A few weeks back we began the construction of a chicken yard in which to house our previously purchased chicken coop and future chickens. We framed it out, which took the better part of a weekend, after which we stepped back and then decided to undo what we had done and go at it again, this time setting the roof up at about a 9 degree angle sloping yard to alley. About that time, though, we realized this structure would be far more permanent than we first imagined. This brought about the discussion of our aging chain link fence–which does little to hide the snarling neighbor dogs–against which we were going to set the yard. That’s when the project stalled. We figured if we were going to do things right, we ought to first get the fence situation squared away, meaning we had better build it before we finished off the chicken yard. At that point the seeds which we had started in the garage made clear to us that in the time we had deliberated about the fence, spring had come and with it the constant needs of seedlings.
Sleep is gathered hard in my eyes and hangs there. It’s early still, but maybe not early enough if I’m going to do this right. Last night I should have gathered the last of the paperwork to file our taxes or spent time working on our budget. I’m of the opinion that a trustworthy budget is one of the keys to freeing ourselves from the constraints and instabilities of a waning society. But I was outside instead—the sun stayed above Mount Tabor until close to 7:30—building a chicken run. The thing about getting this place started (organizing the garage with clean, efficient tools; having seeds started under a warm light by late winter; covering the garden beds with poultry wire so the neighbor cats don’t shit in the radish rows; turning the cover crop under early on so that it can properly decompose beneath the surface; getting a sturdy chicken run established before we take on the raising of a few pullets) is that it seems there’s always something else to finish off first, unlimited chores that need doing before we can actually begin doing what it is we want to be doing. Lingering, frustrating tasks—the type of work you must force yourself to slog through with optimism that a day will soon dawn in which you have what you need in its rightful place, ready for you to use with earnest, honest labor. You know as well as I, though, that that day is merely a wavy and illusory ghost on the road in front of you. And that day is not today. This day is real. It is hard and true beneath you.
The hummingbirds have not yet arrived. Or if they have, I have not seen them yet. We stowed the feeder in the garage over the winter, along with geraniums, the Adirondack chairs, and the fire pit to keep them out of the weather. The geraniums died and I’d imagine, too, the feeder froze in its glass once or twice when the lows dipped to twelve for those few days in December. But the feeder was unreachable, behind the rubble of kitchen remodel riffraff and piles of tile and the small stack of birch logs we acquired from our neighbor when they brought their old tree down. Thankfully the feeder had not burst. I lazily re-hung it sometime in February, but it hasn’t had any visitors since last fall. Yesterday, therefore, I rinsed it clean of the ants that had braved the heights of the gutter and feasted on the simple syrup and placed it back on the corner of the garage that overlooks the garden. Between the bees and the butterflies and the hummingbirds, my eyes have a full spring to-find list.
It has been a wet week and a half and it doesn’t look promising for the next week and a half either. The radishes we planted two weeks ago are sprouting fine, though. And we’re still eating off the spinach plants in the front yard every morning. Judith makes smoothies for us before work: spinach, blueberries (picked over the summer and frozen since), banana, carrot juice, apple juice, and occasionally kale. There are only two stalks of the Redbor kale in the front that have overwintered, but there are close to ten spinach plants producing sizable leaves. As such, I only harvest the kale about once a week. There are still two cedar barrels full of leeks grown from last autumn, so some of them went into a soup with potatoes for lunch today. Using the wet weather to our advantage, we set the four seed trays—that we started when we planted the radishes—in the garage under plant bulbs, rather than keeping them on the kitchen table in front of the window. Progress comes slowly, but progress comes.
Oats for breakfast with almonds or currants. Coffee from the stovetop; roast the beans in the garage. Better even, someday: tea, leaves grown out back. Letters to New Hampshire and Colorado. Pine tar soap and wool socks. Trade your dress shirts for a canvas coat and cut your hair yourself. Go outside. Smell the air. Look at the soil. Listen to the geese. They flew by last night, just before midnight, pulling behind them the new year stretched across the sky.
Seeing as how some of last week’s overnight lows fell into the teens,* we covered many of the garden beds with straw. To be honest, this was a weak precaution and we figured most of the vegetables would go on a good way towards freezing to death and some of them did. Most of the merlot lettuce, which was well-established and had been producing since mid-September, wilted badly after the fifth consecutive day of frost and daytime highs in the 20s and is pretty well gone by now. The frigidity also had its way with the beets and mustard greens. We don’t have any cold frames in place yet and so out of curiosity/lazy resourcefulness, and knowing that kale and leeks are the hardy type, I threw up a makeshift sort of hoop house over one of the beds in the backyard reusing an old plastic painting dropcloth and 1x3s. Even though it seemed to bring the temperature up a tad inside, the small plants stalled, cold licking at the thin plastic tarp all night and their soil frozen solid. There wasn’t any reason it should work and sure enough, it did not. In this first year of its establishment, it’d be half right to say we’re coaxing the garden on through the end of fall. But it’d be half wrong, too. We’re working at it, watching closely, breath swirling and mingling in the night, seeing which stems and leaves buckle before winter. Looking for that, we’ve seen garlic and shallots and onions carry on undaunted. There’s arugula, spinach, Redbor kale, and leaf lettuce that froze stiff for days and then came through the spell just fine. With that last evening, five nights before the winter solstice, behold: a fresh salad from the garden.
*The coldest was a streak of 22, 19, 24, 15, 12, 14 from December 4 – 9; not cold by any real standard, other than that of the temperate Pacific Northwest, where if even a dusting of snow sputters out of the fog, a lot of folks cry wolf and about shut the city down.
I had to rebuild the wood rack. Originally, I conceived of it being twelve feet long by fifteen inches wide, running beneath the guest room window just out the back door on the deck. This was a solid plan and good fit, as this part of the deck is covered and easily accessible during wet winter weather. Problem being (as was brought to my attention by Walter the chimney sweep who came last month and said we ought to oil the flue), I had the wood butted right up near the house itself, which posed the potential problem of wood insects that are already in or attracted to the wood being in close proximity to the house…which is also made of wood. I had left a good six inches between the wood and the house, but I figured it best to follow Walter’s advice and move the whole thing entirely. So I shortened the rack by four feet down to eight so that it would fit, still covered and clear on both sides, at the other end of the deck near the garage. I then restacked the wood in its new position, taking the opportunity to split a few of the larger pieces of wood on the new stump I acquired.
Daylight savings time, that jarring seasonal conceptual practice, ended last weekend, which means that at 6:30 last evening I was harvesting lettuce and arugula by flashlight after work. With the help of the porch light, I also saw that the garlic, which we’re overwintering in a southeastern front yard bed, has sprouted green growth as a result of a stretch of warm, moist days following the brief October frost. Looking closely at the soil in the beds, I was for some reason buoyed by the tiny bugs that I saw crawling on the mulch, energized in knowing that the entire lifecycle of several organisms is playing out quietly across eight raised beds under streetlights after we’ve had our dinner and washed the dishes and retired early now that the night has grown longer than the day.
My hands and jacket still smell of boiled linseed oil, which yesterday I spent a good amount of time working into my axe handle. While I was at it, I also applied it liberally to an old hickory hammer (which was either left in the garage when we moved in, or that my father-in-law gifted me from his infinite roaming storehouse of battered tools that he drives up and down the coast for work; at present I can’t remember which) and into the handle of the sledge that I procured at the same time as the axe (along with a 4-pound splitting wedge). After the handle had absorbed the oil, I wiped it with a cloth and ran it over the axe-head, whose blackness shined steely as a result.
The first frost came and took the pumpkin vines. They had not been well, anyhow, and struggled all spring and summer to yield a single grapefruit-sized pumpkin. I hadn’t even intended to harvest it when I did the week before; I simply went to pick it up and have a look, but it came quickly off the powdery mildewed vine. The fruit itself is healthy, I think, if small, and Judith has promised an early-November pie. So I conceded the pumpkins to the two-night frost, pulling out the crisp, dead vines (which took up our northeastern-most bed at the back of the yard) and planted gardenway cover crop to fix the soil’s nitrogen. Three other backyard beds have the same cover crop (three of the western beds, four in total), while our fall greens (chard, collards, cauliflower, merlot and butter lettuce) are taking up an eastern bed, as well as the southeastern bed planted recently with shallots. Half of a lone northwestern bed is still producing kale and may yet yield leeks, radishes, and spinach, though I am not optimistic about the any of the latter.
Tonight, in the near-dark, I split a piece of wood. It’s nearing November. I don’t have anything to split wood on yet, like an old stump or an established pile of woodchips, so I set the log up lengthwise in the middle of the green, thinning grass beside the firepit and Adirondack chairs and made a few unsuccessful passes with my new axe after the sun had set and the sharpness of the fall air had come on for the night. I missed, bruising the axe-handle just below the beard when it connected with the log. But I went at it again anyhow. I gripped firmly, wrapping my fingers around the belly of the handle, then squared my feet and shoulders and swung, splitting the piece of fir more-or-less in two.