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.

Lupinalia

I’ve been working hard on the lupines in front of our house this year, and have been careful about weeding and watering and trying to do whatever I can to make them thrive. I’m happy to report that my efforts have been rewarded, as both of the big plants are doing well and have produced lots of blooms, which will mean lots of lupine seeds to harvest come August.

In fact, the lupine tending has been so successful that other lupines have taken root in the front of the house and seem to be doing well, too. That’s good news for me, because I think the lupines are pretty cool plants and look especially good against the rock outcroppings next to our front door.

A Little Lupine Luck

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.

The Fox In The ‘Hood

This morning one of the neighborhood foxes —this bold little pup — dropped by to pay us a visit. They apparently live in a burrow behind a neighbor’s house and have been seen around Greenhead, but today is the first time this little guy visited our side yard. He took a look around and, seeing no chickens or henhouse, he opted for an old bone of Betty’s and dragged it off to gnaw on at his leisure.

We see all kinds of wildlife around here— deer, foxes, raccoons, and even a bobcat. Who knows? Maybe having foxes in the ‘hood will discourage unwanted visits from the hungry deer herd.

From the Bottle Boneyard

It seems like every time I go to work in the down yard I find a new bottle that has emerged from the soil during the long winter months. The latest entrant in our bottle collection is this distinctive Nesbitt’s bottle, with its beveled ridges and the script Nesbitt’s name in raised lettering on the front.

Nesbitt’s of California sold a number of fruit-flavored sodas by the bottle in the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ’60s, but the most popular was Nesbitt’s orange soda, which was supposed to be made from 10 percent California oranges. The brand later fell out of favor and has been sold and owned by a series of different companies since some unknown kid drained their Nesbitt’s orange soda and left the bottle in our yard, but the internet indicates that you can still order Nesbitt’s orange soda on line. It looks like the design of the bottle has changed, however.

It’s interesting that a bottle of California soda pop could end up in a yard at the tip of an island on the coast of Maine.

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.

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.