Category Archives: horticulture

March 2015: The Snow Garden

The first crop to be direct-seeded is always the peas. Some years I have tomato seedlings under lights that are weeks old, lettuce and green onions in flats, trays of cosmos and delphinium, but all those will have to wait until May before venturing outside. The peas are hardy souls, they love the icy soil, and they’re cheap enough that I can re-sow a batch if the temperatures drop too low.

This year we have nearly 4′ of snow over the entire garden. We had a few days this week where the temperatures finally made it above freezing but the snow pack simply settled and solidified. It’s not going anywhere fast. Yesterday I decided to help it along a little by digging through the drifts at the front of the house and excavating a bed to help it warm up under a sheet of black plastic.

Our metal roof dumps snow easily, which is a good thing when we don’t have to climb up there and shovel if off, and a bad thing when I have to cut through 5 – 6′ of packed drifts. Here’s the path to the spring pea bed (eventually):

pea-bed-001

I was very pleased that I managed to aim right to the corner of the pea bed – that is some NASA level shoveling right there.

shovel snow Now to shovel off the bed proper and cover it with black plastic to warm up:

future peas

For reference, this is what the rest of the garden looks like now, in March:

digging out or in

And this is the same view in June, 2014:

Maine JuneFor my bee group, all that yellow bloom is Dyer’s Woad, Isatis tinctoria. It’s a wonderful bee plant and a good source of blue dye.

New work

We have so much snow on the ground that the thought of painting it makes me shiver. I’m making drawings of the dark spruce trees bending under heaps of pristine white, but as an antidote I’m finishing images from this summer. The crab apples are from the community garden and orchard at College of the Atlantic.

Crab Apples and Teapot

Crab Apples and Teapot, 24 x 18, oil on panel

July in January

I’ve been working on my 2015 seed order this week and talking with a few garden friends about preferences in paprika peppers; rabbit and pigeon predation (I thought I had it bad with deer – at least they don’t fly!); cover crops, and the Eternal Chicken Question. All this brings to mind images of the garden in full green swing, not the current landscape of dingy grey snow with muddy patches and with a buzzcut of bare twigs and pale grasses. Here are some of my favorite images from July, 2014. (I was planning to take some side-by-side photos of today’s garden but it was too depressing – we don’t need a reminder that the ground is hard as iron right now and it will easily be four more months until it begins to soften and “green up”.)

Just outside the dooryard, on the southfacing hillside: broccoli, breadseed poppies, sorrel, mullein, strawberries, parsley, and a Beta pie cherry tree all held in place by withy rows of Black and Scottish basket willow. Down on the lower level you can see the Washington Hawthorns providing a thorny barrier against deer (and almost enough haws for a batch of jelly in 2014) and the silver foliage of the snake willow.

Broccoli withy

More from the dooryard: purple basil, pinks, calendula, and carrots grow under the Seckel pear tree. There’s an elderberry bush coming up on the left that will need to be transplanted (again!) into the swamp during Garden 2015.

purple basil and calendula

Entrance to the lower garden: rhubarb, German paste tomatoes, mustards (in bloom), columbine, Joe Pye weed, and rugosa

rhubarb, tomatoesPink and white rose-mallow, well, mostly white this year! It was nearly smothered by pole beans in August but managed well enough to be featured in several still life paintings.

mallowThe chaos that is the lower garden center: mullein, Russian crabapple, marshmallow, goldenrod (for bee fodder), and one of the glacial erratics that characterize the Maine island garden. There’s a path in there too, somewhere. . . .

lower gardenIn every photo set from my garden there should be at least one very, very confused plant. This Angelica decided to grow up through a cinderblock amidst the nasturtium and pole beans, and it did very well, considering.

sugar cane

Can’t wait until July, 2015!

 

 

 

New work – Apples on a Yellow Cloth

I’ve been slowly working up to larger paintings since we moved into the new studio last winter. The larger space is helpful but there are  other factors as well, such as brush size, paint consistency, and composition. Fortunately all those very disparate things seem to be growing together. This new painting is the next standard size up: 24″ x 36″ and seemed like a whole new country after working on 18″ x 24″ panels for years. Now that I’m working on a few pieces this size I can hardly wait to move up to 48 x 72!

Apples and Zinnias

 

Apples on a Yellow Cloth, 24 x 36, oil on panel

Grape day!

The grapes are ripe! The weather is hot and dry and it’s time to make juice before they disappear under an onslaught by wasps, cedar waxwings, deer, and fox. Ripe grapes are appealing to lots of the local wildlife. We grow northern vine varieties Beta (a purple sport of Concord) and Somerset (seedless white) that are hardy and ripen reliably in Maine’s short growing season. These vines have been in place for five years, and are growing in poor but well drained soil on the side of the driveway.

Beta and Somerset grape vines

I’m not sure if the “birdscare balloon” actually drives off birds or not – the vines are so loaded with fruit that it’s hard to gauge depredation. Wear sturdy shoes and gloves for protection against slippery fruit on the ground, stinging insects, and prickly brambles grown up into the vines. . .if you’re picking into a metal container try to keep it shaded so you don’t injure the fruit.

steamer basket full of grapes

I use the stainless steel basket from my steam juicer to pick into so I know when I have enough for a batch. I used to pick when the grapes were dead ripe and a uniform black-purple, but I’ve recently discovered that the juice has more flavor if picked slightly before that stage – with red, dark maroon, and even a few green grapes in each batch.

grapes in steam juicer

The stainless steel basket in the previous photo becomes the top third of the steamer shown here when assembled. The grapes cook quickly and in about 20 minutes the clear tube to the middle portion will show purple and I’ll be able to drain off the juice into the large pot on the right. Use caution – right out of the tube the liquid is still close to the boiling point! I add about 1 cup of sugar for every 2 of juice, decant immediately into canning jars and process in a steam canner for 20 minutes.

Beta grape harvest

This batch of juice is about half and half white Somerset and blue Beta but you would never know from the color of the final product. Because it cooks without adding water, the steam juicer produces a concentrate that we cut at least 50 per cent with water or seltzer to drink. It also makes the best popsicles in the world and next year I’m planning to experiment with a batch of garbage can wine. . .

 

The July garden

Right now is when everything in the garden turns the corner into full production. We’ve just past the longest day of the year and now it’s all about beating that long, downhill slide toward the dark and cold. November will come, but meanwhile we can make hay while the sun shines and harvest broccoli too.

brassica larkspur

Broccoli, kale, cabbage and other brassica grow well under a variety of conditions, but in my garden they also attract pests if too many are crowded together in one place. I spot plants around in odd areas to avoid cutworms, whitefly, and fleabeetles that find their host plants by scent. In the back is a row of larkspur flowering in its first year from seed – can’t wait to see the variety of colors.

green dinner

Tonight’s dinner is kung pao tofu with assorted greens.

long view of valerian jungleSome of the lower garden is buried in an onslaught of valerian. I don’t discourage it because it goes by quickly, the bees love it, and the roots make an excellent sleep potion (which as a bonus, smells like wet dog).

blue angel hosta

This is the season for big edibles, but the ornamentals aren’t far behind: Blue Angel Hosta maturing at 5′ by 6′ down in the swamp!

seedum

For most of the year this seedum is a flat green carpet, but in July it becomes an alien solar farm.

finger trimmed spruce

I have a finger-trimmed spruce going down in the swamp, next to the hosta. It’s ten years old and has been hand pruned at the tips each year. The “antler” is what happens when the gardener is called away without finishing the task! It’s not a fast growing tree, but it managed to put out this extension in four days – that’s a lot of pent up energy.

 

Seed order 2014, new directions

Every winter I try to take a snow day off from work and spend the morning finalizing my seed order to Fedco. There’s something very satisfying about glancing up from long, detailed descriptions of luscious tomatoes and tender green beans to see the snow pelting down outside. (Seeds for bush beans and alyssm “Carpet of Snow” are already on order, as they were in 2013 below.)

beanies beans

My seed order for the coming year will be an experiment; an acknowledgement of suspicions and assumptions that I’ve been resisting for several seasons. My new guidelines, In no particular order, are:

  • I don’t need to grow boatloads of everything. That goes double for tomatoes
  • I should grow more of what we actually eat, regardless of whether it appeals to my Yankee nature and stores well in the pantry or root cellar
  • I love flowers, I paint flowers, and although we can’t eat flowers, I should step all over that Yankee nature and give serious consideration to creating a huge cutting garden.

And maybe give in to the occasional impulse buy that turns out to be really cool – like Dutch Butter popcorn!

dutch popcorn

Well, no, growing popcorn is an indulgence in space that we could be taking up by growing 9′ stalks of Silver Queen (the finest white sweet corn of all time), so popcorn didn’t make the 2014 list. I am easily swayed to excess when I’m reading seed catalogs but I think I managed to hold closely to my New Rules. FEDCO seeds just emailed me my order confirmation:

214 – Greencrop Bush Green Bean ( A=2oz ) 1 x $1.40 = $1.40
658 – Silver Queen White Sweet Corn ( A=2oz ) 1 x $2.20 = $2.20
818 – Oregon Giant Snow Pea ( A=2oz ) 1 x $1.50 = $1.50
2073 – Shin Kuroda 5" Carrot ( A=1/8oz ) 1 x $0.90 = $0.90
2186 – Bulls Blood Beet ( A=1/8oz ) 1 x $1.00 = $1.00
2425 – Bleu de Solaize Leek ( A=1/16oz ) 1 x $1.50 = $1.50
2510 – Space Spinach ( A=1/4oz ) 1 x $1.40 = $1.40
2555 – Giant Winter Spinach ( A=1/4oz ) 1 x $1.40 = $1.40
2766 – Australian Yellow Lettuce OG ( A=1g ) 1 x $1.60 = $1.60
3209 – Maruba Santoh ( A=1/16oz ) 1 x $1.10 = $1.10
3222 – Tokyo Bekana ( A=1/16oz ) 1 x $1.10 = $1.10
3230 – Mizspoona Salad Selects Gene Pool OG ( A=1/16oz ) 1 x $1.50 = $1.50
3273 – Joi Choi Pac Choi ( A=1g ) 1 x $1.80 = $1.80
3315 – Gypsy Broccoli ( A=0.5g ) 1 x $1.70 = $1.70
3316 – Purple Peacock Gene Pool Broccoli OG ( A=0.5g ) 1 x $1.20 = $1.20
3322 – Arcadia Broccoli ( A=0.5g ) 1 x $1.80 = $1.80
4441 – Aromato Basil OG ( A=0.5g ) 1 x $1.30 = $1.30
4481 – Wild Bergamot OG ( A=0.1g ) 1 x $1.20 = $1.20
5113 – Sunburst Heliopsis ( A=0.1g ) 1 x $2.50 = $2.50
5168 – Giant Imperial Mixed Larkspur ( A=1g ) 1 x $1.00 = $1.00
5171 – Lavatera Mix ( A=1g ) 1 x $1.00 = $1.00
5291 – Tall Climbing Mix Nasturtium ( A=4g ) 1 x $1.10 = $1.10
5350 – Elka Poppy OG ( A=0.1g ) 1 x $1.20 = $1.20
5351 – Ziar Breadseed Poppy OG ( A=0.1g ) 1 x $1.20 = $1.20
5731 – State Fair Mix Zinnia ( B=2g ) 1 x $2.80 = $2.80

This order and what I’ve saved from previous years will probably still grow more that we can eat, but perhaps I won’t feel quite as compelled to spend the entire harvest season canning tomatoes. Perhaps. The baby in this photo is now 22 – obviously I have a long history of growing too much produce!

tomatoes, everywhere

Happiness (a poem for the Garden)

the evening garden

Happiness
BY PAISLEY REKDAL
I have been taught never to brag but now
I cannot help it: I keep
a beautiful garden, all abundance,
indiscriminate, pulling itself
from the stubborn earth: does it offend you
to watch me working in it,
touching my hands to the greening tips or
tearing the yellow stalks back, so wild
the living and the dead both
snap off in my hands?
The neighbor with his stuttering
fingers, the neighbor with his broken
love: each comes up my drive
to receive his pitying,
accustomed consolations, watches me
work in silence awhile, rises in anger,
walks back. Does it offend them to watch me
not mourning with them but working
fitfully, fruitlessly, working
the way the bees work, which is to say
by instinct alone, which looks like pleasure?

nicotiana and heliotropeI can stand for hours among the sweet
narcissus, silent as a point of bone.
I can wait longer than sadness. I can wait longer
than your grief. It is such a small thing
to be proud of, a garden. Today
there were scrub jays, quail,
a woodpecker knocking at the whiteand-black shapes of trees, and someone’s lost rabbit
scratching under the barberry: is it
indiscriminate? Should it shrink back, wither,
and expurgate? Should I, too, not be loved?

lettuces in the night gardenIt is only a little time, a little space.
Why not watch the grasses take up their colors in a rush
like a stream of kerosene being lit?
If I could not have made this garden beautiful
I wouldn’t understand your suffering,
nor care for each the same, inflamed way.
I would have to stay only like the bees,
beyond consciousness, beyond
self-reproach, fingers dug down hard
into stone, and growing nothing.
There is no end to ego,

with its museum of disappointments.
I want to take my neighbors into the garden
and show them: Here is consolation.
Here is your pity. Look how much seed it drops
around the sparrows as they fight.
It lives alongside their misery.
It glows each evening with a violent light.

asters

Raspberry season

Everything is better fresh-picked from your own garden, but some things are at the top of that list: sweet corn, early radishes, butter lettuce, and raspberries.

raspberry variety

The yellow berries on top of the bowl are a fall-bearing variety named “Anne”. The plants have long, loose canes and the berries dangle precariously at the very ends. Summer 2013 has been one of the wettest and hottest on record here and Anne is fruiting early, way ahead of her normal September production.

raspberry-season-anneI also grow Boyne (standard red summer-bearing) and Royalty Purple (deep purple soft round berries). This 10′ x 20′ patch produces about 2 batches of jam, a dozen pies and cakes, and all we can eat fresh. I’d like to add another patch – perhaps with the same varieties because they’re so dependable – and dry them in the soon-to-be-built earth oven. Raspberry raisins?

raspberry-season-libertyWhile there are many, many laws that govern the garden as a whole, there are only a few things to know about growing an individual plant or species. Raspberry rules:

  • Plant 3 or 4 canes each in hills rather than a continuous bed. It will be easier to prune out old canes (distinguished by their papery bark) that become unproductive, and to water and mulch them.
  • Set a sturdy stake at each end of the row and run 3 levels of bailing wire between them. Tie the canes loosely to the wires and you won’t have to force your way into the briar patch. You can use string, but thin wire will last the life of the bushes.
  • Scatter bird scares through the patch over the ripening period. I tie shiny tape to the baling wire where the wind will catch it. Later I put out a few yellow plastic balloons with a “fire eye” painted on them, and some owl silhouettes. Keep ’em guessing.
  • Try the Maine Fruit Cake recipe with a little vanilla sugar on the raspberries.

Garden revolution

There are a few articles floating around out there about a garden revolution in the front yard, but somehow I feel they don’t go far enough. I understand that swapping out a lawn for raised beds is already a sea-change for many folks (and their Homeowner Associations) but I’d like to encourage us to make that extra step toward welcoming everything that lives in a garden, even the ones we can’t see. Maybe especially the things we can’t see. It’s difficult to structure a raised bed to readily welcome fungi, soil organisms, minute insect life, and opportunistic seed growth, but any old patch of dirt will prove a living welcome mat for all those things if you just leave room.

I’ve come to understand that organized garden beds are really for the humans. We like to keep inventory and we’re easily distracted so we plant what we want to keep in neat rows and discard the rest. Moving toward the idea that our choice edibles grow best when hidden from predators and mulched against extremes of weather, here’s a set of photos matched up with a list of what has been planted amidst the chaos in my yard.

Gardening front yardThis section of the front yard contains: amaranth, Kentucky Pole and Scarlet Runner beans, daylilies, witchhazel, rhubarb, peas, crabapple, tomatoes, potatoes (4 varieties), sweet corn, persimmon, pumpkins, cucumbers, winter squash, willow, sour (pie) cherry, quincy, lingonberries, cranberries, plum, comfrey, grapes, and allium.

garden inventory side yard

The side yard, and along the path to the driveway: dill, madder, strawberries, tomatoes (5 varieties), parsley, carrots, leeks, garlic, one pumpkin plant (I guess I lost track), grapes, willow, elecampne, hosta, gunnera, astilbe, blueberries, cecephalus, and just off to the right of this photo, plum, apple, tree peony.

garden inventory dooryardIn Maine parlance this is the dooryard – just down the steps from the front door: edible dandelion, calendula, columbine, mullein, anise hyssop, golden beets, Bull’s Blood beets (grown for the ruby-red foliage); yellow Australian, Red Sails, Winter Romaine, and Thom Thumb lettuces, assorted mustards, bergenia, feverfew, tatsoi, senposi, minutia, poppies, and honeysuckle.

Therefore, a manifesto to gardeners everywhere (and with apologies to Freemasons), chao ab ordo!