Transformations

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As usual, summer whirled by.  We took on too much, but are feeling the sweet satisfaction of transforming our slice of hillside into our long-dreamed-of ultimate home.  It feels good.

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George capped off a summer of building projects by finishing the sauna.  He put an amazing amount of time, thought, and work into it.  And it’s a beautiful creation, with gorgeous wood inside and out, nestled in the trees, promising hours of bliss—soaking in heat, hot cedar fragrance, and the flickering light of the woodfire.

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To accompany the sauna, George also built a deluxe outdoor shower.

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Beginnings of the shower (with the dye garden and fleece washing station behind)

There’s nothing like watching eagles soaring overhead while showering.  Getting clean has never been so sweet.

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While George was busy building, the butterflies moved in.

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The Eastern Tiger Swallowtails appeared first

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Eastern Tiger Swallowtail caterpillar–the only time I’ve seen one–the “eyes” and swaying head were a bit creepy

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Black Swallowtail caterpillar

We were besieged by monarchs.  In their caterpillar incarnation they ate our milkweed to desolate skeletons, every tender bit devoured.

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We were fortunate to catch the moment of metamorphosis from caterpillar to chrysalis while the grandchildren were here.

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Attaching to form a chrysalis

I hope it didn’t give them nightmares of alien transformations.

IMG_3205Lots of writhing and pulsing, as a massive chrysalis (where did that incredible hulk come from?) shed the vivid caterpillar skin, leaving a shriveled bit of tissue-paper debris in a matter of minutes.

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Ouch.

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By August, Monarch chrysalises were hanging everywhere—from perennial stalks, siding, windowsills, and even a wheelbarrow.

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As good hosts, we left them alone—no cutting back of perennials or bumpy wheelbarrow rides during chrysalis-hood.  On the final day before butterfly emergence, the chrysalis becomes a deep blue, with wings and colors visible.

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But the actual emergence is very fast—it’s over in minutes.  Although I kept on eye on ripe ones, I kept missing the magic moment.  I finally camped out on our deck steps shelling tiger beans, next to a chrysalis looking about to burst, determined to wait until the moment of emergence.

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After about an hour, there was a sudden twitch and the chrysalis listed to one side.

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Then, in an eerie similarity to the caterpillar-chrysalis transformation, in minutes the butterfly shed the chrysalis and burst out—BOOM—into a crumbled color of wings with an outsized body.

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After a few hours drying, it was off, feasting on nectar for the migration south.

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Some evenings more than a dozen would be dancing over our Joe Pye Weed.

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They stayed well into October.  I hope they made it to Mexico.

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It was a good summer for growing—monarchs, flowers, and vegetables.

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The gardens produced wonderfully and I swear the vegetables get tastier every year.

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Flax

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In the summer, we filled the greenhouse with tomatoes, cotton, a fig tree, passion fruit vines, bay laurel, herbs, turmeric and ginger.

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Passionfruit flower

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Curing sweet potatoes in greenhouse

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Hoping for tomatoes into November

Now it’s also planted with greens for fall, winter, and spring.  I’m looking forward to seeing how much it extends the season for us.

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Sweet Alice

The dogs and bees are thriving, too.  Capp appears to have recovered completely from his mystery illness last year, which is such a relief.

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Capp sunbathing

He and Alice are our best buddies, making us rich in love and dog hair.

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My adopted bees settled in beautifully and are going into fall as the strongest hive I’ve ever had.  I’ll wrap the hive next month and hope they make it through the winter.

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Samuel Morison great wheel

Much of my summer was textile-related—most of it outdoors.

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Gotland fleece ready to wash

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Dew retting flax

I went to two natural dyeing workshops, washed fleeces, spun a lot of wool for dyeing, worked on wheels, grew and retted flax, and taught a class on antique wheels.  In late summer, I set up my outdoor dye kitchen for two dyeing sessions, using plants from my dye garden and our land.

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Simmering goldenrod

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Japanese Indigo–notice the blue tinge to the water

What a range of colors emerged: blues from Japanese Indigo and Woad; yellows from Weld, Goldenrod, and Queen Anne’s Lace; gold and orange from Dyer’s Coreopsis; and green from overdyeing the yellows with the blues.

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Dye day one, Woad, Japanese Indigo, Goldenrod, Queen Anne’s Lace and overdyeing for greens

There’s a wonderful sense of witchy-ness in hovering over a brew of plants transforming them to potions of color.

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Dyer’s Coreopsis

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Dye day two–Japanese Indigo, Dyer’s Coreopsis, with overdyeing and afterbaths of washing soda and iron

I was so busy with outside activities that I had little time for weaving.  In September, however, an antique wheel friend offered to sell me her Leksand loom, a beautiful 19th century Swedish loom for weaving bands.  I was thrilled.

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Beautiful old Leksand–I’m very fortunate to have this loom

They are very hard to find and really fun to use.  It took some time to figure out how to set it up and weave on it–all the helpful books were in Swedish.  I also rescued an old Maine tape loom that had been covered with 70s-era painted flowers and have a line-up of spinning wheels waiting for my repairs.

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Cape Breton wheel needing work

Last week I finally warped up my big loom.

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It’s still too beautiful, though, to spend much time inside.  The leaf colors are spectacular this fall.

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But, winter is coming.

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And I plan to be a recluse—home with George, dogs, snow, wheels, spinning, sewing, and weaving.  And the sauna, of course.

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Bees, Buds, Birds

IMG_9395The beginning of May has alternated between work and distractions.  We are in the midst of what may be our busiest time in retirement–our first planting season at our new home.  We picked up a good-sized order of orchard trees, companion perennials, berries, asparagus, hazelnuts, seed potatoes and more on the last weekend in April at Fedco–our Maine source of all things growing (in the plant world).  So we pushed hard to get our newly cleared land ready for planting. IMG_8480

But, every day, while I shoveled, planted, and watered, the utter exuberance of the life around me hit me upside the head.  It was a distraction.  But one that I didn’t fight.

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A bumblebee, not one of our honeys.

I had my camera with me while planting, so when I heard the Towhee’s “drink your tea-eeeeee” in the sumac, I tried to get a photo as he hopped, maddeningly, deeper into the brush.  I never got a good shot of the Towhee but then was distracted by the blooming maples.  IMG_9378.jpgI spent a lot of time this past week just looking up and listening.  Fortunately, in retirement, I have no deadlines and can indulge in these lovely distractions. IMG_8510IMG_8958IMG_8993

The bees may be my biggest distraction, requiring detours multiple times a day to linger and watch.  I just can’t keep away from them.  We checked on our queen four days after installing the package and the diligent little ladies had properly released her from her cage.  They were building lovely waxy white comb and bringing in pollen, which generally indicates that the queen is laying.

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Like planes stacked up to land at Hartsfield Airport.

Our trees have just barely started to leaf out and green up, so our woods remain austere and wintry looking.  But the bees are bringing in fat legfuls of psychedelic orange pollen and a more subdued yellowish stash.  IMG_9173I imagine the orange is from the maples.  IMG_9320IMG_9324The yellow likely comes from dandelion, coltsfoot, birch and willow.  IMG_9331IMG_8831IMG_9359IMG_9424I picked up our tree order on Arbor Day (a fact of which I was unaware at the time) and, that afternoon, planted three apples, two pears, two cherries, two peaches, two persimmons, and a giant medlar (no idea, really, what it is).  IMG_9163The birds were out in full force.  It’s mating season, after all, and the calling, squabbling, and acrobatics are at their peak. 

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This Bluejay was drinking from the hose when I watered in a transplanted blueberry.

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Here he’s puffing out his feathers at Bluejay on the neighboring branch. Attracting a female or intimidating a rival?

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We have hordes of berserker goldfinches.

So, I would dig a bit, pause a bit, watch a bit, take a picture or two, and then dig, plant and water some more. 

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This Northern Flicker blends in so well he’s hard to see.  The Flickers just migrated from their winter grounds.

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The next day I planted blueberries, haskaps (honeyberries and new to me), an elderberry, a Carolina allspice, and made a nursery for some chestnut whips and my grafted apples (it looks like some of the grafts have taken).  Once I was done, I wandered off in search of the white throated sparrow that had been mournfully singing first on one side, then on the other.  I couldn’t spot the sparrow, but kept happily wandering, fully distracted by the buds and blooms in the exquisite afternoon light.IMG_9432IMG_8599

IMG_9328.jpgIMG_9375IMG_9440IMG_9436.jpgWe spent Mother’s Day weekend in Connecticut visiting my mom and now are looking forward to a week of warmer, sunnier weather.  Bring on the bloom.IMG_9499IMG_9237IMG_9471

 

Sow. Snow. Sew.

IMG_7223We took one lazy day after our roadtrip and then headed outside. It felt like spring and we were itching to get to work.

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Poplar catkins

We have been here almost a year now and have spent that time assessing the sun, wind, and drainage to plan the layout for our gardens.

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Alders

We decided to move the raised vegetable beds that we installed when we moved in last May. That area–at the side of the house–will be our little orchard, with fruit trees and berries.IMG_7146 Our first project was to start a drainage ditch down one side. We will get the area ready to plant by the end of April. IMG_7202.jpg
The raised beds are moving to the area we cleared below the house. Once we remove some stumps, and finish burning brush, we will lay down the frames and finish moving the soil. We are putting in additional raised beds and will have regular beds for potatoes, corn, asparagus, strawberries, herbs, squash, and melons. Perhaps we’re too ambitious, but it’s so much fun.IMG_7178
Along with outside work, I started seedlings indoors. Lots and lots of seedlings. We are fortunate to have triple-paned southern-facing windows that act like passive solar powerhouses, generating enough heat on sunny winter days to warm the house. Because the windows act so much like a greenhouse, I decided to go without heat mat for germination and without supplemental grow lights. A risk, I know.

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These water jugs as seed beds act like mini-greenhouses.

So far, I’ve been pleased. The kale germinated within 48 hours and all the seeds were up within a week.

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Do you think we’re growing enough lettuce varieties?

Most of my seeds are from Fedco, a wonderful Maine co-op. They have by far the best germination rate of any I’ve ever used.  I have had no damping off (sometimes older seeds are more prone to it) except for in two little peat pots of a seed from a company other than Fedco. Interesting. My recently planted pepper plants will be the real germination test, though. They require good warmth to germinate, so we’ll see how they do without a heat mat.

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Water-jug marigolds.

As the plants have been emerging, inside and out, the birdsongs have become increasingly competitive–me, me, pick me!  After I saw a male bluebird in full throat at the top of a maple down the street, George quickly put up bluebird and wren houses. I started pruning the lilacs and apples and then … snow.
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IMG_7298.jpgLots of snow. About eight inches. It brought the wild turkeys, searching for windfall apples at the edge of the yard.

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Turkey tracks are huge. My boot is in the lower left for comparison.

Then it got cold. The snow has lingered on. IMG_7326

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The snow makes Zoes feisty.  She’s trying to kill her ball.

IMG_7302I’m not sure yet how much damage we will see to emerging buds and sprouts.

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Poppies emerging before the snow.

Today we are housebound by a coat of ice and mizzle of freezing rain. IMG_7407.jpgOn the bright side, the snow and ice have given me time to finish sewing projects. In January, I was making great progress on a quilt for a granddaughter when my sewing machine started to act oddly. The motor belt seemed to be slipping–something it had never done before. The band was old, brittle, and cracked. I decided that it was time for a tune up anyway, so dropped off the machine at a local fabric store to be picked up by the local sewing machine repairman. His normal two-week turn around time stretched three because, on delivery day, the fabric store was closed due to heavy snow. Three weeks without my machine during prime sewing season. IMG_6556
Finally, the machine came home with a new belt, all greased and lubed, and, for the first few nights, smoothly humming away. The next afternoon, however, I sat down to sew and the new motor band started slipping a bit. I let it sit for a few hours, tried it again that night, and it was fine. But the next day, it started slipping badly. Really badly. Odd that it slipped during the day, but not at night. Then a light went off–actually a lot of light. The machine was sitting right in front in one of our greenhouse-like southern windows, awash in sunlight. That sunlight was HOT and the heat was expanding the band so much as to cause it to slip. Duh. Problem solved.

The quilt is finished and ready to be shipped out west. My quilting style is best described as low-stress or wabi sabi. No seam is too crooked, no corner too awry. I put it together, hope it will come out approximately square , and enjoy the process. A real quilter would roll her eyes and tut disapprovingly. But it works for me.

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An exuberant, one-of-a-kind quilt for an exuberant, one-of-a-kind granddaughter.  This quilt was made of about 60 different fabrics that my daughter collected when they lived in Okinawa and traveled through Asia and Australia.  

While the machine was away, I worked on the spinning wheel. When I treadled the wheel without spinning any yarn, all moved sweetly along. But when I started spinning yarn, the drive band tended to fall off the wheel. Eventually I realized that the mother-of-all (wonderful name) was wobbling back and forth when I put tension on the yarn, causing the band to jump off the wheel tracks. I shimmed it up and all went smoothly. My lovely old wheel is now spinning.

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The white shim steadies the mother-of-all crossbar. The mother-of-all holds the end supports, called the maidens, the u-shaped flyer and the bobbin of spun yarn.

Spring goes on.

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Our neighbor uses old-style buckets for gathering maple sap. The cold spell keeps the sap flowing. The piece of scraggly wood in the hole in this tree looks like an old man’s face.

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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