THROUGH THE WOODS: Old time planting

An Acme rotary antique corn planter. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

IT’S SPRING! We may get a little more snow and stormy weather, but it is time to think about gardens and planting. Snow is called poor man’s fertilizer for contributing nitrogen to the soil, so it isn’t a bad thing. This is a good year to consider growing some vegetables as well as the flowers we enjoy in the yard.

Growing up on our family dairy farm in the early 1950s there was a plan for spring that was passed down from many generations. We had a variety of animals and each spring the hen house attached to the barn had to be cleaned out from the winter buildup of manure and straw. My father Donald Kern hand shoveled it into a wagon and used our team of horses to take it to the vegetable gardens. Some manure was wheelbarrowed to the flower beds before the new shoots emerged. It really provided beautiful peony blossoms each year.

Our Town of Austerlitz farm had heavy clay soil, which needed all the organic enhancement it could get. Chicken manure is potent stuff and can burn plants, so after it was on the gardens it was worked into the ground either by hand or by horse and plow. The vegetable garden fences had been taken down at the ends, so the horses had room to turn around and plow back and forth, then harrowed it smooth. The fences weren’t high but kept out most stray livestock when completed. Spring rain helped soak the soil and distribute the added nutrients until it was time to plant. April for peas and the rest after Memorial Day when the possibility of frost was gone. Stakes were installed at the garden ends with a string attached between them to serve as a guide for a garden row. A shallow trench was hoed beneath it, and the seed was placed in it and covered. We young children watched and learned and got to remove stones from the rocky soil. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: When is it spring?

A male red-winged blackbird. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

WHAT IS CONSIDERED THE FIRST DAY of spring depends on whether you are using the meteorological or astronomical definition of the seasons. The meteorological is the simpler of the two because it splits the year into four seasons of three full months each based on the Gregorian calendar. This means that every year spring begins on March 1, and lasts until May 31, with summer starting on June 1.

The astronomical season is less straightforward as it depends on the date of the vernal (spring) equinox, which means the date comes later than March 1 and can vary slightly from year to year. For us, the spring equinox falls on Sunday, March 20, 2022, at 11:33 a.m. EDT. The astronomical spring will last until the summer solstice on June 21.

We are enjoying this current warm winter weather and are pleased not to be shoveling snow and paying for more heating oil this week. In the meantime, nature seems to think it is already an astronomical spring. A few days ago I noticed buds coming out and small leaf tips on some shrubs. So far this year their flower buds survived without the usual loss of buds to the cold. Our fast-running brooks have no ice at this point. Down at the site of my parent’s old farmhouse, the snowdrops are out and cover the ground in white in imitation of the missing snow. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: Look who came to breakfast

THE DINING AREA with the big front window looking out on the porch is where I like to have a winter breakfast and watch the bird feeders. To give the birds some shelter I throw corn out on the lawn and some cracked corn is placed on the porch under the hanging feeders. I was sipping coffee and caught movement in the window and almost dropped my mug. There was a tiny little button buck looking over the window sill with curiosity and no fear.

Someone suggested I call him Kilroy after the cartoon figure. When Kilroy put his head down to lick up the corn he disappeared. I could hear his little hooves clunking along as he got every piece of corn. I had my camera on the table to photograph unusual birds so when he looked up again, I got an unusual deer instead.

I couldn’t believe he had walked up the steep front steps and felt no one else would believe me. He was so young, about the size of a German shepard dog, and so hungry. Deer eat tips of brush and tree branches during winter and these little ones can’t reach high enough to get much to eat. Their mothers chase them away if they try to nurse at this stage even though they stay near their mothers until the new fawns are born in June. There was an icy snow cover which made reaching grass difficult too. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: Greater white-fronted goose

Greater white-fronted goose. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

IN THIS WORLD OF UNREST, my way of coping is to turn to nature. The spring migration of birds has started, and I spent the past week in pursuit of the latest arrivals. Some favorite routes are west of Kinderhook and north through many cornfields that attract birds to spilled grain and ears left on stalks. I also stopped at a farm in southern Rensselaer County. Literally, 4,000 or more Canada Geese were feeding there. It is a tedious and time-consuming task to locate something unusual. Think of looking for a needle in a haystack with all the hay squirming, shifting, and flying. After 3 hours of watching a farm pond surrounded by corn and hayfields, I was rewarded for my dizzy brain and bleary eyes.

Several prizes flew in as others flew away. At the south side of the pond on a grassy slope was a pair of rare greater white-fronted geese, called “speckle-bellies” by hunters! One bird limped badly and would lie down to eagerly eat grass. Its mate was unimpaired and grazed around, and periodically returned to say hello. It raised its head with open bill and gave loud greetings.

I have observed this species before and noted their aggression toward the Canada Geese, who give them a wide berth. Greater white-fronted geese are compact, gray-brown geese with dark, irregular barring across the breast, are smaller than Canada geese, and have white at the base of the bill. They are easily recognized as the only gray-brown goose with a pinkish bill and orange feet. At rest, it is the only North American goose showing a distinctive white lateral streak. Overall, they look like a small version of our gray barnyard geese. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: The necessity of ice

I SPENT THE LONG WEEKEND birding around Columbia County and looking at the ice on the Hudson River. I remembered our “icehouse,” which was used to store winter ice for use throughout the year. Before electricity and modern refrigeration, it was the only means of keeping food and drink cool in the warm months, and making a very special treat, ice cream. Depending on family size and usage it varied in dimensions and the building was placed so it could be shaded by trees or other buildings. Ours was about 12’X14’ by maybe 15’ tall and had two levels. Ice blocks had to be made in a size that could be handled, and also so the ice could fit into an icebox in the house, usually, one-foot square blocks or some cut smaller. We always had refrigerators and freezers, so it was interesting to hear my father’s stories (Donald Kern) about all the winter work that had to be done to fill the ice house each year.

First, the building had to be cleaned out and fresh sawdust put on the floor. Straw could also be used. My grandparents on both sides got their ice from Acker’s Pond, which was a dammed-up part of our farm stream near Harlemville. Anytime it got down to well below freezing and the ice was over a foot thick all the neighbors would gather at the pond with their teams of horses and sleighs and tools to begin cutting ice. Test holes were chopped, and then in the thick areas, the ice was scraped clean of snow. Next it was scored in rows so a horse-drawn ice plow could be used to cut down further to above the water’s surface.

The ice plow was an interesting device about four feet long with large teeth and handles like a dirt plow. A team of horses was used to pull it across the ice while a man used the handles to keep it cutting straight through the scored line. Rarely a thin spot was reached and a horse or the whole team might fall through so everyone was prepared to hook other teams onto them and pull them out. What a cold dunk that must have been. Read more…