It’s Worth the Trip: Cathance River Preserve provides the perfect getaway
A hike in Topsham is a splendid way to spend time in the fall.
BY JOSH CHRISTIE
In his forthcoming book “The Stranger in the Woods,” Michael Finkel tells the story of Christopher Knight, the hermit who lived undetected in the woods near North Pond for nearly three decades. Reading the book, I was struck most by how Knight managed to disappear so completely while living only yards from the cabins that ring the pond. He was so close to others, Finkel writes, that he couldn’t even sneeze for fear of drawing attention.
The book reminded me how easy it is to separate yourself from the hustle and bustle of other people in Maine, where thick wilderness is often only yards from well-traveled roads and populated areas. I got the same reminder this week while hiking in the Cathance River Nature Preserve in Topsham.
The 230-acre preserve, tucked between Interstate 295 and a retirement community, is a wonderful escape in a fairly developed stretch of the Midcoast.
Access is possible via two trailheads on Topsham’s Evergreen Circle, as well as a connector trail on the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust’s Cathance River Trail. To reach the main trailhead, enter the Highland Green development (marked by a large sign and white fencing) from Route 196 in Topsham. Follow the main road through the development for a mile and a half, passing the suburban retirement homes of the community, as well as a few holes on the nine-hole Highland Green Golf Club. Just beyond Junco Drive, you’ll see a wooden staircase and signs marking the entrance to the Cathance River Nature Preserve. Beside it are nine angled parking spaces for hikers.
The trails cover nearly six miles, winding through mixed hardwood forest alongside the Cathance River. Two longer main trails – the riverfront Cathance River Trail and upland Highland Trail – run in rough parallel for much of the length of the preserve, with a number of shorter yellow-blazed trails connecting the two. These short spurs mean that hikers can go from less than a mile to nearly six.
From the staircase alongside Evergreen Circle, it’s a short hike along a well-trod road to reach the Cathance River Education Alliance Ecology Center, the center of the preserve. Completed a decade ago, the center is described by the alliance as a “building that teaches,” with over a dozen green, sustainable features. It’s open every Sunday from noon to 2 p.m.
Turning left at the building, the development of Highland Green quickly fades away. After passing a large vernal pool just south of the ecology center, the Highland Trail slopes gently downward toward the northwest corner of the preserve. Here it meets the head of the Cathance River Trail. A sharp right puts hikers beside the Cathance River, which churns east toward the Androscoggin.
During spring runoff, there are challenging rapids for kayakers wishing to run the Cathance (and you can see these adventurers from the trail). But in this relatively dry fall, the river is but a picturesque trickle.
The trail runs alongside the river for about a mile, gently rising to scenic rock outcrops before falling back toward the riverbed. On the right, the Barnes Leap, Beaver and Rapids trails spurs connect back to the Highland Trail, giving weary hikers a chance to cut short their loop and head back toward the ecology center. Beyond the turn to the Rapids Trail, the Cathance River Trail leaves the riverside and reconnects with the Highland Trail.
From the trail junction, a right brings hikers back toward the trailhead, completing a loop. Following the white blazes to the left connects to the half-mile Ravine Trail. At the Clay Brook Bridge, the Preserve ends, though hikers can continue along a Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust trail, ending after two miles at a trailhead on Cathance Road.
In addition to this large network of trails, the Heath Trail (also part of the Cathance River Nature Preserve) circles the 30-acre Heath Sanctuary within Highland Green. The trailhead is on Evergreen Circle, opposite the hiker parking spaces.
Foliage is passing peak but vibrant colors still line the sides of the trail. Many of these colorful leaves have started to fall from the trees, so keep your eyes open for the many trail blazes – a carpet of fallen foliage can make spotting the rutted trails a challenge.
Don’t let the development at the Topsham Mall and Highland Green deceive you – there’s great fall hiking to be found nearby. With just a little effort, you can disappear into the calm and beauty of the Maine woods.
Josh Christie is a freelance writer living in Portland. Along with his brother, Jake, he writes about great Maine destinations for outdoors enthusiasts. Josh can be reached at:
Stewardship, volunteering contributing to healthy trails
BY BEN GOODRIDGE
Times Record Staff
Irene Syphers spends most of her days deep in the woods, shovel or pick ax in hand, the current trail work project on her mind.
Though she has put in many hours of hard work this summer, she doesn’t want her work to be noticeable. Syphers said that trail work is meant to uphold the natural beauty of the land, while making access easy and presentable.
“I don’t want people even knowing I’ve been here,” said Syphers, who is in the midst of a 10-week summer steward internship with the Brunswick Topsham Land Trust, a nonprofit organization that oversees the upkeep of hiking trails in the southern Midcoast. “But if you do see me, I’ll put you to work,”
Syphers recently was building a water bar at Skofield Preserve in Brunswick near Middle Bay salt marsh on Tuesday. Syphers said the water bar would help transfer water across the trail so it doesn’t flood.
Program coordinator Caroline Eliot said stewards like Syphers promotes the growth of their volunteer program.
“Irene is great about mobilizing any resources she gets,” said Eliot, who brings in volunteer stewards to assist with projects.
Some common volunteer stewards include Apogee Adventures youth, made up of kids aged 11-14. There are also high schoolers who want to serve the community, Bowdoin College students and retirees who sign up online. BTLT also shares summer stewards with Kennebec Estuary Land Trust, a relationship that Eliot champions.
“I think it’s a really effective way of sharing resources,” said Eliot. “This is the fifth or sixth year we’ve been working with them. There’s a lot of partnering going on between non-profits these days.”
Byron Scheudt, a steward at KELT, was on hand to assist Syphers in water bar construction on Tuesday.
“This is the first time I’ve done work with (BTLT),” said Scheudt. “We like to help out (BTLT) any way we can, even if it’s lending each other tools.”
Another large trail project is taking place at Chase Reserve on Bunganuc Road in Brunswick, a 194-acre easement property.
“It’s a backwoods trail with a lot of deer, moose and other animals,” said Syphers. “We’re using a grip hoist to take down a big blow-down there tomorrow.”
Additionally, Syphers spent a day putting up signs at Chase Reserve last week, and spends “copious amounts of hours assessing the trails there.”
“Every project takes a lot of work,” said Syphers. “You spend hours before the project emailing and coordinating, gather your materials, carry everything out to the site. A project that takes a day in the field actually takes two days. That’s why more volunteers are great. I can’t move all of this stuff myself.”
But with projects like the Chase Reserve, BTLT is starting to see the fruits of its labor.
“It’s rewarding to get a piece of land that has nothing and transform it, watch the people show up,” said Eliot. “Since Chase Reserve is an easement property it adds a whole different layer.”
Eliot said that BTLT owns most of their land outright, but easement properties allow them to work with the landowners to make sure they’re aware of all changes.
“There’s a wonderful landowner at Chase who is great to work with,” said Eliot. “There are a lot of dimensions to this that people don’t see.”
And though Syphers said that her best work blends in with nature, she does stop to admire her achievements every now and then.
“It’s very satisfying to build a bog bridge and walk across it for the first time,” Syphers said.
The Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust is in the process of purchasing
land from the Brunswick Unitarian Universalist Church for conservation and public use. The Land T rust hopes to acquire coastal property by summer
The Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust is hoping to close on about 20 acres of coastal property and prime clam fats by summer.
According to BTLT Executive Director Angela Twitchell, the transaction that began a year ago has been on hold for some time, awaiting funds to be released at the state level. The parcel currently belongs to the Brunswick Unitarian Universalist Church, which had planned to construct a new church on the site before deciding to rebuild at its current Pleasant Street location.
Twitchell said BTLT applied for funding through the Land for Maine’s Future program to cover the $125,000 appraised cost and although they were awarded that funding, it has yet to be dispersed. Twitchell said she spoke with people from the Land for Maine’s Future program last week and they are hopeful Gov. Paul LePage will release the bonds in July.
The purchase contract is set to expire in June, but Twitchell said, if necessary, BTLT will fund the purchase with loans, which will then be repaid with LMF funds.
The property came to the attention of the BTLT through its work with Brunswick Marine Resource Officer Dan Devereaux and others in the community to identify access points for clammers that may be in jeopardy.
Woodard Cove has traditionally been used by clammers and the Unitarian Universalist Church allowed free access to their property. However, a private sale could potentially close access to the clam flats adjacent to the land.
BTLT began talking to the church and in keeping with the church’s mission for stewardship and environmental goals, Twitchell said it appeared to be a win-win for all involved to keep the land conserved and open for hiking, clamming or just enjoying nature.
“Our plan is to have a small trail plus improve access for the shell fishermen and there is already a parking lot of sorts,” Twitchell said, adding that there is a small, scenic high point on the parcel perfect for picnicking.
“I think it does always feel good when there are access points that are in jeopardy as they are up and down the coast, that you can work together, a whole bunch of us in the community and conserve it forever so that’s one less thing to worry about,” Twitchell said.
HARPSWELL — Call it a tale of two cities, except they’re both towns on the coast of Maine.
“Many people in Brunswick don’t realize that there’s this gorgeous fishing community 10-15 miles away,” Monique Coombs, seafood program director for the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, said about Harpswell in an interview Tuesday. “There’s just sort of this space there.”
Coombs, a Harpswell resident, believes that a more tangible example of this cultural distance can be measured in seafood and money.
She said Harpswell’s “rich seafood web,” which supports fishermen fishing lobster, scallops, oysters, and groundfish, is an “underutilized product.”
Times are tough, in multiple ways, Coombs said. Statewide, the number of boats that fished for groundfish off the coast dropped from 188 to 52 from 1996 to 2010, according to MCFA. In Harpswell, only a “handful” of groundfish fishermen remain, and they supplement with other catch, she said.
And in many fishing communities like Harpswell, fishermen are being squeezed out of their homes by rising property values. Coombs said someone who lobsters off a wharf in Harpswell could now have to live as far away as Phippsburg.
She believes that Brunswick, with a population of more than 20,000, and a strong local food movement fostered by the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust, is a more direct market for seafood that’s not being tapped.
The question is, “how can Harpswell start to seize this opportunity and make money,” Coombs said.
To try to bridge this gap, the fishermen’s association, along with the Merrymeeting Food Council, are applying for funds from the Maine Community Foundation’s Community Building Grant Program.
Coombs hopes that a grant from MCF, which could amount to up to $10,000, could seed a more long-lasting economic vision.
The initial money would be used to hire Planning Decisions, a Portland-based firm with offices in Brunswick, to conduct a “needs assessment.”
This assessment, according to MCFA’s grant application, “would examine recent trends, opportunities, and challenges in seafood harvesting and production.”
Coombs specified that more analysis needs to be done to understand the regional implications of the dwindling groundfish industry, the impacts of imported seafood on the local market, and the gaps in distribution pathways on the coast of Maine.
Then, the fishermen’s association would organize meetings in Harpswell to discuss solutions for strengthening the town’s seafood sales.
“These meetings don’t have to be at Town Hall,” she said. One option for a meeting place could be at Cook’s Lobster House. “A conversation over a beer can be more useful,” she said.
Often, “fishermen are told (by nonprofits) what they need, as opposed to being asked,” Coombs said. What she wants to know, she said, is “what do you think the gaps are?”
To that end, Coombs has not laid out a final vision for the project. She said solutions could take many forms: a Harpswell-specific label on seafood sold to retailers, a plan for development at the town’s Mitchell Field property, or a new lobster store, for instance.
“Maybe there’s someone out there who already has a great idea, and needs angel investors … we could be that,” she said.
If the project works out, Coombs hopes the Harpswell model could become a template for other food councils around the state looking to boost local seafood markets.
This has not exactly been a white winter, but Jenny Johnson’s 700-acre farm in Newburgh is full of woods laced with riding trails, and when she looks out on that scenery she imagines it being used for the kind of Nordic skiing adventures she always wanted to experience.
“Once I start skiing, I never want to stop,” she said. Realistically, she’d have to sleep at some point. “My dream was always to take a tent off my back and set it up.”
She’s working on a three-year plan to build cabins in the woods of her Pebblestone Farm – cabins being infinitely preferable to tents – and then groom cross-country skiing trails to them for her overnight guests. Maybe they’d offer day rates to skiers as well, embracing agritourism in the winter.
“I’ve read about it in a lot of different magazines about farming,” Johnson said. “They are really promoting it as a way to expand your financial base.”
Snow-contingent, of course. You never know when there might be a snow drought, or in the case of last winter, so much snow that less experienced skiers found it too daunting to venture out. For winter agritourism in Maine, the likes of farm stays and weaving classes take a back seat to cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. It’s not all about ski pass sales, either. Some farms offer groomed trails open to the public for free – a sort of goodwill policy that might pay off in visibility when it comes time to pay for a CSA or in visits to the farm store.
Jane and Rich Lisauskas of Kennebunk cross-country ski along the Buzzell Trail at Harris Farm in Dayton on Jan. 26.
For commercial ski operations in the more developed areas of the state, like Cumberland County’s Pineland, and Smiling Hill, and Harris Dairy in York County, the trails and ski or snowshoe rentals themselves are a way to supplement farm income between growing seasons. Matt Sebasteanski, outdoor recreation director at Pineland Farms, which began offering cross-country skiing 14 years ago, said the income from the extensive skiing operation (30 kilometers of groomed trails) is important to keep the nonprofit farming operation running.
SPENDING MONEY TO MAKE MONEY
One of the enticements of cross-country skiing, at least for the thrifty, is that it is such an easy winter sport to do for free. But when you’re speeding along groomed trails at a spectacular place like Pineland, that $13 adult day pass doesn’t seem so indulgent.
For Pineland, the cost of maintaining the trails is “astronomical” Sebasteanski said.
The grooming team is six-deep and the biggest machine they have, the one that comes out once they have a solid base of snow, costs $190,000 new. Throw in the fuel involved and the inevitable repairs and “That’s a lot of ski passes,” Sebasteanski said.
“We’re not breaking the bank monetarily,” he said.
With 28 years in the business and 40 kilometers of groomed trails, Harris Dairy in Dayton is one of best-known farm skiing operations in the state. The family got into the business back then because there were about a half-dozen kids in the upcoming generation of Harrises who wanted to stay on the land and not enough of it to go around. Skiing was a natural fit, and family members work the rental area and give skiing lessons.
Among the lessons the Harrises have learned in over those three decades is pacing themselves when making big purchases. Bad years are unpredictable. Like last year, when farmer Dixie Harris said it was so cold that only the most “serious” skiers came out.
Pauline Morin of Dayton picks her flavor of milk in the cooler at Harris Farm in Dayton.
“We try to have a good year, and then buy equipment,” Harris said. “We don’t buy upfront and think we’re going to have a good winter. That’s how people go out of business.”
Tom Greiger of Five Fields Farm in Bridgton, which has run a commercial ski business on agricultural land – it’s an orchard – since 1998, agreed. “You can’t make an investment that you can’t pay for.”
Greiger scoured eBay for a used Viking snowcat he got for $9,500. Only catch? It was in Minnesota. “I’m a bottom feeder,” he said cheerfully. “I am the one always looking out behind the barn for the discarded equipment.”
IF YOU GROOM IT, WILL THEY COME?
He is “almost the lone employee” at Five Fields Farm, which opened up its ski trails at the urging of an uncle with a ski operation in Vermont, who proposed the family make use of the orchard’s higher elevation and typically reliable snow coverage, “‘especially if the apple industry is not as healthy.’”
That turned out to be true when it became a losing proposition for Greiger to pack commercially. He began a you-pick operation instead and relied on the Nordic operation for both supplementary income and a means to keep the farm in the public eye, so that when the next fall rolled around, skiers with a yearning to pick apples would remember the name Five Fields.
All these practitioners of winter agritourism have seen other operations come and go, which begs the question, is there more room in the marketplace for more ski operations? When Pineland entered the cross-country ski business, Greiger said he immediately lost some regular customers, including five annual ski races he’d regularly hosted. But he still draws enough business to stay open.
“I would not try to dissuade anyone,” Greiger said. “I would just say, enter it knowing what you’re getting into. And I hope you aren’t doing this for money because you aren’t going to make a lot.”
There are also costs, such as liability insurance, that some farmers may not consider when they decide to open up their property to skiing. If a farm is just being “a good neighbor” and allows the public to ski across its fields for free, the owners are probably covered by their standard homeowners insurance, says Jim Chalmers of the Chalmers Insurance Group in Maine, which provides policies for many of the state’s alpine skiing areas. But standard home and farm policies usually won’t cover “business pursuits” like Nordic skiing if the farmer is charging the public, so a special policy may be needed, Chalmers said. The cost of these policies can range from a couple hundred dollars into the thousands.
Pineland, for instance, pays $10,000 a year to cover its Nordic skiing and snowshoeing operation as well as other general outdoor activities, according to Erik Hayward, vice president of the Libra Foundation, who manages Pineland’s finances. An underwriter occasionally reviews the property for safety concerns, he added.
A customer waits to purchase milk as Rachel Harris waits on cross-country ski customers.
BALD EAGLES AND HANDMADE SOAP
Promoting agritourism is a big priority for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry according to Jessica Nixon, the director of marketing development department. “We just had a presentation on this at the Agricultural Trade Show,” she said.
But the department does not keep tabs, at least not accurate ones, on how many farms use cross-country skiing as a form of winter agritourism. Nixon referred a reporter to a Get Real Get Maine list of 32 farms for cross-country skiing, few of which actually offer any formal skiing opportunities, although some do groom trails on an occasional basis. Aldemere Farm in Rockport is a nonprofit working farm, owned and managed by Maine Coast Heritage Trust. If the weather cooperates, it hosts ski outings under the full moon. It’s all free and part of Aldemere’s educational and community mission.
“We really encourage the public to use it (the land),” said program assistant Jeremy Lucas, who puts in trails with a snowmobile – the cheapest way to groom. “But not everybody is into the agricultural side of things.” But they might appreciate gliding along on land that would look very different if it hadn’t been preserved. As Lucas puts it, “It would all be mansions.”
The Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust, which owns Crystal Spring Farm in Brunswick, gets help from the town of Brunswick to groom its fields and woods. No money changes hands, but it’s a win-win for everyone, even the family who manages the farm. Seth Kroeck and his wife, Maura, use the trails themselves, and enjoy the interaction with the public. Maybe the skiers will be back for the Kroeck’s CSA in the spring or put an order in for a fall pig. “We look at it as nothing but a benefit to have people on the farmland,” Kroeck said. “We like to think of it as a more European way of looking at the farmland, where it is within the public wealth.”
Rich and Jane Lisauskas of Kennebunk cross-country ski along the Buzzell Trail at Harris Farm in Dayton on Jan. 26.
In between the vast Pineland models and the pure nonprofits are smaller commercial farms that offer free skiing opportunities from a similar, community-oriented mindset.
“I welcome anyone,” said Marie Kirven of Sweet Dreams Food and Farm in St. Albans, a lavender and herb farm that has, snow permitting, about 1,200 feet of trails going down to Indian Pond. She said the farm started offering skiing a few years ago because there weren’t other area farms doing so. “I call it I-95 when it is cleaned and groomed and well kept.”
“We want people to get out to nature and see what is going on,” Kirven said. Like the two pairs of bald eagles that live nearby. Skiers park in the farm store lot and if they stop off for some hot chocolate at the farm store afterward, or a bar of handmade soap, even better.
SOUP WITH YOUR SKI
None of these places are running skiing operations as standalone businesses. Nor would they want to. “It’s a great substitution or addition to what we already do,” Pineland’s Sebasteanski said. And great advertising. Even if Pineland skiers don’t avail themselves of the farm market for lunch, they might get a hankering to come back for disc golf in the spring, or the next time they’re in the grocery store, feel more of an urge to toss those Pineland meatballs in their cart.
Or as they do at Smiling Hill in Westbrook, step into the cafe and farm store for a hot lunch or something more rewarding.
“We have a lot of people who get ice cream after,” said Hillary Knight, the family member who manages the ski operation. “They feel like they deserve it after having that much of a workout.”
CORRECTION: This story was updated at 9:10 a.m., Feb. 7, to correct the location of Harris Dairy in York County.
This week the Portland Press Herald ran a great article about building your gardening skills all winter long. It featured our own Winter Garden Workshops – a series we hold as part of the educational component of the mission of our Tom Settlemire Community Garden (TSCG).
Also, this article is by Tom Atwood – who will be speaking at our March 20th workshop – an annual fundraiser for TSCG. You can learn more about the fundraiser and buy tickets at: www.btlt.org/events/get-your-maine-garden-on
This winter, growers should cultivate their minds
Brush up your gardening skills with some of the many local offerings.
Cultivating your mind can be as rewarding and productive as cultivating your garden. Plus, what you learn at lectures and programs during the cold dark days ahead can make you a better gardener when the long, hot days of summer arrive.
Garden clubs, public gardens, land trusts, garden centers and other organizations bring in speakers to help their members grow, to attract new members and, in some cases, to make money. Whatever the reason, all give you an excuse to get out of the house.
The Brunswick Topsham Land Trust is offering a class at 2 p.m. Feb. 21 that I wish I had taken decades ago: “Gardening Without Aches and Pains” by Ellen Gibson of the Maine AgrAbility Program, jointly run by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, Goodwill and Alpha One. It’ll be held at St. Paul’s Church in Brunswick.
Gibson said Maine AgrAbility has a federal grant to help workers in the farm, fishing and forestry industries prevent and overcome disabling injuries. She also presents a program called “Gardening Forever,” which advises gardeners to, among other things, stretch before gardening, vary tasks so they aren’t making the same motions for long periods of time, and build raised beds, about 36 inches high, that can be used by people in wheelchairs.
“I love giving that program,” she said, saying she will be speaking on the topic April 18 at Lakeside Garden Club in Bridgton and May 12 at Walnut Hill Garden Club in North Yarmouth. Gibson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Other Brunswick Topsham Land Trust programs, all at 2 p.m. at St. Paul’s, include growing vegetables by Linton Studdiford, Master Gardener, on Jan. 10; native woody plants for your home by Justin Nichols, an ecological gardener and former horticulturist at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, on Jan. 24; growing small fruits by David Handley, extension educator, on Jan 31; basic pruning techniques by arborist Tim Vail on March 6; and me on old and new plants I like on March 20. The requested donation for most of the talks is $5.
Merryspring Nature Park in Camden (merryspring.org) has talks at noon most Tuesdays, and while not all of them are about gardening, they all involve nature and would interest gardeners. Admission is $5 for non-members.
Noah Perlut, an associate professor at the University of New England in Biddeford, will discuss gardens and wildlife as biological control on Feb. 16.
Perlut said the genesis of the program was when Eastern equine encephalitis, a mosquito-borne illness, was first confirmed in York County. To get rid of mosquitoes, the university staff proposed spraying. Since the campus is surrounded by water, that plan was rejected.
Instead, faculty and students added habitat for those birds and bats that prey on mosquitoes and put in plants, such as bee balm and citronella, that repel the bugs.
“A lot of the plantings were done in pots and put in high-traffic areas, and they become more effective when engaged and brushed upon,” Perlut said. “One Master Gardener came with an ingenious idea and planted cherry tomatoes in the center of the pots.” The idea was that the mosquito repellent plants would be touched more often when passersby picked tomatoes.
Other interesting-sounding topics coming up at Merryspring include cultivating mushrooms, with Jon Carver on Feb. 2; starting a garden from scratch, with Sharon Turner on March 8; learning about new plants, with Hammon Buck on March 15; and planting and pruning fruit trees, with Renae Moran on March 22.
McLaughlin Garden in South Paris (mclaughlingarden.org) and its affiliated Foothills Garden Club offer free programs at 4 p.m. Wednesdays (with free tea at 3:30 p.m.) beginning March 2, when Mark Silber, formerly with Hedgehog Hill Farm in Sumner, will speak on “From Seed to Harvest, from Harvest to Seed.” Other topics include Donna Anderson, McLaughlin executive director, on the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on March 9; Edith Ellis on gardens of the Northwest on March 16; Peter Kukielski, formerly of the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden in New York City, “Rethinking the Rose Garden” on March 23; Jeff Dunlop on Siberian irises on March 30; and Gary Fish of the Maine Board of Pesticide Control on yardscaping on April 6.
The state’s garden clubs offer many programs. Among the busiest is the Belfast Garden Club, which is offering a very interesting talk, “Gardening in Tune with Nature,”on Feb. 23. The instructors are Reeser Manley and Marjorie Peronto, and the class begins at 6:30 p.m. Find the full list of talks at belfastgardenclub.org.
St. Mary’s Garden Club at the Episcopal Church of St. Mary, 43 Foreside Road, Falmouth, will offer Kyle Fletcher Baker of Plainview Farms on seed-starting at 11 a.m. Jan. 11, just as you will be starting some of your seeds for 2016. The fee is $5 for non-members.
Plant societies also have good programs. The Maine Iris Society will present Jan Sacks of the Joe Pye Weed Garden in Massachusetts on species iris at 1:30 p.m. March 13 at Woodfords Church, 202 Woodford St., Portland, and will have flower show judges talk about making arrangements with irises on April 9 at the Methodist Church on Park Avenue in Auburn.
The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (mofga.org) will hold classes on growing your own organic garden in adult education programs all around the state. The classes are planned for 6 to 9 p.m. April 6, for a fee of $5, but schedules and costs may vary so check the website for the program nearest you.
MOFGA’s seed swap and scion exchange, free and open to the public, will be 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. March 20 at its headquarters in Unity. In addition, the group has two classroom spaces booked throughout the day at the Agriculture Trades Show in Augusta on Jan. 12.
The Agriculture Show – although not the MOFGA part of it, extends Jan. 12-14, and other organizations put on many informative programs during the show.
Also drop by your local garden center. Most have been so busy through the Christmas season that they haven’t yet set up their schedules for January through March, but they will soon.
I know this list is daunting. But my purpose is to keep you from curling up on the couch with books and catalogs and slowly getting a case of cabin fever.
Get out and meet some fellow gardeners and learn something. April will get here soon.
Tom Atwell has been writing the Maine Gardener column since 2004. He is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth and can be contacted at 767-2297 or email@example.com.
Photo by Annee Tara Angela Twitchell, director of Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust, walks the Labyrinth in the Woods on Nov. 14.
BRUNSWICK — At the turn of this century, when she was preparing for her role in Christian education at First Parish Church in Brunswick, Susan Fitzgerald heard a speaker talk about labyrinths and their value in connecting people of all ages to their spiritual path.
Intrigued, she set out to “help First Parish determine whether it wanted a labyrinth,” she said. Soon a group of parishioners had hand-painted an 11-circuit labyrinth onto 30-foot octagonal canvas. It was dedicated in February 2000, and several times each year since then it has been set up at the church’s Pilgrim House and opened to the public for walking.
A few years later, when Mary Baard became the minister at First Parish, she was “delighted to find out that we had a labyrinth ministry here; Susan has been the core person in that ministry.” She and Fitzgerald began talking about Fitzgerald’s dream of an outdoor labyrinth. Over the years they talked about possible sites, but couldn’t envision it on church grounds.
Then in the summer of 2014, Baard was walking near the Thomas Settlemire Community Garden at Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust’s Crystal Springs Farm when she stopped at the edge of a field and thought,“This would be a great place for an outdoor labyrinth.”
She contacted Angela Twitchell, director of the land trust, who was immediately on board. “We’d been talking about ways to make a better connection with faith communities in the area. Land trusts are always looking at ways to actively collaborate with other community groups,” she said. This project is a perfect example: Both First Parish and the land trust are interested in strengthening connection with the community. “It’s a great way to connect faith with nature,” Twitchell said.
A group from the church and the land trust began planning a labyrinth in the woods, which would be easier to maintain and provide more privacy and shade than one in the field. First Parish agreed to raise the money needed for the construction. The land trust agreed that it would provide the site and maintain the labyrinth going forward (with help from the church, which hopes to raise additional money to support the effort). They brought in the Topsham landscaping firm Cosmic Stone to prepare the site. The project took on special significance when, in the midst of the planning “Susan’s cancer returned,” said Baard. Fitzgerald had been diagnosed and treated three years earlier and was back at work in 2014. But the cancer came back and she has left First Parish.
While she no longer coordinates labyrinth activities, she continues to meet with and support the group that sets up and tends the labyrinth sessions. Fitzgerald and her husband John are also active supporters of the land trust, so both groups wanted to formally acknowledge her dream for the Labyrinth in the Woods by adding the words “in honor of Susan Fitzgerald.”
“Inspiration is really a remarkable thing: The right thing, at the right time, in the right place, for the right reason,” said Baard.
For Twitchell, this project serves several purposes. “It connects people in the community with the land; it’s collaboration with First Parish; and it honors Susan Fitzgerald’s great work.”
Both Baard and Twitchell make the point that walking the labyrinth doesn’t have to have be a “religious experience;” it can simply be a meditative way to enjoy nature. “Rarely in my work does an idea like that come to fruition within a year or two,” said Baard.
But on Nov. 14 a small group of labyrinth “tenders,” church and land trust board members, and Fitzgerald gathered to celebrate the completion of the Labyrinth in the Woods. “It brings me joy that the outdoor labyrinth has become a reality for the whole community. It is a little overwhelming. I am filled with gratitude for all those who made it possible,” Fitzgerald said.
Photo by Annee Tara Susan Fitzgerald and her family attended the opening of the Labyrinth in the Woods, dedicated in her honor, on Nov. 14.
The labyrinth is available to the public for walking now. A formal dedication is planned for May.
Enock Mukadi, 21, in his plot at the Land Trust’s Tom Settlemire Community Garden at Crystal Spring Farm in Brunswick (Walt Wuthmann photo)
BRUNSWICK — Enock Mukadi spent the first 20 years of his life in a town called Mwene Ditu, in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
He spent the last year in Brunswick, where he has found a way to make sense of the change in the community garden at Crystal Spring Farm.As the sun beat down on Tuesday afternoon, Mukadi walked through his two plots at the garden, pointing out and identifying the vegetables he was growing.
“I have spinach, carrots, Chinese cabbage, potatoes, red onions,” he said. He used to grow collard greens, but they were eaten by beetles. He replaced them with kale, which seems to be faring better.
Mukadi gets his seeds from the Tom Settlemire Community Garden, which was set up four years ago by the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust. He is one of 70 people who farm the garden’s 82 plots.
Under a row of tomatoes, Mukadi sifts through the leaves and stalks, removing little beetles by hand and crushing them. Community garden “master gardener” Prentiss Weiss has taught him how to identify Maine pests, as well as organic ways to repel them, like using a spray made of Neem oil, a natural repellent.
That system is not 100 percent effective, however, so sometimes the beetles must be taken on in hand-to-hand combat.
“Some of these tomato plants, my English teacher gave me,” Mukadi said. Mukadi is about to finish classes at Merrymeeting Adult Education, and then start summer courses at Southern Maine Community College.
English is just one of the five languages Mukadi speaks; French, Swahili, Tshiluba, and Lingala are the others. He also says he has learned some Spanish and Thai from friends at Merrymeeting.
“Every time I start to learn a new language I get excited,” he said. He practices Spanish using an application on his phone, and described each language as a “new world.”
In this new world of Maine, there are some practical things that affect his gardening.
Mukadi said Maine’s windy days and cold temperatures have been a challenge for his vegetable growing.
He has insulated his potato plants with straw to keep the soil warm warm, and so far, it seems to be working. The plants stand knee high, with green leaves pushing up through their straw protection.
Even though the weather and pests are new, some of the vegetables he grows are not.
In another part of the garden, garden coordinator Corie Washow has set aside a plot for Mukadi to plant and experiment with African seedlings.
“We knew that Enock had brought some seeds from Africa and we had some open space,” she said.
Mukadi has started to grow winter squash, sorrel, amaranth, and African eggplant. “(The eggplant) is very bitter,” he said. “You need to cook it. You couldn’t eat it in a salad.”
Although Mukadi is the main caretaker of his plots, he said on Saturdays some of his brothers and sisters, as well as his mother, come out to help tend the plants. His sisters are making some signs about the vegetables so they can be “a kind education piece for the community,” Washow said.
Washow also said if the vegetables “take off,” the garden will save the seeds to grow again.
Mukadi said everything he grows will be quickly eaten by the 11 people in his family.
Mukadi has three brothers, and six sisters. They all moved to Brunswick last year after his father, who had been living in Portland for the past five years, found a house here.
“He tried to find a big house for a big family,” in Portland, Mukadi said. But he ended up finding one in Brunswick, near Cook’s Corner.
In the beginning Mukadi worried that wasn’t a good thing.
“At first we were all alone in that house,” he said. “We could see cars moving all around us, but no people.”
But now, Brunswick is a “community,” he said.
His siblings go to the local schools, and are always out in the neighborhood with friends, he said.
“Sometimes you have to leave things behind to go forward in life,” he said. “If you have ambitions, you need to sacrifice.”
Mukadi said he wants to get his bachelor’s degree, and then work for the United Nations, travelling and doing development work in countries like Congo.
“In Congo, things always change,” he said. “When presidents change, all things, like the military, change too.”
He said he has found peace in Maine, where the economy is “stable.” “Maine is good for me, I like a quiet place,” he said.
Looking down at this African eggplant sprouting from the soil, Mukadi said he didn’t initially think that his African seedlings would grow at all.
“Coming from this very hot place to this world that’s not very hot, a place that’s very strange, cold, and windy … I thought they would not come out,” he said.
But they have, “and they don’t complain about the weather,” he added.