GREEN THOUGHTS: Horticulture dreaming

FEBRUARY USUALLY FINDS ME in “winter fatigue.” It’s not the cold and snow but their troubling consequences I find daunting. Will the car start up, then stay on the road, will the furnace keep working, will I break my bottom falling on the ice? Our now familiar nemesis, the pandemic, has made solutions like socializing or ambling out to a museum off-limits. Luckily, we gardeners have another option—garden daydreams.

Consider color. The snow finally melts, leaving the brown, garbage-strewn earth; then one day in April buds on soft maples start to show the faintest red. Hillsides become clothed in the pale greens, yellow-greens and maroons of expanding foliage and the pure white of shadbush blossoms. Pussy willow buds explode to reveal fuzzy gray catkins, making honeybees buzz joyfully. Soon spring comes on like a freight train, with chrome-yellow forsythia, Pepto-Bismol pink cherry blossoms, vibrant red tulips. My favorite colors appear at the height of summer. Screaming orange Mexican sunflower, bottle-blue gentian sage and pale, pale yellow Abelmoschus manihot all bloom in the dog days, each blossom as deep and rich as a July sky. Nature makes every color imaginable, but unlike home décor, they never clash or look out of place.

How does gardening feel? In spring my back creaks as I dig and spread compost before planting peas, then the warm air cools quickly after sunset. In summer I don my favorite gardening outfit—faded turquoise bathing suit, work boots, raggedy cutoff t-shirt from a 1999 trip to Maine—slather on sunscreen, and go out to weed. And perspire. Dripping sweat proves that gardening is no sissy activity. I like the dirt and salt on my hands and knees, and sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy. I remember the tactile-ness of vegetables, like the cool curvaceous smoothness of an eggplant, the fragile delicacy of a very ripe, very large Brandywine tomato, or the heft of a melon popped off the vine. Rounding up dumpy, lumpy Hubbard squashes in October measures the bounty of the season, and the mind feels good putting up food for winter. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: Adventures of snowmobiling

WATCHING SOME KIDS on snowmobiles has been a reminder of many happy winters touring around the countryside of our farms by snowmobile. We are not sure why, but our father, Donald Kern, was enamored with these amazing machines. We were one of the first families of our area to own one, thanks to Bob Geel of Ghent. Bob raced and sold Skidoos and my father would purchase his racing machine at the end of the season. It was a good deal for us and gave us some zippy rides across our long farm fields.

We four kids were used to being outdoors and riding our horses, so this was just a new and faster mode of transportation. We were already prepared for the weather with ski gloves, thermal underwear, wool socks, insulated boots, balaclavas, hats, and scarves. Steering these machines was interesting and dependent on the conditions and terrain. Varying approaches and techniques were needed for hills, snow depth or icy conditions. We cut trails through our many acres of woods, which challenged us with hills, stone cliffs, low hanging evergreens, and crooked runs. One beautiful afternoon I didn’t realize there was ice under the snow as a sharp turn was made through a bunch of trees and I skidded into one. I didn’t want to hurt the Skidoo, so put out my hand to soften the blow and jammed my hand so hard it bent my favorite turquoise ring, and I couldn’t get it off my finger. Eventually we tapped it back into a round shape and it came off. The Skidoo was unhurt and neither was I. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: ‘Owl-capades’

YESTERDAY AFTERNOON WAS A THRILL watching the nimble aerial acrobatics of several football-sized owls. They were short-eared owls down from the north for the winter. We think of owls as night birds however these owls hunt both day and night. Large farm fields producing grain and hay during the summer were snow covered, hosting untold numbers of small mammals such as mice and voles. A vole looks like a mouse but prefers to eat vegetation such as roots and seeds, is usually larger (4-6” long), and has a stubbier face and tail. They are also related to lemmings, which live in the far north and are loved by owls. Birds and mammals like weasels and muskrat are also eaten.

What was exciting for observers was deadly serious for the owls. The owls were upset with a northern harrier (also called a marsh hawk), which was in immediate competition for their food. Two owls flew circles around it midair. Owl talons were thrust toward the hawk, and an owl’s long wings were raised then slapped beneath it, chasing the hawk out to other fields.

The harrier was a beauty, a male, also called a “gray ghost” for its white body and black-tipped gray wings (females are brown). The owls got back to work flying low to the snow with a gliding, rocking motion and then abruptly circling back for another look or listen. Sometimes they gave short squawks/barks with an occasional sound like a cat’s mew. Did this cause prey to move? An owl would hover and dive to the snow. Then off to perch on a fence post or power pole. Feeding was short while standing on prey and looking in all directions for an attempted steal. The large vole’s head was pulled up and snipped off and swallowed. Next long strands of guts were pulled out and eaten and the body was chugged down last. After eating 1-2 small mammals an owl may stash more prey to carry it through bad weather. Read more…

GREEN THOUGHTS: Getting a head start

Seed packets. Photo contributed

GARDENING GURU JERRY BAKER said plants were like people, and I believe seeds are, too. Some seeds grow easily under many conditions, like your friend who thrives no matter what life gives her. Similar to your black sheep cousin arriving on your doorstep, some seeds germinate unexpectedly by the back steps, in the driveway gravel, or in the compost pile. Others are as fussy as your little sister, needing precise coddling to get moving.

This last group of seeds generally requires starting indoors well before planting out in the wide world. The tiny print on the seed packet gently suggesting “start indoors eight to ten weeks before planting out” is a warning to plan ahead. Other crops, such as tomatoes, germinate easily but take a good three months or more to fruit, so giving them a head start indoors assures production in the current calendar year.

After assessing which seeds need what conditions, assemble your gear. I like to use a soil-less mix, containing peat, perlite and vermiculite, specially formulated for seeds. It’s lightweight, drains well, and contains no killer pathogens. You can make your own mix, and even pasteurize it in your kitchen oven, but the stink and mess can substantially reduce household harmony. I also use professional grade plastic cells, those familiar “six packs” seen in nurseries, but a wide array of food containers, cleaned and given drainage holes, may work just as well. Containers can also be fashioned as soil blocks, made from peat or coir, or created from newspaper. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: Winter farm 1958

TIRED AT AGE 12… Sledding and playing in the snow on an afternoon in 1958. The temperature was about -15 F and heading down the thermometer. Coming into the dairy barn was always pleasant. The cows were natural heaters and warmed the barn to a pleasant state during most winters. That day you could see their breath, and the moisture in the air was palpable and beginning to freeze on metal near the doors. The barn’s manure cleaner had frozen in the morning and the manure spreader wasn’t doing well either. Fortunately, the tractors had started up with a few tries. Lots of cold hard work on a small family farm without extra help.

The cold had brought in flocks of snow buntings and many hundreds of horned larks. There was also a small flock of common redpolls, but no hoary redpoll among them. Grandmother’s Christmas present of a Roger Tory Peterson Field Guide to the Birds had said to search for this rarer, whiter type. These birds were spooked up off the freshly spread manure during a late morning horseback ride. Bareback riding was the warmer and preferred way to go on these cold days, with flannel lined blue jeans, long heavy wool socks, high boots, and lots of wool everything else. The horses were always frisky and glad for a run, hair thick, warm, and full of static electricity, snorting and blowing through the squeaky snow and down to the “crick,” for a good drink. Read more…