A Blooming Windfall

June garden bouquet of peonies and poppies

June garden bouquet of peonies and a poppy

When we decided to buy a house in Maine, we drew up a wish list. About the only thing on that list that we didn’t get was a garage. But we more than made up for it with two things that were so far above our expectations that they weren’t even on the list–a view that continues to astound and a perennial garden.

The perennial garden was an unexpected windfall.IMG_1296We’ve never stayed in one place long enough to invest in a perennial garden. Imagine how I felt to suddenly have a ready-made garden ready to unfold.IMG_1739

When we moved here at the end of May, there were a few flowering tulips and lots of emerging plants and shoots.

The garden in May.

The garden in May.

I recognized some of the shoots, our realtor recognized others, but some were a complete mystery. An early visitor advised that we take it slowly the first year and–for the most part–leave the garden alone to see what evolved. Who knows, what might appear to be a weed in June could turn out to be a spectacular September bloomer.

June

Early June

Late June. The peonies were spectacular.

Late June.

July

July

It was wise advice. The big artichoke-looking plants, for example, didn’t produce anything like artichokes but instead sent up stalks with prickly orbs, that then became covered with tiny blue flowerets covered with bees. These exquisite, whimsical blue-globe thistles were our favorites. IMG_1060We also were puzzled by vigorous stalks with graceful, but vaguely marijuana-like leaves. Could our predecessors have peppered a few marijuana plants in the garden? The plants didn’t look quite like marijuana, but they didn’t resemble any flowering plants that I knew. I little internet research suggested they were cleomes. And a few weeks later that was confirmed by the delicate but stately-spidery blooms that climbed up the stalks for weeks and weeks.IMG_2052

I realize that we will never have this experience again. We were the fortunate recipients of someone else’s garden, a blooming, living testament of their vision, taste, and labor. I felt a bit like Mary Lennox in one of my favorite childhood books, “The Secret Garden,” navigating the wonder of an unknown garden.IMG_0868

Every week brought us something new. Irises, yes, but what kind? Oh, sweet, vivid deep-blue Siberians. IMG_0695A perennial garden is personal. It reflects the gardeners who planted it. We only briefly met the previous owners of this house, but learned something about them through watching this garden unfold.IMG_2076

They thoughtfully designed the garden for continuous blooming throughout the growing season.

August

August

September

September

October

October

They took account of color contrasts

Daisies almost smothering lavender

Daisies almost smothering lavender

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and texture contrasts.IMG_2600IMG_2668IMG_2646

They designed for low-maintenance–no finicky, fussy plants–all well-suited for the site and (except for a few lilies) pest and disease resistant. I appreciated that the garden was clearly designed to attract pollinators and to provide food for birds. We were inundated with butterflies, moths, all kinds of bees and wasps, and an excited group of hummingbirds all summer long.IMG_0599IMG_1120IMG_2631

Finally, they didn’t forget fragrance and included lilies and moon-flowers to intoxicate the night air. Actually the moon-flowers, Datura (a potent hallucinogen), are a bit finicky this far north, strumpets in this Maine garden. Their large, tropical-looking buds slowly unfurled to fragrant white trumpet blossoms, that then became spiky seed pouches. All new to me and I loved this plant at every phase.

Datura buds and furled blossom

Datura buds and furled blossom.  Check out the Cleome marijuana-like leaves on the left.

Sweet-smelling blossom unfurled

Sweet-smelling blossom unfurled

Blossoms turn to seed

Blossoms to seed

Aside from a few tweaks, we will keep this garden as it is. We will add more perennial beds later, but will keep this windfall garden much as we received it.

Our October garden bouquet

Our October garden bouquet

Slow-motion Fall

IMG_2536October 9th and no sign of frost.  We are used to fall in Alaska, an abrupt transition from summer and winter—often lasting only a week or two—that can hardly be considered a season.  In contrast, this year in our part of Maine, fall has unfolded leisurely, with lingering summer temperatures well into September.

I love milkweed

Love to see milkweed.

We have so many apples on the ground from our wild trees that it smells vaguely of apple brandy.

Roadside crabapples--a great year for apples in Maine

Roadside crabapples–a great year for apples in Maine

IMG_2548This slow fall pace has allowed our vegetable beds to continue to produce, and produce, and produce—something we had not expected this late in the season.

Still going strong

Still going strong

Our sunny hillside—near, but not too near, the ocean—apparently creates a microclimate with a longer growing season than areas around us.  It will be fun to see how far we can stretch it.

Our little cold-frame is an attempt to provide greens into the fall

Our little cold-frame is an attempt to provide greens into the fall.  So far, looking good.

Our October garden is an unexpected bounty.  We continue to harvest eggplants, tomatoes (fortunately we had no blight), tomatillos, leeks, fennel, chard, collards, peppers, and carrots from our first planting in May.

The chard has been a trooper. Always abundant and always delicious.

The chard has has been impressive. Always abundant and always delicious.

The birds started eating the sunflowers, so I hauled the enormous flower heads to the ground under the bird feeders, a feast for contentious bluejays. IMG_2429

In late July to mid-August I planted colder-weather crops, which are producing like mad now.

The russian kale, peas, and beets are thriving

The Russian kale and beets are thriving.  It’s dubious that we’ll get broccoli out of this planting, though..

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October tomatoes

Peas, kale, beets, more carrots, and even corn—needless to say, we haven’t bought any vegetables in months.  In fact, I’ve had to adjust my mindset this summer so that I don’t feel guilty if we don’t eat everything produced in the garden.  If it’s not eaten, it makes great compost for next year.

The biggest surprise in our first Maine garden was the sheer plenitude.  I planted what I thought would be small islands of flowers among the vegetables.  They properly attracted bees, other beneficial insects, hummingbirds, and butterflies.

October pollen overload in this honeybee

October pollen overload in this honeybee

But they also ran rampant, rioting all over the stodgier vegetable neighbors.  IMG_2472I had to continually cut back the cosmos to give the eggplants more room and the nasturtiums would have engulfed the entire garden if I had let them. IMG_2471

But nothing compared—volume-wise—with the lone tomatillo I planted in May.  I had no idea that tomatillos would even grow in Maine and—because I ignorantly though it would be out of its element—pictured a tidy, compact plant.  Ha.  It was godzilla.  I continually cut it back and it then grew even more profusely, entwining its arms into every tomato and pepper plant in the bed.  IMG_0961A jealous monster.  It gave me two complete harvests, so I have nice jars of salsa verde and roasted tomatillos frozen for winter.

One tomatillo plant. I hated to pull it up, but wanted to give the peppers a chance to produce a little more.

One tomatillo plant. I hated to pull it up, but wanted to give the peppers a chance to produce a little more.  And, it was time to harvest.

Planting in raised beds was a first for me.  Next year, I will plant the sunflowers, pumpkins, corn and potatoes in regular beds.  But, otherwise I am a total convert to raised beds.  They allow for close-planting, with few weeds, and are easy to work.  I planted some things too close together and will adjust next year, but the happy hodge-podge of flowers and veggies, with few rows or open soil, made for a healthy, productive, and beautiful garden.

We fortunately had few garden pests.  This Japanese beetle was bonding with a wild thistle.

We fortunately had few garden pests. This Japanese beetle was bonding with a wild thistle.

If this warm weather continues, we will have to devise some new ways to cook eggplant.IMG_1708

Finding Common Ground

IMG_1798In September, people from all over Maine—and the East Coast—converge on Unity for the Common Ground Country Fair.  Unity sits in an area, not too far from the coast, which is dotted with farms, lakes, deep woods, and ridgelines with unexpected, expansive views.  It’s near the towns of Freedom, China, Detroit, and not far from Liberty, Harmony, and Hope—smack in the middle of one of Maine’s cluster of intriguing, evocative town names.

The walk from the parking area to the fair grounds.

The walk from the parking area to the fair grounds.

To get to the fair, we drove on up-and-down back roads, with a few “yikes-I-didn’t-expect-that” right-angle turns, by farms, through shadowy woods, by Lake St. George, and then suddenly up to high vistas of Knox and Thorndike’s farmland.  There, we knew we were near the fair when the brilliantly resourceful local fire departments had “voluntary toll” boot drives to raise money from the fair visitors.

The fair opened on a beautiful Friday morning.

The fair opened on a beautiful Friday morning.

The fair—generally referred to simply as “Common Ground”—started in 1977 and has become a Maine institution.  It is put on by MOFGA (the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association), an impressive organization that provides resources and support for Maine’s organic community and—to my delight—is a generous and friendly wealth of knowledge on all aspects of farming and gardening in Maine.

My favorite booth--FEDCO trees--with examples of Maine apple varieties--old and new.

My favorite booth–FEDCO trees–with examples of Maine apple varieties–old and new.

Maine is home to a rich and growing culture of small farms and self-sufficiency.  It attracted a significant back-to-the-land movement in the 1970’s, inspired in part by then-Maine residents Helen and Scott Nearing and their book “Living the Good Life.”  MOFGA and the Common Ground Fair grew out of that 1970’s movement and both continue to thrive as another generation tries to make a sustainable living in rural and small-town Maine.

Selling Maine lavender

Selling Maine lavender

No doubt, MOFGA has had a key role in the resurgence in organic farming in Maine over the past decade.  And the Common Ground Fair is both a tribute to and a playground for MOFGA and its members.  IMG_1808The fair takes place over a three-day weekend and is a marvel of organization and the power of volunteers. IMG_1993 Everything appears to run with ease and efficiency, from the parking, to the food, to the cleanup and recycling.  While I apprehensively expected to find a gathering of aging hippies, or a smug, unrealistic group of ideologues—I was happy to find a vibrant mix of people of all ages and varying backgrounds (although mostly white ) coming together to learn more about, to celebrate, and to retain the skills of rural living at its best.

Maine's few remaining Shakers were selling their sought-after herbs

Maine’s few remaining Shakers were selling their sought-after herbs

These were in tent devoted to Maine's Native Americans' crafts, skills, and culture

These were in tent devoted to the crafts, skills, and culture of Maine’s Native Americans

Unlike other country fairs, Common Ground has no midway, pig races, or pie-eating contests.

Fleeces for sale

Fleeces for sale

It tends more towards knowledge-sharing, with workshops on everything from calming a nervous horse, to working with honeybee swarms, to using green manures.  IMG_1867_edited-1I was torn by all the workshop choices but directional tree-felling (for George), and home orchards and composting (for me) won out.  Next year, mushroom cultivation, for sure.

IN go the apples

In go the apples

And out comes the cider

And out comes the cider

There were barns full of animals.  IMG_1892IMG_1924And whole areas of vegetables, farmers markets, gardens, and orchards.IMG_1810IMG_2017About 60,000 attend the fair each year over its three day run.  But, surprisingly, it never felt crowded or rushed.

Lunchtime

Lunchtime

It’s not dirty or littered, and people take time to talk and share information.  I happily wandered around huge tents of artisan and craft booths from folks throughout Maine, with some really exquisite products.  IMG_1856IMG_1991All in all, it was pure pleasure, and we will be back for much more next year.IMG_1916