A Sad Feathered Tale

When I came home from work the other evening and opened the gate to the small courtyard in front of our house, I was greeted by this mass of feathers on the bricks. I looked around for a bird–or more accurately, a bird’s mortal remains–but they were nowhere to be seen.

The array of feathers itself tells part of a sad tale. Some poor bird evidently breathed its last on our little walkway, and the feathers indicate that it only occurred after a serious struggle. I would guess that the bird was jumped and brutally attacked by a predator–a cat, perhaps–the feathers flew, and after the bird was defeated the cat trotted off to do what it will with the bird’s carcass, leaving only the pile of feathers behind. That’s a bit strange, though, because I’ve never seen a bird land in that area, and I also haven’t seen any cats or other bird-catching creatures in our dog-oriented neighborhood. An alternative explanation would be that the bird was captured and killed somewhere else, and the assailant brought the body through our fence to perform the defeathering at its leisure before heading elsewhere. Of course, we’ve never had anything like that happen, either.

It’s weird and disturbing to think that some poor bird may have spent its last moments in a desperate struggle for survival on the bricks of our tiny courtyard. I’ve now respectfully disposed of the feathers.

Swept Out

On Sunday I was in a house project mood. On long weekends that’s not an uncommon impulse for me; after a few days relaxing at home I get antsy and want to do something productive. When the urge struck on Sunday, I replaced some burnt-out light bulbs and generally straightened up, but my big project was sweeping out our screened-in back porch.

The back porch is our gateway to the back yard. During the breezy late autumn weeks, when we open the screen door to take out the trash or let Betty out to answer the call of nature, brittle brown leaves are blown into the porch. The leaves swirl and tumble and accumulate against the inner wall, get stuck in the cracks of the wooden floor, and find every imaginable nook and cranny. After a few weeks, the porch looks pretty ramshackle and in clear need of a good sweeping.

Sunday I took on the job and quickly discovered that the elements were working against me. The wind was blowing from the west, which meant that a good percentage of the leaves I tried to sweep out of the porch were immediately blown back in. Such minor setbacks only increased my resolve to see that the job was done right, however. I moved the furniture around, used the bristles of the broom to get at the leaves in the corners, and bent down to pick out the leaves that had become devilishly lodged between the slats or in the crevices between the screen and the porch floor.

By the end of the project I was on a fervent search and remove mission, striving to get every last leaf, stem, and crunched brown remnant out of the porch. I took the rug out to the patio and gave it a good shaking, to set free the little bits of crumbled leaves, and swept off the back steps for good measure.

When I was done, I surveyed the little porch, saw that it was clean, and gave an approving nod for a job well done. With my impulse thus sated, I went back inside, enjoyed the warmth, and settled down to read my book.

Bombs Away!

This is a fine time of year to be outside in the Midwest. The high temperature hits the 70s, and conditions tend toward dry and sunny. But if you’d like to enjoy that weather by reading a good book in our backyard, you’d better bring along your hard hat—just in case.

We’ve got a tree back there—a black walnut, maybe?—that drops these little green bombs, some of which are shown in the photo above, on the unsuspecting. The green pellets are just under the size of a tennis ball and solid, with the green casing covering a black nut underneath. If you’re sitting outside, they drop unexpectedly from the tree branches far overhead, first rustling the leaves and then hitting the ground with a noticeable thump. It’s unnerving. The green casing then dissolves, leaving the nut underneath to be enjoyed by the neighborhood squirrels.

I haven’t been hit—yet—by one of the green projectiles, but this time of year I tend to stick to the screened-in porch, just in case.

Waiting For The Montauk

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.

My Planting Map

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.

The Steps Project

I am calling my last big yard work initiative of the season the Steps Project. It’s been an interesting, challenging, “dirt under the fingernails” bit of work that combines archaeology, tricky balance, digging, pulling, and lots of roots.

The Steps Project began when our 80-year-old neighbor visited our down yard as part of our earlier tree-cutting work. He’s lived in this neighborhood since he was a kid, and he recalled the hillside being a treeless expanse with stones that the kids used as steps to come up and down on their walk to and from school. Steps in that location would be a good thing because the hillside slopes at close to a 45-degree grade, and getting up and down on a dewy morning can be a slippery proposition. But the steps he recalled were long gone, covered now by a thatch of moss and weeds.

Obviously, stepping stones don’t just vanish; they were under there somewhere. And I think having a kind of stairway to get from top to bottom of the slope would be useful. So the archaeology part of my Steps Project involves figuring out where the stones are buried. When I find them, I cut through the thatch, pull out the moss and weeds, and then cut or pull out the tree roots that grew over and around the rocks. Then I use a brush to clear off the dirt and other debris so the rocks—now exposed for the first time in decades—can dry out in the sunshine. The balance part of the project comes in because I’m doing all of that while trying to hold myself steady on the slope and not taking overly aggressive actions that might send me toppling down the hillside.

Yesterday I finished with the last two “steps,” and now I’ve got a rocky, ersatz set of stairs on the side border of the down yard that you can see in the photos accompanying this post, from the above and below perspectives. Of course, the steps aren’t perfectly aligned like a staircase, and you have to zigzag and take different length steps to get up and down, but they are definitely a safer way up and down. And they are kind of fun, too. In fact, I feel like one of the kids in my neighbor’s old gang when I use them.

Ida’s Impact

We’ve had multiple tropical storms move up through New England this summer, but Ida–which blew through last night and today–was by far the most memorable. The remnants of the storm brought high winds and sheets of rain that dumped multiple inches of water on our community. And that impact doesn’t even compare to the chaos that Ida produced in New York City, according to news reports.

The amount of rain associated with tropical storms is impressive. I can’t find an official announcement of just how much rain fell in Stonington over the last 24 hours, but it was enough to totally flood our down yard, submerging the beds I’ve created and turning some of the lupines and ferns into underwater greenery, and to convert the drainage ditch on the northern border of our property, which normally carries a small trickle down its narrow channel, into a loud, raging torrent of whitewater.

Fortunately, the ferns and lupines that are planted in the flooded area are hardy and capable of withstanding a water onslaught. It’s going to take a while for the yard to dry out from today’s drenching, however.

Gardening Winners . . . And Losers

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.

Winners

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.

Losers

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.

My Pal Stumpy

Since we cut down some of the trees and cleared out the underbrush in the waste area between our house and the neighbor’s outbuilding, I’ve got a new companion when I’m out doing yard work in the down yard. I call him “Stumpy.”

Stumpy is the remnant of one of the trees that came down during the clear-out effort. I’d guess he’s between three and four feet tall, growing out of a rock ledge, with bulges at the top where the main branches were removed. On several occasions, Stumpy’s size and configuration and location, seen from the corner of my eye while I worked, made me think with a jolt that someone was watching me from the top of the yard. I then decided if Stumpy was going to startle me now and then, I might as well give him a name.

As yard work companions go, Stumpy’s not bad. He’s not a chatterbox, so he doesn’t disturb my work. He doesn’t offer advice or laugh at my little shoveling mishaps, which is appreciated. He doesn’t pitch in, either, but he stands watch over the hillside resolutely, rain or shine. I’ve grown accustomed to his presence. That’s probably a good thing, because his location next to the granite outcropping means it’s going to be a challenge to remove him from his post.

A Downyard Project Update

This summer I haven’t had a chance to do as much work as I’d hoped on the downyard—which is too bad, because it really needs the help. We’ve had a lot of rainy weekends, and other weekends have been devoted to travel.

This weekend, however, Mother Nature cooperated with the puny plans of mortal men, and I was able to devote a full day and a half to working on the project before the rain started falling around noon today. Because the downyard attracts weeds like mangy dogs attract fleas, the concept is to limit the potentially weedy areas and introduce plants that can hold their own against the weeds in the Darwinian struggle for survival. I’ve tried to do that by exposing the many rocks as possible (because I’d rather see rocks than weeds), digging out the weedy areas, and mulching over the whole rock-infested area.

In the process, I’ve tried to spot the small fern plants that naturally grow in the yard, weed around them, and then mulch around them, in hopes that once they’re freed from surrounding weeds and get more water and sun they’ll grow into bigger fern plants that will keep the weeds at bay. Those little green plants at the far end of the mulched area are ferns. I like ferns, and they seem to grow well here and are capable of holding their own against the weeds.

The project featured a fair amount of shovel work, lots of weeding, bug bites galore, digging out and tossing or carrying all kinds of rocks, hoisting and dumping five large bags of mulch and six medium bags of mulch, and then using a rake to spread the mulch. I could have used another bag of mulch to really finish the job, but I’m happy with the results.

Providing Additional Support

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.

Nervous About Service

I realized to my dismay that the internet service at home was out. I tried the tips and instructions about unplugging and replugging, hitting reset buttons, and rebooting, all to no avail. Then I called the customer service line, talked to a robot that had been programmed to sound like a person—complete with mimicked tapping keyboard sounds—and ultimately was faced with the choice of whether to schedule a service appointment.

I groaned in dismay at the prospect—causing the robot to politely respond “I didn’t catch that, please repeat it”—but internet service is basically an essential these days, where working remotely is an integral part of life. So I gritted my teeth, booked a service call time, and braced myself for the mishaps that seem to inevitably accompany service appointments. How many times have service people gotten lost or gone to the wrong address, missed their appointment window after you’ve interrupted your day and are patiently waiting at home, taken a look and then reported that they don’t have the right tools in their truck, or had some other issue that makes a service call a painful exercise? And the issues aren’t all pointing one way, either. Doing remote service work, with its requirements of troubleshooting, diagnostics, testing, and repair, all while dealing with total strangers and going into their homes, would be a tough job.

But this time everything worked out. The service tech arrived on time, which got things off on the right foot, and he was polite, professional, and knowledgeable. He determined that the problem was an outdoor connection, fixed it without any issues, came back inside to test the connection, and confirmed the internet service was up and running. As he left I thanked him for a job well done, he noted that I’ll probably be getting a message with a survey about the service call, and I told him it would be my pleasure to complete one. Normally I hate the constant surveying we’re subjected to, but I’ll gladly complete one in this instance.

I don’t think I’ll ever get to the point where I welcome a service call, but yesterday’s positive experience will definitely inform my reaction to future ones. It showed that while they are a necessary part of modern life, to be sure, they are not necessarily a necessary evil.

That Ol’ Marigold Magic

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.

This Weekend’s Project

I like having a good weekend project. I think having a project to work on, sprinkled in with some fun stuff, makes the weekend seem longer. And if it’s an outdoor project that allows you to see the visible fruits of your labors on Sunday night, so much the better.

Fortunately—or unfortunately depending on your perspective—our down yard provides an endless supply of such projects. One ongoing problem area is found at the base of the big granite outcropping in the middle of the yard. It quickly becomes weed-infested, because it can’t be mowed with all of the big rocks, and it also floods after a heavy rain, due to the rocks just below the surface. The flooding makes it impossible to grow pretty much anything, except weeds and a hearty fern plant I’ve been cultivating. So this weekend’s project was to weed out the area between the rocks, dig out as many rocks as possible to increase drainage, and level out the soil to expose more of the big rocks and reduce pooling of rainwater. The last step would be to cover the area with a dark mulch to highlight the colors of the ferns and rocks and (hopefully) discourage rampant weed growth while giving the ferns a chance to flourish.

Fortunately, the weather fully cooperated with my plans. I pulled out bucket after bucket of weeds, dug out countless rocks, broke up the soil, leveled out the sloping, and then mulched until I ran out of mulch. I also got sunburned on the back of my neck. There’s still work to be done, but I’m happy with how it looks—so far. The acid test will come when we get a good rain and get a chance to see how the area drains, and whether all of that mulch gets washed out.

If that happens, it will just mean another weekend project.