Category Archives: orchard

The August garden

The Principe Borghese tomatoes are coming along, with a few Juliets and the big, buttery Paul Robesons. I picked a cookie sheet full to finish ripening in the house. After a few weeks of drought the weekend rains will swell the fruit and cause the skins to crack. This coming weekend I should have enough to can a batch of sauce.

principe borghese tomatoThe Dolgo crab apple has fruit so brightly colored it looks unnatural, especially following its pure white blossoms in spring. The tree is an excellent pollinator for the other apples, and the fruit makes wonderful sauce.

Dolgo crab apple

The peaches won’t be perfectly ripe until early September, but they look good and are beginning to cast a wonderful aroma on a hot, still afternoon. I’ve been looking into drought gardening – dust mulch and other techniques – and the caveats for smaller fruit with lesser yields per tree balanced by extraordinary flavor sounds very familiar. It’s very much how we’re gardening at present with some extra hints for preserving as much moisture in the soil as possible. Can’t wait to learn more about it, but that’s what winter is for.

Peaches ripening

Eupatorium purpureum, Joe Pye Weed or Queen-of-the-Meadow, is 10′ tall this year. I’m not sure if the new height is a function of the age of the planting (3 years), or if it just really likes extreme heat and drought. Our bees love it, no matter how tall it gets.

Eupatorium purpureum Joe Pye weed

At the opposite end of the height spectrum just a few feet away, heather “Wave” is only an inch tall, but has spread out to about 30″ square. It also attracts pollinators.

Wave Heather

This sprawling mass of pink blossoms is one plant of Bouncing Bet, or Soapwort. The bees aren’t so fond of the blossoms, but the plant is doing very well for not being watered since June and the deer don’t bother it – both real plusses for the gardener.

bouncing bet soapwort

 

Windfall

Last Friday I picked apples at an abandoned homestead on my commute home from work.

The tree is big by Maine standards, about 40′ tall and 20′ around. Deer have pruned the branches back to 5′ above the ground by eating all the fruit they can reach. I used my walking stick to knock down enough to fill a canvas tote – about 15 lbs. of hard red, conical apples with minimal insect damage and no fungus. I haven’t looked up the variety yet, but the combination of large tree with that shape fruit hanging on a  tree past first frost is fairly uncommon and I should be able to find it in my loaner copy of “Apples of Maine”. Thanks, Agnes!

We don’t eat much jelly and jam, and space is scarce in the chest freezer downstairs. When the grapes came in (and in, and in some more) I made quarts of thick, sweet grape juice concentrate and we used that up very quickly indeed. I’d never made apple juice but honestly, how hard could it be?

You can see where this is going, right? I followed the directions in the Blue Book; cutting the stem and blossom ends off the fruit and then coarsely chopping the rest. I added a pint of water and a little lemon juice and cooked the apples down to “mushy”. Then the recipe says to drain the mush through a jelly bag or several layers of cheesecloth and after an hour I had about half a cup of juice. Very nice juice, but half a cup seemed unrewarding. Compared to the huge amount of apples in the strainer, ti also seemed stingy. I added more water, switched to a colander instead of cheesecloth, and generally made everything in the kitchen sticky sweet with apple residue and got 4 quarts of very thin applesauce for my trouble. Again, very tasty (those are good apples) and a pretty color, but not what I had in mind.

I think the next painting I sell will turn into a steam juicer.

 

 

October gardening

The late October to-do list includes:

Rake neighbor’s driveway: for the dual purpose of making her steep slope less slippery and harvesting wheelbarrows full of mulch for the blueberries, hydrangea, and current bushes. Every year I’m amazed what a soft, abundant cushion falls from the white pines that still look fully clothed in green needles.

Move the chrysanthemums from the yard to the hoop house and then eventually down cellar under the grow lights. Mums are one of my favorite plants to draw – their structure is so loud and on display – but they are the last flowers to bloom in my garden. That means nursing them through waning day length and falling temperatures, but it’s worth it for the source material. I indulge myself every year and buy two or three varieties from King’s Mums in Oregon, in search of my very own Mondrian.

Plant red garlic in the beds by the house where tomatoes grew this summer. A virus blew up the coast with Hurricane Irene and shut the tomato production down in August, so I should give these beds a rest from anything in the nightshade family for three years. I loosened the soil a bit with a hoe and planted a pound of cloves about 6″ on center all over the beds, while admiring the creepy-crawlies (baby pill bugs – very cute) and weeding out the tiny tomato seedlings (not this year, sorry). This spring I’ll interplant the garlic shoots with lettuce, spinach and beet greens, and then harvest the bulbs in late fall, 2012.

Prepare fruit trees for winter: rake up the leaves and compost them somewhere away from the trees to keep the pest population down, check the trunks for borers (apple borer is very common here) and rodent damage, put down a layer of seaweed mulch, then a layer of hay, and wrap the lower portion of each tree in wire screening to keep out the mice and shrews. Eventually I’ll also stamp the snow down in a big circle at the drip line to discourage tunneling. A friend of mine stopped by as I was kneeling on the cold wet ground and messing with string and mesh, and asked me why I bother, since none of my trees ever showed any damage? Ayuh.

Clear out the peas: One of my favorite garden tools is hemp twine. I used to spend time and energy ripping the vines out of nylon netting; now I cut the string from the poles and compost the whole heap together. Brilliant!

Return to the house cold and damp all over. Build a fire, make dinner, work on a painting, and go to sleep under two quilts; repeat until April.

 

Monhegan wild gardens

Yesterday we made an impulse trip to Monhegan Island. The forecast for Sunday called for calm and bright so we packed water, apples and granola bars, windbreakers and extra camera batteries, a watercolor pad each and made reservations for the ferry.

The Monhegan Boat Line has made three trips a day from the island to Port Clyde and back again (weather permitting) since 1914. It’s a small, sturdy boat with a stalwart captain who will slow down to allow the birdwatchers to get a good look at the bald eagles roosting along the shore and a rotating crew of very hardy high school girls wearing MBL sweatshirts and the ubiquitous Maine shag haircut. You couldn’t be in better hands. Especially Sunday, when the slightly rolling seas flashed with sunlight and the temperatures stayed in the balmy 60’s.

The trip takes about an hour. We were delayed for a few minutes docking to allow a man to ferry a cow in a rowboat across the inlet from Manana, the tiny island next to Monhegan. As we left they were ferrying goats who seemed much more unhappy about leaving their summer pasture, or maybe about being in a rowboat – it was hard to tell.

We hiked from 11:30 – 3 with a break for lunch. Monhegan is renowned for its rocky headlands and breathtaking cliffs; Black Head, White Head, and Green Point, but my lasting impression on a hot September mid-day trek was the vast amount of plant and animal life. Asters, several varieties of goldenrod, feverfew, and late roses were all in full bloom. The bayberry bushes and ash and apple trees were heavy with fruit and wasps, there were kinglets and cedar waxwings gorging on seeds and berries and making a ruckus.  We saw three varieties of butterflies  and in every warm hollow filled with flowers there were dozens of Italian honey bees. I didn’t see any hives in passing through the village, but perhaps there’s someone out there? It seems improbable that a colony would survive a Monhegan winter in the wild, but who knows – it will be worth investigating when we make the trip this spring.

Crepuscular

The light is fading fast in the garden as we approach the equinox. I have a day job, so gardening is relegated to the hours around 9 – 5 and very soon there won’t be any of those. Tonight I stayed out long enough that I needed to come back to the house for a flashlight to find where I’d put my Felcos – normally very visible with their bright red plastic handles.

Twilight is sacred to Hindus. The part of the day when the sun is below the horizon and objects are still visible is considered prime time for study and contemplation and is known as the “Cow Dust Time”.

Crespecular is the collective adjective for who are most active in the early evening, such as red pandas, deer, moose, and myself. I might be further described as “vespertine” with the woodcock and coyotes. We’re all out there together, avoiding predation and thermal stress by doing our best work just after sunset and before moonrise.

Now that I’m back in the house with my electric noon I’ll put up grape juice and peach nectar for the long time ahead, when twilight and dawn are only six hours apart.

Peach Nectar, or, The Easiest Way to Put Up Lots of Peaches

Wash and pit peaches. If they’re ripe and you trust your source, don’t bother peeling them. Pit them directly over the bowl of the food processor so all the juices go in, too. Sprinkle 1 tsp lemon juice and 1/2 C sugar over the full bowl and puree. I have a 6 Cup capacity Cuisinart, so adjust for the size of your processor.

Dump the contents into a large pot and repeat until you’ve almost filled the pot. Heat just to simmer and add sugar, a little salt, and a little vanilla to taste. Ladle into sterilized canning jars and process for 15 minutes in a steam canner.

This is great stuff for your breakfast smoothie.

 

Peaches vs Irene

The Red Haven peach tree is in full production mode, weighted down to the ground with nicely colored, but still ripening fruit. We’re having a huge rain right now and the winds are expected to continue through the night but I can’t really think of any way to protect the branches. Weighted by line and cinder blocks? Tied in bundles to each other? I’ve decided to let nature take its course and see what there is to pick up off the ground tomorrow morning. Best case scenario seems to be that we’ll lose fruit, but not too many branches.  Stayed tuned.

The garden in August

Cephalanthus O. has expanded into a multi-trunked thicket down by the lower driveway in the culvert ditch that leads to the swamp. Over the years the seeds (which are really “nutlets”) have dropped into the run-off in the spring, traveled through the culvert and seeded themselves along the stream into the swamp in a meandering trail of white, puffy blossoms buzzing with bees. The Buttonbush, or Button-willow, is a member of the coffee family and native to the NE US.

Bouncing Bet, or Soapwort, is in full bloom and covered with bees in the afternoon. They don’t seem to like it as much in the morning, perhaps it needs to warm up to produce a nectar flow? The plant contains up to 20% saponin (careful- toxic!) in the roots while in bloom, and even the leaves and stems will make a nice lather.

The peaches are coming along in the front yard. I expect the first ones to ripen in 3 weeks or so. Anise hyssop (for tea) and calendula o. (for salve) surround the tomato beds in the background.

Meadow-sweet has spread through the wild garden as cattails have increased the ratio of soil to water over the years. Next year I’m going to try harvesting the cattail shoots. The bees are all over the meadow-sweet which, like goldenrod, blooms in the heat of high summer.

July garden tour

A few days ago, I posted a photo of the garden in the morning when was still dewy and a little misty around the edges. It was a pretty shot, but quite a few people asked if they could “zoom in” and see the individual beds in more detail. Other people asked if they could get a list of what plants are growing in what area. I’ve just begun the work that will eventually build out “guilds” and “poly-cultures” of plant communities, but it’s not a bad idea to have a list of where I started for my records. This is by no means a complete inventory, but here we go:

This bed is in the “upper” garden, hard by the house. In “Gaia’s Garden“, Toby Hemenway talks about siting often-used vegetables close to the house. He suggests going out to snip a few herbs for an omelet and a side-dish of greens in the early morning in your bedroom slippers and robe. If you come in wet around the edges, the herbs are too far from the house. I can definitely snip greens from this bed without getting damp in the morning. Made of three layers of cinderblock, this bed is fairly deep. Even on the south side of the house it stores enough moisture for mustard, lettuces, radishes, and a few sorrel plants. Around the edges, in the cells of the blocks, grow anise hyssop, Thai basil, forget-me-nots (they’re everywhere), and alpine poppies. All the beds in the upper garden are ringed with strawberry plants, so that they benefit from the moisture and shade.

More in the upper garden: three beds of tomatoes surrounded by calendula and interplanted with bulls blood beets and white globe turnips. One of the tomato choices I made this season was Fedco’s Heirloom Tomato Mix.  I’m looking forward to seeing what comes out of that over the course of the season and possibly picking out some new favorites for next year.

Down in the lower garden this bed contains Provider green beans, haricot verts, and started out with a lot of radishes that provided quick shade for the sensitive bean sprouts. I’ve since picked the radishes and the Carpet of Snow alyssum has grown up enough to provide a living mulch. I sow the alyssum at the same time as the radishes in the very early spring. Purple bread poppies grow wherever they like and provide full seedheads for bread and pastry and resowing in the fall.

This is one of the squash beds, set on the hillside for ease of walking around fragile trailing vines. The deer don’t bother the stouter vines, so these pumpkins and Hubbard squash can clamber up the hill and outside the electric fence. They are interplanted with nasturtiums (just for color – I don’t think these hybrids protect against bugs or nematodes) and green beans. These green beans are planted about two weeks after the beans in the bed mentioned above so that the harvest is staggered.

Corn! Two rows of Silver Queen white sweet corn, potentially growing to 9 feet and producing 3 or 4 ears per stalk in a good year. These are not interplanted with anything. I’d love to try the Three-Sisters method of corn stalks in mounds surrounded by pole beans and squash, but I have yet to convince my partner-gardener of that. This year he allowed mulch, so maybe there’s hope. That said, it’s wonderful corn.

Potato boxes with varieties Ratte, German Butterball, Green Mountain, and All Blue. The potatoes are planted in about a foot of dirt at the bottom of the box and boards and hay are added as the plants grow taller. I had a very poor yield in the 2010 boxes due, I think, to droughty weather and too much hay/too little soil to start. The vines are much healthier as we get into the really hot part of summer this year, so I have hopes for a good harvest. This is certainly a space-effective way to grow potatoes. In the late fall I dump the boxes over and use the soil, mulch and old plants to make a new bed.

Lilies and apple trees seem to go together well. The lilies provide a nice living mulch to cool the roots,  retain moisture, and shade out weeds. These are very old Tiger lilies from my grandmother’s garden in Connecticut growing under “Westfield Seek-no-Further”, which is covered in little green apples this year.

I have another whole group of close-ups for a post this weekend. We’ve had some rain so if I can stop picking green beans for a minute  I’ll make another post this weekend!

 

So much to do.

The days are just packed! And we’re still getting more than 16 hours of daylight.

Lady’s Mantle, elecampne, and willow fences line the path into the garden.

Little green apples beginning to form on the “Westfield Seek No Further”. The tree is covered with them – good work by the bees.

“Portland” roses from the Flanagan house in Portland with angelica in the background.

Fedco’s “Beneficial Insects” mix is in full bloom.

The bees are busy hoarding pollen, nectar and sunlight.

 

Day off

I have today off from work which means quick – prune the fruit trees! No company, no huge dinner to make (our hot water heater quit after >10 years so dinners lately have been sandwiches on paper plates), and it’s not quite raining yet, so off we go.

I’ve heard complaints about how complicated it is to prune a fruit tree. It’s not complicated. It’s a lot of work, especially if the tree has been badly pruned at the start or neglected, but it’s not complicated. Our forebears managed fine and many of mine weren’t particularly bright, so there you go.

Here are the rules.

  • Wait for a nice day. I’ll tell you right off that I break this one all the time. My day job takes most of the sunny dry days with only a light breeze because that’s the way things happen. Today the weather is foggy, damp, and humid with thunderstorms predicted for the afternoon. If you have a bad fungus infestation or a lot of larvae, pruning under those conditions might spread the bad stuff around. If that’s the only day you have to work, I’d argue that a good pruning might get rid of the problem, or at least limit the damage.
  • Prune out branches that cross each other. Choose the best candidate to leave (healthiest growth, best direction, most fruit) and cut the conflicting branch. You want sunlight and air movement to the very center of the tree. The old Maine standard is to “prune until you can throw a cat through the branches”, presumably without injuring the cat.
  • Try for horizontal growth, for stability and best fruiting. Different trees have different growth habits, so we try to influence rather than dictate this one.
  • For most trees, and assuming a healthy amount of growth in an average year, try to prune lightly one year and heavily the next. You should be able to tell from the condition of the tree if it needs more than a light grooming in an off year.
  • Keep your Felcos in your pocket. Maybe that damp day when the sap is running high in March is a bad day to make cuts, but if you see a small problem it’s a good idea to nip it in the bud. There’s a reason that’s a cliche.
  • If you make a mistake, it will grow back. Better to make a bad decision or two during the learning process than have a garden full of trees with snarled branches and no fruit.

Here’s a photo of the Seckel pear that I’m pruning heavily today. I can never seem to get a good shot of a tree’s structure, but I’ll let the pile of prunings (destined for hugelkultur) speak for itself.

As a bonus, if you use only passive controls on your fruit trees, such as Tanglefoot and Surround, you can safely grow crops right up to the canopy. That’s some happy lettuce in the foreground.