Sunday, April 24, 2016

Talking 'bout the birds and the bees, and the flowers and the trees

Prairie Moon Nursery photo

The roadside ditches ripple silver with runoff from the snow still lingering in the shadowed woods, and a wind from the northwest howls cold and wild around the eaves.  A week ago, the winter loosened its stubborn hold.  The sun shined; the temperatures rose, and the rivers and streams reached flood levels, leaving us holding our breath and wondering who might be flooded.  The warmth and sun send us outdoors, longing to break the forced confines of the house.  We cleaned flower beds left undone in the fall, edged sod from the driveway, pulled back the mulch from the parsnips, anticipating their sweetness.  But the earth was still frozen, and so the parsnips will wait a few days or maybe weeks before they make their way to our table. 
  We are anxious for spring, especially after a winter that really wasn’t, at least not by northern Maine standards.  Oh, we had snow, and a few weeks of temperatures below zero, but usually those storms came in like a blizzard but petered out a day later to rain, then more cold so the worlds was coated in ice.  It was impossible to snowshoe, more impossible to drive and so we were housebound.  But spring must come, and though the wind and cold have been persistent, the sun rising higher in the sky, the sunlight stretching longer each day melted away the snow in the fields that are now shades of dun and sienna, brown, and tan, stubble and furrows waiting for someone with more patience than we show to come and coax them into production.
Spring seems to be tardy in spite of the deer gathering daily in the back field to munch the slowly greening grass.  The popples have not put out their furry catkins and even the distant hills seem stubbornly gray, not blushed pink with burgeoning leaf buds.  The soil is still frozen two inches down and the live plants I ordered – pussy willows shoots and common blue violets, red flycatcher and more asparagus – are safely stored in the refrigerator alongside salami and cheddar, leftovers and condiments.  Warmth cannot come too soon. 

Deer in the garden -- taken from indoors

We have begun the spring planting, however.  The rickety folding tables have been set up in front of the kitchen window, and on them are trays of onion seedlings and leeks, as well as hydroponic planters – a new and delightful purchase this year – exploding with herbs and vegetable seedlings.  We purchased one of the planters at the urging of my friend and colleague, Laura, who grows cherry tomatoes and fresh herbs year round in hers.  Along with the planter, we chose herbs: Genovese and Thai basil, dill and mint, parsley and cilantro.
Parsley, cilantro and rosemary
The ambitious dill and Genovese basil sprouted within a day, stretching up in their little domes toward the LED lights on the grower, and a few days later the Thai and the mint.  We bought another grower, and peat plugs to plant vegetables. Now there are a dozen and a half Roma and Mortgage Lifter tomatoes, broccoli and Brussel sprouts, hot and sweet peppers, reaching their green leaves upwards to the light.  Bruce dug out the seed flats and planted the onions and leeks in regular potting soil, but we also ordered an LED light, and soon they were up and stretching tall. 
We have long begun our own seeds, but here in the north, the plants just couldn’t get enough light and grew fragile and spindly.  For the past two years, we have had a friend who owns a nursery start our tomatoes and that has worked well, but there is a joy in watching the seeds sprout, the first tender leaves stretch upward.  The growers make that possible again. I stop a couple times a day, at least, to check the progress of our future meals. 
Rosemary blossoms
We order seeds each year from the same companies, and my herbs come mostly from Richters in Canada.  They have an amazing selection of herbs and even more amazing descriptions of those herbs.  When the catalog arrives in January, I spend hours pouring over it, trying to decide what I will grow and plant.  There are the standard annuals – basil, cilantro, dill, parsley – that get planted in the main garden, but last year, we finally began shaping my backyard herb garden.  Although I bought a few plants from a local nursery- bee balm and lavender, lemon balm and catnip, and I have a few plants – mints, oregano and chives, there is still a lot of area to plant.  I went on a buying spree.
In part, this was because ten years ago when we first began shaping this homestead, all we had to work with was played out soil left from years of potato production.  The first year, and the second, and truth be told, the third and the fourth were spent picking rocks and digging weeds.  We composted and brought in manure, mulched with hay and straw, and slowly the soil improved.  We built a raised bed for the asparagus, and then I began work on the herb garden.
Tomatoes, broccoli, brussels and peppers
It is built into a slight slope, raised with fieldstone, not the flat smooth kind that makes great patios and pathways, but real fieldstone.  Rocks we dug out of the garden and the lawn or picked up along roadsides and turned into a wall that looks as if it has always been there.  We filled it with compost and whatever Perham tilth – a gravelly silt loam – we had left over from other projects.  I set in flat stones to make a series of two steps up into the garden area, planted creeping wooly thyme along the upper edge of the rock wall to hold the soil, and tucked in some chives, oregano, chocolate mint and catnip.  As we got busy planting the vegetable garden, I promised myself I would get it under control and planted – soon. 

Onions and leeks

Last summer, with the rest of the growing under control, Bruce and I began designing and redigging the herb garden.  We screened the soil, laid out walkways, built low walls to shelter the more tender herbs, and designed a simple yet effective picket fence and archway for the garden.  And then life got in the way.  The vegetables and fruits that we rely on to eat throughout the winter started coming in, and in spite of our best efforts, the herb garden again got shot shrift.  I managed to tuck in some lavender, bee balm, and lemon balm, and then things stopped as I headed west to do research to finish my doctorate.  I mourned the completion of the garden, but on that trip I found new inspiration.
When we first bought our land, it was about twelve acres of overworked fields and another eight of overcut woods.  Along the verges of field were chokecherries, a few scraggly raspberries, and native hazelnuts.  Little more.  That first year, we hastily dug in the plants we had brought with us – a couple roses, the oregano, mints, chives, comfrey, horseradish, and rhubarb, and bought a couple cords of wood and settled in for the winter.  We fared well.
The next spring, our son-in-law plowed and we planted the first garden patch, and we began building lawn, planting some birches and mountain ash trees, and a couple of slips of lilac.  Each year we added to it. Crab apple trees, bush cherries, and apple trees, and we expanded the garden, planted asparagus, donated raspberries, and high bush blueberries.  With every addition, more birds flocked to our yard, including the hummingbirds, for which we named our farmette.  But in Wisconsin, on a day off from researching, Kasey and I roamed a farmers’ market, stumbling upon a cooperative extension service table and discovering wild native plants from Prairie Moon Nursery and Prairie Nursery. The two offered native plants, especially targeted for native pollinators, bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.  I grabbed two catalogs and fell in love with what the pages contained. 
If you haven’t heard, bees are having a terrible time of it.  Whole colonies are dying off, and the reason is not yet fully explained.  Some blame pesticides, others fault pollution.  Probably it is the result of both.  Native plants, however, are not genetically modified and provide a safe haven food source.  Better yet, much of what I was growing or planned to grow for the herb garden, and the additional bushes – elderberry and Saskatoon berries – we had just planted – fit in fine with providing a pollinator Eden by securing plants and seeds from the two nurseries.  And so we continue our adventure, but with new purpose.
Sustainable has new meaning now. It is not enough to feed ourselves with freezers full or frozen berries and veggies.  Not enough to buy local honey and meat.  Not enough to buy our eggs fresh.  Rather, we will continue to expand our pollinator’s Eden by planting those flowers and plants that are not only beautiful but also serve a beautiful purpose: feeding the bees, and butterflies, and yes, hummingbirds that help feed all of us.  At least I will once the weather warms enough to thaw the ground and get the plants outside. 

Busy bees.

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