Willow garden basket

Willow has become my favorite garden construction material. The willow retaining wall, or “withy”, that I put in 10 years ago has become a lush green wall that provides erosion control,  shelter from drying wind and cold air flow, and bird and insect habitat on the abrupt slope by the side of the house. I keep it pruned to 3′ – 4′ and what was originally a single file of uprights is now a twisted mass more branch than space with a caliper of 4″ on some of the foundation trunks. I came home too late to take photos tonight, but tomorrow is a day off and I’ll repost.

The withy is wonderful where it has enough space but I’ve been leery of starting one in the main garden. I need room around it to easily prune it back (I’m pretty wild with the big shears), and it gets big fast even in Maine. Then a few weeks back a friend showed me an old woodcut illustration of a garden with what looked like large baskets overflowing with herbs. The “pots” had been started as baskets made of green willow with the uprights staked into the dirt, and allowed to grow in place. It seemed like a great idea!

I cut enough basket willow to form the uprights for a semicircular “basket” backed up to a tree trunk. I try to cut the branches at an angle for ease of pushing them into the ground, and remember to orient them the way they were growing.

Then I wove the uprights into themselves to form the basket. I used string to tie them in place at first but as the weave gets thicker the ends stay where you put them. Then I lined it inside and out with mulch hay to cut down on weed competition.

I filled the inside of the basket with a layer of rotten firewood, bark, then hay, then soil, and planted my new flowering (and fruiting) quince. I hope the recumbent form of the shrub isn’t as overwhelmed as it might be by starting 2′ above ground level.

Now to wait for Spring, and “Crimson and Gold”.

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.


The menu for Thanksgiving Dinner 2010 stands as follows:

Martha Stewart’s Gruyere Thyme refrigerator crackers, made with Seal Cove mixed milk aged cheese “Olga” instead of Gruyere. Thank you for the delicious sample, Betsy! The crackers are incredibly simple to make but do need to chill overnight, so I’m making them in between blog posts. They will be our appetizer, with. . .

Fruit: Forelle pears (here on Peanut Butter Etoufee – welcome, pull up a fork!), Red Globe grapes and Courtland apple slices.

We will have turkey. R received a beautiful-but-deadly Wusthof 4″ boning knife for his birthday, so we’ll have a rolled, boneless turkey a la Julia Child – pan roasted in butter, and then finished in the oven in a remarkably short period of time. It will share oven space with sweet potatoes in maple syrup and turnips, par-boiled and then roasted with sea salt. Oh, and stuffing! This year the Morning Glory Bakery in the village provided 15 cup bags of their assorted breads cubed and baked – both savory and efficient. I added butter (duh), chopped onions, shallots and celery, vegetable stock, Black Mission figs and Northern Spy apples. R. will roll some up with the turkey and we’ll serve the rest on the side for the vegetarians in the audience.

We’ll have Savoy cabbage, carrot and apple slaw in the big wooden bowl with Susan’s favorite dressing for which I promise I will find and record the recipe (sorry, Susan!). There may be rolls.There will be cranberry sauce with local berries, sweetened with pomegranate molasses, which makes the sauce explosively tart and gives it a wonderful dark color.

Then there will be pie! Just two this year: Fannie Farmer pumpkin made with the New England pie pumpkins we grew over the incredibly balmy summer of 2010, and Martha Stewart’s (again) Maple Bourbon Pecan Pie, because it is just so good.

Recipes for what makes the grade to follow over the weekend. Keep warm, everybody.

Wild life

Today I took a walk along the carriage trails in Acadia National Park toward Witch’s Hole and the Breakneck Ponds. The park is a good place to observe nature in action, and I saw two peregrine falcons, a predaceous diving beetle (late in the season, but the swamp is still warm), a white-tail buck (very common in the park, where there is no hunting), countless red squirrels and six beavers. The first lodge pond is very close to the Eagle Lake Rd. – the dam is only 15′ from the highway. I saw a beaver couple here, the “v” of their swim across the pond is to the right of the lodge.

I walked farther down the carriage road to the first of the Breakneck Ponds, and found a recent “chew”. Here the beaver has felled a poplar and a carried the tree off for construction purposes.

And this is why beavers can be hazardous to your health – I’m glad it wasn’t windy.

Further down the carriage road the park has been forced to intervene. Beavers have dropped a fairly large birch tree across the road and the park crew has chainsawed it into manageable pieces.

At the last lodge I visited there were two beavers cruising the deep water in front of this impressive dam. Evidently they don’t take weekends off.

Prospect, ME

Tonight I drove across the Verona Island Bridge, past Fort Knox and out to the Prospect Community Hall for the Tri-County Beekeepers Association Annual Meeting and Pot Luck.  First order of business was to honor Genevieve for her 20 years work as our treasurer with a carrot cake from Frank’s. You’re a Honey!

Speaker for the evening was Tony Jadczak, the Maine State Apiarist. Tony’s talk was centered around 2010 weather: the warm, early spring followed by a terrific summer honey crop, then a drought setting in for July and August and a dearth of honey this fall. A long dry summer means no goldenrod, and that means the bees eat their winter stores early. In 2009 we had one of the coldest, rainiest summers on record but the rain stopped in early September and the vegetation was lush. Hives put on a lot of honey and the bounty carried many weaker hives, and even some wild colonies, through a very mild winter. Tony took us through the consequences of “reinfestation pressure” and predictions for 2011, touched on new virus research and the ever increasing threat of mites, and talked about the people all over Maine who make their living (and their kids tuition) by the bees.

While I was there I noticed that renovations to the Prospect Community Hall continue. Sometimes I think every building in Maine is a product of retrofitting: the Hall has three layers of ceiling, two front doors (leading directly to the shoulder of Rt 1A) and a new bathroom.

I miss the old bathroom with its irregular toilet and the sheet of polished steel as a mirror, but the flowers are a nice touch.

Like the beekeepers, the Hall is ever-changing in an effort to keep up with the times; to be useful and purposeful and bug free as much as possible.


Thursday was a beautiful day and I had it off from work (thank you, Uncle Dwight, who was a Chosin Marine). I checked on the bees and “Stripey” was doing very well – lots of full comb and traffic, some bees were even landing with dark orange pollen. I’ve given up trying to figure out where the flowers are at odd times of the year; I’m sure some wealthy summer person’s gardens are full of alpine poppies down in Northeast Harbor, blooming orange and purple in mid-November. It wouldn’t be the first time I wished I could travel with the bees.

I realized I was in trouble when I took the top cover off to check the level of sugar in the feeder box. The syrup was shot through with green mold that looked like seaweed and smelled like vinegar. The bees hadn’t touched it and all the previous week while I was hoping they were happily stocking up while trapped in their hives by wind and rain. The week of damp, 65 degree weather might have encouraged mold, and this year I bought cheap, store brand sugar for 1/3 the price of Domino’s in 15 lb bags so perhaps that was a factor, too. In any case, I pulled the feeder box off the hive (heavy!), cleaned and bleached it, dried it in the sun and then refilled it and went to check on Hive Two (Two Bee).

Two Bee, sadly, was empty. The top box had comb on only three frames, so I took it off and poked around a bit. The remaining boxes smelled good – honey and beeswax – so I put the top cover on, blocked the entrances and walked away, figuring I would use the set-up for the new package bees on order from R. Weaver Apiaries in the spring. My only excuse here is that this is normally the time of year I lose a hive and I was rushed.

Yesterday was another beautiful day – 60 degrees and perfectly still – and the bees in Stripey were out and about in force. I went out to check the sugar level (about two days depleted, perfect) and then realized I heard buzzing – from both hives. I knocked the wooden door cover off the “dead” hive and bees immediately boiled out. And kept coming. Pissed at having been cooped up all day Friday, they formed a cloud in front of the hive and began making foraging sorties, and boy, did I feel stupid. I ran in the house and made them a batch of fall syrup, grabbed the clean feeder box out of the hoop house and promptly made my second mistake in two days.

Lore and practice suggest wearing white, smooth clothing while tending bees.  Popular reasoning goes that most bee predators are dark and fuzzy: bears, skunks, raccoons, etc. I’ve never had a problem wearing work clothes around my hives, but I do “dress up” in a white beekeeping outfit with a full hood when doing anything invasive. Yesterday morning I was wearing a dark red long-sleeved shirt and a black skirt with black tights and shoes. When I popped the cover off the second hive to put a shim and feeder on top four guard bees immediately settled on my right forearm and stung me as a group. I had the feeder box in my hands and couldn’t brush them off for a few seconds – it felt like my arm was on fire.

Now, Sunday evening, my arm is red and swollen hard from elbow to about 2″ above my wrist. I don’t typically react very much to bee stings, but perhaps four at once was a shock to the system. I’ll try not to do that again right away.

Raspberries Redux

Seventeen years ago raspberries were the first permanent planting in our garden. Our land has been harvested for spruce and pine, cleared for pigs and burned over, but it has never been farmed. When I planted those first berry bushes I moved rocks and dug through deep deposits of yellow clay, lined the holes with seaweed and horse bedding from the stable up the street, mulched the new stalks with salt hay and waited. Turns out that raspberries will put up with a lot of abuse. There were late springs, early winters, droughty summers, deer, birds and weeds but most summers I picked raspberries by the gallon.  The yield increased in 2006 when I began keeping bees, disguising the decline of bushes that had been producing well in poor soil and without weed control. 2009 was a terrible year in the garden, nothing did well, and while I thought about replacing the now 15 year old plants, I didn’t have a plan.

Now, I have a plan. Last week I dug over the beds, removing the old plants and uprooting the alpine strawberries and miner’s spinach that had become a thick ground cover. Today I dug out rough squares to use as planting areas for the new canes come spring, and covered the plot with landscape fabric.

I removed most of the decent soil and will use it next spring, after subzero temperatures have killed most of the weeds. I’m using my new favorite building material – firewood from the bottom of last year’s stack – to station the landscape fabric and mold it to the holes.

I bought two bushes last year, variety “Killarney”, and transplanted them to the new bed this afternoon. This fall I plan to purchase “Anne”, an ever-bearing yellow, “Royalty Purple” and “Prelude”, and early fruiting red. Raspberry plants are sold bare-root in bundles of 10 or 5 canes, depending on the variety. I plant them in hills, so will divide the shipment up by the size of the holes I’ve dug.

And finally, where is my matched team of Morgans when I need them?

Wood is the new hay

I miss my pickup truck. When fall came around I used to be able to load six bales of hay into the back of the truck and use it as mulch. We have low temperatures of -15 or so every winter, and possibly lower, so protection of surface roots is a must. A layer of mulch can also mitigate the extreme differences in temperature of a Maine spring – minus 10 degrees in the morning to 40 by 2 in the afternoon. Today I decided to use materials at hand, and mulched several perennial beds and fruit trees with bark strips from our firewood. I’ll post more pictures tomorrow.

So far, it seems like a pretty good idea.

Pumpkin pie

First, get a pumpkin. What you really want is a New England Pie Pumpkin: dark orange, sweet and beautifully sized – one pumpkin, one pie. Those prize-winning giants at the fair are actually gourds and their watery flesh doesn’t cook well, but those big ones from the grocery store that you’re going to carve into Jack O’Lanterns make a decent pie.

Split the pumpkin in half between the stem and blossom end. If it’s very hard, put a sharp knife in all the way to the hilt repeatedly all around and then use a blunt edge (small crowbar, a screwdriver – but not your knife) to lever it open. Scoop out the fibrous insides and separate the seeds to roast with your pie in the oven. Run some water into the scooped halves and then dump it out. Put the halves cut side down on a foil lined baking sheet and roast at 375 for 45 minutes to an hour. The time will vary widely on the size and freshness of the pumpkin. You should be able to puncture the skin easily with a fork when done.

Scoop the flesh out of the skin. A NE Pie pumpkin will make about 1 1/2 C of pulp. Whisk together 3/4 C sugar, 2 eggs* and 1 can of evaporated milk and add to the pumpkin with 1 tsp ginger, 1 tsp cinnamon and 1/2 tsp salt. Whisk gently till blended and pour into an unbaked pie shell. Bake at 375 for 10 minutes, then 345 for 45 minutes or until the middle of the pie is set. Any extra filling mix can be ladled into small pyrex dishes as custard.

*Preferrably fresh, local eggs. Thank you, Carrie’s chickens!