The Vixen and The Queen

IMG_8241_edited-1Our resident fox has five kits. Their den is in an acre of woods abutting our land and is visible from our southern windows. At first we saw the vixen–a gorgeous creature–going regularly to a spot by a stone wall. Eventually we started to see other movement in there–small gray animals, looking rather squirrel-like. Out came the binoculars, which revealed some kits.

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This isn’t the den, it’s in our orchard-to-be

We’ve been spying on them since. The vixen spies on us, too, keeping a careful watch when we are working in the yard. IMG_7933
She seems to be gone for hours sometimes, presumably hunting, and when she returns the kits all come running. She nurses, grooms them, and lets them explore the surroundings, herding them back if they go too far. IMG_8080One morning, we watched her hunt in the long grass where our orchard will be. IMG_8089She caught a squirrel and some smaller rodents–voles, I suspect. IMG_8012Foxes are considered beneficial here for tick reduction because they kill many of the tick-carrying rodents. No one in the immediate neighborhood has any chickens, so the fox is quite welcome. Apparently this acre of woods has had a fox den for at least a few years. The kits, of course, are ridiculously adorable. They are turning from gray to red and getting bolder. IMG_8256
Lucky for me, they’ve been providing entertainment because I twisted my ankle a few days ago. I was in apple mode at the time, focusing on learning all I can for rehabilitating our old apple trees and creating a new orchard. I had just been to a grafting workshop where we learned whip & tongue grafting.

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This was our example of a proper cut. You can see the cut back “tongue” if you look carefully.

Apple seeds, like people, are unique and different from their parent trees, so grafting is necessary to reproduce specific apple varieties. Whip grafting involves attaching an apple root stock to a scion–last year’s branch growth from the desired variety–by cutting both quite precisely with a very, very sharp knife. IMG_8450Needless to say, learning was messy. 20160409_124420.jpgI was pretty good at making the initial cut, but had a terrible time cutting the tongue properly. It got a little bloody. Nevertheless, I went home with eight newly grafted old apple varieties, with wonderful names such as Blue Permain, Yellow Transparent, Rhode Island Greening, Northern Spy, and Cox’s Orange Pippin. If half of them make it, I’ll be lucky.20160409_132501
My other orcharding activity, pruning, resulted in the sprained ankle. Nothing exciting, I just hopped off the apple ladder into a hole and the damage was done. I have a tendency to sprain my ankle at really bad times (twice while on vacation in Hawaii). This time was no exception because the bees were arriving in two days. Fortunately, I know the sprained ankle routine. I iced it, wrapped it, elevated it, watched the foxes, and recovered remarkably quickly (which I attribute to yoga). IMG_8068
That brings us to the queen. She is here, along with the rest of the bees, although she likely is still caged. I ordered a package of bees from a wonderful local apiary, where I had taken beekeeping classes. They picked up a trailer load of packaged bees in Georgia and arrived in Maine with them on Saturday. Each package had 3 pounds of bees and a caged queen.  George had been working on the hive area and it was ready for bees.

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We took down a low-hanging branch from a cherry that was shading the hive too much. The flies and a moth gorged on the sap.

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IMG_7858We picked up our bees and brought them home.  There are many ways to hive bees, depending on the hives and personal preference. IMG_8145We’re newbies (or newbeeks, in beekeeper slang), so don’t even pretend to be knowledgeable.  But, here’s what we did.  I lightly sprayed the bees with sugar syrup. IMG_8147I removed the can of feeding syrup from the package and then the queen’s cage. She is surrounded by bees here, so you can’t see her. IMG_8162There is a bit of “candy” in the lower third of the queen cage, which the bees are supposed to eat through to get to the queen and release her. That process gives them time to get used to the queen (so they won’t kill her). I gently poked a hole in the candy with a nail (easier said than done) and placed the cage on a frame in the hive. IMG_8158Then I thumped the package on the ground to get the bees in one corner and dumped them in the hive. IMG_8166A bit more thumping, shaking, and dumping and most were out. IMG_8171Then I very gently, without squishing any bees (I think) put the remaining frames in the hive. IMG_8174IMG_8179We gently brushed the bees off the top and, with George’s help (thus, no photos) slid the feeder on and put the quilt and roof on. Success! IMG_8195Blooms have barely started here, so the bees will need to be fed sugar syrup for the next few weeks. I will check the hive on Tuesday to see if the queen has made it out of her cage. In the meantime, the bees appear to be doing well. IMG_8268I find them mesmerizing.
IMG_7887.jpgFinally, the Tom turkey put on quite a display last week, presenting his rear to us from every angleIMG_7900IMG_7898

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Zoe presented her belly.

Wildlife

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We did not know what kind of local wildlife to expect in Maine. We were spoiled, animal-wise, having lived in Alaska for many years. Our home in Anchorage was in an area called “Hillside,” a gradual rise to the mountains of Chugach State Park, a vast and wild protected area just a ten-minute drive from our house.

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Powerline Pass trail in the Chugach. If you look carefully you’ll see a moose blocking the trail–a not uncommon occurrence.

Every spring, moose mothers-to-be migrated down the hills into populated areas to have their babies, in an attempt to avoid predation during birth and the newborns’ most helpless first weeks. Moose Babies.jpgOne scarred cow moose chose our neighborhood for her maternity ward several years running, giving us a succession of knobble-kneed moose calves to admire each spring. 129_2947Moose Mom w BabiesIn the fall, the adolescents returned to stock up for the winter on whatever was left in our garden and to strip our delectable lilac bush down to two bare nubs.Moose in the Paddock.jpg

Bears also came down from the mountains, looking for moose babies, garbage, and bird and dog food. Bird feeders, especially, seemed to be bear magnets. As a result, we could only feed birds when the bears were in hibernation–a period that became shorter in recent years with Anchorage’s increasingly warm winters. One year, our next-door neighbor ignored the bird feeder ban and this black bear knocked the food out of the feeder, pressed its paws into the seeds on the ground and then rolled on its back and licked the seed off its paws. He appeared to be relishing the easy feast.Yard Bear
We had an occasional lynx in the neighborhood and wolves nearby. Bald eagles were so common that we called them flying rats. Eagles in Kachemak Bay.jpgEagles
Alaska was a hard act to follow. But Maine is doing a pretty good job. On our first evening in our new house, we were treated to a fox family, running along the edge of the lawn to eat a pile of sunflower seeds left under the big white pine where the previous owners had hung their bird feeder (they emptied out the feeder and took it with them).IMG_0422.jpg Apparently foxes like bird food as much as bears do. IMG_0513.jpgThe three kits wrestled and tore around the lawn while the adults looked on. IMG_0518We continued to see the foxes in the early morning and evening for a few weeks and then they disappeared. IMG_0502
A wild turkey flock comes and goes, we have heard (but not seen) coyotes, and we once saw a deer running across the driveway. We were curious as to what we weren’t seeing and mounted a game camera on a driveway tree a few weeks ago.

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The game camera caught the turkeys strutting down the drive

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Game camera again–I could never have gotten this shot. 

We were thrilled to see that the foxes are still around.

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And not so thrilled to see that we have several deer hanging about.

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We didn’t have any deer in the garden last year and are hoping that these won’t be tempted this year.

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A recent snowfall showed that they have been bedding down in our woods and we have had tracks across our lawn.

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There were seven or eight of these spots in the snow where it looked like deer had bedded down.

So, it looks like a garden fence may be in our future.

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Rabbit (hare, actually) tracks

Of all of our Maine wildlife, the birds have given me the most pleasure. Because we could only feed birds in the dead of winter in Alaska, our feeder birds were mostly chickadees and redpolls. We have a much wider variety at our Maine feeder–chickadees, juncos, goldfinches, purple finches, blue jays, cardinals, woodpeckers, sparrows, nuthatches, and mourning doves. IMG_5509Unfortunately, aside from the chickadees–nothing fazes them–the birds here are the most camera-shy of any I’ve ever encountered. IMG_5644I have had a terrible time getting any decent photos this winter. IMG_5494I could do a whole post of bird bum photos. IMG_5490
I did manage to capture, however, bluebirds that swooped in last week to eat sumac berries and some suet from our feeder. IMG_5258They took me by surprise. I had no idea that bluebirds overwintered in Maine. Nor had I ever seen so many together. There were at least eight or ten of them, maybe more. They hung around for a few days and were gone. IMG_5267Perhaps we’ll put up some houses for them before spring.

Finally, Zoe is our perpetual wild life. The game camera caught her racing down the driveway with all four paws in the air.

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She thinks she’s a sled dog.

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Zoe can only dream. These are what real Alaskan sprint dogs look like.

She adores the snow-blower and follows it everywhere, occasionally stopping to attack the spumes of blowing snow, trying to capture it in her mouth.IMG_5430IMG_5440

We moved the game camera to deeper woods and will report back on what we find.

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

 

Trading the Trailer For a Tractor

She's not ours, we met her at the fair.

She’s not ours, we met her at the fair.

Our metamorphosis continues.  In May, we abruptly went from full-time RV travel to putting down roots in mid-coast Maine—an area entirely new to us.  We are so besotted with our new home that—for now—we do not want to leave and hate to see the trailer sitting in the driveway, unused.  So, we are in the process of selling the trailer and hope to see it off to a new home soon.  We have a slew of projects lined up and waiting for the tractor that will replace it.

I did not even think about blogging during our busy summer.  In fact, I had pretty much decided not to continue this blog after completing our RV journey.  To my surprise , however, the blog urge suddenly reappeared and, along with it, a desire to document the transformation of this piece of land that we so fortunately found.

Right after we moved in.

Right after we moved in.

Our home here is a long-delayed dream.  In the early 1980s, we entered a land lottery in Alaska for homestead parcels near the Susitna River.  Of course, as with most lotteries, we didn’t win.  So we put our land fantasy in the deep freeze.

Finally, now, in retirement, we have the time to do and create whatever we want and a seven acre playground for a palette.  We plan to turn our acreage into a fairly self-sufficient place where we grow much of our own food.  I doubt that we will keep animals (aside from dogs, of course) because we want to continue to travel, but we will keep bees, grow a huge variety of vegetables, herbs, and flowers, and create an orchard of old and new trees.

We were thrilled to move into our house at the end of May because it gave us enough time to get a garden in this summer.  We immediately built raised beds for vegetables.

The raised beds were our first project.

The raised beds were our first project.

They have been producing beyond our expectations all summer.

Tomato blossoms in the morning dew.

Tomato blossoms in the morning dew.

Potatoes

Potatoes

We also inherited a lovely, thoughtfully-designed perennial garden that has been a pleasure to watch unfold as one set of blooms is replaced by another. IMG_0637IMG_0740

These globe thistles were spectacular.

These globe thistles were spectacular.

George has been clearing new garden land and trails with a brush hog and built a deluxe compost bin and firewood racks (more on those and other building projects in later posts).

Still life with brushhog

Still life with brushhog

We also spent a good deal of time this summer just watching the sky and the wildlife.

We have made some goldfinches very happy

We have made some goldfinches very happy

Sunrise

Sunrise

Thunderheads

Thunderheads

We have a huge expanse of sky here, which is relatively rare in most of New England.  With no city lights nearby, the stars and Milky Way are incredibly bright.  One night, watching meteor showers from our back deck,  coywolves just down the hill accompanied the show with a series of escalating, chilling howls.  Unforgettable.

Moonrise

Moonrise

Now at the equinox, the days are still summerlike, with chilly mornings.

We are busy stacking firewood to season and raking up scabby apples in hopes of rehabilitating some of our old apple trees.  IMG_1785This year, we’re making applesauce from the old tree apples.

These russets are the only apple variety on our old trees that didn't have apple scab. They're tasty, too.

These russets are the only apple variety on our old trees that don’t have apple scab. They’re tasty, too.

Next year–hard cider.

We were able to tear ourselves away from our farm projects for a few day trips.

A trip to Fort Knox

A trip to Fort Knox

and the Penobscot Narrows bridge

and the Penobscot Narrows bridge

But, mostly, we have been content to stay at home–everything we want is right here.IMG_1313IMG_1534