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.

Hugelkultur 4–Moments

I haven’t forgotten about the hugelkultur bed we are creating (mostly me at this stage, since Margy’s back won’t let her dig or carry.) At times I wonder if it will ever be ready for planting, but then my spirit reminds me to stay in the process, enjoy the moments, rather than being attached to outcomes.  So the other day, I came out and dug some shovels full of sod and wet soil from the center of the future pond, put them in a wheelbarrow, then brought it over to a chair in our fire circle. There I sat and I painstakingly pulled out all the tiny bittersweet starts. It helps that they are like hard little red sticks with orange roots, and very easy to differentiate from the soft moss and grass and other growth. I couldn’t get very much “accomplished,” but I loved sitting in the sun with my hands in the soil. What could be better than that?

Today I couldn’t continue doing that process because the future pond was actually full of water from the big rain.  I don’t know if we will ever finish the pond, but days like this remind us what it might be like. I saw a bird drinking from it later.

future pond with rain

Instead, I shifted to opening up one of our compost bins that has been sitting for a year, and adding more compost to the mound.  I also had a little bit of sod from another spot that I turned inside out and added to crevices on the side.  When the compost was piled high, I layered seaweed over the top–which also helped to stabilize it.

Here are the stages. First with compost.

hugelkultur compost

Then, seaweed, which we had gathered from Winslow Park.

hugelkultur seaweed

If it seems hard to see the difference from earlier photos, that is because it expands only by millimeters. But it is so beautiful out here today–in the 50s, sunny, birds singing, and one can feel the surging of green life that is almost ready to burst forth. I have observed that there is one week in spring when everything wakes up–maybe we are about to enter that week. I walked along the strip near our street that I had planted in perennials two years ago, and look!–the lupine planted from seed last year is already poking through the dead leaves. This year we will get flowers. I am trying to remember–notice the beauty, be present to the moment, be filled with gratitude for this very day.

lupine coming up

 

Hugelkultur, part 3

Continuing to build a hugelkultur garden bed, yesterday, we added some brush to the top and sides of the mound, over the cut grass layer. Margy pounded some branches into the ground on the side as stakes for further stabilization.

hugelkultur Margy stakes

Next, today, I covered it all with dried leaves, one full wheelbarrow plus a big garbage bag full, saved from last fall.

hugelkultur leaves added

Finally, I added about 3 wheelbarrow loads of yard waste compost, and watered all of it. But this stage of adding compost is going to need many more loads before it is finished.  I should be adding several more inches of compost.  The mound is about 15 feet long, and will be 4 1/2 feet wide when complete. I had one of those moments when I thought, “Why did I make it so big?” I think this stage is going to take a while.

hugelkulture Tuesday

Meanwhile, I was pondering the fact that I often feel anxious when I am trying new things in the garden. I was realizing that my parents and grandparents were urban or suburban people. My dad wanted to get back to the land, and was a cowboy for a while, but mostly he worked as a draftsman for the auto industry. His parents tried to homestead in Wyoming, but that fell through and they came back to Detroit. My mom’s parents came from Linz, Austria and Quebec near Ottawa, Ontario, and lived most of their lives in Detroit.  She had flower gardens while I was growing up. So I didn’t learn how to grow food from my family. It has only been as an adult that I’ve tried to learn about food gardens, off and on as circumstances allowed it.

The more I learn, the more aware I am of how much I don’t know. Each plant is like a stranger to me, then perhaps an acquaintance, and I hope in a while it might be a friend. It is hard to believe that we could be relatives to each other.  (Well, except for kale–kale already feels like a relative, since I have grown it for a long time.)  But I try to remember to embrace this beginner’s mind, to be present and attuned to the process. It is good to be outside, to feel the spring, to forget for a while the grief and fear that this pandemic is unleashing.

Hugelkultur

Today we started the process of building a hugelkultur garden bed.  Here is the “before” picture, though I had already created a path, next to the asparagus bed at the side of our garage. I lined the path with logs from the land, leveled it, and covered it with wood chips. Ever since I created the asparagus bed, that slope has been a bit of a mess, from all the dirt that I moved around to do asparagus plantings.

Before hugelkultur

Hugelkultur means hill culture, or hill garden, and is one of the tools in a permaculture tool kit that we had never used before. It is a kind of raised garden bed, with rotting logs at the base, brush, leaves, and other organic materials over that, and soil over the whole mound. The logs hold moisture, so that eventually you don’t need to water your plants as often, and they contain nutrients that are gradually released to the soil. They also extend your growing season because their slow decomposition warms the bed. It also serves as a use for old rotting wood and brush that otherwise might go to the dump, and it sequesters carbon in the soil. Some folks make them 6 feet high, but ours will be smaller than that.

With everything happening because of the COVID 19 pandemic, we felt it would be a good time to increase our capacity to grow more food. So far in our garden, we’ve focused on cultivating fruit trees and bushes, and herbs and other perennials. The only annuals I have grown are snap peas and kale, in amongst the trees. So this bed will be for annual vegetables, like carrots, lettuce, and zucchini.

The first stage was to go around with a wheelbarrow and collect old logs that have accumulated on the edges of our land. Most of them were there when we arrived four years ago. I think this will be the hardest part. These logs were heavy! Margy and I both had to rest in between loads. But it has been a beautiful sunny day, so what could be better than to sit in our yard in the sun.Logs for hugelkultur

The next step is to arranged the logs every which way in the area that will be the bed. Some people might be more orderly than this, but it doesn’t really matter. It does matter what kinds of wood you use. Hardwoods are preferred, but not cedar, which doesn’t rot, or black walnut, black cherry, or black locust because of how they protect themselves in the soil. Pines have tannins, and might make the soil more acidic, plus they don’t last as long. We were also careful not to use any bittersweet cuttings, and to make sure no bittersweet roots had colonized the rotten logs. Margy spends half her time going around cutting back all of that.Logs layer hugelkultur

After the big logs were laid out, we filled in with smaller logs and long branches. And that was as far as we got today. I came in to have a cup of tea, and to write all about it. Tomorrow’s weather is supposed to stay nice so we’ll do the next steps then, and I’ll do an update.hugelkultur branches

Oh, I should also mention that Wednesday Margy and I had a big outing–since we’ve been staying home for three weeks now.  We went out to Winslow Park beach, and gathered seaweed, and got to see the beautiful ocean. All that seaweed will go into the hugelkultur too. One of my favorite things about permaculture is that nothing is wasted–what we might think of as waste is passed along as food for another part of the cycle of life. So rotten logs, brush, dead seaweed, fallen leaves, cut grass, vegetable scraps–all of it goes back to help create fertile soil. That is something beautiful to perceive.

Gathering seaweed

Rituals of Spring

Cardinal on car – 2020The earth is waking up in our neighborhood, and all her creatures. I love the cacophony of bird song that I hear when I walk in the morning. The other day I saw this little red fellow pecking at the side mirror of an automobile parked in a driveway next to a long hedgerow of bushes. It is a common cardinal thing. When he sees his reflection in the glass, he thinks it is a competitor, and tries to defend his territory. If you look closely, you can see his reflection in the glass too, though most of the time, I see him pecking the side mirror, not the car window.

But what is so funny about this to me is that it has been the same cardinal, the same driveway, and the same car for the last three years.  Or it might be the same cardinal. They say they live about three years on average. If it is not the same cardinal, I am sure it would be the son of the previous cardinal, learning these important spring rituals from his father. I went back into my photos app to confirm my recollections and found these photos from the last two years.

Cardinal on car 2019

Cardinal on car, 2019–He had jumped from the side mirror just before I snapped the shot.

Cardinal on side mirror – 2018

Cardinal on car, 2018

As for me, I finally braved my spring ritual of pruning the cherry trees in our food forest. I am still such a novice about all things concerning fruit trees and each year I forget the whole process and have to relearn it, and then hope for the best. After reading all the entries on pruning in the Holistic Orchard book, I felt even more confused. So then I looked at several Youtube videos on pruning cherry trees. (By the way, there wasn’t one perfect one, or I would recommend it here.) Finally, I ventured out, and with a prayer to the trees themselves for help, I trimmed back wayward and unruly branches so the three-years-from-planting trees will have strong scaffolds, and lots of light. Next, I’ll have to venture to the peach tree, which has a totally different method for pruning.

I have also started a bit of terracing next to our asparagus bed near the side of the garage. There is a slope there that didn’t work to hold grass or clover, so our hope is to make a path a little lower than, and next to, the asparagus bed, with logs on either side to stabilize the soil. Then we might put in some sort of annual vegetable bed on the other side of that path. Most likely, we’ll do a small sized hugelkultur mound raised bed.  But more on that later. If we do it, I’ll write another blog post about it.

I hope you are finding time to get outside and observe your own spring rituals.

Planting and grafting and rain

Winterberry bushNewly planted baby bushes are not as photogenic as old trees, but this week I’ve been excited to be planting bushes that have been waiting for two weeks for the ground to thaw. We’ve had so much rain, that on the few non-rain days this last week, Margy and I would be outside for as long as our energy would allow.  So far I’ve planted four witch hazel bushes and two winterberries (that is one in the photo, with a mulch from its shredded paper packing material) and three of the spice bushes.  Two more of those to go.  Margy has been planting clover in the front yard where she did a major crab-grass clearing last summer and fall.

I also took down the winter protection circular “cages” for the orchard trees, and did their first seasonal nutritional spray–a concoction I had learned about from the Holistic Orchard book. (It includes Neem Oil, Karanja Oil, a bit of dish soap, molasses, Fish Hydrolysate, Liquid Kelp, EM-1 microbes, and water, and helps to strengthen the trees own disease prevention and growth.)  The orchard trees have their green tips poking out! I am also seeing new shoots of asparagus, sea kale, licorice, rhubarb, elderberry, and lots of chives.

I haven’t had a chance to mention the apple tree grafting workshop I attended at the Resilience Hub on April 7th.  I won a ticket to the workshop in a raffle the day before at another event, along with a grafting knife.  So, do you remember learning the story of Johnny Appleseed, when you were young?  He went across the land, supposedly, planting apple trees in every town and countryside?  It was news to me to learn that the apples we eat don’t come from trees that grow from seeds.  Rather, they are created from branches-“scions”-of particular varieties grafted onto various root stock.

I did feel pretty clear on the concept of apple tree grafting before I actually went to the workshop–mostly from ordering our apple tree last year from Fedco.  But it was harder than it seemed it would be–the actual cutting of scions and root stock, I mean.  The basic idea was to form a diagonal cut on the root stock, and a matching cut on the scion of the variety we wanted, and then to form a smaller v-shape cut on each of those bare wood parts to help wed them together.  We practiced on spare wood for at least 30 minutes before we started on the root stock and scions.  When the cuts matched (the green edges of the bark needed to meet each other), we’d put them together, tape them with grafting tape, and then cut the scion wood to leave just two buds to grow.  I am summarizing a bit here.

In the end, I brought home four apple trees that I had grafted, albeit poorly. My chosen root stock was M-111, a semi-dwarf variety, and my scions were Black Oxford and Blue Pearmain. I also learned that they could be grown in a kind of nursery bed, and transplanted to a permanent location next year.  So this week, I dug them into our newly designated nursery bed, the one unused circular bed in the orchard, in which I am also growing peas, kale and lettuce (in the photo, the bamboo and string framework are there on the left to support snap peas, and the four apple trees will go in the area to the right.) Now we wait and see if any of them grow!  And just for fun, I brought home some more scion wood, to try and graft it onto our ornamental crab apple trees–sometimes that works, and you can get edible fruit from the new branches. Now if it would just stop raining every day.Pea supports