Saturday, December 12, 2015

Time, Luck and Weather

It was a couple of days before Thanksgiving and I still had not planted the garlic. In New York City and region, this would be of little concern, but here, well I was pushing it well beyond ordinary pushing it. 

The week before it had rained, really rained, so much so that our excavation had completely filled with water (a story for another day, if ever). Then, not two days later, it froze for thirty six hours ensuring that the wet earth had become a solid block. Digging was out of the question. The swimming pool, above, became an ice rink.

A week later, the Monday before Thanksgiving, temperatures were climbing, yet again above forty. And the gravel came. It kept coming until there were two hundred tons of gravel, nearly one hundred a fifty cubic yards piled inside and outside the pit. 

Meanwhile, there was garlic to be planted, the Xian Turbans were sprouting, and the cloves would need at least a few weeks without frosted earth to settle in, but what could be anticipated after such a quick, deep freeze just a week prior? I wheeled out the seldom used, 30 year-old Troybilt tiller, filled the always flat right tire with compressed air, set the throttle, lifted the choke, removed the spark plug, poured a cap-full of gasoline into the chamber, replaced and hand-tightened the spark plug, yanked on the chord, bah the the the the, repeat, and then again. Throttle off, fully tightened the spark plug, dropped the choke, throttle on, yanked the chord, then bah buh, buh, buh, buh, buh, pop, and the old Kohler engine was humming.

It wasn't easy to break the semi-frozen, wet earth, nor the lawn which floats above it. The tiller is a beast, requiring strength to maneuver, patience on turns, and knee-jerk restraint as it rockets forward when hitting solid soil. I made several passes, bottoming out at six or seven inches on the lawn's compacted clay bed. I curved these new beds to match the Hydrangea transplanted from the south side of the house to edge the boundary of the lawn and driveway, leaving just enough room for the mower to pass between.

Although our garlic grew pretty well this year, experience told me I wanted compost tilled in, but I wouldn't have anything to do with buying the bagged stuff. The city of Minneapolis collects organic yard waste, which it sells to a composting company that happens to have a site in our area. I think I paid ten dollars for what would easily be well over one hundred dollars of bagged compost. These places are worth their weight in black gold.

I tilled in about two inches of compost and made the most of tight quarters by removing any chance for walking rows (I'll regret this later). In two beds, about five feet by twelve each, I planted roughly 350 cloves, or about 3 per square foot. 

I had more cloves, of course, and tilled a row from last season's planting bed for those.

Although it was the day before Thanksgiving with much to do, I chose to make another trip to the compost facility so I could place something over the indents made when the cloves are pushed in. The soil isn't very soft or deep; I felt this could help to keep the cloves from freezing too soon. 

A light snow had fallen, which can act as an insulating layer, but more was needed.

Out back I had been saving an old hay bale that Rex had stored under the playhouse we gave away last summer. It was just the thing I needed to insulate now that temperatures were plummeting (a week later I placed even more insulation -oak leaves from the woods, and just before the next snowfall).

This is the spot the straw had been laying. Even though the ground all around was frozen three inches deep, this spot was still unfrozen.

In fact, there was a lot of unexpected activity in the heat generated by decaying straw.

Pill bugs, Armadillidiida, also known as wood lice.

And this pale sprout.

Since the week of Thanksgiving we've had more days over thirty two, some well over, than those under it. Most nights have been relatively mild, staying well above twenty eight degrees.  In a year where I've often been behind on what needs to be done and with weather the spearhead of possible defeat, I think I may have gotten lucky getting the garlic in this late.

But I'm not having any luck keeping the turkeys off the mulch.

 It seems they're quite fond of gardens.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Birds

I have to keep it short, today. We have been blessed with much and are thankful beyond the sentiment. As I worked diligently in the studio, the turkeys enjoyed the old garden (that finally received the garlic, yesterday).

Our dinner's bird came from here, the Gale Woods county park. Despite losses of millions of poultry birds to a severe outbreak of avian flu at Minnesota's mega farms, small farms like Gale Woods didn't lose any birds. It's hard to imagine how we could decentralize the production of food animals at the scale that we produce and consume them in this country, but I am thankful for this park and its mission, and that it provides for our meals of pork, beef, lamb, chicken and turkey, and finally for the Gale family who well understood years ago that this kind of farming was losing ground and needed to be preserved by imagining it as a park.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Winter's Gift

Storms came through with significant rains, and November thunder, and wind. It happened this way and was expected after such a long and pleasant autumn. Now, it is not rain, or sprinkles or mist, but flurries or squalls of snow. The ground is not yet frozen, nor could it be, but unstirred water is now ice.

The change is apparent in our behavior, the humans, the deer, the bluejays and crows. Bald eagles and red tail hawks circle together, coyotes climb fallen trees, chipmunks vanish.

The turkeys march daily, on their chirping and pecking tour. They are fond of our place where there is little to concern them, and after the rains the eating is good.

So many tasks left unfinished, and others that must go on despite the turn to below freezing temperatures. If I were to list the whirlwind of projects I've accomplished since May, it would be long and dull and yet one must consider that a life worth living is full of unsung activities that bolster the praiseworthy. Now that we have returned to frozen, I can look forward to the limits set by it, and push those limits at times; limits set more so by people unaccustomed to the relative warmth inherent in temperature than the temperatures themselves.

On days with high winter temperatures of thirty or more, I can fix on the plank repair for the bridge across the great wetland or cut dead wood for trail edging, and if the wood chips are not too frozen, spread them along the trails.

It is this trail work that Rex loved. Fitting, then, that on this day, the one year anniversary of his death, of his willingness to let go, as I sat in his rocker in the adjacent room, that I consider his work my work, that his work was accomplished and praiseworthy and that so much of what becomes praiseworthy goes unsung, including the gift, the conveyance of appreciation, from one human being to another, of value.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Autumn Creature Feature

This is the best view we could get of a Wood Duck that inhabited the back pond (I don't know what else to call it now, it's beginning to suggest permanent). About two months ago the ducks began congregating, yet I was so busy I didn't realize what was happening. A few weeks later, while felling trees, we noticed on the ridge a steady stream of walking ducks. It went on for minutes, there must have been one hundred! They are extremely skittish and do not let you get close, but I had been listening to their squeaky swing set sound for weeks. It wasn't until the parade that I understood we had a large congregation. One day, a week or so ago, they began flying over the house, rounding back to land on the lawn. Then they were gone.

Last year I did my best to save the frogs from what I thought was a frog trap. But now I'm beginning to think they want to be in this pit -the soil cut and retained around our basement, code required, egress window. I count at least thirteen in this portion of the pit, but there are more. You may also see the blue-spotted salamander to the left of the blue, roofer's trash. Next summer this pit will be excavated, probably retained with a galvanized steel, and a new, rot-proof, egress window installed. What will happen to this amphibian paradise?

Apparently, in autumn, the best house painting days are also the best days for lady bugs to seek out their death chamber. By the thousands on a warm, breezy day, a couple of weeks back, they swarmed the house. On their backs, stuck to the paint I eagerly applied, they became such a nuisance I had to quit. Several left defensive trails, "reflex bleeding" as it is known, on the paint that had dried. Once in the house they strive for light, which tends to be the light fixtures on at night. Look up at the plastic lens to see all the dark splotches of recently passed Coccinellidae. Don't bother cleaning it until winter sets in. They are stubborn too. When you try to coax them into your hand or onto a piece of paper they hunker down or, just as frequently, as they climb walls and windows, they simply drop to the floor, sometimes spreading wings to fly to another location. While gardeners love ladybugs, I have entered a new relationship to them that is, well, a little bit more complicated, and I well-learned not to paint the house after labor day.

Squirrels. This one had no idea I was standing there, silently waiting for Wood Ducks to come by. They didn't. Look at how auburn it is -for a gray squirrel. The posture resembles a man in a Godzilla suit, and by most people's reactions to them, squirrels may as well be Godzilla. Me? I still like them, they do not bother us or the house, we don't feed birds so I have no self-interested reason to despise them, and I'm pretty sure they're having more fun in the woods than any other animal. There is one thing I have learned. I always thought it was squirrels dropping all those acorns in the back yard. It's not. Bluejays. Autumn is the season of bluejays. They knock the acorns down and then do their level best to stuff them in their mouths, then fly away to stash them. Even though I grew up in an oak forested area where gray squirrels and bluejays were the most common animals, I never recognized this behavior until this autumn.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Apple's In The Bag

We harvested many large green heirloom tomatoes before the freeze.

A brown bag, three overripe apples, two days, and ripe! Grandma taught me the trick, but I don't know if she understood that it was the ethylene gas put out by ripening fruit that spurs further ripening. Apples pump out a good amount, and at the right time for green tomatoes. If you want to keep your fruit from ripening, you should keep them away from other fruits, especially ripe ones.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Truth About Gardening

Today is Halloween, and fortunately these plants you are about to see were put into their pockets last weekend, or was it the weekend before I went up to Duluth to help install an art project? Truth is that I cannot recall, but at the very least, when I look outside, now that our long summer has changed to autumn, I see that someone has put these plants into the ground.

I like buying plants in autumn because they're usually discounted, if a bit root bound from a summer in a pot, and since I have no trouble keeping plants alive I rarely lose one to a root bound condition. It is winter that I am worried about. Egged on by continuously warm weather, I allowed these potted plants to sit around as I wondered whether this warmth would hold out. I used the time on more pressing housework, notably siding and windows. Meanwhile, the vegetable patch looked like August and it was October.

Although finally, while I was in Duluth, a light freeze made an appearance, yet the weather hadn't really changed. We are about to go into the sixties for several days. Gardening is out of the question, the idea needed to be put to bed. Rather, I'll be using a two part epoxy resin to harden rotted brickmould and jambs, waiting over night, then filling these pockets with a two part epoxy putty, waiting over night, and then priming and painting them.

I'll be using the best paint possible, and fortunately Sherwin Williams sent me a customer appreciation coupon for 30% off, starting tomorrow. The best paint available is expensive, over seventy dollars a gallon, but windows are way more expensive. Your contractor will tell you it is three thousand a hole and you are surrounded by holes; we all like a picture of the land on our walls. A window is the conceptual preamble to landscape painting, so I do not underestimate its hold on us. Yet a cold of twenty below zero is a phantom that makes sieves of our aesthetics and the rot in a jamb exposes the carpenter who refused our only defense -that apotropaic, pink spun glass.

It may be unfathomable to those in warmer corners, but I welcome the oncoming cold as a return to interiority, away from the outdoor projects I thought I could accomplish last spring. These will have to wait. There are indoor projects to be sure, but there is studio time, professional development, and even this journal to attend to.

There is a landscape project I wish to accomplish, at either a sculpture park or county park. Details to be worked out, but this Swamp Milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, is the seed of it. And I've yet to plant the garlic. Soon, maybe in a week's time. And painting, too, of course, there are several running in the studio now and an exhibit in Milwaukee for next fall. I will be teaching my course, once again next summer, at Art New England.

Bugbane or Cohosh, Cimicifuga racemosa.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Autumn Dogwood

There is a dogwood tree, I'm not sure of the species, that grows atop the mesic south-facing slope of the great wetland. It angles upslope, toward what light it may find on the northern side of neighboring large oaks. It is just off the front porch. It takes on a lovely color in fall, as you see here complementing the yellows of maple and bass. The leaves dropped well before the oaks had shifted to their autumn colors.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Felling and Bucking

This, nine months ago, seemed a good spot for my garlic patch. It's gently sloping, south facing, and clean. Trees would need to come down. The garlic has been shipped, a bit late I think, no doubt due to the raging fires surrounding the garlic growing regions of Washington. One of my favorite suppliers had nothing to offer this season thanks to drought and fire.

What made this spot the obvious choice for my growing also made it the obvious choice for an outbuilding. At the Minnesota State Fair we spoke with a manufacturer of these buildings and they came out to the site. Last Friday, we signed. This January they start building.

My job is to make sure the site is cleared and excavated, plans and permits submitted, and the extra components -gravel, concrete, electrical and heating all get done in a coordinated fashion.

Whether it be garlic or a structure, felling trees is necessary. It's is not something we take lightly. Betsy's dad never cut a live tree, but he never had too. His old property was sculpted long ago and this new one is a work in progress.

A chainsaw wielding neighbor has done all the trees larger than four inches. Together we chip the branches and pitch the bucked logs into his truck. Dragging sixteen foot long leafy branches to the chipper, tangled as they are with other branches, over ankle twisting logs and stumps is rugged work and physically draining. Most I can do is three hours at a time.

Nothing shall be wasted. The black cherry and hickory limbs have been chipped for smoking meats. The firewood logs are partial payment to the chainsawing neighbor. We've saved several eight to twelve foot logs for lumber: hickory, black cherry, sugar maple, red oak, ironwood, and basswood. The Minneapolis College of Art and Design has a furniture program with a saw mill that goes relatively unused. We are affiliated with the school now and may take advantage of this idle tool. 

Basswood, Tilia americana, are weak-wooded trees that can grow to great heights. In other words, fairly dangerous for buildings and even people. I had one come down right in front of me last March, on a perfectly still day. I lucked out -the sound of trickling water distracted me from my path. Then, snap, and a sixty foot tree leaped from its trunk, landing just were I would have been had I not been the type to be distracted by burbling freshets. This one was, and two others will be, cut to prevent any interaction with our new building. With hesitation we are sparing a very tall cluster between the back yard and the new building because it provides some shade and screening between the house and the outbuilding. Are we sparing the monster?

The Vermeer. It eats wood for lunch.

I did all that I could to figure a way to spare this sexy red oak, Quercus rubra. These trees have strong wood, and stand for years after they have died. And they are dying, thanks to the oak wilt fungus, Ceratocystis fagacearum. Our woods is a chaos of wind fallen trees and branches, woodpeckers and other bark boring birds and insects. This damages the oaks (and other trees) and makes them susceptible to the insects that carry the fungus. The trees, once infected, die rapidly -usually a month or two, and it's dead by July. Felling trees must happen in the cool season or winter, branches chipped or burned. The logs need to be bucked and split for firewood. Drying them apparently puts an end to the fungus. Yet, we're not fooling ourselves -the red oaks are dying and we won't be able to stop it.

I didn't know there were small patches of hickory in our woods, but since identifying this one, I've found two clusters of more substantial trees. I haven't yet discerned whether these youngish trees are shagbark or bitternut, but I will let you know. The branches of this hickory have been chipped for smoking, a log saved for milling, and the rest went to firewood.

Sling the rope over the top.

And pull in the direction you hope it will fall.

Finally, there is limb work outsourced to an arborist with a cherry-picker. 

He will also tackle a couple of wilt-dead oaks from a few years back and this dangerous limb hanging from a very old sugar maple.

Later, maybe, we'll get to the several large oaks and basswood that have fallen throughout the woods in 2015. It appears to me that all the older trees are dying; a changing of the guard. What will these sunny clearing produce? Multitudinous sugar maples from the north, invasive buckthorn from the south, and whatever it is we have to say about it.