Wednesday, December 25, 2013

A piebald Christmas

Our corner of Vermont, like everywhere else, has been riding the weather rollercoaster in recent years, and especially the past two weeks. Here we have a winter theme rather than fire or typhoon.

A week ago Saturday morning, when I went to the dump (excuse me: “transfer station”), it was a balmy 6 degrees. The next night, we got a 15-inch dump of powder snow, onto which was added another 3-4 inches in as many days.

But by the next Saturday morning, my trip to the dump was 40 degrees warmer! And the next day brought the start of rains and unbroken above-freezing temps. (One exception: a morning of light glaze, which was gone by noon.)

Thus, by Christmas eve, a foot and a half of snow had vanished, leaving a landscape of white-splotched gray, brown, black, and mustard, even some spots of green. For days the yard was mucky down to the frost line, until yesterday it froze solid again. The whole reminded me of March.

It’s one thing to lose the snow cover in a week of sunshine and spring-approaching temperatures; quite another to lose it in the darkest week of the year, with calendar winter just beginning.

This was bad news for folks who depend on winter business for their livelihoods: ski areas, snowmobile services, plow operators. It’s good news for the low-budget towns who don’t have to clear and sand. Good news, too, for citizens like us who have to haul firewood across the yard and drive up and down angled driveways, and citizens unlike us who have to commute to work.

The forecast for the holiday was a high of 11, low of -1, and no precipitation for several days. Well, that’s good, I thought sadly, looking at the frigid, piebald landscape; at least people will be able to get around.

Then this morning I woke up to a flawless white vista. Some passing cloud overnight had brought a dusting—light enough for us to sweep off the walkways but heavy enough to coat the world. A white Christmas!

Better yet: Clear skies allowed sunrise almost an hour earlier than all week, with the moon still high in the west. Calm winds, temps several degrees above zero instead of below. Oh, what a wonderful gift!

Thank you, Santa! And happy holidays to all.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Tempus fugit

As a girl, I often heard my elders griping about how fast time flies. I couldn’t imagine what they were talking about. Time is time, I thought, and it passes as it passes; every day has 24 hours, and for me they were always full.

Now that I’m creeping toward 60, I know what my elders (all gone now) meant. For the past few years, time has flown by at an astonishing rate, leaving us wondering where the heck it went. And despairing over how little we accomplished on the ever-lengthening to-do list.

I used to post a blog entry every week. Now, more than two months have elapsed since last writing, and it feels like two weeks!

Here in the north country, summer is fleeting enough on the calendar; but when it whooshes by before you’ve registered its presence, it leaves a disturbing feeling. Where did the time go? What did we do wrong so that we missed it?

These days we forget how many years ago something occurred—it’s all starting to blur together. We speak in terms of decades not months. That alone makes me feel old and worried. Our lives aren’t boring; rather, they are rich and diverse, busy every day. So why is time seeming to go faster? Our general routine is the same. The seasons march by at the same tempo. What, exactly, has changed?

You’d think that as you physically slow down, the sense of time passing would decelerate with you. Instead, it’s the reverse. Huh?

Every look out the window to our neglected yard and fields underscores the point. We used to do so much. We don’t any more. We’re facing the need to size down because we can’t manage things properly, and the prospect doesn’t look good for reversing the trend.

Such thoughts echo the season change around us. It’s November now: Stick Season. The world is going gray and stark and dormant. So are we. Despite the fact that time passes faster, the dark season feels longer. I’ve already started my annual countdown to solstice, desperately awaiting the time when the days start getting longer again.

And now I’m starting to wonder how many seasons are left to me on the planet. I used to not think about that. But with so many loved ones dying off, the increasing darkness of the natural year, the terrifying prospects of a collapsing global society and economy. . . well, the need to experience spring again has become much stronger. And seems so far away.

Yet in six months when it’s here, I’ll be wondering where the heck the time went!

Sunday, September 1, 2013

It's raining apples!

For someone who didn’t lift a finger to garden this season, I’ve got more natural food than I know what to do with!

Our weather pattern wasn’t great for crops, so I’m glad I didn’t go through the usual trouble. Everybody’s gardens produced, just not great, and caused a lot of worrying and griping.

But it was a superb year for wildflowers and fruits.

Our raspberry patch went crazy—we probably put 30+ pounds into the freezer. The blueberries were good, too, but at the time they peaked we were very busy and there was frequent rain so we missed the bulk of the harvest.

But apples!

Oh my. Only once before have we gotten this many, and I was at a loss for how to deal with them. Wouldn’t be a problem if I were a dedicated baker. But I’m not, and even if I were, our household diet has sugar and starch restrictions. So vast quantities of baked goodies are the wrong plan.

Happily, in the two years since the last bumper crop, I’ve acquired friends who both cook and have chickens. So in installments I’ve been handing off bags and bushel baskets instead of lobbing them into the field, dumping wheelbarrow loads in the woods, or taking bag loads to the dump and food shelf.

Why not just ignore them, you ask, or compost them in a heap?

First of all, they’re falling on the lawn in a path of regular travel, both foot and vehicle. We don’t mow zealously so the grass is tall enough to mask many of them. Stepping on one unawares is a fast way to get a sprained ankle.

Second, they start to stink after a while. And attract yellow jackets. And bears. For a few weeks, when the tree dropped only 5-10 a day, the neighborhood raccoon and deer would pass through overnight and clear them up. But that abruptly stopped, and suddenly I had dozens. Then the tree started throwing down 3-4 dozen more each day!

All this from one old scaggy thing that’s never pruned or sprayed or otherwise cultivated. It’s the last tree left anywhere near the house after our pine log-out, and the only place I can hang bird feeders any more.

Actually, this tree is two intertwined. I didn’t know that until the previous bumper crop, when half of it produced red McIntosh apples and the other half produced Golden Delicious. The Goldies don’t start falling until the Macs are about done, making for many weeks of daily pickup and weekly disposal dilemmas. At least this year they are providing more food than waste, instead of the other way around!

(Of course, acrobat kittens don’t help!)

Monday, July 29, 2013

The un-garden

For a laundry list of reasons starting last year, I knew that this summer would find us behind on projects and losing ground. So I decided to not do a vegetable garden, for the first time in 15 years.

It isn’t total withdrawal: I popped some carrot and lettuce seeds into the planters nearest to the house, and filled the rest of them with bright annual flowers. Then cover-cropped the veggie beds with buckwheat to avoid raising a fine crop of quack grass and milkweed. (Also to attract our scarily shrinking population of bees.)

This, in addition to the loss of my mother’s help (see “R.I.P. Garden Elf,” September 1, 2012), has meant a yard and garden scruffier than at any time during our residence. Since spring we’ve mowed only three times and I’ve trimmed only once.

Such neglect has created an interesting new environment . . . proving the adage “Nature abhors a vacuum.” Anywhere a spot was bare or unattended, plants moved in, creating a natural garden of delight.

Borders normally groomed have exploded in daisies and black-eyed Susans, asters (still to bloom), and campanula; plus the more weedy species such as lamb’s quarters, amaranth, pigweed, dandelions, thistle, yarrow, Queen Anne’s lace, and all varieties of clover. Not to mention every form of grass.

Wildflowers not seen in the yard before have grabbed corners and crevices between rocks: various mints, joe pye weed, and the indomitable burdock. Dropped bird seed from winter feeders has sprouted into mixed varieties of sunflower, over here and over there.

In areas where trees were harvested last fall, ferns and jewelweed have run rampant, as have the bee balm and phlox, overrunning the borders of abandoned perennial beds and popping up in areas far across the yard. I can no longer get to my compost pile, as it has been consumed by flowers.

My favorite surprises are the daisies and black-eyed Susans that took over the walk and terrace. For almost a month, we had to hitch up our legs and climb over them in order to get in the front door—I couldn’t bear to cut them back until after they bloomed. I also love the single, sentinel sunflowers that have appeared in the middle of the lawn, thumbing their petals at the cultivated ones struggling on the edge of the garden. Nothing I planted (galliardias, nasturtiums, marigolds, zinnias, morning glories) has done half as well as wild things that grabbed a molecule of dirt and grit between cracks or in disturbed soil.

This unconstrained growth proves something I talked about five years ago in my book Open Your Heart with Gardens. You don’t have to actively create and tend a garden in order to enjoy one; nature will take care of that herself. So even though I’m not actively cultivating this year, the yard is full of color and beauty and food in spite of me. Many of these wildflowers are edible, and of course there’s the berry patch. It, too, is going insane this season, overgrowing the firewood stacks despite pre-season cutbacks. In the past three weeks, we’ve harvested no less than 20 pounds of perfect, thumb-size red raspberries!

It is restful to step outside and just enjoy the bloom for a change, instead of having to haul watering cans and hoses and fertilizer, patrol for pests, set up and take down protection. I’m almost tempted to make a habit of it, though I’m sure by next spring I’ll be back to drawing plans and buying transplants and seeds.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The gullywhumper

One of my favorite words is "gullywhumper."Apparently this is a regionalism or idiom or slang, since I can't find it in any standard dictionary. Not sure where I heard it in the first place, but it means a storm that dumps a huge amount of rain.

We had one of those yesterday afternoon.

All summer long, we've had daily showers or thundershowers, intermittent or steady; and when not doing that, the weather hass been hot and sticky.


Our wet season has been object of envy for the regions suffering extreme heat, drought, and fire. Can't say much to that, other than wherever one lives, one has one's own weather crosses to bear.

Anyway, yesterday afternoon's storm unleashed 5+ inches of rain in about 40 minutes -- massively overloading the drainage capability of the landscape. Result: Road washout. Pond overflow. Well drowning. Plumbing muckage. Driveway scouring. Normality disruption for the rest of the day.

All that in our dooryard; then out on the main road, mudslides and property destruction. In other words, a honking great mess, on par with the damage generated by Hurricane Irene two summers ago.

The big difference is that this storm was local -- neighborhood vs. state -- so that our little dead-end road was first on the repair list instead of last. Nice change of pace for us, and a relief for the state as a whole.

Here's what it looked like in the first hour afterward:

What you're seeing is where the town road meets the bottom of our driveway. High on the right is the entry of the dry streambed designed for runoff, now so full that it jumped the (blocked) culvert and sliced down the side of the road (1-3 feet deep) instead of under it, then washed across it (6-9 inches deep) to deposit all the removed road surface material into our pond, out of sight on the left.

Out of sight on the right, about where the tree disappears into the ferns, is our well. The downstream flood was so intense that it ran through the woods and flooded the well and lifted its 8x4 plywood lid, dumping it into the stream that normally feeds the pond, and filling the well with muck.

Good thing we have lots of filters in our plumbing, else this flow would have gunked up the whole house. As it was, the filters had 1/8" of glop completely encasing them.

By next morning, the town road crew had patched it all back together, but town budget won't allow replacing the damaged, too-small culvert and engineering the drainage correctly. Thus, this will continue to happen every few years whenever we have a Weather Event.

Our tax dollars at work: solving or ignoring problems intead of preventing or fixing them. At least we could get out!

Saturday, June 29, 2013


Remiss of me to not report the most important event in our household this year—kittens!

My excuse: This is a yard-and-garden blog, and the kits have nothing to do with our outdoor life. Nevertheless, they will eventually become indoor/outdoor cats and play their own parts in our landscape. So here they are, and here’s their story.

Friends of ours from autosports collect, buy, sell, and race BMWs. One day they had to remove a rare European version of a BMW sedan from a ratty old barn where it had been stored for a decade. So they wrestled their way in, dug out the car, tossed loose parts and stuff inside it, dragged it onto a trailer, and towed it home.

It sat in the driveway for four days before they had a chance to clean it out in preparation for sale. At that point they found, beneath the junk in the backseat, three very hungry kittens.

Not being pet people, owing to their crazy work and racing schedules, they weren’t equipped to suddenly become cat-parents. But they dashed out anyway to get supplies and commenced kitten caretaking until homes could be found. Keeping with the BMW theme, they named them Boris, Manfred, and Werner.

Meanwhile, spouse and I had emerged from the grief of losing three of our four cats in 18 months, and were ready to get a kitten or two in replacement. The surviving three-year-old was getting bored and lonely, and we missed the love and companionship that comes with a full-size furry family.

So we visited the local farm where two of the cats had come from 13 years before, only to learn that there was no litter this spring. Disappointed yet relieved (were we really ready?), we returned home . . .

. . . and found an e-mail containing the above story and photo.

A week later, our friends drove six hours on a stormy night to bring us all three kittens. By then they were approximately a month old and weighed about a pound apiece. It had also been determined that one was female, so Manfred had been re-dubbed Minnie.

Now they are almost three months old and a second one has been identified as female. Both girls have been renamed: Spirit and Cricket. The male, Werner, has not yet shown what his permanent name should be, so we're temporarily calling him Blondie.




All are happy, healthy, vigorous, and have tripled their size and weight. They are at the crazy-kitten stage where they get into everything and make constant mess around the house.

Our young-adult cat took a mere five days to get over the surprise before adopting them. We are counting on him to teach them how to be cats, since they had no chance to learn from their mama. For now our challenge is to keep him from playing too hard with them. The games started when he was literally ten times their size and weight; they grow so fast, that differential has now been halved, yet he still has the power to hurt them by accident. It’s a good thing we work at home full-time!