Category Archives: gardening

Day to day gardening

Pumped Up

Hard body, graceful moves, and a regal profile – this smooth operator has moved right in, and I am right in love. I have just installed the well pump of my dreams.

When my 55-foot well did not supply an adequate amount of water I had a new, very deep, very expensive, well drilled. The old well still had water, so rather than abandon it I put a gray-green, refined and elegant antique pitcher pump on it. I liked the idea of being able to pump water if there was a power outage, and simply to drink from it as I gardened.

It proved to have a few leaks, and did not work when temperatures were below freezing. It went to my sister-in-law’s garden to be an ornament and I purchased a new pitcher pump from a company in Pennsylvania. This one was bright red, squat and a little rough around the edges, but promised to work. It did, but each spring meant replacing the leathers, and the moving parts froze into non-moving parts in just a few years.

I saw an old pump at a yard sale, got excited, then pragmatic. I would just be buying someone else’s problem. A long-handled pump at a local plumbing shop was almost a week’s salary, and not attractive. I could not find a new pump I liked, the old one had become purely decorative. The cobblestone surround I had been working on was left unfinished. “A work in progress,” I would say if anyone asked. It was a work stalled. This limbo lasted several years. I set aside some money in an envelope in my desk drawer labeled “Save the well,” and moved on. I saw the non-working pump on an unfinished stone column daily, but looked away in denial.

Eventually I was ready to cough up the money that had appalled me a few years back. I found a beautiful repro pump, much more lovely than my old pitcher pump, but as I read the details it was not so very different, I would still have leathers, and the chances of it working in the winter were not great. One search, I think it was for perfect pump, listed Bison pumps in Maine. I looked, and it was instant, unconditional love, proof one can find their perfect match online. Not old-fashioned, with no attempts to mimic a traditional pitcher-style, this pump is unabashed function and drop-dead gorgeous. It is also made in Maine, and I like to buy local. Almost triple the cost I had quailed at a few years ago, the Bison seemed like an investment I would not regret. I swallowed, but without hesitation ordered my pump. Ordering from Bison is not an impersonal exchange of credit card number and product. These people cared. They told me how to measure depth and diameter, and counseled the length of pipe I would need. When it arrived in three neat boxes everything was clearly labeled. The instruction book was in simple step-by-step English, and guided us through the installation process.

What pleasure to deal with a company that sees things from the customer’s viewpoint. They must have sent pumps to innocents like myself and asked them exactly what they needed to know to install it. Tags on the parts packages were numbered, and matched the instructions. Connections to be made that looked obvious bore polite warnings, “Please do not do this step before checking that you have completed the previous step.” They knew I was about to skip something important. “Read instructions completely before installing” I was told. A wooden paddle was enclosed to rest the pump on as the rods were lowered into the well casing. It would have been a strenuous task without it and we would have found a way to support the pump, but how nice that they thought of it and gave us the tool. We installed, but it did not pump. Within hours Judy replied and asked us to check the connections on the rods. We had not tightened one of them. We tightened it. It now works flawlessly. I know it will work flawlessly as long I as I am here to pump it. This pump is a spare, elegant piece of engineering. I drink from it every day. I love lifting the handle and pumping a few smooth easy strokes and hearing the rush of fresh well water. My cat leaves the house each morning and jumps on the stone basin below the pump and laps his morning drink. If he hears the pump when I pump water for myself he comes running over for the fresh water splashing into his trough.

This Bison pump satisfies on so many levels. It gives me a fresh water supply without electricity. It is a stainless steel sculpture that is simply stunning. It bears a memory of dealing with people who make a good product, and deal with customers with patience and interest. It was made with pride, and I pump it with pride and pleasure. What a testament to what made in the USA, made in Maine can be.


Missing: Fifty granite pillars

Granite in the garden

Granite chunks edge my gardens, the foundation of the house is granite fieldstone, I make paths with flat granite slabs, and whenever I dig into the back yard, I strike granite rubble. Scratch the surface anywhere on Mount Desert Island, and you will find granite.

Acadia National Park draws millions of visitors each year to climb its granite mountains and admire the steep rocky coast. Postcards feature warm pink granite edged by the white foam of the Atlantic. Frederic Church’s painting, Otter Creek, Mt. Desert, is of the cove behind my house and the granite notch I pass daily. In the mid-1800’s and early 1900’s granite was big industry on this island, and the first commercial quarry was here in the village of Otter Creek. Granite is the substance on which our lives are grounded.

I have been moving granite lately. Granite steps now separate the level grassy patch where the dining table is from the sloping hill to the woods. A crude wall has been built around the summer bedroom and constrains the pine needles strewn on the ground. I used crowbars and a dolly, and moved hundreds of pounds of rock. Each rock was touched, stroked and examined. The right shape and size was essential to fit the stones for the steps. One would be laid, and then another, and then an awkward space appeared. I removed them and tried again. Eventually, stone by stone, the puzzle was solved, and the steps created with a random pattern of about thirty pieces of granite.

Building with stone puts one in the moment. As I composed my steps, I would survey the collection of rocks I had hauled from throughout the yard and dumped in a pile. I appraised each one for the right fit. I would feel its edges, and ponder it from different angles. One wedge-shaped rock seemed too pointy, but rotated and inverted it was just right. Each rock when turned revealed different contours. I became mesmerized by the individual forms. There they were, odd shapes, sizes, and thicknesses. But which one would sit snug against the last rock I had placed? Just as I was convinced I’d have to go hunting for more rocks, that not one of them that would fit the next space, my perception would shift and with a satisfying sense of recognition a stone would stand out as right.

Granite slabs behind the house

The grain and color seemed as varied as the shapes. It is, of course, all granite from Otter Creek, but not necessarily Otter Creek granite. A common rock, granite is a major part of our continental crust and is composed of quartz, feldspar, mica and other minerals. The color ranges from pink and gray to deep rose, blueish or almost black. The grain can be coarse with large individual pieces or so fine it appears to be almost all one color. It is color and grain that identifies granite. In Maine, Calais granite is dark gray and even-grained, the stone that came from the Thornberg Quarry in Addison is almost black, and Otter Creek granite is deep orange-red with a large, bold grain. The Maine Granite Industry Historical Society Museum in Mount Desert has a map of the island, with a piece of polished granite for each of the dozens of quarries on Mount Desert Island. Founder Steven Haynes can pick up a piece of stone, hold it in his hands, and by osmosis, bonding, knowledge and magic tell you which quarry it came from.

Jimmy's Wharf, Otter Creek

In the 1800’s quarrying in Otter Creek was a thriving industry. There were three different quarries in the village. The first was founded by Cyrus J. Hall in 1871 and operated about eight years. Roads were terraced into the hill and supported with granite coping stones. Oxen were used to transport the stone from where it was cut to a large granite wharf, the first product of this quarry. Jimmy’s Wharf is what it is called, although there is no sign, it is written on no maps, and no one seems to know who Jimmy was. At high tide a schooner would sail in to the wharf and load up. Four men, two oxen and a handful of tools produced eleven cargoes of stone. It was then shipped to Belfast where it was polished prior to delivery to its final destination. Some of those destinations were the Board of Trade building in Chicago, the American Baptist Publication Society building in Philadelphia and a bridge at Back Bay Fens in Boston, as well as libraries and public buildings. There is also a tantalizing mention in a local paper of fifty granite columns shipped to New York for a church. No other information given. How tall were those columns, what church do they grace, are they inside or out? Where are they now?

Drill holes waiting one hundred years to split granite, abandoned at Jimmy's Wharf in Otter Creek, Maine

My husband’s great-great grandfather Jules lived in Otter Creek in the late eighteen hundreds within walking distance of the quarries. We wonder if he might have worked them, or helped build the roads. Whether he did or not, his great great grandson worked at the last producing quarry on the island. At nineteen years of age Dennis Smith worked for Joe Musetti in Hall Quarry and burnt rock with kerosene and compressed air to prepare the surface for the quarrymen to work. He was there only six weeks, during the last days of the quarry, as a small crew completed a contract and then shut the quarry down for good. With the introduction of Portland Cement the granite industry had come to an abrupt end.

Tailings from Otter Creek quarry, Drosselmeyer the cat likes to play there.

In Otter Creek, the stone wharf still stands, but has fallen into disrepair. A causeway has blocked the entrance where the large ships once entered the cove. Massive stone slabs with telltale wedge marks along one edge lie abandoned in the woods. We walk the roads, still clear but slowly narrowing, that had been built for those oxen to haul their heavy loads. And somewhere in New York City is a church with fifty granite columns from Otter Creek, Maine.

The quarries of Otter Creek

Pine needles and granite edging by summer bedroom

Nature Log: We gathered and ate the last of this season’s oyster mushrooms, watched a snapping turtle lay eggs, and lifted a piece of granite to reveal a garter snake. The stone was gently replaced.

community Day to day gardening

The Rain in Maine

Spring rain can be so constant and so gentle that it becomes a background companion to the day, rather than a threat. A few might be driven inside by the wet, but most go about their business. We do, too. Finishing an after-breakfast stroll along a favorite stream to do some trout-spotting, we encounter another walker. Hair damp we greet each other, and he mops off his glasses to see us better. “Just misting,” he says as we pass, and we share perhaps just a hint of self-satisfaction that we, at least, have not been deterred by the rain.

The rain does not prevent activity, but it does direct it. We leave our bikes in the shed and finally tackle a long-avoided list of chores, recycling the computer, buying cleaning supplies, selecting annuals for hanging baskets and pots, and hauling unwanted clothes to a collection box. These only take a few hours, though, and there is a long afternoon ahead.

The uniform gray of the sky is not only unvarying from horizon to horizon, but seems the same at five pm as it did at noon. The day has a peculiar sense of timelessness. Inside the house the steady beat of rain on the roof calms and the occasional louder ping of a drop against the metal rim of the birdbath proclaims breaks the monotony. Donning rain gear, I go out and pull weeds. They slide out easily from the wet soil. I have this day to myself, and dart from flower bed to flower bed, giddy with the gift of these endless hours. It is too wet to scrape the peeling windowsills, certainly can’t paint the outdoor tables, though they need it, and it would be silly to think of building that grape arbor.

I sing and skip, and belt out a hackneyed version of “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” from Lerner and Lowe’s 1958 musical Gigi. “Thank heaven, for rai-neee days,” I shout in a heavy French accent, safe in the knowledge that I am the only one home.

Bags of pine needles that were raked last fall refresh the short path that goes by the Pieris japonica and through the Solomon’s seal. Witch grass is gently coaxed to give up its roots, newly discovered invasions of garlic mustard are eradicated, and plants that are trying to take over other plants are reminded of their place. A twelve-inch circle of Lily of the Valley gets taken out of the lawn and put into a glass planter for the house. It is a day without focus, without time, bouncing from weeding to picking oregano and mint for dinner, to weeding and picking flowers for arrangements in the house. It is a rainy day.

The sound of drops rhythmically hitting the windows, roofs, trees and plants that get in the way of their descent is soft and hushed. This is no storm, there is no wind. The sway of the flowering cherry and the nodding of the forsythia are caused by the rain. Colors are intense. When buying annuals this morning a woman said, “This is my favorite kind of day for getting plants. The true colors of things can be seen.” I had agreed with her.

After hours of gardening in the midst of vibrant green grass, laying neon orange pine needles, and picking luminous creamy Viburnum the truth of that resonates.

Day to day gardening

Digging in the dirt

French Intensive is not a language class. One of many names for double dug gardens, it is the name I heard most frequently in high school when my Dad and I shared our copies Mother Earth News and Foxfire books. Biodynamic, raised bed, double dug, biointensive—while details may vary, backbreaking dirt digging is a common denominator.

I freely admit it was my idea to try French Intensive gardening. Last year our garden had two successive plantings of beets rot and die as seedlings. The parsnips were skimpy, and instead of eight bushels of potatoes for family and friends, we had just enough to get us to March. Witch grass taunted from between every row and our harvest went from bountiful to adequate. I have been part of this garden for only ten years, but that is long enough to see the decline. I had mentioned my childhood interest in intensive gardening years ago, but the garden was producing, so why change? This year it was time for change.

Three four-by-sixteen raised beds have been created. Digging two feet down may not seem like much, but it feels like taking core samples the hard way. After eight inches of topsoil there was a compact layer that had to be pick-axed through. This hard, almost concrete, layer had deposits of ash from some burn pits possibly eighty years old. After that, loose, rust-colored sand went down twelve inches. It goes deeper, but that was as far as we were going. This was easy shoveling. As we turned it over I was told that my husband’s father dug a trench for a water line from his house to his parent’s, crossing the field we were digging in. It was four feet deep, not our paltry two, and 200 feet long. The story is that not one rock was encountered. Digging into that lovely red granular layer, I believe it. Putting foot to shovel it slid in with no resistance.

The warm brown topsoil on the surface is recent, just two generations. It was built with seaweed, compost and hours of manual labor. A great-great grandfather had sold the original topsoil to the estates in neighboring Seal Harbor, which was not blessed with the rich dark earth of Otter Creek.

Red, gray, brown, white, orange–the colors of these levels are distinct. They do not blend as they transition, but abruptly turn from one substrate to another. It is beautiful to dig a spade through these layers. The colors are an inspiring palette of earth tones. But lovely though the colors are, it is still an intimidating amount of work to make these beds. After eight feet, just half of the first bed, we considered hiring a local do-anything guy to dig for us. It would be an easy out. It was very tempting. But the vision of harvesting our vegetables from a bed we may have planted and tended but did not put sweat and love into deterred us. We made a good but painful choice.

We now know every inch of these beds. We know their colors, and we know their layers. When our vegetables grow, we will know exactly what their roots are in, because we saw it, we touched it, and we have planted our own roots there.


Two Peaches make a Pear but they Cantelope

Wonderful October, and time to harvest. Pears, apples, potatoes and then of course making chutney, apple sauce and potato many ways. We gathered the last of the chard, and made chard, anchovy, garlic, bean and pasta soup. Recipe. I actually increased the anchovy and it just enriched the broth without being intrusive. But then we really like anchovies. A local restaurant has created a Karen Salad. Not on the menu, but it is getting a small local following: start with the house Caesar, add roasted garlic and double anchovies. You’ll find it at Mama DiMatteo’s in Bar Harbor.

I am a Camera Otter Creek

Looks like a mighty wet ride. This may be the new bench for skating parties, as this is the skating pond in the center of Otter Creek.