Friday, May 31, 2013

In the orchard

The light was so beautiful last night. All day, it was mid-eighties and sticky, but about 7:30, everything started to glow. I decided to take pictures of the orchard, because it's finally starting to look like something-- not a pretty something, necessarily, but a productive something-- and that makes me happy. The brushy little trees really don't look like much, but when you remember what they looked like when I planted them, they seem to have come a long way. 

Right? To think that barren field of twigs (and no greenhouse!) was just two scant years ago... well...

I think the companion planting is finally starting to pay off. I've planted comfrey, chives, lupines, Baptisia, daffodils, yarrow, Queen Anne's lace, and now some currant bushes in around the trees. All these things have a good ecosystem-building trait of some kind. Lupines and Baptisia to fix nitrogen, daffodils to repel deer, chives to repel everything else. Comfrey to send a deep taproot down into the hardpan and siphon up minerals. I hack the comfrey down to the ground about every four or six weeks-- "chop and drop mulching," that's called-- so the minerals it's mined can benefit the trees, keep down the weeds a little, and retain moisture. The comfrey, for all its miracles, doesn't seem to mind the inhospitality.

I'll admit that right now it looks a little sloppy-- but that's permaculture. As picturesque as an orchard of just grass and trees might seem, it's also more sterile. Here, the fruit trees are surrounded by friends cheering them on-- at least that's what I try to tell myself when I start worrying others might consider this an "eyesore-- and in a few years it'll look more like an effusive meadow of wildflowers than a weedy lawn. As everything grows in, and I find more things to plant here, the whole orchard "block" will be one solid plant community, with no lawn whatsoever.

I can't tell you who's more looking forward to that day: me, the gardener, or Patrick, who currently spends half an hour a week mowing out all the nooks and crannies around the planting.

I'll close with a picture taken during Wednesday's hail storm. Sheesh. The stuff shredded a few hostas, but didn't do much damage to the garden, thankfully. We ate a big bowl of garden spinach last night.

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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Scurrilous weeds, and other stories

I've begun seeing this stuff in my dreams. I am digging it out of the circular area between the driveway and the vegetable garden-- which you can see here, on the lower left--

and yanking out its every gnarly white root, and even scraps of leaf that end up scattered (because it will root itself again, from just a torn-off leaf) and hauling the whole mess to the compost. Bishop's weed. Please don't ever plant it. There's a variegated kind, too, which isn't quite as vigorous-- but it's close. This area is contained by lawn, so there is a natural limit to how far the stuff could get. But over by the property line, it has marched its way across several dozen yards of tangled currant bushes, sumac thicket, and tartarian honeysuckle-- would-be fine real estate for Jerusalem artichokes, or ornamental shrubs, or something useful-- were it not for the damn Bishop's weed. The photo above is from Friday, before I launched a sub-nuclear offensive (read: zipped up my rain jacket, made myself hot chocolate in an insulated mug, and got down to WORK). 

My progress isn't as impressive from this angle, but see here: I hacked, pulled, and dug the stuff out from around the three languishing currant bushes (right side) and denuded that whole left side. I have to say, the thoroughly saturated ground is making the job easier for me, and fueling the progress I've been making this week.

I have exciting plans for this space-- come on now, were you surprised? There's a nice Syringa bush there, on the left, and those currant bushes, and a maybe 12 year old hickory sapling, and a giant dead stump (where once there lived a hickory many years older than 12). Between the Syringa and the currants, lined up with the center path in the garden, I'd like to put in a path of wood chips, an efficient energy-link between my kitchen door and the garden gate. You can sort of see the back steps of the house in this picture, on the very left. This little circular area is my pass-through en route to pick dinner, so many nights, and it should suit that purpose. 

I've already started filling in around the Syringa with a mix of herbs and sun-loving perennials. My priority is things that attract good bugs, and also free or cheap things. Right now, I have Liatris, variegated pineapple mint (I dream of Mojitos...), a few odd Campanulas that caught my eye, an Artemisia, and Anise Hyssop. And chives. 

The other side gets less sun. My mother-in-law suggested a bench, and the more I think about that idea, the more I like it. A bench under that hickory, backed by a tall stand of Solomon Seal, and flanked by a few fat hostas... yes. Yes, that suits me just fine.

Remember when I had barely an eighth of an acre in which to grow my vegetables and flowers? Remember when my soil was so terrible zucchini failed to thrive? (I never blogged about that.) I remember my old Binghamton life-- that one I left two years ago-- and I feel like a different person entirely, but not on purpose. This place and its needs have changed me, fully, as I hoped it would, and though I have way less time to drink beer on the porch than I used to, and way tougher hands than I used to, this place has been worth it. It continues to be worth it, more and more, every year.

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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

May light

From last week's heavy rains, we were delivered into a few days of high 60s-low 70s sunshine. I will never miss an opportunity to be thankful for that kind of weather. But most especially, in May. The light. The colors. The lilacs still infusing everything with that scent.

We spent most of the weekend working away on a big yard project, which I'll hopefully be able to reveal soon-- and which we'll hopefully have done in time for our big party. June 8th! Time is getting close. These photos tell the rest of the story of our weekend, of the sunshine and garden time and Delmer frolic time and all those things so perfectly May that I am loathe to say farewell to this week. It went so fast this year. It goes so fast every year. Good thing I like June almost as much.

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Friday, May 24, 2013

Seeing green

It's amazing how quickly May can get out of hand. As in, if I'm not spending part of every single day in that garden of mine, then I'm falling behind. After last weekend (three whole days away), it was time for some serious catch up. It was mid-eighties and incredibly humid most of the week, but I soldiered on.

The trellis with netting is for peas; the trellises with strings are for tomatoes. I never have good luck with tomato cages. They look fine until those plants start to take off, then the fruits start to ripen, the weight gets to be too much, and the whole damn thing tips over. So, I'm using Eliot Coleman's technique this year, and we'll see how it goes. Last Thursday I got my tomatoes (34) and peppers (24) in the ground. I am crossing crossing crossing my fingers for no deer/drought/other catastrophes this year. I have never had the exquisite privilege of hauling in laundry baskets-full of tomatoes, and I am starting to feel a little bitter, honestly, about that. Like, come on, you're not a real gardener until you've hauled in an abundance of tomatoes. And I haven't, ever, though it surely isn't for lack of trying.

The broccoli are so happy. Some of them are even starting to get crowns.

I mulched a lot. I planted beans, cucumbers, and squash. I pulled a lot of weeds. Today, which is blessedly cool and rainy, I even broke out the edger and prettied up two of the garden's three edges, in my rain jacket. I've always loved gardening in my rain jacket. I've had the same one since high school, where I think I broke it in my first spring as a vegetable gardener, planting on a rainy Memorial Day weekend. So, you see, this jacket and I have a long history together. I almost always find muddied seed packets in its pockets, when I wash it, and sometimes I pop out the rain visor on the hood for extra dorkiness. Ain't pretty, but it serves.

The garlic is also quite happy. 

This week we got over two inches of rain, which we needed badly. This was the scene, a lot, as Delmer and I sat upstairs waiting for it to break. I worked in a lot of rain, too. In my jacket. Yesterday Del curled up on a tarp in the garage while I weeded, and kept the baby chickens company, and sniffed for rats around the compost. In addition to being a gentle and affectionate family dog, he has perfectly tuned instincts for a life as a homestead guardian, too. And we are lucky.

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Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Dog love

I don't have a lot to say today. Despite spending the weekend at a kennel, Delmer's assimilation into our lives continues to be so smooth and practically seamless. 

As awesome as our at-home evenings were last summer, with the chickens and Pete and Diesel, I have to say, this year they are joyous. We had an old dog for quite awhile-- and we loved him-- but we forgot a little how fun it is watching a young dog bow and prance and frolic. Monday evening, Delmer took off for a race around the orchard, while Patrick and I got a little campfire going. The sound and sight of him: an ecstatic racing blur of red and tongue and rushed breath, feet thundering through the grass-- we'd forgotten that. 

Fence training is going really well, too. Yesterday I worked in the garden all morning with him inside the invisible fence, and within sight, and he was perfectly content to lie in the grass, trading on and off between sunny and shady places, for hours. 

And when I write, he retires here happily. He's a big lazy dog. He loves comfort-- I guess all dogs do-- and he and I both are so pleased with this beat-up old armchair that fits him, and is near a window. Right now he's snoring.

I think we picked a good one.

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Tuesday, May 21, 2013


I am going to miss this lady.

She was 92, and she was ready. I wasn't ready-- I don't think anyone else was really ready to say goodbye, to live the balance of our days left without the benefit of her quiet laugh or perfect hems or Oatmeal Carmelitas. 

I bonded with this lady way more than I ever bonded with my own grandparents. It sounds terrible to say that, but it's true. It's the whole urban-rural divide, I think. Esther was a rural wife, a career homemaker in an era when that was a woman's highest calling-- and she made it artful. She inspired my own housekeeping-- though I will never be able to claim napkins pressed as neatly as hers. She had this incredible devotion to rightness, to the best way things can be made or fixed or thought of: and that's what I loved most. I lean on a lick and a promise sometimes, but I wish for the patience and care enough to do things right the first time. 

The first time I met her, I was aware how much I had to learn, I wanted so badly to make a good impression. It was Patrick's and my first autumn together, and we had baked pie. Apple pie. And left one at his parents' house for the weekend, during which Esther was going to be visiting. Strategic pie.

Stopping by on our way through on Sunday, Esther's first words to me were, "That was some pie. I heard you put vinegar in the crust, that makes it flaky." Just like that, I think, she had decided that any young woman who can execute a flaky pie crust using a time-honored trick of household wisdom-- any young woman like that would make a good wife for Patrick. She loved him dearly, she wanted him to have a life full of flaky pie. So she loved me, too.

I never thought about how her love for me was just an extension of her love for him. I asked her once what her favorite sewing project had been. She was a champion seamstress. Looking at old family photos, part of the dialog is talking about which dress "mom" made and where she got the fabric and how special Jan or Judy or Joy felt when she put it on for the first time. Esther's answer was a pale blue tuxedo for Patrick, when he was maybe five, when he was a ring bearer in his aunt's wedding.

It was bittersweet to spend the weekend remembering and celebrating her, and meeting so many of the people she'd touched-- and fed. But so final. That's the hardest part-- knowing I can't love her through sending mail, or stitching Christmas presents, or baking pie anymore. I have to love her while keeping my hands still-- so, so hard. Somehow I think that might be the very core of what we had in common. We loved with baked goods, and careful stitches, and tidy flower beds.

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Wednesday, May 15, 2013


Oh my. We suspected he was a real good one from what we saw in the shelter. It can be hard to judge for sure, with so much distraction and the absence of a real bond. And I have to say, it is a total act of bravery to take even the best and sweetest shelter dog and walk him out to your car, and figure out how to get him (a total stranger) to stay in your car, and to drive the hour home worrying that he's freaking out or being sick (he was). Worrying that he won't like you.

Silly me.

We got home, we walked around the yard a few times on the leash. Pete followed twenty feet behind, in full-on stealth mode. We went in the house. I showed him his food and water. Olive dove for cover. We went outside again, then came in so I could post photos on Facebook. He paced the perimeter of my office twice, gave it a few cursory sniffs, and did this.

He is made to be a freelancer's dog. He is back in that position this morning as I write this, checking in for my approval every few minutes or when I make an interesting noise.

He is also meant to be a gardener's dog. After posting pictures, he and I went outside to plant some things. I looped his leash around the end of a pitchfork stuck in the ground, nearby. He circled a few times and laid down with a sigh, and I was so amazed. Some dogs-- Diesel for one-- would've turned into complete basket cases, being tied up like that. But Delmer was just-- oh, ok. This is where my person wants me. We worked for the better part of an hour this way.

When Patrick got home, we had a campfire. 

He has melted us, completely and totally. He's two, so he still has quite a bit of puppy in him-- and needs to learn that mouthing is a no-- and loves to frolick and prance. But under that, deeper than that, he has Great Dog Instincts. The checking for approval, the ability to be quietly content (when I'm in sight, at least), the goodness with the cats and the neighborhood noises and even the chickens-- I am so excited, and so hopeful. And so happy. 

I don't think I'm alone, either.

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Monday, May 13, 2013

Shower gifts, and happy news

Okay, so this photo sort of gives the impression of Siamese twin babies or something-- oops, my bad. I can assure you my friend whose shower I attended Saturday is not having twins.

I whipped these appliqued t-shirts (9 mos size) up last week the same way I did these onesies years ago, except this time I was smarter and gifted something that'll get worn more than once. The mom-to-be is a great fan of all things nerd-- Star Wars and Dr. Who and old school video games-- so all it took was a quick snoop around her Pinterest board for the new baby to come up my designs. 

The mushroom from Super Mario Brothers.

The alien dude from Space Invaders.
To round it out, I threw in a pair of green footless tights (Mom is pretty steadfastly anti-pink, which I knew) and sewed up a quick Layer Cake Skirt to match. So much fun!
The shower itself was a surprise, and I was the one tasked with picking up the guest of honor for a day of "yard saling," then driving her to the park across from my house for the shower. She was duped, we all were smug, the whole thing went off without a hitch. 

This is shaping up to be a very exciting week for us. Turns out Dale wasn't returned-- he was just taken off hold by a woman who'd been on the fence about him. We have been busting hump all weekend trying to get our lawn invisible-fenced (800 linear feet, baby!), and today when we went out to buy more wire for the fence, we stopped and bought a collar, and a duck chew toy, and dog food. Again. I'm driving to Delhi to pick him up tomorrow. 

I am making the most of this opportunity to be sentimental. Patrick and I sat across from each other at a bar Friday night, brainstorming names. Dale isn't a bad name, and, well-- it does suit him-- but it's just a tad on the NASCAR side for us, you see. He's very laid back, and also a bit of an airhead, it seems, so we wanted something appropriate. We thought about Southern airhead names like Bubba and Dwayne and Amos, and we thought about Irish names that might fit, like Seamus. Then I started thinking about Fargo, because this dog has a Fargo sort of face. And so eventually we settled on Delmer Lundegaard Strain, and I simultaneously burst into a laugh-cry over my gin and tonic. Perfect.

I am so overwhelmed by excitement, but I'm trying to hold myself back a little, trying to remind myself that though he has the makings of a great dog, I will likely be cleaning up after him and wiping off his slobber and vacuuming up his sheddings for many years. Even great dogs shed, and slobber. But those nerve endings in my heart are starting to grow back after many months, and this guy had me at woof.

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Friday, May 10, 2013

Friday thoughts

Salad time!

I always forget how fast they grow. It's been almost two weeks, and they've tripled. The barred rock Emmy is a bit crazy, but the other two are so docile and relaxed-- a big change from last year's brood, I must admit. And a welcome change. It's nice to have chicks who don't mind being held.

I am at 760 words on my article. In addition to the writing, I also spent several pleasant hours sewing gifts-- and I will reveal the fruits of that labor on Monday. I was so, so thankful for the rain that forced me inside this week-- and my peas and leeks were thankful, too. 

The shar pei mix--Dale-- got returned to the shelter, and I spent three sleepless hours last night excitedly hoping things would work out. Our application is next in line, the shelter person told me, but I need to find out why he got returned. Sigh. We've walked nearly a dozen dogs at this point, and are realizing that love at first sight is mighty hard to come by. I've got my fingers crossed.

This is shaping up to be a good, down-home, low-key sort of weekend. Patrick goes into the studio all day Saturday-- and I take a wee drive to visit Alexis and possibly Kat, too-- and Sunday we are opening a big 'ol can of whoop-ass on the old homestead. May is so hard to keep up with, but we're doing our best.

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Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Gardening and procrastinating

Fact: I have 800 words due Monday.
Fact: I haven't written word one yet.
Fact: Instead of working, I spent all day long in the garden yesterday.

That's that thing about gardens, and May. You leave for two days and suddenly, magically end up behind on everything. There were paths to mulch and seeds to plant, rows to fill in and seedlings to thin and beds to prepare for tomatoes. Dandelions, always, to dig out of the edges. 

Things are looking good out there. I've had some struggles with germination this season, which could be because I seriously jumped the gun on some of my plantings, or it could be because I'm using a different, cheaper brand of seed for many things. (Really, there are some places where one just shouldn't cut corners, and I'm beginning to think seed is one of those...) Regardless, it is early May, and I am pretty pleased. I have two-inch-tall peas, and little spinaches and lettuces and radishes and arugulas and kales. I have a nice armada of broccoli seedlings beginning to realize the joys of the horse manure I worked in around their toes. We're just coming off a considerable dry spell-- eight long days with absolutely nothing-- and I'm thrilled delighted ecstatic to see a reasonably good chance of rain for the next five days. We need it.

Also, I have leek sets my neighbor and fellow obsessive gardener Dave gave me, and four twenty-five cent packets of wildflower seeds to sow, and nasturtium and fennel seeds to sow too, and we ate our first Strain Estate asparagus Monday night. 

It's a good month, this May.

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Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Spring in the city

Well. What a lovely weekend. Cities once in awhile are so fun for a rural kid like me. I forget how much fun it is just to people-watch, or drink in the fabulous details of 1920s brick buildings, or wander down long lanes strung with bobbing pink tulips. 

When I was 13, I started coming to spend spring break with my aunt Carol, who lives in the Bronx. The tradition lasted eight years. We had so much fun, those weeks. It was a little bit about the shopping, and the museums, and going to the movies-- at least in the beginning. But over time it became more about the friendship I have-- and have always had-- with this great lady. 

Almost everyone has an aunt, and aunts of any kind are a fine thing to have. But my aunt, well. Aunt just doesn't quite do justice to the bond we have. From the beginning she spoiled me rotten, which may have-- I'll be honest-- greased the skids when it came to forming a lifelong relationship. I have clear memories of throwing tantrums when she wanted to use the bathroom by herself. Spending time with her always felt a little bit conspiratorial. In a delicious way. Like we had this totally awesome club thing going on, this girls club, and no one else could gain the privileges that came with being part of such a club. The privilege to stay up way past bedtime eating black olives and painting our nails (that's when I was six or seven), or the privilege to go to bed early after spirited literary debate and a prodigious amount of wine (now that I'm thirty). 

It's still this way between us, though so much has changed in my life-- and in hers. But she still has the same little apartment in the same North Bronx neighborhood, all the restaurants we used to get takeout from are the same, and being back there reminds me of how much I loved spring breaks, and how much I gained without really realizing it. Sometimes I feel like I learned as much about how to be a woman from my aunt as from my mom-- how to be independent, how to revel in solitude. How heartbreak gives you wisdom. And above all, the importance of comfort, whether it comes from junk food, girl talk, or just a really good book.

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Friday, May 3, 2013


Twilight, with tree-buds and tree-flowers, and chickens scratching in the compost and everything in the garden loving this week of warmth, and an ambitious Pete-cat trying to break into a birdhouse to swallow baby swallows. Snack? Hehllooooo, snack for hungry Pete? Oh, this guy.

This week was pretty mellow. I dug into the two big projects that will stay with me all summer: digging bishop's weed out of the circle garden beside the driveway, and of course working on the house exterior. I put in four hours or so on the front porch this week, and have not a whole lot to show for it: I burned and scraped paint off of maybe a four-foot length of spindles (urgh, spindles!) and gave the whole porch a second coat of that lovely dark blue color. I should make a weekly habit of taking a picture out there, so I can make a time-lapse video of the summer's progress. It will be slow progress, to be sure, so time-lapse is probably the only way to go. But in the end, it'll be so rewarding. 

Bishop's weed is awful stuff, to be sure, but this week I've had the "assistance" of the chicken brigade while I work. Loretta, especially. She is not afraid to get between my shovel and the ground when a juicy earthworm is involved. That whole area, once I de-weed it all, is going to be a place for some perennial herbs and flowers to attract beneficial insects to my garden. In late June all the perennials get marked down to $1 apiece at Frog Pond, which is about when I'm going to hitch up my mules and head down there and haul home all they have. 

Tomorrow I decamp for New York City for a few days, to stay with my sweet aunt and still the ever-turning mental hamster wheel that is May for a gardener like me. I had so much fun switching off for a few days last year, when I went, that I decided it should be a yearly tradition. So, I'll be wearing cute skirts and walking through the Botanical Garden where I don't have to worry about weeds, or bugs, or germination rates-- and that will be just fine.

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