Stonington, Maine is a great growing climate. Plants seem to thrive here, but unfortunately that includes weeds—lots and lots of weeds. So when I returned after a two-and-a-half month absence, I found on the positive side that my lupines had grown to colossal sizes, but weeds had invaded all the beds and were on the verge of overwhelming our plantings. The photo above is an example of just how overgrown things had become.
So this past weekend featured a lot of weeding, to try to get the growth under control. I dug out countless broadleaf weeds, yanked out creeping vines, chopped back encroaching chokecherry trees, and pulled out unwanted grass. My favorite weed to remove, whose name is unknown to me, has a weird hollow stem, grows rapidly, and has a purple flower on top and very shallow roots. You can extract it with a gentle tug, and it is satisfying to then fling it onto the weed pile.
By the end of the weekend, as the photo below shows, I had got things back to about where they were when I last left in May. In the never-ending War of the Weeds, that’s about all you can hope for.
Yesterday’s hike up the slope of Mt. Etna began with a volcano primer from our indefatigable guide, Marco. We stopped at this spot on the slope, where an old lava flow has cooled and been broken up into a collection of razor-sharp black stones and gravel. There Marco explained that a volcano is not inert like a mountain, but instead is ever changing, like a living thing. Mt. Etna, which has been active for generations, has been through countless transformations and is changing even now.
We then drove a short distance, parked our van, and started the trek up the slope of the volcano. The trail followed a series of switchbacks as we trudged ever upward. The gardener in me thought the black rock, gravel, and sand looked like the finest black mulch imaginable, bringing out all of the colors of the plants growing in the nutrient-rich volcanic soil. Marco noted that Mt. Etna’s eruptions have helped nourish countless vineyards and fruit and vegetable farms in the area. He also noted that the plant life in the vicinity of the volcano can help you recreate the flow of lava from past eruptions. Little plants reflect recent eruptions, whereas trees mean territory that has not been touched for much longer periods. The photo above, for example, tells you that the most recent eruptions in this area flowed down and to the left.
The rocky soil made for a challenging climb. In some spots the ground was covered with tiny rocks like very coarse sand, where your foot would sink in, and in other spots the loose rocks made footing treacherous. Our doughty band of hardy hikers exercised due case and fortunately avoided falls, spills, twisted ankles, or other mishaps. We did end up covered with dust and with sharp rocks in our shoes, however.
Marco explained that the area we were climbing was once densely populated and covered with beautiful gardens—until an eruption buried the area in fiery molten rock. Only one house, shown above, was spared. The lava reached up to the roofline on one side but left the other largely unscathed. Marco noted that the owners still use it for cookouts and hiking rest stops.
Just past the half-buried house you come up to a summit of sorts, and when you reach the top you are treated to an awesome, otherworldly scene that could be the lost world or an alien landscape. The summit is a ledge that looks down on an area formed by the collapse of a caldera long ago. The rocks are covered with lichens, the first step in the circle of life, and only the toughest plants grow in the rocky ground. Behind it all is the smoking, steaming cone of Mt. Etna, and when the wind shifts you can see crooked fingers of lava reaching down the exterior of the volcano.
Marco convinced us to go the extra mile—actually, he said it was only a few hundred meters—to find an even better view. We then followed more switchbacks upward, finally scrambling up a 45-degree slope of loose rock and gravel. We emerged on a rocky promontory, 4500 feet above sea level, that looked down upon a valley 2000 feet below. Because one false move could send you hurtling off the precipice to certain death, I didn’t get close to the edge. Marco, who is apparently part mountain goat, and the Swiss Shutterbug had no qualms about venturing out to the edge while the rest of us wished they would come back to solid ground. That’s Marco in the photo below, taking in the extraordinary view.
The sun was starting to sink behind the clouds of smoke and steam billowing from Mt. Etna’s crater, casting a golden glow over rocks, hikers, and the entire landscape. It was time to go. We grabbed fallen branches to serve as walking sticks, skidded down the gravel-covered hill, and headed back to our van, knowing that fine wine and a fine meal awaited at Barone di Villagrande vineyard.
In this world, you always have to be prepared for something weird and seemingly scary coming just around the corner. Usually the distressing news falls into one of two categories: scary strange new health condition news, and scary strange insect or creature news. And just when you thought you were done with one, another one pops up.
On the health front, as soon as we breathe a sigh of relief that we’ve muddled through most of the COVID pandemic, with all of its Greek-lettered variants, “monkeypox” pops up as the next big thing–joining a long line that includes bird flu, SARS, ebola, and swine flu, way back when. On the critter front, we first were warned back in the ’70s about the swarms of “killer bees” that were going to invade the country from central America and Mexico, followed by an unbroken line of ticks, flies, wasps, and other biting, swarming, or disease-carrying pests, culminating in the “murder hornets” we heard about during the COVID shutdown months.
Admittedly, “crazy snake worms” that can jump a foot in the air aren’t as frightening as potentially deadly “murder hornets,” but some context is necessary. Gardening is supposed to be a pleasant, pastoral pursuit, where you can reconnect with nature, get your hands in the soil, and help pretty or useful things grow. It is a relaxing, solitary activity that is supposed to lower your blood pressure. Dealing with the threat of thrashing king-sized worms that can jump out of the soil at you when you are knelt down and focused on weeding is not supposed to be part of the gardening equation.
As I said, it’s always something. Now even the garden isn’t safe from the weirdness.
I got a lot accomplished during my two-day Stonington gardening frenzy this past weekend. Mother Nature was a great help in the effort. It had rained for a few days before I arrived, so the ground was soft and perfect for weed extraction. During my visit, however, it was sunny and cool—ideal conditions for some heavy duty planting and general yard work.
Yard work and gardening have a sequence. The winter storms had knocked down a lot of branches, so the first step in the process was to pick up the debris and deposit it in our compost heap. That gathering effort also allowed me to survey the plants to see how they fared. I’m pleased to report that our major perennial plants all survived. I’m also pleased to report that the lupines and ferns I’ve been cultivating in the weedy, between the rocks areas of the down yard came through the winter in thriving fashion. You can see some of the lupines in the photo above and the photo below. The lupines and the ferns should minimize our weeding obligations and give us some pretty lupine blooms besides.
The next step was weeding. Last fall I had dug out and edged some new beds in the down yard, and the Borgish weeds had invaded in force. After removing them, I planted some orange and yellow marigolds and a nice flower I discovered last year called a verbena. The marigolds grew well here last summer, produce a lot of flowers, and also, according to local lore at least, have a smell that helps to repel deer. The red verbena are hardy, have a bold color, and should spread. I added a white geranium, shown in the photo at the top of this post, and a red geranium, shown in the photo below, for a bit of contrast.
The goal this year is to make the down yard for interesting, visually, and to use flower color to accent more of the rocks. It’s a risk, because the rocky soil is not great for planting. I used lots of potting soil while planting in a bid to compensate. I also repositioned many of the abundant rocks in the yard to better delineate planting areas. I’m pleased with the results so far, but we’ll get a better sense of how the experiment is working when I return later this summer for more weeding, watering, and mulching.
Two very full days of gardening — more on that later — have convinced me of one thing: weeds are the Borg of the plant world. They are relentless in their quest to assimilate every tidy garden area and turn it into a snarled, disheveled, grotesque, tumbledown mess. And weeds, like the Borg, don’t care about you. They are oblivious to your aching back, your hamstrings that seem to be on fire, your muddy knees, or the knuckles that have been skinned on rocks. And while you may need sleep, the weeds never rest.
You can’t really get rid of weeds, either. Like the Borg, they will keep coming back. You might spend hours digging them out, carefully removing them from the footprints of the plants you want to keep, and tossing them into the compost area, but you know they will return. Spend hours turning a weedy area, above, into a neat, well-tended bed, below, and you may as well take a picture to remember it by, because when you return the weeds will have encroached again.
When I weed up here, I half expect to see a grim black cube hovering overhead. The weeds are ever on the march
Of the garden of late bloomers, the Montauk daisy is the most frustrating. Two years after we replanted a portion of the plant that was gifted by a generous neighbor, I still have not personally seen its blooms. As flowers go, it’s a tantalizing tease.
The plant seems to thrive in the Stonington climate. Last year it took firm root after our replanting, grew considerably, and produced lots of buds that were just getting ready to bloom when they were neatly clipped off and consumed by the local rampaging deer horde. This year the Montauk daisy grew like crazy—so much so that it has overwhelmed its bed, and I’ll have to split it up and replant parts of it elsewhere in the down yard next spring—and the deer have blessedly stayed away, but I had to head back to Columbus before the blossoming started. The buds were out and getting ready, but stubbornly refused to comply with my travel schedule.
The flowers have now begun to open, and Russell graciously sent along this photo, but of course it’s just not the same as checking out the flowers, in the sunshine, with your own two eyes. Seeing the Montauk daisies in full bloom will have to remain an aspirational goal until next year.
Last year I carefully harvested lupine seeds and planted them on the last day before we headed back to Columbus. Unfortunately, by the time spring rolled around, I had only a dim recollection of where I planted the seeds. As a result, the first few weeks up here were a time of constant discovery, where I had to carefully scour the ground for the radial leaf pattern of tiny lupine plants grown from the seeds I had sown months before.
This year, I’ve harvested more lupine seeds, and I’m going to be more organized and systematic in my planting. I’ve drawn a “planting map” that will guide my lupine planting before I leave and also make sure I reserve the areas where I plan to put parts of the colossal Montauk daisy plant that I’ll be splitting up and replanting in the spring. The map is not a super accurate depiction of the down yard—actually, it’s pretty bad and not at all to scale—but it’s good enough for my purposes.
I’ll keep the map up here in an easy to find place. With my handy map to remind me, next spring I should be able to avoid a repeat of this year’s treasure hunt for lupines.
If, like me, you’ve been troubled by news articles over the past few years about declining bee populations, here’s some good news: the bees are back, in Stonington at least. We’ve had lots of bee activity by the little guy shown above and a number of his hive mates in our flowerbeds and have seen bees buzzing around flowers and plants along the roadways and even in the downtown area. In contrast, bee sightings last year were a rarity. Fellow gardeners in our neighborhood also report that their flowers are attracting many more bees than they saw last year.
It’s great to see the bees out, being “busy as a bee.” Even better, I haven’t heard of any bee stings.
With the coming of September, we are, regrettably, nearing the end of our summer growing season in Stonington. It’s a time of year when gardeners can survey the fruits of their labors and make some judgments about what worked and what didn’t. Rationally identifying the winners and losers is a key step in thinking about next year’s efforts and avoiding any repeat of mistakes.
I’ve done my analysis and identified winners, losers, and plants where the jury is still out. Fortunately, there are more winners than losers, which means it’s been a pretty good year in the garden.
Marigolds—Initially planted because they are supposed to help repel deer, these flowers bloomed repeatedly over the growing season and added lots of bright color to our beds, as shown in the photo above. And whether the marigolds are responsible or not, we had a manageable year on the deer decimation front. I’ll be planting marigolds again next year and giving them a bit more room to spread out.
Black-eyed Susans—We’ve got Black-eyed Susans at multiple locations in our yard, and they have always come through like champs, producing clusters of pretty flowers that hold up over time. I bought the plant shown in in the photo above from the local garden store and planted it in May; it has grown to about three and a half feet tall with lots of flowers and provides a nice height contrast with the marigolds.
Geraniums—we planted geraniums in the ground and in pots, and they all grew beautifully. The plants in the ground produced new flowers all summer and grew to tremendous size. We’ll want to give them even more room when we plant them next year.
Verbena canadensis—I discovered these flowers this year when I was looking for something to fill in the small space in front of one of our patches of Black-eyed Susans. The plants hug the ground and spread out somewhat and produced very cool, bold colors, with deep crimson and purple petals. I’ve got big plans for these guys among the down yard rocks next year.
Phlox—I’ve tried different varieties of phlox in different locations, and they all have failed to perform. One died outright, others never produced flowers, and the one that did produce flowers did so only for a short period. I’m done with phlox.
Grass—Let’s just say our yard isn’t going to be featured in any grass or lawn care commercials. Maine grass seems to thrive where you don’t want it—i.e., garden beds—and promptly surrenders the yard itself to dandelions and other weeds. Figuring out the lawn issues will be the big challenge next year.
Jury still out
Day lilies—I bought two of these at the Deer Isle Garden Club sale in May. The plants have done okay, but no flowers so far.
Lupines—Most of the lupines that I have tried to grow from seeds survived, but only one of those plants has produced the distinctive flower. I’ve harvested more lupine seeds and will be planting them this fall before I head back to Columbus, and I’ll be looking for a big step forward from the existing plants grown from seeds, and some new lupine seed growth, next year.
We’ve all heard the phrase “late bloomer“ applied to people who struggle for a while but then thrive when they finally find their calling. Of course, the phrase originated in the garden setting, where flowering plants bloom at different times of the summer growing season.
We’ve got two late bloomers in the side yard, both of the daisy variety. They’ve thrived in the Stonington climate and grown to enormous sizes, and I’ve been patiently waiting for them to bloom. The plant pictured above, which I bought at the Deer Isle garden club plant sale and replanted months ago, has finally started to flower, and the other daisy, at the opposite end of the yard, is on the verge. I’ll enjoy watching them bloom over the next week or so.
Gardening is a good way to develop patience. In fact, I’ve been a kind of “late bloomer” in that department, myself.
Elsa arrived in Stonington yesterday and proved that even a depleted tropical storm can still pack a wallop. High winds rattled the windows, shook the trees, left our side yard covered with downed tree branches and twigs, and—as feared—broke off two of our towering delphinium flower stalks.
The storm also showed that I don’t have a future as a drainage engineer. Despite my best efforts to remove rocks and take other actions to discourage the pooling of water in the down yard, this morning’s sunrise illuminated a large new pond in the low-lying area, as shown below. In fairness to my drainage promotion efforts, Elsa brought so much rain in such a short period of time—between three and four inches in the space of a few hours—I’m guessing that even professional efforts would have been overwhelmed. The downpour left some of the lupines and ferns I’ve been trying to grow in the area partially submerged, and only time will tell if they survive the dunking.
Gardening and yard work projects are always subject to the whims of Mother Nature, and all you can do is accept her consequences and move forward. One positive in all this, though, is that Stonington had been experiencing a drought. After yesterday, I think there is a drought no longer.
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.
Beneath my veneer of civilized rationality, deep down in the ancient, primordial part of my consciousness, I admit that I am a believer in curses and jinxes. Being a Cleveland sports fan, how could it be otherwise?
So, I really hesitate to say this for fear that the fickle Gardening Gods will lash out and punish me for my heresy, but . . . the marigold approach to the deer problem seems to be working. Following up on local knowledge tips from local gardeners, I planted dozens of marigolds at strategic locations in the side yard and the down yard. They’ve all come in well and are pleasantly fragrant–which is supposed to be what keeps the sensitive deer, which purportedly don’t like the smell of marigolds, away from flower, plants, and shrubs. And, so far at least, the deer have avoided our yard.
The area in the crack between the two gigantic boulders in the down yard is a good example. It’s the spot that is farthest away from our house and close to a small creek, so it’s prime deer territory. Last year the deer repeatedly ravaged the plants in the crack and chewed the daisy in the foreground, just behind the marigolds, down to the ground. The other plants in the crack experienced similar depredations. But this year, the deer have stayed away, and the plants are looking much better.
Of course, it’s always difficult to determine cause and effect. Is it that old marigold magic, or is it the fact that the deer have found some other food source, or the fact that we’ve got a dog living in the house now, or the fact that the deer herd has migrated to a different part of the island, or something else? I don’t know for sure, obviously, but based on our experience this year marigolds are going to be a perennial (pun intended) part of the planting mix going forward. And they look nice, too.
Yesterday I went to the annual Deer Isle Garden Club plant sale. The event gave me a chance to combine two of my interests: gardening and supporting local organizations that help to bring our communities together. The proceeds of this particular sale benefited the garden club and its work to maintain Mariners Memorial Park here on the island.
Garden club plant sales are pretty cool, in my view. The garden club members grow the plants that are being sold themselves, and the plants are identified by carefully hand-lettered signs, often put on popsicle sticks or plastic picnic knives with a Sharpie. And the club members who are staffing the shows are all passionate about their gardening and happy to offer friendly advice about whether a particular plant is right for you. It’s a great experience for a beginner-level gardener like me.
The sale started at 10 a.m. yesterday, but when I got there at 10 o’clock sharp the sale was already overrun with eager gardeners looking for the perfect plant for that empty spot in their garden. I’d say the plant shoppers were like a host of locusts, except gardeners don’t like to use that “l” word. As I nosed around, getting some guidance from one of the club members, I chatted with other locals and we swapped stories about last year’s deer herd ravages. I ended up buying a big heliopsis plant that is supposed to produce abundant yellow flowers in August—that’s it, post-planting, in the photograph above—some spider plants to fill in the little stairstep beds in the down yard, and two day lilies, which seem to do very well in this climate zone.
Kudos to the Deer Isle Garden Club for a great plant sale and for the work they do at the park. And when next year’s show rolls around, I’m going to get there early.
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.