Tuesday, January 31, 2012

January 2012

Any USDA hardiness map of New York State shows a long zone 4 finger stretching from the rugged Adirondack Mountains to a point near the Pennsylvania border.  Our garden is located near the southern tip of that finger.  Winter is the customary season here at this time of year.  The ground should be frozen beneath several inches of snow now and a fierce north wind should have all creatures seeking shelter.  Instead of those conditions, we now are dealing with soft ground and pleasant temperatures.  Outside work is possible now if the spot is chosen carefully.

The wall at this corner of our property has long been a favorite sitting place for both us and the resident  chipmunks.  The huge wild cherry tree  grows from the neighbor's land but we can sit in its summer shade.  Picked field stone covers this area.  We are working to remove the stone and create conditions favorable for desirable native plants.  Levering out some of the brier root will slow down these invasive pests but we know that we have not seen the last of them .  Most of the stone here is small broken pieces useful only for chinking or fill.  The combination of stone and sun makes this a good place to work outside as January draws to a close.

We have been avoiding the garden.  Ice crystals firmly hold the soil just beneath the surface.  Large clods of garden come along with any weeds pulled .  Damage to the desirable plants is the result of any garden work done now.  Incredibly cold and aching fingers accompany any attempt to work in the dirt .  An early Dutch Iris has broken the surface near chrysanthemum stems providing loose cover for its next year's growth.  The iris is early but it should survive.  The chrysanthemum is having a hard winter.

So we say goodbye to January 2012.  Daytime temperatures here climbed into the 50s F today.  It felt good to be outside in the strengthening sunshine but we really need some traditional winter weather.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Fine Art of Crunching Ice Puddles

This morning when Ed returned from the mailbox he told me it was cold outside.  After yesterday's warm weather and rain, my first question to him was, "Are there any good ice puddles?"  His answer in the affirmative sent me for my coat and the camera.  Crunching ice puddles is one of my favorite winter activities.  The satisfying crunching sound that a stepped on ice puddle makes was music to my ears as a child and it will always remain so.  When a shallow puddle freezes the thin lacy layer of ice has no water underneath.  This is a prime crunching puddle.

Your foot can tap dance all over a puddle like this one making that lovely crunching noise until the puddle is completely shattered. This never gets old, it's like I'm a kid again!

Here we have a more exciting and more dangerous ice puddle. This one is deeper and while it has a thin coat of ice covering it, there is water underneath.

The trick here is to step on the puddle only where there is air trapped under the ice.  This procedure must be done carefully.  The chance of  getting wet feet  is rather high.

This is a small puddle, so the risk is worth it.  Unless I slip and fall all  I will get is wet feet.  The sound here is more of a cracking noise.   I much prefer the crunching noise of the other puddles, but  the added element of danger makes this more exciting!

Crunching ice puddles being one of my favorite thing it was only natural that I would pass this joy onto my children. Many puddles were crunched as they walked to school on cold mornings. There was however a rather large drainage ditch in one place along their route. Sometimes the thin layer of ice would have a large airspace under it. Such an ice puddle emits a much louder cracking noise as the crack moves along the ice from the spot where it first breaks. Unfortunately there was also quite a lot of very cold, very dirty water in the bottom of that ditch. Once one of the children fell in that water and had to return home cold wet and dirty for a bath and a complete change of clothes. Crunching ice puddles is not an accepted reason for being late to school, but perhaps it should be!

 While this is an incredibly enjoyable activity, it should be said that small shallow puddles are relatively safe.  Large deep puddles are not. Under no circumstances should thin ice on ponds, streams or rivers be considered for crunching activity.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Dreams of Perfection

Earlier this month these three plant catalogs arrived at our mail box on the same day.  Each is from a favored supplier and each will receive an order from us this year.  Richters is located in Canada and has the most extensive herb seed and plant list ever seen here.  They supply us with three new lemon verbena plants each year.  Additional plants will fill out the order.  McClure and Zimmerman are an excellent source for native rootstocks.  Roots and Rhizomes have an extensive list of day lilies and Siberian iris.  Rough draft orders have been made and revised.  Why we do this is a puzzle of sorts.

Our garden already exceeds our ability to properly care for it.  Despite our full understanding of this reality, we continue to open new planting beds.  Illustrations in the plant catalogs may influence this madness.  Pictures of perfect plants fill the pages of these catalogs.  Those perfect plants represent the goal of every gardener.  In reality what we grow seldom lives in a perfect world.  Late frost, insufficient or excessive rain, pest explosions or disease, intrusions by wild animals or the neighbor's damn cat in some combination challenge our plants' mission to grow and flower.  Persistence drives us to try again.  This year is less than one full month old and our plants are already stressed by unfavorable weather.  Yesterday the temperature climbed above 50 F degrees.  Excessive rains filled the streams with raging muddy water as more topsoil moves toward the ocean.  Perennial plant crowns have been exposed to repeated freeze thaw cycles devoid of any protective snow cover.

Plant catalogs really sell hope for the future.  Hope that this may be the year when the weather is stable and we manage to stay just slightly ahead of the weeds.  For me, time spent with my hands in the soil is curative both spiritually and physically.  Perfect flowers and sweet scents are just a bonus.  Once again we will trade money for plants and start the cycle once more.

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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Gone Again

Once again warm, for January, rain has dissolved our thin snow cover.  Daytime temperatures climbed into the 40s F today and I walked to the back to check on my garlic.  Only two plants have pushed new growth above the still frozen ground but we really need some lasting snow cover.  The amount of stone on the surface surprised me.  There was no time to sift out the stones last fall but I picked and raked stone for hours before planting the garlic.  Only the big stones are gone.  Small broken pieces litter the ground.  Each stone is a reservoir of moisture that will aid the growing plants this summer but any garlic directly under a stone will have to work to reach the surface.

A recent solar flare may create northern lights visible in our part of New York State tonight.  In our three score plus years we remember seeing northern lights on three different occasions.  One of those sightings happened while we were living here in the country.  There are no electric lights near us so our night sky is really dark.  Any cloudless night features a sky filled with stars and planets.  Stars are so numerous that it is difficult to find the constellations.  Add northern lights to our already impressive celestial display and the experience is unforgettable.  We were ready to be dazzled again tonight but as is so often the case all we will see is cloud bottoms.  Still the optimist in us will send us to the windows to look for a hole in the cloud cover.  There is always a chance that the sky will clear.

Through the evening   we looked to the north hoping to see something. There was kind of an unusual pink glow to the thick cloud cover, but I think perhaps it was wishful thinking on our part.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Repaired Stone Walls

This first snow of 2012 was long overdue and most welcome.  With both vehicles shoveled out and the driveway clear, it was time to walk in the snowy woods.  My destination was the area described in an earlier post, Stone Detective.  Just a few days ago the ground was soft and muddy as the frost had been warmed out again.  About the only place to putter was the fallen end of this wall.  Brush was levered out and carried away and the fallen end stones of this wall were  again piled.  No attempt was made to lay the stones in a well tied together wall.  I was simply curious about the shape,size and number of fallen stones.  Proper building will wait until spring but these moss covered stones have an ancient appearance.

Nature has strongly reclaimed this area.  It will require considerable effort to clear around the wall.  The barbed wire fence is on my side of the property line and it will disappear in stages.  The strands of wire will be removed first.  By rolling a two post section of wire into a loop, it can be unrolled and refastened should my neighbor object.  Four separate loops of barbed wire hanging from a fence post may look strange but they will mark a work in progress.  With the wire and brush out of the way, the wall can be built again.

Another earlier post, Tumbled Down Wall, described the repair made here.  The fresh repair was easy to spot as the patina of the two sections were not a match.  A short period of time has made the difference softer.  We will watch to see how long it takes the repair to match the old wall.

There is little question that these are fox tracks.  Most four footed animals make two parallel tracks when they walk.  A fox places its hind foot in the same spot just occupied by its front foot.  The resulting linear tracks have a unique appearance.  Ed had two separate fox sightings yesterday.  Both involved a fox working for its dinner alongside of the road.  One fox appeared much bushier than the other so they may have been a mated pair.  Several years ago we watched foxes mate in the snow on our front lawn.  Perhaps the two seen yesterday were starting to spend time together.  Winter seems new with a long wait until spring but preparations for the next growing season will be soon underway.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Finally Enough Snow to Blow

Ed's new tractor and snow blower have been sitting idle in the shed since before Christmas.  By noon today we had about 4 inches of snow.  It was a nice quiet snowfall with no freezing rain, no ice and no raging wind. This is the kind of winter weather we are used to having. Finally there was just enough snow in the driveway to give the "big" machine a try.  It sure looked to me like Ed was having fun.

Now the garden has a nice snow white cover.  Business is booming at the bird feeders. Ed made tracks in the pristine white snow to fill them with seed.  If the skies clear it will get cold tonight.  It's country dark here and we have a great view of the starry sky. Whenever I read about solar flares I look for Northern lights if the skies are clear. We are really too far south, but if you don't look you will never see.  I've seen them twice and if they are visible here I don't want to miss them.

Tomorrow we should still have the snow. Monday's forecast indicates rain  and it might be gone again!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Magic In The Air

Our winter remains essentially snowless.  This morning's wake up temperature hovered just above 0F.  Both the ground and calm stretches of the Unadilla River are now frozen.  An unusual light on the eastern horizon interrupted sleep early today.  It was a crescent moon rising ahead of the sun.  The bright spot of light that ended my sleep quickly became the moon as it climbed above the ridge.  We frequently watch the full moon rise as that happens early in the evening.  This may have been the first time ever that we witnessed the moon rise just before dawn.  Window placement in our bedroom allows us to view the rising orbs without leaving the warmth under the covers.  This time of year it is usually the sun that wakes us but today it was the moon.

Hard frost coated every surface this morning.  Light from the low rising sun caused the frosty coating to glow.  We stood transfixed watching the sunlight dance on the trees when we noticed tiny flecks of frost falling from the air. Their diamond like sparkle is truly magical, so much so that it can't be photographed at least by me.  It seems that water vapor suspended in the air was changing its state from liquid to solid right before our eyes.  Exactly how this differs from ordinary snowflake formation is unknown to us but what was taking place this morning was amazing.  We had the good fortune to see this as it happened.

Monday, January 16, 2012

This Garden is For the Birds!

It's  white and cold in the Stone Wall Garden.  The  layer of snow is thin, just enough to get some bird footprints.  This afternoon I ventured out to take some pictures.  While I was out there I managed to see woodpeckers, blue jays, slate gray juncos, the ever present black capped chickadees and what appears to be goldfinches.  I wasn't sure about them at first.  I don't think that the goldfinches have ever stayed  through the winter since we have been here. To be honest the chickadees don't seem so happy to have them here.  There is a whole lot of squabbling going on around the bird feeder.

There is a lot of bird traffic under the plants that have gone to seed.  The birds are welcome to all the seeds they can eat.  I'm sure there will be plenty of dropped seeds left to come up in the garden beds.

Earlier in the day I watched a group of mourning doves in the garden and under the bird feeder. Several doves sat on top of Ed's walls.  One was high atop the wire support for the Grandpa Ott morning glories. I sure hope those seeds are on the menu.  It will mean fewer plants for me to pull out in the spring.  Mourning doves need all the energy they can muster here.  As I watched out the window one of them flew across the garden from east to west at terrific speed with the Marsh hawk right on his tail.  They flew out of view.  If the mourning dove was too slow he will flying as fast as a Marsh hawk soon, but perhaps he escaped this time.

Earlier this morning the crows were in the garden.  A different  hawk had landed in the top of a white pine in the trees opposite the garden.  One crow sat above the hawk in an adjacent tree.  The other crows took turns  flying as close as they could to the hawk.  One crow did a speed dive and came so close he nearly touched the hawk.  The hawk  never flinched.  Eventually when the he had had enough of the crows harassment, he flew off and out of sight.

I have seen no sign of the pair of cardinals that usually spend the winter here.  I miss the bright red color against the snow.  Still the activity of the birds adds a great deal to our winter garden.  If I want really bright color I can always visit Sunita's Garden.  Right now it is  very HOT!

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Tree Killers

Retirement planning had focused on establishing a lifestyle in close harmony with nature.  Our years here have centered on our house, located on a ridge out of sight of the highway, and the more remote land at the base of an uninhabited ridge.  An area between the gravel pit and the road was largely ignored.  Working near the intrusion of road traffic interested us little.  We were vaguely aware that stone cleared from the field had been dumped along what is now our property line but the area was largely ignored.  The snowless but frozen garden was now off limits so Ed explored this area while looking for outside activity.

He found wild grape vines claiming the tree line.  Their unusual structure and growth habit make them interesting plants but they kill the trees that they climb.  Found early, the vines can be pulled from the tree and removed.  These mature wild grapes out muscle us.  We are no match for their massive presence high up in a host tree.  Some sort of tool will be required if these vines are to be removed.  Perhaps a cable winch can supply the mechanical advantage needed on this job.

In our youth I'm sure this vine might have served as a swing. Now the idea of getting dumped onto a stone pile prevents  us from attempting that.  How these vines grow is a mystery to us.  Great distance separates the point of emergence from the ground and the supporting tree.  Anchoring growth high up in the tree is thin and wildly branched while the thick vine near the ground floats freely.  I cannot find any understanding of the mechanics of wild grape vine growth but I find them interesting.

This white pine grows along side of the stone pile at fields edge.  A wild grape vine was pulled from this tree two years ago but nothing could be done about the barbed wire fastened to the tree.  Over the years the tree has grown around the wire.  We hope that the new growth is solid and that the tree remains alive and well. In our time here most of the barbed wire fences have been removed. They remain only along the perimeter of our land or in places difficult to access. Crawling through  or under barbed wire fences is for kids.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

No Footprints, But Other Signs

With no snow there are no animal tracks to follow. Still the critters abound around here. I just have to think that some little forest creature lives in the hole between these beautiful moss covered rocks. It looks as inviting as an ivy covered cottage.

Something has been eating my arbutus leaves. The culprit is unknown to me, but I would rather they picked some other plant for their munching.  We first noticed the damage several weeks ago.  Feeding caterpillars sometimes leave a similar munch pattern.  Fortunately flower buds were not on the menu.  Next fall we shall try to look and identify the culprit.  

The top of stone walls is a popular place for animals to leave scat to make their presence known. They like to leave those special markers where they will surely be noticed.  Fox are notorious for marking territory with nose high deposits.  We enjoy seeing a fox but could really do without these markers.

I have to call this one the streak. I don't know for sure, but I suspect this strafing run was made by one of the group of crows that hang around the garden like gang members on a street corner. No less than a foot in length, this stripe was laid down at high speed by a bird flying really low to the ground. With no nest to tend, crows eat at the bird feeder then spend the afternoon chasing each other and generally fooling around. Of course there is always  a possibility that the streak could have been made by a hawk. Our garden is large and the odds are in our favor. So far neither of us have been hit by aerial  bombardment.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012


Winter snow has yet to find us this year.  Frost enters and leaves the ground frequently and our plants are fully exposed to temperature extremes and drying wind.  Clearing brush and moving large stones provide outside activity now.  A single stone, with its long axis nearly vertical, lay nearly buried at the base of a tree.  A wedge shaped stone and the pry bar working together exposed the end of the monster.  Hammer and chisel opened existing cracks.  Soon one stone became six and the pieces were moved out of their woodland hole.

Only one of the newly separated pieces was small enough to be safely picked up.  This piece showing its exposed and weathered top surface is too large to carry.  It can be moved by rocking it from side to side while walking it forward.  Some day it will be placed at the top of a stone wall.  Its flat mass will tie a section of wall together creating a stable section of wall.  Rain will wash the surface clean.  A natural seat will invite visitors to sit and explore the natural history written on the surface of this stone.

Newly exposed interior surfaces have a story of their own.  Man's prying eyes and the light of day are finding the interior of this stone for the first time.  Layering speaks to the sedimentary origin of this stone but the differences in its color point out the complexity of creating stone from water born deposits.  Exposed to the elements this fresh surface will soften.  Rain water will dissolve minerals in the stone and lichens will find an anchorage slowly covering its surface.

More time and effort will be required to move these new stones to a wall.  A rocking walk or an end over end roll will move them to wood's edge.  From there they can be placed in the dump box of my lawn mower trailer.  A field stone loading ramp will get them up into the pickup truck.  Then they will easily move onto the top of a new wall.  All of this effort may explain why the pioneer farmers put the large stones at the bottom of the wall at field's edge.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Unseen Enemies Revealed

The snow cover on the garden is gone. It has pretty much all melted, but the ground remains frozen. Now the pernicious weeds that usually lurk under the snow are in plain sight. Sheep sorrel might be welcome in some places. I know I have seen seed for sale, but here it is plant non gratis big time. In our garden dreams we find a way to eradicate this plant without using herbicides. In truth spring and plenty of hard work will be needed to make a dent in its numbers.

They say you should know your enemy and in this case I don't. All I know is that this weed is also on our most unwanted list. These tiny plants have significant root growth. I can't do anything now, but I know where they live and I'll be back!

Chickweed can be a helpful plant. It's supposed to be good in salads, but I don't like it. It's juice has been known to cure skin rashes. In this case we just have way too much of it.  I'm not interested in a green carpet of chickweed as a ground cover in my garden beds.With the ground frozen all we can do is wait and make plans to uproot these huge plants in the spring.

A big white breasted hawk was sitting in a tree this afternoon. I really wanted a picture. Ed volunteered to sneak out and try to take it, but at the sound of the kitchen door closing the big bird was gone. Perhaps he will be back!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Glaciers And Bulldozers

Contrast is a word that describes visible land forms left behind by retreating glaciers.  Our hummocky gravel bank exists in sharp contrast to the level fertile farmland visible in the left background.  One was deposited under water and one formed the dam that created the glacial lake.  Our 36 acres are so twisted that there is no place where one can stand and see all of the land.  Exactly how the glacier created this landscape remains some what of a mystery but a plausible explanation for the gravel bank aprons has been found.

I could never understand why so much gravel was pushed away from the pit.  The flat area formed by this fill is much larger than ever would be needed to mine gravel.  Successful farmers tend to be thrifty and I could find no reason for creating this broad flat area.  During the 1950's the barn was struck by lightning and burned.  I knew that the remains of the burned barn were buried on land we now own but I did not know where.  This large area of fill may well cover the charred remains of the old barn.

This picture shows the length of the fill pushed from the gravel bank by bulldozer.  Here the fill is shallow as  the natural contour shows in the foreground.  The gravel bank is a considerable distance away.

We have encountered blackened soil while digging in the garden.  These areas were campfire sized and may have been made by Native Americans.  An eel weir survives in the river very close to our land.  This vee shaped stone assemblage in the river forces the eels to all swim through a single narrow opening where they were caught in great numbers.  Native Americans are credited with building the weir.  An encampment nearby would have been necessary during eel season.  This may explain the small dark areas of soil we found in the garden or they may mark the spot where the farm children roasted wieners.

As I make my own marks on this piece of land, it's fun to consider  what might have happened here in the past.  I'm sure we are leaving intriguing puzzles for future owners to try to solve.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Welcome Snow !

Now this is more like the way a garden should look in Upstate New York in January. With today's cold chill and even colder forecast, a white blanket of snow on the garden is a welcome sight. The quick drop in temperature that takes plants in the garden from the forties down to the teens with zero wind chills is like a fast drop in an express elevator, a little sickening.  At least now the plants have some protection from the coming bitter cold.

Ed spent the late morning and early afternoon outside in the swirling white. Like a kid off from school on a snow day, he was very late coming back inside for lunch. He was having too much fun to notice the time.  The Japanese honeysuckle were twisting easily from the ground.  Frost has firmed the soil then left it a muddy mess many times in December.  Today it was easy to pull the invasive shrubs from the ground.  Now there is a walking path along side of the fallen stone wall that is a property line.  My guess is that Ed will set this wall right.

The beautiful white snow brings with it some challenges. Travel can be complicated. The driveway has to be cleared and walkways shoveled.  This cold snap will make the driveway hard. Perhaps tomorrow even more snow will be added. Ed has his snow blower ready. This big kid still loves to play in the snow only now his toys are a bit larger.  I am encouraged.  Maybe, if we are very lucky, 2012 will be a little bit more normal.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Fracked ?

Despite New York State's temporary moratorium on gas well drilling, we have a new well about to be developed not far from our home.  Stuck in the political quagmire surrounding the potential of these wells, this driller hit upon a novel solution.  A permit for a traditional nonfracked well was obtained.  A blue truck cab can be seen on the fresh light brown scrape that will be the site of the new well overlooking the Unadilla River.  If the well is to be fracked, additional permits will be required.

The farm road to the upper field has been gated and upgraded to handle heavy truck traffic necessary for a gas well.  Posted signs and a lock secure the gate.

The permit to drill expires June 1, 2012 unless drilling has commenced by that date.   A post office box is the only address shown for the corporate entity that will develop this well.

This well will likely pass through the underground lake that is our water supply.  We have paid $825.00 for a prewell water test that will profile the chemical components of our drinking water.  Post well water tests are less expensive unless new contamination is found.  If new contamination is found then we really will be fracked.

In my opinion New York State should license and tax these wells.  Any environmental damage should be mitigated by New York State using money that has already been collected from the drillers and the well operators.  As an individual I have no chance against a corporate entity located in a postal box.  The gas is here.  It will be developed and there will be environmental damage.  Corporations disappear into the mist leaving their damage behind.  Only New York State can protect its residents and their environment.