Tiny Magical Moments

Dandelions with puffy seed heads, after the birds were gone

Sometimes the best pictures are only in the mind, never caught on a camera. I was sitting with Billie in my blue easy chair in the bedroom, and something caught my eye outside the window. It was a goldfinch couple, perching in the peach tree, and then hopping down to the plants beneath. The bright yellow male landed on a dandelion stem–it was a long stem with the flower already gone to seed in a fluffy sphere. The olive green female was perched nearby on another long stem, with a closed flower head above her.

The male carefully made his way up the stem, even as it was bending down under his weight. He made a few tries on different stems. Finally, he succeeded in reaching the fluffy sphere and began pecking at the seeds. I never knew that dandelion seeds were a source of food for goldfinches. I’m glad that I didn’t cut them down! A short while later, they had gone, but I took this photo of the place where they had been. Even though you can’t see them there, in my mind, I can’t forget his purposeful climb along the stem.

Later, I went to sit by the pond, and noticed something tiny and new and green. Several of the perennial pond plants that I planted last year haven’t come back at all. Cardinal flower, blue-eyed grass, arrowhead, and pickerel rush. They were supposed to survive Maine winters so it was a great disappointment, but I kept waiting and watching, since this is the first spring for the pond. Well, today, I found three new tiny stems with distinctive leaves. There are three new arrowhead plants coming up. They are near where the previous plants were, but don’t seem to be emerging from the roots. Maybe they are sprouting from seeds that fell into the water last fall?

You never know when something new might emerge from the hard work that you did before.

New arrowhead shoot with one leaf, enlarged photo

Pond Tending

Marsh Marigolds and Blue Flag Irises in the pond, with pad for tending on the side

After several chilly windy days, we finally had a sunny warmer day today, and I worked on tending the pond. I rinsed off the soil from the two potted Marsh Marigolds I purchased last weekend, and “planted” them in the stones of the plant shelf in the pond. The blue flag irises nearby are shooting up their spikes with great vigor, and they have multiplied. The ferns on the other side have new shoots, as well as the sweet flag. But several of my other plants aren’t doing anything yet–we’ll see. If they can’t survive Maine winters, I’ll abandon those species and use other plants. But this is our first spring, so I don’t know their patterns yet.

Also arriving yesterday, a pond lily plant! After last year’s attempt to grow one in pebbles didn’t work, I tried another option this year. I put it in a pot with clayish soil, per the directions, with a layer of pebbles on top of the soil. I looked all over to find a native water lily, but didn’t have much success with that. I finally ordered one on Amazon of all places. It is from Chalily.com and is the variety Virginalis, which is a hardy variety with prolific white flowers, they say, and good for small to medium size ponds. It arrived as a tuber with several leaves already growing on it. I have high hopes that it will flourish.

Water lily underwater.

After taking care of these three plants, I positioned myself lying flat on the ground, with a little pad over the stones near the pond, and I went around the pond reaching in to fish out dead leaves. I also reassembled any areas where stones had become dislodged over the winter-thankfully not too many of those, though I did notice that several of the white stones I bought from a big box store have cracked apart. I wonder if they were stones at all? And one extra promising note–when I was using the skimmer to see if I could take out some deeper leaves, I saw the movement of some small critter swimming quickly away–I think there might be a frog under there already. I also saw several dragonfly nymphs. I am so happy that now the pond is ready for the season!

I also feel really thankful that I had the energy to do all these tasks. I even transplanted some violets out from the asparagus bed, over to the area around the pond. It is always a mystery, what my energy will be with chronic illness. It is touch and go, and then, when I run out of energy, I can’t do another thing. My mind goes on with what it wants to do next, but my body demands rest. I seem to do worse on colder days and better on warmer ones.

Despite the chilly days we’ve been having, the yard has been waking up nonetheless. The cherry and peach trees have buds almost ready to open. I’ve harvested my first asparagus. The chives are exuberant. And there are pansies all over the paths in the orchard. So cheerful. I decided to keep them all as a ground cover. I was feeling discouraged about the thuggishness of the oregano growing under the trees, but now I’ve decided that oregano can be a ground cover too. If you can’t beat it, welcome it? Doing a bit of research, I discovered that some people even plant oregano to be a ground cover. So if it really wants to spread, that is what it will be. Finally today, when I ran out of energy, I laid in the hammock and just listened to the cardinal singing. It has been a glorious day.

One of the many patches of pansies in the orchard.

Robin Building a Nest

Photo: Robin with moss in beak, sitting on beam under our deck roof.

A robin is building a nest in the beam under our deck roof. I thought she would stop yesterday, after I went out and in a few times–it is our entryway. But she is back today. It seems to be a great place for a nest. The way the beams are fastened, the center board creates a lowered groove between two higher boards, so a nest could rest in that groove and be quite secure. It is protected from rain. She can enter and exit from either side of the beam. I do wonder how warm it might get under the clear plastic roofing, nice for now, but later it could get hot.

One weird thing is that she seems to be working on more than one nest, bringing dried grass and moss to three different sections along the beam. She started in the segment on the left, and this morning I’ve seen her in three different sections adding dried material. Still, her focus is on the section on the left.

Larger view, robin adding nest materials in different sections.

I feel so grateful for the animal neighbors. I love to watch the robin fly back and forth, carrying so much material in her beak. I hope we can be neighbors during the time she raises a little brood. But however it turns out, it is a delight today.

Spring Beauty

Photo: Cardinal seen from our yard this morning

I have started to take short walks in the neighborhood–just 10-15 minutes each morning. It feels good to be moving again and hopefully building my strength. I especially get energy from the birds singing so exuberantly. There are cardinals all over the neighborhood.

This morning, from our backyard I saw several cardinals chasing each other through some tangled branches. They especially like the plot of undeveloped land next to the back of our yard, that we call the “fairy field.” Sadly, it is filled with invasive bittersweet and multi-flora rose that Margy is trying to curb, but it does make for lots of brush up to higher branches, and the cardinals seem happy there. Perhaps they are young males trying to establish their own territory.

Or perhaps they, too, are merely feeling the exuberance of warmer air and brighter days, and can’t keep from singing.

More beauty: some of the pond plants are starting to green up. Especially the blue flag iris. No frogs yet, but I go back and check each day just to see when they might arrive. Only a few of the stones were dislodged during the ice of winter. When it rained the last couple days, there was flooding all along the back yard area beyond the pond, and an overflowing “drain.” But it didn’t seem to be a problem. I hope all of the plants from last year will come back. I am also hoping to add some Marsh Marigold when it comes in to our local nursery. This will be our first spring with the pond, and so it is all an adventure, a slow, curious, waiting kind of adventure.

Blue flag iris beginning to grow at the edge of the pond.

Hammock Teachings

Two turkeys walking through our back yard.

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.

Hammock under the pitch pine tree, moss on the ground.

Pond Dig, part three

I had a helper yesterday for digging the pond. My friend Sylvia came by in the afternoon and the very first thing we did was drag the pond-liner in its box from near the house to back closer to the pond. (You can see it in the picture, behind the wheelbarrow.) That would have been enough help all by itself–so heavy! But then we took turns digging, hauling, and resting nearby. We got a lot done, and also enjoyed a rare COVID-time visit, walking around the yard and in the woods, looking at birds and plants.

Sylvia standing on the planting shelf, while digging in the pond!

So here is what the pond looks like now, in layers. The first layer down, about 8-10 inches, is for the planting layer. The next layer down, maybe 18 inches, is for a step layer–part of that I might take away as we go along, but some will remain to be a step into the pond going forward. In the middle, we dug to about 2 feet down, as measured with this string set-up I created. My aim is to go three feet down in the middle.

Pond layers dug out.

But then we came upon a problem that wasn’t mentioned in the Building Natural Ponds book by Robert Pavlis. Water started to seep up from the sandy soil. We are actually at the time of year when vernal pools abound here in Maine. We have a ditch way back behind the edge of our property and the properties next door that fills during spring rains. And we had an inch of rain last week, though generally it has been a dry winter. Does this mean we can’t go any deeper for a lined pond? Or do we need to wait until it is a bit dryer as the days go by? Will it mess up the pond to have water under the liner at the bottom? Or does it not matter at all? I am going to ask my questions in the Facebook group Building Natural Ponds, and see whether I might find some answers.

Water seeping from the soil in the bottom of the pond.

Maybe the pond just wants to be a pond so badly, that it doesn’t want to wait, lol. Meanwhile, I am going to rest today from digging, and more rain is coming tomorrow. So we will see. If you have any wisdom about this, I’d love to hear from you.

“Ghost” Trees

Peach (in front) and cherry trees treated with Kaolin clay.

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.

Spring Energy

The first dandelion of the season! We love dandelions and so do the bees.

Wow! It feels like spring is finally here. Last week was a flurry of activity in our yard, and I had the energy to do it! And it was warm and sunny! We had a timeline. On Tuesday, all day I was sifting the remains of the old compost pile, and putting it everywhere–in the new raised bed, on the hugelkultur mound, the asparagus beds, under many of the fruit trees, the old potato patch, and an area near the baby apple trees in which I hope to plant zucchini this year. We have had to sift the compost because roots had worked their way into the pile from the edges, including invasive bittersweet which we do not want to spread around the garden.

The goal was to completely empty the pile, because on Wednesday we were getting a new four cubic yards of composted manure from Wilshore farm. So I finished up Wednesday morning, and Wednesday afternoon we got our delivery. Then Margy and I were using shovels and rakes the rest of the day to slightly move that pile so it was all situated on top of old carpet, with at least a foot of clearance around the edges–so no more roots.

Composted manure on old carpet.

On Thursday morning, I finished up with what was on the edges, and spread the remains over the nearby grassy areas. On Thursday afternoon, Dan from Blue Ox Tree Service was coming to cut down three Norway maples along the fence between us and our neighbors. While we hate to cut down trees, we also have been trying to remove invasive plants, and Norway maples are invasive here. They grow like crazy and spread their seeds everywhere. Both Margy and I each had a moment with those trees earlier, to apologize for needing to cut them down, and thanking them for the shade they had given, and say goodbye. We let them know that their wood would stay in our yard to benefit the other trees in the garden.

Dan up in the Norway Maple

It was amazing to watch Dan climb the trees and with a system of ropes and pulleys balance himself on the tree, and cut it from within. We really like Dan, who has delivered free wood chips to our yard many times in past years. He is very tuned into permaculture, and told us he has an arrangement to deliver wood chips to Cultivating Community gardens this summer. In fact, our whole intense timeline of last week was based on the fact that he was going to leave us a pile of wood chips from the trees, and once that pile was there, a truck couldn’t get through to deliver compost where we needed it to be.

Wood chip pile on the left, compost pile on the right covered with blue tarp.

So here are our wood chip and compost piles, all set up for soil enhancement and mulching for the season. The area along the fence has opened up to offer more morning sun to the orchard–you can see four somewhat scraggy spruce trees remaining, plus a skinny red maple and oak near the right which will have more room to grow.

Now, the growing season is fully begun. I was amazed that I was able to put in so many hours of outside work each of those days–I am thinking it has something to do with the surging energy of the earth in spring, the warmth of the sun, and also with drinking iced licorice tea while I was working–a great herbal energy booster. I am remembering how exhausted I felt last fall, how much work the garden was during the long summer, and yet, spring brings new excitement and new energy, even to me with my chronic illnesses that can get in the way. May it be that way for you too!

Lessons from Other Beings

I feel a deep calling to learn from the other beings who share this earth with us. I was reminded of this calling by a new book I just started reading, Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals, by Alexis Pauline Gumbs. She is observing dolphins, whales, and other mammals who live in the sea, and learning the wisdom they might have for human beings–especially for black women, but also for all of us. “They are queer, fierce, protective of each other, complex, shaped by conflict, and struggling to survive the extractive and militarized conditions humans impose on the ocean.” It is a beautiful and meditative book and I am so grateful. Reading a chapter each night has fed my soul, as well as helped me remember how key it has been in my own path to listen for the wisdom of other creatures–though the ones I learn from are usually closer to home than the sea.

Yesterday morning, inspired, I began to read again my own book, Finding Our Way Home: A Spiritual Journey into Earth Community, remembering. I was remembering the many quiet moments I spent in my former back yard, listening to cardinals, watching slugs crawl through the grass, paying attention to trees, to stars, to the red light of dawn. It was a yard with many mature trees, a long row of huge lilac bushes, incredible privacy, and many critters who were our neighbors–turkeys, deer, birds, squirrels, chipmunks, and occasionally skunks. I was remembering how much those creatures taught me, when I was quiet enough to listen to them.

In our current back yard–we’ve lived here five years now–we can get caught up with work: pruning, planting, soil improvement, garden permaculture projects. It is land more in need of attention from us, ragged, more depleted, invasive vines and bushes clamoring around the edges and in the soil, imbedded in city life, though still surprisingly private once the trees on the edges leaf out. There is more room for gardening–the old place was too shaded by all those mature trees. So we have planted a little food forest, herbs and perennial vegetables, made room for hugelkultur and raised beds and even shared with our friends room to grow herbs and veggies.

But it is easy to get caught up in the work of it–a lot of work. It is easy to forget that other part–the listening to the land itself and the other creatures here, the plants and animals. I remember when we first found this place, feeling from it an unmistakable message: that through making relationship with this small piece of earth, I might learn more about what it means to be in relationship to earth and all her creatures. It was time to think small–right here I could find home, I could find earth community. The work is part of it–we are here to learn to be beneficial members of this tiny ecosystem. It has weathered much neglect and abuse from human beings in its history. But the work is not the only part of it–the listening is the most important part. Sitting quietly, watching, waiting. As spring makes it easier to be outside again, I am ready. I am ready to take my lead from what the land asks, what the land teaches.

View of the back yard through hazelnut bushes with catkins.

Duck, Duck, Goose!

We had a spring teaser day today, with temps in the upper 50s so Margy and I went to Kettle Cove to take in the sun, the breeze, and the sea. We got a special treat when we saw these lovely birds in the water and on the shore. At first I thought they were ducks, because they were that size, but they were also somehow similar to Canada Geese but not quite. When I got home I searched the internet until I found them. They are Brant Geese. The Maine coast is part of their migration route. Here are some of the ones we saw. Margy Dowzer and I shared the camera, so I am not positive which photos are hers and which are mine.

Brant goose swimming in the low tide shallows.
Seven brant geese at Kettle Cove
If you look closely here, the goose in the foreground has plastic netting on its lifted foot–it was limping and we wondered why so we moved closer to see what it was. It was using its beak to try to get the netting off. We had no way to help it, and then they all flew off. So sad. I hope it was able to get free.
Sunshine sparkles on the water as the goose swims calmly.