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?