Monthly Archives: July 2009

In The Pink

Bee Balm for the Soul

Bee Balm for the Soul

Dear Reader:

Now that July is winding down, the weather is finally warming up, and the perennials in my flower beds are in their “pink” stage. I haven’t exactly planned my flower gardens all that well. I’ve taken whatever divisions friends and relatives have offered me and have planted them all willy-nilly along with those I’ve purchased at garden-club sales and greenhouses. Consequently, I have distinct stages in my floral coloration–purple early on with iris, lilac (though it didn’t bloom this year), purply-pink wild geranium, and violets. Then there is the white stage–mulva and this really weird plant with sharp, bent leaves and clusters of white blossoms that open during the day and shut at night, and another pretty little delicate white flower with the faintest pink tinge at the center. These I picked up at a garden club sale at the Unitarian Church in Bangor, Maine five summers ago.

Asia Lilies

Asia Lillies

Now is the time for pink. I did have earlier pink, of course. My bleeding-heart plant below the beech trees is a prolific and long bloomer, and the wild rose transplanted a couple years ago after the plow dug it up from its bed at the foot of the driveway splashed a bit of color in the midst of all that white at the end of June.

Now, it is all about pink, however. Salmon-colored Asian lilies. Bright pink and magenta bee balm. Large-petaled echinacea luring in the butterflies. I miss my butterfly bushes, killed by the heavy ice this winter or by my over-jealous pruning. (I will never prune anything ever again. The butterfly bushes were doing great without my meddling.)

There are a few rogue lilies blazing orange here and there, and I’m thinking a few more in yellows and reds might perk up this late-July season when the black-eyed susans and sunflowers haven’t popped open yet and the sedums are still light green on their waxy stalks. On the other hand, I’m halfway considering turning the flower beds into veggie plots next year–not because I dislike the flowers but because these beds sit on prime garden real estate in my somewhat shady lot. They get 6-8 hours of sun a day (eight on the southern side of my front steps, five or six on the north) and are convenient to the door and walkway. In permaculture terms, this is known as Zone One. I believe the heat-loving tomatoes and peppers would thrive in the sunny, southern bed.

I have interplanted The Three Sisters amongst the flowers this year–corn and vining beans and squash. The beans are overtaking the corn, will probably pull them right over! The temps have been so cool that even in the garden boxes the squashes and cukes are just now beginning to sprawl. I doubt the pumpkins and winter squash will have time enough to ripen, but I have high hopes for the yellow summer squash and pickling cucumbers.

Peas and Cilantro

Peas and Cilantro

The transplanted lettuces put on a burst of leafy speed, as did the cilantro and one lone basil grown from seed. The peppers, despite my dire predictions, have rallied and are throwing out new leaves. I have small tomatoes on all seven plants, and I picked ripe shell peas a couple days ago! The green beans are finally in blossom (better late than never!), and the carrots and parsnips look healthy. I can’t wait until fall when I can pull up one of the orange or creamy-white roots for closer inspection!

What with the rain and cool temperatures, this gardening season has been a trial of patience and peristence. I’m hard pressed to decide whether to blame my newbie farmgirl ways or the weather for the small harvest. I will definitely try the square-foot gardening again next year, but I think I’ll make each twelve-inches tall and will add more compost and manure than Mel Bartholomew suggested. A few extra boxes around the shady, back side of the house will be perfect for lettuces and maybe peas. I’ll try corn and pumpkin again next to the front steps as I love the idea of dried-in-place cornstalks and grown-in-place orange pumkins for “instant” fall decorating.

Fall. Not sure I’m ready to think about that yet. Instead, I’m going to pull the few weeds growing in my perennial beds, water the cucumber plants, watch the bees gathering nectar from the fuzzy bee-balms and prickly knoblike centers of the echinacea flowers. I’m going to smell fresh-cut grass and listen to the insects buzzing in the hazy, late-afternoon heat. I’m going to hobble up to the pick-your-own blueberry farm and gather some berries for jam. There’s a refrigerator crisper drawer full of small, fat cukes bought at the farmstand waiting to be transformed into pickles, and I’m still itching to try my hand at sewing a cotton wrap skirt before summer’s end. I’m in the midst of researching online sources for information about a misinterpreted and misunderstood plant and hope to share my findings here next week.

So much to do in August!

What projects have you planned for the last month of summer? How are your gardens doing now that Mother Nature has finally turned up Her thermostat? Drop me a note. I’ll be digging around–in the dirt and online–Outside the Box.

Sarah’s Chickens

Here Chicky, Chicky, Chicky

Here Chicky, Chicky, Chicky

Dear Reader:

This week while I’m laid up with a broken foot (don’t ask), I thought I would write about chickens. Yes, chickens. Following is my own, personal chicken-appreciation timeline. Enjoy.

1970’s: When I was growing up on the last dirt road in Carmel, “Grammy” Murray had a chicken pen up at the big white farmhouse on the hill. I don’t remember much about these chickens except a vague alarm that they might escape the pen. Someone may have used the words “rooster” and “mean” in the same sentence. I was young. It’s all pretty vague and misty. What I do remember is the not unpleasant, dusty, barnyard smell near the chicken pen and the homey clucking of the hens. At some point, the chickens disappeared, and I never thought about them again until much later.

1997: My husband and I moved to the quaint, western-Maine town of Norway where we purchased a hundred-year-old house not far from the center of town. Norway is one of those old-time, traditional New England towns that evokes Norman-Rockwellian nostalgia of the very best sort. There is a busy Main Street with a variety of shops along the sidewalks, a clock tower, quiet residential streets laid out in a sensible grid, the public library, and a bunch of white-steepled churches. It’s a walkable town, though the grocery chain moved over to the more spawlish Rt. 26 in the neighboring town of Oxford. Not to worry, though. I heard that the local food co-op, The Fare Share Market has expanded now to a larger venue right on Main.

I liked Norway. Every nice day, I would load my child into her stroller, and we’d walk a big loop along a couple residential streets before hitting Main and circling back home again. Imagine my surprise when I discovered chicken coops and yards on a couple of in-town lots! I’d always thought chickens were for farms, and farms were out in the country down old dirt roads, but here were these cute little cluckers contentedly scratching around in someone’s back yard. Cool, I thought. But even then, it never occured to me that I might raise chickens on MY large backyard lot. I was more interested in planting some evergreens to hide the housing complex behind us and revamping the flower beds around the house.

2001: My husband was studying engineering at the University of Maine, and I had taken a job as a secretary in the Continuing Education Department. One day while looking at the Bangor Daily News, I saw a big, full-color photo of a chicken along with an accompanying article. For some reason, I was so drawn to that picture that I cut it out and stuck it up next to my computer monitor . . . much to the horror of one of my work colleagues whose unhappy memories of egg-gathering chores as a child gave her an abhorrence of anything to do with raising poultry. She asked why I liked the picture, and I could only shrug and say “who knows?” Maybe I was missing my home in Norway. Maybe it brought back memories of those carefree days of childhood on my old dirt road. Maybe I just liked the looks of that chicken.

2002: My husband graduated, got a job. We moved to southern Maine. I forgot about chickens. We bought a home in a subdivision, and I contented myself with the creation of a few cottage-style perennial beds, Girl Scout leadership, library work, and writing romance novels.

2008: I read Barbara Kingsolver’s ANIMAL, VEGETABLE, MIRACLE. The world shifted. I learned about slow food, local food. I began to think about farmer’s markets and growing vegetables in my front yard. One book led to another, and I read about the superiority of raw milk over homegenized. I found a local dairy farmer from whom I could buy milk. His son raised chickens, the farmer said. Did I want to buy eggs?

Eggs from Sarah's chickens--note the little ecru one?

Eggs from Sarah's chickens--note the little ecru one?

These eggs were so different from their tasteless-by-comparison counterparts in the grocery store that I resolved then and there to always buy local eggs whenever possible. As summer went on, the eggs grew to giant proportions. Then a bluish or khaki-colored egg woud show up in the carton, the product of some unusual breed of fowl. I was hooked.

2009: Now I get my eggs from my friend, Sarah, who lives right here in town. The yolks are dark yellow and large. The flavor is amazing. For awhile, I boiled an egg every day for an egg-salad sandwich, but I’ve had to cut back due to my expanding waistline. I suspect the eggs weren’t the problem so much as the mayonnaise I was mixing into them. I love the eggs. I don’t mind paying for them. However, I’m not totally content . . .

Because I want to raise my own chickens.

I know this poultry obsession is ridiculous. For one thing, I’m not allowed to have chickens in my homeowner’s association/subdivision. Bent on creating a rustic, private, lakeside community of vacation and weekend homes, the association’s original developers nixed the mixing of humans and livestock within the confines of the development. Can’t really blame them. They were designing this place in the late sixties, when the space age was revving up, technology was going to solve all our problems, and zoning conventions leaned toward the separation of industrial areas from retail areas from residential areas from agricultureal areas. We had cars. Who needed to live within walking distance of work, stores, or farmland? Besides, nobody was going to live here full-time. It was now supposed to be vacation-land , not farmland. It was what people wanted . . . in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Now, though, more and more people are coming to realize how important it is to support local agriculture and to grow and raise our own food. Chickens are making a comeback! In 2008, Falmouth, Maine–one of our state’s more upscale towns, by the way–changed its zoning ordinance to allow the raising of chickens for personal use. Read about it in this article from the Portland Press Herald.

Even Portland is looking into changing their zoning to allow backyard poultry. Check out this news report by NECN.

So, even if the zoning and/or association rules could be changed, does raising your own poultry even make economic sense? Raising your own chickens isn’t going to save you money in the short term. According to an article for Associated Content by C. Jeanne Heida, chicks costs between $2.00 to $5.00. Between supplies, food, heat lamps for the chicks, feed, materials for a chicken coop/wire pen, Heida figures a back-yard poultry farmer won’t recoup (grin) her initial outlay for at least three years. However, saving money in the short run isn’t really the point. The point is eating locally. The point is knowing that what you eat is safe and highly nutritious. The point is knowing where your food comes from. Where better than from your own back yard?

Knowledge, or lack of it, is another hurdle. How does one learn how to raise chickens, anyway? Here is a list compiled by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension of places you can purchase chicks and other poultry information and supplies. It is called Resources for Small-Scale Poultry Keepers. It is not a comprehensive list, but there’s lots of information there.

Besides cost and a learning curve, what are some other perceived drawbacks to back-yard chicken coops? Smell, I suppose. Raising any kind of animal means shouldering a certain amount of responsibility. Cleaning up the coop and composting the straw and manure would be necessary in a suburban setting.

Noise. Even the new zoning ordinances prohibit roosters as they are preceived as being loud and obnoxious. I suppose they are, but how much more obnoxious than the neighbors hunting beagles kept in outdoor pens throughout the entire year? For that matter, what about those doggy droppings left on your front lawn? I’d rather step in chicken poop, thank you very much.



When I visited Sarah’s backyard chicken coop, I did not notice any smell. The chicken yard was a few yards from her back door next to the raised garden beds. The soft chuckling cluckiness of the different breeds brought me right back to the Murray farm, much more pleasant than the baying of the hounds at three in the morning. In fact, the entire back yard felt like a little, cozy haven of domesticity.

eggs in one basket

eggs in one basket

Inspired by my visit, I came right home and boiled and egg and made myself a yummy egg-salad sandwich on my homemade rye bread. I might not be allowed to keep my own chickens, but I am grateful that I can at least enjoy the wonderful flavor of these local eggs. Maybe one day my association will realize we are not so grand. If Falmouth and Portland, South Portland and Cape Elizabeth, Gorham and Westbrook can allow backyard chickens, why not here? After all, we’re rural over here.

We have the dirt roads to prove it.

* * * * * * * * *

pretty, pretty peas?

pretty, pretty peas?

I may not be allowed to raise chickens, but I have carved out a spot in which to try to cultivate vegetables. Out in the garden, things were not looking good last week. Two weeks of all rain and no sun had leached the nutrients right out of my raised garden boxes. I went down to my local hardware store and asked if they had any organic fertilizer. Off course, they did!

Plummer’s Hardware always has just what I need, each and every time. The employees are knowledgeable and helpful. It’s amazing and the best of all arguments in favor of local business over big box retail stores where you can look for twenty minutes for an orange-aproned employee who may or may not know where anything is in the giant warehouse of a store.

Anyway, I purchased a small bag of organic blood-meal–high in nitrogen–figuring it couldn’t hurt to amend the soil a little and see if my spindly, pale plants could somehow revive. I’m pleased to report that a week (and quite a bit of sun) later, most of the plants look better if not exactly lush. When I hopped out on my crutches to look at the boxes, I discovered pea pods hanging beneath the twisty pea stems and pretty little white pea blossoms!

The cucumbers are trying to grow, the beans look as if they are about to blossom, the pumpkins and squash look vigorous if small. The carrots finally took off, and their feathery stalks are growing. I even have hot peppers on the most stunted little plants you’ve ever seen. Poor peppers. I may pull out every spare plastic pot I can find in the cellar and garage and plant them all with lettuce and other greens, just to see what happens.

I’m also going to make a real effort to hit some farmer’s markets and farmstands next week, so hopefully I’ll have pictures and stories to share as well as some good, fresh veggies for my table. I still want to put up some pickles and some jam, and I noticed today that the local pick-your-own blueberry operation has already opened for business. Now, if I can only figure out how to pick berries while on crutches . . .

Do you have a poultry passion? A chicken story? Share with other readers by posting a comment. As always, I love to hear from you.

Short Post: Listen to Program #2–Small Towns and Cities

I’m not a big one for podcasts, but stumbled onto James Howard Kunstler’s online radio program the other day and recommend it for anyone who is interested in the future of our cities, town, and rural areas. (Click on the green link and the page should come up. Scroll down and you’ll see a black podcast player with a list of episodes.)

James Kunstler is a journalist/novelist who has spent the past few decades observing and commenting on what he calls the “Happy Motoring” Suburban American life. Kunstler is funny, articulate, and I believe dead on when it comes to the future of our society. To get you started, I recommend scrolling down to the #2 program on the site–“Small Towns and Cities.”

Quick Post–Excellent Essay about American Culture

If you are going read any of the links I’ve posted here, make sure it is this one! Here is the philosophical argument for going local. Written by Patrick Deneen on the Front Porch Republic website, this essay called An Alternative Tradition talks about an alternative culture–neither conservative nor liberal–embracing a classical tradition rather than a modern one. The reading is a little heavy but worth the effort.

More Stats on Declining Suburban Value

Here is another blogsite with even more statistics on what’s happening to suburbia around the county. Take a look at

Sprawling Apart

Lady's Mantle Sprawl

Lady's Mantle Sprawl

Dear Reader:

Here in my rural subdivision, life goes on as usual–at least on the surface of things. The Fourth of July weekend brought an unusually large number of ATV’s careening down our (posted) roads, an impressive parade of decorated motorboats chugging across the lake, and a barage of illegal fireworks booming behind the sheltering pines from dusk ’til midnight. The smell of grilled meat wafted across shaggy, soggy yards. Neighbors we hardly ever see strolled by, blinking in the novelty of sunlight after two straight weeks of rain. Friends stopped in for potato salad, bratwursts, and strawberry shortcake.

Looking around, you’d never know there was a recession on or staggering-close-to-ten percent unemployment or a war. Maybe that’s part of our American charm–our optimistic belief that sooner or later everything will work out just fine and yankee-doodle dandy. The ungraspable debt will be paid off. Terrorism will be defeated forever. Want ads will sprout like weeds in the classifieds section of the newspaper. Solar and wind power will totally replace oil energy. We will go back to building our subdivisions, taking thirteen car trips per day, and listening to talk radio on our hour-long commutes to and from work in the city.

The fact is, people here in Maine (like the rest of the country) LIKE suburbia.

In 1999 the Maine State Planning Office conducted two homebuyer surveys to see where people were moving and why. They discovered that 42% of people who were buying homes opted to move from a city to the suburbs or rural outlying area. 33% were already in a suburban setting and moved to another suburban setting. An analysis of the survey sums up:

These homebuyers appear to value being within walking distance of
a corner store and the library, knowing neighbors by name, knowing
they can drop by a neighbor’s home and that he or she will feel
comfortable doing the same. They say they would as soon be close to
gyms, ball fields, movie theaters, and cultural activities as be able
to walk out the back door to hunt, fish, ski, or snowmobile. They
value running into friends and acquaintances at the coffee shop on
Main Street as well as seeing wildlife out the windows of their home,
and visiting neighbors on their porches after dinner as much as
watching a solitary sunset from their homes. Some prefer privacy to
contact with neighbors but still want proximity to stores and services
and don’t want to be forced to get their privacy by moving to largelot
suburbs or the country. Still others may prefer a rural setting,
but if they knew they were contributing to the loss of wildlife
habitat, working farms and woodlands, or open space around towns, they
would reconsider.

The sad fact is, the suburban model of housing development is so ubiquitous that we homebuyers feel we have no other choice than to move to the suburbs if we want to escape conjested streets, too-close neighbors, concrete landscapes, and social isolation. This urban sprawl has eaten into our valuable agricultural land and has eroded wildlife habitat. Ironically, when we do move to the suburbs in search of a sense of community and small-town neighborliness, we are often disappointed. Let’s take each of the values listed by homebuyers and compare those values to the realities of my homeowner’s association (which shall remain nameless.)

#1 Walking distance to corner store and library: We can’t. My housing development was built in the 1960’s on rural land at the edges of two separate towns. We have very few points of entry from town roads and state routes, and there are no sidewalks or even breakdown lanes amenable to walking or even bicycling, even if we were inclined to walk or bike the miles between our home and the distant town centers. Zoning rules prevent any retail development in our association, so we have no coffee shops, corner stores, booksellers, or newspaper stands within walking distance. The only businesses of which I’m aware are home-based childcare operations and perhaps some telecomuters working out of their basement offices.

#2 Knowing the neighbors by name: In old-fashioned, small-town or city neighborhoods in years gone by, houses were built close to the street. You knew all the neighbors and their kids. You chatted with them over the picket fence dividing your properties and waved at them from your front porch. You sat in each others’ kitchens and drank coffee. You worked with them at businesses in town. You went to church with them on Sunday.

While this theoretically can take place in a subdivision, the reality is much different. Built on a series of cul-de-sacs, our houses sit back from the road. Decks and porches are relegated to the private, backyard area rather than the social, front lawn area. Few of us work in our actual towns, commuting instead to jobs in the city. We have no churches or other traditional gathering places in our association, though we do have a couple of clubhouses. We have compartmentalized our lives–working one place, socializing another, coming home to the subdivision to sleep. We could make more of an effort with our neighbors–probably should–but neither the design of the subdivision nor our car-driven lifestyle lends itself to old-fashioned neighborliness.

#3 Close to gyms, ballfields, cultural activies, etc.: This we have. Our homeowner’s association amenities include an outdoor pool, two indoor pools, tennis courts, clubhouses with billiard tables and meeting rooms, etc. Most of us could walk to at least some of these amenities, and the use of them is included in our association dues. Sadly, while we have the space for cultural activities that might invite more civic participation and neighborly interaction, we homeowners are so disconnected that these sorts of activities are rarely planned and sparsely attended. The infrastructure is there, however. While we can’t do anything about the road layout, we could, if we wanted, hang out at the gym or hold movie nights at the clubhouse.

#4 Wildlife out the window: Ah, we have this, too. Our rural subdivision has wildlife preserves in place, dirt roads, a lake with lots of marshy areas, and quite a few undeveloped (and undevelopable) lots. I’ve seen deer, moose, loons, herons, foxes, and turtles while driving or walking in my neighborhood or canoeing on the lake. Proximity to nature–animals, trees, wildflowers, wild berries–is a big plus. We can swim in the lake, hang out on one of the many association beaches, cross-country ski through the woods, and sit outside beneath a shady beech or oak tree.

All in all, my rural subdivision is a pretty good place to live . . . for now.

But what happens when things go wrong? If energy costs become too prohibitive and traveling back and forth to school, to the grocery store, and to work becomes a financial hardship, many of us may choose to leave. Others of us will be stuck here whether we like it or not, struggling to figure out a way to live in a place with very little to offer in an energy-depleted world.

Would it be possible to transform our suburbs into sustainable communities where we could shop, work, and play all within walking distance of our homes? Or would the suburbs become the future American slums as some New Urbanists predict?

While we still may have some time before the realities of peak oil hit (when demand outstrips supply in a real way as opposed to the artificial shortages of the 1970’s), the time to address the cons of our suburban design while continuing to protect the pros is now.

The Maine State Planning Office survey revealed that those same homebuyers who were flocking to subdivisions would just as soon live in walkable, urban communities if city and town neighborhoods were planned to reduce traffic, to provide areas for privacy as well as common areas for community, and to design parks and other wildlife areas. Adding a good pubic transportation system within the urban neighborhood will also be a big plus on the side of urban development. State planners encourage this kind of New Urbanist vision as a way to reduce sprawl into our valuable agricultural and wild rural areas, and there are indications that buyers are already moving back to the urban centers. Click here to read about The Great American Neighborhood program. How will our old sprawling subdivisions fare in competition? How soon before home values begin to fall?

If we want to protect our investment, we’d best be thinking about how to provide those things that future homebuyers will be seeking and the current subdivision model doesn’t provide. We need to think about transitioning our single-family residential communities into walkable, mixed-use villages where people can work and worship and play and shop. We need to devise some kinds of “Main Street” areas for community gatherings and cultural activities, and we need to figure out how to provide public transportation. We need to think about education and how to get our schools back into our neighborhoods rather than on the edges of town. It wouldn’t hurt if we figured out how to feed ourselves by promoting the creation of backyard and community gardens, farmer’s markets, and food co-ops.

If we don’t take care, those who can will go elsewhere . . . and the rest of us will be stuck at the end of our cul-de-sacs wondering how it all went wrong.