More wildlife in the garden – and in my paintings for 2020. Spinus tristis makes a tsee-tsi-tsi-tsit call in flight as they bounce around the garden from seed stalk to thistle head. While the female is on the nest she calls to her returning mate with a soft continuous teeteeteeteete sound, which we hear a great deal during early summer. The roses in this painting are from an unidentified plant that was a gift from a friend in southern Maine. It blooms once, gloriously, in early summer and has proved hardy in its little untended corner of the lower garden for twenty years.
The working title for my series of paintings in 2020 is “In the Garden” and will highlight the many and varied creatures that live and visit the space outside my studio.
I’ve been working to improve habitats for creatures in and around the garden beds. Amphibians, reptiles, and songbirds are all at risk worldwide and I have the advantage of excellent raw material in two acres of freshwater marsh and a harsh climate that resists invasives and favors native species. I have compositions planned to include our three local frog species: grey, tree, and spring peeper, multiple woodpeckers, the ducks and geese that stop here on their way through the spring and fall migrations, and the domestics that wander through on a lovely summer morning, like my neighbor’s Black Leghorn rooster, below.
This piece started with an underpainting of large tonal areas – a new technique for me this year. The underlying structure allows more freedom in the top layer to depict the complicated surfaces and textures of the creatures that will join the flowers in future paintings. Onward to “Roses with Goldfinch” in the studio!
In the photo below you’ll notice a heap of garden refuse (the hugel) in back of a trench dug below grade planted with kale and bok choi varieties (the waffle).
Hügelkultur is a composting process using raised beds constructed from decaying wood debris and other compostable biomass plant materials. The process helps to improve soil fertility, water retention, and soil warming, and improves the insect and bacterial life of the beds around the hugel. Building several hugels around the garden makes a handy depository for the constant outflow of pruning and weeding debris, making it much easier to “compost in place”. I use the top and sides of the pile to stash plants that need a temporary home; clumps of daylilies that needed separating, unexpected plum seedlings, and the like. The top of the pile dries out in my very arid Downeast summer weather so I don’t plant vine crops or flowers there, although many people recommend the practice. Someday, when I have more water available perhaps that will be an option!
The hugel is paired with a waffle bed. Waffles are the opposite of raised beds and are built by removing soil in a small area, replacing and augmenting the best soil available, and then planting below grade. This practice has been used since ancient times in arid climates to preserve water and soil, and to shade roots and seedlings as they develop. The combination of the hugel acting as a windbreak, moisture reservoir, and beneficial critter refuge with the waffle offering fertile soil, bottom shade, and slower evaporation, is hard to beat.
The hugel/waffle combination can be quite small and still provide a significant benefit. Here a small hugel on a slope is planted with Marguerite Daisy (Argyranthemum frutescens). Note that this plant is generally considered a weed for it’s prolific seed production but is also a good drought proof pollination plant. The trenched waffle bed upslope is planted with onion sets, and the small, deep waffles below are planted with tomatoes. Both sides benefit from the hugel providing water diversion and storage and wind protection.
Here a small hugel planted with chives borders a waffle planted with greens: kale, Australian yellow lettuce, spinach, and lettuce var. Pablo.
Early May might not be early spring where you are, it’s not even early for Maine, some years. This year we’re still in the grip of winter long past the usual garden landmarks. I couldn’t plant peas on St. Patrick’s Day because of all the snow and when the drifts finally washed away under cold rains a few weeks ago I put them in south facing beds where they’re still sulking, under ground.
Pruning is a good task for days when I should not be planting seedlings out no matter how tempting the noon day sun. This is a wild apple planted from seed that my toddler son found in Acadia National Park. I probably would have let it grow for sentimental reasons, but it produces bushels of good-sized tart crabs, dark red skinned with snow white flesh, that are excellent for roasting and canning. It is extremely vigorous and growing on its own roots so when I let it go for a year it puts up a thicket around the main trunk. The whole pruning job took about an hour and resulted in a pile of thorny branches bigger than the remaining tree – sign of a job well done!
I planted out four kale varieties and baby bok choi in a bed that grew potatoes last year. Brassicas are a great cleanser for soil that may have picked up potato-related bugs and virus issues. These are right out of the seedlings trays in the cellar, grown under shop lights. I covered them with a layer of floating row cover and they should be fine during the next few days of cold rain and wind.
The bergenia by the corner of the house is always a good bet for first paintable flower of the year. The plant has large leathery leaves that overwinter. The common name “Pigsqueak” comes from the sound made by rubbing two leaves together.
With last night’s full moon we left the cold, wet Spring for full-on 90 degree sun and westerly winds at 20 knots – suddenly it’s summer. The garden will change rapidly now as the plants soak up more than 16 hours of sunlight a day. Here goes an attempt to catch up!
I started this post just after the Strawberry Full Moon on June 9. Then I went outside to harvest some green onions and lettuce and the garden pulled me under. I’ve been planting green beans and throwing hay on the potatoes, putting in the second crop of peas and wrapping tree tape and Tanglefoot on the fruit trees. Today I have a few minutes on a rainy Saturday morning and will perhaps get this post published before the Buck Moon on July 9!
Ripening strawberries, var Sparkle. We netted the plants against rodents this year but the goshawks in the nearby Kittredge Forest Preserve are doing their part to keep the red squirrel population in check.
The tree peony in full bloom – a huge draw with the early morning honeybees.
Dwarf Sour Cherry tree “Carmine Jewel”, will grow to about 7′ and about as wide, good for keeping the fruit in easy reach. I hate to pick from a ladder! Some growers report harvesting 20 – 30 lbs of fruit from one tree so there’s really no need to go bigger. This one is developing a nice trunk and is loaded with fruit.
Baby Seckel pears will be ripe in late September. The white splotches on the leaves are left after spraying with Surround CP, a white clay in suspension that forms a barrier against pests.
Baby peaches on the Garnet Beauty peach tree. The bees did good work this year.
The view out the front door facing south, with a new bed (beets and carrots) and of course the fixtures of every Maine garden: giant spruce trees and an electric fence charger!
Here’s to fitting in a post before the Sturgeon Moon on August 7th!
Hibiscus is one of the last perennials to “wake up” every spring in the Maine garden, but is reliably, improbably, hardy in zone 5. Come September the flowers glow like torches lit against the dark maroon foliage. An autumn morning cloudy sky and apple branches add to the illusion that the papery flowers, beloved of Kali, are lit from within.
Hibiscus #1, 36 x 24, 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.
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
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!