The Proverbial Late Bloomer

At some point, in the autumn of some year in the past, some gardener scratched her  head doubtfully, looked at a flower that had stubbornly refused to bloom even as the leaves had begun to turn, and referred to the plant as a “late bloomer.”  That neat little phrase then entered social discourse as an apt way to refer to people who didn’t really find themselves until a little bit later than everyone else.

I’m guessing that initial puzzled gardener who coined the phrase back in the mists of time was the proud owner of a Montauk daisy.

We’ve got one of these coy plants, having received it as a gift from a neighbor last year and replanted it at the foot of the stairs leading to the down yard.  It’s been a good year for the daisy, which has grown like crazy and is basically taking over the bed we created for it and other flowers.  But even though we’re rapidly approaching the end of the September, and even though we’ve had a few cold nights and some of our other flowers are withering, and even though I can see the buds on the daisy getting ready to emerge, as the photo above reflects, the Montauk daisy still hasn’t produced flowers — which are supposed to be large and very pretty.  It’s kind of frustrating.  Every morning, with high hopes, I check to see whether the blooming has begun, and so far every morning I’ve been disappointed.

In short, the Montauk daisy is just taking its own sweet time and following its own schedule, heedless of my desires and dashed hopes.  Gardeners need to develop a lot of qualities.  For owners of this proverbial late bloomer, patience is one of them.  

Spider Season

The spiders of Stonington— industrious creatures that they are—have been busy these days. Every morning the grass spiders have left dozens of their distinctive funnel webs at various locations on the ground and between the flowers of our flower beds. And other spiders, not to be outdone, have left more traditional radial webs on the eaves and railings, as well as the occasional plant.

The spider activity seems to increase as the temperatures cool, and their handiwork is even more noticeable on dewy mornings. Part of my daily activity involves knocking webs off the flowers, which otherwise would look totally mummified and covered in dried leaves and other debris in a few days. And walking just about anywhere poses a risk of stumbling into stray spiderwebbed filaments.

In fact, if you wanted to adopt a scary natural Halloween look, you’d just let the spiders spin their webs undisturbed. By the time Halloween rolled around you’d have a creepy, cobwebbed house and grounds suitable for a slasher flick.

A Bottle’s Story

My latest recreational activity up here has been a project to try to expose the large rocks in the down yard and level out the ground in the process. it’s a classic pointless project. Is it necessary? Absolutely not! But it’s fun, and gets me exercise out in the fresh air, and I like to see physical results of my daily labors.

The project involves lots of digging with small tools as you work between the big rocks to lever out small rocks and level out the soil. And, sometimes, as happened yesterday afternoon, you find stuff — like the classic Nehi bottle and blue glass canning jar lid pictured above, both of which were wedged into a tiny crevice between two large rocks and covered in decades of dirt. They’ll join our collection of other bottles that have been retrieved, intact, from the down yard.

Alas, most of what I’ve dug up is shattered glass. I’ve excavated so many shards of glass that I’m convinced people must have used our down yard area for target practice or random, drunken bottle breaking. That’s why it’s cool to retrieve some intact old pieces that escaped the onslaught.

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.

A Cat And His Kingdom

Our little corner of Stonington has a neighborhood cat. It’s a brown, very furry cat that looks somewhat like a raccoon. That’s him (or her, I’m not sure which), down there by the sprinkler, doing his basic prowling.

This cat cares not a whit for property boundaries or human social conventions. He goes where he pleases, does what he pleases, and routinely does the rounds of the ‘hood at his leisure. You’ll see him, out of the corner of your eye, strolling along the rocks by the creek or walking the fence line, and the next thing you know he is right next to you as you’re weeding, startling the crap out of you. At times he’ll appear outside the screen door of our place, peering in and meowing loudly, clearly offended that he isn’t allowed in at his whim. It’s exactly the same sense of expectation and entitlement a medieval lord would have if he showed up at the door of one of his peasants’ hovels.

In short, the cat really owns the neighborhood — we just live here.

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.

A Sad Case Of “Apple Scab”

There’s a little crab apple tree in the side yard of our place in Stonington.  I feel sorry for it.  The tree seems to struggle and has never produced fruit or flowers during the time we’ve had the place.  It has remained small and spindly despite my best efforts to help it grow.  I’ve tried watering it liberally, and I’ve driven those tree fertilizer spikes into the area around the tree to try to give it nutrients.  Unfortunately, it remains stunted.  It may just be that the rocky soil isn’t good for a tree.

This year, a kind of white discoloration appeared on some of the leaves on the tree.  In trying to figure out what it was, I learned something kind of cool about the University of Maine.  The U of M Cooperative Extension offers the services of a plant disease diagnostic lab that will test any sample you send and let you know what the problem is.  You just clip off some leaves that show the problem, put them in a plastic bag, give them your name and address and email information, and send the sample off to Orono, Maine for analysis. 

We took advantage of the service to send in some clippings from the little tree for examination and testing.  Yesterday we received a report from one of the scientists working at the lab — about a week after we sent it off.  That’s pretty impressive, and much appreciated.

The news about our little tree was bad and good.  The bad news is that the tree now has to deal with a fungal condition called venturia inequalis, which is commonly known as “apple scab.”  It’s not exactly an attractive name, but then fungal conditions typically don’t get lyrical monikers.  According to the report, “apple scab” is common on apple trees that have not been bred for resistance to the fungus — so now we know that the little tree lacks good breeding, in addition to its other issues.  The good news is that the condition isn’t fatal, or even all that serious.  The diagnostics lab scientist does not recommend fungicide, and simply recommends raking and disposing of the leaves after they drop from the tree this fall.  And a University of Massachusetts website identified in the diagnostics report says we can hope that the tree will be better next spring.    

So we’ve learned something neat about how the University of Maine serves the surrounding community, and confirmed that our little tree’s bout with “apple scab” means it has another challenge to contend with.  And now we can only hope that the little tree, like everything else, will be better — much better — in 2021. 

Fern Fun

When we first started coming to Maine, I was amazed to find that it had fern-filled forests (try saying that three times fast).  I had always associated ferns with warm, wet climates a lot closer to the equator, but that was clearly wrong.  Ferns thrive throughout Maine and are found pretty much everywhere — including outcroppings of ferns at multiple locations in our down yard, one of which is shown in this photo.

Ferns are part of a plant group called Pteridophytes, which is one of the oldest plant groups in the world.  They first emerged about 300 million years ago, which is why you often see colossal ferns depicted in illustrations of dinosaurs.  Ferns thrived during the warm, wet age of the dinosaurs, but they are also suited to wetter places like Maine because moisture is essential to their reproductive process.  Having no flowers or pollen for helpful bees to spread, they depend on the exchange of spores to reproduce.  There are lots of different species of ferns in Maine, including several clearly different varieties. with different kinds of fronds, in our yard.  I think our largest plants, like the ones shown in the photo, are “ostrich ferns,” which emerge as little fiddleheads, but distinguishing between the species requires an expertise and attention to subtle differences that I just don’t have

I like the look of ferns and am happy to have them in our yard.  They grow in clumps that wave lazily in the breeze blowing in from the harbor, and present with lots of different shades of green depending on the angle of the sunlight.  They’re a lot more attractive than the weeds that would be growing there otherwise, and they are hardy plants that really don’t require much care after they have taken root.  I’m trying to help a little patch that has started up in one rocky, out of the way part of the yard, and basically I’m just going to water it and circle it with stones to protect it from the weedwhacker. 

I also like ferns because deer apparently don’t care for them.  The ever-hungry neighborhood deer might gnaw the tops off every flower that is ready to bloom, but they leave the ferns alone.  Ferns . . . those, I think I can safely grow.

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.

That Old Wooden Floor

Our kitchen up here has a hardwood floor that is likely original to the house.  It’s one of the features of our little cottage that I like the most.

A wooden floor typically tells a story.  This one certainly does, even though we can’t know all of the details.  It’s been burnished to a warm glow by the tread of thousands of footprints.  It bears some visible scars that attest to its hardiness and longevity.  You notice them when you sweep and have to adjust the broom and angle the dustpan to make sure you extricate the sweepings from those little nicks and marks.  Something was dropped long ago that left that gouge, and something was dragged to leave that scratch, but the floor carries on.  In time the fresh marks have been softened and assimilated into its appealing patina.

We know that other parts of the house were carpeted at some time or another; we pulled up some of that carpeting after we bought the place because we like the hardwood floors better.  I suspect the kitchen has always featured these same, plain floorboards, however. 

Wooden floor and carpeting have a different vibe.  Carpets are softer on the feet, and more luxurious, and reflect a decorator’s touch.  Hardwood floor are straightforward and no-nonsense.  Carpets cover things up.  When a carpet gets old and worn and discolored, it is removed and replaced.  The old story of a place is thrown out, and when the new carpet is laid a new story begins to be written — until that carpet, too, gets pulled up and discarded, and the cycle starts over again. 

The hardwood floor, meanwhile, endures.     

Pathfinding

My latest project is the classic definition of a “yard project.”  It is absolutely not necessary.  In fact, some people would undoubtedly consider it to be pointless “busy work.”  Life could go on quite easily without it, and no one — not the birds, or the trees, or the insects that call the down yard home, or the folks who live in the neighboring homes — would care.  But it’s something I have pictured in my head, I want to see if I can bring it to fruition, and I like having a project to work on during my leisure time.  How many “yard projects” start in that way?

Basically, the project is focused on doing something interesting and hopefully attractive with the area shown in this photo, which is at the bottom of a very steep, rocky outcropping.  The first step happened several years ago, when Russell and I chopped down the scrubby trees that had overgrown this area between the rocks.  Last year I tried to keep the remaining tree roots from sprouting new trees, and this year I’ve dug out all of the stumps and tree roots of the scrub trees — about 20 stumps and root systems in all — to create an area for some planting.  Most recently, I’ve been building stone paths that will allow us to readily reach the little garden plot where we have planted Russell’s vegetables, and in the process make some productive use of the abundant supply of rocks we’ve got around here.  The next step will be to figure out what kind of ground cover, consisting of hardy, and hopefully somewhat colorful, native plants, can be planted in the areas between the paths and on some of the rocky slopes around the areas.

Digging out the stumps was hard work that left me as dirty as an adult can reasonably get, but each day I made some progress, and each stump that was successfully removed was satisfying.  The pathbuilding was challenging, but also interesting because it involved trying to find routes for the paths that made use of the existing boulders that are found in the area and also worked around the root systems of the two large birch trees that are immediately overhead.  So, perhaps “pathfinding” is a better word for the work.  And trying to find the right rocks to fit in the right spaces has been a nice creative exercise.  

I’ve enjoyed working on my utterly gratuitous “yard project,” and at night I look down on the area, compare it to the mental image that got this whole process started in the first place, and look forward to the next step. 

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.   

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 . . . .