The Great Marigold Experiment Begins

In our little neighborhood on the Greenhead peninsula, talk of the marauding deer population dominates the conversation. Everyone is trying to come up with ways to protect their flower and vegetable gardens from the pesky, voracious herd of Bambis that is roaming the local woods and yards, eating everything in its path.

This weekend we opened up our front in the Stonington Deer Wars by going to Mainescapes, a great garden store in Blue Hill, to get multiple flats of marigolds, which the locals believe are among the most effective non-spray, non-fence deer repellants. Then, on Saturday and Sunday I planted all of the marigolds at strategic locations in the side yard (above) and the down yard (below), hoping to create smell barriers that cause the odor-sensitive deer to steer clear of our yards and go out to eat somewhere else.

Whether any of this will work is anybody’s guess. But at least we’ll have a riotous collection of yellow and orange marigolds to add some color to the yards–if the deer don’t eat them first, that is.

Fiddleheads Come Forth

Winters in Stonington can be harsh, and spring comes later than it does in the Midwest. But it does arrive . . . eventually.

One sure sign of spring is the emergence of the fiddleheads. Our down yard is fiddlehead territory, with lots of ferns growing among the rocks. They get wiped out during the long winter, but they are hardy plants that are used to the cold, wet, windy conditions. When spring growing season is upon us, these little fiddleheads shoot up from last year’s dead debris. Soon they will unfurl like flags to expose their fronds, and then the ferns will grow like crazy. By mid-June we’ll have ferns and their bright green colors dappling every nook and cranny of the down yard.

When the fiddleheads come forth, it’s time to start planting your flowers.

Gardening Muscles

Yesterday was my first gardening day of 2021. I did a lot of weeding, picking up fallen twigs, and clearing away dead leaves and stalks. I also lugged a few bags of cow manure into position and started to dig out a new flower bed in our side yard.

Today, I admit that I’m a bit sore.

Gardening may not provide the most aggressive workout, but you definitely use a different send of muscles than you do in, say, walking. There’s obviously bending, kneeling, and stooping involved, and also a lot of stretching and working with your arms as you pluck weeds behind your plants, spade out the soil, and use your weedpopper to dig out those stubborn dandelion roots. When you add in some rock hefting, which is an inevitable part of the gardening process in Stonington, you’ve got a pretty good exercise regimen going.

This morning, I’m feeling yesterday’s gardening workout in my hamstrings, lower back, and upper arms. It’s going to take a while before my gardening muscles are back in shape. Today, after it warms up, I’ll go out for another workout and try to build up that gardening tolerance again.

Garlic Power And Marigold Magic

We’re getting close to the spring planting season in Stonington, and I’m working on a strategy to try to deal with the marauding deer population that decimated the flowers in the lower, unfenced part of our yard last year.

On a walk over the weekend, I ran into a fellow gardener who was out working in her yard and asked if she had any recommendations for non-chemical, non-fenced—yet effective—ways of keeping deer away from those tasty flowers. She recommended garlic, and lots of it. She said you crush the cloves to increase the smell and place them around the perimeter of the area you want to protect. The deer apparently hate the odor and supposedly avoid the garlic aroma area.

Garlic: it’s not just for vampires any more!

I don’t want to use any kind of chemical spray, which will just wash down into the harbor, and I don’t want to put up any wires or fencing, which would ruin the rustic look of the down yard. I’m therefore going to try the garlic approach this year, and combine it with another tip I got from a gardening neighbor. He said that when he planted marigolds last year he was surprised to see that the deer not only didn’t eat the marigold flowers, they avoided the marigold area of his garden entirely because they find that smell unpleasant, too. Some other locals also endorse the marigold approach.

So, this year I’ll be crushing and placing garlic cloves around the down yard, and planting marigolds as a kind of protective barrier for other flowers. If garlic and marigolds work alone, imagine their impact in combination! And I hope this technique works, because this morning I saw a huge herd of deer at the end of our road—and they looked hungry.

Spring Snow

The temperature started to plummet last night, the clouds rolled in, and this morning we woke up to a fresh—and utterly unwelcome—springtime snowfall, as shown in this picture from our screened porch taken a few minutes ago.. The temperature is right at 32 degrees Fahrenheit now and is supposed to rise gradually, but it’s not going to get above the low 40s today.

In short, it’s not exactly an ideal spring day.

That’s Midwestern weather for you. It defines unpredictability. April 20 and 21 is pretty late for snow, but the folk wisdom in these parts tells us that late snows and freezing temperatures at the end of April or even early May aren’t unprecedented. The prevailing view is that you shouldn’t plant flowers until Mother’s Day, in order to avoid a belated hard freeze that kills or cripples your new plantings. That little nugget of local gardening doctrine, which Mom repeated on an annual basis, obviously is based on years of harsh experience.

And this year, the folk wisdom has been affirmed once again. I’m glad I haven’t done anything in the planting arena before now. I’ll also be glad when the snow melts and we get back to a reasonable approximation of spring.

The Deer Get The Last Laugh

Thursday night the Montauk daisy buds were out in force and on the cusp of blooming —finally!—and the only question in my mind was whether we would see the plant in its full-flowered glory before we returned to Columbus.

But when I awoke on Friday morning I found that the marauding band of deer had paid us an overnight visit, come right up to the stairs, and chewed off dozens of the buds, leaving only one or two sad and shaken reminders of what the daisy could have been. And so two of the principal gardening storylines of the summer — the Great Deer Battle of 2020 and the Waiting for Godot-like delay in the blooming of the Montauk daisy — have coalesced, weeks of anticipation have been dashed, and the thuggish deer herd of the Greenhead peninsula has had the last laugh. May those white tailed reprobates be consigned to some flowerless hell!

But one battle does not determine a war, and the deer’s triumph in 2020 just means I will have to redouble my deer resistance efforts in 2021. I guess you should plan on that when you decide to try gardening in a place called Deer Isle. In the meantime, I’ll be rooting for the hunters of Deer Isle to shoot straight and true when deer season rolls around in a few weeks. In this clash, I could use some allies.

Back To The Crack

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.

Our Lupine Seed Harvest

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.

The Watering Circuit

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.

The Deer Factor

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.

I’ve checked into what you can do to discourage deer from eating your flowertops, and frankly the cure sounds worse than the disease.  The Better Homes and Gardens website notes that smelly things might work, at least temporarily, and suggests placing odorous objects like mothballs, fishheads, and “processed sewage” that might repel the deer.  The problem is that they would no doubt also repel us.  The other alternative is to try to create physical barriers like rigging hidden fishing lines, putting up netting or fencing, or hanging shiny objects like aluminum pie plates.  Again, this seems like it would interfere with our enjoyment of the grounds, and in any case is unworkable due to the size and nature of the area that needs to be addressed.

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.

Snips About Snails

Yesterday’s constant rain and drippy, overcast conditions brought the snails out of their normal hiding places and onto our driveway and other wet surfaces.  I took the picture of the little guy below just outside our front door.

Snails are common in Maine — so commonplace that the University of Maine has a web page entitled “slugs and snails” devoted to helping gardeners deal with the little creatures, and people have written entire academic papers about the “slugs and snails of Maine.”  Snails are interesting creatures and actually kind of fascinating to watch, as they move slowly but surely ahead.  Little boys are supposed to be made out of them, in part (“snips and snails and puppy dog tails”) so it’s worth knowing a few facts about them.

Terrestrial snails are part of the phylum Mollusca and the class Gastropoda and are closely related to slugs.  The name of the snails’ class comes from the Greek words for belly and foot, because snails move through the progressive expansion and contraction of one large, muscular foot under their shell.  The snail’s foot has a gland that secretes a coating of mucus, and the snail then glides on that coating of slime.  The fact of a single foot and the need for slimy mucus generation helps to explain why snail movements are so deliberate. 

There are dozens of different species of snails in Maine, some of which were actually brought to the state from Europe.  (Why Europeans did this is anybody’s guess.)  Because of their need for slime, snails avoid direct sunlight and wind and prefer moist, damp areas — like gardens, where they are commonly found.  If you’re trying to get rid of slugs and snails, which can cause harm to some plants, the U of Maine webpage helpfully notes that “removing boards, rocks, logs, leaves and dense growth helps” and that it “is also wise to minimize shaded areas, rock walls, rock gardens, or forested borders and leave bare ground or close-cropped grass next to vegetable or flower beds.”  No stones, or rock walls, or rock gardens, in Maine?  Good luck with that!

Interestingly, the snails of Maine all are supposed to have shells with whorls that move from the center in a clockwise direction.  Nobody really knows why.

Snails don’t bother me, and I try not to disturb them when I’m gardening.  I don’t think they are doing much harm to our flowers and plants, and I figure anything that is living in slime with only one foot deserves a break.   

A Good Soaking

It’s been dry up here — so dry that even the most taciturn Mainers have actually remarked on it.  We might get the light spritz from the morning fog, or a very heavy dew, but real rain has been rare over the past weeks.

Until yesterday, that is.  Yesterday, we got one of those long, soaking rains, where the clouds seem to be especially low to the ground and just hover overhead, content to drop their watery contents onto the ground below.  It was the kind of incessant, day-long rain that knocks a few leaves from the trees and produces big puddles on rocks and gravel driveways.  And today and tomorrow we are supposed to get more of the same.  

You can’t overstate the value of a good soaking for the plants.  Watering is nice, and even essential when it has been especially dry, but it is a limited form of relief from the dryness.  The best thing about a good soak is the continuous nature of the rainfall, with the earlier rain moistening the soil and making it more receptive to the raindrops to come.  That’s why a good soak always leaves the plants looking better than a passing thunderstorm that might deposit a lot of rain that simply sluices off the hard-baked ground.  With a good soak, you know the rain is really reaching the deeper ground and plant roots.

And another good thing about a good soak is that it means there’s no need for repeatedly filling up the watering can and hauling it to those remote places that are beyond the reach of your hose.

As a kid, I hated the good soak days, which seemed to unfairly cut into summer vacation.  Now, as somebody who’s just working from home anyway and is interested in seeing some plants do well, I welcome the good soaking days.  I’ll be interested in seeing how the plants have fared when the rainfalls end and the sun comes out again.

Grow Your Own

Russell has the proverbial green thumb. He’s been growing his own vegetables up in Detroit for some time, and before we came up to Maine he gave us some plants to bring along.

We’ve replanted the vegetables into a little bed I’ve created among the rocks, with some garden soil and cow manure mixture added to the native Stonington soil to give them a kick start. I’ve been attentive to watering as do weeding, and I’m happy to report that our Detroit transplants are thriving in the cooler Maine climate and are growing like crazy. They are pretty to look at, too.

Our little garden plot includes broccoli, celery, kale, lettuce, and Brussels sprouts. We’ve already eaten some of the kale, which was quite good — but I suppose it’s natural to think that when the food is fresh and something you have grown yourself. Now, if only I liked broccoli . . . .

The Red Badge Of Gardening

Stephen Crane wrote The Red Badge Of Courage, a great story about a boy who comes of age and makes some discoveries about himself while serving in the Union Army during the Civil War.  The “red badge” refers to a bullet wound received during a battle.

63df9dab3e7af1dc1379ec62f02a86ebI’ve got a few red badges of my own — from gardening.  Except my red badges don’t reflect bullet wounds, thank goodness!  Instead, they spring from bug bites, nicks, rashes, scratches, welts, thorn punctures, and other minor wounds inflicted while digging in the dirt, pulling weeds, clipping off and carting off dead branches, levering out and lugging off rocks, roots, and tree stumps to clear the ground, and doing the other things that gardeners do.  Oh, yeah . . . and a decent sunburn, too.

I think gardening is fun, but it isn’t the bucolic, pastoral experience you might suppose.  Plants have defense mechanisms, and so do the insects that live on and around them.  Pesky weeds and overgrown wild rose bushes and raspberry bushes are happy to give you a scratch or two while you are removing them from their patch of ground, and Maine is home to some ferocious biting insects.  During this time of year, the biting insect brigade is led by the Maine black fly, as well as the mosquito and horse fly.  The black flies apparently can bite through the hide of a moose, so I’m an easy target.  And after suffering the indignity of a bite, you’ve got several days of itchiness to remind you that you’ve invaded the black fly’s territory.

I look at my arms and survey my backyard battle scars, and realize I’ve probably got more marks than I’ve had at any time since I was a kid and summertime was spent outside all day long.  My red badges of gardening are just the price you pay for a little outdoor activity, but boy — I could do without those maddening black flies.

Tiered Up (Cont.)

I’ve finished with my tiers project — for this weekend, at least — and am reasonably happy with the results. I created the beds, planted some spider plants I picked up at the farmers’ market from the local garden club, and replanted the ferns. Unfortunately, my efforts to replant the wild rose bushes failed. The root systems of the rose bushes are just too difficult to dig out. And speaking of digging, I successfully removed some tree stumps, too, which was satisfying.

After two solid days of yard work, I’m ready for a celebratory beer.