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.
I am writing this outside on the back porch, listening to cardinal songs from the trees at the edges of our yard both right and left. It’s cooler today than yesterday, partly cloudy, but spring feels like it’s waking everything up, including me. I was delighted yesterday to look out the back windows and see a whole family of turkeys wander through the back of our yard. Seven of them! We haven’t seen any turkeys here for a few years. Wild visitors make me smile. I came outside and started tending the now thawed pond: I skimmed off leaves and trimmed off dead stems and leaves from the pond plants. The blue flag irises have new green shoots emerging, and the fern is also starting to show green shoots.
My energy was depleted after finishing only a part of the work, but then was rejuvenated by drinking licorice root tea with ice and a cut lemon at lunch. It truly is a miraculous plant for me. I didn’t drink it during the winter–maybe I should have. I have been growing a licorice plant for about five years now, so if all goes well, it should be ready soon to let me harvest some of the roots. The small bush dies back in winter, but regrows in spring, and sends out runner roots to create new plants nearby. So, rejuvenated by the licorice, I came back outside and set up our hammock (after rearranging some things in the garage so I could reach it–every project is really a few projects, it seems.)
This season, the hammock is most important to me of all the tools in the yard. I have been feeling so overwhelmed by the garden this past year–the problems were starting to outway the pleasures. I mean, the squirrels took all the green peaches, the oregano was out of control spreading all over, and the hugel mound is full of weeds and small critters, I think, and won’t really work except for zucchini and cucumbers, because the water just runs off the sides. I am tired of the feeling of working so hard to get food, and like I am fighting in a battle. I have been searching for a way to be at peace here, as we were when we started. Our hope was to find relationship with this land, and to be a healing presence for the land. To learn from the land.
So I brought myself to the hammock, to rest, to listen, to see the tree tops, and to be open. I was noticing the green moss beneath the hammock, and everwhere in the back half of our yard, and wondered, “Why does it like to grow here? Is it a good thing?” (I am always asking that when random plants pop up–because we have so many invasives like bittersweet, you never know, friend or foe? And I know so little.) I did some research on my phone. “Methods to get rid of moss in your lawn.” On the other hand: “Methods to grow a lawn made entirely of moss.” People have lots of opinions about moss. But our yard likes it. It likes to grow in compacted soil, shady, moist, it doesn’t need nutrients from the soil. It is at home in acidic places, like a pine forest. We have our lovely pine trees here, that is probably our basic ecology. It seemed to me that lying in the hammock, I was able to let go of doing, and enter into the mindset of learning from this place. It was good. Here I am humbled and grateful.
So even though it was cooler today, I found myself outside again, tending to the pond, pulling out dead tree leaves, cutting old plant leaves to make room for new. Going slow. Noticing two robins in the orchard right now. The wild pansies that were blooming in December are blooming again, and dandelion greens are showing. Chives are emerging under the fruit trees. I am trying to remember to balance the tending with the being tended.
This morning, I watched out my window as a squirrel climbed into the branches of the peach tree, going up and down several branches until she or he stopped at a bagged peach. She nibbled through the small branch it hung from, cutting the branch right off. I could see the leaves and twigs fall to the ground, even though the squirrel was hidden by other branches. Then, she took the unripe peach in her mouth–still in the bag–and carried it down and away from the orchard to some other roosting post in another tree. I didn’t yell or bang on the screen or try to stop her, as I have done on other mornings, because all the peaches have already been destroyed.
Over the last couple weeks, I had to remove over twenty of the bagged peaches after birds or squirrels left bite marks and the fruit had dropped off its stem, to the bottom of the bag. Some of the peaches had only a c-shaped mark that made me wonder about curculio. A couple seemed untouched. But I had seen the squirrels in the trees going after them. Then, a couple days ago I discovered that virtually every peach in a little protective bag had dropped to the bottom of the bag, and all of the peaches that I hadn’t bagged had disappeared completely. The peaches were all still green and hard, nowhere near ripe. I had just read about people using a spray made with peppermint oil and cinnamon sticks to deter squirrels, and was about to try it, when I discovered there were no peaches left to save.
I’ve been grieving the last few days. I put so much effort into this peach tree all through the spring and summer. Pruning it carefully. Six holistic sprays with beneficial nutrients. Three “Surround” kaolin clay sprays. Picking off leaves with peach-leaf-curl one by one. I was so hopeful when hundreds of little peach-lets started growing! I thinned the peaches so that none was too close to another. I put 80 little protective mesh bags on individual peaches. I even bought toy snakes and an owl to try to scare off the birds and squirrels. None of it stopped them. I had gotten only 3 cherries from the cherry trees, but the peaches seemed to be the saving grace for the little orchard I have been tending so carefully. Last year Margy and I had been able to eat only one ripe peach–and it tasted so good. So this year, I tried all the things to care for and protect them, imagining that taste in my mouth. And now they are gone.
I’ve also felt deeply shaken in my capacity as a permaculture gardener. Here is this little food forest with 2 cherry trees, one peach tree, and two baby apples. And no food. (Well–the raspberries did fine–but I already knew how to tend raspberries. And there were a few blueberries on our young plants. We thought we might get some hazelnuts but the squirrels also grabbed those before they were even close to ripe.) I do come away with a deep respect for organic gardeners and farmers.
But I have been harboring much anger and hate in my soul for these squirrels, and I feel very troubled about that. The original purpose of tending this land–this small place on the earth–was about finding our way home to earth community. Putting into practice the desire for healing the broken relationship between our society and the natural world. But when I try to grow food, so many critters become my enemies. Well, they probably don’t share the enmity–they probably think I run a fabulous restaurant. But meanwhile, I am watching them and hating them.
This morning, after the squirrel ran away with the bagged peach, another squirrel started playing with a stick on the path in the orchard. Literally playing–rolling over and over, turning the stick this way and that, chewing on it, then rolling over again. In a very cute way.
There is a lesson in this, I am sure. So I am trying to grieve, to let go, to open my heart. But I am still not sure I know how to forgive the squirrels. I am trying to listen to the deeper lessons.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Yesterday, I prepared a mix of kaolin clay and water, and sprayed all the branches of the peach and cherry trees in our little orchard. This is an organic solution to curculio insect pests, among some others. Now they are totally white and look like ghost trees. The leaf buds are starting to open on the cherries, and flowers will be here soon. Last year, our peach tree produced many peaches, but they were almost all destroyed by pest bugs. We got to eat two peaches. (They were delicious by the way.) We had somehow assumed that it might take at least a year for bugs to find them, but bugs are smart. So it was a useful lesson in observation. But this year, we hope to actually eat some peaches.
I have been committed to figuring out how to protect them organically. This spring I started reading once again The Holistic Orchard by Michael Phillips, which has been my guide during my fruit-tree food forest adventure. Each spring I forget what I did the prior year, having only a few trees and a few times to do any part of this project. This time reading, a few more ideas stuck further into my brain, and I found a few new ideas too. First of all, which I didn’t forget, was to try to make sure they have all the nutrients they need in the soil. Phillips had a section about how to interpret soil tests, and last fall, Margy did a soil test for the peach tree bed. Since the fall, I have added more compost, seaweed, some rock dust and green sand which are all long-term nutrient boosters. I also ordered some potassium sulfate of potash because the soil test said the soil was low in potassium, and some alfalfa meal to add some extra nitrogen which was also low. I will add those once the trees are more in flower.
In prior years, I have done the holistic sprays that Phillips recommends, and now I am trying to create my own timeline for which ones come when, so that I don’t have to figure it out each time all over again. I love this book, but it is not well organized for beginning orchardists. Vital information is scattered across various parts of its 400 pages. It is the book of someone who knows way too much about all aspects of orchards for a beginner to have much of a chance. His primary focus has been apples, and other fruits each have their own sections. Still–re-reading it each year seems a good way to go.
I do have to laugh though, because I found the key piece of information I needed for my peach and cherry trees only in a footnote–a footnote! And that footnote said: “Massively coating stone fruits [cherry and peach are stone fruits] with multiple applications of refined kaolin clay for curculio is less than ideal once fruit begins sizing in earnest. Cherries bloom before apples, and with far less leaf showing initially. Surround [brand name of kaolin clay] applied at this critical juncture on the just-about-to-pop flower buds delivers a message to this pest to move onward to other prospects. Curculio makes its way by crawling, particularly early on when temperatures tend to be cooler. The main route to developing fruit is by way of the limb highway, and thus the reason for thorough coverage on the branch structure of the tree. Two applications going into bloom will do the trick in a warm spring, with an additional application as soon as petal fall begins probably necessary in a cooler season.“
See what I mean? But yesterday, as the buds on the cherry were just starting to open, I sprayed it with kaolin clay, and then I repeated it once that had dried. Now they are white, and I hope they are protected for now.
It was lovely to be outside. In between applications I did some raking and some lying in the hammock, and eating my lunch under the patio umbrella. What a great way to celebrate Earth week.
Remember when I said I hoped we’d become those people who ask all their neighbors if they want some zucchini? It’s happening! In the last few days, I’ve picked a whole basket full of zucchini–time to start sharing. Meanwhile, today, I figured out a recipe for gluten-free zucchini bread using almond flour. I explored several recipes I found online, but none were exactly right, so I adapted to create one for my own tastes. I don’t think I’ve ever shared a recipe on this site, but this one turned out great, so here it is:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
1 1/2 cups almond flour
1/2 cup coconut flour (or you could use almond flour)
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup honey
1 teaspoon vanilla
and add 2 cups of grated zucchini (skins on)
Mix it together well into the flour mix (it will be thick) and spoon into a buttered (or oiled) bread pan. Bake for about 45 minutes. A toothpick should come out clean when you poke it. When finished, take it out of the pan and let it sit on a baking rack for another 45 minutes before slicing.
(A few recipes said to squeeze the grated zucchini in a towel to remove moisture, but I found I didn’t need to do that.)
Meanwhile, the zucchini plants themselves are getting ever bigger, as you can see in the background of the photo. They now dwarf the hugelkultur mound, which had seemed pretty big beforehand.
I guess this sort of makes up for the sad news that our little baby peaches got burrowed into by bugs–likely plum curculio and/or oriental fruit moth, according to my research. I had been hoping that the first year of fruiting the bugs might not find them, but no such luck. Those bugs are so smart! Next year I will try coating the peach tree with Surround, an organic method to deter the curculio pests. Meanwhile, no peaches for this year. However, today, we picked and ate the first and only cherry on the Lapins cherry tree. Since I wasn’t expecting to find any, this one was a nice surprise.
If you live nearby, let us know if you want any zucchinis!
Wow, it has been a month since Hugelkultur 4 when I last devoted a post to progress on our hugelkultur garden bed. I am happy to say that yesterday I planted the first seeds! It has been a slow process of adding more soil and compost, a little bit each day, plus another layer of seaweed to help keep some of it in place. I also added soil and compost to the area between the mound and the logs marking the path, so there is a lower level on that side as well as a higher level. That in turn provided support for something like a slope of soil on that side. We planted lettuce and broccoli and spinach in that lower area, which will get a little more shade than other parts of the mound. It is a bit late in the season for all of those, so we’ll have to see how they do.
I finally decided that it wasn’t really possible to get enough soil to stick to the other side to use that as a planting surface, at least for this year. I’m calling it done for now! But as the mound ages and settles year to year, I think it will continue to evolve and we can keep shaping it and adding to it. For now, I intend to plant zucchini and bush beans and maybe some cucumber and kale on the top of the mound, and the zucchini and cukes can cascade down the sides. Our last average frost date in Portland is May 24, so those will get planted soon.
Meanwhile, speaking of frost, we had three freeze-warning nights this past week, and we covered our blooming peach tree with a tarp each night. But yesterday, I witnessed the best thing ever. I was sitting in my chair and saw a flash of something out the window, so I looked up. There was a tiny hummingbird, the first of the season, visiting each of the peach blossoms looking for nectar. I can’t explain why it moved me so. All of the care given to the tree, all of the natural beauty of the tiny hummer. No way to capture it in a photo, but here is the peach tree in bloom.
I mentioned in an earlier post that an annual activity in the spring is pruning the cherry and peach trees–each year relearning it all over again and steeling myself to the task which seems so harsh. The peach had produced an abundance of branches, but I took out all of the ones growing toward the center, and those that were smaller than pencil size, in order to preserve a vase shape and to build a strong scaffold for future years. I was happy that I was able to leave some branches that were budding, and if all goes well we might get our first peaches this year.
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
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 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!