Friday, February 29, 2008

All in A Day’s….

Spring is lurking in the woodpile, and so it behooves me to get a cold frame knocked together, to protect the tender seedlings as they grow. I have a shed that I “converted” to a greenhouse -- meaning I cut out a 4 foot square of the opaque plastic wall and “installed” (duct taped) a clear plastic square in the opening -- but the shed gets too chilly at night, and from my reading of the various master gardeners, a cold frame is what will snug up those tender seedlings, so that the slugs and grubs have some fresh greens.

I assume there are places where this kind of thing is straightforward; where one has a spare glass window leaning against the garage wall, along with some 10” wide shelving board and a bunch of nails, and just bangs the thing together on the spacious workbench. But I live in that other place -- the Oz of Projects, where unexpected houses (or at least large objects off the top shelf) keep falling on my half-done projects, and where the Powers That Be tell me to “Go Away” (usually in a puff of noxious smoke as another power tool dies)… so I wasn’t exactly expecting this to be simple. But I wouldn’t have settled in the country if I wasn’t a hearty homesteading type, right?

For some reason, the guy before me decided to store all the old windows up in the attic (perhaps dreaming of a dormer greenhouse??). The main attic hatch is in the ceiling of the narrow back hallway, and a ladder the only way up. The wooden cover was at least hinged on one side, which made lifting it somewhat easier, but since I couldn’t reach it until I was on the ladder, and it had to be lifted up in order to rest the ladder… I had the first conundrum. I can only speculate that the guy had a stepladder -- and I only have the 24’ aluminum extension kind… It was like maneuvering a giraffe into a closet. I had been up in the attic once, to attempt to store my Xmas stuff and to see what condition it was in… and almost didn’t get out, because the ladder slid away along the hall when I tried to get back down. This time I decided I’d position it cross-wise to the hall, such that there was no place to slide.

This worked, in a way… but with a 2 ft. wide hallway, the first couple steps up were taken on tiptoe (an interesting feeling on a ladder rung!) because that’s the only way I’d fit between ladder and wall. Once I got halfway up, I had a bit more room to maneuver, and was able to push the solid wood hatch (the man was preparing for a bomb attack, I swear!!) up to a resting position. If I were getting some lightweight Xmas balls down, life would have been easy. But single-pane (non safety-glass) windows with solid wood trim have properties of being both heavy and fragile… But pioneers had encountered much worse, I told myself! I could manage this! I eased the window as close to the opening as I dared, and eased myself over the edge, finding the top rung with one foot. I descended one-handed down an almost-vertical ladder, 4ft.-square heavy glass window in the other, congratulating myself on not breaking any glass. Suddenly, my butt encountered the glass of the framed print I had forgotten to take off the wall… with just enough pressure that I could picture an entirely different pane of glass slicing up my butt!

Writer that I am, the words “Pain of Glass” wedged itself in my mind as I tried to ease the window down to the floor without bending too much at the waist, or extending my butt backwards or sideways so that the ladder didn’t shift (believe me, this is ballast that could scuttle a ship!)… there was No Place to Go But Down, I told myself… the wood frame touched the floor, then I aimed the top edge toward the wall -- it touched lightly enough, but then slid down so that it lay across the floor -- where I had to step off. I came down the last couple rungs on tiptoe, praying my ankles wouldn’t give out, stepped sideways over the window, pulling some upper ligament as I tried to maintain a balance of weight on the ladder, and managed to get to flat ground with no glass broken… and that was the first piece of the cold frame! I went and sat down for a half hour, nursing the pulled ligament and my trembling legs (I hadn’t realized that climbing a ladder several times in slow motion is the Nautilus equivalent of that machine with the cushioned ankle pads -- and my full 170 pounds of little black iron bars attached!)

more tomorrow….

Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Last Straw… Will Still Not Burn

What is the tipping point, I wonder, after which we start to make a concerted effort on some annoying minor thing? I have had trouble getting the fire to light in the morning, even using kindling-sized versions of the wood that was delivered by local woodsmen. Apparently their idea of “seasoned” is: it’s not still bleeding (or whatever trees do). If pressed, they might say, “Yeah, it’s a seasoned tree. I’ve seen it around the yard for a couple years… maybe it was upright and growing at the time, I don’t know… all these trees look alike.” Anyway, when I chop the logs into thinner strips, they sizzle, give off less steam, but they still don’t burn. What I have is an investment in my future, if I don’t freeze to death first.

Anyway, concerted effort: for weeks now, after the “fatwood” (imported from somewhere in Tennessee) gave out, I have scrounged every morning for a new combo of really dry scrap wood -- from my art supplies or left-over woodshop projects (or not so left over! when you’re desperate, the last few inches of that shelving board look really good) and chips that have been lying on the chopping area long enough to dry… and each day after several tries, I got it going. And then forgot about it… three days ago the tipping point was reached and I had to either buy some firestarters (yuk) or do some more concentrated chopping of wood that I know is dry… it’s like the moment when you realize there are more flies than picnickers at a picnic or something -- a more strenuous, over-arching plan of action is needed!

Rummaging back in the memory to my Girl Scout days, I recalled that one starts a fire with dry paper, maybe some wax paper, and the tiniest dry twigs you can find -- the tinder. Like building a little house of cards, those twigs are stacked either teepee style or log-cabin style (never thrown in big handfuls onto burning paper -- okay, sometimes...) so that enough air and flame can get between the twigs. Once they have “caught”, then the next size -- kindling -- goes on, carefully. Throwing them into the fire with enough force that they collapse your burning house of twigs and smother your fire is self-sabotage -- good Girl Scouts are patient. Good Girl Scouts are usually dressed when they’re trying this, so the cold damp winter air isn’t icing up their moving parts. Only after the kindling has caught can one confidently place the wrist-thick logs onto the fire (they have a name too, but heck -- it was 40 years ago!!) Anyway, the logical conclusion is that I need a stack of each size wood, nicely dried and ready to select from at 7am when my brain is still transmuting the coffee into thought.

Which is why yesterday’s sunshine found me going around the yard about a foot from the crabgrass, gathering every twig I could find and bending it to see how dry it was (the neighbor saw me scouring on hands and knees and again offered me his metal detector). Next step was to find suitable containers for about a million semi-dry twigs. Cardboard tends to soak up any wind-driven rain and would just get the twigs wet all over again. Plastic buckets are great, as long as no water at all gets into them, otherwise we have the swimming twigs syndrome, and get to wait another year to use them. I found a partial wood box (partial because I’d already used one side as kindling one desperate cold day) and piled the short bits in that. The canning pot is not going to be used until the fruit survives the birds and becomes jam, so I used that for the kindling. It looked kinda rustic, kinda Martha-Stewart-meets-old-Sears-catalog… I felt like I had addressed the problem.

Until the next morning. Dawn was peering in the window over my shoulder as I crumbled the paper, delicately placed some tinder on it -- the damn paper wouldn’t stay squished, so the “house” flew apart whether I tried teepee or log cabin. Finally just stuck them in the crevasses of the paper. Got the paper to light and blew on it a little to increase the heat - loved to hear that whoosh of fierce flames! Unfortunately, the tinder was just sitting there, like a showcase of non-flammable safety wood. Great for children’s furniture, but not a player in the woodfire competitions. The paper was almost burned up; had to get even a couple pieces to burn! Blew on it some more; the sound of fierce flame was heartening, but it ate up the last of the paper and then it was just tiny blinking embers and a pile of very thin twigs. What gives? Did I mistakenly pick up some of the petrified wood that this town was built on?? Do I need to get “hotter paper” in order to get these suckers to light? Reluctantly, I started again -- some newspaper, some old business letters, a bit of cardboard to really give the flames something to sink their teeth into… this time, the flames crackled immediately, and finally a twig or two caught. Carefully, I fed some kindling in, blew a little, then as the paper and cardboard disappeared, I desperately threw a few more pieces on -- they rolled to the other side of the stove, leaving the one twig that had deigned to catch burning forlornly, far from anything that it might influence. More tinder! I grabbed a handful of the twigs, reeds, bark, moss -- even straw from my broom! -- and piled it near the only burning twig… and put it out. At that point, I turned up the baseboard heater and went to make myself another pot of coffee. I know when the gods of fire have taken the morning off. Tomorrow, I will try dipping the damn pieces in cooking oil.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Master Gardeners -- Don't Look!

Part three:
Came out today to find that birds had picked up my garden’s moss pathway and tossed it hither and yon… apparently they thought my plan was to provide them with a soft green 7-11 for their fast breakfast. With the new digging, the garden looked a little battle-weary, but now it really looks like chaos! Or maybe just a preview of the tossed salads I’ll be getting out of it….

The veggie garden does look fairly unusual (the same way that New York City is “a little crowded”) but I have my pile of excuses ready: to my gardening friends, I can say I’m using materials at hand; to my new age friends, I’m working with nature energies; to other poets, I’m getting a poem from the experience; to my spiritual friends, I’m making a meditation path; to my artist friends I invoke the name of Andrew Goldsworthy; and to any kids who come by (if they even need to ask - most don’t), I just say I’m having fun. And I am -- as long as the bottle of ibuprofen holds out.

In deference to my back, I have been doing the spading/digging in small batches ( a few clods at a time), alternating with activities that let me stand up (or fall over, depending how late in the day it is…). And in deference to my artist sensibility (now that is an oxymoron -- never met a sensible artist, don’t believe I ever will…), I have arranged the veggies around the circles so that there’s a variety of heights, colors, etc. Oh, I can’t wait until Summer -- I’m sure once everything is blooming, I’ll be telling my friends, "I didn’t do this -- the birds must have dropped seeds at random!” But meanwhile, I’m digging what seems like arbitrary areas of the garden to plant the early veggies… my neighbor seems to think I’m digging for treasure… he offered to lend me his metal detector.

But I’ve got a master plan: a scale drawing with plantings drawn in different colors for the months. And I’ve got a sketch of how I think it will look mid-summer… and I’ve got images downloaded from nursery catalogs that I can Photoshop into my photos for family, just in case…

This past week, I’ve even moved into actual planting, which -- considering it’s still February -- shows a lot of hope on my part, I think you’ll agree… and the garden gives me ample opportunity to recycle that fir tree: I’ve been using the straightest tree limbs as long poles to allow the early peas to climb, with cotton trellis net that I found under the old shed, a bit torn, but still good for draping. Which is why the garden now looks like a shipwreck mysteriously transported an hour from the coast. Even the straightest limbs have an organic “curl” to them, making the pea tripods like upended ships' prows sticking out of my new beds… in a moment of whimsy (maybe sniffing too much Miracle Gro), I’ve even hung a couple of tiny bells on the tops of the poles on that lightweight crochet ribbon that creates garments that look like they started out at GoodWill… from the look of the moss paths, I don’t think I’m scaring off any birds, but they sound nice when I stumble and lurch into the poles…

And speaking of birds, I already know that they seem to adore digging up peas just as they are sprouting -- the damn nearsighted robins think they’re worms! So when I ran out of the cotton net, I drove to the fabric store for something else - preferably cheap. What I found in the back was the ballerina tulle, used to raise those adorable little skirts with the stiff netting underskirts. It was only 99 cents/yard -- cheaper than the floating row cover that the garden stores love to sell… And it came in wild and crazy colors! I had a sudden vision of my garden covered in lovely circles and squares of aqua, lemon, rose, plum -- how could I resist? I got the aqua and bright yellow to start… as the saleslady was cutting, I mentioned it was for my garden. She didn’t even blink; she nodded and said, “Yup. We sell a lot of this stuff for the garden. In fact, once the raspberries and blueberries and cherries are started, we run out.” Wow - have I ever moved to the right town! Creative people everywhere, draping their trees in red, blue, orange -- I am now really looking forward to fruit season!

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Next Winter’s Cord

A small aside: the tree-wound goop turned out to be a kind of tar slurry; it came in a can with its own screwcap applicator, like a large can of paper cement, and about as tricky but much blacker. The directions said to avoid contact with clothes or the skin, and to wash with soap and water to remove. I have washed at least ten times with soap and water, and it is about as washable as any tar is. I should have suspected when I read the bottom line on the can: “Not responsible for any results, even if used according to directions.” Remember when items actually were guaranteed to do what you paid them to do, and when the instructions actually were meant to be helpful as opposed to avoiding a lawsuit? But I digress…

I’m still “processing” my supply of next year’s wood (via the felled tree) -- most of the log slices are under tarps, about two thirds of the limbs are piled in the corner of the yard -- providing a nice impromptu fence to keep out neighbor dogs and their “contributions” -- and the sawdust and mossy twigs provide an impressive barrier to any rototilling, as I try to create the new vegetable garden. Three fourths of the yard had to be “cleared” of tree in order to put this garden in, but it’s almost done now. The clearing, not the garden.

I have never been one to start projects at the basic level. Even as a child, I would turn to the back of the book and start with the “advanced” projects, figuring I’d pick up the basics along the way… my success rate was probably over 50%, depending on your definition of “success”. I rarely ended up with projects that looked like the picture, but that was true even when I did start with the basics. Anyway, this is also true of the garden -- not content to have a large vegetable garden, I have upped the ante by making it a circular garden, or -- to be technical -- a four-circuit labyrinth. I have always wanted a labyrinth in my yard, since I started walking them. And since I hadn’t had a yard of my own since I’d started walking them, this was my first chance. And I didn’t hesitate. I found one small enough for the yard, yet big enough to garden in -- 36 feet across, giving me narrow walkways but decent-sized beds. But no rototiller-straight lines… luckily I’d bought a farm-grade spade. Now if only I’d developed farm-grade glutes!

Over the past week, I have been “sketching” the pattern on the ground, using a center pole, a long string and the sawdust that was so handily lying around. As I am a little old to be able to walk around in circles, bent double, for hours, I have to take breaks, doing other tasks that allow me to stand upright (such as dragging the limbs to the “barricades”, as I have taken to calling them). And then I have been taking breaks from the breaks, as my back has informed that it will break if I do not. After enough of the circular pattern was sketched, I have been laying out the walkways using the moss that was also lying around in great quantities, from the felled tree. The moss felt like I was removing pelts from very narrow sheep or something - soft, wet and kind of held together like snake-skin or pelts. As I bent over the logs gathered this green fluff, I wondered if I were being frugal, or crazy. Then I priced little “plugs” of groundcover moss from the nursery, and decided it was frugal even if it was crazy!

My neighbor has walked by several times and tried to be helpful by telling me what an idiot I was not to just burn all the “scrap”. That was the advice of the woodchopper, too. I told them both that I intend to burn them -- but where it will do some good, in my woodstove next year! I suppose if you live in the country with trees all around, you might get spoiled and consider a large backyard “campfire” to be easier than sawing up small limbs… but then, we city folk use and toss plastic bags like they grow on trees -- at least tree limbs really do! I don’t think my neighbor has seen the circular garden yet -- I await his comments… or guffaws.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Log Blogging

The Before:
A new adventure: one of the tall firs must come down. I noticed it first a few days ago, in the wind… it was lashing around like a shoelace, and I saw how very tilted it was from the base. It had the same shape as the scoliosed spine in my chiropractor’s office. It was about fifty feet tall, and well beyond my capabilities, so I called the tree guy in the local classified ads. If he’d been advertising around this small town for years and no one was so irate at his performance as to take out a complaining ad next to his, I figured he’d do fine. I knew it was much better do this before I dug the garden than after, since the only path to fell it was directly across the yard. The guy came over yesterday, paced out the ground and studied the tree, averred how he could take it down easily across the yard, tho it might knock down the little shed -- I told him that would be a bonus. This is the “shed” made of 2x4s and plastic with a truck topper roof. To call it ugly is to insult the word “ugly”. And it’s not even very useful, since the door hangs catty-whompus and the rain gets in.

Anyway, he named a price -- very low, from what I’d heard in other areas (cash, of course!) and said he’d be over the next day. Today. About forty minutes ago, if I’d heard what he’d said correctly, but I have to remember this is country time… they don’t run by the minute hand… nevertheless, if he’s not here by 10am, I’ll call. I had to make a special trip to the bank to get all this cash, and I’ve put aside everything else I’d planned to do today, so at least within an hour of the arrangement? I got extra batteries for the camera, and have taken the “before” shots already -- I’m hoping he doesn’t think I’m checking on him; I just want to record the event… with the memory I have been exhibiting lately, I’ll be saying, “How did that stump get here?” by next month.

I have not witnessed a tree removal from start to finish, though I often see the results lying on the ground… I have asked him to cut it up for firewood as part of the process, and that will give me some of next year’s wood - another bonus. This is not a huge tree, tho it’s tall… don’t know if he’ll try to cut limbs off first, or just take it down and then work on it… an oak that I’m already fond of is partly in the way, and that concerns me, and depending on how tall the thing is, the apple tree could get hit, too. As I said, if the shed comes down, it’s a bonus, since I’d decided that it had to be replaced by some cold frames anyway…

The After:

When an hour had passed, I did all the things you do to “call” a handyman: put on a pot of soup, start a really good mystery, pick up the phone to call long distance. Finally, taking down curtains and turning on the iron did it… and I made sure to forget to turn it off, so that the guy didn’t need to “go back for tools” for a couple hours… the risk of fire was worth it…

Now that the process is done, I can recollect the events and put them in order -- they seemed to be happening all at once on different dimensions, either very quantum or my middle-age mind can’t follow as fast as it used to. First, he came in, apologizing for being later because he’d not gotten much sleep the night before. That should have given me pause. But I assured him it was fine, and I surreptitiously turned on the camera as he gassed up the chain saw and started yanking its chain. Sounding like a recalcitrant lawn mower, it almost ended the day before we began it. But he got it started, took a wedge out of the tree, set the saw down and walked back to double-check something, then went back to the tree, and in about three minutes, the fir comes roaring down into the backyard! Whomping full across the yard, it narrowly missed the fence and the shed -- but I quickly noticed that part of the oak is also down, and there are a couple apple limbs missing… at least most of the trees are still standing. The guy didn’t miss a beat - he walked over, started trimming the branches away the same way a fisherman filets a fish - huge curved green boughs lined like ribs on both sides of the long trunk. Then he sliced into the trunk like it was a carrot, cutting sections about 12 inches, and within 30 minutes of walking on to the property, he shut off the saw, and that was that! I had photo’d some of the proceedings, just for the album of events. I thanked him, gave him the wad of cash, and stared at the giant “carrot” that covered my yard.

Now, I had told him I’d take care of the tree if he’d just chop it -- I plan to use all the pieces I can… but this idea of Nature’s abundance didn’t really hit home until now. I had a vast abundance of moss-covered, wrist-thick limbs to dry for kindling, and over a dozen slices of log about a foot or so in diameter to split and stack for next year’s winter fires. It was at this point that my back decided to tell me it was 52, even if I wasn’t…

Not quite sure where to begin, I decided to get the logs under a tarp near the other firewood, and started rolling the slices to that spot… only the first third were roll-able; after that, I discovered that most of them had “hidden limbs” that were now six inches or more into the soil. Wrestling with one of them, I wondered if splitting them where they were might save me a hernia. Or, heck, even hiring some high school kid who’d split firewood all his life to do it… tho with the cost of Ipods these days, I’d bet his price wouldn’t be low. In the end, I grabbed the handsaw and lopped off the bits that put the brakes on, and got a few more to the tarp area. Of course, when I went for the tarp, it wasn’t in the garage, and that was when I remembered it was on the roof of the shed, keeping off the rain. Right. Another trip to the hardware store… but I had to go anyway, because I didn’t have the goop they use to dress the tree wounds sustained by the oak and apple. More later.