Bonafide Farm

You win, polar vortex, you win

February 28th, 2014 § 1

Another polar vortex swooped down from the Arctic yesterday afternoon, and I tracked its progress online trying to figure out when the howling winds and eye-crossing headache it brought would abate.

Polar Vortex HeadacheWEb

It was 10 degrees here this morning at 7:00 a.m. It’s close to noon and the temperature still hasn’t passed 20.

I just went outside to bring in some firewood—to get the woodstove going to supplement the electric heat—and while I was out I turned on the outdoor tap on the wellhouse to fill Tucker’s water bucket. Well, the tap turned, but no water came out. Hmmmm….Then one second later my well house began to cry, water running out of the wall along the lower layers of siding. That’s when I saw the icicles, incongruously where no water usually flows…


Of course I knew what this was. All the plumbing for my house runs through the well house basement, which also houses my well pump, and it’s exposed to significantly more temperature variation than within my house. I’d had a taste of winter plumbing issues a few weeks earlier when my water filter, also in the basement, froze and needed emergency defrosting before I could get any water to run to the indoor taps.

So expecting a new basement swimming pool, I went inside to put on my wellies. Thankfully the basement wasn’t entirely flooded, but I found some nice icicles and dripping water, which I traced back up the stairs to the pipe that runs from the basement to the outdoor tap.



I peeled back the insulation to reveal the money shot. Sure enough, the pipe had burst. Another copper victim for the polar vortex!


I suppose burst pipes are a homeowner rite of passage and all things considered, if one had to go this was the one that would cause the least damage. Now I stand in solidarity with my burst-pipe brothers and sisters across the country as this winter continues to beat the crap out of most everyone.


Thankfully, when a friend did some plumbing upgrades I’d asked him to install a shutoff valve to this external faucet, with a scenario just such as this in the murky back of my mind. I can turn the water off to the the entire affected section and only be out the use of my outdoor tap. I’m pretty sure I’ll wait a few weeks—or maybe a few months the way this winter is going—to have it fixed.

Snowing again

February 26th, 2014 § 0

Just as I was going to write about how it was 65 degrees and sunny this past weekend, and that the maples are budding bright red, the winter weeds are blooming, and the male red-winged blackbirds have reappeared from their wintering grounds, another polar vortex dipped south.



I’ve awoken to snow two mornings in a row. Not much accumulation is expected, but it’s enough to remind me that we’re still at least a month away from spring.

Winter colors: Trip to the creek

February 21st, 2014 § 3

When hours in front of the wood stove leave me feeling parched and sleepy, I like to take a walk to my nearest body of wild water. I head down the hill to the creek that runs along the back of my property. I have a relationship with this part of the farm only during winter. From March to about November the brambles grow so thickly that the woods are close to impenetrable, as well as being distressingly thick with ticks.


Walks to the creek in winter remind me of being a kid growing up playing in the woods and streams. Today the mineral smell of standing water and boggy decomposition flung me right back to being ten years old and scooping gelatenous masses of polywog eggs out of still water. The clumps broke apart and slimed my hands as I dropped them into a bucket of water before toting the survivors home to hatch in a fish tank in the garage.



I always find some sort of treasure, usually old broken bottles, mostly of the hootch-holding variety. Today I found an amber jug with the words “white fleece” around its top. Nearby was the bottom of the bottle. I looked online but couldn’t trace the bottle’s provenance. The name make me think of fabric softener—but did that ever come packaged in amber jugs? A mystery for sure.


The sound of the creek relaxes me—some day I’ve love to live near moving fresh water—and I like to walk up the creek in my wellies and feel the current against my feet and legs. Today the water was fast and churning grey from our recent snowmelt and rain.

I have happy memories of the creek being the site of my first adventures with Tucker. When he was a tiny pup we’d walk down there, him absorbing the important lessons of following and staying close to me that have made him such an excellent off-leash trail dog. He’d stop and sniff stumps, memorizing the scents of the native foxes and beginning to understand his territorial responsibilities. I’d coax him up and over fallen trees—massive obstacles to legs just a few inches long—him gaining confidence and learning to trust that I wouldn’t hurt or put him in danger. Trips to the creek laid a good foundation for our partnership.

Eventually I restricted Tuck’s range to within sight of the homestead when I installed his invisible fence. He still has acres to patrol, but his winter visits to the creek are now just memories.



I spotted real treasure today with this small yellow feather. Despite being only about four inches long, against the brown leaves it stood out to me like a beacon. I tucked it into my pocket, to add to my collection, and once home identified it as a wing feather from a northern flicker.


At some point I approached what I was sure was a horse-sized skull buried in the creek gravel. I got very excited, but turns out it was just a plastic bag. Seeing it brought to mind a hike I took up a creek in the Blue Ridge with friends the summer before I went to college. We got to a very tricky part that was basically just scrambling up a sheer rock face covered with rushing water. As I started to climb I slipped and fell backward into a pool of water, hitting my hip and injuring it for for what would turn out to be years to come. I was in great pain, but when I went to heave myself up I turned and saw that I’d splashed down right next to a dead dog, pale and decomposing in the water.



Maybe the winter colors of the creek really are all about death and decay. Regardless, or maybe because of this, I love this winter creek’s color palette best—when the water and leaves combine to give me new appreciation for a subtle layering of browns spiked with an occasional acid green, bone white or flicker gold. It takes work to seek out inspiration in winter, the season of sleeping rot, but each time I walk to the creek I find something beautiful.

Daily commute

February 19th, 2014 § 0


International Garden Photographer of the Year

February 17th, 2014 § 0

I just came across this collection of photographs from a contest sponsored by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in England, and I have been mesmerized for a long time, taking in the details of each exquisite photo. I don’t reblog much, but these images are on par with anything I’ve seen come out of the National Geographic Photo Contest and deserve as much exposure as they can get. Maybe I’ll submit one of my own images to this contest some day—seeing these photos is real motivation to keep upping my own photographic game.

It’s easy to piece together some trends from this winning collection. Of course the New Perennials are still going strong, as evidenced by the contest winner, Rosanna Castrini, an Italian garden designer who describes her gorgeous garden as a prairie. Her photo, below, has reawakened my lust for Echinachea “Magnus,” a magenta coneflower (and 1998 Perennial Plant of the Year) that’s been on my radar for a few years but I’ve yet to encounter in any local garden center. Also still hot are representations, either natural or planted, of “meadows.”


Take some time to click through and enlarge each of these images. At the very least you’ll find a break from the seemingly relentless cold and snow surrounding most of us. And at best, you’ll take away some inspiration for a future garden design.

A full moon valentine

February 14th, 2014 § 3

Around six tonight I suddenly remembered it was the eve of February’s full moon. I ran outside with my camera and tripod to get a few shots as it rose in the front yard over Buck Mountain. The moon’s light on all the snow made it so bright that within a few minutes of my eyes adjusting I could have walked anywhere I wished without any extra light.


A far-away friend recently asked me if you could see any stars from my farm. Well, here’s your answer. Even on a full-moon night, the stars pop out of the sky.


It’s nights like these that I’m again reminded why I like to leave the hay standing in the front field over winter, instead of bush hogging as most people do in fall. Not only does it create lots of habitat—the place is riddled with deer beds, and Tucker is constantly hunting voles and rabbits out here—it also makes a more interesting picture. And, I love the golden color of the standing grass. In the grey darkness of winter, I will take color anywhere I can get it.


Full moon with Chamaecyparis obtusa, in foreground, and Juniperus virginiana, at far right. Cultivated and wild, planted by me and sown by birds, respectively.


Winter garden, under 15″ of snow. I am loving the architecture of the rock wall beneath the snow, and how something so low and jagged has been smoothed into great pillows lining the bed.

There’s another little clipper system on the way, and even in the fifteen or so minutes I was out taking photos the clouds started to thicken and obscure the full moon. We’re supposed to pick up another inch or so of snow overnight, but next week temps are forecast to be in the 60s. Undoubtedly all the daffodils will be tricked into thinking it’s spring, only to be dumped on by the snow that always falls into March.

Home: After the storm

February 13th, 2014 § 0

The second wave of this big storm ended at dusk, and with just a bit of light left I went out with the dog to get some photos. I didn’t take an official measurement, but the snow came over the top of my wellies, which are 16″ tall. That’s a lot of snow, especially for here—the most since “Snowpocalypse” in 2009/2010, the winter I built my house. Tonight the national news reported that 60% of the U.S. is under snow. Impressive and wonderful, to have a real winter again.


Being snowed in makes feel especially fondly toward my little farm, which gives me everything I need. Looking back on it from across the pasture, I can see the candles lit in the windows, a warm coop that shelters my flock, a great garage full of capable machines, a beautiful wood stove burning through the sidelights, and a black dog that’s happy to break any trail I need. I never expected to feel as in love with a place as I do here. It’s a feeling I looked for my entire life, and I am blessed to have created it. On the eve of Valentine’s Day, my love is right here.


More snow photos to come, I imagine, in the morning.

The big dig

February 13th, 2014 § 1

The winter storm that started trouble making in Texas is now upon Free Union and headed up the East coast. It started snowing last night just after 6:00 p.m., and at 9:00 this morning there were 13 inches on the ground and more still falling. This is a pretty significant snow event for our area.


I ducked out in a break between snow bands to dig out the driveway. Yesterday I had staged the tractor, putting on the smaller bucket and moving equipment around in the garage so I could back the tractor in, ready to head out bucket first in the event of a big snow. Sometimes my storm preparations seem like overkill, as in Central Virginia snow events tend to bust more often than boom, but all the forecasters were saying this one was a sure thing. I didn’t want to be caught with my tractor trapped inside behind the zero-turn mower, sporting the wrong bucket for shoveling snow.


Using a tractor bucket instead of a snow plow is slow going. It took me about two hours to dig my way out of the garage and down the driveway toward the road, where I cleared the path to the mailbox for the mailman who probably won’t come for days. I worked pretty slowly, trying to preserve what little gravel I have on the driveway. I thought it was interesting that I was the only person out clearing anything—my neighbor was snowboarding down the road with his three teenage kids!


I often mention on this blog how much I love my green tractor, and today was no exception as that tractor meant the difference between being trapped in the mountains and not, once the main road is plowed. I felt like a Carhartt-clad snow queen in her chariot, enjoying the slack-jawed gaping of the few country neighbors who slid by in their pick-ups.


I had only a tiny bit of shovel work right in front of the garage on the side where my car is parked. Once I was done I checked on the chickens, filled up the very-popular bird feeders and headed inside to the woodstove and a cup of hot tea, just as the next round of heavy snow began to come down.

We’re supposed to get a few more inches of wet and heavy snow tonight, and the winds are really picking up and blowing into near white-out conditions—certainly working to undo this afternoon’s plowing. High winds mean the power may go out, so I’ll hit publish while I still can. But at least I have my driveway plowed enough to get out with my S.U.V.

Now, when the fifteen miles into town are a bit more clear, I could actually go somewhere!

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