Category Archives: the backyard

Hugels and Waffles, drought-proofing the garden

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).

 

waffle garden

Hugel plantings: daylilies, ornamental allium, elecampne, lupine (volunteers), valarian. Waffle planting: kale varieties, bok choi, arugula

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.

hugel waffle

Here a small hugel planted with chives borders a waffle planted with greens: kale, Australian yellow lettuce, spinach, and lettuce var. Pablo.

small hugel waffle chives kaleFor those of us with poor soil in an arid climate, just a little digging can make a big difference.

Early Spring in the Garden, 2018

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!                                                                                     crab apple, pruningcrab apple, pruning

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.seedlings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rhubarb is one of the harbingers of spring in my garden and it’s still tiny! Last year we were well on our way to pie by mid-April, this year we have just the first tiny leaves unfurling.Rhubarb

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.Bergenia

 

 

 

 

 

Garden post (it’s been too long)

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!

ripe strawberries fraises

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.Tree peony

The tree peony in full bloom – a huge draw with the early morning honeybees.

tree peony blossom breakfast

Dwarf Sour Cherry

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.

Pear Tree

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.

garden panaroma

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!

 

New work: Hibiscus in the Morning

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

Feeding the bees, February edition

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.

Bees in February

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.

Maine Bees fondant

 

Garden 2017: the seed order

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

Soon!

On the easel. . .

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.

hummingbird honeysuckle

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!

New work: Amy’s Maine Coloring Book

Amy’s Maine Coloring Book is now available on Amazon!

Hours of tedium and help from amazing friends turned this from an oft-heard comment (“Your drawings look like they could be paint-by-numbers!) into an actual book out in the real world.

Thanks to all, with a special shout-out to all the people who saw a woman in the road staring intently at their home over the edge of her sketchbook, and simply shrugged and went about their day without thinking too much about it.

 

The Favorite Tree – Dawn Redwood

In 2010 I bought a Dawn Redwood tree (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) from Fedco Trees. Fedco specializes in small, very well-rooted specimens that are easy to ship and plant. True to form, what I unpacked from that shipment was the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree of redwoods: 2′ tall with a twiggy trunk and sparse, irregular foliage. I picked a likely spot in our swamp for a tree that would/might eventually reach 100′ and left it to fend for itself (which is my favorite philosophy for growing trees). It worked!

Metasequoia glyptostroboides

Yesterday I went out to visit what has become my favorite tree in the garden. The soft, deciduous foliage is turning bronze – equally as beautiful as the luminescent green color in spring. The trunk caliper has increased to 11″, showing off the striated golden-orange bark that will only become deeper and more colorful with age.

Dawn Redwood trunk

R. complimented me on picking a good spot. This is about 15′ from our driveway, which means that if it does get to 100′ (not likely in Maine) the buttressed trunk will probably not interfere with our carpark. Probably.

Might have room for a giant, prehistoric tree in your yard? Fedco has them in this year’s catalog:

Dawn Redwood 100′ One of the most spectacular of the ornamental trees. The wide irregular trunk looks like something out of a fairy tale with its iridescent golden-orange bark that becomes deeply grooved, hollowed and fluted with age. The bright green deciduous needles turn orange in the fall. Grows quickly, up to 50′ in 15–20 years, with many small-diameter horizontal branches and a uniform conical habit. Give it lots of space to grow! Highly adaptable, easy to transplant. Prefers moist deep well-drained slightly acid soil in full sun. Will tolerate wet or dry sites. Pollution resistant; good specimen or street tree, rarely needs pruning. Fossils dating back 50 million years have been found in Japan. Thought to be extinct until it was “rediscovered” in central China in 1941. Resembles California redwoods only vaguely. Metasequoia glyptostroboides Native to China and Japan. Z4. ME Grown. (1-3′ bare-root trees)
Item
525A: 1 for $15.00

Dawn Redwood foliage