Posting only a slightly delayed by the long drying time for ultramarine blue.
Caesar’s Brother Siberian Iris, 24 x 18, oil on panel
This morning the temperature has reached 50 degrees without a trace of breeze to disturb the February sunshine. Bees are flying around the hive, producing a ring of waste and corpses as they work at spring cleaning. It’s a perfect day to pop the top cover off and add to their stores as the first of their natural food sources won’t be in full production for another six weeks or so.
Last year I had correspondence with an elderly woman keeping bees in Visby, “The Gateway to Gotland” in northern Sweden. There is a tradition there of leaving the top super on all year with the “summer board” entrance covered over loosely with newspaper (traditionally it was birch bark). The advantages are that it allows for more air circulation, the newspaper or bark absorbs excess moisture (condensation is a bee-killer), and if the bees get restless for new space in the early spring they can move upstairs and build new comb. I find it’s handy for quick inspection and for feeding fondant and sugar syrup. This is my first year using the technique and my bees haven’t built any comb up there, but we have at least six weeks of winter yet to come – they have time on their hands and a play space if they want it.
They did come up through the inner cover to greet me when I dropped off the fondant.
Yesterday I finished an inventory of the journals found in my mother’s collection of papers. I’ve found them in ones and twos and occasionally five-years-worth tied together with ancient baling twine but haven’t run across any new ones lately, so I think this must be the lot: 53 books by two authors spanning the years 1900 to 1942. Here’s a sampling:
From Raymond Harrison Barnard (1893 – 1947) this entry for August 9, 1938 is about Jessie H. MacDonald’s death in Stevenson, Scotland; “our dear friend”. She was the family’s housekeeper for 25 years and had been visiting her birthplace in Scotland when she passed away unexpectedly at age 60. My mother remembers the family’s grief when they received the new that she had died right about the time they expected her to return. RHB’s journals are always inked in his lovely, loose scrawl and annotated with clippings and letters.
Benjamin Isaac (BI) Miller (1868 -1949); BI’s journals are done in pencil, interleaved with bills, receipts, and solicitations addressed to “The Mayor, Hartford Connecticut”. This little drawing of the farm is done on the back of a letter and carefully taped together with linen strips on the back.
From BI’s journal in 1914, a mimeograph from the Hartford County Rural Development Association encouraging us to “buy local” more than a century ago. It’s still a good read.
Both men were fond of including pamphlets and advertisements in their journals. They wrote about attending presentations at the Grange and Masonic Halls on tuberculosis, infantile paralysis (polio) and the Mile of Dimes, eye exams, air raid protocols, and the latest news from Washington DC. Here’s a selection from RHB’s journal about the Panama Canal, which opened on August 15, 1914.
There’s a wealth of material about everyday life in the last century in these little books. Consider contributing to your local historical society to help them preserve your past. These journals will be at the Wintonbury Historical Society in Bloomfield, Connecticut.
A new piece that explores my new ideal of representing plants surrounded by both their environment and compatriots; a group portrait as if Rembrandt’s Night Watch were tall herbs assembling on the garden path in all their finery.
Elecampne on the Garden Path, oil on panel, 36 x 24
It’s 38 degrees F and raining steadily, all the more reason to stay indoors with the Fedco seed catalog reading about late season tomatoes and South American grain crops. This year, with tax and shipping, I spent about $75 on seeds – which should allow me to just break even with the cost of shopping for the same stuff at the grocery store. That’s not including any price break for quality or the convenience of picking dinner just outside the door, but equally does not allow for the sweat equity of labor, management, and cursing the inevitable August drought.
I have a weakness for odd plants that are shy and difficult to grow and every year Fedco lists new challenges. Ramps, for instance, are so fascinating I’m including the entire description from the catalog:
Allium tricoccum (6-18 months) Open-pollinated. Sometimes called Wild Leeks. Their delectable pungent flavor, a mix of garlic and onion, speaks to their wild nature, and satisfies our long wait. Not a good germinator; expect less than 50%. The name Chicago was probably derived from shikaakwa, the native Miami-Illinois people’s word for ramps, which grew in profusion along the rivers in that area. Ramps are a native perennial of deciduous forests, growing best in cool shady areas with damp rich soil high in organic matter and calcium. Because this is a wild plant, seed planted in the spring will germinate that spring if conditions are right; if not, it may germinate the next spring. Mark your patches well and provide protection from predation. Once a bulb is formed, the new leaves emerge in early spring, before the tree canopy develops; by late spring leaves die back and a flower stalk emerges. Photosynthetic period and the harvest window is limited to these few weeks. Once established, ramps grow in close communities, strongly rooted just beneath the soil surface. Harvest carefully with a sharp knife, cutting plants just above the roots. Disturb the roots as little as possible and your ramps will likely come back. Chefs who demand the roots attached are contributing to the over-harvesting problem.
Be sure to check out the links to Sea Kale and Tarwi, and patronize your local seed-saving organization or agricultural co-op – they’re doing the good work for all of us.
210A – Strike Bush Green Beans ( A=2oz ) 1 x $1.50 = $1.50
658A – Silver Queen White Sweet Corn ( A=2oz ) 1 x $2.60 = $2.60
818A – Oregon Giant Snow Peas ( A=2oz ) 1 x $1.60 = $1.60
927A – Mayor Canary Melon ( A=0.4g ) 1 x $3.40 = $3.40
1047A – Verona Watermelons ( A=1/16oz ) 1 x $1.80 = $1.80
1234A – Cross Country Pickling Cucumbers ( A=1/16oz ) 1 x $1.60 = $1.60
1411A – Black Zucchini Zucchini ( A=1/8oz ) 1 x $0.90 = $0.90
1504A – Saffron Yellow Summer Squash ( A=1/8oz ) 1 x $1.00 = $1.00
1630A – Uncle Davids Dakota Dessert OG Buttercup/Kabocha Winter Squash ( A=1/4oz ) 1 x $2.00 = $2.00
1718A – Winter Luxury OG Pumpkins ( A=1/8oz ) 1 x $1.80 = $1.80
2028A – Coral Carrots ( A=1/8oz ) 1 x $1.40 = $1.40
2073A – Shin Kuroda 5" Carrots ( A=1/8oz ) 1 x $1.10 = $1.10
2156A – Cylindra Beets ( A=1/8oz ) 1 x $0.90 = $0.90
2182A – Detroit Dark Red Short Top Beets ( A=1/8oz ) 1 x $0.90 = $0.90
2433A – Ramps Onions and Leeks ( A=1g ) 1 x $3.50 = $3.50
2719A – Bronze Arrowhead OG Leaf Lettuce ( A=1g ) 1 x $1.40 = $1.40
2786A – Red Tinged Winter OG Leaf Lettuce ( A=1g ) 1 x $1.60 = $1.60
2787A – De Morges Braun OG Leaf Lettuce ( A=1g ) 1 x $1.50 = $1.50
2803A – Tom Thumb Butterhead Lettuce ( A=2g ) 1 x $1.00 = $1.00
2879A – Parris Island Cos Romaine Lettuce ( A=2g ) 1 x $0.90 = $0.90
3021A – Ice-Bred OG Arugula ( A=1/16oz ) 1 x $2.00 = $2.00
3099A – Sea Kale Sea Kale ( A=1g ) 1 x $2.30 = $2.30
3204A – Green Lance Green Lance ( A=2g ) 1 x $1.80 = $1.80
3223A – Yokatta-Na Yokatta-Na ( A=1/16oz ) 1 x $1.50 = $1.50
3260A – Shuko Pac Choy ( A=1/16oz ) 1 x $1.30 = $1.30
3311A – Green King Broccoli ( A=0.5g ) 1 x $1.70 = $1.70
3313A – Bay Meadows Broccoli ( A=0.5g ) 1 x $1.90 = $1.90
3380A – Frigga Cabbages ( A=2g ) 1 x $1.60 = $1.60
3451A – Beedys Camden OG Kale ( A=1g ) 1 x $1.50 = $1.50
3469A – Kale Mix Kale ( A=2g ) 2 x $1.70 = $3.40
4083A – Weisnichts Ukrainian OG Tomatoes ( A=0.2g ) 1 x $1.50 = $1.50
4117A – Principe Borghese Cherry Tomatoes ( A=0.2g ) 1 x $1.20 = $1.20
4296A – Pasta Paste Tomatoes ( A=0.1g ) 1 x $2.20 = $2.20
4314A – Tarwi Lupinus ( A=2g ) 1 x $2.60 = $2.60
4414A – Sweet Basil Basil ( A=4g ) 1 x $1.30 = $1.30
4588A – Lemon Balm Lemon Balm ( A=0.3g ) 1 x $1.30 = $1.30
4692A – Blue Vervain OG Blue Vervain ( A=0.1g ) 1 x $1.50 = $1.50
4836A – Carnival Amaranths ( A=0.2g ) 1 x $1.50 = $1.50
5351A – Ziar Breadseed OG Poppies ( A=0.1g ) 1 x $1.30 = $1.30
5411B – Gentian Sage Salvias ( B=0.3g ) 1 x $3.30 = $3.30
5611A – Perennial Sweet Pea Sweet Peas ( A=1g ) 1 x $1.40 = $1.40
The days are just packed, as Calvin used to say to Hobbs. I have posts nearly ready to go about the Island-wide story slam, a recipe for arroz con/sin pollo in the wood oven, and a lecture on waffle gardening that I gave to the Castine Scientific Society last Tuesday. Meanwhile, I’ve been working my way through the first complete iteration of my “still life in situ” project with this painting of a honeysuckle vine framed by purple Matronalis.
This planting is in the dooryard, and I see it every morning as I leave the house in all kinds of weather and times of day. I want my paintings to represent something familiar and well known: plants that I’ve tended, pruned, picked for bouquets and appreciated in place. The time of day and season has become increasingly important to me. I felt my previous still life compositions with vases and drapery had very little atmosphere. The morning light here provides context, and the blooms and foliage represent a particular stage of their growth and decay, which has long been a prime characteristic of still life painting.
Honeysuckle and Dame’s Rocket, 36 x 24, oil on panel
And a detail, now with hummingbird!
Honeysuckle is a reliable plant in the Maine climate, and I’d probably grow it for the hummingbirds even if it was fussy to grow. They flit in and out of the foliage from June to September and even the most competitive males find neutral territory to feed in peace on the red trumpets scattered over this huge, tangled bush. The purple flowers are Matronalis, or Dame’s Rocket, a member of the mustard family and much more deer-proof than Phlox, which they strongly resemble.
The final work will be 36 x 24, and the medium is oil on panel. We’re about halfway done in this photo, wish me luck!
Every summer I look out the front door in amazement at the sheer amount of green in the yard. It happens fast, growing from tiny sprouts in the cold, hard ground of March into mountains of thick stems and new fruit in July, fast forward through August’s drought into September’s harvest and back to ground level in November, under a blanket of snow. This year I have a new element in “waffle beds”; depressions dug below ground level to increase drought tolerance. I began making raised beds into recessed “waffles” back in April but the technique has really proven itself during the last three weeks of searing heat and zero rainfall. Here is the waffle structure near the front of the house, photos taken once a month from May through mid-August:
We’ve had some precipitation this month but it has come as sudden downpours of heavy rain over a short period. My raised beds never absorbed much water because the deluge simply rolled off the dry, caked soil on top – although the recessed paths on the sides (where all the moisture ended up) generally looked great after a storm. This year, no matter how hard and suddenly it came down, rain pooled at the bottom of the depression where it would do the most good. After a week of sun and August heat the bottom of each waffle, shaded by plant foliage or mulch, is still moist and friable.
I have begun transitioning the entire garden over to recessed beds, mostly waffles but with an experiment in “swale” gardening on a south-facing slope (to be explored in a different post!). There are a few places where I’ve dug to a depth of 18″ and found ledge – very common in Downeast Maine. I’m using the same process of adding good soil to the bottom of the waffle, but will track these particular beds and see if drainage becomes an issue. I’ve also made a note not to plant root vegetables in these locations just yet! It may be that I eventually build higher walls around the ledge-prone areas to provide extra depth without digging, but soil is at a premium in this garden and the experiment will have to wait for now.