by Henry David Thoreau as a favorite in his wonderful essay “Wild Apples.” Grown throughout much of Maine for well over 200 years. Massive trees still found here and there. Keeps in the root cellar until midwinter. Blooms midseason.”
Black Oxford was created from Hunt Russet x Blue Pearmain, in Paris, Oxford County, Maine, about 1790. A winter apple, “this outstanding apple, a favorite long ago around much of Maine, has made a huge comeback. Medium-sized round fruit, deep purple with a blackish bloom. From a distance you might think you’d discovered a huge plum tree. Excellent pies, superb late cider. Leave the skins on for a delightful pink sauce. Best eating late December to March, but we’ve eaten them in July and they were still quite firm and tasty. They get sweeter and sweeter as the months go by. Good cooking until early summer. Some insect and disease resistance. Unusual light pink blooms early to midseason.”
According to the Holistic Orchard, Black Oxford is “A rare treat reminiscent of an exotic tropical fruit; exceptional sauce apple, stunning drying apple.” It is slow to come into bearing, but resistant to insect problems. It can tend toward biennial bearing. Ripens in late October into November.
Even though they are four years old from grafting, they still seem like baby trees to me. I still need to do some pruning to help them find good shapes. But I am excited that I was able to get the Blue Pearmain to a spot it can remain. This past winter, one of our old ornamental crabapples fell in a storm. The one that is left leans heavily toward the road, and we’re imagining that it might not survive for long either. So this Blue Pearmain is positioned about half way between the Black Oxford and the crabapple. As it gets larger, eventually the crabapple might not be there. But in the meantime, it won’t cast any shade and they should both do fine. I still need to do some weeding and probably use cardboard to keep unwanted plants from growing too close to the tree. It had been on the edge of our friend’s herb bed that she is not using so much anymore.
It feels so good to be outside, to be tending to plants, to be celebrating the spring!
Yesterday I finally got outside and pruned one of the cherry trees in our little orchard. Pruning has always baffled me. My trees never look like the trees in the pruning guides, and though they are dwarf trees, they grow quickly long and gangly. I wish I didn’t have to prune, but experts say it is part of the work of caring for fruit trees. There are differences of opinion about the best time to prune, but for me it was partly based on actually being able to get close to the tree–the snow cover has kept me away before now.
But this post is not a how-to guide, nor meant to offer any wisdom about pruning. It is about risk and relationship. Sometimes we have to risk doing it all wrong, to do anything at all. Yesterday I took that risk, and in doing so, I realized that pruning is also about relationship. I had to get up close to the tree, stand on a ladder and notice all of its branches, all of its patterns, all of the pre-buds starting to form. I talked to the tree while I worked, asking for advice or forgiveness or something like that. I had to acknowledge that I am not the wisest or best caregiver for the tree, but here I am–I am your person and you are my tree. We are here on this land together. In the task of pruning, I become closer to the tree.
Pruning is odd to me, yet it is a welcome phenomenon for many plants. They thrive with cutting back, they are energized by it, it sets their hormones racing and can spark new growth. There are many principles which vary between species, and which are hard for me to translate into action for particular trees. But I think the only way I can really learn is by doing it, taking the risk with these trees, and doing the best I can. Letting the tree be imperfect, and letting myself be imperfect in my relationship to the tree.
I guess my winter project has been a sort of pruning too, going through old papers and recycling a bunch of them, organizing the rest. I had to get close to those papers too, sifting through each document in each file folder. I had hoped to be further along with it all, as we’ve turned the corner on Spring, and the sun and warmth begin to call me outside. I am mostly all done with papers from before I moved to Maine in 2005. But I am just beginning to sort through my work in ministry at the Allen Avenue Unitarian Universalist Church and in Portland. More of these “papers” are actually documents on my laptop, rather than in boxes in the basement. (I guess I could sit outside with my laptop for that kind of pruning!) I wonder. By pruning away these “branches” from the past, might I find more energy for living in these days and moments of the present? Do I need the pruning as much as the trees do?
The last few weeks have been full of ordinary tasks around the house and yard. Sometimes we forget to be grateful for these very ordinary things. I think about people whose lives have been disrupted by war, by floods, by fire, by despots. Margy and I are able to do our ordinary tasks and ordinary meals and ordinary rest, undisrupted, and for that I am grateful.
A couple weeks ago, I painted the trunks of the orchard trees, to protect against winter sunburn and insects. This time I used a half and half mix of white milk paint and “Surround”–both powders that are mixed in water. I don’t know if it is really necessary–certainly I see fruit trees around the neighborhood without anything on them. But one morning, I had the energy and decided to try out the mixture. Surround is a kind of porcelain clay organic product that can disrupt certain insects. Last summer, I sprayed the fruit trees with it, and they remained light colored all winter. This summer I didn’t do any sprays like that, but why not try it as a winter paint? So that was one little project.
I’ve been using the skimmer to clear leaves off the pond, and then I also have been cutting off the dead stalks of pond plants. I got into the pond one day, placing my feet very carefully down to the second step in, and lifted the pond lily pot, then dropped it down to the deepest part of the pond. The deepest part is 2 1/2 feet, so I am hoping that the hardy lily might survive the winter this way. And maybe in the spring it will need to be lifted back out, or maybe it will just reach its leaves up to the surface from there. I asked Margy to watch with me, just in case I slipped. But I didn’t! A few frogs are still hanging out, since the weather has been unseasonably warm still.
Since we had an extra weekend of warm weather, I finally painted the upper beam of the roof on our deck. Some of the wood had been left bare when a friend put in the roof, a few years ago, so protecting it has been on the long-term to-do list. Happily, there was some primer in our basement that I could use, leftover from the prior owners. It took three days, and each day after working on it for only a couple hours I was dead exhausted. But it is done today!
Meanwhile, we’ve been filling in our absentee ballots, and researching the details of 13 referenda questions for our city of Portland, as well as the candidates running for office. I am grateful for democracy, as flawed as it might be practiced, and pray that we’ll still be able to have a democracy going forward. Rising fascism in our country has been alarming and discouraging, as well as the attack on the bodily autonomy of women, and the threats to such importance common goods as Social Security and Medicare. So much of my life’s work has been about expanding the benefits of democracy to those who have been excluded, fighting for equality and justice and liberation for myself as well as others. My work has included criticism of the way that our democracy has been incomplete, flawed, and unjust. But I think of voting as harm reduction–I may criticize candidates and policies, but I will vote for those who will do the least damage. Right now, with the Republican party being taken over by fascists, that means voting for Democrats across the board. So I am extra appreciative these days of the ordinary benefits we can take for granted, and pray that many many people will be moved to vote to keep those benefits.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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!