It’s been a good year—so far—on the Stonington gardening front. Whether through the power of marigolds, changed herd routes, or sheer dumb luck, the deer depredations have been minor, and while there are signs of some nibbling by other critters, most of the plants have been undisturbed. And the flowers and shrubs seem to like the weather, which has been mostly dry and sunny with an occasional driving rainstorm thrown in for good measure.
Our delphiniums, in particular, have thrived this year. These beautiful and distinctive plants, which give you a real tower of flower, have grown to about six feet in height and are dominating the right side of our bed under a small tree.
In fact, the delphiniums have become a kind of victim of their own success. Their stalks have grown so tall, and produced so many delicate blooms, that they are top-heavy and liable to topple over when a gusty thunderstorm rolls through. As a result, part of my gardening work this year has involved using bamboo shoots, and even a metal stand designed to hold a hanging flower basket, to give the stalks additional support. Every morning I conduct an inspection and reposition the bamboo, as necessary, to keep the delphiniums upright and shooting ever upward.
Who knew that gardening also involved application of engineering and construction principles? But the big test for my jury-rigged system of support pillars will come on Friday, when the remnants of hurricane Elsa are supposed to blow through town.
Early June is a pretty time in Stonington and throughout Deer Isle, thanks to the wildflowers that have just started to bloom. This hillside next to the Stonington Opera House is typical. The slopes are too steep to tend, so it’s a survival of the fittest battle between the weeds and the wildflowers. Fortunately, sometimes the wildflowers win.
I’ve been working hard on the lupines in front of our house this year, and have been careful about weeding and watering and trying to do whatever I can to make them thrive. I’m happy to report that my efforts have been rewarded, as both of the big plants are doing well and have produced lots of blooms, which will mean lots of lupine seeds to harvest come August.
In fact, the lupine tending has been so successful that other lupines have taken root in the front of the house and seem to be doing well, too. That’s good news for me, because I think the lupines are pretty cool plants and look especially good against the rock outcroppings next to our front door.
If you like purple—and who doesn’t?—Stonington is a great place to visit right now. The lupines have bloomed earlier than their traditional Father’s Day arrival, and the vast majority of them are purple. Couple the lupines with the lilac bushes and their fragrant purple flowers, and you have a sweet-smelling purple festival in the works.
Why have the lupines arrived early? Some locals say it’s because we’ve gotten less rain than usual, some say it’s because it’s been sunnier than normal, and some say Mother Nature just decided to give us a post-COVID break and let us enjoy some pretty flowers earlier than she usually does.
Over the weekend I was weeding dandelions, which is a constant challenge in our yard, when I ran across this little plant in one of the flowerbeds near the fence line. In my weeding frenzy, I almost weeded it out, but my rational brain took control, recognized the plant, and stopped me before my crazed dandelion eradication efforts added it to the weed bucket.
“Hey, that’s one of my lupines,” I realized, and then I felt a welling sense of pleasure and pride as I carefully weeded around the little plant to give it maximum room for growth. It was a very rewarding gardening moment.
Last fall, before we left Stonington for Columbus, I harvested a bunch of lupine seeds and prepared them for planting. It’s a laborious process, because you need to extract the seeds from their seed pods, one by one, and then dry them before you can plant them. Lupine seeds then need to be in the ground and experience some freezing temperatures before they grow, and you might experience loss of the seeds as a result of hungry birds and critters looking for a snack during the fall and winter months. But I was willing to try a long-term gardening project, so I planted the seeds on a wing and a prayer, and hoped — and now, eight months later, I’m seeing the fruits (or more precisely, plants) of my efforts.
We’re not out of the woods yet, as I’ll need to give this little guy careful attention over the coming months, but it’s very cool to see that the lupine experiment worked. Some of my lupine seeds didn’t germinate, but some did, and as a result I may have some pretty lupine plants where there were none before. Such small victories are the stuff of gardening satisfaction.
I’ve been tested and determined to be mildly color-blind on some parts of the color spectrum, so I never know whether I’m seeing colors in their true, natural glory. When I look at these pretty little flowers growing from a crack in the granite slab by our front door, for example, I see purple blooms. Kish, on the other hands, described them as pink.
My description of the blooms as purple may be due to a limited knowledge of the names of the various shades on the color palette. The different hues blur into each other, and to my eye, at least, there is no clear line between darker shades of pink and lighter shades of purple. Magenta is somewhere on that ill-defined border, and so are hot pink, jam and mulberry. So maybe those flowers really aren’t purple, per se.
This is why I play no role in picking out wall paint colors in our household. But least we can all agree on the green lobster boat in the background.
There’s still a lot of fall color out there to enjoy. Bright leaves are hanging on to many of the trees and bushes, and multi-hued pumpkins and gourds decorate many German Village doorsteps, but the mums are the stars of the color display right now. They give a strong incentive to get outside and get some fresh air and exercise — while continuing to maintain appropriate social distancing, of course.
We’ve had perfect autumn weather in Columbus over the past few days — cool and crisp in the morning, and sunny and warm in the afternoon before sunset. Enjoy it, and the brilliant colors, while they last!
Some loyal and curious Webner House readers have asked for an update on how the flower beds that I planted in the downyard earlier this summer are doing. The answer is: good and bad.
The good news is that I have, for the most part, kept the flowers I planted in the crack between the two huge rocks from being gobbled up wholesale by hungry gangs of marauding deer. As a result, after several frustrating incursions where the deer bit off the flower buds just as they were getting ready to burst, the flowers have actually bloomed, as the photo above shows. The black-eyed susan plant at the forefront was the subject of repeated violation by the deer, so it’s still trying to catch up with its counterpart at the other end of the bed, which has only suffered one or two deer visits. If you want to do a comparison of how the bed looks now versus how it looked at the outset, you can find some “before” photos of the crack here.
When viewed from our deck, above, the crack between the rocks actually looks like a flower bed. The bright yellow of the black-eyed susans stands out against the granite rock, and I like the purple of the phlox. The bad new is that the Husker red beardtongue flowers planted in the middle have been a disappointment. The plants seem to be healthy, but they don’t produce many flowers and don’t add much, visually, to the beds. And a lupine that I planted in another bed was decimated by a slug attack.
Looking at this floral experiment with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, I should have just planted black-eyed susans, which seem to do well in this soil, in the whole bed. But all of these flowers are perennials, so I’m hoping that the beardtongues bounce back next year and strut their stuff.
I’ve also learned something else: gardening is really kind of fun, and interesting, besides. In fact, it’s somewhat addictive. Already I find myself thinking of what I might do in the gardening arena next year. A gardener’s work is never done.
In Maine, we love our lupine flowers, which seem to grow everywhere — even by the side of the road, without any tending. We have three beautiful lupines right in front of our house, and I’m interested in trying to grow lupines elsewhere on our property. But if you want to harvest lupine seeds and grow lupines, you need to work at it.
Later in the summer, the lupine flowers are replaced by lupine seed pods, which look like hairy pea pods. (This is not surprising, because lupines are a part of the bean family of plants.) If you want to harvest the seeds, you need to wait until the seed pods dry out and you can hear the seeds rattling around in the pod. Then you patiently open the pods one by one, free the seeds from the pod, drop the seeds into a storage container — in our case, a coffee cup — and then wait to plant the seeds until the end of the season. If you plant them too early, they’ll be found and consumed by birds and the other hungry critters of Maine. The lupine seeds then need to experience multiple weeks of cold weather before they germinate and new plants can grow.
Unfortunately, I waited too long to do the seed harvest from the plants in the front of the house. By the time I checked them, most of the pods had already burst open and dropped their seeds — and lupine seeds are incredibly tiny and heavy, so I wasn’t going to be able to find and retrieve them from the ground. However, I found some unopened pods, and we retrieved some additional pods from plants along the roadway. With the help of Dr. Science and the GV Jogger, who pitched in with us and enjoyed the simple pleasures of pod opening and seed retrieval, we’ve now collected several hundred of the small black seeds, which I will try to plant this fall.
According to the Mainers, you should try to position the lupine seeds in areas where there isn’t much competition from other plants. In addition, lupines seem to prefer rocky soil — and we’ve got plenty of that. I’ve got several locations in mind where I would love to see some lupine plants take root. I’ll be hoping that some of the seeds avoid the foraging of our neighborhood birds and animals, so that next spring we’ve got a serious lupine bloom on our hands.
It’s been blistering hot up here. Of course, “hot” is a relative term. “Hot,” by Stonington standards, means any temperatures above 70 degrees, and “blistering” means the thermometer touches 80. (Given their sensitivity to heat, I don’t know what the good people of Stonington would do if confronted by a true Midwestern or southern summer, where temperatures in the 90s and above are commonplace. Probably, they would be grateful they live up here, nod and say ayuh, and then stolidly retreat to these rockbound shores.)
But I digress. On the days that promise to be hot and dry, I try to give our plants a good watering. Because of the configuration of our yard and flower beds, that means using different watering devices and following a circuit.
I begin with the beds by our front door, where I can use a hose. We don’t have a spray nozzle, so I use the thumb-over-the-water-flow method to achieve a sprinkle, and give the beds a good dousing. They are on the western side of the house and won’t get sun for a while, so the water will get a chance to really sink in and do some good before the day heats up. The hose water gets very cold against my thumb and helps me to wake up, and I do the watering while I’m making coffee so I can get a hot cup of joe when the watering is done and the hose is rolled up.
The next stop on the watering circuit comes later, after I’ve taken a walk and given the ever-hungry neighborhood deer a reasonable opportunity to eat more of the down yard flowers. Because the down yard is in deep shadow in the morning, it can wait. There’s no hose, so I need to use a watering can that I fill to the brim in our basement sink. I carry the can down the steps and hillside and water three areas: next to the outside stairs, where I’ve tried to transplant a lupine and set up a little flower bed, the flowers I planted in the crack between our two big rocks and next to the creek, and finally the vegetables we got from Russell. It usually takes three trips and helps me to get my daily stair climbing in. I also inevitably fill my daily quotient of obscenities when I survey the damage the deer have done to the flowers in the crack between the rocks, where we’ll probably never get the black-eyed susan blossoms — they always get neatly clipped off by deer teeth just as they are ready to bloom. As I trudge back up the hill, cursing inwardly and trying to figure out some new, actually effective way to discourage the rapacious deer, I’ve become mentally ready to face the work day.
The last step in the watering circuit comes in the early evening, where I use a different hose to water the beds in the side yard and a little tree that has always struggled. The side yard is starting to get shade by then, and the hose water feels cool and crisp after a hot day. Watering, with its mindless back and forth motions to try to fully cover the relevant territory, is a good way to wind down after work and let the brain wander a bit. The side yard beds also are a bit more uplifting to water, because the yard is fenced and deer don’t bother it, so the flowers are actually blooming rather than being consumed. At the end of the day, it’s nice to see some fruits from your labors.
That’s my hot day watering circuit. The deer appreciate my efforts, I’m sure.
During our unseasonably cool Fourth of July weekend, I noticed that many of our flowers were just getting ready to bloom. Having planted a number of them and watered all of them, I was eager to see the splash of colorful blossoms and how the flowers looked in our setting.
Unfortunately, it was not to be. When I left yesterday morning to take my walk, I saw a flash of a white tail in the distance and a deer bounding away through the underbrush. And then when I checked on our flowers, I was disappointed to discover that something had neatly clipped off, and presumably happily consumed, the flower buds that were just ready to burst, leaving only the bristling stalks behind.
I’m guessing that the deer is the culprit. And when I checked on other flowers we’ve planted, I saw that some had also been trimmed of their tender and delectable buds — although some had been left alone. Apparently, the deer of Stonington have discriminating tastes. Only the flowers that are in the fenced-in part of the yard, and the thorny wild roses that grow from the rocks next to the house, were totally safe from the scourge of deer teeth.
The last option is to go for “deer-resistant plants.” But the BHG website page on “deer-resistant plants of the northeast” cautions: “There aren’t really any plants you can truly say are deer proof. And the animals are smart and unpredictable — so the deer in your yard may love a particular plant, but avoid it in a garden down the block.” And it seems like planting presumably deer-resistant plants that hungry deer might decide to eat anyway isn’t going to keep them from devouring the other tasty perennials that I’ve already planted.
So it looks like we’re stuck. I guess I’m just going to have to start appreciating the rare beauty of denuded flowerstalks.
It was a glorious weekend in Stonington, with sunshine and temperatures in the low 60s — perfect weather for yard work and gardening. We seized the opportunity to do some gardening work in the down yard that we’ve been wanting to do for some time.
Our outdoor work began on Saturday, with some weeding and clean-up work in the areas that we were going to tackle, followed by a trip to the Mainescape garden store in Blue Hill. We donned our masks, headed into the store’s extensive outside plant display areas, and were immediately overwhelmed with the choices.
As Kish aptly observed, for a novice like us, going to a garden store is like a non-gearhead going to buy a car. You’ve got only the most superficial sense of what you want, without any real insight into which options would best serve your needs. Mainescape takes a decidedly low-key approach, so we spent a lot of time wandering around looking at the potted plants and trying to figure out which ones would work best in the spaces we identified for some new beds.
We had decided, in advance, that we wanted to get perennials, rather than annuals, and would try to focus on hardy native plants that would be best suited to surviving the rugged Maine weather. We settled on some Goldsturm black eyed susans, some purple Phlox — which has to be the greatest name for a flower, ever — some Husker red beardtongue (also a great, and curiously evocative, name for a flower), which is supposed to produce a tall array of small white flowers, and a white lupine. There’s lots of green in the down yard already, between the grass and the ferns and the shrubs and the trees, so we figured white, purple, and yellow would stand out well. We also bought some gardening soil and cow manure mixture to provide the most welcome setting possible for the new plants.
Yesterday was spent spreading the garden soil and cow manure and doing the planting. Between carrying bags of soil and manure and then lugging and repositioning rocks to outline the new flower beds and also display some of the rocks we dug out of our yard — not to mention lots of stooping and digging — gardening gives you a pretty good workout. It’s also a fun, creative outlet, as you figure out which flowers to put where and also think about whether you can add some little flourishes to make your garden areas special.
For me, a big part of the whole gardening experience is trying to make the garden and flower beds fit into your intended space in a natural way. I admire the Japanese approach of trying to make your garden an extension of nature and the natural, physical surroundings. In the down yard, the principal physical characteristic is rock — lots and lots of rocks, large and small. Using rocks as a key feature of the flower beds therefore wasn’t a difficult decision.
I decided to use some of our rocks to edge the new flower beds, but also use the beds to frame and display some of the more interesting granite rocks we’ve found in the yard, in terms of their different shapes — like the round rocks shown in the photo above — and their different and often striking colors and patterns. The whiter rocks show up very well against the green grass and provide a nice contrast with the black garden soil.
I also like symmetry, so we positioned the plants we put into the crack between the two gigantic granite rocks so that the flowers would be a kind of mirror image from the middle out, with the two tall beardtongues in the middle, one of the phloxes to each side of the beardtongues, and then the black eyed susans at the two ends of the bed. We’re hoping that we’ll be able to enjoy the mix of colors and the symmetry when we look at this particular flower bed from the vantage point of our deck.
It was a full weekend of yard work and gardening. I endured a lot of bug bites, but it was a lot of fun and quite satisfying, too. I’ve posted some before and after photos of two of the areas to give an idea of what we did. Now, we’ll need to work on watering.
If you’re anywhere near coastal Maine, you’re going to be around granite. There are outcroppings pretty much everywhere.
The granite makes a nice setting for flowers, if you can get them to grow on or about the rocks. The sun-bleached stone makes every color of a flower seem more vivid, and on a sunny day like today the hues can be eye-popping.
These purple beauties are just wildflower ground cover that grew naturally in the crack of the huge rock near our front door. You couldn’t have planned a better presentation if you hired a landscape designer.
Of course, none of our elected officials asked me to weigh in on the subject, but if they had I would have argued the gardening is an “essential service.” When you’ve been cooped up all day, nothing lifts your spirits like seeing some pretty spring flowers.