Strapping On The Snowshoes

Trying to experience and enjoy as much winter as possible here in Maine. My brother and I made a trip over to his land in Rangley (the western part of the state) to do some hiking. It was a beautiful day, fairly warm and the sun was out. My brother, Dan, has always been an outdoor enthusiast. He puts great effort into hitting the trails here in the northeast. I’m always amazed at how much ground he covers. We don’t get enough time together, so it was lovely to spend a day catching up on the ride over and then doing something together that we both love…being in the woods! Plus, he bought me lunch!
Since then we’ve had another snow storm, about 1ft here in our area of Waldo County. A little more time for snowshoeing or strapping on the x-country skis before spring develops.
We are working on a number of classes for this season. Some are posted already, others are in the making. Are there any classes you’d like to see us offer here at Fernwood? Certain topics? We’re glad to hear suggestions. Offering classes at the nursery has been a really fun and rewarding addition for both Rick and I. Not only can we share some insight into our gardening or lifestyle choices here at the nursery, but it also gives us an opportunity to get to know our visitors. Consider taking a class here at Fernwood, come enjoy a selection of homemade scones and tea, and mingle with some fellow gardeners!

“Anyone who thinks gardening begins in the spring and ends in the fall is missing the best part of the whole year; for gardening begins in January with the dream.”
—Josephine Nuese

Words of truth, I’d say! We begin winter here thinking about the long, silent months ahead. The deep snow and the frigid temperatures which will turn us indoors for more reading and knitting and fire-warmth. We drop our shoulders, breath deep, and feel thankful for the slow pace of winter. We’re some of the few who are not in a hurry to move these cold months along…the sun and the warmth will come back to us, all in good time. But we can feel the stirrings now, the seed catalogs spread across the table, the lists of new plants for the nursery ( some dandy primula!), the urge to ‘hoe’ out the greenhouse and fire up the stove that heats it. Oh, truth be told, our minds are never completely void of gardening and plants and soil. Notebooks are filled with lists and ideas for a new season of promise. Are you thinking about spring? Does a bit more winter trouble you? Are your veggie seeds ordered? Any new garden plans? Let’s hear!

Bluebird Talk Here At Fernwood!

Please join us at Fernwood Nursery on Saturday, April 21st at 1:00 p.m. for a very informative talk on Bluebirds. Bluebird expert, Jeff Nimms, has agreed to visit us here at the nursery to share his experience and knowledge of bluebirds. Perhaps you have a piece of property that lends itself to bluebird habitat or maybe you just want to learn more about these delightful birds. If so, we’d love for you to join us!
Fernwood will be serving tea and scones at the event and Jeff will be here to talk bluebirds. Please visit our classes and more page for further information and to sign up for this lecture. Space is somewhat limited, so saving a spot will be helpful.

All About Bluebirds
Learn about bluebird habitat, nesting boxes, parasites and predators, mealworms, what to feed in winter and roosting boxes in this PowerPoint presentation by bluebird enthusiast Jeff Nims. He and his wife Betty have been protecting bluebirds and tree swallows at their blueberry farm on Clarry Hill in Union for more than twenty-five years. Annually, they save an average of a dozen fledglings from blowfly which kill hatchlings in the nest. Retired since 2010, Jeff splits his time between farming, photographing bluebirds, historical research, writing, kayaking, and volunteering.


A male bluebird offers a mealworm to female as part of courtship. Photograph by Jeff Nimms

My Dad And His Bluebirds

Last week, during a time when the weather seemed ‘unfit for man nor beast’ and while Rick was working on reglazing some barn windows…working inside the barn not out… two bluebirds showed up to feed on the dead flies trapped along the window sill. Bluebirds! Yes, really, a pair of bluebirds! Well, this is odd and it meant two things. First, call George. George is the retired vet in our area and also an avid birder. George is the only other person we know besides my father who has a great love and appreciation for bluebirds. When my dad was alive he and George would often consult one another with regard to the comings and goings of the bluebirds. This was great for my dad, (who by the way also wore the covers off of every sequel to ‘All Creatures Great And Small’), and his being able to converse with someone who was a vet and also kept track of this areas bluebird migration.

George filled us in on some of the habits of bluebirds and then (secondly) we did some research of our own. My dad would be very happy to know we did this.
So, bluebirds don’t always migrate. When they do leave the frozen northeast, they head for places as far as Texas but may only travel as far as they need to find a food source. Their winter fare is mostly berries. It is true that some hardy bluebirds do brave the winter here, apparently making their way through by eating berries and fruit from various trees and shrubs. They’ll also feast on dead and frozen bugs, like the bluebirds who were eating frozen flies along the window sill at the farm. Not an easy choice I would say, but not as uncommon as you’d think. When not nesting they move in flocks and beginning in the Fall, these groups of bluebirds start meandering south following food sources. But, some do stay. At least these two did. In the winter, if they remain in a frigid climate, like Maine, they will find shelter in a hollow tree. Often as many birds that can fit inside that hollow will do so creating warmth in numbers. Unfortunately, there has been a significant decline in bluebird populations over the last several decades. Most of this is due to habitat loss, insecticides, and the introduction of starlings and house sparrows that out-compete them for food and shelter. This makes me even prouder of my Dad ( and you, too, George!) for taking such an interest in the well being of our bluebird population.

When my Dad passed away, my mom forwarded some of his books to me. Mostly because my dad and I loved many of the same things…nature, farming, and food ( he was known to drive 100’s of miles for a good piece of pie…who wouldn’t!). In one of the books that was passed along, ‘Song And Garden Birds Of North America’ I found pages of my Dad’s bluebird notes folded up in the back. He had been tracking the bluebirds (and building them boxes) since 1966! His last entry was 2002, just two years before he passed away. I love that my dad did this, I love seeing his carefully handwritten notes, excerpts like “A pair of Bluebirds arrived, they did not nest until April 2nd or 3rd. The female laid a clutch of five eggs”. This was written in 1971. On another account, in 1969, he wrote this “A pair of Bluebirds arrived and soon nested in the same bird box of previous years. Also, I noticed the presence of a house wren. Which seem to be a menace to the bluebirds. By the sound advice of a friend, Mrs.Trudy Smith, who is quite familiar with all birds, I netted the female house wren who had nested in one of the bluebird boxes. With somewhat of a struggle, I might add. Mrs. Smith then took the house wren, banded it, and took it to the Harkness Estate in Waterford.The bluebirds had two eggs in the box at the time of the house wren departure. The female bluebird has been in the nest two days. So I think she may have laid a clutch of four eggs”.

In honor of my Dad and all other bird watchers, we’ll keep a close eye on the two bluebirds that have stayed. We’ll hope that they brave the winter so that this spring when the first hatch of insects descends upon us, they’ll be swooping through the fields having their fill.
In addition, consider checking out this site: http://www.nabluebirdsociety.org/
Perhaps you have the perfect location for some nesting boxes or maybe you’d just like to find out a little more about those birds my Dad so carefully thought of throughout his years.

Coffee Time Gems

Preheat oven to 375 degrees
2 cups flour
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt.
Mix these dry ingredients and whisk together.
In a separate bowl add,
1 beaten egg
1 cup sour cream
1/2 cup milk
4 TBLS. melted butter
2 tsp. powdered espresso or powdered coffee
Combine these ingredients and whisk to dissolve coffee.
Add all at once to dry ingredients. Don’t over-beat.
Add:
1 cup raisins
1/2 cup finely chopped walnuts

Fill greased muffin tins 2/3 full. Bake for 20-25 minutes.
Enjoy!!!

Growing up, my Grandma, whom I adored, was always on a quest for the perfect bran muffin, the perfect coffee cake, and the perfect banana bread. She was a fine baker. A really wonderful cook. And, she was always very generous when it came to her kitchen, allowing any of us grandchildren to rifle through her cupboards, pull out her ample stash of muffin tins or bake-ware, and have a go at creating recipes. She was (and still is) my biggest inspiration in the kitchen. Not a trained chef, no top-notch culinary background, but boy could she cook! A few things I learned? Patience, accurate measuring, and always, always, select the best ingredients. Butter and good chocolate could always be found in her larder. An excellent selection of spices and herbs were lined up and sealed tightly in their glass bottles just waiting to become a pinch of this or a pinch of that. You could always count on finding buttermilk and sour cream and freshly squeezed lemon juice in her fridge.
When it came to ingredients for a recipe that we kids were determined to try or if art materials were needed to draw, sculpt or paint something, we had full access to her shelves and cupboards for supplies. Thank you, Grandma, for your grace and willingness to encourage all of us to ‘make things’. I think all of your grandchildren have a knack for creating, thanks to you! I’m still using many of her recipes. Those large index cards all hand-written and often smudged with some of the choice ingredients. I love all the side notes she added, “add a pinch of lemon zest” or “include a dollop of sour cream” or “don’t over-beat the batter”. When I am creating something, for the table or in the studio, I always think of my grandmother.
I just made these little yummy muffins the other day. Not her tried and true bran muffins but a favorite from my Gram’s recipe book. So glad I remembered them! Chock full of raisins, just the right amount of chopped walnuts, and a strong coffee flavor. Delish! Give them a try, really you should! Do you have any recipes that have been passed down from a special cook in the family?

Still Cold And Wool Is King!

We are well into a week of frigid temperatures. Our night time plummet is somewhere between -15 and -20. On a good day, like today, the sun peeks out and we become downright balmy by mid-afternoon. That’s right, an all-time high of about 5 degrees! Whoopee!!
This is not unusual weather for Maine. We experience this every year. We are glad to have a decent blanket of snow covering which helps to insulate the ground and also there is enough to shovel up against the outside of the house for extra warmth. The woodshed is still nice and full with stacks of seasoned oak, beech, and maple. The extreme cold does change how we navigate the day, however. First, it’s the layer of clothes that go on. No easy exit out the door with a slight covering, there’s a process. Here’s what my winter wardrobe looks like:
First layer: wool longjohns, top to bottom. No matter what anyone says, even if you are someone who leads expeditions into the Arctic and you wear the latest in poly-propylene, nothing keeps you warmer than wool. Just saying (and not just because I raise sheep).
Next: two pairs of wool socks. Most likely hand-knit.
Second layer: a wool sweater, then, over that, a wool felted vest ( keep your core warm!) and then my wool hunting pants.
Last layer just before you head outdoors( and quickly before you sweat to death putting all of this on while standing next to the woodstove): a light weight goose down vest ( the next best insulator to wool), a wool scarf, a down jacket, wool mitts with leather choppers, and a wool hat. Of course, boots….either Sorels or my insulated rubber boots or if it’s really, really cold ( but not wet), my hand-made Steger mukluks from Minnesota.
Now, I’m ready to face the day and all its bluster!
Also, chores do take longer in the cold. All the animals are in the barn at night, warm and cozy, but by morning they are anxious to get out, regardless of the cold. Every water bucket is frozen solid and needs to be brought indoors to thaw then turned over to break the ice out. That calls for lots of hauling and bucket swapping. Ice is chipped away from the barn doors so we can get them opened. Paths are shoveled and cleared of snow. Hay bales are tossed down from the mow, opened and then spread outdoors before the sheep go out. Grain buckets are filled. By now, the critters can hear the morning routine and are restless to go out and have their breakfast.
After chores, the daily wood supply gets hauled in from the woodshed. We use a big sled, stack the wood as high as we can, and then make several trips to the house and to any of the cabins that we heat (of course, to the studio, as well!).
Personally, I love this time of year. I enjoy being out in the cold. Let’s face it, a cup of hot tea by mid-morning is divine after you’ve come in from below zero temperatures and the hair sticking out from under your wool hat is frozen stiff! I guess I just appreciate the extremes in life!
Once all the chores are done and if we’re not spending the day cutting ( next year’s) firewood or re-glazing barn windows, I head for the studio to dye wool and felt slippers. Spring shearing is really not that far off and I have a lot of fleeces to work through before the next batch piles up.
So, what kind of things occupy your days in the dead of winter? Any good reading or winter projects you’d like to share? Do tell.
Til next time, stay warm, enjoy, and don’t forget the tea!

Native Plants and Biodiversity

Not too late to order this book for Christmas!
A great book that helps us to understand the importance of bio-diversity within species. We may not always condsider the reason behind diversity and how it plays an essential role in our ecosystems.
Here’s a great article also by Doug Tallamy that makes the point:

Bringing Nature Home
Gardening for Life
Chances are, you have never thought of your garden — indeed, of all of the space on your property — as a wildlife preserve that represents the last chance we have for sustaining plants and animals that were once common throughout the U.S. But that is exactly the role our suburban landscapes are now playing and will play even more in the near future.

If this is news to you, it’s not your fault. We were taught from childhood that gardens are for beauty; they are a chance to express our artistic talents, to have fun with and relax in. And, whether we like it or not, the way we landscape our properties is taken by our neighbors as a statement of our wealth and social status. But no one has taught us that we have forced the plants and animals that evolved in North America (our nation’s biodiversity) to depend more and more on human-dominated landscapes for their continued existence. We have always thought that biodiversity was happy somewhere out there “in nature;” in our local woodlot, or perhaps our state and national parks. We have heard nothing about the rate at which species are disappearing from our neighborhoods, towns, counties, and states. Even worse, we have never been taught how vital biodiversity is for our own well-being.

We Have Taken It All
The population of the U.S., now over 300 million people, has doubled since most of us were kids and continues to grow by 8640 people per day. All of those additional souls, coupled with cheap gas, our love affair with the car, and our quest to own ever larger homes have fueled unprecedented development that continues to sprawl over 2 million additional acres per year (the size of Yellowstone National Park). The Chesapeake Bay watershed has lost 100 acres of forest each day since 1985. We have connected all of our developments with 4 million miles of roads, the paved surface is nearly five times the size of New Jersey. Somewhere along the way we decided to convert most of our living and working spaces into huge expanses of lawn. So far we have planted over 62,500 sq miles, some 40 million acres, in lawn. Each weekend we mow an area 8 times the size of New Jersey to within 1 inch and then congratulate ourselves on a job well done. And it’s not like those little woodlots and “open spaces” we have not paved over or manicured are pristine. Nearly all are second-growth forests that have been thoroughly invaded by alien plants like autumn olive, multiflora rose, Oriental bittersweet, and Japanese honeysuckle. Over 3400 species of alien plants have invaded 100 million acres of the U.S, and that area is expected to double in the next 5 years.

To nature lovers these are horrifying statistics. I stress them so that we can clearly understand the challenge before us. We have turned 54% of the lower 48 states into cities and suburbs, and 41% more into various forms of agriculture. That’s right: we humans have taken 95% of nature and made in unnatural. But does this matter? Are there consequences to turning so much land into the park-like settings humans enjoy? Absolutely, both for biodiversity and for us. Our fellow creatures need food and shelter to survive and reproduce and in too many places we have eliminated both. At least 40% of Delaware’s plant species are rare or extinct, and 41% of its forest birds no longer nest in the state. Over 800 plant and animal species are rare, threatened, or endangered in Pennsylvania and 150 have already disappeared entirely. Many of those that haven’t suffered local extinction are now too rare to perform their role in their ecosystem. These can be considered functionally extinct. The song birds that brighten spring mornings have been in decline since the 1960s, having lost 40% of their numbers so far. Birds that breed in meadows are in even more trouble. Once common species such as the northern bobwhite, eastern meadowlark, field sparrow, and grasshopper sparrow have declined 82%, 72%, 68%, and 65%, respectively, in total numbers, and are completely absent from many areas that used to support healthy populations.

Why We Need Biodiversity
For most of us, hearing such numbers triggers a passing sadness; but few people feel personally threatened by the loss of biodiversity. Here’s why you should. Biodiversity losses are a clear sign that our own life-support systems are failing. The ecosystems that support us – – that determine the carrying capacity of the earth and our local spaces – – are run by biodiversity. It is biodiversity that generates oxygen and clean water; that creates topsoil out of rock and buffers extreme weather events like droughts and floods; and that recycles the mountains of garbage we create every day. And now, with human induced climate change threatening the planet, it is biodiversity that will suck that carbon out of the air and sequester it in living plants if given half a chance. Humans cannot live as the only species on this planet because it is other species that create the ecosystem services essential to us. Every time we force a species to extinction we are encouraging our own demise. Despite the disdain with which we have treated it in the past, biodiversity is not optional.

Parks Are Not Enough
I am often asked why the habitats we have preserved within our park system are not enough to save most species from extinction. Years of research by evolutionary biologists have shown that the area required to sustain biodiversity is pretty much the same as the area required to generate it in the first place. The consequence of this simple relationship is profound. Since we have taken 95% of the U.S. from nature we can expect to lose 95% of the species that once lived here unless we learn how to share our living, working, and agricultural spaces with biodiversity. 95% of all plants and animals! Now there is a statistic that puts climate-change predictions of extinction to shame. And studies of habitat islands with known histories, such as Barro Colorado Island in the Panama Canal and Ashdown Forest in England, have so far shown these predictions to be accurate. Species are lost at the same proportion with which a habitat is reduced in size. The good news is that extinction takes awhile, so if we start sharing our landscapes with other living things, we should be able to save much of the biodiversity that still exists.

Redesigning Suburbia
What will it take to give our local animals what they need to survive and reproduce on our properties? NATIVE PLANTS, and lots of them. This is a scientific fact deduced from thousands of studies about how energy moves through food webs. Here is the general reasoning. All animals get their energy directly from plants, or by eating something that has already eaten a plant. The group of animals most responsible for passing energy from plants to the animals that can’t eat plants is insects. This is what makes insects such vital components of healthy ecosystems. So many animals depend on insects for food (e.g., spiders, reptiles and amphibians, rodents, 96% of all terrestrial birds) that removing insects from an ecosystem spells its doom.

But that is exactly what we have tried to do in our suburban landscapes. For over a century we have favored ornamental landscape plants from China and Europe over those that evolved right here. If all plants were created equal, that would be fine. But every plant species protects its leaves with a species-specific mixture of nasty chemicals. With few exceptions, only insect species that have shared a long evolutionary history with a particular plant lineage have developed the physiological adaptations required to digest the chemicals in their host’s leaves. They have specialized over time to eat only the plants sharing those particular chemicals. When we present insects from Pennsylvania with plants that evolved on another continent, chances are those insects will be unable to eat them. We used to think this was good. Kill all insects before they eat our plants! But an insect that cannot eat part of a leaf cannot fulfill its role in the food web. We have planted Kousa dogwood, a species from China that supports no insect herbivores, instead of our native flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) that supports 117 species of moths and butterflies alone. In hundreds of thousands of acres we have planted goldenraintree from China instead of one of our beautiful oaks and lost the chance to grow 532 species of caterpillars, all of them nutritious bird food. My research has shown that alien ornamentals support 29 times less biodiversity than do native ornamentals.

Your Garden Has a Function
In the past we didn’t designed gardens that play a critical ecological role in the landscape, but we must do so in the future if we hope to avoid a mass extinction from which humans are not likely to recover either. As quickly as possible we need to replace unnecessary lawn with densely planted woodlots that can serve as habitat for our local biodiversity. Homeowners can do this by planting the borders of their properties with native trees plants such as white oaks (Quercus alba), black willows (Salix nigra), red maples (Acer rubrum), green ashes (Fraxinus pennsylvanica), black walnuts (Juglans nigra), river birches (Betula nigra) and shagbark hickories (Carya ovata), under-planted with woodies like serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis), arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum), hazelnut (Corylus americnus), blueberries (Vaccinium spp) . Our studies have shown that even modest increases in the native plant cover on suburban properties significantly increases the number and species of breeding birds, including birds of conservation concern. As gardeners and stewards of our land, we have never been so empowered to help save biodiversity from extinction, and the need to do so has never been so great. All we need to do is plant native plants!

Barn Dinner

Before I left for my time in Ireland, I catered a dinner in a barn/studio for a friend. It was the end of September, the nights were perfect for an outdoor fire and to have the big barn doors slung open to let some sea breeze in. There was still plenty of garden produce available for salads and side dishes and it was also cool enough for several crocks of baked beans. Steamed lobster, a broth made with mussels and saffron, and ice cream sandwiches made with home baked molasses cookies, helped to round out the meal. Every year I cater a limited amount of these farm to table dinners. I love doing them. I enjoy cooking at different locations, working with the scenery and atmosphere that each one offers up. Next summer I hope to offer a few Tear Drop trailer dinners. What do you think… vintage Tear Drop trailer, an ocean view, and a meal prepared with food from our farm and locally sourced ingredients?
Here are some photos from the barn dinner….and, yes that is a sheep making her way through the dining area. I did mention the word barn, didn’t I? Oh my! If you have any interest in having a very special meal prepared and served out of the cute and cozy teardrop trailer, email questions at fernwoodnursery@fairpoint.net. I’ll even brings along some sheep if you’d like!

Video

What Are You Doing There Now?

I am often asked this question when my friends and family back home find out that I am flying off to Ireland again. Coming to Ireland in the late fall, after the nursery closes and the firewood is put up and the hay is mounded in the barn, is something I have been doing over the last several years (7 years?). The first time I came was to help my friend Sally with a photo exhibit she was doing here in the town of Kilorglin. Next, it was to help her with her book project and collecting stories for A fair Day, The Horseman Of County Kerry. After that, I just kept coming and because we were (and are) having so much fun we’ve had to dream up new projects to warrant little ol’ me getting on a plane (which I don’t love) and leaving my home ground in Maine (where I am happily rooted) and then spending a goodly portion of the fall traipsing behind her as she conjures up new adventures. This year it has been helping her reclaim a farm in Glenbeigh. Reclaiming isn’t really the right description…. the land has been lovingly farmed and cared for over many generations. It is where a man lived his life and raised his cattle and did his chores and cut silage and helped birth calves and worked daily as all farmers do keeping with the tradition of such things. Now the man is gone, and though his nephew will continue to graze cattle and make hay on his uncle’s land, Sally has stepped in to help ensure that some of the buildings and barns are preserved. Right now the old house is getting a bit of a make-over….insulation, a new floor, a kitchen,, and a heating system. Like many of the old farms the house was not terribly insulated and therefor quite drafty…..a bit like our old farmhouses in New England, yes? The work has been going on for the last several months and before long ( 3 weeks!!!??) the house will be ready for a small gathering. Hooray!
Outdoors, two amazing stone workers (who are also sheep farmers) are busy mending some of the grand old stone walls that frame in the farm’s lush green fields. They’re building some new ones, too.

Lar and Pat
Farmers. Stone Builders.

I am in awe of their work, their keen eye for each stone placed or rock split perfectly and then positioned. True craftsman, really. I do love seeing the house being transformed into a much warmer and well lit dwelling. The crew working on that part of the project are genius as well, but it is the keeping and tending of those old stonewalls that has my attention. Knowing that each stone was handled before by some diligent farmer with an intention to contain his livestock and to create separate grazing fields reminds us of the work that was done before mechanization. Now history is coming full circle and being preserved by two thoughtful men who are honoring their roots and rural traditions. Slowly, carefully, and with great craft they are re-building the stone walls. Beauty, behold. Because I come from a long line of farming, my own roots dating back to the earliest settlers of New England and where stonewalls are a part of our own cultural landscape , I truly appreciate this commitment to land and farming and community. As I have said many, many times before…..traveling away from my life in Maine is never easy, but coming to Ireland is always a profound blessing.