January Gardening

I sent off the first seed orders. Finally, the ideal time in January arrived, and I sat down with the pile of catalogs for a winter afternoon of dreaming of the tropical wonderland the garden could be. OK, maybe not so tropical for Central Massachusetts in the middle of New England. But one can have dreams. Even if the results will not be so high and mighty comes August.

I’ve also researched elevated garden beds. For durability, you are ideally looking for a cedar or cypress construction. But the ever-deceptive ads on a major online site call anything cedar, even when it’s the soft rot-prone Chinese fir. One critic warned that it seems as though the manufacturers were using the word “cedar” as a reference to the wood color rather than the species.
So rather than trust the onsite evaluations, I went through a number of the “Best of” sites for contrasting assessments. Unsurprisingly, 99 percent of the products were made in China. Buyer beware. A hint concerning reviews; most are done after assembly, not after a bit or a season of use.

Sol is steadily climbing in the sky. Every day just a bit further higher in the sky. While garden planning in January does not seem very topical for this time of year, I expect seedlings will be sprouting in the middle of February.

Now I need to get rid of the snow.

Cold, Slow, and Rotten

January doesn’t last forever; it sometimes just feels that way. But, just so you know, the “normal” New England January is like its comrade in arms, February, a severe period of cold, storm, and darkness. Except, as we all know, that seems to be changing. The end of December was warm, and instead of having a day or two of an affable January thaw, we seem to be having an extended Winter thaw.

If you’ve read my blog for a while, you’ll know that January is not my favorite month. So you might think this extended period of above-freezing weather would make me rejoice. Nope.

I’ve lived in New England for most of my adult life, and if it’s one thing I’ve learned, trusting our climate is an invitation to be sucker punched. It’s not like I’m lacking gratitude for the warmth, so much that I worry that this climatic shilly-shally will result in huge snow drifts in late February, March, and April.

Looking at the seven-day forecast on January fourteenth was like looking at the perfect weather for tapping my maple trees for sap, which made me pause. The season has been erratic for several years, and I’ve tapped as early as January twenty-seventh. But I wonder if the premature tapping of the trees hurt them.

A slow, cold, rotten January is not a nice thing. But it’s what we are used to having. I hate to say it about January, but am I beginning to miss how it used to be?


When we purchased our home in Central Massachusetts, we asked the previous owners to do a clean sweep before the sale. So the day we moved into the house was reasonably pristine. However, they left some things they were confident we’d need. In the basement was the giant bag of some “weed and feed” products.
Looking outside at what passed for the lawn, I realized that for many years the owners had been committed to creating a European-style lawn on the top of a hill that was ninety percent glacial till. As a result, there were barely three-quarters of an inch of soil before you hit gravel and sand. The lawn was a straggling bunch of grasses mixed with invasive weeds. Behind us was a wildlife sanctuary that shaded the rear third of the lot. That back section was choked with invasive vines.

Moving in late fall, just before Halloween, meant I had more immediate issues than dealing with the yard. So we started on wallpaper stripping, painting, and the usual stuff that needed to be done in a new old house.

It was March before I began to tackle the mess outside. I started by removing the weed and feed, removing all the vines, and clearing a sunny garden area. The rear of the lot needed significant work, but we weren’t exactly sure what type. It was so shaded and had been covered by vines for so long that almost nothing grew there. Beyond our property line was a typical New England “Old Field” succession that had filled in an old orchard and pastureland.
I did a lot of sitting on an old stump fretting about the future of this land.
It was a depauperated woodland border. Elsewhere a semi-shaded area like those would be full of a mixture of plants that thrived on the edge of the woods. On hiking trips with the Appalachian Mountain Club, I’d walked through thousands of small glades like that. So I decided to recreate a typical woodland border.
Local nurseries, the local conservation district, and mail-order plant providers have figured large in this effort. It can’t all be done in a year or a decade. Some plants don’t succeed, and others do too well. There is no font of knowledge readily available for data on this process, but if your community has a knowledgeable conservation agent, they might be able to guide you.

Although it’s January as I write this, and an ice storm is on its way, my mind is already turning to how I can repair the damage that last year’s severe drought did. I won’t know until April which plants merely went dormant early and which plants didn’t make it. As I said, there is no textbook available. But I have restored a more regional and natural woodland border where only invasives thrived before.

  • Trillium
  • Canadian Ginger
  • Anemone

Hand, Reef and Drive?

This might sound like a brag, but it’s not. I could hand, reef, and steer a boat for a long time before learning how to drive a car.

Well, I was a real New York City boy. For any place I needed to go, I went by public transportation. Within the Five Boroughs, It was easier to hop on a subway, bus, or walk than drive there. Yes, my family had a car, but that was mostly for weekend use if my father wanted to go somewhere. So the family car was just that. It wasn’t something that my father would have lent me. For my generation of city boys, I was not an outlier.

What was unusual was that I still did not learn to drive after leaving the city. I did not fall to my knees and adore the auto, review my transportation needs anew, or anything like that. Instead, I went by thumb, bike, foot, or other means of transport.

By thumb, I found my merry way across the continent, up and down the coasts. I visited every nook and cranny I wanted in the sixties and seventies by the same method. But, it was not until 1981 that I got a driving license and bought a car.
Now I know that some of you are saying, ” that’s just weird!” But It was the situation that existed.

So how was it that I hand, reefed, and steered before driving? Marriage. My first wife was from a very tiny coastal community, actually an island, in the mid-coast. We met and wooed in Portland, Maine. And while we dated, it was easy to fall into her driving us around in her zippy little sports car. After we married, her father, a retired Merchant Marine captain, saw the advantage of having a new hand on board his thirty-four-foot ketch, Psyche.

In the ensuing years, I learned to handle and reef sails, steer a course, and generally care for a boat. If I needed to “go over town” to shop, I took the skiff, motored across the bay, tied up at the town wharf, and shopped. If I was working at a boatyard, I biked over.
When not on the coast, I attended university in Boston, using public transportation from the university to the public sailing program on the Charles River.

After my divorce, I lived inland “on the hard” in Philadelphia but got around very well on public transportation. When I moved back to the Boston area, I reluctantly took up driving due to my job and career.

There were a few problems; the steering wheel was unlike a tiller, and there was no main sheet, halyards, or other lines. I could not head up or bear off the wind; someone had hidden the compass. I was also constrained to a travel lane, and no one seemed to know the “rules of the road.” It took some adjustment.

These days I’d be hard-pressed to remember the “rules of the road” for sailors, coastal navigation, or how to keep a course. I’m much more familiar with my automobile than a boat. But I still have the odd and pleasing dream of sailing heeled over in a moderate breeze, one hand on the tiller and the other on the main sheet. I am somewhere off Sequin Light with a long day of sailing ahead – and be dammed to the traffic on the bloody highway!

Climate Change

This is New England, damn it! Although Climate change advocates may forsee us having the climate of North Carolina later this century, please do not visit in late January with Aloha shirts, flip flops, and cut-offs. In winter, wooly socks are still required.

In addition, no paragon of stylish attire should venture into the slushy, ice, and snow mix we call a Winter Wonderland without heavy boots. Traditionalists still prefer the product made (in Maine, of course) by LL Bean.

Yes, other parts of the North American continent have rotten winters. But we’ve put a patent on the atmosphere of being snowbound in a small folksy New England village. You know, hardy “Yankee” determination to fight against the elements. As the level of snow rises, the wind howls louder, and the thermometer drops, we are supposed to grow more determined. We like to show our true grit and determination… saying things like, “Well, it’s not as bad as ’78. Now that was a bad winter.” or, ” it’s only three feet; why I remember when we had snow up to the second floor.”

The problem is the solstice has come, and not only is the ground bare where I am, but most of the country has had real winter while we’ve had mild temperatures.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want people saying, New England? It’s kind of like North Carolina but in the north.

Keep your flip-flops, cut-offs, and Aloha shirts packed. This is New England, and we’ll be putting our “Yankee” determination to work on finding a solution to this problem. Northern North Carolina doesn’t do it.

Star Bright

Mr. and Mrs. Claus arrived on Harold Sprague’s lobster boat on Saturday. And the Cap’n officially decided it was time to decorate Psyche for the holidays. But, of course, as Able Bodied crewman and son-in-law, it was I who would do the brunt of the decorating under the direction of the Cap’n’s wife, Cora.

“Wes, hang the swag right at that rubber thingie.” Cora usually did not associate with the boat and meant the winter rub rail.” ” OK, but if I hang it there, it’ll be washed away on the tide.” And so it went until the boat was tarted up with swags and decorations. It was a fun enterprise, now, but come January, taking it all down would be a more painful issue, alone with no help in the snow. Still, at the end of the effort, Psyche looked attractively decorated. And stood out among the other boats in the cove with forlorn wreaths hung unimaginatively on their bows.

I fortified myself by imagining a giant cup of hot cocoa with a large marshmallow melting on the top. Maybe even a triple threat of treats on top.

At last, the Cap’n emerged from the shed with his favorite decoration, and the reason he moved the ketch to the float at this time of the year; was the lit and decorated star ornament hoisted to the masthead every Christmas season. But, of course, it needed refurbishment every year – check the bulbs and wiring, and renew the spruce covering.

So the entire family stood about and ceremoniously watched and shivered in the cold as old bulbs were replaced, the electrical connection was tested, and the whole contraption sent aloft.

Later that night, the star stood out brightly in the dark of the cove, almost as the star must have over Bethlehem. We sipped our cocoa with marshmallows and felt pleased with ourselves.


a Flashback Friday presentation from 2019

There I was in a cab headed to Brooklyn. The Pakistani cab driver asked me where I was from, and I negligently gestured out the window, “here.” “No. that can’t be. you don’t sound anything like us.”

I had been away for a long time.

It’s true. There’d been a lot of influences in the fifty years since I lit out for New England. I’d lived in Massachusetts and Maine long enough as a young man to influence my speech patterns. But not enough to fool professional linguists who chuckled, and told me that my New York could run, but could not hide. So I laughed with the cabbie on the matter of our relative origins. He’d lived NYC for most of the fifty years I had been gone.
By the time he dropped me off, we had discovered a bond. We were both “from” the same neighborhood – Washington Heights- in Manhattan. He lived less than four blocks along Saint Nicholas Avenue from where I grew up.
The City isn’t only big. It can be small too.

Surreal Dream

A Flashback Friday presentation from 2019

I’ve had some doozies of lucid dreams in my time. But, about six months ago, I had the most extreme case. ****Spoiler alert John Haley Bellamy is the Dean of 19th-century American Shipscarver ( IMHO). Dali was my favorite Surrealist and habitue of New York growing up. So I wondered what would happen if Dali and Bellamy ran into each other. So – A Surreal Dream.
I was sitting in my usual spot at the Rienzi coffeehouse in Greenwich Village, and joining me that night was John Halley Bellamy. John was down from Kittery for his first trip to the Big Apple. He wanted me to fill him in on who the local shipscarvers were, the best time to visit the Empire State Building, and the Guggenheim directions. We were pouring over one of those little accordion maps of the city that hotels give you when in walk Salvador Dali. Dali siddles up and starts praising Bellamy for being an early Surrealist. “My only dispute with you comes in the calculation of spirals and curves you use; I’ve always preferred logarithmic spirals; you, on the other hand, use something that looks like it’s part of an ellipse? Bellamy, admiring Sal’s logarithmically twined mustachios, takes time to twirl his mustache ends into a number seven Copenhagen curve and replies, ” I started in a boat shop, so I used ships curves.” They happily spent the next ten minutes discussing how to simplify for emphasis, stretch proportions, and play with conventions. For once, I was without words.
After an hour or so, Dali said he’d pick up the check. So he and Bellamy wandered out onto McDougal Street. Dali suggested they head to Paris and visit. Pablo – “Not really a Surrealist, but an interesting artist…”
Pondering my next move, I noticed the signed credit card receipt – I quickly pocketed it and walked out with a signed Dali.

Pizza Night

They are asking people not to lick the poisonous toads at National Parks, and it’s kind of a back to the ’60’s moment for me. Yes, I was there. The original “let’s try toasted banana peel with cardamon and pepper” days of experimentation. It was a time of little knowledge, great experimentation, and opportunity. Certain reprehensible memorials to those days remain in my mind.

I was a traditionalist. I tended to stick with more mundane products for getting high and moving into exploratory states of mental enhancement. But at the Folkie Palace, we believed that all suburban “wannabees” deserved their chance to explore the more idiotic fringes of the psychedelic revolution. So Saturday night was the big night for kiddies in from the ‘burbs to hit Beacon Hill and try to be cool. And more than a few wound up at our place on Grove street seeking the hip, cool and memorable experience that only our wall-to-wall mattress Folkie experience could give.

Our spiritual guide, the Monk, would start the action with a reading from some esoteric religious text. Then the Teahead of the August Moon would read dramatically from Ginsburg’s Howl. Then, finally, I’d play guitar through the Doxology, and we’d pass the hat before the spaghetti and meatballs would be served. We had the whole thing rehearsed and divided into segments for ease of performance because it was just a performance we put on for the kids from the suburbs.

At some point in the evening, some pimple-faced 18-year-old would ask if there was any possibility of scoring some drugs. Dead silence would follow. I’d get up, saunter over to the door, open it, and check the hallway. The Canary would do the same with the windows looking out onto Grove street. In turn, we’d whisper, “all clear.” Then the Teahead would wander to the fridge and bring out a cardboard box with four slices of three-day-old pizza. “Five bucks a piece, don’t eat them here.” “But that’s just pizza with some green mold on it!”

The Teahead did his best; I’m exasperated at your stupidity look. ” Hey kid, you ever hear about the poisonous frogs?”, “yeah?”, “Well, you don’t eat the frog, do you? You lick the frog’s back. Well, you don’t eat the mushrooms on the pizza. You get it?”
Slowly it dawned that the mold was a sort of penicillin for the psyche, and the cash got paid.
As the wannabees walked down the street, the Monk hollered from the window, ” don’t be surprised if you get nauseous; it’s part of the experience.

But they were so busy licking pizza that they paid little attention.

Autumn in New England

Autumn in New England is a beautiful time. The colors of the leaves, the brisk days, and the preparations for winter.

Sunday, I finished stacking all the wood except for some twisted cherry knots and cleaned up the four buckets of “mulch” that always comes with the wood. Typically, this would not be a reason to lament all the work to come, but the woods behind the house have cultivated a fine crop of leaves this year.
While I’ve been busy stacking, they’ve been littering. So now begins the long slog through the deep drifts of maple, ash, oak, and other leaves. It’s time to knuckle down, get serious, and get those rakes working. I know that if I haven’t cleared the back by the woods before the end of this month, I’ll lose the battle. It’ll all be there for winter, wet and soggy, matted down, and resistant to raking. Then when the first storm of December comes along, it’ll be too late, and I’ll shovel through the snow and then the mulched layer of leaves.

Autumn in New England. The season that keeps on giving.

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