Sleeping in the Basement

July 2, 2018

The house is over 80°. I tried opening all the windows upstairs yesterday for air movement and it became hotter. (It is in the 90s outside.) I grew up with hot and muggy summers on the Connecticut coast but my blood must have thinned after 35 years in the mountains. Working outdoors felt impossible. I’d work for forty-five minutes and then come in to peel off my clammy Carharrts, damp with sweat. The cows and sheep were miserable and I refilled their water twice over the day. The biting flies were so bad the cattle refused to leave the dark, hot barn until dusk at 8:30 PM.

Knowing today’s drive to pick up Lucy would be long, I took the dogs and slept in the cool basement last night. What a blessing.

It is due to be in the mid-90°s again today so I imagine Lucy will join me in the basement tonight.


Hot Work

July 1, 2018

It’s hot and humid. Flies are biting. The cows are miserable and wait at the barn gate every morning to come into the dark. It has been too clammy to sleep and I am up each day between 3:00 and 4:00 AM.

Damon was felled by a stomach virus so we have not worked on the driveway. I have been outside every day mowing and weedwhacking and picking rocks. I know intellectually that I am making headway but it’s hard to see because a lot of the work has to be done over again so soon.

I try not to get caught up in worrying about it — my dreams of accomplishment for this week were, as usual, unrealistic — but to keep working slowly and steadily. Progress here has always been incremental. Sometimes the increments have been infinitesimal. I tell myself that as long as I’m moving forward I am fine.

Today marks a month since my builder told me in an angry email that he would be back to me “in a couple of days” with a list of work (paid for a year ago; my mistake) that he would finish this summer. I have heard nothing. This unpleasant situation weighs on me heavily and I try not to think about that, either.


I do chores early tomorrow, put the dogs in the vet, and drive to get Lucy in New Hampshire. It will be a long day on the road but lovely to see her, to visit with New Hampshire family, and to see Jon, Amanda, and Ami in Vermont on our way home. The air-conditioned car will be nice, too.


Baby Daze

June 29, 2018

My son Jon sent me this photo of Amanda and my granddaughter Ami. I love it.

Ami looks just like Amanda at the same age; she’s Amanda’s “mini-me.” However, Ami’s height is her father’s (who is 6’4″) — she’s in the 96th percentile. She won’t be mini very long!

No date yet has been confirmed for her lung surgery. We will all be glad to have it over.


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 the Driveway

June 27, 2018

Damon’s small Bobcat excavator has been parked at the farm for a week, waiting for good weather. On Monday we began work on the driveway.

The first chore was to cut channels for run-off water along the flat entry section (an elbow of the old main highway). Currently water sits in big puddles in this area … and the puddles inevitably turn into craters.

At the top of the property the driveway then turns right and falls downhill all the way to the barn. Here’s the driveway in the summer of 2006. Jon took the photo while standing on the hayloft floor as we were building the barn. [Double-click to enlarge.]

Even at that time I was nostalgic, writing, “I love that little road… it’s hard to explain but I remember when this land was all impenetrable woods. First it was logged. Then it was stumped. And then one day I trotted down the hill and showed Allen and Damon where I wanted the road to go, and the next… there it was, snaking along as if it had always been there!”

Since then, “we” have worked on the road dozens of times over the years. (Of course it was Allen and Damon who did all the work. I merely fetched and carried and took photographs.) Here is Allen in 2009 at the top of the driveway.

And here he is the same year, smoothing one of the driveway bends. I’d had no sense when I threaded that curvy path through the birches in 2006. It has been a trial for large trucks and trailers ever since.

But the biggest problem of the driveway has been its lack of a hard base. In 2006 Allen and Damon had trucked and spread load after load of gravel they excavated from the pond area (saving me thousands of dollars). Then I’d spent money I didn’t have for two tandem loads of crushed stone. When it rained it all disappeared into mud.

Sometimes deep mud.

As I had a little money and the men had time, we’d tackle the worst areas bit by bit. Here’s Damon in 2011 pulling rocks and spreading a single load of crusher mix at the foot of the driveway.

Our great coup came in 2013, when the town ripped up a long road and sold some of the ground-up macadam inexpensively to locals. Damon brought me a dozen truckloads.

This tarry gravel immediately helped harden the surface.

Both Damon and Allen spread it in odd hours with my tractor.

The driveway was much improved, but the two men, who’ve built hundreds of miles of road, knew it still wasn’t great. Allen always repeated what he’d first said in 2006: “Get your husband to let you have some money and we can build you a real road!”

Now, twelve years later, the day has finally come, and sadly Allen isn’t here to see it.

Last fall Damon was in and out of hospitals, so I interviewed other operators for the project. One contractor gave me a sky-high bid and even at that price he was dubious. He could not see a way to divert water from flowing down the road and ripping out the gravel. (The driveway is gullied after every summer storm). Water bars would not work because they would, in turn, be ripped out by winter plows. Moreover the pasture on the downhill side is in many places higher than the road.

The next contractor submitted a bid of slightly more than half the original. After listening to the dire warnings of the first contractor, I was rather worried by the second’s insouciant confidence, but I accepted his bid. However, as he never returned to do the job, my concern was moot.

Now Damon is healthy again and he and I are doing the work, at a far lower cost altogether. Our goal is to divert some of the water from flowing over the driveway by putting in two sets of culverts. We’re not sure it will work, but we’re going to try.

It’s fun to work with Damon again, fun to hear the roar of the big machine, fun to be with someone whose memory of this land is almost as long as mine.

We put the first culvert where sixty years ago, the previous landowner had laid down a 2″ iron pipe for the same purpose.

Ours was 8″ plastic, twenty feet long.

I shoveled dirt around the pipe to hold it in place…

and Damon buried it with the bucket.

He instructed me to find some rocks to place around each end of the culvert for stability. I drove back with the I-Haul and on my return lugged a 18″ stone, puffing, into place.

“You couldn’t find a big one?” growled Damon.

“This one isn’t big enough?” I asked, crestfallen. I was at the limit of my strength.

Damon snorted and his mouth twisted in a smile. He doesn’t have the easy laugh of his father but he has the same love of teasing. “It’s fine.”

We realized our second culvert wasn’t long enough to reach entirely across the diagonal from the house, so we are waiting for the delivery of one more pipe and hope to finish the ditching Friday. Then we will order stone and crusher mix from the quarry.

After smoothing out the first culvert we had a half dozen bucket-loads of extra dirt and I asked Damon to leave them in a pile. I explained that I could use it to fill pasture holes.

He did as I asked but observed loudly enough for me to hear, “Yup, and in three years they’ll still be sittin’ there, covered with weeds!”

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.