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Velvetleaf

Here is a new plant to me, one I’ve never seen on our farm or anywhere else.  I discovered this foot-tall specimen growing in the turf near the gate to the horse paddock.

A search with Google images led to identification as Velvetleaf, Chinese jute or Indian mallow, a member of the mallow family native to China and possibly India.  It was brought to America in the early 1700s for use as a fiber source in rope manufacture.

Since then the plant has escaped into the wild and become a pest of various crops, particularly corn and soybeans.  It seems to have several scientific names, the most common being Abutilon theophrasti.  Velvetleaf is edible and in Asia the plant and seeds are part of native cuisine.  

The velvet name is due to the very soft texture of the heart-shaped leaves.  Feels almost like moleskin it is so fine.  The large, strange seed pods or fruit attracted my attention.  The plant also has yellow-orange flowers up to 1″ across.  All the flowers were closed on the specimen I found.

I suspect the seed for this plant either dropped off the tractor of the local farmer who helps me spread manure or possibly came in grain for the chickens or horses.  Velvetleaf is found in midwestern cornfields and a tough-coated seed could have sneaked into the processed grain then passed through an animal’s digestive system intact.

Following my policy of identifying any new plants found on the farm, I realized Velvetleaf would be an unwelcome addition.  It is a prolific seeder, highly competitive with other plants.  The last thing I need is another invasive weed.  I pulled little Velvetleaf and popped it in the garbage before the seeds could mature.

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Dodge Point Reserve, Newcastle, ME

Recently, we celebrated our wedding anniversary with an afternoon strolling the lovely trails of Dodge Point Public Reserved Land on the tidal Damariscotta River in Newcastle, Maine.  We visited near low tide so much of the river banks were exposed.

The reserve incorporates 521 acres of mostly wooded land with over 8000 ft of river frontage.  The land was once a tree farm and is circled by an easily hiked two-mile long roadway once used for the farm.  It is aptly named Old Farm Road.  Several trails branch from the road to access the interior of the property.  Below, my husband Tim invites us to step into the woods.

The trail quickly leaves the hot summer sun for the deep, quiet shade of fairly thick forest with many huge, old growth oaks that somehow escaped the chainsaws.  A passage beneath the trees in late August involves the sound of periodic disturbances as acorns drop from the high limbs.  I think of Chicken Little and hope no acorn happens to fall on my head.  In many places the forest floor is thick with tiny oak trees about 8-12″ tall, the result of last year’s acorns sprouting.  One in a thousand may survive to become a huge tree some day.

Ice Pond

This land was once divided into several farms in the 1800s.  Old rock walls run through woods that at one time were most likely pasture.  A few minutes hiking brings us to Ice Pond.  The fresh water feature created by damming a small stream provided ice for local residents before the advent of electricity and refrigerators.  Today the pond supports a thriving community of water life and affords a clear swimming hole.  Three painted turtles sunned themselves on a log as we passed by.

After Ice Pond the roadway slowly drops to the river.  In places plantations of tall red pine provide a park-like atmosphere.  Beneath the pines flourishes a healthy growth of ground nut.  This wild relative of the peanut was a food source for native populations millenia ago.  Beyond the pines, a trail leads to the shore.  The Damariscotta River is deep enough for good sized craft to navigate.  At the north end of the shoreline are the remains of a brickworks.  The only evidence of that industry to be found now are the thousands of broken bricks littering the riverside.  In the 18th and 19th centuries red bricks were made here and shipped downstream.

Much of the shoreline is ocean-like due to the brackish water and tidal flows.  The long, gently sloped banks are sand and gravel interspersed by large rocks and the bodies of giant trees felled by the slow erosion.  Tim discovered a gigantic “bouncy tree” his name for tree trunks that spring up and down when jumped upon.

The banks and mudflats support a healthy population of clams as evidenced by the many empty shells.  In places sandy spurs jut into the clear, slow current providing enticing swimming areas for hot days.  We followed the river for several hundred feet before returning to the woods.  Completing the circumnavigation of the preserve brought us back to the parking area.

The beautiful and easily accessed Dodge Point afforded us a delightful escape for our romantic matrimonial celebration.  I think some day soon I will bring the grandchildren to enjoy this place.  Here is a link to a website for the preserve:  http://www.damariscottariver.org/trail/dodge-point-public-reserved-land/

Little Things on a Walk

I set out on a walk to check milkweeds for monarch butterflies.  Sadly, I found no evidence of monarchs on that walk, but there were many small and interesting things to see.  Milkweed is home to more than just monarchs.

The back side of the dam for our farm pond is filled with milkweed.  There is not much evidence of the leaves being eaten, so there are not too many caterpillars munching milkweed.  I did see a Milkweed Tiger Moth caterpillar. I have spotted several monarch butterflies here at the farm this year.  A much better tally than just a few years ago when  I saw none.  Yesterday I watched a monarch flitting around the milkweed so will hunt today for any eggs that may have been laid.

Our farm is overrun by little orange snails.  These first showed up here about ten years ago.  They were brought into the pond by wild ducks and other waterfowl, I assume.  Since then they have spread and become a veritable pestilence.  There were many snails eating milkweed.

I interrupted a wasp couple in the middle of insect lovemaking.  So I guess this photo is x rated?  The wasps demonstrate sexual dimorphism, a difference in size based on gender.  The miniature male is carried around by the female as he does his fertilizing job.

A tiny tree frog, half the length of my thumb, hid in the leaves of a milkweed.  These tree frogs are abundant this year.  Perhaps that is due to the large amount of rain we have received.  Several times I’ve seen baby tree frogs clinging to the outside of our house windows in the evening.  They stare in at us as we stare at them.

There was a most unusual black and white ladybug-type beetle on the milkweed.  I have tried to identify this beetle.  There are so many varieties of ladybugs that I haven’t found this particular one.  I think it is rather striking.

Also found several Reticulated Netwinged beetles.  They look almost like butterflies, but their antennas give away their identity.  These beetles are unusual in that their larvae will band together in huge masses.  The adults are able to excrete defensive chemicals that discourage predators.

Wild honeybee on thistle bloom

Milkweed, golden rod and thistle grow well together, maybe because they are about the same height.  The golden rod were in full bloom and attracting an army of insects.  I saw wild honeybees, bumble bees, wasps and tiny beetles feeding on the golden nectar.  In some places the wild bee population is threatened by whatever is killing the domestic honeybees.  It appears there are no problems with the wild bees here at the farm.  Perhaps having an organic operation is the secret to healthy bees (and other insects!)

Baby Eggs

Here are some of the first eggs laid by my silver splash Ameraucana pullets from the Jan hatch.  The baby eggs are always the best color.  Some of the eggs look big, but this is just a trick of the camera.  They are all small to medium grade sized eggs.

I knew the young hens were ready to lay and have been trying to keep them in the pen during the morning to encourage laying in the nest boxes.  So far they have deposited 4 or 5 on the floor.  For the past few days I’ve been placing hens in nest boxes to show them where to lay.  One hen in particular has found a way to escape the pen.  She is always hanging around waiting to be let back in when I go out to do morning chores.  Today I started to get suspicious about her early morning activities.

Sure enough, after a long search through the hedges and bushes, I found her stolen nest.  There were about two dozen baby eggs deposited there.  I suspect she and her sisters have been using the nest.  So today I will put a new net over the chicken pen to stop the birds from flying out and hiding their eggs.  The pullet in the front of the photo below is the main culprit.  Such naughty little birds!  

 

Solstice Babies

The last brood of chicks for the year hatched yesterday, on the Solstice.  Twenty out of twenty-one developed eggs hatched, a 95% hatch rate. I’m very pleased.  These babies are so cute, active and inquisitive, nice little Silver Ameraucanas.

It’s great to have the hatching done for the year.  No more worry about the power failing, the equipment malfunctioning or needing to add water every day for humidity.  Now I just have to get these little ones through their first week and out in the barn.  Chicks in the house is fun for the first couple days then the smell and dust and cleaning get old quickly.

It is entertaining to watch their antics as the chicks explore and learn.  They are very unsteady on their legs the first couple days, tripping, tumbling, rolling about and staggering off out of control in odd directions.  Quickly, they discover how to control their bodies.  By the end of the first week the birds are getting tiny wing feathers and taking very short flights in the box.  That signals time for the brood to move to a larger cage in the barn.  They can practice flying where there is plenty of room to move.

Before long these twenty will join their older siblings free-ranging around the barnyard.  The second and third hatches total thirty-nine chicks.  The babies of differing ages have blended together all by themselves into a flock.  The older ones seem to delight in leading the younger chicks to all the fascinating corners they have found in the yard.  I’m certain that within three weeks this third hatch will swell the flock’s numbers into an impressive gang of chicks.

Mystery Peas

Finished planting the garden late last week, just before two days of heavy rain.  I’ve put carrots, wax beans, indian corn, beets, field and mini pumpkins, head lettuce, basil, sunflowers, zinnias, bachelor buttons and tomatoes in the ground.  Also, an interesting experiment I’m calling mystery peas.  These are some of a five pound bag of organic whole green peas I bought last winter for sprouting.  Actually, I just soak the peas to rehydrate and eat them raw on salads.  I love the taste of raw peas and in the winter it’s hard to find them.  Soaked dried peas taste almost the same as fresh ones.

On a whim, in the middle of May I grabbed a couple handfuls and with the help of my 5-yr-old granddaughter Lia, planted the peas in a row.  I have no idea what variety they are.  Could be something that isn’t even designed for our short northern growing season.  We will find out.  They are all sprouted and starting to grow.  Usually it is good to plant peas in late April to early May since they like cooler weather, but mid-May is good enough, especially in Maine.  Two nights ago the temps got down to 40.  Brr.  The last few days have been cool, cloudy and damp.

Whole dried peas are usually made into soup, pease porridge or mushy peas, or sprouted.  I tried sprouting peas during the winter.  Pea spouts are great on salad and sandwiches.  They are expensive to buy, so I thought I’d do my own.

I learned that for me, sprouting peas is not worth the effort.  The seeds are sprouted either without soil, which involves keeping them damp in a plastic container and shaking them twice a day, or they are placed in soil and allowed to grow until a good cutting height is reached.  I tried the no soil method.  I ended up with spouts that tasted like roots since they all still had roots.  Pea roots have an earthy flavor, even if they’ve never touched soil.  Not the taste for me.  I’m using up the rest of the 5 pound bag by soaking them overnight in the fridge and eating raw.  Maybe I’ll make some mushy peas, those are good.

While I was checking the progress of the peas, I also discovered the lettuce has just sprouted.  Tiny baby leaves are popping out all over!  And I spotted a couple volunteer cucurbits, no idea what they are.  The sprouts are in the area where field pumpkins grew last year, so I’m hoping that’s what they are.  If the volunteers are some sort of gourd, they could ruin the pumpkins by cross-breeding.  Since I’m adventurous, I’ll leave those sprouts to see how they develop.

There are also volunteer sunflowers where sunflowers grew last year.  With great care, I rototilled around them this spring and now have three well-started plants.  Their parents were yellow-flowered so I imagine they will be as well.

This year I planted six Early Girl tomatoes.  Before long they will grow into a tomato jungle and take over their area of the garden.  They will need to share some room with the mini-pumpkins and the lettuce in the lower corner.  I grew corn in this area the last couple years.  It’s time to move the corn to a new spot to prevent smut from developing.  Smut is a fungus that infects corn, turning the ears into corn-shaped mushrooms.  The best way to avoid smut is to rotate the crop to fresh ground each year.  I also discovered that planting beets where they will be shaded from the hot afternoon sun by the corn greatly improves the quality of the beets.  The leaves stay tender longer for use as beet greens and the beets don’t become woody.

Now all we need is ample rain and some warm, sunny days.  I know that’s asking for a lot.  Hope springs eternal in the gardener’s heart.

Hiking to the Bowl at Acadia National Park

The Bowl from the top of Enoch Mountain

Spring is right around the corner, (and through 2 feet of snow here in Maine) bringing with it dreams of hiking the many beautiful trails of Acadia.  A special little gem well worth the walk is The Bowl, a small pond near The Beehive on the east side of the Park.  The Beehive is a round, rocky little mountain that can be viewed to the north from Sand Beach.

Memorizing the trail to The Bowl (it’s a straight line)

The trailhead for The Beehive and The Bowl starts almost across the road from the entrance to Sand Beach.  On any hot day, one lane of the one-way road will be choked with overflow parking for the beach.  On a quiet day, you can park in the beach lot and walk up to the trailhead.  The entire hike is about one-and-a-half miles, maybe two.  Unfortunately, at the beginning it is rather rough and steep going.  The woods is filled with piles of granite boulders that tumbled off The Beehive.  The trail leads over and through the boulder field.  After a way the trek becomes less challenging, more like a quiet walk in the woods.  It is all uphill, but not at too difficult an incline.

Rough beginning to the Beehive/Bowl trail

A few hundred feet along the path, there is an intersection, take the left trail to The Bowl.  The thick woods filled with shadows, quiet rustling in the undergrowth, birdsong and the whispering of leaves in the sea breeze is a welcome cool spot on a summer day.  Just about the time you wonder how long a half-mile can be, you come out at the prettiest little pond.  On the northeast it is steeply flanked by the low Enoch Mountain.

Enoch Mountain seen across The Bowl

The water is pure, cool, clean and transparent.  The bottom of the pond is lined with sand, large rocks and some mucky mud.  Little fish dart in the shallows.  Out in the center, rippling rings spread from spots where larger fish have broken the surface to nab a fly for lunch.  The trail passes along the southern and eastern side of the pond then up Enoch Mountain.  From the top, the view is spectacular.  What else could it be at Acadia?

After returning to the pond, it is all right to slip off your shoes and dip your hot feet in the water.  The Bowl is not a public water supply protected from contact with humans.  The adventurous hiker might prefer to swing back from The Bowl along the Beehive trail, across the back ridge of the mountain, then down the steep face to return to the trailhead.  I prefer retracing the path I followed in.  It’s all downhill to the road.  My knees are not as fond of mountains as they were in their youth.