Although I’m more a fan of fall and winter (no bugs, no humidity), there is much to like about Maine summers. Each day invariably begins and ends with a level of coolness that all but demands a flannel shirt, if only for an hour or so. In those early and waning hours of the day I make the rounds of the yard, gardens and orchard, all mini by most standards but more than enough to keep me busy and occupied throughout the summer.
It’s amazing how many changes occur between sunrise and sunset. Some are nebulous, some are subtle, and some are startling. For example, my marigolds (planted from seeds just a few weeks ago) are already two inches tall. They look puny, weak and fragile at this point but I know that in another month they’ll be a foot tall and covered with bright-colored flowers.
This year I planted some scarlet runner beans primarily for the hummingbirds and they are ever so slowly climbing the poles, posts and trellises I made for them. At some point they’ll be covered with bright red flowers and, later, tasty green beans, so the hummers and I get to share in the bounty.
I am quite enthused about the progress my rose bushes have made. I had to transfer them to another side of the house because, oddly enough, they did not do well just 50 feet away. Two of them had been reduced to mere sticks when I gave them one last chance to thrive on the east side of the house. Today they are about four feet tall and covered with buds promising a burst of red and yellow roses in the coming weeks. That side of the house was heretofore rather boring but now it will be covered with rambling greens and colorful blooms. Too bad it took me five years to make the change!
One of the reasons I garden at all is to have the joy of eating my crops right off the plant. Each morning I graze on radishes, spinach and chard, and lately the strawberries have been coming around. I am able to gather a hatful of big, fat berries twice a day – it’s amazing how they’ll turn from pale pink to red in just a few hours. I have to discipline myself to pick for the freezer first, and when I have a quart cleaned, cut up and ready for winter I can devour what’s left. I don’t follow the rule every time out but I can say that most of what I pick ends up in cold storage.
I have been keeping a close eye on the high- and low-bush blueberries that grow naturally close to the house. If I’m ambitious I’ll have four quarts put away for winter pancakes and muffins, but again I have to force myself to pick, not gorge, while I’m harvesting the free and abundant fruit. On a good day I can pick a quart an hour, which is pretty good considering that many of the fattest berries are on plants that are only ankle high. When I’m down there at blueberry level I make the most of it because the older I get the longer it takes to straighten out my aching spine. Pick then rest, pick then rest . . .
Over the last few years I’ve devoted a small portion of my garden space to the production of tea leaves. So far I have hyssop, chamomile, mint and comfrey, which seem to be doing well in the places the roses did not like. I received some sample herb seeds as a reward for purchasing my basic garden supplies and just tossed them into the spaces vacated by the rose bushes and was amazed to see them not only grow but propagate and spread all by themselves.
I suppose from a true herbalist’s viewpoint my tea garden is a mess, all mixed up and disorganized, but I happen to know which plants are which and can pull myself enough matching leaves for a cup of tea without mixing things up. Through experimentation I’ve discovered that six leaves of the herb of choice make a perfect cup of tea. I just wash the leaves, pour boiling water over them, let them steep for a few minutes (generally long enough to get from the kitchen to the back deck) and then strain the leaves. Take it from me: the scent of freshly-made home-grown herbal tea is far superior to the powdered, bagged varieties one finds in the local market. Plus, there is a natural sweetness to the brew that precludes adding sugar or honey to the mix. In fact, I’ve found that hyssop and chamomile are surprisingly sweet when brewed fresh off the stalk, made noticeable because I am not one to add sweeteners to my hot drinks.
I have tried other “natural” potions such as blueberry, blackberry and other berry-based teas but if you are looking for specific flavors these are not the way to go, at least in my experience. The natural plants don’t seem to impart any sort of flavor or scent but I suppose the elixir itself is what they’d call “good for you.” I like a little bit of scent and flavor in my hot drinks so I go with sassafras (tastes like root beer) and, in spring, black birch, which tastes and smells like spearmint.
Anyway, by the end of June things are really humming outdoors, including well beyond the back yard garden. In recent days I’ve seen squads of baby nuthatches learning the ins and outs of hiding seeds from their parents, and now turkeys, swallows and robins bringing their broods around to chase insects in the just-mown hayfield. At evening tea-time young foxes, deer, raccoons and squirrels have been offering brief glimpses near the woods’ edge.
Though I still prefer Maine’s cooler weather there is something to be said for being able to sit outdoors with a cup of hot herbal tea in hand. Besides, the days are already getting shorter and winter will be here soon enough – there’s no need to rush it!