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.

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A Quiet Day

November 25, 2016

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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.

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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.

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Little Toby is game …
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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.

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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.

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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.


Onward!

August 14, 2016

DH is home, smiling and bristly with beard, and immediately I am more cheerful. His last few months at work had been so tense, I’d sent him off to the mountains to empty his mind and renew his spirit, counseling him not to look at emails for the entire week. (That’s the problem of the new millenium — work can reach you even if you’re dangling in a crevasse on a glacier!) His vacation program of mountain trail running, climbing, reading, and evenings with old friends was exactly the rest he needed.

In the same spirit, DH urged me to take a day off to be frivolous. Yesterday we were having our first true rain of the summer and I suddenly thought, “Why not? At least for a few hours.” After barn chores and moving the sheep, I stretched out and read. (“Good book?” asked DH. “Yes,” I said, “it’s a 1968 doctoral dissertation I found on interlibrary loan.” “Gripping, I’m sure!”) Then he and I watched a movie for a lunchtime matinee. Laughing and joking with my best friend was a great restorative.

The rain broke by early afternoon, and I decided to start a new phase of the garden project. I still have about 75 feet of wall to clean of sods, but slogging through that task required more mental discipline than I had available. The land was steaming after the rain, the temperature 90°, the humidity 99%. I needed a new challenge to distract myself from the sweat dripping off my nose.

I would start to till and cover the bed!

My plan has been to till the entire future garden, rake it smooth, cover it with newspaper, and then cover the newspaper with straw. This should prepare the bed, prevent weeds from taking over, and slowly enrich the soil over the winter, making it ready for planting to perennials next spring.

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For the last couple of weeks I have tried to collect newspapers: tougher than you’d think in this age of internet subscriptions. Everywhere I stopped in town, they had long lists of folks waiting for paper. Finally, at the dump, I stood on a crate and rummaged through a giant bin of mixed newspapers and magazines. Moving the heavy magazines aside to dig out the paper took some muscle. I’ll have to do it regularly to find enough newsprint for the 200′ bed.

To keep down weeds definitively, I should make the newspaper layer 10-12 sheets thick. That can’t happen. I am sadly going with two sheets.

Earlier this week I had also driven an hour to pick up a load of straw. Straw is hard to find in these mountains — it’s the stalks of cereal grains, and we are too cold for most cereal grains to grow — and thus expensive. The point of using straw in a garden is that with the grain harvested and removed, there is no danger of seeding your plot with an invasive weed.

It had taken me so long to track down, arrange to buy, and drive to pick up this straw, I did not know what to do when I saw it was rye straw — baled with the seed heads. The possibility had not even occurred to me.

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I was so sweaty and tired, the farmer so expectant, I had just loaded and paid for the seedy straw anyway. What choices did I have? I knew of no other straw source. On my farm I always have to remind myself, Perfect is the enemy of good.

So I had my materials, imperfect as they were, and I was ready to start.

I have two tiny tillers, one given me by my friend Allen, one by my friend Mike. Using either one is a healthy upper-body workout. Yesterday morning’s rain had only penetrated the top half inch of soil, and the tiller churned happily through dirt six to eight inches down, turning up rocks — which I paused to throw out of the bed — and turning over the soil.

Once I had a ten foot section tilled, I raked it smooth. Then I covered it with my newspaper, and spread my straw.

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I finished 20 feet yesterday. Only 180 to go.

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Inching Along

August 4, 2016

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I am pulled in many different directions this summer, rushing from chore to chore. I could not make it through a day without my clipboard thick with lists, and wake up in the night worrying I’ve forgotten something crucial. However, I’m slowly making progress on many fronts, including the future garden.

Yesterday I cleaned sods out of about a third of the wall (skipping the top where the yellow jackets are nesting). I know Allen would be pleased.


Done with Stage One!

August 1, 2016

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Yesterday I was supposed to drive my daughter to the city an hour away to take a five-hour driving course. At the last minute, her high school roommate arrived at the local train station for an overnight stay and Lucy was able to switch the driving course to next weekend, so instead of seven hours of commitment for me, there were only two. I spent the remaining five hours weeding the 200-foot future garden bed — and finished it!

I was tired and slightly foggy from dehydration but very happy. This was a huge grunt job. I could hear Allen in my mind saying, “Good girl.”

You may recall I started this work in early July.

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I paused for a week to work on fencing and the area I had weeded with so much sweat sprang right back after a single rain.

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Meanwhile, the original plants were now nearly a meter tall. I am not quick on the uptake, but I had begun to wonder about the identification of it as jewelweed. Where were the orange flowers? The hollow stalks? My right arm ached from pulling these plants from the ground one by one. A couple of days ago I went searching in the book of weeds Lucy gave me for Christmas.

Oh, dear. Lamb’s quarters. (I have read about lamb’s quarters for years but pictured it looking very different and close to the ground.) Even more than stinging nettles, lamb’s quarters is edible and nutritious — it is called the Prince of Wild Greens and often compared to spinach and chard — but it is considered a weed by most people. One of its common names is Muck Hill weed, due to its fondness for manure piles. (My soil had been mixed with my composted manure pile.)

However, what made me truly anxious were the lines: “Each plant can carry up to 75,000 seeds” and “Lamb’s quarters can take over a garden, so if you find it, pick it before it goes to seed.” I was looking at a forest of lamb’s quarters, all thick with seeds, soon to drop. I now regarded my two heaped compost bins with the wide-eyed fright of someone looking at a nuclear reactor.

I wanted every lamb’s quarter out of that garden bed immediately. 

I pulled plants yesterday like a machine. Forget the compost bins! (I’ll add emptying them to the list). I made a giant stack of lamb’s quarters in the back acres. By the time I dumped the last load at 5 PM, I was blurry with exhaustion. My right elbow throbbed. Nevertheless, I felt great. I may not have skills, but I can work.

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As you can see in the top photo, there is still plenty to do.

  • I need to use a spade to cut out all the sods directly under the wall which the excavator could not reach (the boulder in the garden in the foreground is swamped by sod).
  • There are twenty feet behind me that require shoveling, where the excavator bucket dropped but could not reach to spread topsoil.
  • I need to measure the height of the wall at various points down its length and figure out the varying widths of the garden bed. I learned about the proper proportions of a garden border from Cassandra Danz in her funny, helpful Mrs. Greenthumbs gardening books. There is classic proportion, which you figure out by taking 1/2 the height of your object, and adding 1. Thus, for a 5-foot stone wall: 2.5 + 1 would mean a 3.5-foot-deep border. However, my wall starts out at 18″. I do not want an 18″-deep bed. It would be lost in the grass (the future grass. Use your imagination!). And at its widest spot, a classically proportioned garden would still be a tiny ribbon against an enormous view. Therefore I plan to use reverse proportion. In this formula, you put the garden bed at the beginning of the equation, to end up with the height of the wall. 8-foot-deep garden bed: 4 + 1 = 5-foot stone wall. (This is a lot of logic and math for a scatterbrain like mine. I will need to do all the math for varying heights ahead of time or I will become hopelessly muddled, staring at the wall in perplexity.)
  • Once I have the varying widths marked on the ground with stakes, I need to lay out a hose, to create a gently curving edge down the length of the border. This edge I will lightly mark with spray paint directly on the dirt. (Yes, I know, but it is a very narrow, light line.)
  • Once I have the edge, I can begin assembling and fitting together the large stones that will enclose the raised border. Given that Damon excavated subsoil, and then replaced it with topsoil mixed with compost, this border will not start out very “raised,” but I expect it to become deeper with time and amendments.
  • Once I have the edge, I can till inside the border, killing any new growth of weeds. I will throw out as many of the thousands of small rocks as I have energy to remove, and rake the soil smooth.
  • Once the soil is smooth, I need to cover the whole garden with a  light-blocker, to keep down another weed explosion. I plan to go to the dump today in search of newspaper. The good thing about newsprint, as opposed to black plastic, is that it will degrade and disappear into the soil over time.
  • Once the soil is covered with newspaper, I plan to cover the newspaper with straw. I have found straw over near Lake Champlain and will pick it up this week. Straw is the stalks of cereal grains, thus its seed heads have been removed. (Though it’s very tempting to use hay for mulch, the thought of introducing more unwanted seeds into this bed makes me shudder.)
  • Once the garden is covered with newspaper and straw, I need to gather all the excess stones and rocks and dump them in the woods.
  • Once the excess stones and rocks are removed, I need to rake the ruined lawn edge and sow grass seed.

I would like to think I would have time to actually plant something in the garden bed this fall, but looking realistically at the coming month and matching it against my list, it probably will not happen.

However next year should be fun!


Weeding

July 30, 2016

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In between mucking, mowing, moving sheep, walking the dogs, and driving Lucy, I’ve been weeding the big future garden in hour-long snatches. I believe I’m about eleven hours into it now. I’ve filled two pallet compost bins that are almost 4′ x 4′ x 4′ high. I think three more hours and one more bin of pulled weeds will see it done. I don’t have a cow in milk this summer, but my forearms are getting a nice workout anyway.

It’s slightly discouraging to think that all this sweating in the hot sunshine could have been avoided if I’d been able to tackle the garden eight weeks ago. However, there are bigger problems in life.

I listen to hymns and pull weeds, and peace like a river attendeth my way. I’ll get it done eventually.


Ironman and Farmer Tan

July 25, 2016

Yesterday was Ironman Sunday here in Lake Placid, when all the roads are closed from 6:30 AM to 5:30 PM for the triathlon.

Though many locals resent the Ironman, a part of me always looks forward to this day. The road shutdown puts me in a bubble where no other needs can intrude. I cannot drive anyone or shop for groceries or arrange family appointments. It’s like a travel day in that sense, except that I can’t travel and thus can work, uninterrupted, on whatever my heart desires for hours on end.

This year was different in that I have Stash. Stash is a bit like a child, very dear but also young and needing exercise and entertainment. I could not leave him from morning until night. So we drove down to the farm early. He “helped” me move the sheep (having been shocked by the fence, he stays away and runs around the field while I do this) and then watched as I mucked the barn and brought the cows in.

Stash is always on a leash at the farm. It feels important not to awaken his prey drive, which is considerable. When we hike, he will race off at 30 mph and leap into the air after ruffed grouse that explode out of the brush.

On a leash, unable to run and chase, he watches chickens calmly as the water trough is scrubbed and refilled.

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My barn cat, Flossie, twines around him.

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The desire to pounce and play is kept under control. Just barely.

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But yesterday we were done by 9:30 and then I had to think of what I could work on with a toddler at my side. I could not mow. I could not weedwhack.

I decided to weed the future garden.

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Stash was bored but happy to be with me. It was hot but a merciful breeze kept off the biting flies. I pulled weeds for hours. We took occasional breaks for walks to stretch his legs. When my right elbow gave out, I switched to my left.

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I got about a third of the garden length cleared and clean, but it is the wide third — the garden expands from 2 feet deep at the top to 10 feet at the bottom — so in my mind, I’m half done.

Having Stash with me made me much more careful to go inside the apartment regularly to drink water and cool down. At lunch time, I peeled off my sweaty double-front Carhartt jeans and hung them on the deck to dry. As I munched on a peanut butter sandwich, I glanced down at my hand on my knee and laughed out loud.

It’s clear why my family teases me about my farmer tan!

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