Humdinger and Armageddon: Words of the Day

“It’s not very often I would use that word,” the forestry consultant said. “But that’s a humdinger.” A few weeks ago a very large branch fell from a red oak that stands next to my cottage. I can’t get my arms around the branch – the branch is that big. It fell straight back into the woods, thank God. But the now-damaged, now-without-its-counterweight red oak has another big branch positioned over the cottage and another pointing toward the utility pole that stands 40 feet or so from the tree.

The cottage of course I worry about. But the power line that’s attached to the utility pole – well, anyone knows you don’t want a massive tree falling on the power line.  The power company doesn’t want a massive tree falling on the power line.

The red arrow shows where the counterweight branch was. You can see the lean.

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Now all the weight is toward the driveway. This red oak easily tops 100 feet. Other trees stand in that area also, smaller trees (not small, just smaller) between the big, damaged tree and the utility pole. This is a humdinger because it’s complicated.

Could be nothing to worry about. Could be that red oak stands another fifty years.

Could be a disastrous domino effect. Could be a strong wind takes out the power line and demolishes six other trees and whatever else is in its path because the spread, the wingspan, of the upper branches of the red oak would simply grab ‘n go – grab everything between it and the ground and go strongly, heavily (we’re talking tons of weight here with momentum and gravity helping) in the natural direction of all that weight.

Just to the left of the trunk you can see the utility pole. See it looking miniscule there. It’s not miniscule, it’s a real utility pole, and it’s not that far away even though it looks far away. The tree is so tall, its fall would reach that far. For those of you familiar with my property, even though the tree is behind the cottage, its fall would easily flatten the chicken coops.

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We don’t know. I don’t know. The power company doesn’t yet know. Take the chance and leave it alone? Or play better safe than sorry and find a way to take it down? To complicate matters further, the underground septic tank for the cottage sits right where the bucket truck would have to position itself, and a bucket truck is too heavy to stand there. I don’t know where else they can put it though. And unless they use the big bucket truck with the longest-reaching boom, how else would they reach those upper branches?

My idyllic spot in the Virginia woods – private yet close to town, scenic, peaceful, enjoyed time and again by so many people, including my many Airbnb guests – has its challenges, its downsides, its uh-oh-what-do-we-do-now moments. In this way it’s a mirror, a parallel to the world we all live in every day. We have some elements of beauty, some moments of peace, some examples of systems functioning perfectly. We have a sun that shines, food that tastes wonderful, a bed to sleep in. Most of the time we have well more than we actually need.

And then a windstorm comes and a big branch falls and we worry. Or we encounter something super icky or ugly and we shudder. Or someone loses his temper and says hurtful words, or someone has her own set of struggles and walks away without helping us with ours. Or they take way too long to bring our food or fix the broken pipe or return our call. Or someone we love dearly breathes his or her last.

It’s a recurring theme around here lately. Maybe it’s just the recurring theme of human life that somehow strikes me anew every day: With the good comes the bad. With the bad comes the good. As much as we humanly can, may we keep our eyes fixed on the good – on the person trying hard (even if we don’t see it), on the sweet smiles revealing a good heart (even if that heart is hurting too), on the glorious colors of nature around us, on the wondrous good fortune of living where we can go about our business without worrying about shellfire exploding and without having to pee into helmets or step over corpses or sleep in cold mud.

Okay, maybe I have been listening to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast a lot lately. His “Blueprint for Armageddon” series about the First World War is so excellently done, starting with the suggestion that maybe the most important person of the 20th century is someone whose name hardly anyone remembers: Gavrilo Princip, the man who fired the shot that killed the Archduke and his wife in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, thereby setting in motion the whole war machine as well as decades of repercussions. 

Carlin’s emphasis on the human factor within the extraordinary conflict is both as graphic as spoken words can be and as spot-on accurate as any historical overview I’ve heard or read in a long time. His use of first-person sources is first-rate, as is his ability to paint a picture that doesn’t include actual pictures (in my mind as I listen I see battle scenes and broken vehicles and sickening trenches so clearly!). Hats off to him for researching, organizing and weaving together so many compelling stories about what was supposed to have been the final battle, the War to End All Wars. If you can listen while driving or cooking or walking or whatever, you might find it as captivating as I do.

In my unboring path recently, I’ve gained a fresh perspective on one funny word – humdinger – because of a recent strong wind, and one age-old word – Armageddon – because of a most fabulous history lesson. I wonder what words will pop up next…

Green Turtles, Pink Boots and Blue Ears

Turtles don’t wear boots, definitely not pink ones, definitely not shiny plastic pink ones that are attached with velcro. No matter. This turtle has boots.

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Whether a fluffy green turtle named Flllfffl dons pink shiny boots, or a moth named Betty is scouting out home zone possibilities on your property, or a superhero named Iron Man is heroically facing the Big Bad named Thanos, the world is a better place because of it. (“Flllfffl” is the best I can spell it, btw – that’s what she said his name is!)

I’ve been thinking about how we suspend belief so selectively. I was all into the Marvel movies (and would watch them all again!) but Star Trek doesn’t do anything for me. Mom can enjoy Mary Poppins float in on a magic umbrella but has no interest in a superhero that can stop a speeding ballistic missile (that scene from Captain Marvel is etched in my head!). And little Piper, my granddaughter from Seattle, sees nothing irregular in a turtle wearing pink boots!

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But it works in reverse, I come to see. For reasons having to do with this little darling living in Seattle and me living in Virginia, Piper and I communicate via video more than in person. She calls me Oma but I think she sees me as the Chicken Lady. She LOVES my chickens. I have walked to the coop, phone in hand (pointing away from me and at my feathery friends of course) more times than I can remember because as soon as we get on a video chat, she says Chickens! If it’s already too late here and too dark outside, I’m sure the call is over in her mind. Check out. Done. If there’s no chickens, why bother?

Coming to see Oma included the natural excitement of seeing the chickens for real. The ride from the airport was too long, but finally we arrived at Golden Hill. No point even going into the house on a beautiful day – let’s go see the chickens!

My first clue should have been when this untimid child timidly hid behind both of her parents. Brad was amused but Beth said Oh, yeah, she has a problem when it’s a real animal. I went in and picked up Whitey anyway and brought her out to show her to Piper. See? Fluffy head, blue ears… Yes, this is a real chicken…

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and this is her real blue ear.

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The photo doesn’t capture how the blue is almost shimmery.

No can do.

Turns out there is a big difference between a real chicken and a chicken on a screen. Small shrieks of terror told this astute Oma that maybe awkward, weird, ungainly chicken movements and throaty, cacophonic, random chicken noises on a screen are one thing, and an omg-it’s-getting-too-close-to-me chicken in the hands – jerking its head randomly and slightly the way chickens do (oh, look, a little human!), a little dirty on its feet from the scratching around in search of delectable bugs (hey, it’s spring and bugs are everywhere!) – is quite another. Whoa, all too real, no thanks, can we go look at the garden now?

Ah, the garden. Oma loves her roses right now!

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I guess we all have our ways of filtering out, shutting down, blocking, or otherwise not having to deal with what’s too scarily real or too stupidly unreal. Likewise we open our arms, hearts and waking hours to what’s appealingly real or fascinatingly unreal. I think we are allowed. It’s a big, full, amazing world, but we would overload our circuits if we took it all in. We draw the lines around ourselves, redrawing them depending on where we are, who we are with, what they day feels like, what our present self can handle.  The lines are wiggly and wavering. They have gaps big and small, with ways to expand when curiosity or security define the moment and ways to tighten up when fatigue, fear and sorrow don’t let us be so open.

Piper is doing just the right thing, drawing the lines where they feel somehow, mysteriously where they should be. Those weird chickens are outside her feel-good zone right now, so, yeah, hiding behind the big people she knows she can depend on makes sense. That turtle with the pink boots – watch him prance around awhile and then rip open that Velcro and pull his boots off when you’ve had enough of that. Why does a turtle need pink boots anyway!?

Oh, but am I still the Chicken Lady? If I’m not, that’s okay. We can redraw the lines.

Making the World More Beautiful

We get our images from all over the place – from real life, from books, television, movies, YouTube, wherever. Images stick with you sometimes, like wallpaper inside your head, a permanent part of the structure. I read a lot of books to my kids when they were small. One image, from one of those books, was this.

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The character you see, Miss Alice Rumphius, had a grandfather who had traveled to faraway places and then become an artist and lived by the sea. She told him, “When I grow up, I too will go to faraway places, and when I grow old, I too will live by the sea.”  

“That is all very well, little Alice,” said her grandfather, “but there is a third thing you must do.”

“What is that?” asked Alice.

“You must do something to make the world more beautiful,” said her grandfather.

“All right,” said Alice. But she did not know what that could be.

Whenever I turned to this page, where Miss Rumphius, as a young woman now, goes into a conservatory and lets “the warm, moist air wrap itself around her and the sweet smell of jasmine fill her nose,” I was right there with her. I was in that big glass house where the beauty of gorgeous, growing things filled me too, enveloped me too, transported me too. Almost.

The way she puts it: “This is almost like a tropical isle…. But not quite.”

So she went to a real tropical isle (and I’ll tell you later how she made the world more beautiful.)

I’ll settle for a real conservatory.

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Monday was the perfect day to visit the Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens in Richmond, Virginia. There you get the real deal – the huge glass house, the pool with fountains, the pathways with multiple shades of green leafery hanging from stone archways…

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…the azaleas bursting with color…

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… even a turtle scurrying off under more incredible blooms.

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But in that conservatory, oh my, you are indeed transported. The wing of the building with the orchids left me speechless. This gives you some idea.

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I know you can buy orchids in the grocery store now. Yeah, yeah, flowers, you say. Look a little closer at these flowers! Their colors, delicacy, form, patterning, individuality, splendor! Let your eyes fill up with the beauty of these blooms and tell me if you are not, even in a small way, transported to a place of wonder…

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In this same conservatory is a special room for incredibly beautiful butterflies and moths. You enter through one door into an airlock space, then through another door into a larger space where flutterings happen all around you and even on you! This weary traveler used Mom’s leg as a pit stop for a few minutes. She, post-back-surgery, wisely limiting her walking, happily hosted him. Uhhhhhh…. Is it going to fly off soon?

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He was perfect and delicate up close.

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But not quite as pretty as his fellow flutterers. They were not so easy to photograph. Orchids just sit there of course. These fellows do land here and there, but often they close up their wings so you can’t see their glorious spreads. I caught a few – some on plants, some on metal grates, some on the rotting fruit put there for them to feed off. Again note their colors, delicacy, form, patterning, individuality, splendor!

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Whoever made this conservatory, whoever grows and maintains the orchids, whoever protects and oversees the butterfly/moth room – these people have surely done something to make the world more beautiful.

Miss Alice Rumphius, for her part, planted a few flower seeds – lupines, one of her favorites – at her house by the sea, and then fell ill for a long time. From her bed she saw out her window that the blue and purple and rose-colored flowers had come up the next year and she said, “I have always loved lupines the best. I wish I could plant more seeds this summer so that I could have still more flowers next year.”

But she was not able to.

The next spring, when she was finally able to get around a bit, she saw a large patch of lupines on the other side of the hill! The birds and the wind had dispersed the seeds and her one small act, her few planted seeds, had made the world just a little more beautiful.

Then Miss Rumphius had a wonderful idea!

She ordered five bushels of lupine seeds from the very best seed house and sowed them everywhere she went. The next spring, and every year after that, there were more and more lupines. Miss Rumphius had done the third, the most difficult thing of all!

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Now let me think… For my part, what am I doing to make the world more beautiful?…

 

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Miss Rumphius, Story and Pictures by Barbara Cooney, Viking Penguin Inc., 1982

Oh, Glorious Redbud

I might be able to convince myself that I can make food or do jigsaw puzzles or dig in the yard, but I draw the line at technology. Last week I was out of my mind trying to get the pictures in this post to upload, tried this, gave up, tried that, gave up, chatted with the person you can chat with who might be able to solve the problem (that didn’t help either), got distracted making Easter dinner for eleven people and a very cool Easter carrot cake / cheesecake with my sister — wanna see?…

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…and the only way I am uploading photos now is through my phone’s hotspot (which I have never used in my life anywhere) but hey, it’s working.

This tree, the one I tried to write about in the first place, looked this pretty a week ago. Its leaves are coming out now but just pretend it still looks like this.

It had to have been standing there in that same spot at the one end of my driveway when I moved here eight years ago. You can’t miss it, right? I’m talking about the pink one. Please note: I am not responsible for the pink tree bearing the name “redbud.” Do you see red? I don’t see red.

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But I hardly remember seeing this tree the first few years, which tells you something about how busy I was with other things, how un-focused. Shall we say blind?

Maybe I just didn’t know what I was looking at. I did not grow up with redbuds. Maybe the climate in New Jersey is too cold for them? Certainly they don’t grow in Vermont, where I spent twenty-some years. But in Virginia and south of here (maybe north of here? maybe Maryland or Pennsylvania? I have no idea), you find them randomly all over the place. I especially like their splash of color along the highway here and there.

Two years ago my son Bradley transplanted a smaller one to the front of the cottage. It was small in comparison with the one at the end of the driveway, but big enough, i.e. the roots were already deep enough, that he did not have much hope for its survival.

We chose the wrong time of year to transplant – May (!) of all times. It had fully leafed out by then. To be honest, I didn’t even know what kind of tree it was. I just knew it was getting too big to stay in the back corner of the garden (as were some others, but this one was in front of them and had to come first). Look how big it is! This is a tree that started as a stick with wet, icky, short white tentacles at one end that you take for roots, the kind of stick you get in the mail when you send the arbor foundation a donation. I’d say it did pretty well.

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But getting it out was not fun at all for Bradley.

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Poor tree. If it had a way to protest, I’m sure it would have. Wintertime, folks! Wintertime or fall or springtime is best for transplanting! At least wait until after my leaves have fallen and I’ve gone dormant!

Oh, well, what did we know? I was just glad for Bradley’s muscles! He even smoothed out the dirt after moving the tree. Piper was so small two years ago!

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It makes me think about how many things I have done or continue to do with so very little understanding. These are a few items on my very long list, which does not include the aforementioned tech stuff.

  • Something is wrong with my rhubarb. It’s not growing as well as it did for a few years. There’s a reason for that, but I have no idea what it is. Maybe it needs food? Maybe it gets too much sun? Maybe I should look it up?
  • Some of the plants I put in the large planter boxes last year have returned. I think. I mean, I think they are the same. Maybe they are weeds. Maybe they are a perennial, which would be nice! I’ll wait a bit and see.
  • Weeds have definitely barged into the strawberry bed. They are purple flowers, quite pretty actually. But maybe I am beginning a losing battle?

 

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Sandy and I moved many clumps of these purple weeds, and they look nice (for now) next to the arbor that leads into the garden, though I suspect we will be moving them out of the strawberry bed on a regular basis.

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Back to that redbud Bradley transplanted two years ago – I did know to keep it well-watered, especially in the heat of summer. Every evening I watered that poor tree, knowing full well it was complaining about being jerked around and relocated. I had hope! This is what it looked like initially. Pretty good, huh? Looks healthy!

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Bradley was doubtful, un-encouraging, disbelieving. Brace yourself, Mom, It’ll probably die. Every time I gave him a report about it (The tree’s doing well, Brad! It hasn’t died yet!), he’d say Don’t get your hopes up. I kept watering and watering.

Look at it this spring! Two years later and it has flowers. I think it survived!

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The redbuds bloom just before the dogwoods. Here’s a close-up of the buds I saw last week in one of the trees we transplanted this winter. I think it too is going to survive.

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Pretty soon they will be gorgeous white flowers. Oh, right, that was last week. By the time I got the pictures to attach, those buds bloomed. Now it looks like this.

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Soon something else will bloom. Don’t ask me what – I have no idea! I might know a little more about gardening than about technology, but not much. Right now I’m just glad to be able to post something again.

 

A Skink in a Log

When your alarm goes off at 435am so you can leave for the airport by 515, it’s very dark outside. It’s hard to get up. Your eyes resist opening. They slit open only enough to deactivate the alarm. You roll over and tuck in again. Just a few more minutes, you think, just a few.

No. Today is Travel Day. Time to get up. Now.

That’s just how the skink must have felt, the one we found inside a cut log this weekend. The one we woke up.

If you have ever wondered what the inside of a tree looks like, look on the outside for clues. If you see a lot of holes, especially large ones – fist-size or bigger – worry. If you see squirrels and birds disappearing inside those holes – worry more. You might have a tower filled with condominiums for your local wildlife. If that tree is anywhere near your house, call someone to come take it down.

The 80-foot (or so) tree that stood about an arm-spread from the back corner of my house, right next to my bedroom, was one such tower. Last winter a professional climber lopped off numerous branches while hanging from a rope tied to the jib of a 40-ton crane. Do you see him up there? He’s just under that heavy ball attached to the rope that’s attached to the jib.

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Then they felled the tree. Afterwards he said to me no fewer than four times, “You are so lucky that tree didn’t fall on your house. You are so lucky.”

The cut branches revealed all stages of disintegration: some entirely without a core, some with wood fluff that fell out like finely shredded Styrofoam, some with spongy innards, not yet dry enough to slough off and out. I was so lucky.

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Some of this wood we cut up right away for firewood. Some of it sat in a jumble near the garden, waiting, aging, drying some more. Fourteen months later it was time to split and stack the rest. I’m good for rolling cut sections toward the cutting area and for picking up and stacking the cut pieces. Samuel swings the ax.

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“Hey, look. Is it dead?” He brought over a split piece to where I was wrestling with nasty, thorny Virginia creeper. Do you see the little fella with the unmistakable blue tail ?

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The aptly named blue-tailed skink seemed to be sleeping. Do skinks hibernate? The impact of the ax, the sound and disturbance of the cracking, the force of the split log falling to the ground – none of this disturbed him. He snoozed soundly in his little crack, hoping perhaps that it isn’t spring just yet.

Awwwww – just a few more minutes??

No. Sorry. Today is Wood Splitting Day. Time to get up. Now.

The fresh air must have roused him. Off he scampered, easily disappearing among some dead leaves. Within minutes Samuel spotted his compatriot, a little brown lizard way better camouflaged and surely able to claim a better name than “little brown lizard” but sadly I don’t know my woodland wildlife well enough. See him just below the toe of Samuel’s left boot?

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Two lizardy creatures awakened to Spring 2019 before our eyes! That’s not a thing you can say every day.

The Blooms, Shoots and Peeps of Change

When you have had a tough winter – too sick, too tired, and so sick and tired of icky weather – there’s nothing like the blooms of a magnolia tree to assure you wholeheartedly that spring is here. This one I saw yesterday in Charlottesville begs to be noticed.

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Just down the road a piece, these beauties make their own March magic.

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My own garden is way less impressive right now, though the chives are perfect and were delicious, cut up fine, in last night’s meatloaf (and try mixing a handful or two of asiago cheese, grated fine, into the mixture, yum!).

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My daffodils are trying hard – one more sunny day (maybe two) and they will be at peak. Behind them, through the deer fencing, you can see the strawberry plants making their start.

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The tiny, tender new leaves of the rose bush leave no doubt that it has every intention of another banner year.

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And the reddish shoots of the peony bush have pushed through the earth – for me perhaps one of the most heartwarming pictures of promise. Brown all around, but winter’s nap is over. Here we come!

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A hawk flies by with its massive wings, a redheaded woodpecker inspects a tree for new hole locations and the peepers peep down by the creek. I hadn’t heard them until today.

Have you noticed how quickly things can change? I was watching the PBS series on Queen Victoria recently and chuckled to myself during one scene. Things are in a bit of an upheaval and Albert says to her softly by way of comfort: “Everything changes, Victoria,” – pause – “except us.” Granted, their marriage was rock solid, but little did he know what was coming in December of 1861. As my father would have said to him, “I have news for you.”

Some change is good though. Hardly anyone laments the end of winter and the beginning of spring. I got some seeds planted this weekend, and with them, new signposts installed. Toward the end of February, while we were still wearing the many layers of wintertime, I remembered that my guests often meander through the garden on their own, but if I were doing that, I’d have a hard time knowing what’s what (even in my own garden half the time!). So I thought signs might be good. Sandy cut and drilled some scrap wood, I painted the words, and on a reasonably warm day I polyurethaned them and hung them to dry.

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This weekend was the time to attach some of them – peas, lettuce, spinach, carrots, onions, garlic, oregano – to metal stakes and set them in their proper places. Let the self-guided tours be henceforth more informative! I think I’ll change the attachment method, but for now, it works. The oregano in front of the sign will fill out this whole corner when it gets going.

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I never had garden signs like this before. That’s a change, a good one I think. Sure, not-so-good changes come too, regardless of season, regardless of our plans, and there are plenty of those. Therefore let us ever be on the lookout for the good changes – notice them, applaud them, celebrate them. May they be the counterbalances, the bright spots, the ever-present (if ever-changing) reminders that despite those times when all (or most) seems dark, flowers do bloom in the spring, shoots do pop through the earth to begin another glorious cycle, peepers do peep! 

Three Wintertime Lessons from My Garden

I don’t always get around to things right away. I don’t qualify as a professional procrastinator – you all know people like that, the kind who can say: I used to just crastinate, then I turned pro. I’m not that bad. But I did not rake out the garden beds and paths last fall after the leaves finished falling. I didn’t break off the dead branches of the gigantic, once-glorious-now-sadly-bygone mum. See what a mess?

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Here in early February, all that old, dead stuff was still there. Even when a strong wind might send the leaves in an upward spin, the barriers of the 8-foot-high deer fencing that surrounds the entire garden ensured that they would still require labor to move them out of there at some point.

It was time.

Sunday was a decently warm day, mid 40s. Having just returned from sub-zero Vermont made it feel downright balmy. I could have used the leaf blower but it was early in the day and I didn’t want to disturb my cottage guests; besides, I have trouble starting it on my own. So I raked. And raked. And raked. My garden is about 400 square yards (334 sq. m.). The entire space was not covered with leaves, but some was. It took a few hours to make it respectable.

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Not bad, eh? When the afternoon sun pierced the trees along the back and came streaming in like this,

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I marveled at the beauty and thought about three wintertime garden lessons.

1. Rest is vital. The garden needs to rests in winter. It did the active, hard work throughout the spring and summer, bore its fruits, then slowed down and closed up shop for a while. It’s not dead – though I know it looks that way! – it’s just resting. Once I broke the branches off that mum, I saw little bits of green …

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The pachysandra that Louisa gave me last summer can hardly wait for spring.

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It’s as excited to send forth new green as the mum is, as the garlic is.

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We ourselves close up shop when we sleep at night, or when we step off the hamster wheel we have been running on long enough to regain some strength and perspective. Being inactive for a while is vital to the activity that comes before and after.

Seems to me that people fall often into two camps: those who can’t get moving unless some outside force forces them (otherwise known as a kick in the pants), and those who can’t stop moving until some inside force forces them, i.e. until they practically drop. Life does not always allow it, but as much as possible, somewhere between these two extremes is a better place to be (though how much we know and how seldom we apply!!). Imagine if we could organize our lives and make decisions about everyday activities such that we can get the right amounts of both rest and activity, motivated by our own determination coupled with reasonable expectations.

2. How good it is to clean things up! How good to finally clean up those leaves that were cluttering up the garden path, looking like Hey, who’s the slouch that didn’t finish the job in here? This doesn’t mean we go crazy raking in November if November is full of other things (the leaves will still be there in February!). It does mean we recognize a needed task/change and make sure we get to it in due time.

How this primes us for the Better Next Thing! A fellow blogger (thank you, Sarah) reminded me this week of the need to take stock of the things that creep in and clutter up our lives, get in the way of our goals, serve only to eat up time. At some point we need to take steps to put the house in order, so to speak, or at least give good thought to whatever it is we want to have, do and aim for, and then eliminate, greatly reduce or find an alternative way to manage whatever stands in the way.

Mind you, I did not rake away every last leaf, even in February. Not only am I determined not to veer into OCD territory, I also know that decomposing leaves put nutrients back into the soil. See my herb garden? This is not the work of an obsessive woman. A little of the old often assists the new.

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3. Getting rid of the Not-As-Important makes way the More-Important. Like raking the leaves out of the garden so that new, unobstructed growth can happen in the spring, taking time to figure out the balance in our lives – the place of “enough” work/rest/play – gets us to where new, unobstructed growth can happen in our lives. Along with Sarah, we can all hope for the magical day when the stars align and we are doing enough but not too much of any given thing. Zu viel nimmt weg von genug, as they say in German: Too much takes away from enough.

We need activity, but too much activity detracts from our doing the right amount for our current physical and situational constraints, which in turn may make us either tired or frustrated or sick.

We need food, but too much food sends us over the edge, past the that’s-quite-enough mark, into feeling uncomfortably stuffed, which (if you do it too often) leads to all manner of problems.

We need friends, but too much social time stretches us too thin, which gets in the way of other, equally important things like work, rest and alone-time.

As with every other aspect of our lives though, it takes more than hope to be in a good, balanced, healthy place – whether that place is emotional, physical, professional, or relational. It takes common sense, good decision making (on a fairly continual basis), frequent reassessment and a reasonably strong will, i.e. the need to say no when the less desirable thing rears its head and wants to dominate our time, energy and attention or pull us away from the direction we intended to go. That’s all 😊.

The ebb and flow, up and down, pull-back-push-forward motions of our lives are not carved in stone of course, but rather always in sometimes-maddening flux. But again that is where life is like a garden – we are always in one part of the cycle or another, even if, for the moment, it looks like nothing at all is happening.

It won’t be long before I’ll be showing you this area along the fence full of fresh leaves and abundant strawberries. It looks brown and desolate now, I know, but a good future is within that dead-looking stuff!

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Prickles Prove Prickly

Sometimes things do too well. All things in moderation, they say, and we generally want things to do better rather than worse, but sometimes things go crazy and require serious cutting back. Yesterday I cut back the blackberries, black raspberries and raspberries. I not only cut them back. I gave them away.

I should have known better than to move them into the garden in the first place. I should have realized that with the better soil in there, with the continual feeding they get from decomposing leaves, they would thrive. Last year already they looked like this. There is a vague way to get between the rows, but it had begun to be tricky even then.

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This year I was too embarrassed by their overgrown tangles to take a front-on photo. They snuck into this image from when I was weeding in July. You can see there is no way in.

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They do produce berries, lovely berries, but you could pick only the ones you could reach from the perimeter of this berry jungle. I did enjoy a few handfuls of reds and blacks. I assume the birds got the rest, though how they navigate in there beats me.

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I am ready to throw in the towel. Maybe it’s the prickers. Do you see what I see among these cut branches?

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Look carefully. One pricker after the next sticks out in random directions every inch or so. They are razor sharp and get through even the super-coated work gloves I have, the kind made for winter work – warm and thick but still movable. They stick through the plastic coating into your fingers without warning and they break off into the same plastic coating to sneak up on you and stick you later as well. Some get past and make it into a warm bed under your skin. This one I pushed out this morning. See how teeny? I think maybe different gloves would have been better.

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When I started this job, I knew there would be pain. There were a lot of branches.

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Perhaps you can’t see them very well behind the bench. Let me help.

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The blue lines give an idea of how tall they were, but not how many. There were way more branches than blue lines. By the time I was done I had three piles.

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It was a gray day and not a fun task. I had just enough energy for this and nothing more, being on the recovering end of a bad cold, but not 100% better yet. I offered the plants to Tracy, who came later to dig them out. She filled the back of her pickup with foot-high starters and will find a perfect place with lots of room between the rows to plant them. Whatever comes up after she has taken all she wants, I’ll put elsewhere, outside the fence, and let them have at it, go to town, reproduce like rabbits if they want. I just don’t want to deal with the prickers anymore.

This morning I went out to check on the chickens, fill their feeder, check for eggs. I moseyed over to the dormant garden to look at those pricker branches once again, perhaps to rejoice over a job done. The garden is a little depressing in winter. The mum that was so spectacular in October is just sad now.

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The lemon grass that had bushed out so far it overgrew its planter box had been hit by frost finally and cut back.

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Not an overly uplifting mosey. Even the bird bath up close had nothing to redeem it.

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Then something green caught my eye. Something green in January.

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On October 24, just over three months ago, I planted some garlic bulbs that Tracy had given me, garlic bulbs called Nootka Rose (who comes up with these names?) that had sent green shoots into the air. Green shoots! January! You know, sometimes it doesn’t take much for our spirits to be lifted. Look at that green!

And the seasons, they go round and round…

A New Twist on Cole Slaw

You can never be quite sure what’s going to do well in the garden. Last year I had cucumbers galore, this year not so many. Last year the beets were few and far between, this year lots. I planted both red and green cabbage this year. The reds were so pitiful, I didn’t bother even trying to salvage anything from them. But the greens!

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It’s hard to tell size from this picture, but that head is almost as big as a volleyball.  They don’t come one at a time. I had six at once in June. What do you do with six large heads of green cabbage?

I shredded one head and sautéed it with sliced onion and a little bacon for flavor. A little salt and pepper and 45 minutes on a low flame (covered) makes a very fine side dish. I wrapped three heads carefully and put them in the fridge downstairs. That left two. Cole slaw is nice, I thought, but I am not as wild about using mayonnaise in dressings, and I don’t buy bottled dressings. Vinegar and oil would work, but I wondered about lemon, so I experimented.

I chopped up two heads very fine, added chopped red onion and shredded carrot and made a lemon dressing. Yum! Two heads of cabbage make a lot of cole slaw, so after the meal I packed the remainder in wide-mouth quart-sized mason jars and refrigerated it. I found that the flavors got even better the next day and the next. I gave one jar to my neighbors Jen and Quin, and one to Lincoln and Julia, and they loved it too.

A few weeks later I made more, using the last of the garden heads, and we enjoyed it just the same. That was in August. Today I got a hankering for Lemon Cole Slaw again.

Get yourself a nice head of green cabbage. (It’s very cheap!) Chop it fine. I use my 10-inch chef’s knife, preferring to do it by hand because 1. I control the size of the chop and 2. I get a bit of a workout which makes me feel better about dessert 😊

Start by quartering the head and cutting out the core. Slice like this first:

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Then crossways until it looks like this.

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Certainly you may use a food processor or some other chopping device. I like to add red onion and carrot for both color and flavor. To the one head of cabbage I bought and chopped finely today, I added two finely chopped red onions (each onion was the size of a golf ball) and four small carrots from my garden. Use however much of each as seems reasonable to you. Use a big bowl. The biggest one you have is probably best.

For the dressing, I adapted the sweet-sour dressing I use for Carrot-Raisin Salad from a favorite old (1976) cookbook called Bakery Lane Soup Bowl.

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For the lemon dressing I used 1/3 cup sugar, ½ cup lemon juice, ¼ cup olive oil and salt and pepper to taste (for me that’s about 1 ½ tsp salt and ¼ tsp pepper). The salad looks pretty once you mix it all up with the dressing and it tastes light and refreshing.

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We had some for dinner and I put the leftover in one small jar and one large jar. Pack it in tightly! It keeps well stored in the fridge. I can’t say how long, but am guessing a week or so. Mine doesn’t last that long!

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The smaller jar here is special to me because Claudia’s dad makes his own honey on their farm in Betzigau in southern Germany and packs it in these jars. I save the jar of course because it reminds me of him and his wonderful gift to me. This jar is from the honey Claudia brought last year. One time when I was returning from a trip there and had forgotten that even creamed honey is considered a liquid and put it in my carry-on so that I could be more careful with the glass jar (do you see where I’m going!?), I had to watch the airline security official throw it in the trash (!!!!) because it was a “liquid.” “It’s honey!” I told the woman, “It’s like gold to me!” She just threw it in the trash… Moral of this story: Put honey in your checked bag!

If you want to make Carrot-Raisin Salad, peel and shred 2 pounds of carrots and mix with this same dressing only using cider vinegar instead of the lemon juice (same quantity). Mix in a cup of raisins (golden or regular) just before serving. Some people don’t like the raisins, so I usually divide it in half and add raisins to only one of the bowls. If you have leftover of the one with the raisins and you store it in the fridge, the raisins will absorb some of the dressing and be soft and all puffed up the next day. I don’t mind this at all, and it doesn’t hurt anything, just know it will happen.

These salads-in-a-jar are so nice to have on hand. No last-minute salad prep when it’s time for dinner. Oh, look, here’s salad!

 

Pink Hands

I love the story of the Little Red Hen. You know the one where the hardworking and foresightful Hen goes through the steps of growing wheat. She asks three other animals on the farm – the Cat, the Pig and the Duck in the version I remember – to help her plant a grain of wheat she found. She says, “Who will help me plant the seed?”

“Not I,” said the Cat. “Not I,” said the Pig. “Not I,” said the Duck.

So she does it herself. She continues to ask for help with harvesting, threshing, milling and baking, and the other animals continue to refuse to help. Finally the bread is ready to be eaten and they sure do want to help with that! Too bad! They didn’t want to help with the work, so they don’t get to enjoy the reward. The Hen shares the bread with her happy chicks.

Today was Harvest Day at Golden Hill. The beets and carrots have been doing what garden vegetables generally do if you leave them alone. (Anyone who has harvested a baseball-bat zucchini can relate!) I just didn’t get to it before now, can’t imagine why. But the beets had pushed themselves pretty much out of the ground and the carrot tops had dried up.

Here are the beets in their bed in May, in June and today:

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And the carrots in their bed in May, in June and today:

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See what I mean? I’m an amateur in the garden, but this I know: It’s time to harvest. And I had little girls happily helping me!

First we did the carrots because you have to pull harder. Little girls get tired, so let’s do the somewhat harder thing first and save the easier task for later. I loosened the soil and exposed those gorgeous orange tubers.

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Eppie didn’t want to get her hands dirty with pulling carrots, so Rise helped with this. Eppie put them in the box. Well, some of them. She found other interesting things to look at in the garden, including two worms. I wonder sometimes if some children never get to touch real worms…

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How fun it was for Rise to pull up some pretty big ones!

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Eppie was more impressed with one that was curled. And with the ants whose home we evidently disturbed. “Look, sister!”

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The ants were none too happy but they will figure it out.

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We got two boxes full of carrots, smoothed the dirt for the next planting, and said Wow! as we looked at our harvest. Rise said we should make carrot soup for dinner. We’ll see about that, but how wonderful that she is not only helping but also thinking about what to make with them.

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Onward to beets. So much easier. You don’t have to pull at all, but practically just lift them out of their nice bed,

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and twist off the green leafy part (that’s for the chickens).

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Beets are fun. Look what you get besides beets – pink hands!

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I like making little girls happy. I like making chickens happy. Look at the box of greens behind the box of beets! I know we could eat the greens too, but you have to draw the line somewhere. All those lovely beets make me so happy I can let the greens go.

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The chickens were soon very happy!

Well, each in their turn. The photo below shows the brahmas, cinnamon queens and Rhode Island Reds, which I have been lately calling Group A – will someone please help me come up with a name for this group?! They got theirs first – the beet greens and a few tomatoes that the garden turtle (remember him?) chewed off half of because they were lying on the ground because someone (I wonder who) didn’t get around to staking up the tomatoes very high either.

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See the silkies and black copper marans (Group B for Bantam?) looking through the dividing wire, longing for theirs. Hey, where’s ours? Patience, patience!

Ah! Good things come (usually) to those who wait. The chickens like the tomatoes better than the greens. But I guarantee that those greens won’t last long either.

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I think I never had a harvest of beets and carrots like this. Never so many. How blessed am I to share the experience with these lovely young ladies! Later in the week we might plant some more carrots and beets in these beds so that there will be a fall harvest. Something tells me I’ll have two good helpers!