Like most people in Maine this year, (80% of the population), we experienced severe to extreme drought. Our well was not up to supplying enough water for the household and the containers in the nursery. It certainly was not up to watering the display beds. Luckily the sheep were at another location where the well was ample for their needs. Since the display beds were on their own, It was interesting and informative to see that some plants actually did quite well while others definitely did not. Those that were stressed, like the deciduous ferns and astilbes, simply went into an early dormant state and started to drop their fronds or shrivel up in an effort to conserve moisture to the crowns and roots for survival. We cut them back, as it was happening, to help them out. Since no appreciable rain came or was in sight in September, we started to cut back more and more of the perennials. Plants with large leaf surfaces like hostas, Ligularias, and Rodgersias lose water faster than others, and the larger leaves heat up more as well, calling for more moisture to stay turgid. Since we do not have regular hours for the nursery in October, we decided to cut back all but the evergreen perennials. The evergreen ones, hellebores, male ferns, gingers, and some epimediums seem to be faring much better. Probably by going dormant early, and employing the same mechanism that allows them to keep their foliage through the winter and not dedicate. I have full confidence that the plants we cut back will have set enough new eyes, buds, and roots for next season. With the rain we are having now, and watching the leaves from the trees fall, I’m going to offer this piece of advice based on an observation; with fall clean up, many gardeners rake or blow out all of the leaves from the gardens. We never take the leaves out of our display beds, allowing them to stay as mulch and as a natural fertilizer. Considering how bad the drought has been, how dry the roots of your plants could be, and no guarantee of how much more rain and snow we will get, I would not remove the leaves, and let them hold in as much moisture as possible through the fall and winter. If your garden does not have leaves falling into it, I’d mulch it with shredded leaves or another good mulch. Your plants will thank you for it. Remember that this is a time of year when the roots of plants are still very active and will benefit immensely from this rain. I believe it is very important to retain as much moisture as possible in the soil now before it freezes and can no longer accept water.
I’ve knit several brown sweaters over the years. Yes, one was for my love and he continues to wear it when winter’s at its coldest, an insulated woolen armor just right for those very bitter -20 below days of January. Another was knit for a little boy, who will very soon be turning the ripe old age of 21. He quite often pesters me (his devoted mum) for another one. I’ll try and get to that this winter. Right now, I have a multi-colored brownish sweater in the makings…for me, can that be? Really? Something for me?!!! But the brown sweater that still stands out in my mind was the one being made by my young friend Sandy many years ago. She had just finished her degree in marine biology at the University Of Maine. After graduating she worked with me in the bakery and was not quite sure where her feet were going to land that summer, so she came to live with us. When she wasn’t rolling out pie dough or playing her guitar, she was working on a brown sweater intended for a boy she couldn’t get her mind off of. I’m not sure that the feelings of devotion and passion were reciprocated, but I do remember with fondness the brown sweater, Sandy’s tender heart, and her intention to win him over with skeins of soft brown wool. After a long day of turning butter and sugar into scrumptious pastries, Sandy would come home, turn on some music, open a beer, and pick up her needles. Between sporadic dates with that boy, she kept her needles clicking with hope. That boy didn’t take the bait…his loss. Sandy went on to further her education, land an important job in the field of environmental policy, and make her way in the world. She always was and she is, quite a gal. Sweater or no sweater, she’s a catch. I hope Sandy is still playing her guitar. I like to picture her playing one of her great tunes wearing a too big handknit sweater. Maybe singing a sassy song about lost love, freshly baked scones, and a summer spent with a mom and her two kids. So, in memory of brown sweaters knit with love, a poem by Kate Barnes… for Sandy.
The Brown Sweater
Knitting a sweater for your unrequiting love,
You knit hair into it twice so that whichever
way he turns, some will lie by his heart.
Black hair, fine and small, Irish hair,
hair that has its instructions, that has been programmed
to get itself wound tightly around his affections
and lead them to you like horses brought up from pasture.
I touch the sweater made of undyed wool
from brown sheep in Iceland. The soft stuff feels
as resilient as moss. I look at you busily wishing.
Your face is not screwed up with concentration;
it only deepens with the same sudden deepening
produced by the sight of a train passing under a bridge
or a falling star, each good in your mind for one wish.
In the evening you read French cookbooks
looking for something
to delight him. In the morning you tell me your dreams
about him. Every night you dream about him!
Every day – all day -you are listening for his truck.
And this has gone on for a year! How can I say:
God’s will be done, or: that man alone is happy
who makes the best of what Fates send him?
In the face of your longing, in the face of
your suffering need
consolation of any kind would be
an injury. You hug the sweater and stare
across the top at me with the look of the doe
I once saw plunge in the lake leaving a pack
of stray dogs yelping behind her in our hayfield.
It was still summer, though late, the water not
too cold, the dogs not too determined. She swam
bravely away, growing smaller and smaller, until
she reached the opposite shore and disappeared,
safe in the thicket.
Give me magic, give me hope!
Give me the powers of bone-deep wishes, the lucky
Omens, the white horse, the first star of the night,
the doe ten miles by land from her howling griefs,
the blue-black hair, springing from a head of dreams,
twining into a strand of brown yarn and bringing
love and luck to the wearer – without his knowledge.
It’s quite serene in the bog, a divine stillness really. I am certain it is a place we won’t likely bump into fellow (human) ‘woods walkers’, though it is evident that deer and moose are finding refuge in the bog. We follow their trails along the edge, and we can see where they have stopped to browse many of the water plants that grow there. This particular bog does not have much open water. It is covered with a thick mat of sphagnum moss, cranberries, three- seeded bog sedge (Carex trisperma), tawny cotton grass ( Eriophorum virginicum), rhodora ( Rhodora canadense), and Labrador Tea (Ledum groenlandicum) to name a few. The color in the bog is stunning right now, although we love the beauty and diversity of these soggy habitats all year round. Now that the gardening season is winding down, it allows us to do a little exploring. If you know of a bog near you….treat yourself, and go check it out!
It won’t be long before we bring the sheep home. Their summer pasture is dwindling and soon they will be on their winter diet of hay and grain. We try and stretch their time on grass as far into the season as possible, but this year with rainfall way below normal, the fields are not recovering as quickly. We do practice a rotational grazing system, moving electrified portable fencing every week. This system is a great way to manage a pasture. It helps to maximize forage growth and encourage desirable plants to regenerate. Given a large free range of area, sheep will graze on the most choice forage, basically eating what tastes best and is most nutritious, leaving the undesirable plant material. Fields can quickly revert to weedy pasture if not managed. These weed plants are great opportunists and have the vigor and tenacity to out-perform the grasses. Without management, this less desirable (and less nutritious) plant material will crowd out the better grasses we want for our sheep. In order to maximize forage growth and to encourage the fodder we want, the sheep are moved through a series of fresh pastures in order to provide a “rest period” for plants to regrow their leaves (grass). The sheep are also forced to graze down the weed material, keeping it from going to seed or taking over. We watch each paddock carefully, keeping an eye on its regeneration and then knowing when it is time to circle back and graze that area again. Moving fence is always on our weekly or bi-weekly chore list. This year, because of the lack of rain we watch each field carefully to make sure they are not overgrazed or stressed. Rainfall, our flock size, and soil nutrients can all play a role in pasture health. It seems our life always has an aspect of ‘plant tending’, whether it is on a large scale ( the sheep fields) or on a smaller scale ( the nursery and gardens), we are always mindful of the botanical world that surrounds us.
After a little rain, finally, (though not nearly enough) we found several mushrooms while outdoors yesterday.I think these are Coprinus (please, correct me if I’m wrong) and were among the many varieties we found. I couldn’t resist the portrait of ‘gnome with mushrooms’…. just the kind of weird thing you do on your first day of being closed after a long season! Actually, though we are technically closed for the season, if you really need some plants, we are open by appointment through the month of October. Now that we are getting a bit of rain, you may have a few last selections before the snow flies. Feel free to call us if you’d like to visit the nursery between now and the end of October, we’ll be sure to make some time for you.
It’s the time of year we begin digging our winter supply of potatoes and it’s also the time of year ( here in the North East) for amphibians to find a winter resting place. This toad was already hunkered down and cozying up to some spuds for his winter nap. Or he may have simply been trying out suitable sites. Our night time temperatures are dropping, though it’s plenty warm during the day and there are still plenty of insects for him to be munching. Best if he goes into winter with a good layer of fat, he’ll be relying on it for energy throughout the winter months.
Thank goodness we didn’t hit him with the digging fork! Amazing that they survive our Maine winters burrowed into the soil. Nature has the great ability to provide its natural world with all the right tools, doesn’t it?
While in dormancy, ice crystals will form in parts of a toad’s body cavity, as well as in its bladder and beneath its skin, but a high concentration of glucose in the frog’s vital organs will prevent it from completely freezing. Built in anti-freeze, you might call it! How cool is that! If you came across an amphibian in its winter state of dormancy, it may very well appear as being dead. Not so, but both its heart rate and breathing will most likely be nonexistent during its winter suspension. Once spring arrives, along with warmer temperatures, Mr. Toad will warm up and resume his normal activity.
I moved our toad friend to the other end of the garden and along the forest edge. I’ll let him decide where he hops off to so he can find a good wintering-over spot. In the meantime, we’ll be very careful to just harvest taters…not toads!
And now, most days, aside from the everyday garden chores, tending sheep, hauling in this year’s supply of firewood, and continuing to preserve a bounty of vegetables, we are busy collecting seed. Already looking to the future, already imagining the promise of another season, being grateful for that small parcel…the seed, that will make it all happen. Glory be!
How about a poem? I think yes, a good one from Mary Oliver….
What can I say that I have not said before?
So I’ll say it again.
The leaf has a song in it.
Stone is the face of patience.
Inside the river there is an unfinishable story
and you are somewhere in it
and it will never end until all ends.
Take your busy heart to the art museum and the
chamber of commerce
but take it also to the forest.
The song you heard singing in the leaf when you
were a child
is singing still.
I am of years lived, so far, seventy-four,
and the leaf is singing still.
~ “What Can I Say” from Swan by Mary Oliver ~
We no longer have a household of children, but we still have a fair number of young’uns around the place. Our own kids are young adults now and are busy in their own lives. One lives not so far away, close enough to stop in to fill grocery bags of fresh produce to take home, borrow cookbooks, or simply visit for a ‘taste of home’. I love this, really, I do. The other has already built his own cabin just beyond our place and through the woods. He has his own small carpentry business and is constantly on the go…no grass grows under the feet of this boy, that’s for sure. Then we have our assortment of young people who live and work with us. WWOOFers and an intern at the moment, living in the little dwellings that are scattered around the property. I truly love the energy these young people bring to our days. The conversations we have with them are always so full of ideas and promise. They all take such a genuine interest in the world and they are committed to doing their best for this planet and humanity. They have a vision for themselves and a vision for how they can serve the world. All of this keeps me very hopeful for the future. Often, our conversations together delve into farming, sustainability, politics, religion, science… you name it and we’ve probably sat around the kitchen table and shared thoughts with one another. In the evening, I love watching them seek one another out, walking foot paths through the woods to sit around a campfire or make food together and engage in their own round table of conversation. Laughter, banter, opinions, singing, we hear it all….and it is such a privilege to bear witness to their growth and experiences. The people who come to learn here at the nursery are a great help to us. We do our best to teach them as much as we can, to send them off knowing how to grow food, or to use a foraged plant for a particular medicinal remedy, or to spin wool or make cheese, skills that we hope will be of use to them on their own journey. What they may not know but I should remind myself to tell them more often, is that each one leaves us feeling better about the world. Not just because they now know how to thin carrots or identify a native plant ( although these are great skills to acquire!) but because they are people you can be proud to stand behind. The future will be better, safer, and kinder with these young people making their way forward. They are searching for ways to make a difference, they want the world to be a better place for everyone. They are willing to make sacrifices and commit themselves to choosing a life that is not self-serving, but one that contributes to the greater good. I love them all. I am proud of each one, including our own. It may seem or appear that the world is on a slippery slope, one that does not bode well for the future. This may be true and there are many areas of concern, no doubt, but when I sit across the table from one of our young visitors and listen to their hope and vision of the future, I am reassured of their intent and ability to turn the ship around. I’ll grab an oar and gladly help them row!