Pond Flowers and more

The cardinal flower is starting to bloom, bright red against the dark of the water.

Two of the pond plants are starting to flower: the cardinal flower, and the arrowhead plant. The cardinal flower is supposed to be a favorite for hummingbirds. I hope they find it. The frogs continue to bring delight by their patient sitting poses, or quick jumping into the depths when startled. One day I counted a total of 13 frogs–usually I can find 3 big ones, and from 5 to 10 small ones, depending on the day and time of day. My little Zoom camera stopped working, so I am using the iPhone camera, which doesn’t work well for close-ups. But check out the flowers on the arrowhead plant. And, can you find the hidden frog in this photo?

Arrowhead plant with tiny white and yellow flowers.

If you are still looking for the frog, here is a clue: her eyes and head are hidden by green plant leaves, and only her legs and body are barely visible against the stones. At first I thought her legs were dead plant leaves. With all of the pain and sorrow in the world, these simple beauties bring nurture to my spirit.

Margy and I were delighted to be part of the Resilience Hub‘s Permaculture Open House last Saturday, and welcomed about a dozen people to our yard to share the highs and lows of permaculture gardening. Including, of course, sitting by the pond and talking about pond building. Everyone was careful about our COVID protocols, and we met some really great people.

Since then we have harvested our elderberries–Margy cut the berry clusters one evening, and then the next morning I read online that they should be processed or frozen within twelve hours. So my morning was spent gently separating the berries from of their clusters, rinsing them in a big pot, and then freezing them until I had time to make elderberry syrup. This was our first harvest from the bush, which grew huge this season.

Elderberry clusters in a brown bag
Separating the berries from the cluster branches.

My other big harvesting job this week has been processing more kale. Because of the netting I put over the raised bed, I am cutting the lower leaves of all the plants at once, rather than bit by bit as I have done in prior years. I put them into this blue plastic bushel basket. Then, one by one, I cut them up, rinse a batch in a salad spinner, and then sautĂ© them batch by batch before freezing in quart freezer bags. I’ve only finished about half this bunch–and there will of course be more to harvest later.

A huge plastic bushel basket filled with kale, on the floor next to the stove.

Finally, I will say that our zucchini harvests have been just the right amount so far for us to be eating as we go, but our cucumbers are going wild! We don’t pickle them, but just eat them raw–if you live nearby, please come and get some from us! They are really delicious, but we’ll never keep up. The photo below is only some of them!

Cucumbers and zucchini in a wooden bowl.

Still, Abundance

Zucchini plants tied to stakes and pruned

After grieving for the lost peaches, I wanted to remember that many other harvests are doing abundantly well. I am trying a new method with my zucchini plants: tie the stems to stakes, and prune the leaves below the active flowers and fruits. So yesterday, I pruned out many lower leaves, and finally tried the staking idea–the zucchinis seem to grow with a mind of their own, rather than with anything like straight stems, but I was able to do a bit of it. The method is supposed to reduce powdery mildew and maybe other issues. As I write, I am trying out a recipe for zucchini/cheddar/chive bread. Our zucchinis have been abundant.

Raised bed with kale and carrots, under a staked and supported netting.

After putting a netting over the raised bed when the ground hog came by, we haven’t seen her again. The kale is doing fine–since it takes a bit of work to undo the netting, I have only harvested in big batches. I’ve sauteed some batches to freeze. There is more in the fridge waiting for me to do another batch.

Cucumber plant on the hugelkultur mound, with wood chip paths on every side.

We’ve already harvested several cucumbers from this lovely set of vines growing on the south end of the hugelkultur mound. We have just been eating them raw–so much sweeter than the ones we can buy at the store. And a few weeks ago, I put down cardboard and old grocery bags to lay out paths all around the mound, and from the garage door to the patio and the paths, then covered them with a thick layer of wood chips. These wood chips were from the invasive Norway maples we took down earlier.

The raspberries are finished bearing fruit. Finally, I just want to mention the chives, parsley, thyme and oregano, which continue to yield throughout the summer. I truly am grateful for these gifts from the plant world, that bring us such tasty and healthy food.

Can I Forgive the Squirrels?

Squirrel relaxed and resting on the railing of our deck

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.

Green peach with a bite missing, dropped to the bottom of a mesh bag, with another nearby.

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.

Frogs and More Frogs!

Today I saw four frogs in the pond! When I went outside before breakfast, there was plenty of weeding to do in the orchard, but I was drawn instead to bring my camera and just sit by the pond. When I first walk back to the pond, the frogs often jump from where they’ve been sitting, and swim down into the deeper water. Two of them went under with a little squeak. But there were three plops both yesterday and today, so I knew there were at least three frogs.

Tiny frog #1 floating under reflected ferns yesterday
Tiny frog #1 sitting on a stone at the edge of the pond yesterday.

If I sit quietly next to the pond, eventually they come back to a sitting spot. So I wait. Today I was able to take pictures of three of them while I sat. But I find myself favoring the tiny little frog that was the first to come to the pond. Soon I imagine we will give them names, but for now, I am identifying them by number. This one is so very tiny. At most an inch and a half head to backside, and skinny. Also very friendly. She often perches near where I sit.

Tiny frog #1 swimming closer to where I sit today. You can see her feet clearly against the white of the rocks below.
Tiny frog #1 looks like she is watching me over the edge today.

Yesterday, I was also able to take photos of frog #2, who was a little bigger than frog #1. But today, I saw both #2 and #3 after they re-emerged, and came to sit/float near each other by the little beach. #3 looked so much fatter/bigger than the other two, but then I realized depending on the angle, frog #2 could also be somewhat fat. I think they were about 2 1/2 inches long.

Frogs #2 and #3 on the rocks near the beach.
Close up of Frog #2 from yesterday
Close up from behind of Frog #2 yesterday

So Frog #3 is the largest, and seemingly the shyest. Quickest to jump back into the water, so far. But I got several shots of #3 today. And then, just as I was about to leave, I saw another tiny little frog floating nearby, between me and the beach. So Frog #4. More like #1 in size.

Frog #4 floating near the pickerel weed.

It is just so amazing to watch the wildlife in the pond. I can sit and sit. I also saw dragonfly nymphs again. But eventually I got hungry so I came inside for breakfast. I feel so grateful.

Pond Frog Sitting

Photo: Tiny frog sitting on a large stone at the edge of the pond

Today the frog in the pond let me take its picture! I came outside this morning and just sat for a while at the edge of the pond, writing in my journal and being quiet under a cloudy sky. It felt a little bit peculiar to be done with the work of building the pond. To let go of the strange obsession for finding stones that has filled the last several weeks. I have been working on the pond since April! I didn’t see the frog at first. I was glancing around at the yard, and all the ways that Margy and I get overwhelmed trying to care for the land. We are old, we are disabled, we are ignorant of the many needs of plants, just beginners. It is hard to be good stewards of the land. There is always more to do than we can do. So I make a decision to let go: let go of the burden of it, let go of the overwhelm, let go of trying to do more than we can. Here I am, it’s a new day: be amazed at life!

At some point, I decided to walk around the edge of the pond to look at how the plants are doing. And then I suddenly saw the frog, sitting quietly. No plops into the water, no jumping away. Just sitting quietly, paying no mind to me while I was also sitting quietly, and now walking quietly. (Perhaps it has figured out that we people who come to this pond are no threat–we can share the pond?) It was on a big stone at the bottom of the beach, with its eyes out of the water and its very tiny body in the water. Its head maybe a half inch long, its body another inch, long folded legs. It let me take its picture many times. When I walked back to my chair, this is how it looked from over there, almost invisible, but now visible to me:

Photo: Can you see the tiny frog on the mottled stone near the deeper water, five stones to the right of the red stone?

When I came back inside, I did more research, and this frog seems to be of the species called the green frog–the most common frog in our region-it can be green, olive, brown. (One site joked–close your eyes and think of a frog–that is the green frog.) It is likely a female, because the tympanum–the round “ear” circles behind its eyes–are the same size as its eyes. In males, they are larger.

UPDATE: I’VE GONE ROUND AND ROUND ON THE IDENTIFICATION OF THIS FROG. I WONDERED IF IT COULD BE A FEMALE BULLFROG, BECAUSE THE DORSAL-LATERAL RIDGES GO BEHIND THE EARS, RATHER THAN DOWN THE BACK. BUT THEN I REALIZED IT WAS MUCH TOO SMALL FOR A BULLFROG. I AM BACK TO THINKING IT IS A GREEN FROG. SEE THIS CAN YOU ID THE FROG SITE.

I sat with the frog for quite a bit longer, until some raindrops started falling on the water, on me, on the frog. I stood and looked away for a moment, and when I looked back she was gone without a sound. What a lovely teacher she was for the practice of sitting quietly, for letting go, and being amazed by life.

Pond: a little frog

Photo: The pond sides are now covered with stones.

This morning, when I approached the pond, I heard a distinctive plop! And later, approaching again, I saw a tiny frog leap quickly from the beach rocks into the water. Another plop! It is our first frog. (Or maybe it is a toad–still not sure). No chance to catch it in a photo. But I am sure it was the best sound all day! And in more good news, most other pond projects are now complete.

The other day I used up the rest of the half-yard of stones I had gotten delivered early in the process–I added more to the planting ledge so that the plants were better anchored, and then I planned to use the rest of the stones in an upgraded overflow channel spill hole.

We had two inches of rain from tropical storm Elsa, and I was out there in my raincoat in the rain with a shovel, digging the spill hole bigger so muddy water wouldn’t flow back into the pond. Yesterday, I took a leaky five gallon bucket and drilled lots of holes all over it, so water would flow through it easily, but it could hold stones. Then I dug the spill hole deep enough to put the bucket down below the level of the spillway. I filled the bucket with small stones, and also put stones underneath and around the outside of it, finishing up with it today. Another rain is coming tomorrow so I will see if it works.

Photo: white plastic bucket, after drilling holes in the sides and bottom
It is hard to show the slope, which goes down from the spillway on the right gently down to the hole on the left. The bucket is completely buried with more stones on top. I also repurposed some painted shells that had been made for me by the kids in my old church when I retired.

I have gone on many adventures looking for stones on the side of country roads, but I finally succumbed to the temptation to buy a few more bags of stones at the big box store. (I had tried that once before but the quality was terrible.) I needed more small stones to fill up the spill hole, and I needed larger ones for one small section of pond siding under the little deck. The small ones enabled me to complete the spill hole. The larger ones were a weird cream color, that left a creamy residue when washed. I don’t know what they do to them. But I put them in place, along with a few bricks, under the little deck, and now it is complete.

Since my last posting, I was also delighted to receive some blue flag iris from our friend Lisa Fernandes, who gleaned it from her pond. They are already growing new shoots! You can see them in the upper photo, the largest plants on the other side of the pond. I also transplanted my little pond lily tubers into a larger basket filled with stones, and placed them on the lower shelf.

It is so lovely to sit by the side of the pond and watch the reflections on the water… may you have such loveliness in your life.

Munimqehs! Groundhog!

Margy and I were chatting in the coolness of our kitchen, when suddenly I thought I saw a squirrel on our back deck, running right under the plastic “owl” that I had bought, supposedly to scare squirrels away from the orchard. That’s what caught my attention. But looking closer, we realized it wasn’t a squirrel, it was a groundhog! I ran outside onto the deck, and it ran too, but I managed to catch this slightly blurry picture to confirm our suspicions. It ran across the patio, through the back yard and over to the trees on the edge.

Photo: Groundhog running across the patio, in the shadow of the bird bath, near a chair.

Margy and I are often torn between totally loving the critters that come into the yard, but also wanting to eat the food we are growing. Munimqehs is the Passamaquoddy word for groundhog, which I learned in the fall of 2018. In Wabanaki stories, Munimqehs is the wise grandmother who has many lessons to teach us about how to be good human beings. How desolate we would be without our animal neighbors!

We haven’t had any groundhogs in the yard for the last few summers. The last one disappeared, we believe due to the intervention of a neighbor. With a groundhog in the yard, however, it is a whole new ballgame for gardening. I immediately went out in the heat, and put together a netting contraption to try to protect our bed of kale, from which I had harvested the first leaves earlier this morning. I happened to have these metal arches and nylon netting, and fastened the netting to the ground with metal stakes. There is already a wire mesh under the raised bed, so no animals should be able to dig up from underneath. We’ll see if this deters our little friend. I might have to also go back to the pee protection scheme that I used to partial success a few years ago.

Raised bed with kale, covered by metal arches and nylon netting

Meanwhile, today I am grateful for the excitement of a critter on the deck, a young one it seems. Let’s see what lessons she/he will have to teach us. We have lots of clover that we’re happy to put on her table. Let’s see if we can be good neighbors.

Pond: Little Deck

Photo: Pond with deck

Yesterday, I installed a little deck on the edge of the pond! This idea was an evolving process–at first I was going to put a large slate stone at the spot on the surface that leads into the steps inside the pond. But working on the pond during the last several weeks, I discovered that slate gets really, really hot in the sun. So then I was trying to come up with something that could serve as a top step that wouldn’t get hot.

Happily, I found an upcycling solution! In our garage, there were six wooden decking boards from the previous owners that were stored on rafters above the cars. They were very heavy, about six feet long, and some of them were attached to each other, but I was able to get two of them down. The boards were painted brown, and they too got very hot in the sun. But then I found some older paint cans in the basement. I did a prime coat of white on one day, and then a coat of light gray concrete paint, which has some waterproof qualities, two days later. Yesterday, I drilled holes and screwed them together with small boards I had also painted.

Everything was a bit off level–the boards, the ground–so I installed them using small stones underneath to stabilize things. Voila! We now have a top step, which is also a little deck where we can sit on the very edge of the pond, with our feet in the water. And after positioning a few more stones, and slate rocks, I can now say that the surface level of the pond is virtually complete. I still need to find some more five inch stones to line the rest of the vertical sides under that area, but if you look at it from this side, you can’t see any liner showing.

The tiny plants are starting to grow a bit, the pond lily rhizome that I positioned on a lower level sent up a tiny leaf all the way to the surface. I’ve topped up the water level with water from the rain barrel once. I plan to add more small stones to the planting ledge to give plants more to hang onto. This morning it looked like someone had messed around with the pickerel rush plants. I still have to finish the overflow channel. It will all continue to grow and develop as the summer goes on… hopefully the plants will start to take over half the surface of the water. But what a happy moment today!

Photo: Pond lily leaf, about one inch in diameter

Pond Progress

Photo: The pond on June 11

I am slowly adding stones and plants and developing the top edge of the pond, to cover up all the liner. I did a minor adjustment to the overflow channel to lower the water level by about an inch, and added some soil (underneath the liner and layers) to an edge that was a little bit lower than other parts. I’ve been using my pile of small stones for the edges, but stabilizing them behind larger stones. I decided to use the larger stones to also cover the vertical slope between the planting ledge and the top. This was in the original plan, but I didn’t think I would have enough stones to do it. And I don’t. The other day, Margy and I went to another rural road and brought home another batch of larger stones from the side of the road. But it doesn’t take long to use them up.

By the way, in the background, from left to right, you can see a ninebark shrub in bloom, a summer sweet shrub, and a little elderberry that’s barely visible. I am trying to start some hazelnut bushes from off shoots of our big ones. Also, there is a lot of goldenrod that will flower later in the season, and on the far right back, our mulberry tree–which after a couple rough starts is finally doing better this year.

Back to the stones for the pond, even though I don’t have enough of the larger stones, it seemed smart to do as complete a finish as possible, section by section. Here is a close up of the most completed section, behind the cardinal flower, where I also incorporated an old piece of a branch. I am enjoying this design process.

Photo: pond detail with stones and log

I also ordered and received some more plants–this time I got some pickerel rush (or pickerel weed), Pontederia cordata. This native plant will grow 2-4 feet tall and have blue flowers. I ordered five, but received eight little root and stem starts. So then I decided to rearrange the arrowhead plants, moving them closer to the “front” from where the photo is taken, and where we’ll sit to watch the pond. I planted the pickerel rush mostly where the arrowhead had been, on the back left, and then put a couple of the smallest ones in front of that log. Here is what it looks like right now, and this is the largest one. It takes faith and imagination to see them growing and flowering in the summer and fall.

Photo: Pickerel Rush held in place in the water by stones

In other news, I have twice seen (from my window) a crow walk up to the pond and get a drink of water. Tonight I also saw a few little water bugs of some kind swimming around. Animal life is starting to arrive. The other day, when it was so hot, there was some green algae in the water, which is to be expected until the plants grow bigger–but then it disappeared again today. Time to think of another place to find some more of the larger stones. It all feels magical.

Pond Stones, Stones, Stones

Finding stones for the pond project is proving to be an adventure. It is raining here today, and was yesterday too. The days before that I was able to place all the stones I had previously gathered onto the pond planting ledge. I also bought some white stones in small bags–they were supposed to be 3 to 5 inch stones, but at least half were much smaller than that. Maybe not such a great buy. But I had enough to finish a ring around the center of the planting ledge. These stones will be large enough to stabilize smaller stones behind them. Once the pond is filled, all of them will be below the water.

Pond with stones in a ring around the ledge, plus “beach.”

I worked on the “beach,” which is an incline for critters to be able to reach the water easily. I did it early in the process because It seemed like this might be the trickiest part, and I wasn’t wrong. In the photo it is at the back, with mostly white stones. I had gently placed each stone one by one. However, I am thinking I might need to redo the upper part of it because when I imagine little critters walking on those stones, it seems like they are not stable enough–the incline being slightly too steep. But to redo it, I’ll have to move the upper stones, and go beneath the liner and the carpet, and take out a bit more soil so the slope is more gradual. When the pond is filled, the water will cover the white stones and come to the level of the row of larger stones behind them.

Close up of pond “beach”

After I finished the (imperfect) beach, I put all of my smaller stones on the ledge to the right of the beach. As you can see in the first photo, they didn’t cover very much. So I will have to buy more small stones for the planting shelves, but I am now looking at 1-2 inch round stones, not “pea stones”. I discovered that a nearby nursery has such stones available in bulk–but that means either borrowing or renting a pickup truck to be able to collect them. I can get a half-yard of them for a good price, which should do it. It is just a big project to rent a truck, get stones, unload them at my house, and return the truck. I don’t mean to complain! If anyone locally (Portland Maine) has a pickup truck (with an open bed) who is willing to loan it, can you let me know? For some reason, this part feels challenging to me.

So, in the meantime, last night I suddenly had an idea of where I could find some more bigger stones. In our old neighborhood there were rural roads with no houses nearby, and I thought I remembered seeing stones on the side of those roads. Today before the rain came, I drove over there with two intentions. Get some stones, but also, look to see if the lady slipper plants we use to find in the woods there were still blooming. And they were. And I did get some good stones by the side of the road! I have a feeling this gathering of stones will continue for some time.

Pink lady slipper