The weather gods looked kindly upon us today, giving us one last beautiful day in Stonington before we head back to Columbus. The skies were clear, the sunlight sparkled on the waters of the Penobscot Bay, and the temperature hovered around 60. It was a perfect day to hike the trails of the Settlement Quarry and take in a breathtaking view — and we weren’t the only ones who thought so.
A day like this makes you sad to leave, but eager to return.
Up above, the leaves are just starting to change. But on the forest floor, the ferns are giving us a blazing preview of the upcoming fall foliage show. Their colors are so bright you can see the ferns deeper in the forest, like glowing campfires dotting the ground and lighting up the fallen trees and logs nearby.
The fall foliage season is a big deal around here, and this week will be the start of prime autumn color viewing. But the rule in the forest is inviolate: when it comes to changing their colors, ferns go first.
Today is August 31. It’s viewed as the traditional last day of summer. Mentally, we place June, July and August in the “summer” category, while September, October, and November are pegged into the “autumn” category.
Of course, not everyone agrees with this traditional cultural view of the seasons. The scientists among us would point out respectfully that the fall equinox doesn’t actually arrive until September 22. And in most parts of the country summer is still blazing on in full, shining force. The high today in Columbus will be in the 80s, for example, and down in Austin, Texas they’re still dealing with absurd, extreme “fry an egg on the sidewalk” heat, with the thermometer topping 100 degrees.
Not so in Stonington. Here, autumn seems to have come early. The last few days the morning temperature has been around 50 degrees — which is a bit bracing, candidly — and from the wood smoke smell you can tell that some people are using their fireplaces already. Our daily highs are now in the 60s. Add in a hefty breeze when you take your night-time walk, and you’re definitely in long pants and windbreaker territory. The leaves haven’t started to turn — yet — but there’s definitely that whiff of fall in the air.
For many of us, autumn is a favorite season, and in many parts of the country we bemoan its brevity. Summer heat hangs on into October, autumn passes in the blink of an eye, and then we move directly into the winter doldrums. It seems that things will be different in Maine, where fall’s early arrival suggests that it plans on staying for a while.
In short, if you like autumn, come to Maine. And bring your sweater.
I wore up this morning to the sound of falling rain. It confused me at first, because the sky to the east was bright with the first signs of a sunrise. But rain clouds had lumbered in from the west, the rain was starting, and I was hearing that familiar popping sound that raindrops make when they strike a hard surface — in our case, a wooden deck.
People often complain about the rain, but the complaints really aren’t about rain per se. We all understand that plants and yards and farmers need rain. The complaints are more about timing. No one minds rain that falls overnight when you are sleeping and ends before you get up, so it serves its essential watering function while not disturbing your daily routines at all. But Mother Nature is rarely so respectful of the puny interests of human beings and normally proceeds heedless of the impact on us.
I prefer my rain in the morning, right when I get up. Rain around noon seems like it is penning you up inside, and rain right before nightfall robs you of the sunset sky and seems to bring a premature end to the day. But rain first thing in the morning has a gentler effect on the daily schedule. You’re not going outside, yet, so it doesn’t interfere with that. The sound of the rain is peaceful and relaxing. If you open up the windows you get that rain-soaked breeze, with its heady scent of freshly washed air, to go with that first cup of coffee. And in my case this morning’s rain means I don’t have to worry about watering the plants outside today — this persistent rain will give them all the moisture they need for now.
To be sure, I will need to take an umbrella on my morning walk today, and I’ll return a bit damper than when I began. But that’s a small price to pay for the benefits of a good soak that will move through Stonington before noon and leave time for some afternoon sunshine and a chance to survey the results of a good soak on our plants. Let it rain!
My grandmother had a poetic saying for every occasion. UJ and I spent a lot of time with her during our childhood, and heard every one of her sayings multiple times. They’ve become part of my permanent mental landscape and simply pop into my head, unbidden, from time to time.
Like when I saw this morning’s sunrise, shown above, with its striking red sky. It immediately made me think of one of Grandma’s weather-related favorites:
Red sky at night, sailors’ delight,
Red sky in morning, sailors take warning.
To my knowledge Grandma never lived in a coastal community. She didn’t have any close friends or relatives who were mariners, and I don’t remember her telling us any stories about receiving instruction from a grizzled sailor about his rules of thumb on the weather. She may have been on a boat once in a while on her travels, but being on the open water wasn’t a regular part of her life in land-locked Akron, Ohio.
Nevertheless, as a kid I believed that Grandma knew what she was talking about. But these days I’m not so sure. This morning the lobster fleet chugged out of port as it always does, without batting an eye about that red sunrise. And my weather app indicates its going to be sunny today, with a high in the mid-70s. Could Grandma have been wrong?
Or maybe the warning to sailors was about sunburns.
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.
It’s been dry up here — so dry that even the most taciturn Mainers have actually remarked on it. We might get the light spritz from the morning fog, or a very heavy dew, but real rain has been rare over the past weeks.
Until yesterday, that is. Yesterday, we got one of those long, soaking rains, where the clouds seem to be especially low to the ground and just hover overhead, content to drop their watery contents onto the ground below. It was the kind of incessant, day-long rain that knocks a few leaves from the trees and produces big puddles on rocks and gravel driveways. And today and tomorrow we are supposed to get more of the same.
You can’t overstate the value of a good soaking for the plants. Watering is nice, and even essential when it has been especially dry, but it is a limited form of relief from the dryness. The best thing about a good soak is the continuous nature of the rainfall, with the earlier rain moistening the soil and making it more receptive to the raindrops to come. That’s why a good soak always leaves the plants looking better than a passing thunderstorm that might deposit a lot of rain that simply sluices off the hard-baked ground. With a good soak, you know the rain is really reaching the deeper ground and plant roots.
And another good thing about a good soak is that it means there’s no need for repeatedly filling up the watering can and hauling it to those remote places that are beyond the reach of your hose.
As a kid, I hated the good soak days, which seemed to unfairly cut into summer vacation. Now, as somebody who’s just working from home anyway and is interested in seeing some plants do well, I welcome the good soaking days. I’ll be interested in seeing how the plants have fared when the rainfalls end and the sun comes out again.
The fog bank is out there. You can see it on the water, lurking and looming, just beyond the little island in the middle of the harbor. The fog bank is so thick that it totally obscures all but the highest hilltop on Isle au Haut, wiping it clean from the photo.
It’s been pretty foggy here for the last few days, and for the native Midwesterner the speed — and seeming perverseness — of the fog movement is breathtaking. You might see fog in the distance, and the next thing you know it has barged into town and your bare skin is covered in moisture. On other days, the fog might wait out on the horizon, keeping its own counsel and deciding if, and when, to roll in and blanket the sun. And on other days, the fog is simply gone, and you can see for miles out into the harbor without a hint of fog to be seen anywhere.
Dr. Science would tell you that fog is a natural condition caused by a process called advection, when warm, moist air passes over a cooler surface — in this case, the bracing waters of the Penobscot Bay and the Atlantic Ocean just beyond the islands in the bay — and water vapor in the air condenses to form water droplets that make the fog opaque. That’s a very scientific explanation, but it doesn’t quite capture the almost human, unpredictable qualities of fog.
Because we know the fog is out there . . . waiting.
I’ll be happy if the flowers I planted over the weekend do well, but if that does happen It probably won’t have much to do with my gardening abilities. The summer in coastal Maine is just about the perfect climate for growing flowers and other plants: it’s not too hot, so the soil doesn’t dry out like it often does during a broiling Midwestern summer, it rains every few days (and often with real gullywashers) so there’s lots of water for the plants, heavy morning dews are commonplace, too, and there’s plenty of sunshine. Basically, Maine supplies everything the native flowers need — if you just leave them be.
As a result, flowers seem to grow pretty much everywhere, on their own. The lupines that are framing the harbor in the picture above are thriving In an untended area off the berm of a very busy street. And the lupines and the other wildflowers in the photo below are growing in profusion in a huge area that presumably isn’t being actively weeded and watered by a human gardening crew.
So what does it all mean? It means that if I can’t grow flowers here, I’m undoubtedly the world’s worst gardener.
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.
If you’re ever going to visit Maine during the summer, especially if you’re going to head up north of the southern coastal areas, plan on checking your smartphone weather app regularly.
In fact, plan on consciously rooting for specific weather developments — like increases in the daily high and low temperatures — even though you are well aware that puny humans have no ability to change the weather that’s heading your way. You’ll be hoping to see temperatures in the sixties and seventies (S and S) rather than temperatures in the forties and fifties (F and F).
You would think that, by the middle of June, the F and F squad would have been chased off the field, but you would be wrong. Even now, when the Midwest is getting slapped with temperatures that are in the upper 80s and even hitting 90, the low temperatures in Stonington on many days stubbornly remain in the 40s, and it’s a desperate, furious battle to get the high temperature out of the 50s. Even now, looking at the weather app and its forecast for the next 10 days, we still see only one day where the high temperature is in the upper 60s. (Brace yourself: a week from tomorrow the temperature is supposed to reach a scalding 66.) And days in the 70s in June in Stonington are apparently as rare as hen’s teeth.
It’s weird to pay so much attention to your weather app, but there’s a significant difference between temperatures in the 40s and 50s versus 60s and 70s. In the 40s and 50s, you’re still donning coats and sweaters. When you reach the upper 60s and — God forbid! — the 70s, the air has that sultry, summer feel that is simply absent when the F and F squad is in command.
None of this is a surprise. In fact, many people come to Maine specifically to escape the broiling summer heat — and Maine doesn’t disappoint in that regard. The temperature will warm up, and we’ll be in the toasty 70s when the rest of the country is groaning about the intense heat. It will be nice to the S and S team prevail.
It’s been foggy the last few days. This morning the fog is so thick that the rising sun is about as bright as a street lamp looming over the harbor, as the picture above shows. When it comes to fog, Maine could give Sherlock Holmes’ London a run for its money.
As this morning’s sun shows, fog is a natural shield of sorts. It obviously blocks your view of things that, on a clear day, you could see distinctly, and narrows your universe to the small realm that you can see. It swallows and engulfs sound, too. Sound waves fight to get through the legions of water droplets in the air, then just give up and fade away. The silence of a foggy day is about as silent as the busy modern world can get. Your ears will search diligently for any scrap of noise, simply not believing that it can be so quiet. Even the sharp barking of a neighbor’s dog become muffled and softened.
It’s odd to be encased in fog as the country slowly emerges from a global pandemic. On a foggy Maine hilltop, the coronavirus, and the harms and divisions it has caused, seem very far away.
It’s a beautiful day in Columbus today, and a lot of German Village residents were out doing yard work as we took our afternoon walk. I got a chuckle out of this generous sign seeking a hand from passers by.
It’s obviously stupid and pointless to get mad about the weather, because there’s absolutely nothing that can be done about it. We’re human, though, and we just can’t help ourselves, can we?
I try not to let the weather bother me, and appreciate the crispness of a cold morning. But when the cold morning is temperatures in the 30s in May, such that people have to put throw rugs and garbage bags and towels over their planters and window boxes to avoid the untimely demise of their flowers due to freezing temperatures, I admit that it does bug me a little.
Today, though, I celebrate. Today, I will glory in yet another in an interminable series of unseasonably cold, clear spring mornings. I will bundle up and don my oft-used stocking cap and gloves. I will walk with head held high, breathe in deep gulps of frigid air, and note, again, how the chill tends to sharpen the smells as I clean up after Betty on our walk.
Because today is the last of the 30s temperature days. It’s 34 right now, and once the thermometer rises past 40 we won’t see the 30s again for months. In fact, the weather apps suggest that we’re going to pretty much go straight from November weather to mid-June, with temperatures getting up into the 80s by next week.
We know it’s silly to let the weather get to us, but since it’s part of the human condition, why not embrace that fact? If you live in the Midwest, join me! Take this opportunity to celebrate the turn and the final, long-overdue departure of the 30s temperatures. Let’s give them a really good send-off, bid them a happy adieu, and let them know that we want them to stay away for a long, long time.