Friday, August 1, 2014

Star Island Pel Garden: Sustainably Reusing What You Have

Star Island, off the coast of New Hampshire, has always had a huge interest in consuming less, recycling more and a holistic approach to every resource used. It is after all, a rock 12 miles out to sea, with no fresh water, not much growing space, and 300 people a week during the summer months. Oh...and the 100 people who run the island, most of which are between the ages of 18-25 called Pelicans ( Don't ask me why. All I know is Pelicans are Pelicans!)

Sustainability starts with reuse of the things we have used. Star Island, in the Isles of Shoals, has chosen to become a leader in sustainable living through a total overhaul of all the consumption and utility usage delivery systems on the island. In the Pel garden though, reuse starts with what they have a lot of...empty bottles! A clever way to make raised beds for vegetables, it is not a bad look
with the early morning sun glinting off green glass!

The other thing they have plenty of is seaweed! Seaweed makes excellent nutrient rich mulch as we see here in the potato mounds. The garden layout is a mix of European rows of lettuce and greens with the Native American tradition of mounding certain vegetables in hills. Cardboard and hay are also used as mulch. This garden produces 1000 lbs of vegetables a season and thanks to a new WOOF program, expertise and volunteers are plentiful.

Much of the garden has a ordered chaos feel that is its charm. Spinach, beans, chard, potatoes, lettuce,
and squash populate this garden by the sea. Watering is by cistern water, collected from the rain off buildings and stored in holding tanks.  

Volunteer Pels and visitors keep the weeds at bay, but even time and energy are at a premium out here. Weeds that don't affect production are allowed to grow, and compost from the island goes on the beds. Star Island's incredible efforts to make almost everything on Island be compostable ( I mean composted in 1-2 years, not 20 years) and reusable is phenomenal. Every trash station has three bins for recycling, compostable waste, and trash with clear signs describing what can go in which bin.

The Garden log is a nice touch for those who visit the garden. This tradition can be seen on many remote islands, where a log for visitors to sign in and comment is held in a rain proof box. I love reading all the comments from people from far away who come to visit this garden and who are impressed by its charm.

But it is the flair of past Pelicans and volunteers who have created this garden that I love. Of course it is not without its sculptural focal point, a toilet surrounded by a platform of brick cascading with annuals! What could be more appropriate for this island where used things can become new again. Click here to read more about the incredible advances Star has made toward sustainability.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Busy Bees

I woke up this morning early, but I wasn't the only one! Bees were very busy everywhere. With coffee in hand I took a few photos. Here are some honey bees on the poppies. Someone must have a hive nearby. So glad to see these important pollinators!

Here a bumble bee hangs onto a borage flower.

The fairy rose is at it's peak and is covered with bumble bees, honey bees and sweat bees.

The hostas are little bags that the bees go in and out of with efficency.

Here is a little sweat bee (Augochlorella aurata), bright green and iridescent on the cosmos.  Happy to see so many at work, time for me to do the same!

Monday, June 30, 2014

Garden Ornaments: How much is too much?

I realize that I have been carrying a lot of concrete around with me  for the past 25 years. I always have searched for the old concrete garden ornaments, liking that grainy surface of concrete older than the 1950's. Some additions were antique when I bought them and some lesser quality pieces have grown beautiful with age.

This beauty was a cheap reproduction of the Venus de Milo I found headless in a junk shop in CT. Irresistibly inexpensive because she didn't have a head, she has moved 6 times with me in 25 years! I always felt she would have been worse with her head on, since her facial features would have belied her lesser pedigree. She weighs a ton! What I like now is that she has some great lichen growing on her that gives her have a bit of gravitas.

Another classic I got years ago was this simple bird bath. Again, it was broken and the top has to sit just right on the base, but it has that old pebbly texture to the concrete that you can't buy new today unless you spend a lot of money. I remember as I was collecting these broken and wayward pieces in consignment places, I went once to a real high end statuary maker called Kenneth Lynch and Sons. This establishment is the real deal, the kind of quality you don't see much anymore.  Though  definitely out of my price range, it sure is stunning to look at the hand crafted pieces. They also had a seconds area out back!

Another simple piece was this Japanese lantern. It does fit a votive candle inside, and is quite solid for it's size. In this location I constantly have to trim back the Euonymus to give it some room to shine! This too is getting some lichen on its top, which really makes it settle into the setting.

This little Buddha has a cool whiteish patch on his chest that is prominent when it rains and the rest of him gets wet. Again, mold and age have given character to his plain profile. I try to nestle him in so he looks like he has meditated so long the plants have grown around him.

 My latest piece was from my favorite consignment shop here in Freeport, Pillars. I bought it as an early Christmas gift (yes, my husband liked it too) when they were ready to come down in the price since it was getting on in the fall and probably didn't want to drag it inside. This little round bench fits perfectly in the round herb garden, and has great moss and lichen on it ( I know I seem a little kooky about lichen but did you know it takes 20 years to grow those little masses!?)

The thing you have to watch out for is not having too much in any one place. Too many statues is an easy mistake, like having too much jewelry on all at once. Pieces are better a bit hidden and not within immediate proximity of another piece. They are a focal point for the eye and shouldn't have competition.

I hope not to move from this house anytime (soon), so these  weighty beauties will stay growing more and more part of the garden they inhabit.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Maine Wildflowers in Bloom Now

Bunchberry ( Cornus Canadensis )
 Sometimes, amid the work associated with keeping an old house standing, you get to walk around and smell, well, not yet roses, but some of the lesser wildflowers that punctuate spring. This Bunchberry is so stalwart, I look forward to it every year down in the wet edge of the woodland. In the Dogwood family, you can see the similarities... heavily veined leaves and flowers that are sturdy. It is three inches off the ground in masses.

Mouse Ear Hawkweed ( Hieracium pilosella)

This Mouse Ear Hawkweed grows in large colonies in the grass. Small hairy basel rosettes bear one yellow flower. Sometimes it is confused with the later Indian Paintbrush. Like Pussytoes and Bluets they make up patches in the field.

Mocassin Flower or Pink Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium arietinum)
This is what we are always hoping to find this time of year..the Pink Lady's Slipper! Rare and endangered, they are very particular of their environment. They can be found in  woods with quite a bit of dappled sun, many pines and some decaying matter nearby.

Starflower (Trientalis borealis)
This little Starflower is everywhere in the the Primrose family.

Bluets ( Houstonia caerulea)

In the grass, these patches of Bluets are beautiful and special to those whose eyes are low to the ground. Visiting children can't resist picking huge clumps!

Wild Lily of the Valley ( Maianthemum canadense)
This very unobtrusive, yet sturdy little lily flower can be found in the woods or your shade garden. Keep your eye to the ground next time you are out to see what is blooming in your area.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

What's Growing on Around Here

While watching the sun go in and out all weekend, I finished planting all the seedlings that had to go out and amending the soil in the last few beds. Now let summer begin! Here is what is growing now.

Bleeding heart (dicentra spectabilis) are always so beautiful now. As  kids we called them lady-in-a-bath-tub. If you take a flower and turn it upside down and pull the sides of the pink "bath tub", you'll see why.

This border bed was renovated two years ago and is coming along. Long overgrown with ferns and vinca it has been a tricky spot because of the shallow roots of the maples along the wall. It only gets 4 hours sun, but the catmint, lady's mantle, lamb's ears and hosta do fine. The white Rhododendrons that were great last year are looking a bit beaten from deer grazing (who could blame them this winter) and bitter winds. They might need some pruning later in the season.

I like this combination of Allium with the Euphorbia polychroma. Love that purple and lemon together!

Rhubarb is at it's height now, with stems still red and good enough to eat, while the flower heads are starting to rise. This clump was part of what we assumed was an old vegetable patch where we put in the Medieval Garden. We dug it out of the lawn and just threw it in a spot by the barn. I remember being so busy that summer I never got back to even covering the crowns under the soil, but see what neglect does! This year I have to remember to freeze enough for pies for the year.

Bluets (Houstonia caerulea) are everywhere here, my favorite harbinger of spring. David mows around them for as long as they bloom each year, giving the yard a flowery mead look.

The Trollius Europaeus always is a stunner this time of year, but fades and then dies back later in the summer. I always have to remember where it is and be careful not to  put a late summer purchase in it's spot!

The herb garden is still coming to life. Things take awhile to get going down here. This garden has the most extreme conditions on the property with harsh cold all winter settling in the lower nooks, winds whipping across the fields and very wet soil. Suffice it to say I NEVER water this garden.

A new vegetable variety I am excited about this year is this Flastaff Purple Brussel Sprout. Already it is rewarding in it's vigorous habit and brilliant purple stems. Along with that I am trying a Cheddar and Romanesco cauliflower. For tomatoes I have kept it simple this year with only Sweet 100's and a heirloom French variety called Jaune Flamme from Seed Savers Exchange. I just never have good luck with all the great heirlooms you see in the Farmers Markets here in Freeport. It just isn't hot enough I think. This year I am just going with tried and true.
What new vegetables are you trying this year?

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Film: Symphony of the Soil and Soil Microbiology

I had a great afternoon last Sunday watching the Maine premiere of Symphony of the Soil. A film by Deborah Koons Garcia (Jerry Garcia's widow) that talks about the importance of soil health and cultivating it's microbiology for strong, pest free plants as well as our own health (and, of course, the planet's health.) It reconfirms why we need to "grow" soil through organic methods.

Eliot Coleman and Barbara Damrosch from Kitchen Gardeners International
Afterwards there was a panel discussion with the fimmaker, Deborah Koons Garcia, Leslie Oster, General Manager of Aurora Provisions in Portland, Maine (caterer and food expert extraordinaire) and two of my organic gardening heroes, Eliot Coleman and Barbara Damrosch from Four Seasons Farm. Each person lent their perspective and experience to the conversation. All were ardent about healthy soil for the sake of the planet's top soil, for growing healthy plants that are independent of chemicals, and for taste and quality.
I learned so much from this film, and had plenty of questions to ask afterwards. With top people in the field of soil biology and leaders in the new agricultural movement, the film was well made and entertaining. I was able to ask Eliot a few questions when it was over. He set me straight on a couple of things and gave some tips.

This is what I learned and was reminded of (in the simplest terms):
  • All the micro-biotic life in the soil lives on Carbon (all decomposing matter.)
  •  Plants thrive on Nitrogen which is given off by the micro-biotic life/bacteria that eats your Carbon. (So when you add Carbon in the soil, the micro organisms eat the Carbon and give off Nitrogen and Potassium that the plants need to grow. )
  • Healthy plants usually do not need any chemicals to suppress pests, or fertilizers to help them grow. If you build up the organic matter in the soil it relieves the dependance for fertilizers.
  • You can rehabilitate dead soil in three years by adding rigorous amounts of compost and  organic material. (By dead I mean if you have been using a lot of inorganic fertilizers, or soil from a bag that isn't organic and now has no nutrients left. Good soil has the consistency of crumbly chocolate cake!)
  • You don't need to till the soil. Plant right into the root structure of last years plants. (This is a revelation to me, and I am trying it this year...apparently plants like to connect with the root structure of past plants in the soil. Counter intuitive for those of us who like to dig!)
  • Use cover crops to add to soil organic matter. ( This is where I got good advice from Eliot Coleman..after asking the best cover crops for the home gardener in Maine, he said that oats and cowpeas are the best. Planted in the fall, these do not need to be tilled in as they die back at 20 degrees. Just plant right into the soil with no turning in the spring. )
So here is my To-Do list for soil improvement around the house:
1. Make more compost! To do this I will organize my garden clippings a bit..separating soft and tough cuttings from the garden. Soft green material that I cut back, will go in a pile together, and tough things will either go in the burn pile or by themselves. This way I will have a fast decomposing pile that I can use twice a season. The tough cuttings can take their time.
2. Turn over the soil less. Though initially I turn a new bed over to 18inches to get the good top soil down to where roots will be growing, an established bed only needs compost added every year to the top. This also doesn't let new weed seeds to emerge when you turn over the soil.
3. I will add compost even if it is not completely decomposed. Some half composted leaf shreds and old twigs will bring the good micro bacteria right to where I want the organisms to thrive. I remember in Connecticut I lived near the composting guru, Ruth Stout, who advocated just throwing your kitchen waste right into the beds. I actually did that last fall...just buried the kitchen scraps right in the garlic bed..and it seems to be doing great!

Monday, May 19, 2014

Portland (Oregon) Japanese Garden: Five Gardens, Four Seasons

Last week we were out in Oregon for our son's graduation and took some time to tour the coast and see  Portland's sites. Number one on my Portland list is always the Japanese Garden. Having been there only in the fall, it was spectacular to see it in full spring glory!

Up in the hills above the city, what is always shocking is the height of the trees in Oregon, and the understory they allow. The majesty of this is awe inspiring to the East Coast dweller.

It was a great time of year to view the garden, as the rhododendrons and azaleas were in peak bloom. Here is the Flat Garden, with plantings symbolizing the four seasons. The Japanese laceleaf red maple to the right representing Fall, the black pines around the central lantern being Winter, the weeping cherry standing in for Spring (out of the picture to the left) and the gravel with islands of moss representing water for Summer.

This 5.5 acres is laid out with five distinct gardens. The Flat Garden, the Tea Garden, The Strolling Pond Garden, the Natural Garden and the Sand and Stone Garden are designed with the key Japanese garden elements of stone, plants and water in mind. Arbors, bridges, lanterns all add the finishing touches. 

Everything represents the natural world and our place in it. Designed by Professor Takuma Tono in 1963, he used concepts from Shinto, Buddhist and Taoist traditions when deciding on the elements. Considered to be the "most beautiful and authentic Japanese Garden in the world outside of Japan", this garden incorporates many native plants to Oregon and not Japan. This emphasizes the philosophy behind Japanese gardening, which is about incorporating all the elements in the natural world in a harmonious way, without being about specific plants.

Sculpture in a  reserved way adds a moment of reflection at the Strolling Pond Garden.

The Natural Garden is a wonder for moss and shade garden lovers. Dappled sunlight and tended moss create the idyllic setting but which takes an artists eye to cultivate.

Having my mother-in-law take the tour, she said they talked a lot about the pruning. They do most of the big pruning in summer, right after the blossoms fade. These Azalea hedges look in peak shape.

Water is found everywhere, from trickling brooks to waterfalls. Sound and reflection add to sensory experience. The journey is completed with fragrant blossoms and leaves with a variety of textures. Even on their busiest day of the year (Mother's day) we enjoyed it without feeling like the people took away from the experience. A must see next time Oregon way!

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Rock: The Good, The Bad and The Heavy


Rock is something we have lot of! I remember in Connecticut we used to call them Connecticut potatoes, but here in Maine, well, it probably is something more akin to Giant Dill Atlantic pumpkins. Don't get discouraged.  Though the frost brings a new crop to the surface each year, you can use them to advantage (sometimes.)

Years ago we took advantage of the past 200 years of farmers in our yard who piled and stacked rock in loosely arranged stone walls. When we put in the medieval herb garden, we dragged rock from the woods and decayed walls. Only the flattest and largest for the pathways, only rock with lichen for the uprights were used. It is amazing what two people and a lever can achieve!

But now I must use what is around for building additional retaining walls. It made me look around our neighborhood and see how others have used the local rock. Sometimes flat, but more than not, roundish and awkward, it is not easy to make a wall. Like a puzzle, but with heavier trials and errors.

I like to vary the color and shape when possible. Some rock is grey granite, and some has a pinker tone. This wall took a surprisingly long time, and is far from great. You can make a great section and then realize you used all the flat ones, and then have only round left, or you used all the pretty lichen covered grey ones in the same section and have only pink left. Sometimes you need to walk away and get some distance- mentally and physically.

At the end of our driveway is a clump of mossy, lichen covered rocks. I swear it was one of the things that sold me on this house. It looked Japanese...beautiful rocks artfully placed in a sea of pea gravel.

To see really beautiful stone, I walked back to our neighbors house (our house was part of that property more than 3/4 of the 150 years they have been standing.) They sit on the same geological formation, but they saved some of the choicest granite blocks for the front wall. I love the toadstool cap on the granite hitching post. Lovely, without being cutesy. The ash tree is also a most spectacular specimen.

Here around the barn foundation, someone with heavy machinery, has stacked some gorgeous granite specimens. This looks stunning but will be out of the question for our walls. It does amaze me that our foundation though has 4 x 6ft granite blocks holding up the house. How did they move those then?

 More humbly, and much more perplexing is our front rock wall. It has been frost heaving and collapsing for many decades,with people just throwing the fallen member back on top...not a well thought out design! I think I will start on the ends of each driveway and try and make something of the chaos..but someday might need more attention.

But I remember what a great friend said to me when I was in my 30's and frantically trying to develop the garden at our house in Redding, CT. She was from Taiwan and had a different frame of reference - she said "you know a garden takes 30 years to make, a lifetime to mature" -which reminds me of when we visited the gardens in Suzhou, China. This garden, Lion's Gate, was only about rock.... it took several generations of owners, over 100's of years, to collect the rock and place it. The rock came from all over Asia.  This helps me get new perspective  when I think things aren't coming along as they should. I will do it one rock wall at a time.