Midsummer Landscape


Wow, how neglectful have I been about writing this summer!  We’re all busy this time of year and I just got a full-time promotion at work, so my days in the garden have gotten a little shorter (not to mention my lack of time writing about the garden inside on the computer).  But nonetheless, here I am on a day off wondering where to start.


The garden is absolutely beautiful this year.  I’m loving it.  And so productive! Right now we’re eating tomatoes, potatoes, green beans, lettuce (yes lettuce!  all summer long!), kale, carrots, shallots, leeks, and picking dozens of bouquets.  It’s kind of the best.




This is cerinthe.  A bit of a freak show.  I think I like it, though.  It’s not as “pretty” per-se as I expected, but it’s so strange looking it totally has a place in my garden.  And the bees love it, specifically little bumblebees that can barely cram their fuzzy bodies into the flowers.

Probably the main highlight this summer has been raising a new flock of baby chicks!  Of course at this point they’ve grown into mischievous mini-hens…not quite so egg-sized anymore.  Here is their relatively cute evolution:


Baby Columbian Wyandotte, first week


We sectioned off the front of the chicken coop with plywood and equipped it with a heat lamp and wood shavings.  This was a great set-up for so many reasons: we didn’t have any nasty chick dust floating around our house like we did when we raised our first flock inside; we didn’t have to worry about predators; the big hens could still stay in their [slightly smaller] coop; and I think the little chicks got to grow up hearing the hens talk and vice versa.  When we finally integrated the flocks we had nothing to worry about; they already knew each other.


The Whole Gang


We decided on a mix of breeds, just to spice up the yard: Columbian Wyandottes, New Hampshires, and Easter Eggers (an Araucana/Americauna mutt).  The added benefit was that we got to witness the different growth patterns of each breed, and compare their temperaments too.  It’s a very interesting way to go.


first adventure onto grass


Once the days got hot and the chicks grew enough feathers, we introduced them to grass.  They stayed secure in their coop when we were away at work during the day, but when we came home we’d put them in a big blue tub and haul them back to the garden (the most predator-proof part of the yard).  Here they’d spend the last few hours before sunset in a little wire run we made that was about twice as big as their coop set-up.  This gave them a chance to run around chasing each other, catching bugs, and simply stretching out.  They were quickly outgrowing their tiny set-up in the coop.


We call this phase “gutter chick”


At this point our work schedules changed and one of us was home every day.  Because we were around to hear any possible distress calls, the chicks spent most of their days outside in the run.  We also gave them an hour or so of “free-flap time” each night when we’d tip over the run and the chicks would explode in every direction.  They lived for free-flap!!  They got some serious exercise flying around, but they were also ready and eager to get back to their coop as the sun went down.  (Of course at this point it meant they were ready to get back in the blue bucket so we could carry them back to the coop!)


this is like middle school…so awkward


Eventually the chicks were big enough and feathered out enough to spend all day outside foraging, not enclosed in a run (we’re lucky to have a 4-foot fence around the whole yard, though).  There were enough shrubs and hidden forts to duck into when the big chicks showed up, and the two flocks still had their separate sleeping quarters.


Tampopo the cat managing his flock



Zeek the cat posing with a fully feathered Araucana


It took the chicks way too long to understand how to use the roosts!   They were far too big to be huddled together at night, yet they would compete for the very bottom spot of the sleeping chick pile.  Thankfully, one night they had a revelation and we took down the partition the day following their first night on the roosts.


all puffed out


Now chicks of all ages sleep together.  Yes, there is quite a lot of yelling as they all settle in for the night, but I’m thinking they’ll all be best friends soon.

ntcwith chicks

No-Tail-Chick acting motherly towards the littler ones


We’re all savoring these last moments of summer before the first frost (which could really be in a month!).  Loving on the flowers, the warmth, the breeze, and that wonderful thing called daylight.

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Sounds of A Summeresque Spring


Since Spring is here in full force (complete with endless to-do lists and lots of being outside until the extremely late sunset), I’m afraid I’ve been inconsistent about writing here.  I love to write, but these days I’m spending more time doubled over in the garden pulling dandelions or crouched on hands and knees inspecting the ground for signs of new emergence.   [I direct seeded California poppies and larkspur a couple weeks ago and still no sign.  Hmmm, should I try again?]  Lucky for us, today is a rainy day and I am back at the keyboard, with a helpful prompt from Gayla at You Grow Girl.

This prompt encourages us to write about the way our garden sounds at the moment.  A very useful exercise; I’m usually so focused on how pretty I want my garden to look to introduce another observational sense with different point of view.


I sat on my back porch and channelled those folks you see sitting on their porches in small towns just staring off into space.  (Honestly no judgment here, just a new culture for me!)  I let go of the work part of the garden and sat back and heard the wind and the birds take over.  Lots of robins–they’re so loud!–and the occasional gang of crows warning the chickens of a hawk overhead.  I respect crows and consider them my babysitters; they do such a great job of keeping the chickens safe when I’m not around, whether they’re just sounding the alarm or actually attacking a  hawk in flight.  Amazing.


Two windchimes keep me company regularly, one on the porch and one hanging from the chicken coop.  On a breezy day both chimes might continually tap just one note in a rhythmic pattern.  Since the leaves have just emerged (only the black walnuts have yet to leaf out) the occasional swoosh of the treetops hushes everything else as a breeze moves through.  It’s the time of year when everything is getting pelted with spent maple flowers.


There’s a woodpecker who now and then lands on the barn roof ridge cap and pecks his heart out on the tin.  At first I thought he might be a little ‘off’.  But sometimes I hear in the distance an equally bizarre woodpecker-on-metal response, and I figure it’s probably more of a communication device than a way to obtain food.  But maybe he’s also finding some tasty bugs who scatter when he makes their eardrums explode (do bugs have eardrums??).


I have to include the sounds of civilization, too: the passing cars, trucks, airplanes, the neighbor on his tractor if it’s a dry day.  And every day at noon we get to hear the air siren from the fire department, which is more of an exciting audible clock than anything else (I love it).  I feel so endlessly lucky to wake up to the sounds of relatively unfettered nature on a daily basis, to hear it as the main tune which the heavy machinery simply punctuates, instead of the other way around.


I was born and raised in an irritable cacophony, obviously not my choice.  I spent my first eighteen years living three miles from National Airport (where the planes start take-off at 6AM), next to a set of railroad tracks that transported West Virginia coal to burn at the power plant two blocks away.  The house still sits at an intersection of the busy GW Parkway where traumatic car accidents occur too often.  That horribly familiar crunching of metal followed by pedestrian witnesses yelling “Sh**!  One of the last times I was back home a police chase ended in that intersection, with the officer standing on top of the accused person right in the middle of the road, with his gun drawn until back-up arrived.


I am still haunted by those echoes when I’m out in my beautiful garden in the middle of nowhere, with the city so far away.  Now I get to hear birds singing and leaves brushing up against each other; I am in awe that the world can be as pristine as it is right here.


I am so lucky to eat food from my garden and breathe clean air in this place.  Here in my adopted home things look and sound so beautiful, I can’t help but breathe deeply and play in the garden as much as possible.  A good move for me, and I am reminded of that every day, even in the quietude of winter.

So here’s to Summer, with its many sweet sounds of life unfolding!


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My Garden Mentor

The prompt from Gayla at You Grow Girl to write about my garden mentor was surprisingly difficult for me.  I tossed different people over and over in my head and came to the initial conclusion that I don’t have any gardening mentors.  Well, at least not any nearby.  Or that I’ve met.  I mean, I read a lot of gardening books.

I have read a lot of gardening books.  I count Gene Logsdon as a mentor, but he doesn’t know who I am.  And then–lucky for this post–came that dose of reality, whereupon my naive, egotistical self realizes that it’s not my outstanding creativity or intuition that led me to dig a garden with the confidence that I could fill it with plants (although that would certainly be awesome).   My plant knowledge was handed down to me, so I better show some respect!

Annie was my first garden mentor.  She taught me how to plant a seed and install drip tape and run a water line from the pump in the creek to the berry patch.  And stake tomatoes, brew beer, and raise chickens.  And identify elderflowers while driving 60 mph on the highway.  Oh, and eat a real breakfast.

Peppers from Lucky Moon Farm

Annie, being as driven and determined as she was (apparent in these harvesting-by-headlamp photos), wasn’t the most hands-on mentor unless I was overcooking my eggs.  Since she always had fifteen important tasks happening urgently all at once, she usually would tell me what to do but not necessarily show me.  Even when there was time for them, her demonstrations were hurried; she’d explain something in as few words as she thought necessary and then go hop on the tractor with earmuffs and head down the mile-long driveway to mow.  I’d head off to my appointed task with a walkman and a rotating stock of herb conference cassette tapes.

Ann Mooney with Peppers

I had just finished college the year before meeting Annie, spending four wonderfully long years sitting in rooms discussing things and reading like my life depended on it.  I was utterly inexperienced with anything having to do with gardening or self-sufficiency.  Yet despite my graduate condition, Annie took me on as an apprentice and threw me right into the chaos of her 100-acre solo farm adventure.  Not gonna lie, learning to grow plants and “garden” on this scale was extremely stressful.  I was overwhelmed with to-do lists and constantly paranoid of doing things wrong (I was “in charge” of the berry patch and cluelessly brought the black raspberry bushes to their knees).  But to give myself some credit, there was a learning curve.

I knew nothing except city life and studying when I arrived on Annie’s land.   After just one growing season, however, I departed with practical knowledge and an intense commitment to growing plants wherever I landed.  I had also worked my way through about twenty herb conferences.  I had more gardening knowledge than all my friends and family combined, which isn’t saying a lot (but it’s saying something about my background!).

Perhaps it was because Annie was always so busy that I learned mostly by doing, rather than by sitting and reading, or being too nervous to dive in.  Planting my first seeds ever, with no supervision and only the most basic instructions (“don’t forget to label the rows”), seemed insane and destined for failure.  Yet against all odds, those seeds germinated and I was hooked.  A seed’s will to live trumps everything.  My lack of experience was not the end of the world, and my self-doubt was unnecessary.  I was still just a human planting a seed, in the long history of humans planting seeds.  Thank you, Annie, for the opportunity to trust my innate gardener.  Thank you for sharing your trust in Nature.

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Violets for Magpie

Amidst all the growth and sunshine here in springtime, there had to be a balance, I guess.  


Our increasingly headstrong male duck (pictured above) attacked me one night when I tried to get him and his lady into their coop.  I know it sounds pathetic to be attacked by a duck, but he was relentless, for real!  That was it for me…I decided to just let them sleep outside if he was going to be a jerk like that.

The whole set up worked great.  Magpie was laying her eggs outside in a nest she dug under the lilac bush (a great spot that kept the eggs cool and shaded in the heat of the day) and Man-duck abandoned his interest in kicking my ass.  The homestead was once again peaceful.  But then, as all sad stories go, Magpie was nowhere to be found one morning, until I finally discovered her remains in a corner of the yard.  Any predation on the animals you keep is heartwrenching.


But in a sappy sort of way, the wild violets began blooming the same afternoon.   So subtle and cute and understated (just like Magpie), they comforted me in understanding that the earth has these patterns…things die, things come alive, things fade, and new things bloom.


The backyard is now filled with violets blooming (somewhat of a consolation to me, but Man-duck is pretty lonely without a duck friend these days).  I often find him calling out to ducks flying by, and I wonder if he’ll fly off with them or perhaps attract a new young lady.  We’re in the process of finding him a new home, but in the meantime–and entirely on his own volition–he’s been going to bed with the chickens at night.  After the chicks have settled themselves on the roosts, he waddles up the ramp to the coop and tucks himself into the straw under the nest boxes.  What a sweet, agreeable guy all of a sudden.


And in homage to Magpie–or maybe because there’s a weird creature sharing their home now–the chickens have abandoned their nice man-made nest boxes and have started to lay in Magpie’s old earthen nest.


But I won’t dwell on the sad news.

Around the garden, the all the spring flowers are really spectacular.  Tons of flowers that I didn’t even plant, and some I didn’t even discover until last year (I had probably weedwacked them all unknowingly) are in full bloom.   I absolutely love that I get to see this guy every spring, the snakes-head fritillary:


And thank god these delicate vinca were established before we got chickens, because chicken claws wage war on them every day:


The bleeding heart, another one that has been here long before me, just forming its bloom:


The peonies have begun to unfurl:


As far as things I did plant, last fall I invested in a bunch of narcissus bulbs with the intention of ramping up the  spring out here.  I’m so glad I did, it really steps it all up a notch; I’m already thinking about other colors to add next year.  Not sure if I’ll ever reach that “enough” point now!


We’ve got a blend of “Thalia” a tall white one, and “Katie Heath,” a more diminutive narcissus with a pale pink cup.  I like her.


A couple years ago for John’s birthday I got him a magnolia tree.  Last year we had one flower.  This year we have…one flower.  Maybe two next year?  I guess we’ll have to wait and see!  I should think of it more as a gift to the future generations that occupy this plot of land.  An old magnolia tree sure is magnificent.


The little asian pear is blooming too.  Last year when it was in bloom we got almost a foot of snow.  But I don’t think that’s quite possible this year, although a frost still is.


 As for the edibles, the Des Morges Braun lettuce is almost harvestable:


The kale has just a little longer to go: :)


I think I’ll put parsley in the ground today:


And another development I’m pretty excited about, a new compost bin!  This one is chicken-powered.


I kind of dread turning compost, so much so that I don’t really do it but once a year.  It’s a little awkward and I always have to negotiate these unwieldy and rather dangerous scraps of fencing that I use to contain the pile.  Normally a skunk drags most of the food out of the fencing each night and litters it all around the bin.  But this one seems great already (very attractive to chickens as well as to me!), and the chickens already love to scratch around in it even though there’s not many “greens” in it yet.  We’re going to keep bones out of the pile so the skunk doesn’t become a very close neighbor again (and so chickens don’t get a taste for chicken…sorry, I know it’s a bit gross but I couldn’t help myself on that one!). :)

Well, and I hope this post finds everyone swimming in the hope of flowers.




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A (Way Early) Spring Garden (Lesson)

Gayla from You Grow Girl prompted the Grow Write Guild with another topic, What does your garden look like right now?


Mostly brown, actually.  A little green thrown in there, and the scattered flower.  But mostly crusty old leaves and broken straw mulch.  And the remnants of a long maple season.


It’s surprisingly difficult to see my garden as it is now.  I always have big plans for it and spend the winter drawing map after map and perusing seed catalogs until I’ve memorized what my garden is going to (theoretically) look like in its full productive glory.


When I walk through the garden at this sparse time of year I’m definitely not present in it; I’m usually wondering what I had planned to put in that sunny spot over there or visualizing all the places I’m going to broadcast poppies.  When I look out over the garden,  I really just see a stimulating to-do list.


It’s funny how not-pretty I think these photos are.  Compared to the garden I currently see in my imagination, this one is straight up desolate.  I want to see activity, growth, and bright colors, without accepting the reality that we just lived the last 6 months below freezing.  I’m realizing how uncomfortable I am in this time of transition…somehow, I think at the end of a long winter should be late August.


I’m working on accepting, slowly, being here in Early Spring.  Robins, red-winged blackbirds, a kingfisher, and chipping sparrows all seem to be feeling the season fully.  Even a colony of mildly annoying starlings have set up an apartment complex in the soffett outside our bedroom window (soon there will be babies).  Lots of bird-chasing-bird action.  There’s really a lot happening in the garden; I just have to look a lot closer.


That’s the mesclun mix I direct seeded a couple weeks ago.  First time trying this out.  Normally direct-seeding doesn’t work so well in our shady and moist garden, but perhaps the ducks are really proving themselves as slug control?  (I could be jinxing myself here.)


That’s Arnica chamissonis, coming back for another year.  I’ve yet to make arnica oil or tincture from this American native (only from the populated-in-places European A. montana), but perhaps this is the year, since it’s looking great!  It’s way more vigorous than most things this time of year, and perhaps it’s a good healing sign: John just dislocated his shoulder, and we’ll probably need a good stock of this lovely anti-inflammatory plant around.

Another member of the Aster family, Coltsfoot, or Tussilago farfara is one of the few flowers around about now.  These fuzzy little yellow guys are blooming right in the stream-bank, before their leaves come up.  The leaves are used medicinally as a cough remedy, typically made into tea or smoked.

Back on cultivated land, the lilac buds are swelling.


And our very first daffodil, barely unfurled.


The snazzy bulbs and the medicinal herbs poking up reminded me that there’s a special treat in the woods behind my house, a stand of bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis, that I spotted a couple years ago.  Last year I missed the ephemeral bloom, which I was determined to never miss again.  It might be the prettiest native flower, which blooms when almost nothing else is in early spring, deep in the woods amongst leaves and fallen trees and a whole lot of brown.  Maybe it’s just relatively pretty.  But it’s beautiful.  Remembering the bloodroot, I set out into the woods searching for flowers.  I wandered for a bit until I almost stepped on them.


It’s in the poppy family; you can tell by how pretty the flower is!  They opened that afternoon.


bloodroot2 bloodroot3 bloodroot4

Okay, I admit it, I ditched the garden for the woodland because there was a pretty thing blooming there.  I’m constantly pulled toward the eye candy, glossing over the empty brown stuff that is the soil, which is meanwhile coming alive with worms, frogs, snakes, microbes, and mycorrhizae (everything that will eventually produce a healthy garden).  Maybe those straw-covered garden photos aren’t so desolate after all, just under-appreciated by an impatient gardener.



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Lettuce in the Ground


I planted out some lettuce!  It may be a bit too early, but who really cares if it makes it–lettuce is in the ground!


Perhaps I’m ahead of myself.

Nah.  It’s a decently hardy variety, Des Morges Braun from Switzerland, that I’ve hardened off for a week or so.  I feel confident that they’re ready for some low temps, and for the next week here it’s supposedly going to be in the 60′s without freezing at night.  I think they’ll acclimate nicely.

On a whim I also planted out several Reine des Glaces head lettuces in some open spots, without hardening them off at all.  Perhaps I’ll see a contrast in the transplant shock.


These particular lettuces had some serious-looking root systems that warranted either potting up or planting out, so I chose the latter.  Spring has arrived, and I just had to put some plants in the soil to kick off the season.


white crocuses

The crocuses are blooming, most of which I planted just this last fall by scattering fist-fulls of them in the front yard in a rather random way.  They just turned up in sweet little clusters, looking almost like little fairy footprints meandering from the front door.   I love seeing them open during the day.  Even if we dive into a cold spell again (which we inevitably will, no matter how hard I may deny it), at least we’ve seen some flowers in bloom.

purple crocuses


The daffodils are about to burst as well, looking nice and robust:



Even the ones swimming in a thick carpet of ivy seem to be doing great.



And always a welcome sight in a snow-less garden, the lovely indestructible mache.  I harvested a few handfuls today for a salad tomorrow.  This stuff is amazing for so many reasons.



The shallots are up too!  I ended up planting some of our red shallots from last year despite the garlic bloat nematode problem with our garlic.  The shallots were grown in a separate bed, and I really think the nematode was a seed-borne problem rather than a soil-borne one.  We’ll see.  It’s a risk I’m willing to take to have a prolific shallot harvest this year.

I also bought a pound of grey shallots to plant for the first time.  I read that they have a superior flavor to the red shallot–and you know how I love tasty food–and I also wanted to ensure at least a small harvest in case the red shallots rot in the ground from nematode infestation (and indefinitely contaminate my garden soil).  But I’m going to stay optimistic.


I typically plant the red shallot bulbs in Fall.  Although I couldn’t find any information ensuring their hardiness, I read that the grey shallots don’t keep as well as red shallots; I decided to go ahead and plant them in Fall as well, rather than risk them rotting in storage.  I’m happy to report that they are winter hardy up here in Zone 4/5!  So to everyone who is curious like I was: grey shallots can withstand the winter (at least down to -12 degrees Fahrenheit) with a thick straw mulch and will come out of dormancy in Spring with the same vigor as the rest of the Allium clan.   They do have a wispier appearance than the stocky red shallots.


Everything is stirring now.  It’s so nice to see new growth.  One of my favorite spring flowers is emerging as we speak: the columbine.


How uniquely does this plant unfurl?!  I love the deep purple color and its ruffly leaves, almost cabbage-y.


This early leafy growth might be prettier than the flowers!

Well, that’s what’s happening in the garden for now…soon there will be more.  Can’t wait.

chickenbooty (2)

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Dream Garden

“Sometimes our life reminds me
of a forest in which there is a graceful clearing
and in that opening a house,
an orchard and garden,
comfortable shades, and flowers
red and yellow in the sun, a pattern
made in the light for the light to return to.”

-Wendell Berry, from The Country of Marriage

Gayla of You Grow Girl just furnished the Grow Write Guild with another dreamy prompt: Your Dream Garden.


My dream garden is in progress.  I have so many plants I adore right now, and a sweet plot of land that echoes Wendell Berry’s clearing in the woods. It’s constantly morphing.  Just a couple days ago we were about to host a potluck, and our path to the garden was too much of an unsafe eyesore to invite visitors down (sparsely grassed, muddy, slippery, gouged with bootprints).  I decided to put my pot roast on hold and create a completely new garden path in the space of an hour.  I didn’t think I’d pull it off so gracefully, but it happened!  Instead of attempting to be grass-covered in full shade, the new one is strictly woodland.  The path itself is laid with spongy strips of bark, a byproduct of chopping firewood nearby.  It snakes around a towering spruce with an exposed trunk, under an arching redbud, and arrives at a clearing that is the entrance to the garden.  It’s magical, even in late winter before anything has begun to stir.  My dream garden is coming alive.


It’s more the atmosphere of a garden that I dream about, the feeling of being in a calm and beautiful place.  A lushness I’m in pursuit of.  The mossy woodland slopes, the blue of the leeks and morning glories, the pastel pink of the giant zinnias, the soft dewyness of the nasturtiums in the morning.  Crunchy apples hanging heavy from the standard trees we planted in 2010.  Giant slicing tomatoes that somehow thrive in partial shade in Zone 4-5.  A black spot-free rose garden.  Chicks and ducks foraging everywhere except the places they’re not supposed to.


Endless varieties of songbirds will share a visit every day, decimating the potato beetles and cabbage loopers until every leaf is vibrant with deep green unhindered growth.  Dozens of hummingbirds will zip along the softly swaying monarda and families of pileated woodpeckers will watch from the woods’ edge.


For now, a junco


To round out the dream, every extravagantly gourmet meal we eat will come entirely from our backyard.  There will be so much extra produce beyond those delicious meals that we will stock our pantry to the gills and still give away hundreds of pounds of food.  The tastiest food, at that (you know, heirloom lettuces and Rose Finn Apple potatoes).   An infinite number of herbs will be at the ready, too.  Plant medicine will cure everything that ails our bodies while building the health of the soil here and in the larger regional ecosystem.   They will stretch prolifically from the shade of the sugar maples to the full sun of the strawberries, nestling themselves amongst plants that haven’t yet set foot in my garden but will find themselves here in the not-so-bleak-after-all future.   In my dream garden I realize what an abundant place this has always been and will continue to be, undeterred.



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