Into the woods, and more each year

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Fifteen years ago, after I cleared an acre of elderly pine trees for the house, the landscape looked like a huge red gash in the earth. I moved as fast as I could to restore ground cover and to start planting. Growth takes time, but nature moves fast. Though there is a band of grass on all sides of the house, this is woodland, and if I didn’t like woodland then I wouldn’t be here.

I planted a great many arbor vitae trees, as well as ornamentals such as deciduous magnolias, camellia, rose of Sharon, abelia, and rhododendron. But mostly I’ve let nature take its course, as all sorts of native trees volunteered and I left them alone to grow — poplars, persimmon, beech, maple, and oak. There was even a magnolia grandiflora already here. It was a spindly, shapeless thing that never got any light. But, once the pines were gone, the magnolia has grown into a very grand tree, as tall as the house and with a perfect magnolia shape.

You would think that the people in these parts would welcome a natural woodland landscape, but they fight it. They prefer huge, square, easy-to-mow lawns, with nothing to stop the eye. I have done everything possible to stop the eye, with a yard that is more like little ponds of grass that meander around the trees. Such a yard is a pain in the neck to mow. But now that I have a zero-turn mower, I can get the mowing done in less than two hours. That’s still a lot of grass, none of which is visible in this photo because so many things stop the eye.

There is another very welcome advantage to welcoming the woods into your yard. The cool air from the woods flows into the yard as the new trees gradually link up with the woodland canopy. Even a slight breeze is surprisingly cooling. The day will come when there will be shade on much of the roof even at midday, but we’re not there yet. And because the trees are deciduous, there’s plenty of sun in winter.

Few people see my house, because I’m near the end of a unpaved private road. But, of the people who have seen it, the abbey landscape is starting to inspire some envy, and a few country folk — country folk, who ought to know! — have asked me how I did it. That’s actually pretty easy. The first thing is make sure that there’s something growing everywhere, that no sun and no water are wasted. Even the ditch along the road in front of the house is a beautiful thing — tall grasses, some wildflowers, blackberries (which get out of hand and must be restrained) and persimmon trees. Not only do ditches channel and preserve runoff, the water makes them lush. They’re a path for wildlife, especially the rabbits, of which there are a great many. Except for the difficulty of mowing a yard in which nothing is flat and in which you can’t walk more than ten yards in any direction without bumping into something, a natural landscape is an easy landscape, suitable for lazy people. A minimum amount of time is spent fighting nature. Another thing I emphasize to the country folk — and the birds agree — is that you can’t have too many arbor vitae trees. Arbor vitae trees are hotels for birds, as are the dense thickets of honeysuckle and jasmine that grow along the top of the orchard fence.

My biggest disappointment is that the deer will eat almost anything. For example, azaleas can’t live through the night. I’d like to have more blooming things, but the deer won’t allow it. Defending my beloved daily lilies has been almost impossible, though I haven’t yet given up. Fortunately there are a great many green things that don’t taste good to the deer.

Every year, the house will be a little more hidden in the woods. I’m like a deer, or a rabbit, or even a cat. There have to be places to hide.

My cat’s death-defying leap

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I was upstairs at the computer. Lily was in the stairwell yelling. I yelled back at her to shut up until I realized that something was wrong and went to check. She had trapped herself up in the dormer window that lights the stairs, a place where in the 13 years in this house she had never gone before. I can’t be sure how she got there. She must have jumped from the stairs. But now she realized that getting down again was dangerous.

She is 14 years old. She’s also not a small cat, heavy but not fat. I panicked, told her not to jump, and went and grabbed a blanket, hoping that she’d walk onto the blanket. She does not like to be picked up, and in her panicked state I figured that if I tried to reach up, get hold of her, and lift her down, I’d end up losing lots of skin and lots of blood. She tentatively stepped onto the blanket but balked. Once again I told her not to jump and went to get her cat carrier. But before I got back with the cat carrier, I heard a clean thump on the stairs.

How do they do it? The calculations for this jump are terrifying, with no room for error. She is probably too old and too big to fall eight feet, onto hard steps, with no injury, which is why she was scared. There would be no way to jump in a straight line from her perch to the nearest step. If I’m not mistaken, calculating a ballistic arc includes factors for mass, velocity, drag, and some trigonometry including a cosine or tangent factor. The flying object will lose velocity during the upward curve and gain velocity during the downward part. She had to jump 44 inches in a correct arc and glide, fast, through a triangle in which the widest part is 7 inches — a size no bigger than something she’d be able to crawl through. Had she jumped too high, she would have hit her head. Had she jumped too low, she would have had to grab the step with her front paws and scrabble to hang on. She would have had to keep her head down, stay low, and land in a crouching position to get through the hole. But, at 14 years old, she made a perfectly calculated and perfectly executed clean jump.

It took her a minute or two to calm down. She was very scared. But her cat decision, as much as she trusts me, was that she trusted her own agility more than any solution that I could come up with. What a relief. I was afraid I was going to have an injured, and very senior, cat on my hands.

My Lily, about nine years ago

Spring sunset

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The weather was strange today. During the night, two inches of rain had fallen. Today the sky was heavy, and the wind was still. All day, there was the sound of rushing water from the stream below the house. At sunset, a break in the clouds near the horizon meant that, though the abbey itself was in shadow, the opposite ridge could still see the sun. Green is breaking out all over, but the trees are not yet in full leaf.

It’s not winter

A tiny peach

I don’t often think of so-called scripture. I identify as a creature of the Enlightenment, not as a “person of faith.” Nevertheless, I know an embarrassing amount of scripture, because it was beaten into me as a child and because Old and New Testament were required courses when I was a student. But lately I have been thinking of the 24th chapter of Matthew. In this chapter, Jesus is talking to his disciples about the End Times. It’s the chapter upon which much of evangelical eschatological theology is based. Verse 20 contains the words, “But pray ye that your flight be not in the winter.”

How much scarier would this pandemic be if it had descended upon us at the beginning of winter, rather than at the beginning of one of the prettiest springs I can remember? Things hit the fan right at the beginning of gardening season.

Six years ago, we had made a valiant attempt here to build an irrigation system for the garden that drew water from one of the streams below the abbey. There is plenty of water just 500 yards down the road. That didn’t work, though, partly because we couldn’t find a pump with enough power to get the water up the hill. The water tank sat unused, overgrown with honeysuckle. It was possible to use well water for irrigation, but I’ve avoided that. Well water is pure and precious, and that water pump 305 feet down in the well won’t last forever. I don’t want to rush the day when the pump has to be replaced.

Then, two years ago, a new neighbor with lots of skills and energy worked out a means of getting water up the hill for his garden and for those neighbors who need it, including a neighbor who has a field of blueberries. It’s a heavy four-wheel trailer with tanks and pumps, pulled by his elderly Jeep. We moved our water tank to the side of the road so that the neighbor’s rig can stop in the road and deliver water. Problem solved! We also replaced the old drip lines. I’d swear that the cabbage plants grew an inch overnight after their first watering.

I’m determined to fight the insects, blights, squirrels, and raccoons to get as much out of the orchard as possible this year.

So I have one good thing to say about this pandemic. Its timing was perfect.

Week-old mustard

The water tank. The stream is down the hill at the bottom of the ridge.

The hydrant for irrigation water, gravity fed from the tank

Apple blossom


Carolina jasmine

The day lily bank

Spring so far

Lettuce, started from a plant bought at the local mill

Though the early spring is exciting, there is a big risk that a cold snap will cause a lot of damage. The apple trees have held back, almost as though there is something wise about them. The peach trees, on the other hand, as well as the plum and pears, have rushed into bloom.

We know a lot of gardeners, including some of the best gardeners in the county, the people who teach master gardener classes, and we’re pretty sure that Ken has one of the earliest, if not the earliest, garden in the county. The garden probably will be fine, though. The early crops can handle light frost. Only a seriously hard freeze would be a problem. Ken does all the garden work, by the way, not me. In only a few weeks, if all goes well, there will be some serious feasting here and much less spent on produce at Whole Foods.

Spring greens, started from seed

Lettuce, started from seed

Onion, started from pearl sets. The abbey’s garden soil makes incredible onions.

Peach blossoms, fully committed and much too early

Forsythia. Note that Ken’s bedroom window, the bay window downstairs, is open. It’s 71 degrees out.

Another snowfall photo

Every snowfall is an excuse to shoot photos of the house. This photo is from the 10 or more inches of snow that fell on January 7.

The landscaping of the abbey is still a work in progress. There are 13 of the arbor vitae trees, most of which are about a third to half grown. The arbor vitae trees were a great choice, because they provide a lot of shelter for the birds. We finally found an old-fashioned mimosa tree. We’re thinking of starting some holly hedges. Ken is planning to start some walnut trees the old-fashioned way — by planting walnuts. We’re also thinking about a pecan tree.

Last year was a terrible growing year. Rainfall was a bit below normal — 40.5 inches for the year. The rain we had fell at the wrong times to optimize growth, and young trees were water-stressed for much of the year. Here’s hoping that the 2017 growing year is an improvement.

Luckily there are no power lines on abbey property. Power lines would subject our trees to the brutal trimming that rural electric companies do. The feed line to the house is buried. If you’re ever buying property, that’s something to keep in mind. You don’t want utility rights-of-way across your property.


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As much as I’d like at times to live in a real wilderness, I can’t. The abbey is in driving distance of a Whole Foods, after all. But I do love the woods.

It’s strange, but when you want to look through the woods, winter is the time to do it. Looking through woods in winter is like looking through clear water.

On the other hand, if you want to look down on the woods, that’s best done in summer, when the trees are green. Previous satellite photos I’ve seen of the abbey have been taken in winter, but today on Google Earth I noticed that the satellite photo was taken in high summer. Trees! The abbey is in the clearing at the top center.

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Christmas wish: Deeper woods and a real drawbridge

Woodpiles are a symbol of security, aren’t they? [Click on photos for higher resolution]

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I can’t seem to get past the gloom of the election. The feeling of being surrounded by madness, by mass delusion, and by white hatred keeps intruding. The virtual drawbridge isn’t working very well. I can’t keep myself from checking the news. Here in the sticks, the residents of the abbey can get farther away from the world than most people, but it isn’t far enough.

Yet there have been many times in history when people lived behind walls, if they could. I like to imagine (especially when going to sleep) being inside a defensive castle (such as Blarney castle, below). Comfort food helps. And maybe a little Christmas rum.

I wonder how long it would take to grow a 10-foot hedge of holly. Still, Merry Christmas.

The garden, seeded with winter cover crops that haven’t yet germinated

Ken spreading lime in the garden

I keep fantasizing about a rock wall or a high hedge around the abbey.

Fig tree, hoping for a survivable winter

The gate to the chickens’ summer pasture in the woods

Apple leaves reluctant to let go

Chickens snarfing chickweed

From the orchard

Where I’d like to be