perennial

i think i considered myself a gardener long before i did much gardening. my mother has always put in nice flower and kitchen gardens and told me stories about the gardens of her childhood, tended by her parents. some of my relatives are master gardeners (it’s a thing), so i guess it’s just part of the genetic and folkloric make-up.

the first gardening i did on my own was vegetable gardening. i like vegetable gardening. there’s a predictability to the labor and a pride to the result that is, quite literally, visceral. eating stuff wot you grew yourself is deeply satisfying to the point that it can make you feel quite unbearably smug. in high summer, you even get a pavlovian reward for your work: go out and weed and eat some beans, some peas, a cherry tomato or three. thin out the carrots and eat all the babies, chilly and gritty from the dirt, sweeter than honey.

a few years back, we had an awful summer. it rained in torrents. nearly everything rotted in the ground. after carefully starting the tomatoes and peppers in the house while there was still snow on the ground and lovingly sowing everything else in the cool soil of spring, the loss of nearly everything was utterly demoralizing. i let the weeds grow up, the crab grass and pigweed and nettle and every other encroacher i would normally battle. i gave up. the next spring, the garden plot was impenetrable sod. the next spring, it was worse. i assumed that my gardening was done.

this spring, i looked at the neglected perennial beds and felt dissatisfied. after many years of free range chickens, a lot of stuff had died, succumbing under the iron talons and greedy beaks of Gallus gallus domesticus. the weeds had crept in, then set up shop and crowded the bedding plants. everything was choked and sad looking. but the bones were there. and the chickens are gone. so i got to work.

i have been grubbing the weeds down to the dirt, piling on mulch, moving things, breaking things up that were too bushy, bringing in some new plants. i’ve been laying stone walkways and edging the beds. i have been adding stones and potted plants for visual interest. our soil is cold clay, full of rocks and roots. every time i have to dig, my heart sinks a little. but the gardens are becoming beautiful. things that haven’t bloomed in years are putting out tentative flowers. plants that were scrawny and anemic are burgeoning. and, okay, it’s not a gustatory experience like gardening vegetables, but there is an order and an aesthetic reward that does feed the soul.

and while i was hacking at the perennial beds, a neighbor came and tilled up the vegetable garden. two thirds of it is fallow, covered with thick black plastic to keep it warm and bare for coming summers. the other third is merrily growing bush beans and pole beans, cherry tomatoes and slicing tomatoes, three kinds of summer squash and a pickling cucumber.

there’s years of work left to do in the flower beds. i have an infestation of bishop’s weed that i will be pinching, pulling, and swearing at probably forever. the orderly architectural garden under the tamarack tree just needs some fine tuning, but there are four other existing beds that are in worse shape than that one was. i got two new shrubs just today that will become the framework for a textural garden on the windowless east side of the house. there is a retaining wall that is thick with rambling globe thistle and ferns that needs to be blasted to the ground and planted with rock garden plants. there is a once-grand sunny cottage-style garden that has been overtaken by persian lilac and shaded out that needs to be moved over about six feet and expanded. and the vegetable garden will thump out its seasonal rhythm, too, given a second life, feeding up body and soul.

i am covered in bug bites, there is dirt under my nails and cuticles that no amount of scrubbing will remove, blisters on my heels…

i’m back in business.

phoebes

i heard a report on the radio recently that populations of flycatchers are down in the northeast US. i was a little alarmed, but i felt good that we’ve had a very successful nesting pair of phoebes for several years here on the mountain.

one year they made a nest on an outcrop on the side of the house up near the eaves. last year, they made a nest of horse hair and moss atop the light fixture in our shed and raised at least two broods of four chicks each. i was content when they moved back in to the same nest this spring and set up shop to raise another couple of broods. i would sit quietly in the lull of chores, between feeding the horses and picking up their empty dishes, while the pair did their housekeeping. the female’s little wedge-shaped tail stuck out of the back of the nest and her mate would fill up with bugs and feed her as she sat determinedly on her eggs. i would put on a hooded sweatshirt before i headed out in the evening, then sit with my hood up, disguised from mistrustful phoebe eyes, and watch them with so much happiness. they were my companions and entertainment and i felt that having them here, so prolific, was helping the declining population of their species.

last week, i noticed that there was no square tail peeping out from the nest. there was still an adult swooping around and catching bugs, but it was wary. i stood out by the garden to wait for the horses instead of sitting in the shed and hoped that both parents were out catching bugs for a nest full of young. before i went inside, i ducked into the shed and saw that familiar gray tail above the light and felt comforted. the next morning, my mother heard some tiny peeping from the nest. when i went out to do chores that evening, the nest was silent. there were no phoebes swooping or chirping around the shed. with a sinking heart, i got out a ladder and climbed up to peer into the nest. i found four baby phoebes, cold and dead. i plucked their tiny bodies from the doomed nest, all translucent mauve skin and pin feathers and downy heads, their eyes closed tight against the cold hungriness of death. i brought them out to the woods and left them there, hoping that their tragedy could keep another wild parent’s chicks or pups or cubs or kits from the same sad fate.

i’ll never know if one of the phoebes was killed and the remaining parent saw the futility of trying to keep four chicks warm and fed and so abandoned the nest or if one was killed and then the other. we do have a small hawk in the neighborhood which glides through daily, looking for a meal. it, too, may have a nest to sustain. but i mourn the loss of my little flycatchers and miss them keenly every evening.

scurf

horse ownership is a benign masochism.

horses are large, dangerous, dirty beasts with a bite force that rivals many large carnivores and a kick that can easily break bones. they are prone to all kinds of bizarre ailments with charmingly medieval names (fistulous withers? girth gall? founder? strangles? rain rot?) and are alarmingly fragile for an animal so large. they are enormous prey animals and behave accordingly, like jurassic mice, convinced that everything is trying to eat them.

some breeds are more temperamentally mild than others, but the fight or flight instinct is hardwired magnificently in the modern horse. there is no event too small to carry the potential to completely freak out a horse and a freaked out horse is a half ton or so of panicky death on four spindly legs. my large pony mare, a fat, lazy, particularly stumpy specimen, once objected to a tractor mowing in her pasture, cleared a five-foot plank fence, and ran for half a mile, leaving the rest of the herd piled up at the fence line.

their social structure is rigid and they are creatures of extreme habit. take one member of the herd away, even to an adjoining pasture, and you are asking for hours of equine screaming. and woe betide the human who is a couple minutes late for feeding time. there are atomic clocks in those animals and they will begin to complain within actual seconds of their acceptable dinner hour. if they’re feeling especially aggrieved, they may break a fence or open a gate and come looking for you. food is serious business.

horses shed heavily twice per year. in late summer, their “fly coat” comes off, which is a gentle event marked by trillions of tiny fine hairs. in spring in our climate, the average horse has a dense, three inch long hair coat that needs to come out. it doesn’t all shed out at once, but begins at the top and sheds downward. this means that getting the winter hair off takes a month, during which the horse looks like it has been attacked by moths. my bay gelding, who is a glorious red-brown, retains winter hair on his belly long after the rest of his fur has shed, a phenomenon i refer to as “orangutan hair”. in addition to hair, there is a whole bunch of dander and dirt: a lovely, curiously sticky, powder-like substance called “scurf”, which we dutifully brush off the horse and directly into our sinus cavities. there is a knowing joke among horse folks that grooming is the careful and time-honored ritual of removing dirt and dead hair from the horse and putting it all on you. this is only funny because it’s almost entirely true. and then, once you’ve groomed your horse with a variety of brushes, combs, and assorted implements, the horse finds a patch of dirt to roll in and kills your satisfied soul.

there’s a whole extra set of frustrations and perils in store if you’re a rider as well as an owner. one of my colleagues is still recovering from a broken femur that she received from a horse that had just returned from a stint with a trainer with the sole aim of making the horse less nervous. the horse startled, bolted, and dumped his rider, resulting in a profound injury. possibly because of something as harmless as a leaf blowing on the wind. i once got up on a new horse that had been in her saddle for five minutes or more. i did everything “right”: tightened the girth slowly in stages, walked the horse around between cinching, had a spotter. unbeknownst to me, the mare had been holding her breath the whole time in order to keep me from pinching her with the girth. by the time i clambered up on to her back, she was all out of brain oxygen, and fainted dead away, smacking me in the face with her head as she went down and breaking my nose.

so horses are huge, dumb, breakable, filthy animals. let’s not even get into the fact that horses are built to eat all day, which results in an amount of manure that is greater than you would expect. or that grass doesn’t grow in the winter, so you have to put up several hundred bales of hay to keep them eating all day. or that they need regular pedicures and dental work that usually requires a damn scary speculum, which necessitates a sedative. no, there are a hundred more complaints i could make about horses, at least, but i won’t.

because i love them. i love their flighty, stubborn, fussy natures. i love them when they’re hitting the end of the lead rope at a run and when they’re using their lips to open up a gate. i love them when i’m currying pounds of winter hair off them or spraying fly repellant on them or dodging their greedy faces, their ears pinned back, in order to put grain in their dishes. horse ownership is a lot like motherhood: it’s thankless, emotionally draining, hard work. you sacrifice a lot, mostly so that you can listen to your dependent bitch at you and watch in dismay as they drain your bank account. and you wouldn’t trade it for anything.

 

sprung

our early spring dragged on for months with brief intervals of winter. now it is mid-april and suddenly, real spring is upon us. the early robins, which were coming to the bird feeders and glumly eating seed from the ground (something i’ve never seen them do), have moved off to the meadows and forest to pick off some bugs and worms like robins are supposed to do. the migratory birds that came back far too soon have been joined in a glut by a rainbow of colleagues and the species that were here all winter have burgeoned in number. a handful of slate juncos has become a battalion. purple finches are trickling in and a male goldfinch stopped by today, a yellow jewel in a world that is still brown and grey. i counted seven male red-winged blackbirds and spotted my personal favorite sparrow: the white-throated, which is a grand little brown bird with tiny touches of bling around the eyes. no sign yet of my lovely rose-breasted grosbeak, but i know now that he’ll be back any minute now. i haven’t seen him, but i definitely heard the buzz of the male ruby-throated hummingbird. there is nectar cooling on the counter for him.

beyond the bird feeders are vast acres of grossness: dead grass, lumps of sod, dog bombs, rotting grey snow banks, mud, horse manure, and wind-downed branches. the crushed stone put down in the driveway last summer is splashed over lawns, stumps, and gardens, pushed inexorably by the voracious blade of the snow plow. there is so much to do and so little time to do it, things that must be tended to before the grass begins to green up and grow in earnest, burying the detritus from sight, but not from bare feet or a lawnmower blade.

the goats are shedding cashmere now. a quick snuggle leaves my pant legs with smears of gossamer goat-down. i let them out to have a good gallop while i forked and raked and shoveled their pen. they ran up the wood pile and over the picnic table, then bounced from one feed bin to the next in the shed.

there’s lots more to clean up, but some of it is still frozen down and my muscles are not used to this onslaught of work. i pick away a little at a time, knowing it will never all be done and taking no small satisfaction from that knowledge. we joke, in professional life, about tedious tasks being job security. in the garden, on the farm, there is hobby security. i’ve also learned, late in life, that i don’t have to spend a sunday cleaning the goat pen until i’m half dead, sunburned, and thoroughly tired of goats. i can clean the goats until i’m bored of it, then rake thatch until i get a blister, then spend some time washing windows, and so on. in between, i can stop for a glass of water in the shade and listen, blissfully, to the riotous quacking of wood frogs in the secret vernal pools and the sharp “check! check!” of a red-winged blackbird as he makes sure his mic is in working order.

the phoebes have been working to put last summer’s nest back in order over the light fixture in the shed. i meant to dismantle it some winter evening, but never got around to it. the phoebes are glad that there was a task that never quite got done and so am i.

blizzard

winter storm stella is winding down as i write. we have about two feet of new snow: nice, light, fluffy powder, but blown into every crack and crevice it can blow into by a swirling northeast wind.

the horses look like snow monsters, like candy-colored tanks with long, jagged, ivory icicles hanging from their manes, jowls, and flanks.their blankets crackle when they move as the  ice cracks and shifts. morgan, the dunderheaded bay gelding, has snow matted into his long, wavy mane. his normally dainty neck is massive under a heavy layer of hair and snow. the two appaloosas have short, silky manes and look more normal, but they’re probably colder for it.

i clambered up over the fence panel to shovel the goats out of their hut. they don’t like wading through the deep snow, especially jenny, whose legs are shorter than the snow is deep. i made a trail from the door of their den to the water bucket and the hay net. edward “helped”, by which i mean he bit my butt, scratched his head on my elbows, and wrapped his jaws around the metal handle of the snow shovel. i was half sorry he didn’t stick, the rotten stinker. i climbed back out and threw some grain down their gullets, then bunged some grain into the horses, too. the wind was spooking them and blowing in their faces. i watched them play musical dishes while i sat shivering in the shed, the snow blowing in my face, too. the cobwebs on the ceiling were hanging low with snow and even buckets and junk at the very back of the shed, 14 feet from open air, were covered with a thin dusting of rod-shaped snowflakes.

the nags finally finished eating and i dragged their dishes into the shed so they wouldn’t get buried in snow overnight, but i had to drag myself back outside before bedtime to chuck some more hay at the horses. there was another foot of snow. the goats were tucked into their house, butts to the doorway. the ponies were even more outlandishly misshapen with their loads of snow. i fed them up, shoveled until i thought i would drop, and collapsed into the house.

i will sleep soundly tonight. i hope the weather evens out so my outdoor pals can do the same soon.

freeze/thaw/freeze

it’s early march, so the cold, bony death’s-hand fingers of winter are rightly squeezed inexorably around us. this is usual stuff. but for two weeks, we had spring. i mean, 70ºF spring. snowdrops spring. mud season spring. that’s serious stuff. one day, the grackles were back. a couple of days later, a bemused red-winged blackbird was haunting the feeders. horses were un-blanketed, water tanks were unplugged, and the thermostat was adjusted and doors thrown open.

this is end of april weather, not end of february weather. february in vermont is full-on winter, the worst of it. the shortest month, but the one that feels the longest. day after grueling sub-zero day for what feels like years. this year, we had spring instead.

and we were all uneasy.

everyone i met looked a little bit hunted, unsure in their shirt sleeves, casting furtive glances around like they were waiting for the other shoe to drop. smiles were forced. this early spring weather brought out shiftiness. in true yankee fashion, we caught ourselves enjoying the sun and mild breeze and scolded ourselves back into dourness. because this windfall of weather is wholly undeserved. we know that we pay for our incomparable summers with brutal winters. having a mild, short, or easy winter is a cheat and probably consigns us all straight to hell.

as i write this, it is 1ºF. the wind is blowing, so there’s a significant windchill. the trees are cracking and popping, their frozen, brittle, sap-full branches threatening to snap in this sudden cold. the deck, the ground, the forest: everything is moaning its complaint. everything squeaks and creaks and makes a big fuss.

except the people. the people are kind of quiet because the forecast for next week is for more spring and it’s only march. do we embrace the spring? do we worry that we should’ve started our tomatoes indoors in mid-february instead of on town meeting day (the first tuesday in march), which is the traditional date for getting out the seed flats and filling them up with garden hopes? do we get out the rakes and wheelbarrows and start putting things back together after a foreshortened winter? will we get two feet of snow as soon as we do? and what about next year? and the year after? is this our new normal?

 

victory garden

it has been many years since i planned and planted a vegetable garden. we have always had something in the way of a garden, even if it was just small one. a few years ago, we had a wet, rainy summer that rotted almost everything. mildews and invertebrates and plain old standing water put the kibosh on the whole thing. that was after several summers of putting up increasingly vicious fences to keep the hens from poking holes in the tomatoes and gutting the eggplants. at the beginning of july, which is the height of the growing season, only a few weedy stragglers remained and we called the garden a wash (no pun intended). without constant weeding and tending, the nasty things took over and went wild. crabgrass, horse thistle, smartweed, pigweed, and any other ghastly garden invader you can imagine threw a big party in my carefully amended garden soil. by fall, there was sod. in the spring, i went out and looked at the garden plot with its thick, meaty sod and just threw in the towel. since then, it has only gotten worse. there is milkweed in there now. comfrey. so many things that will not go quietly into that good night. a season under black plastic is the only hope for reclamation.

but this year? i am determined. i am happily perusing the seed catalogs. i will have fresh green beans, bush and pole! i will know the joy of fresh zucchini! only death will keep me from the hedonistic pleasure of a fresh tomato, still warm from the sun! if i have to plant the perennial beds full of veg, i will overcome. and in between weeding and tending those, i will finally put down that black plastic i bought in 2015, because a life without a vegetable garden just isn’t one that i’m interested in living.