Saturday, December 26, 2009

Rock On

"There is no pleasing New Englanders, my dear, their soil is all rocks and their hearts are bloodless absolutes." – John Updike

Amid the riot of summer's growth, rocks are often disregarded. Staunch sentries of the forest, they lie impassive and unmoved by the frenzy of chlorophyll-fueled growth around them. By winter, their irregular form and massive heft take on a greater prominence against the bare, leafless landscape, with an intrepid beauty all their own.

"Since childhood she had walked the Devon rivers with her father looking for flowers and the nests of birds, passing some rocks and trees as old friends, seeing a Spirit everywhere, gentle in thought to all her eyes beheld."
- Henry Williamson, 1895-1977

I love looking at unusual boulders along my walks, especially if they have interesting lichens growing on them. Somehow, that bit of tenacious green seems to really stand out on a frigid, cold day.

"Study how water flows in a valley stream, smoothly and freely between the rocks. Also learn from holy books and wise people. Everything, even mountains, rivers, plants and trees, should be your teacher."
- Moriheri Ueshiba, Japanese poet, 1883-1969

These boulders looks like they were frozen in time as they tumbled down a wooded slope. Did they look just this way a thousand years ago? Will they remain for another thousand years?

What is it that we New Englanders love about a stone wall, anyway? The suggestion of order? A rough symmetry of form that marks the hand of man?

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Growing Fruits, Nuts & Berries

My favorite nursery catalog arrived today. It's from St. Lawrence Nurseries, a family-run nursery in far northern New York state, about 20 miles from the Canadian border.

The nursery specializes in cold-hardy fruit and nut trees and claims to be one of the few fruit and nut tree nurseries growing their stock in a zone 3 location (-40 to -30 degrees F. average annual minimum temperature).

If you've been less than satisfied with the survival rate of your seedlings, it's a pretty safe bet that St. Lawrence stock will be winter-hardy.

St. Lawrence sells 152 apple varieties, from Adanac and Adirondack Crab to Winesaps and Wolf River. They also sell quite a few pear, plum, pie cherry and cherry plum varieties, although because my space is limited, I'm more interested in their fruiting shrubs and ground covers.

Over the years, I've purchased quite a few of their plants:

  1. Gooseberries, Pixwell variety (Ribes sp.): A a tough plant that's reliably produced plump, green fruit that turns purple when ripe with very little care and not a great deal of sun. I prefer eating the gooseberries when they're still green and quite tart. They turn sweet as they ripen.

    In early spring, the same little green worms that have denuded my serviceberry trees (see below) also go after the gooseberry. According to Lee Reich, author of Uncommon Fruits Worthy of Attention, these are currantworms, which can be controlled by insecticides. (I prefer handpicking, but you've got to catch them early.) Beware of the thorns.

  2. Juneberries, aka Serviceberry or Shadblow: The berry is similar to a blueberry in appearance and, depending on who you talk to, taste. My two tree seedlings had a very slow start and were stunted for years by the one-two punch of early spring attacks by leaf-eating green caterpillars followed by persistent deer browsing all summer long.

    Then last summer, one of the two trees really took off and now has a nice canopy of foliage about eight feet high. Oddly, although the trees are spaced just 10 feet apart, the larger tree escaped the usual caterpillar devastation while the smaller one did not. I handpicked as many of the worms as I could, but the damage was largely done. They can defoliate a seedling in no time.

  3. Blueberries: My lowbush blueberry bed needs to be rescued from spreading brambles and other invasives threatening to engulf them.

  4. Nanking dwarf cherry trees: I planted three of these about eight years ago. They put on a lovely show of pinkish white blooms in the very early spring, but the birds get most of the cherries; I discovered they were too small to be pitted using an antique cherry pitter my sister gave me as a gift one year.

  5. Northrop Mulberry: Because mulberries are among the last trees to leaf out in spring, I know when mine starts growing that all danger of frost is passed. Since planting one tree seedling a number of years ago, I've been rewarded with volunteer mulberry trees elsewhere on the property, courtesy of resident birds spreading the wealth. One of the volunteers is now about 20 feet high.

    If you've got a mature mulberry tree in your yard and children in the neighborhood, they'll likely compete with the birds to get at the berries. Historically, mulberries were made into wine. Author Reich notes that mulberries were also used to cook murrey, a puree added to spiced meats or used as a pudding in medieval England. Dried mulberries, he notes, were a winter staple for the people of the Himalayas. Black mulberries have been known to produce fruit for 300 years.

  6. Viburnum: This is one of my all-time favorite shrubs, and over the years, I've planted Blackhaw (Viburnum prunifolium), Wayfaring Bush (Viburnum lantana), Nannyberry, aka Wild Raisin (Viburnum lentago) American Highbush Cranberry (Viburnum trilobum) and one of my greatest success stories, the massive doublefile Viburnum. Most of these shrubs don't exceed 15 feet high when fully grown so they'll do well in a confined environment, although they will appreciate well-drained soil and full sun. They are all characterized by attractive foliage, lovely flowers and berries the birds will love.

  7. Corkscrew willow (Salix sp.): I planted two of these in areas of my lawn that tend to stay wet in early spring due to a drainage system that funnels water away from elsewhere on the property, but the area doesn't get enough sunlight and the plants haven't done so well. I meant to move them to another location last fall, but ran out of time. If they're still around in the spring, and the deer haven't nibbled them to death, they will be relocated.

  8. Potentilla (Potentilla fruticosa): This is a small shrub reaching just two or three feet high with small yellow flowers all summer long.

  9. Dogwoods: I've planted gray (siky) dogwood and red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea). Both do well in damp areas and tend to spread by sending up suckers.
I'd love to have a few nut trees on the property but have been reluctant to commit to a tree that takes so long to produce nuts. However, if you're interested, St. Lawrence offers Hazelbert, Bur Oak, Red Oak, Korean Nut Pine, Black Walnut, Butternut, Shadbark Hickory and American Chestnut.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

'Ol Man Winter Arrives Ahead of Schedule

I went to bed last night with reports from the weatherman of "8 to 14 inches possible" lingering in my mind. By 10:30 pm, the wind was picking up and packing a punch with strong gusts that startled the boys, but there was not yet any precipitation. Several times during the night I heard the snowplows rumble by, so I knew that snow was indeed falling.

I awoke this morning to a moderate amount of the white stuff coating the landscape, but certainly not as much as other areas in my region got.

We got about six inches. Much ado about nothing.

After fortifying myself with a leisurely breakfast of steel-cut oatmeal with maple syrup, milk, raisins and walnuts, I brought out my handy-dandy snow blower for its inaugural 2009-2010 season run. The little Toro 1800 breezed through its paces. This is my third season with the snow blower (aka snow "thrower") and I must say that was some of the best $280 I've ever spent. It's got to be one of the smallest snow blowers around and with its plastic body, it's lightweight and easy to pick up.

Still, its 18-inch-wide blades make short work of my 110-foot-long driveway. It's an electric model, so I don't have to mess with gasoline or oil, which I don't like to store in the garage, anyway. I use a 100-foot-long cord with it, which is not quite long enough to get me to the bottom of the driveway, down by the road, so I usually end up shoveling the last few feet. Of course, that's also where the plows really pack in the snow, so shoveling those last few feet is unavoidable. It took me 35 minutes to clear the driveway, and that included heart-pounding shoveling down by the road.

I took a walk at the Orchard Hill Nature Center the other day. The trails take you from woodlands through the fields and, my favorite part, along the woolly and wild Pootatuck River. (There's also a shaded boardwalk trail where a variety of ferns, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, red Trillium and Solomon's Seal can be found in the spring.)

The site's history extends back to the 1700s, when it was a farm site. The river provided power for the house and farm as well as a variety of mills on the property. Stone wall remnants of the mill remain. The place, long ago reclaimed by nature, was once home to a lumber sawmill, a grist mill for grinding flour and a cider mill for processing juice from apples. There was also a wool-carding mill for yarn-making.

Later, the land was purchased by a water company for its watershed. It became a nature sanctuary in 1976.

I've got a lamb stew cooking in the oven, and the aroma emanating from the kitchen is intoxicating. Snowy winter days like this are ideal for two things, in my opinion: eating good food and curling up with a good book.

Enjoy yours.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Creeping Through Winter

Now that the thermometer has dipped a few degrees into the realm of real wintertime temperatures, my thoughts have turned to the warmer days ahead. I’m waiting impatiently for my seed catalogs to arrive and wondering how I’ll make it until spring.

I recently wrapped up my holiday gift shopping with the purchase of some lovely heirloom vegetable seed packets from the Hudson Valley Seed Llibrary.

Even if you’re done with your holiday shopping, this site’s still well worth a visit, if only to admire the 16 different “art packs” of vegetable, herb and flower seeds. You can buy them singly ($3.50 each) or as part of a gift basket. The cover of each envelope was designed by a different artist. I must say, they’d make great stocking stuffers.

Some winter pruning assignments I’ve given myself demand attention. The first is a roughly 30-foot long stand of well-established forsythia (variety unknown) which has bloomed quite sparsely for each of the past 14 years. While pruning back the older canes should do the trick, I actually want to cut the whole entanglement back to about three feet high. From what I’ve read, it can take it, and while I’ll sacrifice whatever blooms I’d otherwise get this spring, my preference is to prune in winter rather than immediately after the spring bloom to minimize further encounters with deer ticks.

My second pruning project involves a similar severe cutback of a large burning bush tree with a canopy that's about 15 feet high and 25 feet wide.

Invasive seedlings of the burning bush found elsewhere on the property are usually dug up, but this massive specimen is allowed to stay, given its attractive mounded growth habit and its vivid scarlet fall colors. That being said, my wish is to cut back these branches a good three or four feet, all the way around, so that I can better admire the three sun-choked evergreens behind it.

I was ready to tackle these pruning projects weeks ago, but my online sources tell me I’m better off waiting until late winter to do the job to reduce desiccation of the cut branches. I’m fortunate in that I’ll have a helpmate in this project, a friend and neighbor who dug up trays of pachysandra and a few sedums from my property, with my blessings, last summer. I am not a fan of pachysandra, having seen how well established beds of it continuously creep into my lawn and perennial beds. It’s a constant battle to keep them out of where they don’t belong.

Other than their greedy behavior, pachysandra does offer a few benefits, including nearly maintenance-free growth that grows so thickly that weeds can’t gain a roothold, and an attractive evergreen appearance all year long.

So my work’s cut out for me in late February, but I still have 10 weeks to luxuriate in the winter respite from outdoor chores. Where are my seed catalogs??

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Four Things My Cats Taught Me About Life

1. Embrace your inner predator.
When Waldo stalks The String, I have to admire the intensity of his concentration. In that moment when his eyes lock on their target, the outside world ceases to exist. There are no distractions. All energy is focused on his quarry. Every movement, every twitch of The String is processed and adjusted for as the animal prepares to pounce at exactly the right time. In a house cat, such single-minded attention comes from instinct and genes, but cultivated by a person, these qualities could enhance one's accomplishments where patience, commitment and clarity of mind are required.

2. Life is best savored from a lounging position.
Like good old boys who never tire of telling the same story over and over again, the Fur Boys repeatedly urge the following wisdom:

"When you lie down, the pace of life slows down."

"Take time to smell the food bowl."

"You only go through life nine times."

"Stretch, roll, yawn and repeat."

"Indulging in a little catnip now and then is good for the heart."

"Decisions come easier following thoughtful meditation, preferably in morning sunlight."

3. Always make time for play.
Waldo has the long legs and lean body of a ballet dancer. He'll readily go airborne to pursue a flung mouse. His twists, turns and pirouettes would earn him points from a television dance contest judge.

Luther has the body of a weight-lifter, strong, stocky and stout. He's not much of a jumper and is more inclined to look for a seat as soon as he enters a room. At play, he prefers to have The String dangled inches above him as he lies on his back, four paws to the wind. At all times, he maintains a perpetual state of innocent, wide-eyed adorableness, a fiction he frequently plays up to get himself out of trouble.

4. Lick your loved ones.

The expression of love can take several forms, Luther told me one day, feeling philosophical. Licking, for instance. Waldo's gentle snoring, Luther confided, awakens in him a fierce desire to show his love, and he does so by firmly placing his paws around his best bud's neck and vigorously bathing Waldo's head in a no-nonsense kind of way. Should Waldo have the temerity to protest or the poor judgment to move, the licks are replaced by jaws locked on the throat and a tussle ensues.

Leisurely sipping a glass of Zinfandel in the afternoon sun, Luther was feeling expansive and eager to articulate his feelings. To prove his love to me, his Keeper, he explained, he only needed to beam and squint in beatific joy and gratitude.

When feeling particularly demonstrative, Luther expresses his love by gently gnawing on delightfully odoriferous human toes, starting with the littlest and saving the biggest (and best) for last. He'll begin by artfully gaining the victim's trust with gentle, tender nipping that lulls one into complacency. Then, without warning, the delicate sampling of the 5 Little Piggies degenerates as the victim's toes are noshed on while Luther clamps down hard with a devilish grin on his face.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Turning Off the Furnace Attracts Media Attention

Setting personal challenges has always been something I've enjoyed doing. I'm not sure why. Often physical in nature, these challenges have been a way to stretch myself, test my endurance or simply make routine tasks more interesting. It's also been a way to make seemingly impossible goals more manageable when broken down into smaller components.

So I was quite excited when a recent challenge I set for myself and fellow bloggers drew the attention of the media. In my personal finance blog, Wild Blue Yonder, I invited others to join me in the 2nd annual No Heat Challenge. Simply put, the contest was to see how long each of us could go into the fall without turning on the heat. (Using the fireplace, stove or a space heater would be cheating, and each of us was on the honor system to report the date we charged up the furnace.)

Of course, those with young children or elderly family members living in the home would not want to participate in this particular challenge, but we did have about 20 enthusiastic participants from California to Georgia and everywhere in between.

I soon learned that my No Heat Challenge was by no means unique. There was, in fact, an entire town in New Jersey that was enduring the same kind of masochistic game. And so I was "discovered" by an intrepid reporter intent on ferreting out other examples of a rather punishing trend. I was interviewed first by a reporter with the (Newark, NJ) Star Ledger, and then, a few weeks after that story was published, a writer with USA Today also called me.

It was quite flattering to be considered an "expert" on energy efficiency topics and, gently prodded by the reporters, I did my best to shift from my simple contest to comment from a larger perspective on different ways to save on energy costs and why this is important.

I managed to squeeze in a fond reference to my Kill-o-Watt meter and touch on CFLs, as well as my personal obsession with tracking gallons of heating oil used each season and price per gallon paid.

The No Heat Challenge continues today. At least, I think it does. Sometimes, people forget to report in that they turned the heat on. I myself flipped the switch in mid-October, but I'm already thinking about what other sorts of energy-efficiency personal challenges could come next.

Will you join me?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

As Good As Leftovers in the Fridge...

Can you spot all the little apples still clinging to the tree? They're clustered near the top of the branches (top right of photo), on the side that faces south.

If you're a hungry deer, they're as good as leftovers stored safely in the fridge.

Most are about the size of a kiwi, but round, of course. They've long been a coveted food source for my local deer population, whose presence I'm reminded of daily when I step on the poop that is scattered nightly around my property.

Here's a better view of the apples looking straight up.


With relatively mild temperature in the low 60s, it was a great day to squeeze in some late fall yardwork, and in fact, I've been getting a lot of things done now that I normally don't get to until spring.

Cutting back dead foliage on the peonies, for example, and raking yet more leaves out from under my vast pachysandra beds and from under the rhododendrons, on the north side of the house. I was also able to transfer four wheelbarrow loads of mulch across the yard and deposit it all under the apple tree pictured here. Nothing much grows under the tree, and so the exposed soil tends to wash away during a heavy rain. To prevent further erosion, I spread the mulch around the trunk, though I still need to spread more.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Dance of the Falling Leaves

They danced to the
wind's loud song.

They whirled, and they floated,
and scampered.
They circled and flew along.

The moon saw
the little leaves dancing.

Each looked like
a small brown
The man in the moon
smiled and liste
And this is the song he heard.

The North Wind is calling, is calling,
And we must whirl round and round,
And then, when our dancing is ended,
We'll make a warm quilt for the ground.

- Author Unknown

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Red Maple, an Autumn Show-Off

Red maple (Acer rubrum Linnaeus) is exceptionally beautiful this time of year.

Also known as swamp maple, this magnificent tree really ups the ante of fall color with its vivid scarlet show.

According to Cornell University, the tree is commonly found in swamps but also does well on dry slopes, which is where my red maple grows.

I must admit to mostly forgetting about this tree for the better part of the year due to its less-than-prominent location on the edge of the property, on a slope I seldom explore except when picking the Japanese wineberries that grow in abundance there during summer's peak.

But one of the treats of autumn is to pause in my yardwork and look up from the raking or other outdoor chores, and this is the tree that captures the eye. (Those are the wineberries in the foreground.) There's still quite a bit of color in the New England woods, although the brilliant reds of sugar maples, burning bush and Japanese maples are sharing more of the spotlight with creamy orangey yellows, darker shades of burgundy and rust and everything in between.

Friday, October 23, 2009

One Last Kayak Trip

With temperatures expected to reach into the low 70s yesterday, I knew it could be one of my final chances to take Little Minnow out for a fall foliage cruise. So I set out yesterday and put in on Lake Lillinoah at one of my hometown's boat launches.

I've learned from experience that one can look mighty foolish getting into a kayak in shallow water, only to find yourself unable to move because the hull of the kayak is wedged on the water's bottom. Unless you have a boating companion who can push you out, you really need to wade into deeper water so the kayak is truly floating before you get in. So, because I knew I would get wet, I wore a pair of sweatpants with those elasticized cuffs on the bottoms. I scrunched them up to my knees before wading in. I was expecting freezing cold water, but in truth, the air temperature was so warm it didn't bother me.

Once on the channel that feeds out to the lake, I can only say the view was exquisite. It reminded me of a John Denver song.

Like a night in the forest
Like the mountains in springtime
Like a walk in the rain
Like a storm in the desert
Like a sleepy blue ocean
You fill up my senses

The lake really did fill up my senses. A warm breeze riffled through low hanging tree branches and sent cascades of leaves floating down to the water's surface. That's what I heard, too...the wind in the trees and acorns raining down, some of them plunking into the water. Even the air seemed incredibly fresh and clean.

Once through the channel and on the lake, I decided to head south toward the Stevenson Dam, hugging the shoreline. The rhythmic sound of my paddles dipping into the water put me in a meditative state as I gazed upon the birch, beech, hemlocks, maples and mountain laurel with their impressionist-like palette of rust, gold, rose, red and amber foliage.

One or two motor boats made a few passes down the middle of the lake, creating broad swells that smacked against the banks of the lake. I thought it ironic that these same boaters, who evidently enjoy being on the water as much as I do, could be so disrespectful of the environment. There was quite a bit of floating debris, all of it plastic. I fished out about a dozen objects ranging from a motor oil bottle to bait containers, along with the usual food and beverage containers.

Once down near the dam, I turned round and headed back from whence I came. I considered crossing over to the other side of the lake, but in truth I was afraid of getting mowed down by one of the motor boats patrolling up and down. Kayaks are low-lying boats and I doubt you'd even catch my profile in the bright sun, doing about 30 mph, until you were practically on top of me.

So I contented myself with the same view, only in reverse. It was a picture-perfect day, so no regrets.

The cost of a kayak, roof rack, life vest, paddle, anchor, and assorted pulleys and ties about 5 years ago? About $1,500. Two-and-a-half hours out on the water in late October? Priceless.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Caught in the Act!

I noticed a cow in a cornfield on a morning walk.

As I drew closer, I realized there were actually three bovines contentedly munching in the farmer's cornfield. The farmer shooed them out of there a short time later. There was plenty of sweet corn still on the stalks. Must've been like Cow Nirvana.

The photo reminds me of one of those children's puzzles, How many animals can you find in this picture?

I also passed this picturesque barn along my route. It's a beauty, isn't it?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Robins Feasting on Dogwood Berries

Large numbers of robins, red-breasted grosbeaks and catbirds are gorging themselves on the berries of 5 dogwood trees I have here.

It's that time of year when everyone's bulking up. And it's around this time that I begin to worry about the hummingbirds that still linger here into late September. Go, go, head for sunny Mexico, I tell them silently. But one more sip of sugar water before you leave.

There's a real chill in the air these days, even when the sun is highest in the sky. There's barely enough warmth to dry my clothes outside. Soon enough, it'll be back to the electric dryer and higher electric bills.

I stopped by the Lutheran church fair today and picked up a jade houseplant for a buck. I also saw a nice concrete garden pot for just $8, which I should have snatched up, but because I was laid off from my job last week, I told myself, "No frivolous spending." Darn, I should have gotten it anyway, it was quite the bargain.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

It's Party Time for Autumn Joy Sedum

One of my favorite perennials, the hardy and drought-tolerant 'Autumn Joy' sedum, is a reliable presence in my garden beds.

Its fleshy, succulent-like leaves don't appeal to Connecticut deer, although the resident woodchuck has been known to dine on them.

The leaves of this sedum remind me of the foliage of a well-known houseplant, the jade plant. Those fleshy leaves are why the plant requires so little water; it will do well in a sunny spot and is easily divided.

This stonecrop forms a nice clump-forming mound of bluish-green leaves and pinkish/bronzy flowers that darken to maroon over time. Its 3-inch wide blooms arrive in August and persist through the month of September in my Zone 6; the plant is also hardy in Zones 3-9.

Sedums are said to attract butterflies, but in truth I have seen more butterflies on my butterfly bushes than the sedums. There are, however, plenty of bees and other important pollinators that swarm the sedum blossoms well before they're fully open.

It's one of the most trouble-free perennials I know, and it's seldom bothered by insect pests. What vivid colors it brings to the autumn garden at a time when many perennials are looking spent.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Is Growing Vegetables Worth It From a Cost Perspective?

Last spring, I decided to track how much produce my garden generated and to try to assign a dollar value to the vegetables based on prices at my local supermarket. Whenever possible, I tried to find organic equivalents at the supermarket, although that wasn't always possible.

This year I grew (or attempted to grow) garlic, cucumber, red potatoes, cherry tomatoes, tomatoes, yellow and green string beans, basil, lettuce, radishes, green pepper, acorn squash and zucchini.

My successes included garlic (17 small heads harvested) cucumbers (50 cukes from 3 plants, compared to 33 harvested from just 2 vines last summer), red potatoes (11 lbs., and so much fun to dig up), string beans and yellow wax beans (6 lbs.), basil (6 cups of leaves picked for homemade pesto sauce) and lettuce, which made a strong comeback late in the spring after a cold and rainy start.

I got mediocre results from my tomato plants before they succumbed to blight but did manage to get 25 tomatoes from 3 plants. (Compare that last year, when I harvested 108 tomatoes from 6 plants.) I also got 47 grape tomatoes.

This year's disappointments included spinach (dismal), snap peas (dismal), zucchini (2 picked at the tail end of the season), acorn squash (4 small ones picked) and green peppers (4 picked, compared to 7 picked last year). I believe the unproductive squashes simply weren't pollinated; I should have been more on the ball and ready to pollinate the squash blossoms myself, but I was too busy.

The total estimated value of produce I grew this year came to about $147. However, my expenses came to $371; most of that was the $288 I spent on6-foot-high wire deer fencing, which came in rolls of 50 feet; of course, my 11 x 17 foot garden required 56 feet of fencing, so I had to spring for 2 rolls. I expect my cost analysis will be much more favorable next year as I won't be factoring in the cost of that fence.

Interestingly, the most valuable food item I grew was something I had no hand in at all: the wild raspberries and blackberries that appear in profusion here each year. Based on Shop Rite's pricey $3.99 for a 4 oz. container of organic raspberries, I estimate the value of the 2 3/4 cups of berries I picked was $44. I could have easily picked 20 times that amount of berries, but after having Lyme Disease for two consecutive years, I reluctantly chose to pick only those berries within easy reach of my mowed yard. Most ended up on top of my morning breakfast cereal.

It's nice to think I'm saving money as I grow my vegetables, but for me, vegetable gardening is simply an enjoyable, relaxing activity that offers great satisfaction and wholesome food. Most people understand how much more flavorful a homegrown tomato is than store-bought, and the same goes for homegrown peppers (ever so crunchy), creamy soft squashes and crispy cucumbers. It's nice to think that I'm reducing my lifetime load of pesticide sprays and residue. And there's nothing that gives me a greater kick than strolling down to my garden to pick something that will land on the dinner plate that night.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Wet Garlic, a Lovely Sun Room and My Feral Friend

The garlic I was drying is soaked. I'd totally forgotten I'd put them on the north side of the house last week, under my two-story-high rhododendrons, to dry.

I imagine they'll still be okay, and although the heads are smaller than what you'd find in the supermarket, I am looking forward to sauteing them with a little olive oil in my next culinary masterpiece.

Phase 1 of my sun room project is now done, meaning, the builder has finished installing the windows and door, the benches, trimwork and the stone wall exterior. I hope to prime those benches tomorrow and am counting on improved weather.

It certainly looks lovely with the hydrangea tree in bloom.

I've made great progress, too, with Waldo, the feral cat. This morning as I whiled away a murky, rainy day, he jumped up on the bed and wedged in against my side as if he'd been doing that a million years. He is still a little skittish if I pass my hand over his head, move too quickly or walk around him, but with time I'm confident he'll lose most of his fears..

Here's the big guy looking out the screen door with Luther:

Saturday, May 30, 2009

A Day in May

I haven't posted for a while. That's because I've been busy getting the vegetable garden established, mowing the lawn and settling in with my second new cat, a feral male tabby.

Today, my father and I enjoyed a fine late May day. I just now planted three cherry tomato plants he brought up for me, grown from seed. I pulled another radish plant and just like the rest, no bulb! I haven't' had much luck with radishes, the often-touted "easiest thing to grow."

The potato plants are doing quite nicely, though cutworms have been mowing down large stems. I've wrapped everything in tinfoil but apparently, the wily cutworms weren't foiled.

The parade of spring blooms marches on. The doublefile viburnum and azalea are past peak, but the rhododendron are a gorgeous magenta, and the mountain laurel aren't far behind.

My feral cat, who lived six-and-a-half long years in a shelter, has been with me now for three weeks. He is still hiding 24/7 under a small wood cabinet I have here in my office, and the single occupancy cat condo connected to it.

Feral cats demand patience, but I sense the rewards will be great. I have not touched him yet. He only feels safe enough to eat after dark, one meal daily. I should have called him Dracula, but his given name is Waldo.

Still, there is a certain sense of urgency in getting him acclimated. The vet who checked him out on the day I took him home found he has an abscessed tooth, which will need to be pulled. I have meds I'm supposed to give him 2x daily to ease the inflammation, but of course, he only eats at night so he's getting just half the dose he should. The vet said when she saw him that it wasn't that bad and to give him a few weeks before she came to the house to pull the tooth. We are NOT looking forward to that, but Waldo should be much more comfortable once that's done.

Luther, my other new cat whom I adopted in February 2009, is thriving in his new environment. He, too, was feral, but the key difference between he and Waldo is that I took Luther home when he was just 6 months old, vs. over 6 years for Waldo. Luther's middle name is "Play," and he will do everything possible to engage Waldo in play. For the most part, Waldo's not moving around much. Nor does he defend himself; he is a very non-aggressive cat. Luther will paw at Waldo, throttle him around the neck and bite his cheeks, and still, Waldo will bear up under this abuse from a large and frisky kitten with the utmost grace.

I recently learned that the only way I could keep Luther from pushing the cat condo around with his hind legs (and Waldo inside) was to put a 44 lb. box of Costco cat litter on top of the cat condo.

Oh Waldo, if only you knew the happy life that awaits you. Many times more space than the cramped, smelly room you shared with a dozen other cats for most of your life. A breezy, screened porch that welcomes in the calls of birds, the smell of the outdoors and the occasional turkey, deer, woodchuck or chipmunk sighting. Oh, Waldo, hurry up and warm up to me, because the rest of your life will be good, I promise.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Playing in the Dirt

It's a lovely early spring day and the temperature is already 55 in the shade. The daffodils are in bloom.

I'm headed out to till one-quarter of my vegetable garden and plant my cool weather crops: the radishes, spinach, lettuce and peas. Well, if I have any pea seed left, that is. I'd planted a bunch a few weeks ago and it was so cold, they never germinated.

This weekend, I'd like to get the potato sets in the ground, too. And I'll see if I can locate my old, black soaker hose to snake around the garden for seepage watering, which reduces the chance of disease taking hold. That's why a soaker hose is a better idea than watering from overhead with a hand-held garden hose. Mother Nature, of course, I can't control.

I'm looking forward to tracking my expenses and produce yield as the season progresses. I spent quite a bit of money already, mainly on a sturdier vinyl-covered metal fence, plus the 7-foot-high posts.

I'd been planning on relocating my two bluebird boxes. They have both been home to successive pairs of wrens, and last year, a pair of bluebirds. But one is a little too close to the vegetable garden and I figure the birds might enjoy a little more privacy; the second box is in a rather overgrown spot. Before I had a chance to move either one, I spotted bird activity around the entrance to the one box, and with binoculars I could see it was a pair of English sparrows. I thought maybe I'd seen them chasing another bird away, but I couldn't be sure.

I took the box down and won't put it back up until the weekend, when hopefully that pair of sparrows has moved on elsewhere. My property's been blissfully English sparrow and starling-free for most of my 14 years here, and I'd like to keep it that way.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Squirrel Tails

I finally figured out why my dogwood trees bloom so sparsely in May.

I have five of them, both white and pink blooming trees. I had chalked it up to their being older trees that were slowly dying, but no, that's not it, I realized yesterday.

Hungry gray squirrels are eating the buds.

One of the dogwoods is just outside my upstairs bathroom window. The tree branches are nearly touching the house. Yesterday I watched as two plump squirrels systematically nipped the buds off the tree, eliminating much of what would have been a pretty spring display.

They raid the sunflower seed bird feeder all the time. What more do they want?

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Spring Fever

Today's warm (40s) weather was a welcome respite from this long, cold winter here in the northeast. It was enough to get me outside by late afternoon to wash the salt off the car and start cutting up the dozens of white pine branches that fell during the last ice storm. I should have known better than to start work on it with my bare hands. After an hour, my palms were black with pine sap.

I made more progress than I thought I would with a simple bow saw and a pair of loppers. I would have done more, but many of the branches are still buried in 6 inches of snowpack. I'll probably be at it again tomorrow, when they're predicting even warmer temps.

Sadly, my cat of 14 years is near the end of her days. She has lymphoma, and she recently took a turn for the worse. The vet is coming to the house either Monday or Tuesday. Grief can be exhausting. I won't go into much detail here except to say she's been the best cat I ever had.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Spring Planting Time is Almost Here

This is the time of year when winter's lost whatever luster it had when the fluffy stuff was actually white. The snow's been sticking around here in Connecticut for weeks now, and although we've got under six inches on the ground (and more falling now), the heavy crust on top has turned the snow cover into an impenetrable barrier for some creatures, like deer. Although I rarely see them, their tracks are everywhere, crisscrossing the property.

This is the time of year I daydream of next year's vegetable garden. On the list of must-haves are: pea pods, string beans, zucchini, cucumbers, yellow wax beans, lettuce, green peppers, cherry and beefsteak tomatoes, scallions, potatoes, yellow squash and spaghetti squash. I also plan, with my father's help, to expand the size of the garden by about 40%. Last year it was a modest 8 x 6' and it exceeded my expectations in productivity.

Well, actually, my father will help me fence in the garden plot properly. Last year I used plastic deer fencing and wood stakes, and it proved to be a flimsy affair, partly because I made the mistake of using the fencing itself as support for growing tomato plants that I tied to the fencing. As the plants grew large, their weight pulled the fencing in until the whole thing slowly imploded.
It made it impossible to get in there for weeding, but vegetable plots aren't demanding, and the bounty made it possible for me to enjoy organic tomatoes as a base for sauce, soups and stews all winter long.

I've only grown potatoes once before, but it was a great success, and I can't tell you what fun it was digging in the dirt for those hidden tubers. (You wouldn't want to use a rake or shovel as you risk slicing the potatoes in half.)

One of last summer's woodchucks made himself a burrow beneath the dense stand of forsythia in the backyard; luckily for me, no woodchucks messed with the veggie garden. The vegetable garden is in the front yard, where it enjoys day-long sunshine. Still, next year's fence needs to protect against both woodchucks and deer. That means burying poultry wire 12 inches into the ground as well as above-ground fencing that reaches at least 6 feet.

I'm not at all "handy" when it comes to this stuff, but that's where Dad comes in.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Suburban Peace and Quiet? Hardly.

Ordinarily, my annual sojourn to see the doctor is a non-event. Cholesterol, blood sugar and other health markers check out fine, year after year. This time, though, the nurse mentioned I had a "slight" hearing loss in my left ear. A sign of aging, she said, while still pointing out the damage excessive noise can do to our hearing. Even driving in a car can damage hearing, she said.

I drove home from the physical newly motivated to take better care of my ears. It wouldn't be too hard to guess the cause of hearing loss. In my case, weekly mowings of my 1.5 acre homestead from late April through October no doubt contribute to the din. Although I use a battery-powered mower, which is somewhat quieter than a conventional gas mower, it still wouldn't hurt to actually wear the ear muffs I purchased years ago.

Along with the lawnmower I use are a lawn trimmer (also rechargeable), an electric pruner I use on the forsythia, spirea and azalea and the newest addition to the fleet, an electric snow-blower. So I guess you could say (sadly) that I contribute my fair share of noise to the neighborhood. Still, I draw the line at purchasing an ear-deafening leaf blower; a rake and some good exercise does just fine.

Around the holidays, I purchased a Hoover steam cleaner to clean my area rugs. Incredibly, that steam cleaner is, far and away, much louder than any lawn and garden appliance I own.

Demise of a Cardinal

Owl Hollow suffered another casualty this week when a hawk got a cardinal at the bird feeder. It's happened before. I guess the hawks have to live, too. The ones here look like either "Sharpies" (Sharp-shinned) or Cooper's hawks, and it's impossible for me to tell the difference. It's my guess that their success rate is only 1 out of 4 tries, but this time, I found a telltale collection of scattered cardinal feathers under the hanging sunflower feeder. I'd rather they picked up one of the well-fed squirrels who regularly raid the feeders, but I'm guessing these small hawks might have a beak-full with one of these rodents.

Spring Cleaning

I've got my work cut out for me this spring. The yard is strewn with debris from one particularly bad ice storm that took down white pine branches like they were match sticks.

Add to that my heavy pruning earlier this winter of my enormous burning bush and the overgrown forsythia and I can see myself doing clean-up duty well into summer.