July 11, 2017

Quest for Blueberries

Fresh blueberries, picked in the
morning, washed, and consumed with
breakfast.  Is that too much to ask?
This story begins two years ago when Betty and I began the process of creating a ‘from scratch’ landscape at our new home.  ‘Low- and high-bush blueberries’ were near the top of the list of native plants we wanted.  We ultimately purchased five low-bush blueberries, which we planted above the stone wall at the front of our property.  They have thrived, spread, flowered, and produced mountains of tiny blueberries that have fed the creatures that visit our garden. 

Those low-bush blueberries, unfortunately, are not the topic of this essay.

We also purchased five high-bush blueberry shrubs.  They cost close to $40 each and were already laden with already ripe and ripening fruit when we brought them home.  We planted them in a cluster in our rear garden.  For two weeks, we gorged on sweet, luscious blueberries.  I remember joking at the time that we had picked enough berries off of them to defray about a quarter of their cost.

Blueberry bushes produce
awesome fall colors
Berry season ended.  The shrubs grew.  All was well.  Autumn came and we delighted in the display of autumn color that Vaccinium corymbosum  put on.  It rivaled anything in our garden.

Came the spring of 2016.  It was a drought year and, though we gave adequate water to those five shrubs, we saw few flowers and fewer blueberries.  We wrote it off to dry weather and the reality that pollinators were still just discovering our garden.  All our bushes made it through the year looking healthy.  We considered it a victory.

Two weeks after the last flower, I put
up fencing and netting for protection
The rains returned this spring and our five blueberry shrubs were alive with vibrant, white flowers.  I began to think about protecting the shrubs so we could enjoy our bounty.  Two weeks after the last flowers disappeared, I put up fencing and netting.  Metal posts were driven into the ground and half-inch plastic fencing was placed around the boundary of the shrubs.  Fifty ‘ground staples’ anchored the fencing to deter ground-level incursions.  Quarter-inch netting was spreads across the top to foil fence climbers and avian intruders.

These berries were showing their
first blush of red
I watched as the berries changed from white to green to red-purple.  The first batch needed just a day of additional ripening.  I salivated at the thought.

The next morning, every ripe blueberry was gone.

I inspected the base of the fence.  Where the beginning and end of the fence met, there was a gap where a small animal could have wriggled through.  I wired it closed.  I found areas where a contortionist rodent could squeeze between the fence and the earth. I added more ground staples.

The next batch of berries ripened before my eyes.  The morning I went to pick them, they had vanished.

Every potential point of
entry was reinforced
I reassessed the netting as well as the fencing.  I added bamboo and wooden poles to further make a ground assault impossible.  I added ties to better secure the netting to the fence.

The blueberries are still disappearing.

I spent much of yesterday on our back porch, monitoring my patch.  A crow cawed from a nearby pine tree.  Crows, as we all know, have been known to bend and shape metal with their beaks.  Undoing twist ties is well within their skill set.  A suspicious-looking squirrel loitered in the area but, aware he was under surveillance, made no move for the fence.  A tufted titmouse lit on one of the tall metal stakes but feigned disinterest in the crop below it.  Two mourning doves walked in circles, pecking at non-existent seeds.  A fat chipmunk tried just a little too hard to look like it was much more interested in a random piece of bark mulch than in the blueberries behind it.  One of these creatures – or perhaps all of them – are guilty of stealing my blueberries. 

Chipmunks are the most likely culprit
A few years ago, Betty and I were on a garden tour in the Berkshires.  One of the estates on view had a dozen high-bush blueberries encased in a structure with removable screen panels, built with 4x4’s post-and-beam style, that must have measured twenty feet by forty feet, with seven feet of head clearance and a locked door.  I remember laughing at the time that the cost of building such a cage so outweighed the potential benefit that the payback time must approach infinity.

This morning, looking at the white berries that I am certain will be swiped just before I judge them ripe, I could not help but mentally lay out a variation on that ostentatious Berkshires building.  I could use 2x4’s, and five feet of headroom would be sufficient for my needs…

July 1, 2017

Summer Rain

This summer, our garden is lush.
Double-click for a full-screen view.
It rained yesterday afternoon.  It was a glorious thunderstorm that dropped better than a half an inch of rain on our garden.  As this is written, the skies are overcast and there is a promise of even more rain this evening.

Our four rain barrels are
full, and are augmented
by twenty-plus re-purposed
cat litter jugs, each
holding three gallons.
Last year at this time, we had four empty rain barrels across the back of our home.  Those rain barrels were at the receiving end of an elaborate system of gutters, diverters, and underground drain pipes to collect and carry away rain water.  It was a beautiful system; intelligently conceived and built with back-breaking labor.  But without rain, it was also pointless.  We went weeks without a drop of rain in the summer of 2016.

So, instead, with a new garden filled with plants with limited root systems, we scrounged water from every possible source.  We doled out that water with a figurative eyedropper, conserving every pint.  We watered at six in the morning to ensure no water was lost to evaporation.  The garden made it through that long, hot summer but we were exhausted by the effort.

This year, our four rain barrels are completely filled with 220 gallons of neutral pH and chlorine-free water, and an additional reservoir is stored in twenty re-purposed, three-gallon cat litter jugs.  We lavish water on container gardens to keep them blooming and on new perennials to encourage root growth.  What isn’t collected flows directly into the wetlands behind us via six subterranean conduits.  As a result, the vernal pools that were dry in April last year are still filled with water at the end of June.  It is a sign that we are, at long last, beginning to replenish our watersheds.

Diverters allow us to
switch from filling barrels
to directing water into
the wetlands behind us.
A return to more normal rainfall has an unexpected benefit as well as a drawback.  The benefit, as reported by the University of Massachusetts Extension Service, is that all this moisture has activated the maimaiga fungus.  Why is that important?  The fungus is deadly to gypsy moth caterpillars.  Caterpillars die before they can lay the eggs that would otherwise wreak havoc next spring on our oaks.  It means the devastation of the past two years will likely abate.  The downside to the precipitation is that the woolly adelgids are hatching.  They primarily attack hemlocks and the drought kept eggs from hatching.

June 2017 yielded more than five inches of rain in Boston; more than an inch above the long-term average.  We’ve had 26 inches of precipitation so far this year – four inches above normal.  This week’s Drought Monitor map shows no area in New England as being even abnormally dry.  Last year, all of New England except extreme northern Maine was in at least a ‘Stage 0’ drought and much of the region was in a moderate drought (which would become ‘extreme’ by summer’s end).

Our elaborate system of
drains is also designed to
look attractive.
We learned to cope last year.  An absolute lawn watering ban in our town (Medfield) reduced summer water usage to winter levels.  Lawns went brown.  Then, to the surprise of many homeowners, cooler weather in September and October, coupled with a little rain, caused those same lawns to green up.
The question is whether we learned any lasting lessons from the summers of 2015 and 2016.  I fear the answer is that we did not.  Driving around town this week I saw automatic lawn sprinkler systems pouring water onto bright green lawns in mid-day.  I saw other sprinkler systems operating in the rain. 

Rain is not guaranteed.  It is a gift to be cherished.  Being stewards of the land means also being stewards of our finite water resources.  It’s an imperative that ought to be obvious. All those lawn sprinklers tell me that, sadly, lessons have been too easily and quickly forgotten.