Sunday, December 23, 2012

Unexpected consequences

The log-out described in previous post is finally finished. Well, at least the tree-dropping part. There’s a whole lot left over that still needs attending to, both by them and by us.

Their part is finishing the cut: limbing, bucking, hauling, stumping, and, for the big tree in the yard, chipping. Whether this will be accomplished sooner rather than later remains to be seen, as we now have snow and ice on the ground.

Our part is cleaning up slash still in the way around the perimeter, filling in innumerable holes, removing or repairing items that got damaged by dropped trunks (i.e., my garden). This must wait until spring.

That leaves the pond. During the first phase, two trees were most safely dropped across the pond, which had a good ice cover. Those trunks were then dragged out and processed, leaving limbs, branches, and pine needles galore floating around amid and atop the now shattered ice.

A few days of wacky weather thawed things enough that we could launch the good-old aluminum Grumman canoe and extract debris before it either sank en masse to acidify the water or plug up the outflow during spring thaw. Armed with paddle and rake, we poked and pulled and dragged until the boat was so burdened that we literally couldn’t move! A stiff breeze didn’t help.

Oh, for somebody with a camera! We looked ludicrous stuck ten feet from shore, laughing hysterically, while mixed moisture spat down from a steely sky and limbs longer than the boat dragged their branches like sea anchors along both sides.

Musclepower (and lack of options) eventually hauled us to land. But before we could ease our frozen and strained muscles in a hot shower, we still had to dump the load above waterline and drag the canoe back to storage for the winter.

Within 24 hours, the pond had refrozen. Although we didn’t remove half the debris in there, it has now sunk out of sight. So all that effort was probably for nothing. We’ll know in April when winter’s grip lets go.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Us vs. Them

For the 15 years we've lived here, our dooryard has been dominated by 100-plus-foot white pines growing dangerously close to the house. Two years ago, we ponied up the money to have an ominously leaning quartet taken down. It was an awesome display of human agility and power, in a confined space, completely cleaned up afterward. So when opportunity arose to deal with the remaining half-dozen potential guillotines, we called in the same arborist to get a quote for their removal.

Ouch!!!!! Too many zeroes for our pocketbook to handle.

A competitive quote introduced the option of taking out all the pine that could conceivably reach the house, and then some (adding up to almost 30 trees). It happens that the mill price for pine is up, making it economically attractive for loggers to harvest. So we struck a deal that would fill their trucks, remove the menacing trees, and make the least dent in our wallets for some profit in theirs.

It has proven, however, to be very painful. For those of us who hail from urban or suburban environments, the violence of rural logging is a shock-and-awe experience. The tearing and splintering and explosive boom! of giants crashing to the ground, which you feel through your feet inside the house, makes you want to duck and cover. The air reeks of sap and diesel exhaust, and the brrap-ing buzz of saws drills through your head. When the smoke clears, the area looks like a bomb zone. And this is controlled, selective logging performed by careful and respectful lumberjacks who minimize their impact the best they can. I can't imagine what a clear-cut must be like!

No matter the scale, each downed tree deprives birds, beasts, and insects of food and shelter, as well as plays a role in the forest chemical dynamic. Why oh why did I agree to this slaughter?

Because: If one of those aging, splitting trees hit the house, we'd be out umpteen thousand dollars and possibly injured, dead, or dealing with fire. We've already had one tree nail a car, and dodged a few near misses with large limbs.

Because: Their removal opens up a huge amount of sunlight to heat the house and nourish lesser growing things. At the same time, the wood being removed will build and heat other people's homes; and, because our own home will be warmer, we'll indirectly be killing fewer trees in order to burn them.

A secondary benefit is freedom from the constant carpet of pine needles in the lawn, on the steps and deck, in the garden; clogging the vents and other apertures of cars and equipment parked outside; and the inches of acidic compost that accumulate on top of storage buildings and material piles. Not to mention what gets tracked into the house and befouls the vacuum cleaner.

Plus, our view is now undisturbed. Step out the door to a magnificent bowl of sky! See the pond that has for decades been screened! (Conversely, anyone driving in can now see into our uncurtained living room, and observe that the house's exterior is stained and shabby, and we have plastic over the windows and tarpaper on the roof and cars in the backyard.)

So, are all the benefits worth the destruction? Well . . . it depends. The law of the jungle is kill or be killed; something must die so that something else may live. You can't get any more "natural" than that, and all the warm-and-fuzzy, tree-hugging, green idealism won't change it. You can even make a case that the upheaved terrain will benefit plants and animals. While some lose habitat, others gain it.

So why do I feel like a murderer, and mourn every time I look around? Reminds me of the lawn-mowing exercise blogged about in July 2011. It's just so damn hard to take care of yourself without taking out something else.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The big blow

As Hurricane Sandy crawls up the eastern seaboard, menacing the Northeast like Irene of a year ago, I’m reminded less of that statewide disaster than of the microburst that karate-chopped my neighbors just a few weeks back.

That event came from a line of thunderstorms which rolled in late afternoon, perfectly normal for the season. Here at our end of the mile-long, dead-end road, the cell arrived with a big whoosh! that rattled the deck furniture then subsided into a steady rain.

The following morning, my friend at the other end of the road called and said, “You haven’t driven out today, have you.”

Her ominous pause clued me in. “No . . . what happened?”

Out came the story, of coming home not only to the road blocked by downed trees but also an exploded environment.

Her house, unlike the rest of the neighborhood, sits close to the place next door. We all have good-sized parcels, but the rest of us are spread apart by our land, out of sight of each other, whereas these two houses stand cheek by jowl and their barnyards share a fenceline.

My friend’s spread is semi-open, overlooking fields and hilly vistas, and framed around the back by trees. Her neighbor’s place hunkers down under a large stand of pines. Both properties comprise home, barn, and outbuilding(s) clustered in sight of each other, and both families have livestock: my friend, two horses; her neighbor, multiple rescue llamas, donkeys, goats, pigs, and ponies, all out all day.

Far as we can tell, they got walloped by a microburst. Per Wikipedia: “A microburst is a very localized column of sinking air, producing damaging divergent and straight-line winds at the surface that are similar to, but distinguishable from, tornadoes . . . A microburst often has high winds that can knock over fully grown trees. They usually last for a duration of a couple of seconds to several minutes.”

Yep, that about describes it. In a few seconds, my friend lost 7 trees and her neighbor lost 32!

What’s really impressive is that this wind shear threaded the needle, completely missing every structure. Okay, one limb bounced off a roof, and others crunched some fencing. But somehow the wind found the only unimpeded path available through a compact maze. It peeled the maple in my friend’s front yard like a banana upon landfall, then split or dropped the rest in a line.

Nobody was home when it happened—except a few dozen terrified animals. Even they were spared what must have been a blizzard of flying branches and splintering trees. One donkey, I’m told, sproinged over a fence taller than he was. All the critters were mincing around with saucer-size eyes when the astounded homeowners returned.

Some investigation shows that the wind sliced down the wooded hill behind the properties but pretty much petered out by the time it reached the main road. It appears that only these two neighbors got attacked by the sky.

What a difference a few thousand feet makes! We carried on as normal, clueless; they were suddenly up to their armpits in cleanup and insurance claims and rearranging their operations. What caused that burst to zero in on their homesteads? Only the gods know.

But it’s proof positive that you can’t take life for granted as long as Mother Nature is running the show.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Where did all the apples go?

No end to the natural mysteries we encounter in our yard.

Last year, right after Tropical Storm Irene, the birds vamooshed -- the most abrupt and total disappearance I'd ever seen at the end of a summer. Back then, we had the storm as an excuse; this year, they all seem to have disappeared with the same abruptness, but now no excuse. It's been a gentle progression from late summer into early fall, mostly fair weather, yet now they're all gone. Only the year-round species to be seen. Huh? It used to be a more gradual process. What gives?

In the same vein, we had disappearing fruit this year, as well. Our three ancient blueberry bushes put out an immense crop, to the point where I couldn't keep up with it. Fortunately, blueberries last longer, both on the bush and in the fridge, than the more tender fruits like raspberries, so I picked at my convenience.

Assorted events caused me to miss a week, but I wasn't worried. Pounds still remained on the bush. But when I went back to get them, every last one was gone, not even a berry on the ground. Presumably birds were the culprits, although that didn't feel right. In the preceding weeks I had seen only a few birds dipping into and out of the bushes, even when it was well loaded with ripe berries. So what made them suddenly descend like a plague of locusts and strip the branches bare?

The same thing happened with apples. Last year was the bonanza year on our tree; more apples than I could pick, process, give away, throw away. An insanely huge crop! So this year I didn't expect much; it's rare to have huge fruit or mast crops in succession.

Sure enough, this year the crop was light, but it was definitely there, and started to drop in August. Each morning I arose to half a dozen to a dozen on the ground, all sizes and degrees of ripeness, usually no good to eat owing to a worm or a fungus or a bird, rodent, or raccoon bite. But I salvaged a few for us.

Then, again, I had to leave town for almost a week. Upon departure, there were still plenty of apples up in the tree. Way up, where I would need a ladder to pick them. But no worries: Based on previous years, they would all come down.

So I was astonished to find the tree absolutely bare of fruit when I returned. None on the ground, either. How the heck did that happen? Deer are the obvious explanation, but hey, they don't climb ladders -- how could they reach the top ones? And birds don't carry away fruit of that size, and raccoons leave a bunch of broken stems and twigs when they shimmy up and grab, and squirrels leave a lot of half-eaten ones around. No sign, however, that anything had been there. No sign that any apples had existed.

I guess there's a black hole passing through the neighborhood that's sucking all the birds, berries, and apples into it. Can't think of any better explanation for the collective vanishing act!

Saturday, September 1, 2012

R.I.P. Garden Elf

In the wee morning hours of August 16, my mother passed away in her bed. She was 85 years old, and from what we can figure her heart just wore out, giving her an ending that’s becoming rare in the western world: a natural death.

I mention this here because she was a key player in my yard and garden life -- my personal “garden elf” -- and it’s fitting that we can use the word “natural” when discussing her demise. She was an ardent lover of the natural world, particularly plants and birds, and devoted much of her life to enjoying and supporting it.

As a birder, she ventured all over North America with folks who became her lifelong friends. As a mother, she exposed her family to the magnificence of our country through a trip across the United States featuring the national parks, and gave us a chance to know nature on a small scale in our suburban backyard and annual vacations to Cape Cod.

As a woman who lived her beliefs, she donated time and money to organizations that support the great outdoors -- The Nature Conservancy, the Audubon Society, and a local preserve, Roaring Brook Nature Center. And as a gardener, she grew flowers and cultivated habitat wherever she lived.

Her biggest canvas was our home in south-central Vermont. This offered 11 acres of abandoned perennial gardens, new annual beds, retired hayfields, rock piles and walls, third-growth deciduous forest, a pond, and acres of irregular lawn. The whole has always been more than my husband and I can manage, so each spring, summer, and fall since we moved here -- 15 years -- Mom drove up from Connecticut every few weeks to spend a few days helping.

This is why I considered her my garden elf. While my husband manned the machines and did all the heavy work, and I did all the medium work and hand maintance, Mom did all the finish work: trimming edges of the lawn that the mower can’t reach, weeding spaces between terrace pavers and pots and garden borders, raking up mountains of pine needles, pruning neglected shrubs, making everything tidy and lovely.

Throughout, she listened to and watched the birds. Our location offers mixed habitats that attract 20-40 species according to season. Several of these species don’t frequent her neighborhood 150 road-miles south and gave her much joy. Their arrival each spring warranted a phone call or e-mail. Fox sparrows, rose-breasted grosbeaks, ravens, and the kestrel topped the list. Ditto the first daffodils, peonies, and black-eyed Susans.

We kept a species list whenever she visited; which, combined with the varying forms of journal I’ve tried over the years, built up a reliable record of wildlife in our neck of the woods. While I mainly bird out the window, Mom often would wander down the road in the early mornings and catch species that don’t come to the feeder. She taught me to identify many of them by song.

At the end of a gardening day, we would draw up chairs, pour ourselves a drink, and kick back to watch the feeders. Some of our best conversations took place during that ritual. After dinner, we would walk the property to admire our work and the view, along with the wildflowers, then turn in early -- country style -- to start again the next day.

Many of my friends envied me having a personal garden elf and offered to hire her. She turned them down, wanting just to do what she loved with her family in a beautiful place. Her devotion gave me an opportunity to develop a good relationship with my mother -- another thing that many people envy, for not all are so lucky.

Mom’s legacy is what I see and walk through every day, giving year-round reminder of all that was good between us. It’s comforting to know that once my turn comes to move on, the gardens we nurtured together will still be there for the next folks who come along.

Her formal obituary is at

 Birding at Cape Cod, early 1970s

At home in Unionville, CT, early 2000s

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Our pond

Just about a year ago, Tropical Storm Irene gave us way too much water. Irene’s floods were followed by a dry winter, then an abnormally dry spring and summer. Previous posts have reported on our misadventures with flooding and starting a well replacement. The latest episode in this water feast/famine story is our pond springing a leak.

At first, we thought the drought was drawing the water down. The level drops most every summer, and this dry year we weren’t surprised to see a creeping exposure of shore. But when the drought broke and we got seven inches of rain inside a week -- the water level kept dropping. And dropping, to the point of threatening the fish, frogs, clams and everything that lives there. How the heck do you deal with that?

This pond is no ornamental lily pond. It’s an acre-size ecosystem, built 50 years ago by previous owners. They put a concrete “chimney” in the deep end as an outgate that controls the water level. Our wellspring feeds the pond, and when it’s full the water spills into an opening at the top of the chimney, to flow out into a woody marsh via a pipe from the bottom of the chimney. The water height can be adjusted by adding or removing wooden boards embedded in the chimney’s front face, which originally were sealed with tar. Those boards have been rotting over the years, now causing the leaks.

The whole chimney stands 12-15 feet from its base in the muck to a dock supported on top. Even with the pond half empty, the base was still 6+ feet below the surface. The worst leaks through the boards were way down below the water level.

So hubby put on his engineer hat and fabricated a replacement insert from a plywood-type material called Advantech and encased it in rubber. By devising a way to block the outflow through the pipe at the bottom, he was able to remove the old wood as far down as possible and slide in the new insert without draining the pond.

This worked well but didn’t finish the job: As expected, the new “gate” leaked in spots along the sides, with a larger leak at the bottom. Plugging those required underwater work.

At first he and a friend free-dived with just a mask and sealed most of the edges. But the main leak, down in the muck and rubble, persisted.

Thank goodness for friends who have friends with diving gear! It took three multi-hour sessions involving two men in wetsuits taking turns with scuba tanks and weights, using a ladder, multiple ropes, a can of tar, lots of disposable gloves, various scrapers, a garden trowel, and long rubber strips to fully seal the edges and that bottom section. Yours truly manned the “barge” (a 16-foot Grumman aluminum canoe) used as a support platform for the tools and supplies.

The men worked blind in silt that stirred the minute they entered the water. The fish watched, not sure if we were friend or foe, but unknowingly grateful we were saving their home.

We finished the job and the air in the scuba tanks at the same time. A trickle leak remains, which is disappointing but way better than the torrent we started with. Within a few hours it was clear that the water level had stopped dropping -- indeed, is starting back up! Now it’s a waiting game, to see if the trickle will hold or get worse as the rains return. Hubby knows he will be back down there to fully seal that trickle, but when is the question

Sunday, July 1, 2012


I didn't plant anything on these steps and terrace, save for the red lettuce in the green planter. (Oh yes, and the orange glove on the traffic cone.  : )

Friday, June 29, 2012

Garden envy

What a difference a half-mile makes!

Here in microclimate land, I live in one of the more micro climates. Hence this blog title -- our yard behaves like Zone 3 even though we live, according to the map, in Zone 4. It's all because of one hill and a curve in the road.

Two of my neighbors are my gardening buddies. We get together in late winter and swap seeds, discuss crop successes and failures, and arrange who will start what for whom. Then we plant about the same time in May, each of us varying each year in what sort of early-season and pest protection gizmos we employ. We live approximately a half-mile apart, with me at one end of the road and them across the way from each other at the opposite end.

Regardless of timing and fertilizing and protection variables, by this time each season the difference in our private landscapes becomes obvious. My transplants are always smaller; I get lower rates of seed germination; and everything in general is less fecund. Originally I believed this reflected my inadequacies, but now I realize it's all about sunlight and soil.

I amend the soil; they amend the soil; though who's to say which combo is better. I fertilize; they fertilize; but who's to say which fertilizer and frequency has what effect.

The bottom line is: They have tons of sun and I don't. Even though my new garden location gets tons of sun since we cut down the pine trees, it's still not as much as they get. In fact, they have environmental problems I don't: wind in one case, overheating in another. I get a little of both but to a lesser degree, because our end of the road gets clouds more often. That extra 10-30 feet of altitude, combined with the hill, combined with directional orientation (they have open southern exposures), makes a huge difference.

The hill (aptly called Hateful Hill) trips clouds and drops moisture more than on the other end of the road. There are many days when the weather radar shows perfectly clear skies throughout the region, yet it's either cloudy or precipitating at our place. One neighbor and I both have rain gauges; after each rain, we measure different amounts, with usually more at my place. Could be a calibration difference -- neither of us has Official Weather Stations -- but the trend is consistent.

I envy my neighbors' burgeoning crops, and am glad I don't rely upon my garden to feed us. How anyone who lived here in the 1800s and had to live off the land survived, I can't imagine. Well, there was a large evacuation when the midwest opened up, with its unrestricted light and rich, dark soil . . .

Whatever. The upside is: Every year my garden produces food, no matter the sun, rain, insect, predator, pest problems. The perennials that have survived here are decades old. It's a wonder that bedazzles me every year.

But there's no mystery why I don't plant a bigger vegetable garden and can/freeze/pickle for the larder every fall!

Monday, June 18, 2012

Wishing well

One of the not-so-quaint features that came with our old farmhouse is a surface well (a.k.a. spring well), which comprises a wooden frame about the size of a casket sunk into the mud around a spring, and capped with a plywood lid. It lies a few feet from the road in the low point of our dooryard.

The spring is reliable and the water good, but the well case gets silty so we’ve had to install two fabric filters for dirt plus one UV filter for germs, all of which must be changed multiple times a year—or multiple times a month during heavy spring runoffs.

The time has come to rebuild the casket and cover for this well, but before investing the effort and materials, we decided to see if we could find a better location. Drilling is not an option; ergo, we must dig the old-fashioned way.

The backyard has two subterranean streams running through it that ooze up to the surface during periods of high water. If we could trace one of those streams to where it emerges from bedrock, and thus sink a collector uphill of the silty spring, then we’d be way ahead of the game in terms of water cleanliness and pressure.

So hubby made himself some dowsing rods and crisscrossed the backyard. At the appropriate spots, he revved up his backhoe and commenced digging. Before long, the backyard looked like a landmine had exploded!

Yes, we found lots of water. We also found the deconstruction debris from when the barn was torn down in the 1970s and the ell of our house built onto its footprint. One of those holes exposed a vigorous water source, but between the debris and the fact we’d have to mow around the casing, we let that option slide.

As well, we found an interesting and diverse combination of strata: muck, sand, topsoil, clay. Few rocks, and as yet no bedrock. The goal is to find a water source below the clay, but to date we’ve only found water running on top of it. One source was vigorous enough to undermine the clay bands as we watched.

Exploration stopped when one heavy load of clay bent the tractor bucket, thereby postponing other yard projects until that can be repaired.

So we’re still wishing for a well, and haven’t decided whether to keep digging until we hit the sweet spot or just head to the lumberyard and buy materials to rebuild the existing well case. Meanwhile, we’ve inadvertently created more sinkholes, since the water we disrupted a few feet down has sucked in the dirt, so that what was dug out no longer refills the hole(s) to the top. In fact, one almost consumed our plow truck as hubby attempted to shove the dirt piles back into place. Later, it grabbed a trailer being relocated in the yard.

The backyard has always been a bumpy place to ride a lawnmower, usually needing a visit to the chiropractor after a full mowing session. Now it’s a veritable obstacle course, with not much to show for the effort. But . . . nothing ventured, nothing gained, so we’ll probably press on until a solution presents itself.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Corporate crime: Poisoned bird seed

"The Scotts Miracle-Gro company pleads guilty to knowingly selling poisoned birdseed, and lawn and garden care products containing undocumented pesticides, to an unsuspecting public."

See complete story at:

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The spring thing

In keeping with the erratic weather we've had for the past two years, this year's transition to spring has been, well, erratic.

The big surprise was the heat wave. Mid-March, temps in the 60s and 70s! A full month early! Dry and gorgeous, day after day. It was a gift for everyone who like to be outdoors -- or, like us, who needs to be outdoors, in order to take care of huge yard and garden projects. We got a month's head start on what's normally a cramped season. We also put our canoes in the water on a record early date.

(That was weird . . . after the paddle, we went for lunch at a pub at the base of the local ski hill, where we sat inside in wetsuits with canoes and kayaks on top of the cars outside, while people trooped by in boots and parkas carrying skis and snowboards. The ground was brown, the hill was white, and all bodies of water were mixed ice and liquid. Typical March!)

Anyway, during this heat wave, the first perennials broke through and the earliest migratory birds returned and most everyone went nutty with spring fever. Meanwhile, while celebrating wearing T-shirts and shorts before equinox, we never stopped looking over our shoulders, haunted by the five feet of snow we got in the last ten days of March some years ago. Another year, an April blizzard. And another year, a killing frost on June 1 after everyone had planted their gardens.

And so it goes. We haven't gotten any blizzards yet, but we've swung back to "normal" weather, three weeks now of mixed precipitation, biting blustery winds, and blazing sun. The emerging perennials put on the brakes and are hanging in a state of suspension, waiting for the warmup to resume (though one crocus dared bloom and got away with it).

Real spring is just around the corner, and both mud season and maple sugar season are definitely over. Now gardeners are eyeing their plots, wondering if the seeds they've started can go out under cover, or if we still have to wait until Memorial Day to be sure . . .

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Weird winter

Most everyone in the country -- heck, most everyone in the world this year! -- will agree that it's been a funky season. Several funky seasons in a row, in fact.

And so it's been here, where this winter has been the weirdest one of the 14 we've so far experienced in Vermont. It's brought the least snow, not even accumulating 2 feet since October, versus the norm of 1-2 feet per month. Long strings of days above freezing, instead of the reverse. Short strings of subzero days instead of the usual week of same per month, December through March.

As people who heat with wood, we appreciate such a mild winter! So much easier to haul firewood in from the stack out back, and so much less needed to warm the house. The downside is:


Weird winter weather has meant freeze/thaw/freeze/thaw, turning the dooryard into a skating rink and driveway into a luge run. These make simple tasks like bringing in the bird feeders at night, or walking out to the car, death-defying risks (never mind hauling wheelbarrows full of firewood!). I've only fallen once this season, though it did require a trip to the chiropractor to straighten out. In previous years, hubby and I have both taken falls that either created or solved chiropractic issues. It's amazing how exciting and dangerous living can sometimes be!

Thus the season has passed, to the point where we're suddenly on the cusp of spring. March, historically, is when winter gets its wackiest. The deepest snows have occurred in this month, along with the oddest mixes of weather. I recall one day when I passed through rain, sleet, snow, sunshine, wind, deep mud, and thunderstorm with hail and rainbow inside 20 minutes and 15 miles. This year, less dramatic -- but in 4 days we've had 10 inches of snow, followed by temps in the high 40s that melted away half of it, followed a hard freeze returning the yard to skating rink/luge run configuration, then rain, sleet, high winds, blinding sunshine, and clouds/fog, with single-digit temps forecast overnight and a bounce back to the 40s within 48 hours.

Meanwhile, the birds are starting to move and changing mix at the feeders. Woodpeckers, owls, and ravens have been doing the mating dance for weeks. First robins have arrived, looking very confused. A platoon of geese landed on the river not far from here, clearly resting from migration. And the sun, when it shines, is so strong that it's hard to believe the spring bulbs won't pop up tomorrow through the crust they've lain beneath for months.

What makes this all exciting is the crapshoot factor. Forget the weather forecast -- what arrives is almost always different from what's predicted, so that every day is an adventure. And only 16 more before it's officially Spring!