Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Gardens I Have Left Behind

Like the rest of the population of Vermont, yesterday I was out working in the garden, taking advantage of the warmish weather, which was scheduled to turn rainy and raw and stay that way until, oh, probably October.

But I won't be planting a garden this year, since we'll be leaving this house in a month, and while my fellow Vermonters were putting in their cool-season crops--lettuce, kale, turnips, broccoli, cabbage and chard--I was draping my garden in black landscape cloth, keeping it asleep until the new owners come to claim it.

My spouse and I spread the black stuff over the nine 4'x4' raised vegetable beds.  He stapled while I held the cloth taut, and we worked silently, with a sort of balletic harmony made possible by almost five decades of conjugal living.  When it was done the beds looked neat and clean, unlikely to offend the most persnickety house buyer. 

But I couldn't bear to cover all the beds.  Last fall, having raised my first-ever garlic crop, and while the difficulties of continuing to live on this hill were only a shadow in the back of my mind, I picked out the best heads and planted the cloves in two of the beds (you--or rather, I--can never have too much garlic).  Now, despite the apocalyptic winter, guess what's four inches high and bursting with joie de vivre

I couldn't even think of smothering those bright green shoots in their infancy--it would have felt like drowning kittens.  On the other hand, now that my time and energy must go to packing up the house rather than weeding, leaving the two beds open to the sun will mean a crop of dandelions, ground ivy, wild geraniums and clover along with the garlic.

The earliest harvest date, if we get no more snow storms, is mid-July.  Assuming the house hasn't sold by then, this will mean a four-hour round-trip from our new life to reap the last fruits of our old one.  If this crop is like the preceding one, I'll be scattering garlic largesse all over northern Vermont, and a cloud of Mediterranean aroma will settle over our new community on Lake Champlain.

This will be the seventh garden I've left behind, but it won't be my last.  I've already written here about the plan to transport the orchard of potted fig and citrus trees to our new cottage, sort of like Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane.  There is a tiny area around the cottage where we can grow whatever we like.  I'll see what I can do with it.

My main concern about the upcoming move--way bigger than my worries about whether we will be lonely or bored or drive each other crazy in our tight new quarters--is that the cottage yard has no southern exposure, and everybody knows that the essential ingredient for a good garden is sun, sun, and more sun.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Vroom... Vroom...

It doesn't feel like spring--too cold--and it doesn't look like spring--the trees are still bare.  But it sounds like spring.  And the sounds of spring are guy sounds.

Open your windows on the first warm morning and you'll hear the noise of guys revving their engines.  Perhaps it is a mating ritual, but I am a woman, and can testify that I am not and never have been attracted by the sound of a revving engine, nor do I know any woman who is.  But every spring, right in synch with the first daffodils, there are the guys, on their motorcycles and in their cars, going vroom, vroom.

Animal guys are out there too, making their own noises.  There is the bluebird, alas, who for the third year in a row is nesting by our back porch and spends hours flinging himself feet-first against the window:

bang bang!
bang! bang! bang! (bis)

What is he thinking?  He's not mistaking his own reflection for a rival and trying to scare it away, because he bangs even when there is no reflection.  After three years of watching him, I can only conclude that he's making the bluebird equivalent of vroom, vroom, letting the world know that he's a guy.  The female hasn't been too much in evidence yet, though the banging has not prevented her in past years from laying her eggs.

It is preventing me, however, from enjoying the peace and quiet that I richly deserve after a day of sorting and packing my worldly goods.  Am I the only person in history to be irritated by a bluebird?  For a while I thought that I would miss his company after we move.  Now I think I'll be glad to say good-bye.

This morning we awoke to the sight of a turkey flock sauntering across the front field.  There were six or seven of them, looking sleek as crows.  But one of them, the guy, was swollen into a feathery sphere twice the size of the others.  In the chilly gray light he seemed to float just above the ground, carried along by the breeze like a balloon in a Thanksgiving parade.

Oozing authority, he was herding his harem towards the shelter of the woods.  The hens went along docilely enough, looking as though they were used to this sort of thing.  We were indoors and the dogs, who'd seen plenty of turkeys before but never one in full spring show-off mode, were barking so loudly they rattled the windows.  We couldn't hear the vocal accompaniments to the tom's display, but from the look of his plumage and his swagger, I could tell he was going vroom, vroom.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

My Portable Orchard

Maybe it's because they are person-sized and their outspread branches look like arms reaching out, but ever since I planted them four years ago, I've grown attached to my apple trees.  They almost seem more like people than plants.  Year-round they stand bravely around the patio, first veiled in flowers, then covered with leaves, studded with fruit in the fall and alternately sleeping and shivering--like me--in winter.

I will hate to leave them behind when we move.  Sure, there will be room in our new micro-garden for an apple tree or two, but they won't be these trees, whom I planted and nursed and fussed over from infancy to their present lovely maturity.

Fortunately, I'll be able to take my stalwart Giuseppina, the potted fig tree (see last post), with me.  But that is not all.

The tiny potted Meyer Lemon that I bought last year gave birth to six outsize lemons that I soaked in vodka and a simple syrup to make a lovely limoncello.  This, and the glossy deep-green leaves, and the fragrance that made my head swim every time I walked by, turned me into a citrus grower of sorts.

I was in Albany on a freezing January day when, going into a nursery for a shot of plant energy, I found a Page Orange tree that had been trained to have an upright trunk and a rounded canopy, just like the ones in Versailles.  I promptly bought it--it was the only one in the store--and brought it home, where it perfumed our sunny porch.  Then its blooms faded and were replaced with multitudes of baby Page Oranges (actually a hybrid between a tangelo and a tangerine) that I mist and murmur to every day.

The next time I was in Albany--how could I not--I stopped by the same nursery, and found a Calamondin Orange. I had had one of these before.  Its scented blooms were succeeded by dozens of tiny bitter fruits that I didn't know what to do with.  But that was before the internet, which has many ingenious uses for Calamondin Oranges.  So I brought the little tree home.

Meanwhile, the Meyer Lemon, which I had pruned to within an inch of its life in the hopes of making it look less like a bush and more like a tree, recovered and started putting out blooms.  But all this was happening indoors, and my experience last year taught me that, although the plant may bloom and set fruit abundantly in the house, only the flowers that are fertilized outdoors tend to make it to harvest. 

I wanted to make more limoncello--lots of limoncello, in fact--but a single tree might not yield enough fruit at one time to make a significant batch.  So I ordered another tree, online.  It is on its way as I write. 

I am doing all this, mind you, while simultaneously carrying out a draconian purging of our worldly belongings.  It is a testimony to my spouse's saintliness that he has not objected to this paradoxical behavior on my part.  True, the citrus trees will spend the summer outside.  But the minute the temperature goes anywhere near freezing, probably around the beginning of October, those four trees will come into our wee cottage, there to be misted and watered and given special lights and get in our way until April or possibly May.

What can I say?  I can no longer keep goats or raise chickens or grow vegetables.  But I have to farm something, and I will pour as much love and attention on those potted citrus trees and on the fig Giuseppina as I did on Lizzy and Emma--the goats--and the hens and the eggplants, the peppers and the apple trees.

Saturday, April 12, 2014


There are few things I like better than practicing subtractive sculpture on the plant kingdom.  So when the snow finally melted last week I picked up my pruning weapons--secateurs, curved folding saw, and long-handled clippers--and set out to whip my fruit trees into shape.

Normally I do this in March, but this has been a long and cruel winter.  The four apple trees and the espaliered apricot had clearly had enough, however, and decided to ignore the frigid temperatures and pay attention to the sunlight, which has been glorious, and get on with things.  The sap was running and they were full of buds, especially the apricot which is crucified against the south wall of the house.

I was amazed at how much the apple trees had grown.  If it weren't for my determination to keep them short enough to be tended by me without a ladder, they'd be fifteen feet high by now.  I hope that their new owners will appreciate picking those 13 oz. mega-apples without even having to stand on tiptoe.

Like the fruit trees, the bluebirds had had enough, and decided to forgo the courtship rituals and proceed with their nest building.  This is their third year in the little nest box by the back porch.  So far this season the male has not attacked our windows.  I'm hoping that he is finally mature enough to know which battles are worth fighting, and which are not.  I'm also hoping that a pair of bluebirds nesting right by the window will prove a selling point for our house.

All winter long I worried about the little potted fig tree that I'd bought on a hot day last summer.  The label said it could withstand temperatures down to -10F, but I was sweating through a Vermont summer that left no doubt in anybody's mind about the realities of climate change, so I didn't worry too much about below-zero nights.

By October the little tree had dropped all its leaves, although a few mummified figs, born too late to ripen, still clung to its branches.  I wrapped the tree in burlap as best I could, set it in a sheltered corner, and retreated indoors.  The snows came and came, and the temperature dropped so low that one of the hens' combs froze and fell off.  The snow weighed down the burlap and made big gaping holes in it.  I didn't think the little tree had a prayer of surviving the worst winter in decades.

After I was done pruning the other day, I unwrapped the fig and peered at it closely.  Its long skinny trunk was still upright, with a few stick-like branches projecting from it.  But it was uniformly gray and dry and dead-looking, with no sign of buds anywhere.  What had I been thinking, trying to grow figs in Vermont?

Figuring that I didn't have much to lose, I took my pruning shears and with the blade made a tiny scratch near the bottom of the trunk--and lo, there was green beneath the gray!  Bright, moist, live, figgy green!  Against all odds, the little tree had made it.

Best of all, unlike my old friends the apple trees and the espaliered apricot and the bluebirds, all of whom I will have to leave behind when we move away in June, I will bundle the brave little fig tree in the car along with Wolfie and Bisou, and take it with me to our new home.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Life Flashes

They say that when you're drowning, your entire life flashes by.  But that's not the only time this happens.  It also happens while you're downsizing.

A dozen times every day I disinter some long-ignored object that brings up a whole chunk of my life, and I have to ask myself, does this picture I painted, this article I wrote deserve to be kept, or thrown out?  You can see that  downsizing is a lot like drowning, only worse, because you have to pass judgment on every bit.

The books--forty-eight boxfuls--were the first to go .  As I parted with my beloved parasitology textbook I asked myself, what have I retained about the life-cycle of the tapeworm, the loa-loa worm, the blood fluke?  Little more than the ability to predict, when I found Wolfie and Bisou snacking on a dead rabbit, that they would get a case of Taenia, which they did.

And what about the stacks of French novels and plays and essays that I not only read but taught?  I can barely remember who wrote Madame Bovary.  Surely the tide of text that washed over my brain year in and year out left some residue--a starfish or a striped shell or a piece of sea glass?  Some days all I can find are old plastic shopping bags.  Other days the sand is bare.

The art paraphernalia took me some time to sort through.  The dried-out paint tubes, the half-filled sketch books, the dusty mallets and chisels. The framed pictures that fill my closet.  The stone heads that adorn my woods. Now it's almost all gone.  Whew!

At the moment, I'm working on the mountain of implements left behind by the other great fantasy that ruled my life, the earth mother myth.  There's the goat milking stand that my husband made;  the cheese press (ditto);  the heat lamp for the day-old chicks. All those morning chores, those barn cleanings, those births and deaths--where did they go?

This all sounds a little melancholy, but I am not in the least bitter or disappointed. I would say that I am mostly surprised.  Surprised that all that effort and striving, those years and years of cramming and pushing should have led up to...this:  me, getting ready to move with my spouse and my dogs to a retirement community, with one small truckload of worldly goods.

It seems disproportionate somehow, the work and the strain.  It's as if I'd spent my entire life preparing, and now I'm having some kind of graduation and I'm not even sure what I majored in, let alone what kind of work I'm fit for.

"Leap!" a yoga teacher once told me, "And a net will appear."  I have always liked a good leap.  Now, as the waves crash around me and the taste of salt is in my mouth, I trust that the net is on its way.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Spring and the UPS Man

Yesterday I had arranged for UPS to pick up a Very Important Document at our house.  But when I went to put it on the porch, I saw that the slate steps were again covered in a thin layer of ice.  No matter how much we scrape, salt, or sand, in certain atmospheric conditions that layer just keeps forming. 

Not wanting the UPS man to die on our steps, I found a white box from the liquor store, wrote "UPS" on it in big black letters, put the Very Important Document inside and set it on the driveway, right in front of the deadly steps and held down by a thick and heavy wooden plank.

It was the quintessential "raw" Vermont day.  The wind blew and the clouds hovered.  The fields and woods were covered with several feet of snow, the top of which had melted and frozen and melted and frozen so that a thick layer of ice covered every inch.  No birds chirped, no peepers peeped--only the occasional crow flew over the desolation.

You never know when the UPS man will make it up our hill, so late in the afternoon I looked out and saw that the liquor box was gone, and the plank was lying in the middle of the driveway.  Why, I wondered, had the UPS man not taken the Very Important Document and left the box behind so I could use it for my packing?  And why had he just dumped the plank in the middle of the driveway?  "I guess he was in a bad mood, after a day of tromping up and down ice-covered walks" I said to my husband.  But still, we wondered, why hadn't we heard the truck?  Why hadn't the dogs barked?

And then the UPS truck drove up.  My husband and I looked at each other in horror, pulled on our coats and ran outside, with that mincing, seasonally-appropriate don't-break-your-wrist-on-the-ice gait.  "The wind blew away our Very Important Document!" we wailed at the UPS man.  "It was in a white box from the liquor store!"

We fully expected him to curl his lip in contempt, turn around and disappear down the drive.  Instead, shouting something about wind direction, he leaped off the truck and took off towards the east.  My husband went north, and I tottered west.

The field was an unbroken sheet of whiteness.  Nothing had ventured on it for months, and the only signs of life were some elaborate mole tunnels under the ice that looked a lot like a DC Metro map. With every step I crashed through the ice and sank above my knees in snow.  To take the next step, I had to raise my leg from the hip, crash through the crust, and look for a white liquor box in that desert of white...

At one point I started to lose my balance, put out a hand to steady myself, and the ice cut my skin like a knife--or at least it felt like a knife.  And it was then that I heard a faraway whistle.  I looked east and saw the UPS man, a reassuring brown against the whiteness, waving the liquor box with the Very Important Document inside.

Next thing I knew, he was bumping his truck down our rutted driveway and grinning from ear to ear.  Stuck in the ice in the middle of the field, I waved and blew him a kiss.