It’s spiderweb season in Stonington, and our decks–with their posts, and fencing, and many corners, and other nooks and crannies–are prime web-building grounds for our spidery friends. On damp mornings, like yesterday, the water molecules cling to the webs and create some outdoor art that has a delicate beauty and also the impressive tensile strength to bear many times its weight in water.
My attitude about spiderwebs has changed since my childhood. I used to take sticks and pull them down whenever I encountered one. Reading Charlotte’s Web helped to change that attitude, and I also realized that it didn’t make much sense for someone who, from time to time over the years, has been called “Webbie” by some friends. I’ve come to understand that spiders and their webs perform a valuable service for us, in ridding our neck of the world of the annoying, buzzing housefly. And you can’t help but admire the industriousness of spiders as they build and repair their elaborate webs and then wait patiently for their prey.
On misty mornings I’ll make the rounds, taking a look to see what the spiders have been up to and admire their handiwork, like the effort above on our upper deck. Care must be taken, however, to avoid inadvertently getting a face full of webbing.
Stonington, Maine is a great growing climate. Plants seem to thrive here, but unfortunately that includes weeds—lots and lots of weeds. So when I returned after a two-and-a-half month absence, I found on the positive side that my lupines had grown to colossal sizes, but weeds had invaded all the beds and were on the verge of overwhelming our plantings. The photo above is an example of just how overgrown things had become.
So this past weekend featured a lot of weeding, to try to get the growth under control. I dug out countless broadleaf weeds, yanked out creeping vines, chopped back encroaching chokecherry trees, and pulled out unwanted grass. My favorite weed to remove, whose name is unknown to me, has a weird hollow stem, grows rapidly, and has a purple flower on top and very shallow roots. You can extract it with a gentle tug, and it is satisfying to then fling it onto the weed pile.
By the end of the weekend, as the photo below shows, I had got things back to about where they were when I last left in May. In the never-ending War of the Weeds, that’s about all you can hope for.
We had some friends over last Saturday night for a raucous evening. Kish bought some flower arrangements for the occasion. Last Sunday, I moved the flowers from the dining room table to the kitchen island, just above the sink, so I can enjoy their pretty colors from my seat at the island, which is my home workspace.
As the days have passed, however, some of the flowers have sadly started to droop and lose their petals, as shown in the photo above. Other flowers, however, seem to be hardier and were still hanging in there. So this morning I decided to conduct some triage on the floral arrangements by carefully removing some of the wilted and dead plants, repositioning others, and emptying their vases of the old water and refilling them with fresh, cool water. The result are shown below.
I’m not sure this will work, but I’m hoping to get a few more days of enjoyment from the flowers before they go into the wastebasket. If that happens, the investment of time in helping some old flowers display their colors for just a short while longer will be worth it.
I got a lot accomplished during my two-day Stonington gardening frenzy this past weekend. Mother Nature was a great help in the effort. It had rained for a few days before I arrived, so the ground was soft and perfect for weed extraction. During my visit, however, it was sunny and cool—ideal conditions for some heavy duty planting and general yard work.
Yard work and gardening have a sequence. The winter storms had knocked down a lot of branches, so the first step in the process was to pick up the debris and deposit it in our compost heap. That gathering effort also allowed me to survey the plants to see how they fared. I’m pleased to report that our major perennial plants all survived. I’m also pleased to report that the lupines and ferns I’ve been cultivating in the weedy, between the rocks areas of the down yard came through the winter in thriving fashion. You can see some of the lupines in the photo above and the photo below. The lupines and the ferns should minimize our weeding obligations and give us some pretty lupine blooms besides.
The next step was weeding. Last fall I had dug out and edged some new beds in the down yard, and the Borgish weeds had invaded in force. After removing them, I planted some orange and yellow marigolds and a nice flower I discovered last year called a verbena. The marigolds grew well here last summer, produce a lot of flowers, and also, according to local lore at least, have a smell that helps to repel deer. The red verbena are hardy, have a bold color, and should spread. I added a white geranium, shown in the photo at the top of this post, and a red geranium, shown in the photo below, for a bit of contrast.
The goal this year is to make the down yard for interesting, visually, and to use flower color to accent more of the rocks. It’s a risk, because the rocky soil is not great for planting. I used lots of potting soil while planting in a bid to compensate. I also repositioned many of the abundant rocks in the yard to better delineate planting areas. I’m pleased with the results so far, but we’ll get a better sense of how the experiment is working when I return later this summer for more weeding, watering, and mulching.
Two very full days of gardening — more on that later — have convinced me of one thing: weeds are the Borg of the plant world. They are relentless in their quest to assimilate every tidy garden area and turn it into a snarled, disheveled, grotesque, tumbledown mess. And weeds, like the Borg, don’t care about you. They are oblivious to your aching back, your hamstrings that seem to be on fire, your muddy knees, or the knuckles that have been skinned on rocks. And while you may need sleep, the weeds never rest.
You can’t really get rid of weeds, either. Like the Borg, they will keep coming back. You might spend hours digging them out, carefully removing them from the footprints of the plants you want to keep, and tossing them into the compost area, but you know they will return. Spend hours turning a weedy area, above, into a neat, well-tended bed, below, and you may as well take a picture to remember it by, because when you return the weeds will have encroached again.
When I weed up here, I half expect to see a grim black cube hovering overhead. The weeds are ever on the march
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It was a beautiful scene this morning, with some interesting cloud formations making for a fabulous sunrise as I set off on my morning walk. And thanks to our tree removal efforts, by the time I got back home the view from just outside our front door wasn’t bad, either.