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 . . . .

Our Blue Feathered Friend

Our cottage in Maine is built into a steep granite hillside that tumbles down into the western end of the Stonington Harbor.  As a result, our deck is at the treetop level of the pine trees, birch trees, and even a buckeye tree planted on the the hillside down below.

59859171-480pxThat means that we get a bird’s-eye view (pun intended) of the birds that call Greenhead peninsula home.  And because we are on a coastline, there are lots of birds, and an interesting mix of different species at that.  We get seagulls coasting in on the ocean breezes that land nimbly on our tiny chimney, cawing crows and ravens that add a touch of noise to the foggy mornings, an occasional hawk, wrens and sparrows and chimney swifts, robins forever hunting for insects and worms in the downyard area, and gray doves that like to take a dip in the waters of the little creek that runs down the hillside.

But our favorite feathered friends are the brilliant blue jays that swoop in on the updrafts and like to perch in the trees right at our deck level, so we can get a good look at them.  They are beautiful birds, with their bright blue plumage standing out from the green leaves of the trees, and instantly recognizable both for their color and for their distinctive tuft of feathers on the crown of their heads.  The blue jays move briskly from tree to tree, apparently scouting for something with their lightning quick, quirky nods and other head movements, and then they are gone in a flash of blue across the landscape.

An elevated deck that allows you to do some casual bird-watching is a nice feature at the end of a warm summer day.

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.

Tiered Up

My gardening challenge this weekend: figuring out what to do with an area of tumbledown rocks and boulders that abruptly drop about eight feet in height from top to bottom. My plan is to try to use the enormous rocks and the drastic change in height to establish tiers dropping down the slope like the steps of a staircase. The tiers will then become beds where I can plant flowers and attempt to replant some of the lupines, rose bushes, and ferns that have sprung up in some of our other garden beds.

So far I’ve placed some smaller rocks to define the outlines of the tiers, using the big rocks as immovable borders, and have started shoveling dirt into the newly created spaces to form the beds. This weekend I hope to complete the bed formation and do the rose bush and fern replants. The weather is supposed to be nice, so I should have two full days for the work.

This is the kind of project I really like. There’s a creativity element to it, some problem-solving and design challenges, a physical labor component, and then finally a chance to see if an experiment succeeds or fails. I’m looking forward to getting to it.

Buried Treasure

They say that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.  In our case, that saying is literally true.

On Sunday, when I was digging in the area between the rocks in the down yard to try to loosen the soil to plant our flowers, I came across two totally intact bottles that had been totally buried about six inches deep in the dirt.  One looked like a generic, amber liquor bottle, but the other was a clear glass bottle from the “Fairview Wine Company of Maine.”  The 4/5 quart bottle features some cool raised script lettering and depictions of grapes and grape leaves.  My limited internet research skills found some efforts to sell similar bottles on line that indicate that the bottle dates from the ’30s. 

It’s not unusual for us to find broken glass, old cans, and other debris in what we call the “down yard,” which probably was an overgrown area.  At some point somebody must have sat on the rocks, enjoyed some wine, and then just left the bottle in the crack between the rocks.  The bottle then got buried over time — only to be found 80 years later and viewed not as a commonplace item from a functioning nearby business, but as an antique curiosity from days gone by, produced by a company that apparently no longer exists.

We’ve cleaned up the bottle — the cap crumbled into dust when we tried to remove it — and put it in a place of honor on the shelves in our main room, to connect the present-day cottage to its past.  

New Beds In The Downyard

It was a glorious weekend in Stonington, with sunshine and temperatures in the low 60s — perfect weather for yard work and gardening.  We seized the opportunity to do some gardening work in the down yard that we’ve been wanting to do for some time. 

Our outdoor work began on Saturday, with some weeding and clean-up work in the areas that we were going to tackle, followed by a trip to the Mainescape garden store in Blue Hill.  We donned our masks, headed into the store’s extensive outside plant display areas, and were immediately overwhelmed with the choices. 

As Kish aptly observed, for a novice like us, going to a garden store is like a non-gearhead going to buy a car.  You’ve got only the most superficial sense of what you want, without any real insight into which options would best serve your needs.  Mainescape takes a decidedly low-key approach, so we spent a lot of time wandering around looking at the potted plants and trying to figure out which ones would work best in the spaces we identified for some new beds. 

We had decided, in advance, that we wanted to get perennials, rather than annuals, and would try to focus on hardy native plants that would be best suited to surviving the rugged Maine weather.  We settled on some Goldsturm black eyed susans, some purple Phlox — which has to be the greatest name for a flower, ever — some Husker red beardtongue (also a great, and curiously evocative, name for a flower), which is supposed to produce a tall array of small white flowers, and a white lupine.  There’s lots of green in the down yard already, between the grass and the ferns and the shrubs and the trees, so we figured white, purple, and yellow would stand out well.  We also bought some gardening soil and cow manure mixture to provide the most welcome setting possible for the new plants.

Yesterday was spent spreading the garden soil and cow manure and doing the planting.  Between carrying bags of soil and manure and then lugging and repositioning rocks to outline the new flower beds and also display some of the rocks we dug out of our yard — not to mention lots of stooping and digging — gardening gives you a pretty good workout.  It’s also a fun, creative outlet, as you figure out which flowers to put where and also think about whether you can add some little flourishes to make your garden areas special.

For me, a big part of the whole gardening experience is trying to make the garden and flower beds fit into your intended space in a natural way.  I admire the Japanese approach of trying to make your garden an extension of nature and the natural, physical surroundings.  In the down yard, the principal physical characteristic is rock — lots and lots of rocks, large and small.  Using rocks as a key feature of the flower beds therefore wasn’t a difficult decision.

I decided to use some of our rocks to edge the new flower beds, but also use the beds to frame and display some of the more interesting granite rocks we’ve found in the yard, in terms of their different shapes — like the round rocks shown in the photo above — and their different and often striking colors and patterns.  The whiter rocks show up very well against the green grass and provide a nice contrast with the black garden soil. 

I also like symmetry, so we positioned the plants we put into the crack between the two gigantic granite rocks so that the flowers would be a kind of mirror image from the middle out, with the two tall beardtongues in the middle, one of the phloxes to each side of the beardtongues, and then the black eyed susans at the two ends of the bed.  We’re hoping that we’ll be able to enjoy the mix of colors and the symmetry when we look at this particular flower bed from the vantage point of our deck.

It was a full weekend of yard work and gardening.  I endured a lot of bug bites, but it was a lot of fun and quite satisfying, too.  I’ve posted some before and after photos of two of the areas to give an idea of what we did.  Now, we’ll need to work on watering.  

Flower And Stone

If you’re anywhere near coastal Maine, you’re going to be around granite. There are outcroppings pretty much everywhere.

The granite makes a nice setting for flowers, if you can get them to grow on or about the rocks. The sun-bleached stone makes every color of a flower seem more vivid, and on a sunny day like today the hues can be eye-popping.

These purple beauties are just wildflower ground cover that grew naturally in the crack of the huge rock near our front door. You couldn’t have planned a better presentation if you hired a landscape designer.

Dandelion Wars

The battle is on, already.  It’s an eternal, never-ending battle, like good versus evil or modern Americans versus encroaching obesity.  Except this battle is for the highest stakes of all:  a nice, grassy yard come summertime.

The enemy is the dandelion.  Sure, there are other weeds in the yard — lots of them, to be honest — but the dandelion is the undisputed leader of the weed brigade.  It sits there in the yard, flaunting its bright yellow flower, putting on an act of innocence.  As a child, you might have have gathered a fistful of dandelion flowers and brought them home to Mom.  You certainly picked and blew with delight on a dandelion puffball — blissfully unaware that, in so doing, you were scattering nefarious dandelion seeds to every corner of your yard and unconsciously aiding the ultimate lawn care enemy. 

But with adulthood came the realization that dandelions had to be defeated — in fact, they had to be wiped from the face of the yard at all costs.  You understood that dandelions, with their wicked sawtooth leaves and spreading roots, were killing off the grass and opening the way for other, prickly weeds to quickly turn your nice, soft, barefoot-friendly lawn into a ugly, painful, weed-infested disaster. 

There were times, after a long weed-hunting day out in the yard, when contemplated your aching hamstrings and briefly wondered whether the constant battle against dandelions was worth it, because you seemed to be fighting a desperate rear-guard action against an implacable, inexorable inhuman foe.  You wondered: Would it really be so bad to let the weeds win?  But you quickly dismissed that thought as ridiculous and self-defeating.  You grasped that it was your duty, as a good neighbor concerned about property values and the wrath of other homeowners on the block, to fight the good fight. 

Well, it’s Memorial Day, dandelion fighters!  That means it’s time to get out those tools and gloves, scan for the familiar dandelion signs, and get down on your knees and get back into the fray.  Once more into the breach, dear friends!  

Open-Window Weather

On Saturday morning our chore list included putting up the screens on our upstairs windows.  In our old house, it’s a way to mark the seasons:  taking down the screens in the late fall, on the cusp of winter, and putting them back up again when the weather gets warm enough that opening the windows for a fresh breeze is a plausible option.

Taking down the screens is a lot easier than putting them back up, because our screens use an archaic two-part system to remain in place.  The top of the screen is supposed to be slid into metal slots on each side of the window, and the bottom of the screen uses a kind of knob and fastener system to be locked into place.  To remove the screens, you lift the fastener over the knob, the screens pop out, and you slide them out of the slots.  But because the knobs and fasteners were added individually, to put the screens up you need to find the right screen for the right window, where the knob on the window frame and the fastener on the screen line up.  And if you are putting the screens on the windows upstairs, you need to hold the screen in place, try to find the slots without being able to see them, hope that you matched the right screen with the right window, then line up the knobs and fasteners without dropping the screen.  It’s the kind of trial-and-error project that requires multiple attempts and seems consciously designed to provoke some mild cursing. 

But whatever the hassle, putting up the screens is worth it.  Because when the screens are up, and the weather cooperates with overnight temperatures in the 50s — as happened last night — you can open the bedroom windows and sleep while the neighborhood quiets down, the cool night air fills the bedroom, and you hear the sound of a distant train whistle.  For me, it’s a reminder of childhood, because I grew up in a house without air conditioning that was dependent on the night air to cool things down.

I like the brief periods of spring and fall open-window weather, which last only until it becomes too hot or too cold at night and the windows must be closed up again.  A night or two of open-window weather makes the screen project well worth it. 

Mulch Ado

This week, our back yard reaches its high point of the year.  Sure, there is some brown in the grass of our tiny, kidney-shaped lawn — inevitably — but with fresh black mulch just laid down that is still emanating that distinctive mulchy fragrance, and the bright spring growth fresh on our trees and shrubs, our patch of ground looks sharp and edged and well tended.

It will be pretty much all downhill from here.  We’ll have a yard resurgence when the flowers bloom in a few weeks, but without fail the thick coating of luxurious mulch will lose its fragrance and its dark color thanks to the upcoming spring and summer thunderstorms and the bleaching effect of the pounding July and August sunshine.  By the end of the summer it will find itself in unseemly clumps of dried, shredded wood, leaving the beds a pale shadow of their current selves.  The grass will wither and die and vanish into yawning bare spots where new grass will stubbornly refuse to grow, no matter what kind of patch mixture I try.  And by next winter, most of the mulch will have mysteriously vanished on the wings of the winds, leaving the dirt in the beds uncovered and defenseless, to inevitably return to its natural state of a dull gray, brick-like consistency that yearns for another mulchy treatment next spring. 

Where does the mulch go?  Perhaps it channels its inner Hamlet, and simply resolves itself into a dew. It’s something that only a yard specialist could say for sure.  And when did mulch become such a key part of the yard grooming process, anyhow?  I don’t remember the sturdy suburban Dads in the neighborhoods of my childhood spreading mounds of mulch in their obsessive, competitive quests for fine-looking lawns and gardens.  Mulch is another example of the awesome creativity of American businessmen and marketing experts who somehow convinced everyone that their flower beds really required an annual spread of wood chips soaked in come kind of rich biological stew that involves cow flop as a key ingredient.  

But now we’re conditioned.  Mulch is required, so mulch it is.  And, really, the back yard does look pretty good right now.

Keen To Clean

Every year, I feel an urge to do some spring cleaning, and thereby officially heralding the arrival of a favorite season.  This year, being cooped up and working at our kitchen island for days now really brought out the spring cleaning spirit, in steroids. 

I’m not sure if it was feeling guilty about watching a lot of TV during this shut-in period and wanting to compensate by doing something that made me roll up my sleeves, or the fact that I’ve been using the kitchen as my ersatz office so much that it really did need a good cleaning, or perhaps a sense that, with all of the hand-washing and sanitizing going on in the battle against the coronavirus, a good kitchen cleaning might aid the cause, just a bit.  Whatever the reason, I tackled the task of cleaning the kitchen with gusto: scrubbing the sink, the cabinets, the countertops, the stovetop, the oven, and the refrigerator, wiping down our appliances, sweeping the floor, and getting the windows, too.  I tried to clean every crack and crevice, and even emptied and wiped down the crumb tray in the toaster.

When I finished I felt good about my efforts, as I always do when I do a household chore.  The kitchen looked clean — for now, at least — and I could almost feel Mom’s spirit hovering in the air, nodding approvingly.

The smell of ammonia in the air — sniff! — smells like victory.

Festive Front Steps

We’re well past the growing season in central Ohio, and it’s been too cold to enjoy sitting outside. But that doesn’t mean that flowerpots and outside benches can’t be put to good use. In our case, a few pine swags, some white birch logs, and some strategically placed pine cones and red berries give the area by our front steps a decidedly festive winter look, just in time for the holidays.