Babies in the Garden

Slightly behind a white crossbeam is a parent robin with two little babies with open beaks in a nest.
Two baby robins with open mouths waiting on parent.

I’ve waited to post about the baby robins because I didn’t want to presume anything or jinx it. But it seems after the mama robin laid three eggs in the nest on our back porch beam, we now have two babies who have feathers and are poking their heads up to be fed. They don’t make a sound, and most of the time they are hiding deep in the nest while the mom and dad go about getting food, or just sitting on top of them resting. When the parents were gone for a bit today, I snatched this “selfie” with my phone over the nest. We mostly try to leave them be and not make a lot of noise on the porch.

Two baby robins, a mass of brown and white feathers with beaks and eyes, barely distinguishable from brown nest.

While not as photogenic, I also discovered we have tiny tiny tadpoles in the pond. I was lifting some algae with my net, and uncovered a whole group of them. Here is a close-up, but just imagine them about 1/4 inch from head to tail. Apparently they eat algae, so they must be happy where they are. Hurray! I would guess they are tree frog tadpoles, since the tree frogs have been singing, but I couldn’t find any confirmation of that in online searching–we’ll have to wait until they get a bit bigger.

Tiny black tadpoles in green algae in the pond.
Tiny black tadpoles in algae in the pond.

Finally, I planted some kale and lettuce and broccoli seedlings this morning, after adding more compost to raised bed, then using chopped leaves as a mulch. I put netting over them to deter animal neighbors–it doesn’t keep away cabbage moths, but seems to work for groundhogs and squirrels and such. Plant babies finally in the ground!

Rectangle wooden raised bed with frame and black netting over it, planted with small kale and lettuce.
Advertisement

So Much Beauty

Orchard scene with tree trunks and branches painted white, surrounded by ground cover of violets, dandelions, and chives

I walk through the orchard and marvel at the beauty of violets which have naturalized all over the ground. Dandelions offer a scatter of yellow along with a few daffodils, and clover has spread over the beds and paths in a swath of green. Chives and oregano and thyme are coming up in their clumps. I can’t capture it in a photo, but perhaps the one above hints at how lovely it has grown, mostly all on its own.

The cherry trees actually now have a few blossoms–maybe a dozen new buds have opened after initially all of the buds were empty. Not enough really for a fruit crop, but I wanted to note it. However, our Honeycrisp apple tree is covered with buds, for the first time. Maybe this will be the year of our first apple harvest?

I haven’t tried to do any veggie planting yet. Mostly I just walk around enjoying how the wild flowers shine in the sun. Yesterday I lay in the hammock reading for a while, and we had a lovely visit with a friend by the pond. We haven’t seen any tree frog eggs there, despite the repeated singing in the night. It is all a process of discovery–will they choose our pond or not? Meanwhile, the marsh marigolds have bloomed! My favorite flower colors are yellow, blue, and violet, so right now I am in paradise!

Marsh marigolds have yellow buttercup style flowers on tall stems, with round green leaves. the background is pond water with out of focus reflections of trees.
Marsh marigolds in the pond.

Apple Tree Transplant

Blue Pearmain Apple small tree with wood chips on ground around it, and a garden hose lying nearby.
Blue Pearmain Apple transplanted into new spot

Four years ago I attended an apple grafting workshop, and created four grafted plants to bring home. I planted them in a “nursery” bed in the orchard, a Black Oxford variety in the center to remain there, and the others to later transplant. The root stock was called M111, a semi-dwarf variety. But I wasn’t sure where to put them, so it has taken until now before I transplanted any. Two didn’t survive, but today I move this Blue Pearmain variety about 12 feet over to a new bed.

Both of these are heirloom varieties for New England. According to Fedco, Blue Pearmain is a fall/winter apple, “our favorite for baked apples—it was made to be stuffed. Moderately juicy flesh, firm, dense and slightly crisp, sweet with a bit of a tart background flavor. Incredibly beautiful medium to very large fruit is streaked and splashed with purplish red, mottled with russet and covered with a distinct dusty blue bloom. In a pie, it has just enough firmness and a good balance of sweet and tart with hints of pear. Tart coarse yellow sauce cooks up in a couple minutes. Tasty eaten out of hand. One of New England’s most famous varieties. Mentioned by Henry David Thoreau as a favorite in his wonderful essay “Wild Apples.” Grown throughout much of Maine for well over 200 years. Massive trees still found here and there. Keeps in the root cellar until midwinter. Blooms midseason.”

Black Oxford was created from Hunt Russet x Blue Pearmain, in Paris, Oxford County, Maine, about 1790. A winter apple, “this outstanding apple, a favorite long ago around much of Maine, has made a huge comeback. Medium-sized round fruit, deep purple with a blackish bloom. From a distance you might think you’d discovered a huge plum tree. Excellent pies, superb late cider. Leave the skins on for a delightful pink sauce. Best eating late December to March, but we’ve eaten them in July and they were still quite firm and tasty. They get sweeter and sweeter as the months go by. Good cooking until early summer. Some insect and disease resistance. Unusual light pink blooms early to midseason.”

According to the Holistic Orchard, Black Oxford is “A rare treat reminiscent of an exotic tropical fruit; exceptional sauce apple, stunning drying apple.” It is slow to come into bearing, but resistant to insect problems. It can tend toward biennial bearing. Ripens in late October into November.

Even though they are four years old from grafting, they still seem like baby trees to me. I still need to do some pruning to help them find good shapes. But I am excited that I was able to get the Blue Pearmain to a spot it can remain. This past winter, one of our old ornamental crabapples fell in a storm. The one that is left leans heavily toward the road, and we’re imagining that it might not survive for long either. So this Blue Pearmain is positioned about half way between the Black Oxford and the crabapple. As it gets larger, eventually the crabapple might not be there. But in the meantime, it won’t cast any shade and they should both do fine. I still need to do some weeding and probably use cardboard to keep unwanted plants from growing too close to the tree. It had been on the edge of our friend’s herb bed that she is not using so much anymore.

It feels so good to be outside, to be tending to plants, to be celebrating the spring!

Two small apple trees growing close together with other trees in the background, and light green beginning to cover the ground.
Before: Black Oxford (left) and Blue Pearmain where they were growing close together before I transplanted the Blue Pearmain. There is a Honeycrisp tree exactly behind the Black Oxford, a little bigger.

February Sunlight

Bright sun shining on snow with small dark tree on left side, shadows marking places where tracks were made.
Bright February sun shining on bright snow.

We are halfway to Spring! So many cultures celebrate this day, or this change of season. For just a few examples: Imbolc or Brigid’s Day for Celtic people, Apuknajit (the winter spirit) for Mi’kmaq people, Candlemas in Catholic liturgy, Groundhog Day in secular America. They hearken to the coming Spring, and offer courage for getting through the rest of the winter. Here at our home in Maine, I can feel the change in the quality and angle of the sunlight. My heart is lifted by its brightness.

We’ve recently had a triple set of snowstorms, so the ground is finally covered in snow after nothing much in December. It too adds to the brightness. I love how it also reveals the creatures who live here with us. I’ve seen deer tracks going through the orchard all the way back across the frozen pond and into the hedgerow. You can see their traces in the photo above. I was also delighted to find these distinct squirrel prints after a rain on top of the snow a week ago. Like little hands.

Squirrel prints on snow, on a gray day.
Squirrel prints

I’ve been continuing my winter project of sorting, organizing and winnowing old papers in the basement. I had started with my years in Boston 1986-1999, then moved backwards in time. I am now finished with the very earliest files-hurray! So then I moved forward from 1999. I’ve begun to sort through papers from my years on Cape Cod, 1999-2005. That has meant that I’ve also started to incorporate the winnowing of digital files on my laptop for the same years. Some of it is plodding work, comparing documents to put duplicates in the trash, renaming documents so they are easier to organize, stuff like that. But some of it includes moments of sweetness, like finding a letter from a young queer person whose life was helped along by a sermon I preached called “Believing in Fairies.” [A version of which found its way into my book, Finding Our Way Home, and was excerpted in the post The Mystery Seed.]

It does my heart good to think of those seeds of blessing planted in the hearts of people I met along the way. Sometimes we hear about it afterwards, and sometimes we may never know. When the interactions were not so blessed–since I had my share of conflict and trouble along the way–it does my heart good to shred the remnants of those interactions, and let go. Lighten the load.

Imbolc is a time for setting intentions, for shaping our hopes for the future. It is kind of like looking through seed catalogues imagining what we will plant when the next season turns. I’m not ready yet for seed catalogues and intentions. But it is good to remember that the sorting and winnowing of my past life will not go on forever. I don’t know what sort of seed I want to plant for the future. That is still a mystery to me. But I am good with a mystery seed.

I saw a funny story on Facebook about a child who thought that bird seed grew birds. They showed their parents the proof–they planted a big pile of bird seed outside, and the following day, there was a whole flock of birds gathered round the spot. Maybe that is what I will plant today–filling the bird feeder with seed so that they will have nourishment for the deep freeze we are expecting in a couple days. I understand that Mi’kmaq people put out food for Apuknajit so that the winter spirit will be remembered and be kind. Maybe that is part of feeding the birds too–to remember our fellow creatures during these cold winter times, so that all of us might make it through to the spring.

Small brown bird perched on a stick on green bird feeder, with snow on top of it.
Bird on feeder today.

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.