The stag tree

If you go out my front door and take a right and follow the path through the blueberry field . . .

the path. . . well, first you’ll come across this nest of mound building ants. This is only an aside to the main attraction which is still some ways out, but it’s interesting – ants built this! They circulate the stony subsoil up to the surface as they build tunnels and rooms below. The mounds can be huge – this active nest is four feet across and about two feet high.

ant houseThe crater just beyond the ant-haus in this photo is proof of another charming local custom. Back 100 years ago, when wealthy “rusticators” were building cottages-cum-mansions all over the Island, their ground crews harvested trees from fallow property wherever they pleased. Soil is hard won here and trees grow very slowly, so the perfectly circular holes where they dug out nicely symmetrical conifers still remain to trip up unwary hikers.

At the end of the little path is a section of “cut road”. Follow that for a while,

cut roadand then take a left on to another deer path. Follow that deeper into the pine woods.

deer pathThe deer path ends at a stag tree.

stag treeIt looks like a bear or cougar has been working on the bark, but actually a buck has been scraping the spring velvet off his antlers. I hear it itches.

stag tree antler damageBears do mark trees, even the very shy and retiring (and fat) black bears we have around here, but their claws scrape down the line of the trunk. If you look closely you can see where this damage goes up the trunk, against the grain, and makes splintered pieces stick out.

All kinds of things go on in the back yard this time of year.


Must be Spring

The temperature has fallen to 20 degrees F and we have an inch of hard packed snow on the ground, but the Northern Saw-whet Owl is singing in the swamp tonight. Spring can’t be too far off.

tiny owl

Aegolius acadicus is the smallest owl;  the males are about the size of a robin and the females only slightly larger. They perch close to the ground to hunt and we see them fairly often near their nest trees in the conifer swamp.  At night the males are remarkable for having the most annoying call of any bird (I’m including black-winged gulls here). They sound like a distant car alarm, or maybe a UPS truck backing up. All night long.
The picture above, and the wave file are from Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which is sadly subscription only now. The photo below, of a saw-whet owlet, was unaccredited but too cute to pass up. They must be tiny!
saw baby

Encaustic painting, Act 1, Scene 2

Last Monday I coated 4 Homasote and gesso panels with a thin coat of wax medium. On Thursday I had a chance to mix some colors and experiment with actual paint.

Thug life bird

My experience so far:

  • The base coat of wax medium should be thinner and less textured. It really is startling how quickly the wax hardens on the brush. I need to use shorter strokes and not try to “rebrush” into the hardened surface.
  • Fusing the wax medium to the board with a heat gun is efficient and makes a slick, hard painting surface. The process does not do as much as I thought it would to smooth out the bumps, however. You’d think the wax would melt flat to the surface, but no. Perhaps I’m not heating it long enough – time for another experiment.
  • Wow, the wax hardens quickly. I am learning to hold the brush in the small pot of pigment and wax (heated to molten on the griddle) until I am mentally ready to place that mark on the board. It’s a wonderful disciplinary exercise.
  • The painting is always dry – that is, the surface of the drawing is always ready for a new mark to be added. It was also very easy to scrape the wax away. This is a wet media with all the advantages of a dry media – cool.
  • Fusing the paint layers to each other is an additional, separate skill set. Too little and the layers stay dry and adjacent to each other. Too much and the pigmented wax blurs as it all slags together. Somewhere in the middle is a chance to overlap translucent layers with distinct edges to really show off the medium.
  • Blue jays are noisy thugs, but very entertaining to draw.


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.

Wildlife – herpetology chapter

We have a pesticide free garden. It’s difficult to use insect-killing preparations when you raise insects – the bees are just as susceptible to Safer Soap and tobacco solution as mites and aphids. I use Surround CP almost exclusively for spraying and after that I lean heavily on passive prevention techniques: sticky girdles around tree trunks, red balls for apple maggot fly, traps for Japanese beetles, etc. Surround is made with clay and forms a chalky barrier on leaves and fruit. It doesn’t seem to bother the bees at all. After a few years of keeping the grounds poison free, we have an abundance of amphibian and insect life.

I’ve been keeping a list of species observed since this spring and plan to continue recording for a few years. Our swamp provides a buffer of permanently damp soil, but summers on the island differ widely in temperature and rainfall and I’ll be interested to see how the populations changes over time.

Observed so far in 2011:

Green frog (above, sunning in the mulch hay near the pumpkins), spring peeper, gray tree frog, bull frog, pickerel, wood frog, mink, Northern leopard, American toad

Spotted turtle, box turtle, snapping turtle

Eastern and Maritime garter snake (very pretty), Ribbon snake (not sure if it’s an Eastern or a Northern, very shy), Smooth Green snake,Eastern milk snake

Eastern red-backed and spotted salamanders – I’m sure there are more salamanders out there I haven’t seen yet.

Next year we’ll start cataloging insects!


Bear 1, Beehive 0

Last night we had all the windows open and around 10 I heard something fall over outside. We’re under a waning crescent moon and I couldn’t see anything past the halo from the kitchen light, so I decided not to go investigate. I’d hate to trip over one of our suitcase-size raccoons.

In the morning, I found this –

Evidently the bear that has been taking down bird feeders in the neighborhood found the empty beehive at the edge of the yard. It contained a few frames that had been built-out with beeswax, but no honey. Probably still smelled good, though, and bears have excellent noses.

My colonies are in the lower garden behind an electric fence. Tonight I’ve left the fallen hive parts where they lie, hoping the bear will realize there’s nothing there of interest for him or her and discourage him from searching further. I guess we’ll see if I’ve out-thought a bear.


Duck Aix sponsa

Everyone I know has chickens, or is thinking about getting chickens, or belongs to a chicken time-share (a concept which should be awarded a prize for efficiency and cunning), or is otherwise involved in a relationship with poultry. The really far-out folks have turkeys, runner ducks or guinea fowl, but the fact is I can’t barter with anyone on the island these days without getting eggs. (Going rates for the following: formulae on a spreadsheet = 1 a piece, virus clean-up = a dozen, spyware infestation is at least two dozen, brown.)

I have nothing against chickens but I already have domesticated (sort of) insects, a day job, and a gallery. Chickens are work. They require housing in this climate, and housing with wiring for heat and lights if you want any eggs 6 months out of the year, water, water heaters, food, grit and medication. If one of my 100,000 bees gets in an accident or comes down with something and shudders off this mortal coil a little early, I don’t notice. Chickens are big enough that it bothers me when one gets ill. Or depressed. Or goes missing – we have coyotes, fishers, fox, and German Shepards in the neighborhood so that’s a real possibility. Somehow all these issues distilled during our dinnertime conversation into the perfect solution for the problem we weren’t having – wood ducks.

Wood ducks are beautiful wildfowl that are native to this area. Their name translates to “waterfowl in a wedding dress”. A century ago they were the most plentiful waterfowl in their range, capable of producing two broods a season of 8 – 20 eggs. Nest boxes and habitat restoration are slowly bringing these colorful migratory ducks back, especially along the Connecticut River flyway, but there’s no reason they couldn’t make a home in Maine, at our house.

I recognize a culture as well-established based on its minutiae – and the Wood Duck cultural minutiae is epic. There’s a Wood Duck entry in Wikipedia and the Cornell Lab, of course, but there’s also a Wood Duck Society which just had its 25th anniversary meeting in Minnesota, and the USGS has a great page that includes information on assistance programs for restoring habitat. There are at least four Google pages for buying, building, kitting out and siting nest boxes, and learned lengthy discussions (and arguments) about what to use for material inside them.

So, how do you get wood ducks? Google will get you to, where $130.00 will buy a mated pair. Of course, they also sell every conceivable type of earth poultry and some birds that are definitely from Mars, but you can buy wood ducks! I’m thinking that come April, 2012, twenty-six years is the wood duck wedding anniversary.

I’m off to read up on habitat requirements, which we seem to have in spades, and preferences for food and cover in all seasons. Good thing we preserved the stand of button bush  (Cephalanthus) when we put the lower driveway in – it’s one of their favorite foods.

Good, bad, beautiful

I’m trying to take Wednesdays off from my day job over the course of the growing season this year. Yesterday was damp but not raining, warm but not too hot to do the heavy work of hauling soil by wheelbarrow to the potato boxes.  At the close of day I got a cup of tea and recorded the results for 2011 to date:

Potato boxes are in the “good” column so far. Summer 2010 was hot and dry with a drought for the whole month of August.  Per instructions, I had filled the boxes with soil as the vines grew and when the soil dried out and heated up it actually cooked the vines. Instead of heavy yields the boxes produced about a dozen potatoes – one of my worst disappointments in all the years I’ve gardened. In 2011 I’ve planted the seed potatoes in plenty of soil and will use hay to fill the boxes as they grow. Perhaps the mulching effect will hold more moisture (but not too much) and be gentler on the vines. We’re having a nice steady rain today to water them in.

Bergenia is in the “beautiful” column. It has no pests to speak of (the deer nibble the blossoms sometimes but it’s not one of their favorites), it grows in odd shady nooks and spreads slowly, flowering before anything but the bulbs. Twenty years ago this grouping at the NW corner of the house was one plant from my parent’s garden. Growing in gravel and mulched only with its own leaves, it is a welcome patch of green all year round and spectacular in early spring, when the pink hyacinth-like blooms rise above the foliage.

Bad. The lower garden is host to several variaties of borer and here I may have lost the battle for the “Westfield Seek-no-Further”. The apple borers are gone, driven out by white latex paint with “Surround CP” mixed in and epoxy injected into the holes, but the damage is fairly extensive. My plan is to remove the trunk on the right and prune the other parts of the tree rigorously to distribute the weight. Perhaps the remaining parts will survive.

Back in the “good” column, this row has been seeded for three years running with a “Beneficials Mix” from Fedco Seeds.  Every year my local climate kills off a few varieties, but some come back and help hold the soil for a new packet of seed. On a hot summer day I’ve counted 30 species of insect life hanging out in this little hedgerow. I can’t sum it up any better than Fedco’s catalog:

6333BM Beneficials Mix “When you increase the diversity of an ecosystem you enhance its ability to maintain itself and to resist perturbation.” Frank Morton inspired 75 seed growers with his talk on Whole Farm Cropping Systems at a Restoring Our Seed seminar. One way to increase the diversity of your ecosystem is to sow this mix of annuals, biennials and perennials that will attract and maintain a diverse population of beneficial insects to help manage pests in the garden. Instead of resorting to toxic sprays, attract hover flies, ladybugs, lacewings, parasitic wasps, tachnids, spiders, minute pirate bugs, damsel flies and big-eyed bugs and let them devour the “bad” bugs! Something in the mix will be blooming from spring through fall. Comprised of alyssum, bachelor’s button, borage, gem marigold, dill, fennel, Phacelia tanacetifolia or fiddleneck, caraway, parsley, golden marguerite, ajuga, basket of gold alyssum, and Rocky Mountain penstemon.  Sow as a hedgerow in a well-prepared weed-free seedbed close to the garden in spring in full sun. Easily our best-selling perennial selection.

I expect that the Maine spring combo of 65 degrees and mist will have worked its magic, and everything will be 10% larger when I get home. I’m looking forward to wandering around out there tonight and admiring the garden working on its own.



Yesterday morning I looked out at the bird feeder and the finches were lined up on the crossbars staring down at the dinosaur, er, turkey below. Compared to the chickadees, juncos and goldfinches that normally peck around the base of the feeders this was a brontosaurus – huge lumbering body with a long neck and a teeny-tiny head.

I haven’t seen the rest of the flock but we heard the boom-boom of a tom turkey’s courting dance this afternoon from the blueberry field next door.  Maybe next month there will be poults!