Monthly Archives: May 2011

community Day to day gardening Nature Log Otter Creek

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.

Acadia National Park Day to day Nature Log Otter Creek

Invasion of the garlic mustard

The down side of not taking a weekend away is that all those projects and chores which are conveniently out of sight when we go road tripping stare at us and say “now.” The list for this weekend included framing the new raised beds, raking the leaves under the lilacs, rebuilding the grape arbor, and hopefully tending the two sections of hay-scented fern sod I put in last spring.

This fern sod was ordered and planted before I was prepared to give the sod the moisture it needed to get established. I was sharing a delivery with a friend who wanted them right away, but my outdoor faucet had frozen and split and needed to be soldered. I need to learn to solder. Instead, I spent over a week filling the watering can in the kitchen sink, and sprinkling the two long stretches of sod, one in the front of the house, and one in the back. It required multiple trips, while the newly purchased soaker hoses lay flat and empty. Finally, the faucet was fixed.

A few ferns appeared, but my friend had a tall dense strip of fern along the walkway to her house. My ferns were sparse, and barely survived. I hoped that after a winter of rest they would come forth the following spring healthy and forgetful of my poor nurturing.

This weekend I went to look for signs of life, and there they were—soft green tendrils and delicate miniature fronds. But a towering forest of garlic mustard had invaded their space and appeared ready to overwhelm and obliterate them. The item on my list called tending the ferns turned into eradicating the mustard.

We are so cognizant of rare species and protecting animal and plant populations that the idea of deliberately wiping something out seems wrong. It did feel wrong, but it also felt intensely satisfying. Trowel in hand I created piles of limp garlic mustard. Hours, about four without a rest, left the ferns exposed and a large area cleared around them. After a few backstretches, I let my focus widen. I wish I hadn’t. The lovely but nasty shoots were along the path to the well, and formed a border around the compost pile. I sighed, and using a favorite phrase of my dad’s, girded my loins and tackled them.

The day was devoured by garlic mustard. Black flies were ignored in my weeding frenzy. I was oblivious to everything except plant-by-plant removing the mustard. My watchstrap unsnapped and I unconsciously snapped it back. I felt a sharp sting and acknowledged a red ant bite. The pain did not subside, and I figured he was in the cuff of my garden glove stinging away. I could not be bothered to flick him out. I had mustard to remove. Finally the pain worked its way through my mustard killing mind, and I pulled back the glove to look. I had snapped a piece of my flesh in the watch band, and a white pustule and blood blister were the source of my discomfort, not a red ant. Watch stuffed in pocket, I went on. The towering piles of mustard were shoveled onto a trailer and hauled to our burn pile, as I would not give them the chance to grow in the compost. I then when back for more.

Dinner had been planned; chicken thighs with five-spice powder, jasmine rice, warm arugula salad with cashews and caramelized onions. Around eight thirty pm, when I was beginning to squint to see the mustard shoots, I got dragged away and taken out to dinner. I went to sleep feeling pretty satisfied. I knew I had missed many smaller ones, but would tackle them as they grew.

Garlic mustard, Alliaria petiolata

The next morning, Mother’s Day, we visited my mother-in-law and planned our day–a bike ride of course, and perhaps brunch at the Bar Harbor Inn.

I wanted to try moving some cranesbill geranium from the woodland garden to the area I had cleared of mustard. Cranesbills are one of my favorite plants. It has a sweet scent, is a lovely swath of pink in the spring, covers the ground and does not need weeding, and spreads, but gently. If it spreads too far, it is easy to pull it up, as its root system is shallow. It is a very civilized plant, unlike that mustard. I grabbed my trug, and feeling happy with a hard day’s work behind me went to the other side of the yard to move those cranesbills before biking or brunch.

I rounded the corner humming, approached the garden, and came to a halt. There they were. Not so many, but there they were. Growing in clusters by the Solomon’s Seal, and under the Piers Andromeda, garlic mustard, Alliaria petiolata, was stretching towards the sun. I asked my husband to go play golf or something, and rolled up my sleeves.

I will not admit they have won, but know that I have not. I will continue to pick them off, but accept they may be part of my life. A friend first identified this plant for me two years ago, shortly after it appeared in our yard. She was the one who warned me how invasive it was. She also mentioned that it is edible. There are recipes for pesto, soup and salad with garlic mustard. Stir-fried garlic mustard with roasted sesame seeds and ginger could be a sweet revenge.

Alliaria petiolata is not going to go away. There is far too much to eliminate. I see it smiling at me from behind the summer bedroom and boldly nodding along the edges of the wood shed. Garlic mustard is an enticing name, however, and the leaves are pungent and tasty.

Perhaps a roadside sign:
U Pick, Garlic mustard, $2.00 per pint. We pay you.

Day to day gardening Maine Otter Creek

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.