Ruminations on Autumn Clean-up (or not) and Time

I share my little plot with 8 trees large enough that I hope none fall on my house. They make a lot of leaves. If the spirit moves me I will rake them into mounds alongside the hedge or into my raised garden bed where they do their beautiful business of rotting.

My neighbors across the street have no trees and I wonder if they hate me when the wind blows in their direction? We are friends so I doubt it – but I’m sure they feel a tad exasperated by the mess my arbor-love makes on their tree-less property. And I wonder a little if their intention is to torture me every Saturday when the landscaper comes with a blower to blow mostly my tree’s leaves off their perfect lawn. There are not many sounds I hate more than the sound of a gas blower as it goes on and on and on.

My gardening… philosophy? technique? I search for the word that best describes my intentional laissez-faire attitude around autumn clean-up. I believe and there is much proof, that left to itself, nature takes better care of itself than when we meddle. The decomposed leaves enrich my property so it doesn’t make sense to stuff them into bags to be picked up by the noisy trucks emitting additional carbon gases into our atmosphere while they do it.

There is some clean-up I eventually get around to. I twist the thorny vines and weeds into cans to be picked up by those same trucks or smash them into the back of my car to drive them to the brush dump myself. Every year invasive weeds like Japanese knotweed and bittersweet win the battle in at least one corner of my yard. Every spring I have high hopes that this will be the year I’ll keep said corner clear of growth. But as we move into summer and the heat and bugs amp up, I give up, conceding until autumn when I can more easily pull and snip at the recently frost-killed invasive plants.

I think about time and how it makes some things easier. Of course body aches and wrinkles alert me to the challenges time can bring = aging. But mostly I see time as my ally. With time (and effort) things that once were entrenched in my actual and metaphorical ‘patch’ become easier to deal with. A few short months ago, I was daunted by an overwhelming green mass full of thorns and worse — ticks. After a few frosty nights, the thicket shrank to skeletal twists I could tackle.

In the garden on an unseasonably warm day, I brace myself with bent knees, heels dug into the earth, inhaling a deep breath of mint (my advice: grow only in pots!) while yanking on a resistant tangle, I think of old resentments, anger, grief – pulling harder, feeling the strain into my legs until with a snap, release down to my core, my soul. Looking closely at the branches of the fruit trees saved now from being swallowed up by this wild growth, I see the teeniest, tightest little buds. Hope.

 

Tuesday Morning Chill

A grey morning but for the glow of the newly green trees visible from my window. I peek out through half opened eyes but the desire to keep sleeping overpowers me and I slip down against the pillows. It’s tempting to go under for another dream but I allow myself only a few minutes before getting up to walk Rufus. I pull on a hooded jacket over a sweatshirt. Rufus pulls on his lead. The birds are singing Spring songs but my breath lingers as a visible cloud. It’s cold and it rained last night. I think of my garden plot across town and am glad I got the cardboard and newspaper down in time to capture this stretch of wet weather. I hold the memory of that work in the ache of muscles in my back from pulling the wheelbarrow through mud. I hear a woodpecker in the trees two blocks over. I love that sound as long as it’s not my house they’re drilling holes into. Rufus does not like a wet day. We turn and go back home. A short walk and glimpse of Tuesday morning.

Building Fences, Causing No Harm

Molly called me at work on Friday, freaked out. An animal she couldn’t identify was trapped in the rusty old milk can by the back deck.

Just kick it over so the thing can get out, I told her, and film it running away so I can see what it is. She demurred insisting she’d wait for me to come home. Lucky for the critter, I’d be there soon.

I peeked over the side of the jug, wondering if I’d see bared teeth. Instead, there was this.

A wee groundhog. I hate groundhogs as I’ve written about here every summer. (Put in groundhog in the search – you’ll see!) They devour everything I plant and they multiply like crazy. Yes, they’re a little cute when they play beneath the pear and peach trees I planted in the sunniest, best garden spot. The garden spot I gave up on because they eat everything, undeterred by fences and other foils. I thought I was clever to plant these trees, determined to still be able to get some harvest off my little patch. Groundhogs can climb trees. I’ve seen them. And they love peaches.

So here, here was a baby – my prisoner. One less pest. I didn’t immediately free the poor thing. I considered trying to move him elsewhere, out of the neighborhood so he couldn’t come back. I certainly couldn’t kill it – that’s not in my makeup unless there’s a threat to me or my loved ones. I’m a catch and release kind of gal. I wasn’t about to kill this baby. Finally, Molly kicked the the jug and the thing scampered away and then back towards us, right under the deck I thought I’d varmint proofed.

The next day, I strategized my planting. Where could I place flowers where our resident beasts couldn’t get at them? And at least a few tomato and basil plants. I had luck last year with a table with a jerry-rigged fence around it. First I had to somehow get the table outside. Molly was working so it was just me to tackle this project. You know how, once you have an idea in your head, you just want to get it done? That was me. I dragged the table through the kitchen, hoisted it over on to its side and began shimmying it across the threshold where it promptly got jammed. Banging my shin on it triggered a flash of self pity and a choke of tears as I thought of the ghosts of  the men who should have been here. But I felt them cheering me on. There was a knock at the door – certainly an extra set of hands miraculously showing up!

Jehovah Witnesses. I invited the two women out of the hot sun, offered them a cool drink (declined), watched the short video on their Ipad, told them I was fascinated by their faith but felt unmoved by the video. But don’t you want to know more about how to learn about courage from the Bible, one of them (Rose) asked? I told her I was pretty good on the courage front and that right about now, hearing anything about the Bible makes me mad because of the way passages are being bandied about by the current administration to justify so many despicable policies and practices.

They nodded. Both African American and certainly more vulnerable to injustices than I, they did not disagree. Turns out, Rose is a neighbor from my city so I told her about the storytelling I help to organize in the community and suggested she come – although only to tell a story, not to proselytize. I took her literature and she took mine and she said she’d like to come back and talk with me more and I’d welcome her onto my front porch for a chat although I highly doubt she’ll be converting me. I think she just wants to talk again and I would too and maybe we can take to the streets together, sharing our outrage side-by-side.

Meanwhile, there was a table to move. Refreshed by my chat with the ladies, I managed to move said table out onto the deck. I hammered wood posts to hold up the fencing. I like the feel of swinging a hammer, the connection with the nail, the tightening of wood to wood as the weight of the hammer drives it together. I’ll have to get a ladder to harvest from my little table plot but I did it. I made a new friend, built my little fence and no groundhogs were killed or separated from their parents.

How was your weekend?

 

Peach Problems

I’m always sad to see summer go. I like the long light and to wake with sun streaming through my window. My mornings are dark again.

Yet by the time late August rolls around, I’ve lost interest in much of what excited me at the start of the season. At the top of the list is gardening. My garden is currently a mess. It hardly seems worth it to yank the weeds from between the herbs and zinnias – the only thing surviving in the raised bed vegetable patch too much in the shade to produce much. I’ve neglected the petunias – now sad, pink blooms on the end of shriveled stems. The grass needs cutting but I can’t be bothered.

I think it started with the peaches.

Did I tell you about my peaches? My enthusiasm for gardening used to last longer into autumn when I was actually still harvesting vegetables. That was before I was bullied out of business by the local groundhogs. I finally relinquished my sunniest patch to them but planted two peach trees and this year, two pear trees determined to grow at least some of our food. And peaches off the tree? Wow, right?

Last year the tree had about 20 peaches or so that all disappeared virtually overnight. I couldn’t figure out where they’d all disappeared to until I watched 4 ground hogs playing like puppies in my little orchard. I watched the gnaw on the trunks and then one just scurried up one of the pear trees. They can climb trees. It was a cinch. These were my peach eaters, I felt sure.

This year the blossoms were spectacular and resulted in what must have been hundreds of beautiful little peaches. I wrapped the trunks in slippery bark protectors and Molly and I did our best to surround the branches with netting. I’d returned a product called ‘sticky feet’ when I read how toxic it was and thought how horrified I’d be to find my beloved song birds stuck to branches. Nope.

We managed to enjoy four of our peaches. FOUR. 4. Quattro. They were delicious. Many peaches fell off while quite small and I thinned them a bit, as I read I should, generously tossing the fruit on the ground for the varmints to enjoy. So where did all the peaches go again? And so fast? Why were no groundhogs snared in our nets?

On afternoon, Molly and I were sitting on our porch – our favorite summer spot – and she pointed to a squirrel sitting on a branch eating one of our peaches. The squirrels! The squirrels ate all our peaches!

As for the pear trees – we just planted them this Spring so I expected none. But there is one lone beauty – so far untouched. I wait carefully – playing a game of chicken with my little thieves – hoping to pick it when it’s just right and before they do.

And meanwhile, I’m a great customer at the farmers’ market. Any advice on my peaches? (besides get a gun!)

 

Most of all the Light

The light of Spring thrills me as does the scent of hyacinth, the jolly daffodils and softening fractals of  tree branches in bud. But this morning, propped up against my pillows not yet ready to get out of bed, I basked in the abundance of morning sun and decided that most of all – it’s the light I love. The sky is clear of clouds so my bedroom will be bright all day right up until 12 hours from now when it will shift to the other windows in golden angles before slipping into night.

My garden is slowly waking up. From beneath the brown of leaves and winter detritus are leeks I planted last year – through the winter they stood skinny green spears enveloped by snow- now thickening enough that I might get a soup or two out of them. There are two perfect, bright little bouquets of parsley. Grape hyacinth area scattered across the lawn. My peach trees are positively pregnant with buds and for the first time in years it looks like I’ll have an abundance of lilacs – judging from what look like teeny bunches of grapes at the tips of the branches.

Spring brings such possibility, doesn’t it? I’ll plant a garden again this year – although last year I barely harvested a tomato, the chard never appeared, nor sunflowers. But I’ll still try again because I like that there’s a chance. With nature, there’s always a chance. She is my guide and comfort. Hang in there through darkness and we’ll get to the light.  Enjoy the warmth.

Bird Quarrels and Peace

Summer photo - but still windy!
Summer photo – but still windy!

Last weekend, ferocious winds blew in a taste of winter. Bright and sunny with cold gusts that turned the leaves inside out and off their branches. I took my cue to get my winter nest ready and washed and aired flannel sheets and heavy blankets, letting them flap dry in the crazy wind.

A week later it’s summer again and I sit on my porch in shirtsleeves watching two red- headed woodpeckers follow each other back and forth between the trees. I am reminded there is a bright side to bare branches: the birds! Winter is prime bird watching time.

See the little profile there in the left?
See the little pecker-profile?

A drama unfolds between these two birds – one is noisily berating the other who ignoring the complaints without a peep, focuses on worrying the bark. And now a jay has announced himself with a shriek. He lands in the bird bath, eyes the empty feeders and leaves wanting no part of the fracas.

They’re still at it. If they were weaving a web as they flew between the trees, it would be impassable by now – they have passed back and forth between the trees so often.

The aggressive one just attacked the other, falling with a thud onto the lawn beside me. “Whoa! Easy guys!” I called out as if breaking up a schoolyard fight. Another bird – a catbird briefly lands and after noisy commentary, flees the scene. What’s wrong with them? It’s not mating season – maybe it’s time to claim their winter home. I have prime bird real estate in a good size stump snug up against another tree.

Battle for the stump?
Battle for the stump?

My bird show just took a dramatic turn with the sound of heavy flapping wings – I look up just in time to catch a large hawk or falcon chased by a smaller bird. I did not see if the bird of prey had scored a meal but I’d wager the scrappy bird chasing him will not be lunch.

This is what I miss when I leave here every day to go to work. If I won the lottery, I’d be content to report to you on nature’s news from out my window or from my porch and at the end of the day, I’d feel satisfied. Well, I’d punctuate this with walks and beach romps with the dog I would get.

I love observing the buzz of nature. The busy efforts of creatures and plants to survive and thrive on this magnificent earth. I am content to watch the birds and fattening squirrels on my tiny patch of land within earshot of the highway to New York City less than an hour away. An hour or two with this world on my doorstep is enough to bring me back to some essence of life well beyond the hamster-wheel that can be my life: my job, paying bills and worrying about this depressing election. I find peace in paying attention to the feel of the air, the smell of the seasons and the quarrels of birds.

Hedge

before hedge 1There are a million things to do around my house and corner lot. This summer Molly and I focused on cathartically clearing out decades of  debris from our basement and garage and ignored the ragged hedge. It went wild.

Last weekend the weather cooled and I propped the hedge trimmer beside me while I put on my gloves. A man walking by nodded at me in greeting and asked, “You’re going to do all that?” Five hours, lots of scratches and many sore muscles later, I’d finished the whole damn thing. Okay, it’s not perfect – but it’s better.

after hedge

After 20 years living on this corner, memories are woven through every inch of privet. As I wield the vibrating, noisy weight of the clipper along the length of it, I remember.

There – Tetley dashing under the woody branches to check out a passing dog, me running around to the street to catch him, scooping him up in my arms with apologies.

Here – heaving the scraggly growth aside, clutching my barefoot, half-asleep 8 year old’s hand, pulling her through behind me – taking this weird detour rather than go near the garage where I’d just discovered her father.

That’s awful, isn’t it? I pause, doubting whether I should include this here out of concern for you. I am sorry for the possible shock of it or for the moments you’ll maybe now spend feeling sorrow. But this memory crosses my psyche like a passing cloud, moments of recognition in a tangle of shrubbery. Time does magnificent healing.

I continue trimming.

A bit further down, I find the nest that caused me to abort my attempt at maintenance earlier this summer. A frantic robin flew squawking out at me and I dropped the clippers and retreated in horror, sure I’d just beheaded one of her babies. Stupid thing! Why didn’t it  chirp or flap at me before I nicked it? I did find a feather in the trimmer but I don’t think any birds died — although I didn’t peek into the nest to check for skeletons.

Almost to the end is the gap Molly regularly slipped through when she was little – a short-cut to her friends’ house or down to the track across the street. While now overgrown from lack of use, I managed to crawl through dragging the electric cord behind me rather than walk all the way around to get to the outside.

Even with the little step stool and throwing myself across the springy-bulk, I couldn’t quite reach the final stretch of it. But I did what I could. And I thought about the different meanings of  ‘hedge’. What I did was enough.

Building Fences

garden fence

Some lessons have come to me late in life including the importance of a good fence. My daughter and I recently replaced our vegetable garden fence – formerly a patchwork of flopping metal. It had no gate which meant leaping over the prickly wire, sometimes catching clothes or skin. Fixing that fence had long been on my endless home improvement wish-list.

I hesitated to spend money on materials when there is so much else that needs to get done – but Molly said, “You love gardening, it makes you happy – let’s do this.” And so we did. We bought posts and a few rolls of small-mesh wire fencing and borrowed our neighbor’s electric staple gun. We took turns hammering in the posts. I love swinging a hammer. Remembering my days as a sculptor, letting the weight of the head do most of the work, watching and feeling the nail settle into the wood, and finally, the satisfaction of making something strong. Molly was better than me at handling the staple gun, shooting them in with a pop as I held the fencing taut. I’m particularly proud of the gate. We don’t have a drill so I twisted the screws into the hinges by hand then hung it by myself after leveling the base just-so.

Now, my tomatoes, lettuce, herbs and flowers will be protected from ravenous rabbits and the resident bully of a groundhog.

I look at our handiwork and realize another reason I wanted to fix that fence. The process and completion of this simple, imperfect structure affirms what feels like a new stage of my life – clear, strong boundaries built with love – and a gate that easily opens when needed.

beach fence

 

A Summer Sunday Morning

tree top

I love the light of a Summer morning, remarkable through the greens and yellows of the trees. And the sounds, different on a Sunday. While not visible from here, the noise from I-95  is constant at this hour, just a hum from a stream of mostly cars with rare moments of quiet when no one seems to be passing. So much anonymous humanity passing.  Going or leaving home? So many imagined stories vibrating through the trees.

laundry

A cool breeze blows and for a moment, feels almost Autumnal. As if on cue, a Mourning Dove coos – a sing-song call of melancholy as Summer days disappear, the sun shifting closer towards the opposite end of earth. I used to feel desperate when the warmth and light began this slip away but have grown to appreciate the change. I don’t like being cold and prefer the light to dark – but savor the warmth of my home, the fireplace and longer hours to read and reflect. There’s something about the warmer months that makes me feel like I must DO. And I like DOing nothing quite a bit. Well, not exactly nothing – but sedentary things like reading and writing. Winter is good for that.

Summer is a time to get things done outside and we’ve been productive around here recently. Four trips to the dump last weekend, taking away piles of rotting wood and leaves that sat in corners of our yard for too long. It’s been dry, so there’s always watering to be done – a task I enjoy. And my Zinnias are lovely.

zinnias

From where I sit now, I look past cluttered table (remember – it’s a good time for outside tasks!) to 3 windows. To my left I look out at a new Hydrangea planted last weekend. Straight ahead, onto our little porch and the laundry line. A perfect day for drying clothes in the sun – the air dry and fresh. I’ll get a load in soon. We’re just high enough to catch a breeze and so many trees surround us that we have our own little microclimate a few degrees cooler than anywhere else in the neighborhood. To the right, out the living room window I see a branch of the Butterfly bush that could use a good session of deadheading and through the canopy of leaves, a patch of still Summer sky.

buddelia

 

Clearing the Way

cleared

We’ve been busy in our garden. Molly helped me yank the fence out, pulling and tearing at the wire gauge buried in the earth for more than a decade. For a few years, it actually worked – keeping critters away from lettuce, broccoli, tomatoes. Eventually a greedy groundhog boldly moved in, digging his doorway smack into the middle of my sunny patch. He spared my leeks, asparagus and an unruly horseradish plant neither of us were much interested in eating – but that’s it. For the past few years, I’ve abandoned the space to him, letting the patch grow wild with mint, weeds and the odd volunteer Maple tree.

fence pulled

Taking down the fence entailed cutting away insidious vines woven through the links dense as a basket. Molly attacked the job ferociously, snipping away at metal and yanking the hairy roots out of the ground until triumphantly pulling the wire completely away from the earth. Our plan is to clear this sunny place so perfect for growing things and planting fruit trees. Peaches. We want to have our own peaches to pluck from the trees. And maybe an apple tree or two.

SAM_0737

For years, my stubborn determination to reclaim my vegetable garden, trying (organic) remedies to keep the old creature at bay, failed again and again. Despondent, I ignored this slice of precious acreage allowing ground cover and ivy to grow thick as branches. I can rarely resist a life metaphor when working in my garden and surely there are plenty here. No longer just surrendering to the bastard groundhog but letting go of the notion of what this plot of land should be and thinking more about what it can become. Clearing it away felt a Herculean job but was necessary to do – and how sweet to have my girl beside me in the task. I would not have managed as well alone — sometimes dreams become more accessible when shared.

other side cleared

How much easier it will be to take care of this reclaimed space, how lovely it feels without the ugly and long-useless fence. And how delicious our own peaches will be — as long as that groundhog can’t climb trees.