April 9th, 2015 §
The past week began with brutal wind-driven snow showers and has ended with temperatures edging into the high 60sF under blue skies and streaming sun. I suppose it’s like spring everywhere, showing two faces as winter reluctantly cedes to the inevitable warmth and light. And the light! Since the clocks sprang forward a couple of weeks ago I’ve been marveling at how long the days are now, with light past 8:00 p.m. What a change from winter, when the world went dim at 3:30 in the afternoon and I went to school each morning in the dark. And the days will continue to grow longer until late June, until it is freakishly light late at night thanks to this northern latitude. No wonder there are aisles of blackout curtains appearing in the local shops.
The return of the light, and some decently warm temperatures, has me back out plant collecting. As the ground wakes up, more and more plants are showing themselves to me. Today I walked to Blackford Hill and the first thing I saw was an orgy. The warm and shallow water of the pond was teeming with toads. I watched one randy fellow swim from one potential mate to another, slipping up behind each in a fumbling wet embrace that was usually deflected in a kicking swirl of muddy water. He could have taken a lesson from this persistent fellow who rode his indifferent girlfriend all the way down the path in front of me as I sat eating lunch.
The toads aren’t the only creatures with spring fever. The geese were swimmingly paired and the swans sat preening on their nest.
And I’ve got spring fever too. The sunlight is intoxicating, and I have dreams of garden parties, picnic blankets, and park barbeques. The plants are returning, and the gardens are even more a place of wonder and education. I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited for a spring, and so full of joy at the return of the light.
January 15th, 2015 §
This week’s plant identification is a real challenge: conifers. We had a walkaround last Friday, just snuck it in as soon as the gardens reopened after having been closed most of the week because of high winds. It was still gusty, and a cold rain fell as we sped around the garden looking at twenty different conifers. My notes bled across the paper, which melted in the rain and sloughed away under my pen.
The weather and similarity of the subject matter conspired against me, and over the weekend I found I wasn’t able to learn the conifers as fast as I had other plants. So Tuesday night, after a full day of work experience at the Botanics, I set out alone to find the twenty trees we’d been assigned to learn. The gardens had closed for the day, the gates locked, and I was alone with the plants.
It was a real scavenger hunt as I tried to remember where we’d walked in a garden I have still not learned by heart. The day was going dark fast, and snow fell as I tromped beneath evergreen boughs, trying to spot the small black labels that identify each plant in the garden. The only sound was the strange and reproachful flapping of the large roosting birds whose bedtime I’d disturbed. It was so cold that my hands cramped and I could write only shaky initials on the labels I’d brought to i.d. cuttings from each of the assigned trees.
In the empty garden, in the freezing dark, I caught a tiny glimpse of the wildness that makes urban gardens such important links to the natural world. By day the Botanics are obsessively orderly and man’s desire to control nature is the main attraction. But when all the people leave, and the darkness erases tidy edges and labeling plaques, the garden occupants revert to their undomesticated outlines. Walking amongst them, in the quiet dark, the city dropped from my awareness and I was for just a moment back in all the wild places I have lived in and loved, and miss.
All week I’ve been working with the plant material I collected that night, learning these conifers not only by sight (Chamaecyparis pisifera has white, butterfly-shaped markings on the underside of its leaves) but also by touch and smell (Thuja plicata smells like pineapple or artificial fruit flavoring). To have such closely related plant material has been an exercise in broadening my identification skills to include all senses. The test is tomorrow, wish me luck.
July 23rd, 2014 §
Monday night, before the rain had even stopped, I was out in the garden harvesting tomatoes. I knew that with so much rain, so quickly, any tomato that was even remotely near ripe would be split by morning if I didn’t get it off the vine. The year’s first Beefmaster and Brandwine were ripe, and I didn’t want to lose these massive and beautiful fruits, ironically, to too much moisture in a drought.
I picked all the tomatoes I could, with a few squash and cukes for good measure. It baffles me that the squash are still standing, but several readers have written that they’ve seen the same pattern in their gardens. Lots of Japanese beetles, not many squash bugs. Amazing. If this is an effect of the polar vortex, I’ll take one every winter!
As calculated by my kountry rain gauge, I got just shy of two inches of rain from the storm. Pretty amazing for about an hour’s worth of rain.
July 22nd, 2014 §
I had just finished an hour of weed wacking in about 99% humidity—a good way to get toned and lose weight!—and was messing around with the chickens. I heard a strange noise approaching from the south. It sounded like the drone of machinery, and as a big truck had just gone by I figured that was what I was hearing. But then the noise grew louder, rolling in waves up the road, across the bridge, and finally over the cedars that mark my property line. By then it was upon me, and within half a second I was drenched with a sudden downpour.
The chickens were out, and I sprang into action trying to call them all into the coop. Half responded, and the other half, along with the two young pullets, huddled outside or tried to jam themselves through the netting to get under the coop. It was chaos, and a scene I would have happily run away from. But I knew that if all the birds got into the coop together there was a good chance that the bigger birds would attack the two pullets, and getting soaked to my underwear seemed like a lesser evil than returning after the rain to patch up bloody birds.
So through the driving rain I grabbed at tail feathers, the water sheeting off the roof of the coop and straight down my pants, into my boots. Ungracefully but efficiently I got everyone caught and tossed through the pop-door of the coop, and then closed it up. Then I ran around to the human door to sort the two young pullets out from the flock and lock them up in their dog crate inside the larger room.
I grabbed the day’s eggs, and my dog and I ran splashing though the instant puddles to the house. In just these few minutes Tuck had already gotten so wet that he couldn’t come inside, so I left him out to meet his fate while I stripped off my streaming, grass-caked clothes right in the foyer.
And then I realized that all the windows were open upstairs. So commenced a naked, slippery dash for towels to mop up the water that was everywhere inside. Some people maybe would have run to close their windows before securing their livestock, but the storm came up so fast that I prioritized on instinct, and the house lost. I just can’t be in two places at once, holding down this while that springs up over there.
Amazingly, it continued to rain as I regrouped in a hot bath, read through a couple New Yorker articles and drank half an Indian Brown Ale. When I came out of the bath I heard a sound I’d been missing for at least a month, the low mechanical hum of the sump pump in the crawlspace kicking on. I’d begun to think my pump was malfunctioning, I hadn’t heard it in so long. But now it was back with its entirely reassuring noise, and so was rain the likes of which I haven’t had here in many weeks.
Big deal, you think. It rained. But this rain was needed. In fact, I was about to publish a post about how everything is browned out and we’re running a rain deficit for these last two months. Just last night I was e-mailing with my dad, both of us bemoaning the water stress we were seeing in our trees. The grass in the lawn is about totally dead, and last week the drought got so bad that I ran my well way down applying emergency water to the completely wilted gardens—something I only do in dire straights. Whenever I run the water down so far it kicks up tons of red clay and silt, which clogs my water filter and reduces water pressure in the house to a trickle until I remember that this happens and replace the filter. At $30 a pop.
It’s about an hour after it begun and still raining. This pop-up storm mushroomed right over my house and seems to have stalled, thank goodness. The water is coming so fast and furious that it’s ponded everywhere. The compost is floating off the garden, my driveway is running down the road, and I can sense the relief of every growing thing, myself included, as its washed clean, cells plumped and replenished.
I never thought much about water until I had a farm. In fact, I hated rainy days. But now I know that water is everything and I hope for it, year-round. Tonight I, and every living thing around me, got lucky. Even if we also got soaked.
July 9th, 2014 §
Double rainbow over Buck Mountain last night. I’m pretty sure I’ve never captured both ends of a rainbow in one photo—and I didn’t even have to leave my yard to get this shot!
The funny thing is I started shooting just the right side of the rainbow, pretty excited about it, focused on one end thinking that was all I would get. But then I walked a few steps out from under the trees and saw the whole rainbow stretched out before me. Wow—and it was there all along! It was a good reminder that sometimes all it takes is a change in perspective to get the bigger picture.
July 2nd, 2014 §
The Independence Day holiday came early to the farm, in the form of tonight’s storm that underperformed in needed rainfall but blew up the sky in one of the most spectacular lightning shows I’ve seen in years.
I spent half an hour steps from the porch as the sky went nuts around and behind Buck Mountain and green fireflies rose out of the pasture and flashed around me.
It was an impressive show that’s left me a bit stunned by the beauty that began with a sunset so seamlessly gradated it looked Photoshopped. I feel no need to go anywhere for Fourth of July fireworks: I’ve already seen mine, right in my own front yard.
April 30th, 2014 §
It’s rained for three days and nights, downpours and thunderstorms, and it feels as though this little pocket of central Virginia has become Seattle. The mists lift and drop, playing peek-a-boo with the mountains, and all the new spring greenery is positively glowing in the excess moisture.
I took a short walk through the woods behind the house this evening, and discovered that Tucker’s trail has become, much to his delight, a creek. My Labrador in sheepdog’s clothing is thrilled that the stream has somehow migrated up the hill to within his reach. He zooms along it, mud flying everywhere. It’s so fun to watch his joy in the water that I can’t even be mad at how filthy he’s getting.
The woods are laced with our native dogwood, state tree of Virginia, and they look spectacular this year. It’s next to impossible to get a good shot of them in the woods, but in person they are stunning—ethereal white blossoms threaded through the entire forest. And look at that grass—technicolor! Methinks I will have the season’s first date with the mower this weekend, if the ground dries out enough to get on it with a big machine.
The middle of the woods, where it’s usually just dry forest duff, is now full of little ponds—this one deep enough to swallow my feet!
I can’t understand why the water collects as it does here, instead of continuing to run down the hill to the creek. A mystery I’ll never solve.
More dogwoods at the wood line, with the big oaks just leafing out above them. I love the gentle curves of this piece of ground. They remind me that I am lucky enough to live in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains.
April 29th, 2014 §
I was away from the farm for 16 days in April, and when I returned last week it was to a different world than I’d left. I completely missed the flowering of the earliest ornamental trees, the cherries and crabapples, but the dogwoods are in full bloom. The spring continues the cool and damp weather pattern of the winter, which is actually nice as the low temperatures keep the blooms around much longer than they do during springs that shoot right to 85 degrees and stay there.
Dogwood ‘Cherokee Brave’
Leucojum aestivum ‘Gravetye Giant’
Narcissus ‘Rip van Winkle’
Magnolia ‘Jane’ (right behind Tuck)
Narcissus ‘Delnashaugh’ is definitely my favorite of the bulbs added last fall—a wonderful coral/apricot color and huge blooms. Daffodils are up there in my top three flowers—my dream is to have great fields full of naturalized drifts, and then a whole other specimen collection for up-close appreciation. The bulbs I added to the front garden last fall are a good start toward this plan.
After such a long, cold, and snowy winter, I am especially appreciative of these spring blooms. I am not, however, especially looking forward to grass-mowing season, which is already underway!
March 26th, 2014 §
It started to clear yesterday evening around six, and what had been a socked-in, heavily snowing day turned into a stunning evening. Once again I was reminded of how the landscape around my house is so dynamic, its changes driven by the seasons, time, and weather. Mountains disappear and reappear, evergreens that usually fade into the background take center stage during a snowfall. Every tree limb is outlined and the horizon underscored. Under snow, previously unseen folds and valleys in the hills surrounding my house pop into relief and reveal unexpected topography. It was a beautiful night. There is always something new to see, and if I don’t like the view out the window it will change in minutes. I am never bored.
March 25th, 2014 §