Archive for the ‘my country home’ Category

Filed Under (my country home) by admin on 02-06-2008

I had the good fortune of spending a year in Italy when I was nine and ten years old. During that stay, my family made a few trips into the Italian and Swiss Alps. On one of those trips, I imagine, we walked in a mountain meadow full of red poppies. I say I imagine, because I don’t have a specific memory of the event, but I know that poppies favor alpine meadows, and I know that we visited the Alps… So, for some thirty years I’ve had a romantic notion of fields of red poppies.

When I moved to rural Pennsylvania, poppies emerged as a recurring issue for me. In the spring, I’d see impressive concentrations of poppies sprout green in other people’s yards, burst into flower, and then fade—all in a matter of a few weeks. I wanted a similar display in my yard.

So, when I bought seeds for the vegetable garden, I also bought a packet of perennial poppy seeds. I planted the seeds in an unclaimed area at the south side of our deck, and watered them for several weeks. Sprouts appeared, but I couldn’t tell poppies from weeds, and the plants I guessed were poppies vanished when their leaves were very small. It was apparent the next spring that no poppies had grown where I’d planted them.

That next spring, I planted poppy seeds in the same place, and watched closely as sprouts appeared and then vanished within a few days. I wondered about soil conditions, but finally realized that wild animals in our yard like the flavor of poppy sprouts. Rabbits, woodchucks, squirrels, or chipmunks—I didn’t know, but there was little doubt they were biting off the tops of the plants before the plants could get established.

I laid off the poppy effort for a few years, but then heard Peter, Paul, & Mary’s recording of No Man’s Land written by Eric Bogle, and I really wanted to have poppies in my yard—as a reminder of the song’s sentiment (see my previous blog entry for more about the song). A verse of the song describes a graveyard in France where WWI soldiers are buried:

The sun it shines down on these green fields of France,
The warm wind blows gently, the red poppies dance…

Hearing the song—thinking about the song—makes me sad… and it further romanticizes alpine fields of red poppies.

I planted poppy seeds around a bush along the South border of our front yard. This time, one plant survived. I planted seeds there the next spring in the shadow of the lone poppy plant, and again the next spring when no new plants emerged. My wife planted again the next year, with one new plant resulting.

The good news is that once that poppy established itself, it proved indestructible. There is usually green visible all year except when snow covers it, and the plant puts out more leaves and more blossoms each spring. In five or six years, the two plants we’ve managed to start from seed may expand around the base of the bush and provide a gorgeous springtime bouquet that dances in the warm winds of spring.

Each spring for four years, I’ve marveled at the intense color and at the extreme contrasts of the poppy. The petals are soft—almost diaphanous; the leaves and stems are coarse—almost prickly. Seeing the leaves erupt in the spring, the hairy buds, and the glowing flowers makes me happy; the reminder of alpine meadows and graveyards in France makes me sad.

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Filed Under (my country home) by admin on 19-05-2008

My daughter has expressed considerable interest in owning a horse. I like the idea, but balk at the expense and at the amount of work involved. My dream, when we left the city, was to move to a farm where having horses would have been a minor additional load—once you have a pasture to provide food, and a barn to provide housing, moving a horse in is a small step. However, if you live in a house in a subdivision, you must buy land, develop pasture, add a barn, drill a well, pay to have electric service added, and otherwise toil to prepare for a horse… unless you buy a farm—but then why did you buy a house in a subdivision?

So, there is a major intersection between my daughter’s dream of owning a horse, and my dream of living on a farm. But my daughter hasn’t been particularly whiny or persuasive about her dream… in fact, while she’s shown a lot of interest in horses, only recently did she start making bold, declarative statements about her wants—statements such as, “I want to own a horse,” and “We should live on a farm.”

So, to entertain our mutual dreams, on our way back from my daughter’s last horse-riding lesson, I took her for a drive past some of the farms I find particularly appealing. Along the road leading to my last sight-seeing destination, we came upon a large fenced pasture with a farm pond and a bunch of cows hanging around in the shade of a wooded area. On a hillside, far from the crowd of cows, was a small evergreen tree that had the attention of a solo cow who was enthusiastically rubbing its head in the branches of the tree.

My daughter and I watched for several minutes, musing about the cow’s relationship to the tree: Does the cow rub its neck often, we mused, or is this a rare treat that we happened onto at just the right moment? Does this cow have exclusive rights to the tree, or do the cows take turns scratching their heads and necks? Does the poor tree sometimes suffer abuse from several cows at once?

After a time, we noticed evidence that that lone tree drew considerable attention from the cow—or cows—in the pasture: there was a dirt track worn on the ground around it. Someone has spent enough time at the tree to kill off the vegetation that grew at its roots.

I imagine that being hairy and standing around outside most of your life might result in at least some skin irritation. I think if my cow spent so much time scratching itself, I’d take a break from the rest of the farm work, and give the poor animal a bath.

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Filed Under (my country home) by admin on 09-05-2008

On a few very special mornings each year, there is a nearly surreal nature show in the fields of rural communities. Overnight, thousands of spiders hang webs on nearly every stalk, twig, and blade of grass. That in itself may not make a great show—under normal circumstances you might not even notice the fine threads of the webs. But when atmospheric conditions are just right, a heavy dew gathers on the webs, turning them into clouds in the morning light: clouds in the weeds; wispy puffs of white.

When I see the webs on those dewy mornings, I marvel at how many spiders must live in every cubic yard of field-space. Can those webs capture enough insects to feed all the spiders? Are they all built by the same type of spider? If there are so many of this one type of spider, how many of every other crawly critter must there be? On a short walk through a meadow, it follows that I’m disturbing hundreds of thousands—perhaps millions of spiders and insects!

They don’t seem to mind… in fact, for all the insects and spiders that must surround us, it’s amazing how few of them we actually see.

In any case, nature produces these awesome shows but a few mornings each year. I wish a photograph could do justice to the subtle beauty of a meadow of spider web clouds.

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Filed Under (my country home, rural life, rural living) by admin on 02-05-2008

Until her hatchlings were big enough to strike out on their own, this mother made her home in my garden—coming and going through an opening I made in the fence just for her.

For the past four or five years, rabbits have made their homes in the yard of my country home. Two years in a row, I failed to get my vegetable garden in shape before there was a rabbit nesting in the humus I’d applied in the fall. The first year, the female rabbit dug down through grass clippings into the soil and gave birth to three babies in that hole.

One day, rain fell so heavily that every depression in my yard filled with standing water. It occurred to me that this couldn’t be good for the bunnies, and sure enough: when I peeked at the nest, I saw the babies had drowned.

Fenced In Rabbit

In the next season, I finished planting my garden and I erected the rabbit fence I’d built years earlier. I noticed immediately that a rabbit was eying the fence and looking a little anxious… and it dawned on me that this rabbit was a mommy and I had just cut off access to her babies. I opened a panel in the fence, and shared my garden for several weeks as two out of three rabbit puppies grew big enough to leave the garden and seek their fortunes. (A third baby died a few days after the bunnies left their nest.)

I haven’t had rabbits in the garden for a few years now, but last year one laid eggs under the forsythia in the front yard, and this year there’s a nest under the shrubs that grow outside my office windows.

Rural Living with an Old Friend

I like to think that this year’s mommy rabbit is the same one that started in my garden so many years ago. During that second year when we shared my garden, she showed little fear toward me. In subsequent years, mommy rabbit has shown the same fearlessness—letting me get within about six feet before freezing in preparation to bolt. Last night, for example, I walked past her to my car, opened the door, and sat on the seat as she lay in the grass next to the driveway.

I’ve come to like the wild rabbits for three reasons: 1. They’re cute. 2. They require almost no care—as if I have pets but I don’t have to do anything for them. 3. They eat weeds. I’ve seen this again and again over the years: mommy rabbit lays flat on her stomach and daintily snips a dandelion stem off close to the ground. Then she pulls the stem into her mouth bite-by-bite—vaguely suggesting the spaghetti scene from Lady and the Tramp.

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The old peach tree that came with my house rotted through and fell over two seasons ago. Still, it’s covered with flowers, and is likely to produce a decent crop this year. Woodchucks like this dying tree. In the fall they stand on their hind legs to reach the lowest peaches, and in the winter they chew on the tender bark (as you can see on the branch in the lower-right of the photo).

My county home came with three apple trees, a peach tree, and a pear tree. Having this convenient source of free fruit suits me very well: if I’m growing plants in my yard, I want them to provide food for me. Unfortunately, fruit trees are challenging.

As plants go, fruit trees are among the stupidest. They may produce flowers any time in April… with no regard for when the last frost is going to hit. Some years, this means a late frost destroys a tree’s young fruit. If trees had any brains, they’d keep their buds closed until after the last frost.

Fruit trees have no sense about their own personal space. They grow branches every which-way, filling spaces between branches with more branches. New growth shades out old growth, and branches often collide with and cross each other. In wind, they rub together causing damage where insects and fungus can take hold. To keep trees healthy and promote healthy fruit-production on all the branches, it’s important to prune the excess growth—usually in late winter.

Fruit Trees are Uncooperative

Fruit trees don’t automatically do what’s best for the fruit-eater. For example, trees with hardy roots often produce fruit that isn’t particularly appealing to eat. Roots of trees that make delectable fruit may succumb easily to insects, rot, and other problems. Many of the fruit trees you buy in a garden store have a desirable fruit variety grafted onto a hardy root of a different variety.

When there is no killing frost, a tree can produce thousands of flowers. If all the flowers mature, they’ll produce small fruits. Professional fruit growers pluck hundreds of undeveloped fruits, leaving only a few on each branch to mature by the end of the season. The survivors are often two or three times as large as they’d be without that early culling.

My pear and peach tree aren’t healthy. In fact, three years ago, we planted a second peach tree because the old one looks ready to go. How ready? The main trunk rotted part way through, and the entire crown of the tree fell over two years ago. But the healthy wood of the trunk didn’t break—it bent.

Last year, with its crown resting on the ground, that old tree produced a whole bunch of rather small, very sweet peaches… and this year the crown is covered once again with flowers. I imagine in a week or two I’ll be out there plucking off nascent peaches so the ones that survive the summer grow large.

Getting a Fruit Harvest Requires Work

All my other fruit trees are also covered with flowers—more than I remember from any past spring. This means work. While I want to eat the peaches pears and apples, so do hundreds of thousands of insects. They’re already lurking, but I can’t take action until the blossoms drop—anything that discourages fruit-eating insects can also put off the bees that will pollinate the flowers. I’ll need to spray the trees with bug repellent repeatedly through the spring and summer.

So, by the time I’ve done the winter pruning, the mid-spring culling, and the repeated bug spraying, I’ll have spent, perhaps, twenty hours messing with my trees. The bug spray will cost twenty or thirty dollars by the end of the season. Of course, I also have to pick the fruit, but that’s no more work than buying it at a farmers’ market.

If all goes well, I’ll end up with four or five bushels of apples, and, perhaps, a bushel each of pears and peaches. It’s a terrific return on such a modest investment.

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Filed Under (my country home, rural life, rural living) by admin on 16-04-2008

The leaves of Zoysia grass (top) have the unfortunate characteristic of dying during the winter. A Zoysia lawn is brown for the first month or so of spring. My friend’s discarded sod on the bottom right is weed-free. It may never look as good as my kidney-shaped patch of Zoysia, but it smothered, perhaps, 130 dandelions like the ones on the left of the lower photo.

As I admitted in an earlier entry, I’m not fond of yard work. In fact, I mow the lawn only when its length threatens to choke the mower. There have been years in which I’ve fired up the mower only a half dozen times… though in rainy years, it’s been as often as weekly. After mowing, it’s a shooting match whether any other lawn maintenance happens at all.

My lack of interest in yard work led me some years ago to plant several hundred Zoysia plugs in the middle of my back yard. You might have seen ads for Zoysia grass. They promise a lawn so dense that the grass chokes out weeds. They promise green when other grasses are dying because of drought. They promise a lawn that endures cold winters and hot summers. They promise a lawn that you only need to mow a few times each year!

The product seems to have delivered: I now have a healthy, kidney-shaped patch of Zosyia grass in the middle of my back yard. It’s thick and soft and nearly weed-free. Thing is, it would take several thousand Zoysia “plugs” to plant the entire yard, and quite honestly, putting 600 plugs in the ground was not fun. I now officially offer the non-Zoysia area of my lawn as a test plot for Zoysia Farm Nursuries. Please, Mr and Mrs Zoysia, send a crew and demonstrate to future customers how easy it is to plant a third of an acre with plugs. In the meantime, most of my lawn is a mess with dandelions, crab grass, and bare spots.

Good Rural Living

In contrast, I have a friend who very much enjoys yard work. Several hundred square feet of grass in his yard had fared poorly through the years because it received almost no sun. This spring, he rented a machine that cleanly slices the grass—and about an inch-and-a-half of roots and soil—away from the ground. His plan was to load the old sod onto his pickup truck, and pay $24 per ton to unload the truck at a municipal dump. I figured to save him the dumping fee as well as some gasoline.

So, this morning I helped lift dozens of chunks of sod off the ground onto a pickup truck in my friend’s yard, and then lift it off the truck onto the ground in my yard. There’s a lot of slope in one corner of my yard, and for years I’ve wanted to add topsoil and level things out—but doing that is more yard work than simply mowing, so it wasn’t going to get done… until the topsoil practically fell into my lap.

The way we unloaded it in my yard, I don’t expect the sod will grow into a gorgeous carpet of grass—it will never match the Zoysia kidney about ten paces away. But the unplanned half day of yard work has gotten me closer to my dream of a level yard; if my buddy wants to replace the rest of his grass with new sod, my yard has a low corner waiting to hold the old stuff.

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Filed Under (my country home, rural life, rural living) by admin on 04-04-2008

Up high in a building in Boston, you see city as if it goes on forever. Up high on a hill to which my family often walks with the dog, you can see buildings in the mist: a Lewisburg neighborhood.

The last day of my visit to Boston was a little awkward. Turns out Boston Billiards doesn’t open until 11:30, so my buddy and I had to kill about an hour near the establishment before we could play (we had snagged a parking space and weren’t going to give it up).

After several hours of billiards, I dropped my friend at his apartment, and headed downtown where I had hoped to scoop several dozen photos of Downtown Crossing, Chinatown, the waterfront, the North End, and Faneuil Hall. The late start at the pool hall made me late downtown, so I barely got beyond the financial district before my scheduled visit with a childhood buddy whose career has landed him in Boston.

This friend has a windowed office on the 31st floor with an excellent view of Boston looking west. Before we headed out, we poked into a few other offices so I could shoot the views North and East as well. Whenever I’ve visited a high-rise office, I’ve been awed by the view and have imagined how easily I could squander hours simply watching the city undulate.

I chauffeured my friend north and then west through commuter traffic that quickly revived my appreciation for rural life: on the expressway, I could see more cars ahead of me at any moment than I’d be able to tally on a drive from one end of Lewisburg to the other. After a pleasant dinner, way too little catching up with my friend’s family, and a short night on an inflatable bed in the basement, I made the six-and-a-half hour drive back to Lewisburg.


For the last few miles of my trip, I hopped off the interstate, and drove a more leisurely two-lane road. Whenever I drive, I glance at the trees and fields, watching for anything that might make an interesting photograph. As I passed a hedgerow about five miles from Lewisburg, I glimpsed a herd of wild turkeys near the top of a rise, and I pulled over to take pictures. Wild Turkeys don’t seem all too fond of me: they left in a hurry. I managed to shoot a few, but their mothers couldn’t tell them apart in my photos.

When I rolled into Lewisburg, time slowed just a bit. My family was still in school, the dog acted very happy to see me, and I was happy to see her. The grocery shopping hasn’t been done this week, and the recyclables are escaping from their bin. Most importantly: my wife has kept the kids alive. I’m glad to return to rural living.

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Filed Under (my country home, rural living) by admin on 28-03-2008

The 9-month-old, shriveled ornamental cherries at the end of our driveway attract Hitchcockean numbers of hungry robins when winter holds on past the end of February.

Migratory birds apparently don’t have the inside track on knowing when spring-like weather will start. Some years, it comes as early as the first week of March. Other years, it doesn’t come until April. The birds arrive pretty much at the same time each year.

This year, robins arrived from the south as usual in the last week of February. Snow still covered the ground, and it was very cold. I imagine that from a robin’s point of view, arriving in Lewisburg in February seemed like a huge mistake.

During warm weather, when I see a robin eating, it’s almost always eating worms. Though, just before our blueberries are ripe enough for human consumption, robins pluck them from the plants. I also remember as a kid seeing robins in my dad’s strawberry patch—presumably, snacking away. A Google search reveals variety in a robin’s diet: insects and fruit of all kinds. But it’s hard to imagine any of that being available in the snow and cold of late February… except for the ornamental cherries.

There’s an ornamental cherry tree nearly on the property line between my neighbor’s and my driveways. In late spring, gorgeous flowers cover the tree, and when the leaves drop away in the fall, bunches of tiny cherries cling to the ends of the branches. With the extreme cold and late-season snow, quite recently that tree was also covered with robins. There weren’t just a handful of robins; there must have been fifty or more kicking about in the tree. Apparently, in the absence of worms, caterpillars, insects, and fresh fruit, dried up ornamental cherries are good stuff.

The snow has melted, there has been another storm, and the snow has melted again. In fact, the lawn is starting to turn green, and there are worm castings between the blades of grass. Judging from the lack of robins in the tree, there is more interesting food available than nine-month-old dried up ornamental cherries. Maybe next year the robins will wait until mid-March to return from the south. I’d wait until May.

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Filed Under (my country home, rural life, rural living) by admin on 06-03-2008

Only two days ago, four inches of snow covered most of the secrets in my yard.  With the snow gone, a couple of unfinished jobs have become apparent, and the first flowers of the year have appeared.

Two days of rain nearly melted off all the snow. It also revealed secrets: reminders that last fall, I left some projects for the spring. With the snow off the lawn, I see the grass is quite long. My son had stopped mowing in the fall when a cable popped loose on my mower. I’ll need to get that fixed before the turf thaws.

I see that both garden hoses still slither through the grass—well-entwined no doubt because we rolled them out after the last mowing, and left them as the grass grew over them. Oddly, a spray nozzle sits on the grass rather than in it, and I wonder if I had taken the nozzle off and tossed it aside when I gave the dog her last bath of the season.

The leaf pile my kids raked together in the fall has become a massive dead spot on the front lawn. Believe it or not, I wanted the leaves to kill the grass there—I plan to plant Zoysia this spring (a patch I planted three years ago now lives up to the claims in advertisements), and it’ll be easier to cut the plugs into bare ground than it is to cut them in through growing grass.

I’m not surprised to find other items kicking about the yard: there are a few lawn chairs, a jump rope embedded in the lawn even deeper than the garden hoses, a spool that’s supposed to hold one of the hoses, many golf balls frozen in puddles left by the rain, and a basketball half-covered by the forsythia bushes.

Just two days ago, the entire yard was beneath four inches of snow. Today, there are puddles standing on frozen turf. Until the sun struck them, those puddles were iced over. Still, there are daffodil sprouts in the garden, and on the south side of the house, one crocus blossom peaks out from under the leaves. Yard work has become inevitable.

I get no pleasure from doing yard work, but I stumble through the minimal to keep my neighbors from complaining. I did some serious rationalization and procrastination in the fall, and winter snows hid my secrets. The thaw has laid them bare.

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