Seaweed harvest

I went down to the cable beach this afternoon to harvest seaweed. The road was in pretty good shape for a gravel slope after all this rain.

Beach Rd Beach roadThe hay is in from the meadow, exposing the giant granite boulders that pop up here and there. The mountains in the distance are across Somes Sound on the other side of the island, in Acadia National Park.

Beach Rd meadow and CadillacHigh surf and strong winds from Hurricane Sandy pushed long barrows of seaweed onto the beach. I harvested six contractor bags of fresh kelp and bladderwort for the garden.

Seaweed harvestI also brought home six gallons of seawater and tomorrow I’m going to experiment with making my own sea salt. The surf close to shore was full of seaweed, but the water was warm on the incoming tide so walking around in squelchy shoes wasn’t too uncomfortable. My Merrills will be fine after a night of drying in front of the woodstove.

Drawing waterI prefer to harvest rose hips after the frost, but here it is early November and we’ve only had a few nights below 35F. This year I waited too long and the cedar waxwings and other fruit-eaters have beaten me to the wild roses. I may look in other places tomorrow, or perhaps add some late pears and apples for a mixed batch of jelly.

Rose hipsTomorrow – a post about boiling down a kettle of seawater!


Over time

Late in 2009 we cut down a dozen spruce trees and a lot of scrub in the front yard. Over the course of just a few days we went from a dark, 40′ tall forest screen to a flat front yard in full sun, dotted with huge stumps and torn wild raspberry bushes. There isn’t much soil here and dirt is expensive to truck in, so we made set out new garden beds with seaweed gathered from a local beach, 3 yards of biocompost, and a lot of cardboard and small deadwood in our first attempts at hugel-kultur. This photo was taken in early June 2010. The spruce tree stumps are clearly visible, as are all the rocks that were too big for me to collect in a wheelbarrow. The  boulder at top left looked even bigger after we took down all those trees.

garden before photo in 2010That year I started to read about “macro-culture”, sheet mulching and the practice of planting the entire garden to a purpose – including the paths and surrounding areas, not simply the beds. Over time the sheer plant density builds soil, holds moisture and insect life, and provides shelter for root systems. It is a popular system for marginal soils in desert areas and eroded hillsides, and I thought it might be helpful on our mix of never-cultivated rocks and clay. I stood in the same spot to take this photo yesterday and I think the idea might be working. . .

garden after macroculture



I dug a hole in the lower garden this weekend, and this is what I got.

Load 16 tons, and what do you get. . .

We moved here twenty years ago and started gardening as soon as we could fell some trees, but we have neighbors who have been at it almost twice as long. When I asked R.A.T. (who has beautiful gardens and fruit trees with C., his wife) what kind of soil I could expect to find on my lot he thought for a minute and said, “Sparky”. I had no idea what he meant but later that summer when I boot-heeled a spading fork into a future raised bed and nearly started a forest fire scraping the metal against the granite,  I got it. We don’t have dirt here, we have flint and tinder.

Yeah, good luck getting this one out.

I’ve hauled a lot of seaweed in the last twenty years – pickup truck loads of the stuff, first loose in the back of the truck and later packed into recycled contractor bags as I realized what the salt and sand did to my truck. Also leaves, sand, gravel, horse manure, bales and bales of hay, piles of pine needles, composted bio-soils, wood chips and lately, other people’s yard waste and branches as I’ve adapted to the practices of permaculture. I can actually grow things now but that doesn’t mean there’s any fewer rocks, large or small.

Extra large family size over compensating rock.

Rocks can occasionally be a positive element in the garden, especially in poor soil. I was weeding the strawberries during this last gasp of summer-in-November and found the plants had spread furiously under and around the rocks holding down the landscape fabric meant to suppress weeds. I stood there for a while and considered the situation. The strawberry plants loved those rocks, perhaps because they conserved moisture and regulated temperature changes? The landscape fabric certainly wasn’t doing anything to suppress weeds, and I have a lot of rocks. Why not make the plants happy? The strawberry bed went from this:

Argghhhh, mass strawberry attack.

to this:

Order out of chaos. Sweet, sweet order.

If nothing else, it will be easier to step into the middle of the bed to pick the fruit, and it can’t be any worse at weed suppression than the landscape fabric. Prettier too, and I find that counts for a lot in the garden.

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!



Hugelkultur is the practice of building garden beds with rotting wood. How this has escaped me till now I have no idea – I have rotting wood everywhere in my garden, I should own stock.

This is not Hugelkultur, this is a failed burn-pile. I meant to clean it up last fall, but a dry October led to a droughty November and December brought a lot of snow and I never had a free day at the right time. Come to think of it, there might be some debris in there from 2009. . .

Burning brush here is an all-day affair that begins with a trip to the village for a burn permit. Mount Desert Island has a long history of burning down, most notably the Great Fire of ’47. Bar Harbor took the threat seriously and, unlike many small towns who are staffed by volunteers, employs a professional fire department. On a still Saturday morning in early spring or late fall I often meet my neighbors in the dispatchers office. We read off our phone numbers and Fire Lanes to the genial folks in uniform, vow to have shovels and rakes, hoses and at least two adults on hand at all times, and if the air is still and there aren’t too many requests in already we can go off and burn our cornstalks and apple tree prunings.  Its a good system, and they do follow-up too –  it’s not unusual to see a fire truck cruise down our narrow gravel road just at sunset, making sure we’re out for the night.

Once organized and lit, bonfires are all very romantic and tiring. These days I have an Adirondack chair and a book to spend the afternoon watching the flames die down, but when my son was small he and his friends would make a day of experiments, orange-tipped apple branches making smoke signals and water pistols making steam.

That said, I’m not going to miss the big pile of carbon blazing into heat energy and drifting off toward entropy. I’m going to collect every scrap of downed tree and woody stalk and use its slow decay to build soil and grow things. I can’t find specifics on the process, which is fine – I’ll bet that it’s just that simple. I’ve started to pile up the debris in the photo on a marshy peninsula of reeds and willow in the swamp. I’m going to keep a record of how it settles (or doesn’t) over the course of a year and make a stab at “best practices” in 2012.

Thank you, Herr Holzer, for the inspiration. If I had the room, I would totally be saving up for a frontloader.

Garden post

There's been a bumper crop of everything after 6 straight days of rain.

"La Ratte" potatoes win the race for showing green shoots above a foot of soil and another foot of mulch. I'll add more hay this weekend.

Those serrated leaves in the middle of this photo are horseradish sprouts. They're a long way from the horseradish bed.

Future strawberries! A good crop of dandelions, valerian and allium as well.

The lettuces love this weather. Mulching the tatsoi with seaweed seems to cut down on the flea beetles.



Today, December 4, 2010, was a perfect day in the garden. I’m writing this so I can look back on this post in years to come and say, what? Really? Because your typical Maine early December day is not a balmy 40 degrees, perfectly still, with the sun peeping out from the low, smooth gray cloud cover like it was today. Yes, I needed a fleece vest, wool tights, gloves and a hat but still – no mosquitoes! The day length this time of year is tough too. I had to clean up my tools at 3:30 this afternoon, ahead of full dark at 4:30.

We have a big black “Earth Machine” composter just to the right of the front door. I bought it through the town Conservation Commission and, as much as I hate to buy plastic to make dirt, it works like a charm. A full year of kitchen waste goes in and I dig the results out of the bottom door in the fall, complete with a vast families of red worms that take up residence and multiply over the summer.

Step 1: Spread a tarp in the immediate vicinity, grab a wheelbarrow, shovel, compost turner (optional but handy) and a stout pair of gloves (required). Open the small door at the bottom of the compost bin and poke around with the turner or a long handled weeder to break up the stuff on the bottom of the bin. It will be moist and full of eggshells and avocado pits that don’t compost completely, and full of worms.

The compost turner is the metal stake with the green plastic handle in the photo. The business end has two metal “wings” bolted to a fairly sharp point. You poke into the pile and when you pull the tool back the wings flip down and pull material with it. Very handy for stirring the pile, or breaking up clumps.

Step 2: Shovel the loosened compost into the wheelbarrow and distribute around the garden. I prefer to dig a hole in an established bed and dump a few shovel-fulls of compost in the hole, then cover it with soil. The worms will spread out through the rest of the bed on their own, and they won’t freeze solid tonight, which they might if I just sprinkled them in a thin layer of compost over the top. Of course, you could argue that I could just do this earlier in the season and not have that problem, but whatever. I can’t believe I’m doing this in early December either.

Step 3: Clean out around the lower door. Over the summer the dandelions and Chinese Forget-me-Not love to root into the nice stuff in the bin and the door becomes overgrown – or maybe that’s just me. Once the door is closed, tamp down the remaining uncomposted material in the top of the bin until it falls to the bottom. The compost turner is a good choice for this, but a shovel handle works too.

Step 4: All set to go for 2011! I use only vegetable and garden waste in this bin – as per the instructions from the manufacturer. We do contribute a lot of coffee waste and fortunately it doesn’t seem to interfere with the composting process. I don’t find raccoons and skunks to be a problem, but then again I have coyotes.

Worms + raw material = dirt. Better than gold.

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.

Weather post

It’s been raining for three days. The forecast is for partial clearing tomorrow, and then rain through Wednesday. This never happens here. I remember years when we had our last rain as April showers and then no relief at all until early September, when the land began to cool and the warmer ocean water made for thunderstorms each afternoon. I took pictures while it poured today, shielding the camera under my coat, because the garden is much more Connecticut than Maine right now. It’s as if I had topsoil! Lovely, loamy stuff that held water and the finest root hairs and nurtured earthworms. I guess if it rains every day even this meagre, stony ground will make heaps of daylilies, dense banks of strawberry plants and tender redleaf. Maybe this is what would happen if I were the type of person who watered her garden, maybe.

Looking south

Looking south

The picture below is the random assortment of plants growing in the warm permaculture of the dooryard, occasionally splashed with dishwater in true cottage garden fashion are: woad, lupine, columbine, lady’s mantle, autumn blooming clematis and the ever-present forget-me-nots.


The bean bunker is doing well, too. Those light spots are all the lovely brown eggshells in the top layer of compost.


Potato Bunker

Before. . .

Before. . .

Today I planted potatoes. We’re on the downside of the moon with a waxing gibbous (as much as I hate to subscribe to that sort of thing, I also like to cover all the bases) and the garden was still bug-free (at least until 7:30 this evening, when they arrived in force). I filled the bed with a mix of peat, seafood compost, seaweed and gravel, then pushed the seed potatoes in to a depth of about 2″. Then I covered the bed with mulch hay to a depth of 3′ and that’s it. Around the end of August I can rummage around in the hay and gather enough new potatoes for supper without killing the plants.

I’ll need to pile more hay on the bed over the course of the summer. The plants will grow through the pile and displace it, so I’ll add more hay to keep sunlight off the potatoes. It will also keep enough moisture in so that it shouldn’t need watering, and will keep the weeds down. Mulch hay is great stuff and cheap this time of year. Here’s the potato bunker wearing its hay-hat. I got a deal on my last four bales at the Feed and Seed for drawing a rat, but that’s another story.

All-Blue, Sangre and Butterball potatoes

All-Blue, Sangre and Butterball potatoes