And a Porcupine in a Pear Tree

This would not make a great Christmas present, but it’s what you get here at Phoenix Farm:  a porcupine in a pear tree.  This little guy is quite young, still growing its big quills.  There have been several porcupines feeding on the fruit dropping from trees in our orchards.  Most of the critters stick to the apple trees.  This one is braver.  The pear trees are the closest to the house.  Pears must be really delicious for the porcupine to risk contact with humans and dogs to feast on the fruit.

Porcupines remind me of sloths.  They seem almost in slow motion most of the time.  Their eyesight is poor, as well.  It is no wonder so many dogs go to the vet to have quills removed.  The only defenses these animals have are quills and the ability to slowly climb trees.  Every time I take the dogs out in the orchard I have to check for porkies on the ground.  Often, there is one sitting and munching fruit.  I talk loudly, sometimes have to clap to be heard, and the rodent ambles to a tree then hauls itself ten to fifteen feet up where it sits and peeks down at intruders.

Here is the working end of the rodent, the back end and tail.  Porcupines lash their tails to implant quills.  Older porcupines have backs bristling with long whitish quills.  When I worked as a vet tech, I spent many hours removing quills from the mouths of hapless dogs.  Sometimes we’d see the same dogs two or three times in a row, and they still didn’t learn to leave the porkies alone.

So far this fall our dog Max has gotten a few quills in his nose while trying to smell a bristling rodent.  Luckily, they were easy for us to pull out. I’ve seen dogs with hundreds of quills embedded in their mouths.  They need to be put under anesthesia to remove the quills in a time consuming operation that can get quite expensive.  One vet I worked with used to joke that he kept a porcupine ranch and released a new batch whenever he needed extra cash flow.

If you have a fruit orchard and find piles of chewed up fruit chunks lying around, you have a porcupine at work.  How the rodents get any sort of nutrition out of their method of consuming fruit is beyond me.  They seem to just enjoy slicing the fruit into piles.  Maybe they are after the juice?  The fruit wasps (at right center above) appreciate the porcupine’s work.  The wasps have been gorging themselves on pears until they fall into stupors, too full to fly away.

This has been such a good fruit year that even after I’ve harvested all we need, there is still plenty on the trees and ground for the wildlife.  The fruit attracts deer, bears, coyotes, turkeys, various rodents and several species of song birds.  And I must not forget how my flock of chickens hurries to eat under the trees every day when they are released to free range.  The abundance is short-lived.  In a few weeks all the fallen fruit will be consumed.  It’s nice that I never have to rake drops in the orchard.


Killing Frost

Tonight we are supposed to get our first killing frost.  I hurried to harvest as much of the cold sensitive crops as possible.  Here are some beautiful rainbow chard leaves I picked today.  As I was cleaning them for dinner, I thought the colors were so pretty they should be shared.  Chard is a fairly hardy plant.  I hope to get at least one more harvest of these in October, if it doesn’t get too cold.  These even look nice in the kettle.  Sadly, much of the color is lost when the leaves are cooked.  As I write this I’m eating the chard with a little salt and butter.  So good!

The tomatoes did very well this year.  I rescued the last few that have hope of ripening.  A few green ones will go to the chickens.  They love tomatoes.  I got several large purple sweet peppers this summer.  These smaller ones managed to mature to the right color even if they aren’t very big.  The pumpkin crop was a disappointment.  The pie pumpkins and little decorative ones developed several fruits, but the large field pumpkins died.  Not sure what happened there.  Maybe the squash bugs killed them.  There was an abundance of bugs this year.

I also picked several bouquets of nasturtiums and marigolds.  Once touched by the frost, the lovely blooms will all wither.  I always miss my summer flower gardens when the season is over.  Next year I will try starting seeds indoors in the spring.  That should give me earlier flowers.



We did it!  We grew nectarines!  The first harvest is in.  Fifteen fruit.  They are delicious, tree ripened and juicy.  The flavor is reminiscent of peach combined with apricot, a touch of some sweet, fragrant flower and honey.  I had to toss out almost as many as I kept.  The bugs seem to really like nectarines, too.  Since I grow everything organically, I didn’t apply any sort of bug killer this year to see how well the tree would produce without any help.

The five-year-old baby nectarine tree set its first fruit this year.  It had an abundant crop.  In June after the tiny fruit were showing, I stripped more than half off the limbs.  Removing any fruit trying to grow toward the ends of the young limbs and thinning so no limb had a lot of fruit, I hoped to aid the tree in ripening a decent crop without putting too much strain on it.

The photo above was taken after I had harvested most of the fruit.  I made sure the heavy nectarines would all be supported around the central, stronger part of the tree.  The fruit only reached the size of large apricots.  I’m not sure if that is their normal size, or if they are small because there were still too many for the tree to handle.

I noticed early in the summer that some insect was biting the fruit and causing it to bleed.  Whatever did that didn’t leave any lasting impression.  There are no tunnels or misshapen places on the nectarines.  After the fruit was ripe, the bugs really closed in.  A small black beetle with yellow stripes busily chewed little holes.  The fruit wasps and fruit flies were quickly attracted to the open wounds.  While I was harvesting, a white admiral butterfly kept landing on the nectarines.  Butterflies like the juices of many fruits.  At least the deer don’t seem attracted to the tree.

Even with all the competition, we have a very satisfactory first result from this tree.  If we’re lucky, the tree with continue to thrive in our chilly, short season northern climate.  I’m hoping next year there will be enough fruit to make some nectarine jam.  Yum!

In the July Garden

It’s July, with lots of heat, humidity and showers, so the garden’s growing fast.  The wax beans have taken over their area and are full of blooms.  In about a week I should start harvesting beans to can for winter.  The corn did better than knee-high, it was belly button high for the Fourth of July!  The stalks are beginning to tassel.

The field pumpkins, pie and mini pumpkins are all enjoying the long, warm days.  They are rapidly spreading to fill any empty space in the garden.  I’ve seen a  few squash bugs and cucumber beetles, not as bad as some years.  Could be the plentiful rain does not agree with them.

I just finished the first thinning of the carrots, much to the rabbits’ delight.  The carrots and rainbow chard are coming along nicely.  Soon I will enjoy the first chard harvest.  Excessive rain when the chard was sprouting caused it to germinate spottily.  I will seed the empty space in the row with carrots.  They still have plenty of time to mature before fall.

The strange tendril peas are very happy growing up along the garden fence.  They are covered in blooms and will soon make the most delicious fresh peas for eating right in the garden.  The peas rarely make it up to the house to be cooked.  They are too yummy raw.

Purple peppers are starting to grow well now after a slow start.  Two were chewed off by something.  Both stems continued to live and are putting on leaves again.  Hoping to get at least one pepper each from those two damaged plants.  As you can see, I still have plenty of weeding to do!

This year the tomato patch is nice and orderly, not a jungle at all.  The plants climb up inside their cages, supported off the ground.  They already are producing lots of fruit.  I can hardly wait for my first taste of garden ripe tomato.

Now, if only the sunny weather with adequate rain continues.  And no hail storms wander our way as they did up in northern Maine a few days ago.  Quarter-sized hail hammered the area just below Moosehead Lake.  That kind of hail is devastating to gardens (and everything else in its path!)

Rooting Lilac

There is a lovely late lilac that perfumes my entire yard this time of year.  Long after the other lilacs have finished, this one is going strong.  The fragrance is so powerful that only one spray of flowers is necessary to scent an entire room.

I would love to have more than one plant so I can space them around the property.  Usually lilac is easy to propagate by digging up the rooted shoots that emerge around the base of adult plants.  This particular lilac sends all the shoots off the main branches.  I decided to try potting some shoots to see if they would root.

Lilac is rooted from new shoots, not year-old wood.  Choose the new, green growth right after the plant ends blooming.  As you can see, my late lilac is beginning to fade so I figured the time was close enough to harvest shoots.  I cut several about 8″-10″ long.  I stripped all the leaves except the ones at the tip.  Roots will emerge from the nodes where there were once branches.  I trimmed the shoots to leave a node at the bottom of the shoot and one extra along the length.  This gives the plant two chances to root.  I also trimmed most of the area of the remaining leaves.  The plant puts a lot of energy into maintaining leaves so reducing the leaves will allow the plant a better chance to root.

To increase rooting, the shoots show be dipped in rooting hormone.  I was fresh out of this, so I substituted by dipping the shoots in honey then rolling them in cinnamon.  Both these substances are natural antiseptics.  They should help to head off growth of fungus until the shoots start to form roots.  After coating the entire length of the shoot that would be under dirt, I used a small stick to form a hole in the potting soil, then inserted the shoot in the soil to cover the highest node intended for rooting.  Finally, I gave the shoots a good drink and covered the entire pot in clear plastic.  The plastic will retain humidity, helping the shoots to keep hydrated until they root.  With any luck, I will have some baby late lilacs to plant next spring!


Garden In

I got the garden in about 10 days ago and things are starting to sprout.  This is the most exciting time in gardening for me:  the babies emerging.  We’ve had plenty of rain, although it’s not been as warm and sunny as most plants like until just recently.  A couple days of sun really made the seedlings pop.  Before I tilled the garden I saved the volunteers, little plants that sprouted from seeds produced last fall.  I got a volunteer sunflower, a head lettuce and two bachelor buttons.

The started plants I buy at a greenhouse are also in. This year I purchased Early Girl tomatoes and purple sweet peppers.  The tomatoes may look innocent right now but before long they will become a jungle.  This year I got some tomato cages which I will set soon.  These are designed to hold recumbent plants up in the air, keeping the fruit cleaner and elevating them out of the reach of rodents (hopefully!)

Something just happened to one of the little pepper plants.  There were six yesterday morning, but in the afternoon one had been nipped off about one inch above the surface and the leaves were left scattered to wizen on the ground.  I’m hoping the stub remaining might continue to grow.

Not sure what would have pulled a stunt like this.  There are no tracks, no evidence of the perpetrator of this crime. 

The corn is just emerging, the sprouts about 2″ tall.  With luck it will reach eight feet and produce two ears per stalk of indian corn for fall decorating.  The weather has been a bit chilly and damp for corn.  The crop likes heat and high humidity.  June is usually full of that sort of weather.  I hope so.  I need these to be knee high by the Fourth of July.

This year I’ve planted lots of wax bush beans.  They are emerging well.  Sure hope the pepper murderer doesn’t start on them!  I want to can a couple dozen pints of beans this year if the plants cooperate.  Here is a baby bean just beginning to unfold.

Once more I’ve planted those strange tendril peas.  My granddaughters and I love to eat the peas raw right off the vine.  These peas are masses of curling tendrils with hardly any leaves.  They hold on to each other and don’t require supports to grow off the ground.  I’ve planted mine right beside the garden fence.  They will quickly grab onto the slats and haul themselves all the way to the top.  These pea sprouts are about one inch high.

My garden is planted to three types of pumpkins:  field for Halloween, small, sweet ones for pie and mini Jacks for fall decorating.  So far the field pumpkins have begun emerging.  These can take a couple weeks to come up, with the mini ones being the slowest to germinate.

Rainbow chard is up.  These babies are about an inch high.  They grow to over a foot long in no time.  Can hardly wait, I love me some fresh steamed chard! Or raw in salad, or blanched with a little salt and butter.  Hmm, I’m starting to get hungry.  The rainbow selection is a mix of three different plant stem colors, white, red and orange.A surprise was that the carrots are also up.  It usually takes them the longest to sprout, sometimes over two weeks.  These guys are in a hurry, I guess.  Probably the ample moisture from the excessive rain has brought them on quickly.  The carrots are the light green plants.  There are also baby crab grass and one little pig weed among the carrots.  Also, there is what appears to be a white caterpillar wandering by.  Could this be the suspect in the pepper murder???  Not too likely; caterpillars usually eat leaves.Beyond vegetables, I’ve planted some flower seeds to bring a little color to the garden.  There are sunflowers planted along the perimeter.  Also, I dropped in some nasturtiums, marigolds and zinnias.  The flowers encourage bees and butterflies to visit as well as brightening the space.  The flowers have not sprouted yet.

There are feathers in a few of the photos.  These came from the chicken manure I spread on the vegetable patch last fall.  Chicken fertilizer is great for the garden.  It’s got a good nitrogen content and very few weed seeds.  Since I substituted chicken for horse manure in the garden, there has been a noticeable reduction in weeds.  Chicken manure=happy plants and a happy gardener!


Baby Nectarine

Anyone with an orchard full of nectarines, please have patience with me.  This is my first nectarine.  These trees are not common in the northern clime of central Maine.  My baby nectarine has now survived four winters and appears to be thriving.  This is the first year it’s had flowers.  The variety is from Stark Bros, a Stark Crimson Gold, self-pollinating, heat tolerant, cold hardy and ripening fruit in July.  I can hardly wait to eat them!

The tree is about eight to nine feet tall.  The branches are covered with blooms.  Not sure how many of these will turn to fruit.  I suspect the fruit may require thinning. It is especially hard on a young tree to have a heavy fruit burden.The blossoms are large and have a light musk scent.  I thought they’d smell like apple flowers, but no.  Such a gorgeous pink display for the orchard!  This tree is attracting ruby-throated hummingbirds.  Soon the pears, apples, cherries and blueberries will all be in full bloom, plenty of food for hummingbirds. I stopped providing sugar feeders for hummingbirds due to the threat of the feeders becoming infected with fungus that can kill the birds.  If feeders aren’t cleaned religiously they can get contaminated.  I realized I couldn’t keep up with the necessary cleaning schedule.  Luckily, there is a good natural food supply for the birds here at the farm.

News From The Farm

Spring is in full swing here at the farm.  The primroses, daffodils, narcissus and hyacinths are all blooming.  It must have been a fairly mild winter compared to the winter before last.  I do remember some bitterly cold weather in December of 2017 before we got snow cover.  The flowers were not so impressive last spring as they are this year.  The bulbs are strong and both the star magnolia and the forsythia are in full flower.  Last year there were only about a dozen flowers on the forsythia.  This year it’s gorgeous.

One of the two baby mountain ash trees I planted last spring survived the winter.  It’s looking pretty happy about its spot on the side of the hill that supports our driveway.  Luckily the voles and field mice did not nibble the mountain ash over the winter.  The same can not be said for the expensive crabapple tree I planted two years ago.  Even though I wound a plastic tree protector around it last fall, after giving it a good covering with white paint, the voles still got at it.  They pushed the plastic out of the way and gnawed off large amounts of bark from the first 2 feet of trunk.  I don’t think the tree will live.

Last year we suffered from an over population of field rodents.  They attacked grown apple trees, killing a couple dozen, and chewed up large regions of grass roots in the hayfield leaving bare patches.  I read that painting the lower parts of the fruit trees with white latex paint will repel rodents.  This past winter the rodent population must have been down.  We’re not seeing grass damage like last year, nor as much tree chewing.  But several apple trees that I sprayed white with paint were chewed.  Looks like the rodents just scratch away the bark until the paint is gone then proceed with devouring the tree.  They sure devoured my crabapple.  Nothing ventured, nothing gained is the old adage, but I spent over $100 on paint for the trees, plus my time and effort to apply it, to no avail.The horses, Vista and Maddie, are happy to see green grass!  Especially since their hay is almost gone.  The weather has been quite chilly, slowing the growth of grass and causing us to use more hay than usual.  It’s great to finally have enough grass to sustain two hungry horses.

Vista (on the left) is now 30 years old.  It is possible this is her last summer.  She is really beginning to show her age.  We may have to put her away in the fall to avoid having to deal with a down horse next winter.  A sad time for me.  Vista has been with me since she was 10 months old.  She has always been a loving, loyal, hardworking and willing animal.  A wonderful saddle horse, we have spent many memorable hours together including two trips to the carriage trails of Acadia National Park.  I will sure miss the old girl.

New Baby Fig

My beautiful four-foot high fig tree died because it got too chilled during winter storage so I bought a baby that arrived a few months ago.  The the tree was about a foot high.  I potted it and put it in the south window of my kitchen.  After a month or so the baby had established roots and started to sprout leaves.  Then it did what figs do, it set tiny fruit.

I figured the fruit would wither and die on such a small plant.  But, no.  They are getting larger and more fruit are setting!  It is so exciting to think of growing fresh figs right in my kitchen.  I’m considering making this into a bonsai tree so it stays small and can grow in the house.  It is one of the smaller-sized cultivars so perhaps keeping it in the house will work.  The lengths I’m willing to go to just to have fresh figs in Maine!

Carrot Tops

Bunnies love greens, everyone knows that!  They especially need greens during the dark, cold days of winter.  Munching greens gives rabbits vitamins they need in a natural way.  Plus, they are delicious for bunnies.  Affording greens to feed hungry mouths in winter is another matter.

In the past my grocery store carried dandelion greens and they were right on the edge of what I could pay to keep the livestock satisfied.  This year they have no dandelions.  I’ve been substituting parsley, but that gets expensive.  The idea of growing my own greens became very attractive.  So I started an experiment.

The tops of carrots are generally cut off and tossed when preparing supper.  These are not wasted at our house, they go to the horses.  Sometimes the carrot tops will actually start growing in storage in the fridge.  I thought, why not try sprouting them for the bunnies?

So I cut off the top inch of a dozen carrots.  Roots grow from the eyes on the side of the tap root that is a carrot, so at least an inch is needed to provide enough eyes to support the sprouts.  I stuck the roots in a large pot of soil, put it in the south window and kept watered.  In a few days green began appearing at the tops.  It is slow going at first as the carrots develop roots.  Soon there will be a good feathery growth of sprouts.

The tap root will not regrow.  The pot provides plenty of room for this experiment.  If left to develop, these tops will eventually flower and produce seeds.

I’ll wait until there are lots of stems before cutting a few at a time for my angoras.  Now that I see how easy it is to grow carrots tops, I’m going to start a second pot as well.  These should get the rabbits through until spring arrives with its abundance of green treats.