Labor Day

September 3, 2018

Labor Day! Today is my last day before the crunch of the school year starts in earnest.

Yesterday was pleasant. I mucked the barn, brought the cows in, spread manure, moved the sheep, and then came inside to do a few loads of laundry and scrub bathrooms during a brief rain. Afterward, I went back out to weed the apartment garden, weed and rake the apartment path [DH drove in from a work event at this time and took the photo above], and then mow. I mowed for hours and the place looks much more respectable.

It is a bit discouraging to realize that it is September 3 and Nick the builder has completed very little of the unfinished work that I paid for in June 2017 and I believed would happen by June 2018. While I was in Connecticut a few weeks ago he returned to repair the holes he cut in the dining room walls to find the water leak, and put up the railings on the mudroom porch. Last week his father and uncle came one day and installed the porch ceiling. But everything else languishes and I’ve heard nothing about a timetable. My financial advisor told me that I was a lot of the problem: “You didn’t stay on him.”

I hate harassing people. It’s frustrating to think that it’s up to me to chivvy someone into living up to his word. This summer Nick informed me by email that he would not repaint the faulty dining room ceiling (he promised to do it many times), the contracted “plumbing the house” did not include exterior spigots, “exterior painting” meant only one coat, and “interior painting” did not include doors and windows. I have been quite upset by all of this but have had no outward reaction. The same financial advisor had told me that getting angry or threatening legal action to get the work done would be counter-productive since one doesn’t want an enemy working in one’s home. What I notice is that whichever way you slice it, it all appears to be my fault.

Thus it was soothing to rest my sore knee and sore heart, and mow. I have a lot of chores for today but if the rain holds off, I’m going to work a couple of hours of mowing into the mix.


Getting Ready to Work

June 28, 2018

Over the last few days I have been putting hours into “getting ready” to work on the future garden under Allen’s wall.  The area is scattered with rocks of two different sizes: small (from egg to melon size) which threaten the mower and must be removed, and large (18 inches and up) which I am collecting to make a garden retaining wall.

The small rocks number in the hundreds, which would mean dozens of trips to the pond area with the I-Haul. Instead I hitched up my wagon. There is something about using an old wooden wagon that makes me quietly happy.

Damon had brought me a jack for this wagon four years ago. However, given my lack of spatial sense, I could not figure out how to install the random pieces without instructions or a diagram. I’d put it aside “for later.” The bolts and flanges floated around my truck for a few years and when the truck was hauled away for scrap, they landed in various boxes in the garage. Now I was determined to conquer the problem. On Tuesday I rummaged through cartons and after four hours managed to install the jack. Once I figured out how the pieces fit together, it was embarrassingly simple and took five minutes. Yay! Wagon done!

Next I had to think about moving the big rocks. My friend Larry from school had built a small stone boat last winter for skidding items over snow. He said I was welcome to use it. I moved a couple of rocks with the help of my lawnmower [top photo] but I felt uneasy. The base to the little stone boat is 1/2″ plywood — fine for skidding light loads over snow or grass, but I was sure it would rip to pieces bringing big stones up the rocky driveway.

I retrieved the steel head of my old stone boat from the pond, removed the shreds of rotten wood, and with difficulty unfastened the rusty bolts. The stone boat had made by the Amish and I was interested to see from the different size bolt holes that this would not be the first time its boards had been replaced.

I knew I should invest in 2.5″-thick hickory boards, like the originals, but I didn’t have the cash to spare. Besides, as Allen would be the first to remind me, “We ain’t buildin’ a church.” I didn’t need the Rolls Royce of stone boats. I just need to move some rocks this summer.

Three years ago the school had ripped out a deck and a half dozen treated boards had been up for grabs. They were 20 years old and not in perfect shape, but I’d removed the screws, stacked them in the bunkhouse, and figured they would come in handy someday. Now I cut them down to the length of the shortest board, for a new stone boat.

After screwing the cross-boards together, I followed up with nails for strength. My bad elbow protested loudly. (Oh dear, I can barely drive 8-penny nails! How will it feel driving 16-pennies in a couple of weeks? Oh well, I’ll worry about it later.) Then I drilled holes and refastened all the rusty bolts with their square, rusty nuts. I wondered idly if the Amish had Vise-Grips and crescent wrenches.

The new stone boat was done.

I realized after I bolted it together that I should have run the wood further up the steel head plate, so the bolts weren’t so close to the ends of the boards. I comfort myself that I’ll fix that detail the next time I have to replace the wood. This iteration of the stone boat cost me nothing but a couple of hours and two dozen nails. My fingers are crossed that it will last the summer.

Next I had to move twenty rotting bags of autumn leaves. Yes, for the last two Novembers in a row I have picked up bags of leaves from a woman in her 80s in the village who had no way to get rid of them. I had figured I would use her leaves as mulch in my garden. (Yes, yes, I know I had no garden yet! But she called me, she needed them gone, I had a truck and… stockpiling!) So yesterday I carefully moved the bags to a safe spot out of the way.

Then I pulled off three of the twenty-foot long stretches of black plastic. I was pleased. The black plastic plan had worked almost perfectly to keep those sections clean, except for one small piece that had a ghostly white super-weed growing in seven months of complete darkness.

Unfortunately the last section of black plastic had rotted in the sun and disintegrated. I don’t know why this one was different (the other three rolls could be used again) but this one broke down into tiny curls of black plastic that blew all over the farm. I’ve picked them up everywhere. And of course, in its absence the weeds had come back.

I spent three hours picking rocks. I got most of the small ones from alongside the garden.

However, by the end of the day I was limping badly. I didn’t have steam left to start the other side near the (unpainted) house.

Every inch here needs picking.

I know I’ll get to it eventually. It’s the garden I want to work on now. This is the year it will happen.

But today it is raining and I’m working on inside chores.


Starting Again on the Big Garden

June 23, 2018

Back in April of 2009, my friend Allen and I were putting in the foundation of the garage for the future house. The land sloped and I asked Allen if he could terrace it so water wouldn’t run into the someday house and I could have a flat backyard. Dragging a stick in the dirt, I paced out a wide curve and Allen began digging. All of the boulders he turned up, plus those from the garage excavation, became part of a long retaining wall.

There were lots of rocks to choose from. Here is Allen in front of a pile.

Allen built the wall between other chores we were working on. Here’s Allen’s wall curving around the finished garage foundation.

I told Allen that someday I would have a flower garden under that wall. But I was always too busy with too many other projects to take it on.

Six years later, in the summer of 2015, to my great grief Allen had died. His son Damon was working for me with his small Bobcat excavator, and as an afterthought I asked him to break ground for Allen’s wall garden.


Unlike his father, Damon does not approve of flowers. However in an hour he had carved the entire 200-foot bed, following a line I had spray-painted on the grass. The surface stones and sods he stacked along the edge. I figured I would haul them away slowly over the summer.

Of course, as usual life rolled over me. I did not haul the sods and stones away — I mowed, mucked deep bedding, spread manure, drove steers to the slaughterhouse, sold sheep, got Lucy off to her first year of college, moved us out of our home of sixteen years into temporary quarters, and started my own school year.

Damon left his excavator at the farm that winter and the following spring, in May of 2016, he and I spent four hours in sultry heat cleaning up the sods and stones, mixing some purchased topsoil with compost, and spreading it down the length of the future garden. Damon’s comments on the stupidity of this exercise were unprintable.

That summer, too, was very busy. I was meeting with a financial planner. I was meeting with the house company and a potential builder. I was struggling to fence the back field. I had a sick gosling I was force-feeding around the clock. I was teaching Lucy to drive and had her impacted wisdom teeth extracted. I hosted parties for DH’s work. I made plans for Jon’s wedding to Amanda. And every time I turned around, weeds were growing up in the future garden.

I put in hours of weeding but I could not seem to get on top of it.

Here is our dog Stash in a forest of lamb’s quarters.

I pulled lamb’s quarters like a machine.

The task seemed interminable. While I was working on one end of the garden, being bitten by deer flies, new weeds would be re-sprouting at the other.

At last, on July 31, I had the entire bed basically clear. What a relief!

Once again I spray-painted a line to mark the garden edge.

My plan was to clean each small section of weeds and rocks, till it with the tiny tiller Allen had given to me, and rake the surface smooth.

Then I would cover each section with newspapers and a mulch of straw. (I had also spent many hours scouring the dump for newspaper, and driving to the Champlain Valley with my horse trailer for bales of straw.)

Unfortunately, I was only able to address about twenty feet of garden before life again swept me away. After all our meetings, my potential house builder quit the day he was supposed to sign the contract. I was in shock.

I drove Lucy to college. I started my school year. I sold sheep and took steers to the slaughterhouse. I mowed the fields. I searched for a new builder. I prepared for Jon and Amanda’s wedding. And the weeds inexorably crept back.

In early October I pulled weeds for a third time and covered the bottom forty feet with black plastic with rocks on top. I had the intention (and the black plastic) to cover the rest, but … in the joy of the wedding and the excitement of the house starting with a new builder, I dropped all thought of gardens.

Zero happened on the gardening front in 2017 — the Summer of the Great Chaos, when I moved us once more, this time into a construction zone that lasted for months.

Yesterday I finally started over. Of course the future “garden” was now a jungle that looked as if it had never been touched.

Builders’ scaffolding still leaned against the boulder wall.

Where to begin? Just to lift my spirits, I dragged away the scaffolding and began with weedwhacking.

By the end of yesterday the jungle was gone and I could see the outlines of the garden again.

Colin has departed for summer camp. DH leaves tomorrow to lead a two-week alumni hiking trip in Switzerland. Lucy is in New Hampshire for another week. Amanda and Ami go with Judy, Amanda’s mother, to Vermont for vacation today and Jon will join them on Wednesday. All my chickens are happy, and for a week I will have no responsibilities to anyone!

I am hoping I can work outside every day and make lasting progress on this project. I know Allen would be smiling. Wouldn’t it be great if I could have a real garden in 2019?

It would be only ten years in the making.

At War with Goutweed

June 22, 2018

Last year, the Summer of Non-Stop Moving Chaos, I did no gardening. I had no time. All my gardens, large and small, were overtaken by weeds. In November, just after the first snow, I spent an hour cutting back the little apartment garden. The giant heap of stalks and weeds froze to the garden cart, which I emptied by turning it upside down and waiting for the January thaw.

Ten days ago I spent another hour on a spring weeding. The result was above: a rather shabby spectacle, looking even shabbier due to the weeds in the gravel walk (which I’ve since removed with the help of in the company of Colin).

The garden’s problem is goutweed, also known as bishop’s weed or Snow on the Mountain (it has white flowers). The Latin name is Aegopodium podagraria. Looking for photographs for this blog, I found it listed under “Most Hated Plants.” One was labeled “Goutweed Running Amok.”

The plant looks deceptively mild and inoffensive.

It is a thug.

Years ago I accidentally brought goutweed into my school garden when I was given perennials from a neighbor. The cultivar with white-edged leaves is a very pretty ground cover. Unfortunately, once established goutweed can revert to the wild form and rampage through your garden like something from Jurassic Park. It is extremely invasive and fast-growing, and as it is rhyzomatous, every speck of root left in the ground will grow a new plant. Goutweed will grow up and through other plants, its spreading colonies smothering them and marching on.

I was foolish in my early skirmishes with goutweed. In a fit of parsimony and sentimentality, I moved plants from my school garden to the farm. Of course I did not bring goutweed. Sadly, however, I did bring goutweed roots in the soil. So now three of my gardens: the apartment garden, the iris garden, and Allen’s tiny boulder garden, are infected with this pest.

When Allen died in 2015, I had moved some bee balm in front of his boulder at the barn. Here’s the bee balm in July of 2016. At the lower right corner of the shot, you can see tiny sprouts of goutweed. Today the area is overrun with goutweed and there are perhaps two remaining stalks of bee balm. Meanwhile, the goutweed has escaped and is rolling on toward the garden shed.

Goutweed has also sprouted and spread at the top of the south pasture, where I made the mistake of starting a compost pile of pulled weeds. It turns out that pulling goutweed barely weakens the plant. Sites recommend poisoning it with Round-Up, baking the roots in sunshine for over week, or smothering it with black plastic — anything to starve it of its ability to photosynthesize. Outside the gardens I am fighting back with my weedwhacker and mowers. Inside the gardens my plan is to use cardboard and mulch to weaken its stranglehold and even the odds. (My experience with black plastic has not been good.)

Yesterday I flattened liquor boxes and laid them out between the plants in the apartment garden.

Then I covered them with cedar mulch. Yes, I bought bags of bark — something I’ve never done before. Normally I’ve acquired wood chips from loggers, and they’ve arrived by the dump-truck load. But I need the mulch now, not weeks from now when I can find it.

I’m at war with goutweed on four fronts and must use every weapon at hand.

Back on Track

November 30, 2017

Early yesterday morning I turned out the cows, mucked the stalls, and then moved the sheep into Moxie’s stall for worming. Moxie’s stall has enough tight angles to make it easier for me to crowd the sheep to the wall to get the medicine down their throats. Still, easier does not mean easy, and I was smeared with manure by the time the job was done. After turning the sheep out and jumping in the shower I was off to teach.

After work I cut back all the perennials in the apartment garden (only three months late! — I was shaking snow off the dead fronds) and replaced the path’s solar lights for my tenant.

Next Damon arrived to work on the tractor. It has a flat tire. The tire is old, probably original to the machine (thirty years). The rubber is severely weather-checked. Damon had brought two air tanks but we could hear the air leaking out almost as fast as he pumped it in. Still, he was able to fatten the tire just enough to spend twenty minutes pushing back my manure pile. Cleaning the deep bedding out of just one of the two sheep stalls had caused the pile to creep ominously toward the barn. It smoked and steamed in the cold as Damon stacked it hurriedly before the big back tire went flat again.

Because I use waste hay for bedding, my manure pile has the potential to be prime fertilizer for my fields. Maybe someday I’ll be able to create a covered space so the nutrients can be best conserved. For now, I am happy to look out of the hayloft and see the tons of heavy wet material pushed into a reasonably tidy heap.

It also felt great last night to be able to cross three things off my list.

This morning, farmers from Maine are arriving at 7:30 AM to buy four of my teenaged ewe lambs to add to their flock. I’m writing a bill of sale before I prep for my classes and then will head down the hill to turn out the cows, muck the barn, and sort out the lambs into another stall before I turn out the sheep. Once the farmers are gone, I will change quickly and drive to work.

A busy day. I’m back on track.

Goodbye, Crabapple

September 4, 2017

Back in 2010 I bought and planted in front of the apartment an eight-foot crabapple tree. It was a Brandywine crab, which pleased me because of the echo in my mind of the Revolutionary War battle. (Small things make me happy.)

Today the tree is thick-trunked and much larger.

It is also dying.

My teenage helper called me one day this summer while I was in the checkout line at Home Depot in Vermont. He told me he was at the farm and asked if I had any work for him. While busy signing papers for toilets, I told him he could mow the back yard. On his own initiative, he decided to add weedwhacking. He carefully weedwhacked around my Brandywine crab, removing not just the grass, but the bark 10″ high entirely around the circumference.

Girdling trunks was a colonial method for killing trees to clear land, and it is still effective.

It is a struggle sometimes to appear kind and patient.

A Quiet Day

November 25, 2016


Yesterday was a darkly beautiful day. It snowed off and on. Although I felt wistful not to have my family around me, I knew that this year, a day of no pressure was what this part-time farmer needed. I slept until 5:30, the latest I’ve stayed in bed in months. With no deadlines, it was a relaxed day of puttering through my list. I baked a pie. I peeled sweet potatoes. I washed and seasoned the turkey.

DH celebrated his rare day off with a Thanksgiving sauna. (The sauna was once my toolshed. I insulated and paneled it and Allen helped me install a little woodstove.) Here is DH scrubbing off in the snow.


While the turkey roasted, I walked the dogs in the back field. The snow has collapsed and compressed but is still over the tops of my boots. I may hunt up an old pair of cross-country skis today, to give Stash a better workout. He bounds through the deep snow with joy, and a tired poodle is a happy poodle.


Little Toby is game …

but challenged by the deeper drifts. Whenever he looked too miserable, I picked him up to carry him.

The snowstorm has closed the door on many fall chores I had hoped to accomplish during this week of vacation. I won’t be cutting and installing the rafters for the run-in shed in the south pasture. The horse trailer will not be put away in my neighbor’s barn. The treated 4×4 fence posts and wire panels I bought (with dollars from the sale of beef) for a sheep paddock, a project repeatedly put on hold due to Damon’s tricky health, will now wait for spring.


It is easy to be frustrated when I look around at everything I did not accomplish this summer. I did not transplant any balsams. I didn’t paint the barn addition. I didn’t sell my heifer or four of my goslings. I didn’t build the missing doors on the sheep stall or the garden shed. I spent many sweaty hours on my future flower garden, but then turned my back to get Lucy off to college and start my own school year, and it got away from me again.


In my mind’s ear, I hear the prayer of contrition from my earliest childhood:

We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us.

Luckily I know I did do a few positive things. I drew up plans for our house. I taught Lucy to drive. I fenced the back field. I kept the sheep home to improve our own land. I sold my entire crop of lambs to buyers eager for my flock’s good genetics. All seventeen open acres were grazed and mowed.

Moreover, I am basically healthy and, God willing, there’s always next year.