Friday, May 27, 2016

Hot and cold

The most difficult part of living in the north country isn’t the cold. Rather, it’s the heat—which comes on like a bomb before one’s body can acclimate.

For three-quarters of the year, it’s cool here, and one of those quarters is usually cold. I’m no fan of days that don’t get above freezing, or nights that drop to twenty-five below zero, but at least when it’s cold you can keep adding clothes when outdoors, and another log to the fire when indoors (or just turn up the thermostat for you oil, propane, or electric folks).

When it’s hot, however, you can’t take off your skin. It’s hard to justify central air conditioning in a cool-for-three-quarters-of-the-year environment when you’re self-employed with restricted cash flow. And it’s socially unacceptable outside the home to do the next best thing and take off all your clothes. (Naked isn’t a desirable option, anyway, because by the time the air gets warm enough that you want to, the bugs are out—and a lot of them bite.)

Hot and cold, of course, are relative conditions. For my body, 35 to 45 degrees (Fahrenheit), on a sunny day, is the best temperature range for outdoor labor. It’s cool enough to keep your skin covered against cutting and bruising, but warm enough that you can remove layers once your blood gets churning. Depending on what you’re doing, you might even work up a sweat and peel down to a T-shirt. Not so if you’re just standing around, or working with cold items bare-handed, or if it’s wet or there’s a stiff breeze.

45 to 60 is the best range for light recreational activities, and work like gardening. The plants may disagree about that temperature range, but it lets you move comfortably in lightweight long sleeves and pants for skin protection, or T-shirt and shorts if you don’t mind dinging your forearms and shins. Bugs are less pernicious at this range, as well.

60 to 70—tops—is my comfort range for short clothing or none at all, just as this is the preferred temperature range for most people indoors during winter. Higher temps than these usually come with humidity, and that’s when my energy gets sapped. Over 80 and I can barely move. Over 90 and I’m semicomatose. Tough to stay productive in that condition!

People in southerly climes might wonder why this is a problem. It’s because we don’t get a chance to ease upward gradually. We acclimate to the norm of cool and getting colder. Come springtime, however, temperatures spike and rollercoaster, sometimes ranging 50 or even 70 degrees in a single day. After months of consistent teens through 40s or 50s (woo-hoo! Heat wave!), suddenly there’s a gorgeous day of 62 and you can fling open the windows and roll up your sleeves. But overnight might bring a killing frost, followed by three wet days in the 40s. Then another pop up to, say, 54. Then 71. Then down again. Up again. Down, up, down, up, down—and suddenly it’s 88, sunny, and humid for almost a week. At that, most of us northerners topple like trees!

While we’re going down, plant life is thrusting up at a rate that’s almost scary. Growth and reproduction have to happen in a short window, so sometimes it feels like we’re watching a fast-forwarded film. Unlesslawn mowing is your favorite recreation, it’s impossible to keep up with the grass growth. And weeds in the garden. Until July, when suddenly everything shuts off then reverses, like that strange suspension in water when the tide changes.

For now, however, entering Memorial Day weekend—the official launch of summer, calendar be damned—it’s freaking hot and we’re praying for a thunderstorm to cool things off again.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Open winter

My vocabulary gained a new term this year: open winter.

I picked up the term from hearing other people in the region use it. Both the term and the experience are new to me after a lifetime in New England and upstate New York. We’ve had snowy winters and less snowy ones, colder ones and warmer ones, wetter ones and drier ones, earlier ones and later ones, but this year set a record for the combination of least snow and mildest temperatures. The effect was a strange undulation between November and March, all the way through the months in between.

It’s an interesting contrast from last year, which was frigid for prolonged periods, and the year before, which was old-fashioned in its snowiness. This year we had a few modest snowfalls which melted clear to the ground within a few days. White to brown, multiple times a month. The frost in the ground was superficial, whereas last year it ran so deep, people were losing water. Our neighbor had frozen underground lines for eight weeks!

The pond iced over late, melted open a few times, and reclosed. Just this week, it closed and opened inside twenty-four hours. Over the whole winter, there was only one subzero period, and that quite brief. The most dramatic temperature swing occurred in February: minus twenty to plus fifty in three days. A seventy-degree change in midwinter!

Mainly we’ve had rain this season. It’s weird to hear the dry streams and the nearby river coursing loudly when normally that doesn’t occur until April. If all that rain had been snow, we’d be half up to our eaves with it, and not seeing dirt until May or June.

The problem with open winters is that ours is a seasonal economy. Many families make half to all of their annual income from snow-related enterprises, so they were badly hurt this season. For the rest of us, it’s been a boon. Dramatically reduced firewood and oil consumption. Way less wear and tear on plow trucks and snow blowers, not to mention our backs. No ice dams on the roofs, no impassable driveways—heck, we could have gotten away without putting snow tires on our vehicles. And mud season is almost nil.

The intermittent temperature spikes let us (and the cats) go out in the yard and do things, twice in shirtsleeves. Fewer wild animals and birds died from starvation or freezing. The downside is the ticks coming out a month early. Daffodils have broken through almost a month early, as well.

The extreme of this season is a result of El Niño, which has saved the severely drought-affected regions of the west and southwest. I am happy to swap moisture bonanzas with the fruit and vegetable basket of the country. Other people aren’t so happy, as they’ve been walloped with weird weather their own which hasn’t been so benign.

Still, for those of us with an artist’s eye, the season has been beautiful. If not white and silver coated, it’s been a gorgeous study in all the middle-tone earth colors and constantly changing skies. Soon the landscape will be green again. With all the ups and downs of recent seasons, I can’t imagine what the next few will be like!

Monday, May 11, 2015

Perennial P.I.T.A.

The first gardening mistake I made when we moved to rural Vermont 17 years ago was thinking that perennials are something you plant once and enjoy forever.

Ohhhhhh no. Oh-ho-ho-no.

Well, in some cases it’s true—we’ve got peonies, for example, that came with the place and must be decades old—but the very fact that perennials stay in the ground makes them subject to seemingly endless variables, all exacerbated by the seemingly endless microclimates that characterize the region in general and our yard in particular.

I knew going in that some perennials, such as gladioli, are sensitive and must be brought indoors for the winter then reestablished in the spring. So I skipped those. I also knew that some perennials, such as most everything in the mint family, are invasive and must be either contained or planted where they can run amok. So I avoided those, too.

Then went on to plant my favorite species, since our well-established perennials represented a previous homeowner’s taste. Pretty much everything I put in failed within 1-3 years, while the established plants flourished. Huh?

I can divide or transplant the established perennials with shocking brutality and they just keep going like Energizer Bunnies, but my carefully selected, carefully tended new perennials just don’t last. Heck, I’m the only person I’ve ever met who can’t keep daffodils!

Even after I got smart and started planting only Zone 3–hardy specimens (learned from cataloguing everything established and finding that to be the common denominator), I still lose the new ones. Or else they shrink back in number to a few feeble survivors that keep returning enough to keep giving me false hope.

The experience has taught me a lot about the dominance of microclimates over zone maps, the difference between reproductive techniques, and perennial vs. diennial growth patterns. It also clarified the definition of “partial sunlight.” The thing that surprises me year after year, however, is the fact that some perennials move.

It’s a creepy thought that nags at me during the winter. While the land is frozen for months, somewhere below my feet there are tendrils reaching out, or seeds that fell over the summer, which will result in plants emerging somewhere other than where I put them. Thus I’ve had grape hyacinths and glory-of-the-snows pop up in the middle of the lawn. Thus I’ve had a crocus appear even though I never planted one. Thus the horseradish emerged in the woods 30 yards away from its calculated placement, the phlox choked out a complete garden, the lupines stepped sideways two feet, and the bee balm took over the compost pile.

These plants behave, in fact, like certain weeds. Heck, perennials are weeds, if you consider this definition: “What we call a weed is in fact merely a plant growing where we do not want it” (E. J. Salisbury, The Living Garden, 1935). In my yard, some perennials are invasive weeds—like the nightmare phlox, along with lilacs, anything in the rose family, and lily of the valley, which to me is as pernicious as grass. I have come to hate grass, which grows like a metastisizing cancer where you do not want it and refuses to grow where you do.

What this all adds up to is a three-part lesson: (1) Do thorough homework before you plant perennials. (2) Be prepared to monitor them closely and manage them regularly. (3) Make sure you put clumpers in the garden and movers somewhere they can spread.

Else you’ll discover that perennials are actually annuals, because you’ll be reinventing your yard and garden every year!

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Broken record

Reporting on the local climate makes one sound like a broken record. Same phrase over and over: “It’s different every year.”

But I have to keep saying that, because it’s true.

This winter was different from each preceding winter, and spring is coming in with its own flavor, too.

The winter of 2014–15 was a whopper for many areas, and broke numerous records. Here it was just a normal Vermont winter, with the old-timers saying it was more like the ones back when than recent years. The only record we came close to was Coldest February (ranked #3 according to those who keep track).

Yes, there have been snowier winters, colder ones, longer ones, icier ones, drier ones. What stood out this year was the mix and match (as reported in my February entry, “A big winter”). In contrast, it’s ending benignly, easing into spring with a gentle thaw. While the weather improvement on a daily basis is frustratingly slow, it allows the snow to melt gradually so that flooding is either absent or mild, and dirt roads are slimy instead of axle-deep mires, and ice-out is a rising rush instead of a torrent that causes ice dams.

People keep saying, “When is spring going to get here?” By my observations, it’s already arrived. Spring isn’t so much when the grass turns green and flowers bloom, but when the environment changes from hard to soft, and the birds start returning and hibernating critters emerge. The migratory birds are right on time, starting with the song sparrows, red-winged blackbirds, and robins. Coons, skunks, and squirrels are out foraging, and no doubt the bears will make an appearance shortly. So will the daffodils and crocuses.

I’ve noticed from my informal recordkeeping that the songbirds and bulbs appear reliably within a two-week window. This year they’re on the late side because the snowpack has been slow to shrink. As soon as that noticeably began, however, in came the migrants, and now the morning is filled with twittering and singing instead of frigid silence. In our first 48 hours above freezing, we lost almost half the snow cover and gained multiple species.

So even though every year is different, the season cycle is comfortingly the same. Global climate change is showing trends that we’ve noticed over thirty years, but as long as the planet remains driven by sunlight and tilted at the same angle, we can count on what goes around coming around again.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Winter garden

I’ve lost track of how many years it’s been since I’ve been growing red bell peppers and tomatoes in my living room. At least a decade now.

This practice arose from three things: (1) a very short growing season, (2) learning that peppers and tomatoes are perennials in tropical climes, and (3) having a south-facing living room wall that’s all windows.

So one spring, when I bought transplants for the garden, I kept one tomato and two peppers inside and planted them in big pots. They have provided produce year-round ever since.

I also tried dragging one of my EarthBox containers inside at an early frost, just when the red bell peppers were ripening for harvest. (Kitty helped.) They produced into December.

For the year-rounders, all I give them is water and occasional refreshing of soil. The plants have always been brittle, since they don’t grow against wind and rain, and each year they give more leaves and fewer, smaller fruit. I cut them back every few months, and they crank up again.

Finally I killed one from too much sun and/or too little water and/or cutting back too severely. So I replaced it the next spring, and on it goes. The longest-lived one has been about seven years. All would go indefinitely if I treated them better.

So this season, I upgraded my ritual to include twice-a-month feedings. Too soon to tell what that will lead to. I’m looking forward to spring, when I can replace the tomato with a bush variety that will not take off across the living room and up the walls.

Even with sparse output, you can’t beat having fresh tomatoes and peppers when it’s ten below!