Friday, June 27, 2014

School Is Out

We found this land when I still had seven more years of teaching school ahead of me.  A quick trip home from work was followed by throwing wheelbarrows and tools in the bed of the pickup truck. The drive to our rural retreat brought me here with several hours of daylight left.  No road existed to the meadow that was to become our home site but the spot where tools were unloaded was surrounded by milkweed.  The scent of these flowers is unusual but incredibly sweet.  That smell came to signal to me that summer vacation was underway.

I am not alone in being drawn in by this sweet smell.  Soon every bee in the area will spend days working these flowers.  One year past, I started squash seeds early.  Squash plants came into bloom at the same time as the milkweed.  Dreams of early squash vanished when they received no pollinators.  It was not until the milkweed flowers were past that we saw young squash begin to grow.

Located in a north south river valley, we are on the migration route.  In years past Monarch butterflies stopped here in great numbers.  Last year they were few in number in our fields.  We have been watching for a glimpse of fluttering orange and black wings.  Two orange butterflies zipped past me today and I wished that a Monarch was here.  Today's butterflies flew fast with frequent sharp changes of direction.  They were also smaller than a Monarch.  Likely, they were Checkers.

Our fields are home to many milkweed plants.  Some have dark colored flowers while others are light pink.  We have no plausible explanation for the difference in color.

Elderberry is common here but the native deer usually eat enough of the bush to limit flowering.  This plant is growing near to the pond where the deer drink.  Somehow it escaped pruning this winter and is now covered with blossoms.  The structure of the flowers is unusual but after my recent confusion about male and female flower parts this picture will have to speak for itself.

As a child growing up in the 1950's, I have a memory centered around elderberries.  Most of the mothers of my classmates were stay at home moms.  Many were farm wives.  My mother had a job in the city.  How she took care of her three sons and her husband while working five days a week  escapes me.  On one corner of our land, two small streams came together.  Between the two streams elderberries grew in abundance.  I would fill a paper grocery bag with clusters bearing ripe elderberries and proudly present this bounty to my mother.  Her time was already overbooked but she did what had to be done to transform my berries into a pie.  I do not remember the pie as being particularly tasty but I do remember my feeling like I had provided food for the family.  Health issues have removed pie from our table now so these berries will be left for the critters.   The flowers did however provide a connection for me with a pleasant childhood memory.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Arbutus Seed Naturally

When I drove to our distant meadow this morning, my intention was to take new growth from the recently transplanted arbutus and give rooting cuttings another go.  Total shock and surprise hit me when this newly opened seed pod came into view.  Hope of getting this picture this year had been almost totally abandoned.  Taking this picture has been a personal goal for at least two years.  I still cannot believe my good fortune of finding myself in exactly the right place at exactly the right time.

These four seed pods have been open a bit longer that the first one shown.  Ants seek out the white sticky but tasty pulp.  Bite sized chunks of it are transported away.  Seeds are randomly and inadvertently planted as they fall away from the pulp that is carried back to the nest.  Left to run this natural course, we could find new arbutus plants scattered along the ant's pathway.  It has long been my goal to have arbutus plants appear here in numbers to even the score in light of my meddling.  That outcome now looks like it is within reach.

This seed pod is headed to a favorable spot under an old white pine.  That particular tree is backed by an old stone wall that was built at field's edge a very long time ago.  Our selected planting spot is located on the side of the wall that was not cultivated field.  We want these seeds to fall into deep natural soil.  Old poor but pure forest floor soil favors the growth of this native wildflower.

The four cuttings in the green pots are from plants that produced pollen this year.  Two black colored pots hold cuttings from the female plants that produced seed clusters.  If these cuttings root, and that is a very large if, we will plant two different locations with both genders of plant so that a natural increase in their numbers is possible.  If our previous inability to get arbutus cuttings to root repeats itself here, we will not try this ever again.  In that event, any increase in the number of plants growing here will have to come from seed.

An additional example of the way my good fortune is ruling this day was provided by a large garter snake.  I saw it slither into my shed via the open door.  Knowing its approximate location enabled me to move some stuff to expose the snake.  Persuading it to turn toward the still open door was easily accomplished.  It is outside where it belongs and I will not have the experience of happening on a trapped and angry snake inside of my shed with no warning to me.  Without question, luck was with me today.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Arbutus Seed To Soil

Eight days ago several arbutus seed clusters were nipped off the plants and placed in a tray near a basement window.  Today I could wait no longer.  These seed structures are almost as large as a pencil eraser.  Opening them while preserving their form was beyond my skill level.  Tiny seeds did fall on the paper towel as I tore the clusters apart.  These seeds are so small that I needed the photo to confirm their presence.

Ripe or not, the seeds were scattered on the surface of the previously prepared soil.  A handful of rotting pine needles was rubbed between my palms creating a fine natural thin covering for the seeds.  Now we wait.  When I checked back this evening, red ants were busily working the area.  Columns of these ants have been moving up and down the white pine tree trunk adjacent to the arbutus planting for days.  The purpose of this activity escapes me.  Hope that they are not interested in fresh arbutus seed although they were moving away some of the pieces of pine needles.

Eight days ago I also placed two broken arbutus stems in rooting soil.  One of these stems had been accidentally broken off several days prior to my rescue attempt.  That may be the dead one.  The second cutting looks good.  Its tiny hairy new shoot is encouraging.  These two plants were moved outside and removed from the plastic bottle covers just briefly for the photo.  Both have been returned to indirect light near a basement window.  Now we wait.

This picture shows the general condition of the arbutus plants today.  One unopened seed cluster remains attached to the plant.  It is hidden away under a flush of new growth.  A brown spot has just appeared on the surface of the cluster.  Perhaps we will be lucky enough to capture a photo of this seed structure when it opens naturally.  Now we wait.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Strawberry Season

There is nothing better than the taste of a freshly picked ripe strawberry.  These berries were taken from the field only two hours ago but they have continued to ripen since picked and will soon be past.  Fruit grown for commercial distribution has been bred to produce a harder more stable berry.  Those have also lost much of their flavor.  The named variety of these berries is a trade secret.  Their shelf life is measured in minutes but their flavor exceeds any attempt to describe it.

A little commercial never hurts.  Heller's were selling strawberries in this area when I first met Becky fifty plus years ago.  In that time they have mastered the art of growing this berry.  Their fields are clean and well tended.  Only nine dollars were necessary to make this basket of fruit mine.  I did have to pick them myself.

Age has mandated adjustments to how the berries are picked.  Daily medicine has made it impossible for me to do anything while standing with head down near my knees.  If I tried to do that, face down on the ground would be the result when I straightened up so I work while kneeling.  Becky can no longer kneel so she works bent over from a standing position.  Every time that I looked up today she was upright, arching her back to the rear.  I never expected that with all of those breaks her basket would fill faster than mine but it did.

No cook freezer jam preserves the incredible fresh taste of strawberries.  We now have 26 containers filled with this treat.  My day always begins with home grown herbal tea and toasted cracked wheat bread from a local bakery.  When the jam on the toast is from our freezer the day is off to a great start.

We do have two dozen of our own plants.  That number of plants supplies enough fruit for breakfast or a special dessert.  Strawberry season here lasts for only two weeks.  We treasure these days and look forward to berries or jam fresh from the freezer.  Freshly frozen berries are almost as tasty as those straight from the garden.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

A Change In Plans

A common end to a day in the garden here, is a walk around looking things over.  Sometimes a plan for the next day's activity unfolds.  We are so far behind that our plans resembles ER triage. Yesterday such a plan defined itself.  This morning our walk around revealed a crisis that put planned activities on hold.  The giant lily stem biting rodent had paid us a nighttime visit.  Moving potted lilies from their winter quarters to locations in the gardens became job 1 for today.

We were lucky in that the destroyed lily is a variety that we have in abundance.  London Lily is a hardy variety that multiplies here.  Its clear bright yellow flowers bring the summer garden to life.  I would prefer that it have a fragrance so a faint scent is sometimes detected.  Likely what I smell is in reality a wish but I can never decide for sure.

Three gallon pots provide generous winter quarters for our potted lilies.  We had considered leaving some in their pots as we are way behind in caring for this year's garden.  Pandora is the varietal name of this single survivor.  Two others succumbed to a previous rodent attack so saving this beauty was our first job.

A three gallon pot may provide generous growing space for the lily bulb but handling this package is quite a task.  Inverting the pot with hands placed to support the falling dirt ball is step one.  The move to up side down must be carefully done so that the flower buds do not contact anything.  Next, Becky lifts off the pot.  If care at fall planting resulted in a firm soil ball, the entire mass is righted intact. The move from standing to kneeling next to the hole while supporting three gallons of soil and a sizable plant is a serious challenge. We no longer know for sure that our old joints and muscles are going to be equal to the task.


Carefully tamped soil is pushed into the cavity between the potted mass and the edge of the hole.  A generous dose of water helps to settle the soil around the transplant.  Mulch and a stone bearing the varietal name of the plant finish the task.  The size of the soil ball guarantees that this plant will show no transplant shock tomorrow.

Ten pots of lilies were moved into the gardens today.  Three trios and a single are now in place.  We hope to be able to provide frost protection to these plants where they now are planted next spring. Enormous plastic garbage cans have been purchased for this task.  The lilies themselves can foil our plans.  We have learned from experience that there is no direct relationship between the location of the stems this year and where they decide to emerge next year.  With luck all three will be within the diameter of the covering can.  For now, all is almost ready for the flower display that will soon follow.  Several more pots of lilies are still waiting for their move into the garden.

Friday, June 20, 2014

My Garden Delights

Wednesday in the garden was sunny and hot. We have been having lots rain so the sunshine was welcome.  But when the thermometer heads above 80, I head for a place to work in the shade.  I weeded everything I could reach around the edge of the shade garden.  When I came around to the Partridge berry, I noticed its tiny twin flowers.  I nearly missed seeing them this year.

Most of the flowers were past.  This pair of flowers have dropped off .  The green base of the flowers you see here will result in one red berry with two "belly buttons".  That berry has always fascinated me.  The berries are edible but rather bland.  I usually leave them for the critters.

Today is sunny, but much cooler.  I headed out and decided to weed the onions.  Sometimes I really love to weed where I can just pull everything except the intended crop. It means I have to pull catnip, pink poppies Johnny Jump Ups, dill, fennel  ..., but I also pull grass, purslane, mustard, nightshade , bindweed...  I can only reach just so far along the edge of the bed.

It's a great feeling to finish weeding this long bed of onions.  For me the job is done.  It will be up to Ed with his longer reach to finish.  If he doesn't get to it, I guess we will find out if onions grow better with or without weeds!

I have to say it was a pleasure to be in the garden today.  The air is filled with the fragrance of pink dianthus.  Its spicy aroma is delightful.  I watched  a blue jay sit for a moment on a fence post near where I was working.  In a flash the tree sparrows who have a nest box nearby were on the attack.  Blue jays are beautiful blue birds, but they are raucous and kind of pushy.  It was fun to watch the smaller birds swoop at him and chase him from the garden before he could even squawk.  I'm glad they don't feel that way about me.

I picked some arugula to make my favorite arugula and nectarine salad for dinner and came inside for lunch.  It really is a lovely day!  I think I'll go back out later and deadhead the Robin's plantain.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Deadly Beauty

Common foxglove, Digitalis purpurea, is presently one of our garden stars.  Abundant pink flowers hanging from tall spikes catch and hold the eye.  This biennial has been with us so long that we cannot remember with certainty its original source.  We garden in the middle of old pasture land so shade here is only a dream.  Foxglove planted at the base of field stone walls finds daily periods of shade near the ground and ample moisture from nightly condensation on the walls. Sited favorably, it increases its presence here approaching weed status.

Our nightly walk about identified an area that needs weeding.  Plant identifier Becky pointed out young basal rosettes of foxglove that need to be moved next to the base of the stone wall rather than added to the compost bucket.  At their present size, they will transplant with ease and guarantee the continued presence of this attractive flower in our garden.  

Another advantage of placing these plants at the base of the stone wall is that foreground plants will hide the coming empty space when the spent flower spikes are pruned off.  The contrast between their present visual statement and the coming unsightly collection of tan seed pods and spent blossoms is stark.

Both the seeds and leaves of this plant contain a compound that affects the rate of heart beat.  Herbalists generally no longer use this plant medicinally since the dosage is hard to determine.  When our children were young we would not allow this plant in our gardens because of its poisoning potential.  Now my day always starts with tea made from garden grown leaves.  Mints are the most common ingredient but other plants are frequently added to the brew.  Many a mystery novelist uses this plant to off their victim.  Plants like this one are best kept separate from the tea herbs.  Mistakes can be made and it's best for everyone to remember that!

Monday, June 16, 2014

Disappearing Seed Clusters

We have been watching these arbutus seed clusters for more than one month.  William Cullina warned that once the seed clusters matured and began to open, rodents would quickly eat the seeds.  Our plan was to follow his directions and harvest an entire clump when the first pod opened.  Our resident chipmunks have not read the article.  When I returned today intent on taking this swollen cluster, I found it already gone.  Chipmunks are great hiders of food when it is plentiful.  This nipped cluster is possibly buried nearby.  Now we get to watch for the appearance of new arbutus from seed plants if the chipmunks fail to find and consume all of the seed.

This plant has appeared in previous posts.  It sported several seed clusters and they were reddish colored.  Our other plants show white or green seed pods and there has been no change in color as the clusters mature.  The red color may be from this plants previous exposure to full sunlight all day.  All but one of this plants several seed clusters suffered early harvest from wild life.  I took the last remaining cluster today.

Two seed clusters and one broken stem complete today's harvest.  The seed clusters are on a window sill in the basement and we hope that they will continue to develop and reach full maturity.  I want a controlled  planting of some seed.  I also want a picture of an open seed pod.  Several clusters were left on other plants but I expect that the chipmunks will have at them.  My interference is certainly not nature's way but to compensate for my meddling I want to plant out several from seed daughter plants in various favorable wild locations.  If the chipmunks will help with that, then my goal of increasing the number of wild arbutus stands can still be realized.

Two stems of new growth have been accidentally broken off as I poked around trying to keep tabs on developing seed.  Both broken stems have been given an opportunity to claim continued life.  With no trimming, the fresh breaks were dusted with rooting hormone, placed in sandy woods soil and covered with a clear plastic bottomless juice bottle.  They will be watched to see if they develop a crown and roots.  My previous attempts to make new plants from cuttings were dismal failures.  Perhaps a natural break in the new stem will send out roots.

In spite of the setback with the seed clusters, we are extremely pleased with the progress of our first transplants.  Our four original plants and the one from seed daughter plant have formed an impressive clump.  Bright green new growth is everywhere.  The bare soil in the lower right corner of the picture has been prepared to receive seeds.  Part of a plastic nursery tray has been placed in a depression in the soil.  Screened soil taken from the base of our ancient white pine was used to fill the tray.  We usually try to plant wild flowers in raw wild soil but here we needed fine soil to allow for movement without root damage of young plants.  Now all we need is some mature seed.

Beautiful Monday Morning, Photos By Amy

We needed our rubber garden shoes to walk in the garden this morning. We had no overnight rain but the dew was heavy.  How lovely this native wild blue flag is in the morning light with all the water droplets for decoration!

Little water droplets allow us to see the spider webs that have been spun overnight.  Once dry they will escape our notice even if they are still there.  I don't see the spider anywhere.  She must be off resting after working the night shift!


For a plant that will grow just about anywhere blue flag has fascinating flowers.

This Campanula portenschlagiana, Serbian bell flower magically appeared growing from Ed's stone wall.  We planted others in the wall, but on the opposite side of the garden from this one.  I'll take all the happy surprises I can get and this one looks great!

The texture of the Black locust trunk makes a wonderful background for this wild columbine.   There are a few red flowers left, but many more green seed pods are seen here.  This plant has settled in the shade garden and plans to stay and multiply.  We need to cut them back or they will become invasive in numbers.  Seed pods placed at the base of the wall will allow this native to grow in its preferred location in the company of stone outcrops.

This I. Ensata, Lavender Bounty is outstanding this year.  The total number of flowers has been impressive. Individually they are elegantly marked.  Notice how the strong morning sunlight washes the color right out of this flower.

Here's a second look.  There are several tiny black bugs here, but the larger one in the lower left is an interesting one.

Last but not least the happy faces of Johnny Jump Ups.  They are here to stay as well, coming up all over the garden.  The flowers deserve a smile even on Monday morning.  I can't think of a better way to begin a successful day!

Friday, June 13, 2014

A Surprising Garden Encounter

Rain has been the order of the day today.  Last night we probably got almost 2 inches of rain.  This morning when it finally stopped Ed and I both headed outside to try to get something done outdoors. Just before lunch time, heavy rain forced us back inside.  After lunch the sun came out and we went back out and  were standing in the stone square discussing the possible identity of a small plant. For some reason I no longer remember I walked toward the corner where the foxglove and sweet cicely are planted.  In a flash something that I thought was huge exploded out of the foxglove and streaked along the wall.

It went out the opening in the wall, ran into a cage, bounced off and ran for the woods.  It was not until it reached the bed outside the square that I realized what had made my heart skip a beat.  A small fawn had been hiding in the bed the entire time we had been talking there.  I can only imagine how scared and shaken he must have been.  He stayed still and quiet like his mother had taught him until his terror became too strong and he bolted.

Later after he was gone I went back to see where he had been hiding.  Except for some small flattened plants and a broken piece of lady's mantle I would never have known he had been there.

In the bed outside of the wall, marks in the mud show where he lost his balance with one very deep footprint.  Consider how small that purslane plant in the upper right of the picture is.  It is ludicrous that I thought he was so big when he startled me.  I hope our encounter left the fawn unhurt.  We have coyotes in the neighborhood and I don't like the idea that I scared the pretty little thing to death!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Tomatoes Planted Out

 Our first extended period of days without rain has ended.  Today gives every appearance of being an all day rain event.  Gathering together notes and photos of tomato planting seems like a good use of this wet day.  Organizing our experience of this year may help us to know what to do and when to do it next year.

We planted tomato seeds on April 1st, eight weeks prior to the frost free date here.  Each 3.5 inch square pot was filled with our mix of compost, surface soil from the hardwoods floor, sand and peat moss.  Four seeds were placed in each pot.  The tray of pots was placed on an electric heating pad under fluorescent lights.  Sixteen hours of artificial light and 80 degree bottom heat quickly drew the seeds to life.

Four weeks later on May 1st, the seedlings were transplanted with one plant in each pot.  Once the seeds had sprouted, the heating pad was removed.  The tender plants were gradually exposed to sunlight and light breezes.  The containing tray was partially filled with water occasionally so that the leaves remained dry.

Just over three weeks after first transplanting, the plants were moved into one gallon pots.  Straw mulch was immediately applied to prevent soil from splashing up on the leaves.  We used the pour spout on the watering can to direct water to the base of the plant but the plants were allowed to experience rainfall.

It might seem unnecessary to move the plants into large pots since the frost free date was fast approaching.  This is a very busy time in the garden and some extra days in the large pots did not hurt the tomatoes at all.  A hail storm occurred after the safe planting date but we knew it was coming and moved our potted plants back into the safety of the basement.  The large pots allowed the plants to continue to grow at a good pace while taking some of the "Plant it now pressure!" off me.

Well into June, this tomato plant finally found its place in the garden.  Its suckers have been pinched off and the first blossom is open.  Soon the first cloth strip will secure the stem to the stake.  Carefully dried grass mulch was placed as soon as the plants were planted.  We strongly believe that soil cannot be allowed to come into contact with tomato leaves.

Wire fence will keep the deer out and the mulch will control the weeds.  We will try to keep up with sucker removal, watering from the base of the plants and tying stems to the stakes.  If luck follows our efforts, fresh tomatoes will soon be a dinner staple here.

Somehow I feel the need to have spare plants.  A possible empty space in my ordered regularly planted bed is unacceptable.  These spares never moved past the small square pots.  Their pathetic appearance illustrates the benefits of time in the one gallon pots.  The only difference between these sad plants and the ones in the garden is the time in the large pot.  A final move to the compost pile is the next step for these plants.

It might appear that we expend a great deal of effort growing a few tomatoes.  Obviously we do but there is much more involved in the activity than just some fresh sun ripened tomatoes.  The miracle that is a seed is apparent to us every time a seed is placed in the soil.  Watching the transformation from bare soil to a growing plant is a profound experience.  That we make our own soil mix serves to add to the miracle unfolding before us.  All of this combines to make these plants our own.  Crushing defeat lies waiting in the wings if drought, hail or disease takes these plants.  Meals sweet beyond description are ahead of us if all goes well.  In either event, the experience to date has been truly memorable.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

The War On Weeds

We have such a magnificent selections of weeds here.  It is hard to decide where to begin.  This morning  it was hot and sunny.  On a day like that I look for a place to weed that is  in the shade.  It might be war, but my comfort comes first.  Dandelions are a bit of a contradiction for me.  I love to see fields of those yellow flowers.  I know they provide food for the bees, but I hate to have them growing in my garden beds.  When they cross that line they are the enemy!  Seeds parachute in on the wind infiltrating when they are just a piece of fluff.  Tiny little plants are easy to overlook.  When they are established and put down that huge tap root, they are a formidable foe.  It's a  never ending battle, but we shall continue to dig them out anyway.

Some of our weeds are  perfectly good plants, if they were somewhere else.  This is a little oak tree complete with its acorn. It was likely  planted by a squirrel.  The tree providing the shade here is a black locust.  The nearest big oak tree is some distance away so the acorn has traveled some distance to invade my space.  Lots of other weeds were present: bindweed, purslane, quack grass... the list is a long one.

This is the WEED! I have been trying to eradicate this ever since we arrived here.  It has become a rare sight here, but today I was horrified to see six plants lurking among the other weeds.  This is ragweed, Ambrosia trifida L.  It is my policy to kill these while they are small before they can do their dirty work making people sick with their nasty pollen.  If you wear gloves and rip these suckers out before they flower you will be safe.  It is a public service to eradicate this weed.  Perhaps we would all be better off if this plant became extinct.  I suppose it might have some redeeming quality that I don't know about.  If it does I would like to hear about it.  Here it is on the most unwanted list and extinction within my territory is the goal.  When I see a ragweed plant , it is gone in a flash!  The battle is over for today, but the war will continue until victory is ours!