…for us: self sustaining, small footprint, resilience, listening to the land, freedom of choice and teaching our children about consequences, being connected to community, sharing our surplus, growing forward.
Our Red Haven peach tree is thriving. We were told not to expect fruit for about three years, but we seem to be ahead of schedule. We are novices here, and curious to learn.
We have room – and dreams – of planting another peach tree, a couple of sour cherry trees (think pie!) and many dwarf apple trees.
Four highbush blueberry plants fell into our possession; two one gallon plants came from a neighbor, and two quite large and developed plants came from our friends Ann & Kurt, who moved this week from Casco, Maine to New Orleans. What a great remembrance to have fruit from their farm now transplanted here!
Ann & Kurt also gave us about forty strawberry plants. These were planted yesterday, and with all the rain, the timing was right.
Eleven blackberry canes came from other friends. Those went along the west edge of the backyard, part shade, but those are coming along well.
There are lots of wild berry plants – some strawberry and some raspberry (we think).
The grape stock is a mixed success. One cane is thriving, while the other has done nothing. These are cuttings of a seedless champagne grape that grows at the big house, so we will take some more cuttings and see if we can’t get more started. I am preparing to build a trellis from dead black locust trees, but that project is low on the to-do list right now.
How do you like to go up in a swing,
Up in the air so blue?
Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing
Ever a child can do!
Up in the air and over the wall,
Till I can see so wide,
River and trees and cattle and all
Over the countryside
Till I look down on the garden green,
Down on the roof so brown
Up in the air I go flying again,
Up in the air and down!
— Robert Louis Stevenson
Our property came with a falling down barn and a storm damaged box elder tree. And as sentry overlooking it all, a Pileated Woodpecker.
Our plan for a permacultural renovation was unilateral, and once I noticed our sentry I had a conflict; we were not turning back but we were going to turn him out.
So one balmy afternoon last September, I paused and had a meditation with Mr. Pileated. I doubt it made a difference to him, but I pledged the branch would be remounted somewhere on the farm. He moved on and we moved forward. The branch was saved while the rest was razed.
Yesterday I came across that branch lying on the ground. It had spent an ignominous winter buried under the snow. With a welcome recognition, I propped the branch against the stair railing and moved on. Within minutes, a pair of Chickadees moved in.
Becca had been watching this from the kitchen window. She pointed it out and said, “If you are going to move it, do it now!”
With no time to plan, and no tools at hand, I set the log at the back of the new foundation bed and leaned it against the house; protected from foot traffic, close to our bird bath and feeder, and next to the towering Blue Spruce.
The Chickadees are nesting. They shuttle now, non-stop, back and forth between their nest and the blue spruce. Outbound, debris is hauled from the log. They land in the Blue Spruce and release their detritus, then await their partner to make the round trip.
We are able to watch this from our kitchen window.
An amazing show. An affirmation, we hope, of our intentions.
At the grey end of winter I made a list of plants for our art farm.
I opened my copy of “Dirr’s Manual of Woody Landscape Plants” – the authoritative tome on matters of shrubs and trees – and cross referenced against available nursery stock.
I have nursery wholesale accounts and looked forward to buying at discount. My wish list grew rapidly. Our bank balance had not.
The obvious approach was to disregard planning and go the “free and found” route.
There is no turning back. Nor need there be. We have to date spent $43 on all the plantings.
Estate gardens overplant. Where two Rhododendron should go, seven are planted. Trees arrive with trunks thick, the leafy canopy high and wide, accompanied by heavy equipment and work crews.
But it takes one year per inch of trunk diameter for the tree to settle into new terrain. Trees slowly overcome the transplant shock and you are better off buying a smaller tree and letting it grow into the landscape.
I know of one estate that solves this problem by handling trees like annuals. The arborist actually told me that he sometimes leaves the metal cage on the root ball to make it easier to remove and change out the trees later. Instant gratification. Ever-changing.
At the big house I manage, the planting phase was completed before my tenure. My job, my challenge is about editing. This season we attacked several problem areas.
From a thicket of lilacs, dogwoods, spirea, and one still-unidentified shrub – truly the ugliest hedge anyone had seen, and no one could solve – I partially removed shrubs along a 20-foot section. Transplanted to our house this became the backdrop for our entire foundation beds, plus a privacy hedge along the street where our chicken coop will go.
Our plantings are scrawny, laughable like the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree, but with a quick pruning, generous serving of compost and space to grow they have leafed out and are ready to flower. We have good soil.
Bayberry, which is salt tolerant, expands by sending out runners to start new plants. While cleaning up the estate beds I harvested a handful of small – one gallon – shoots. Planted here along the street, and given time, they will form a dense fragrant semi-evergreen hedge protecting the shade garden at our front porch.
It will take some time.
If the estate gave us a solid start, bio-mass abundance came from our neighbor Gina. We were renters last summer, and prohibited, by our landlord, from gardening at that house. So when I had leftovers from the big house I passed them to Gina.
The return has been extraordinary; I delivered last summer a few one-gallon pots and this week hauled home car loads of 15 gallon pots: Rudbeckia, Monardia, Shasta Daisies, Pulmonaria, Lilies – common orange and Stella D’ora yellow, Astilbe, Iris, Lupine, Geraniums, Sedum. She has more to offer. I need time to make more beds.
“Welcome to the neighborhood,” indeed! Pete, across the street, dropped off two highbush blueberry plants. Other friends delivered eleven blackberry canes. An orchardist gave us some grape stock, cuttings from the big house that he potted up a few years back. The roots are as long as the shoots so these are ready to grow.
We also purchased from him a Red Haven Peach tree. For the bees and butterflies I also planted Nepeta, Goatsbeard (Aruncus dioicus), and Buddleia davidii (Butterfly Bush).
The pace of arrival began to cause a backlog on planting. I found a solution to that problem.
Somewhere in search of “free & found,” most likely in either our untamed back yard, or the woods where I went to gather ferns, I brushed up against a poisonous plant. My skin is highly sensitive to the oils in poison ivy, and I have learned to be patient as it runs its course. But this season the rash took hold and spread like wildfire; think poison ivy on steroids.
In fact, my doctor said it was not poison ivy but did prescribe steroids as rexall. His diagnosis was “Type 4 hyper sensitivity reaction; immune system is on overdrive; caused by some plant material or pollen. Could be in roots or soil. Most likely from a wild uncultivated place.” Ah, toxins that protect plants, and aim to keep us away.
The steroids have worked wonders and my energy level is absurd. After a ten-hour workday at the big house, I was outside in our garden at 11pm. In a gentle rain, with spring peepers chanting in the distance, I planted, dare I say, more ferns. This time from the big house, not the woods. And this time fueled with performance enhancing steroids.
We have no budget for assistance so this has been solo work. Perennials and shrubs that arrive measured in gallon pot size are no problem. Trees with balled & burlapped roots are different by an order of magnitude.
We were given a multi-stem Acer ginnala (Amur maple). The tree was a gift from my Mother. She said that she wanted to give something long lasting, to have an enduring presence on the property. We have named it the “Family Flame” maple.
Well formed, at 7 feet tall by 6 feet wide, it will grow to about 15 feet tall and wide; we gain privacy from the street while the passing cars will enjoy its scarlet flame leaves in autumn.
This gift arrived with an estate sized root ball. In the back of my pick-up truck, it became an immovable object.
Until a neighbor drove by, shouted an offer of assistance and then recruited some young friends. Within minutes the tree was proudly in place. Our daughter ran around the yard shouting, “We thank you from the bottom of our hearts!” It was comic. And perfect.
And so has gone our first spring at this property and place of our own. Our art farm, transitioning from virtual to actual, has been about setting roots and feeding forward the good karma.
Our daughter, again, said it best, “Our tree is all about joy! Because you planted it.”
Radon had never been an issue, in fact, it was something I knew nothing about. Once we began negotiations for the house, it loomed large.
A radioactive gas, naturally occurring, it is the result of decay of uranium or thorium. There is a correlation to granite bedrock so its presence is fairly common throughout New England but it was nowhere in the midwest of my youth. When we moved here and rented, I was completely unaware of this risk. In two homes we lived but never thought to have any test made. Our daughter E was raised without incident.
But in the process of due diligence the topic came up, and we learned that radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer. Such is the price of knowledge; with Becca pregnant, it became a serious issue.
Our building inspection – in July – included a radon test in which the tenants were required, and agreed, to keep the windows shut for 48 hours. After a few hours, they pushed open the windows and the test became invalid.
To the sellers chagrin, we arranged a second test. After waiting ten days, the results came back at 9.7 picocuries per liter of air. And the seller’s agent gave us four hours to make a final go/no go decision.
I scrambled to gather data. In Europe the actionable level is 8 picocuries per liter of air. In the USA, a level of 4 or above is actionable. Our test was taken in the basement, and the level generally is reduced by half for each higher floor. So just slightly, at the first floor, did we exceed the level but not at all in the bedrooms. Was our problem really serious?
We heard stories of homes testing at more than 1,000 picocuries per liter of air. Our number seemed paltry. We heard stories of those problems successfully remediated. We also heard that a new home was easier to remediate than an old home.
We learned that radon’s deadly impact is not an accumulation, but a statistical event: what are the odds that a single radon atom will lodge in the lungs, then decay and disintegrate into what are known as the radon “daughters” – the solid heavy metal particles of lead, polonium, and bismuth? In a terrain of gruesome forensics, I began to read that “at the 4 pCi/L level, about 600,000 radioactive particles get trapped in the lungs every hour.” In three months we envisioned bringing a new born with virgin lungs across the threshold to grow up in this old house.
In pregnancy week 28, late September by the calendar, we grabbed cardboard, an x-acto knife, some markers and headed over to the new house.
This was no art project. I wanted to mock-up the kitchen and walk through the layout of cabinets and the island. I wanted to see how it felt having several people in that space. Better to make changes before they would cost us money.
Scale drawings had been made but what looks good on paper can be deceiving. It paid off; we decided to increase by two inches the distance between the island and the range, and decrease slightly the width of the island – the island is planned at 37″ wide x 84″ long. The island will be comfortably large, but that added floor space will pay dividends on crowded holiday meals.
Our farmhouse has four windows along the south wall, and the only logical place for the kitchen was in the south-west corner. The window sills are 28″ above the floor while standard counter height is 36″. There was no way I would let the counters span in front of the windows (as the previous tenant had done), but that meant I would have to build custom cabinets.
As an act of denial, my initial plan was to use some 2x4s and plywood. Just toss them together and then later build lasting cabinets. But that short term thinking gave way and I ended up using cabinet grade 3/4″ plywood for the carcases. I still haven’t decided on, nor milled up, the face frames. That can wait.
For counter tops my preference would be concrete but there was no way we could afford that. I settled on clear spruce but the sawyer only had enough 8/4 (2″ thick) in stock for the sink counter. Just as well. My budget was getting strained.
I glued up the boards and then ran them through a wide belt sander at a local wood shop. They charged $60 per hour, but it didn’t take very long; an added expense, yes, but worth it to ensure the counter top is absolutely smooth – especially important when putting a bullnose on the edge.
For the cabinets flanking the gas range – the 28″ high cabinets – I resorted to pine boards left over from a tree fort I built as part of my day job. Chock full of knots, this wood is about two grades below #2 pine, but it was free and using it cleared up space in my shed.
For $30 I purchased a slab of white Italian marble from a local kitchen fabricator. They are happy to discount their scrap, but it has an unfinished edge. Not a problem for me. I like to bake and marble is a first rate surface for kneading doughs. Surprisingly, the lower cabinet height is easier on my back and shoulders when kneading.
Scrap evolved into a design theme of our kitchen. But if you look in the right places, scrap can be as good as gold. A pair a solid cherry shaker style cabinet doors came my way. A friend had discarded them, without the panels. By chance, at the big house I had some leftover 1/4″ cherry veneer plywood so I easily made the panels for the doors. I will apply linseed oil.
The doors were designed to go overhead – the curved rail would go at the top – but in my application, under the sink, I will mount them upside down so the pulls are at the top. What I am saving in cost and labor more than makes up for any oddity there.
To benefit from the full southern exposure of our windows, I cut two shelves from a leftover 1/4″ thick glass table top. I screwed a cleat into the jambs and set the shelf where the two sashes meet. It provides an ideal location for growing herbs and bulbs all winter long. The remaining table top glass will make a nice cold frame for our gardens.
Our one splurge in the kitchen would be the two pendant lights that hang over the island. In the back corner of the showroom at Fogg Lighting in Portland, I found a simple galvanized metal shade, part of the Milk-Man collection made by Hi-Lite Manufacturing. They are available at Lowes and other distributers on the web.
The splurge was not so much the light – these were, after all, the least expensive pendant on the showroom floor – but the cord. Black or white cord is free. I would have chosen black, but I was persuaded to find a third option.
My Uncle Donald was a furniture buyer and spent his career traveling the world buying art and antiques. For forty years he made an annual trek, circumnavigating the globe from east to west: Singapore was the best market for brass, Bombay for silks, Florence for furniture and art work, London for…just about anything. His trained eye and sage counsel was “Don’t make the cord the focal point. Black will stand out, white will distract the eye. See if they have cream.”
(We had several long conversations with Donald about room colors. His advice there: “Don’t paint the ceilings white. Add 2 tablespoons of the wall color into the ceiling paint. You won’t notice it, but it will tone down the ceilings just enough. It will soften the room. It will trick the eye. Now, at the paint store they will laugh and say you can’t do that. But tell them that is what you want to do.” In fact, the clerk at the paint store refused to add the paint. “Company regulations,” he said. I had to add the 2 Tbsp myself and only then would he shake the can. You do not notice the ceilings as tinted, but the room does look great. )
But cream, for the light cord, was not an option. They sell, at $6 per foot, a “grey mesh” cord, clear plastic with the silver wires visible. It is very nice, very subtle and harmonizes perfectly with the galvanized metal. $6 per foot is wicked exorbitant, but with ceilings only 7′ 9″ I needed three feet of wire.
I have heard the average kitchen remodel costs upwards of $40,000. Hard to imagine but easy to believe. Using scrap and creative re-use has put our costs far below that mark, but what we save in dollars we are paying for in time and patience. It is a load of work to build a kitchen. We are not done yet. Far from it: I need to build the island, mill the cabinet face frames and drawer faces (I will use barn wood), build several more drawers, make the drawer pulls using beach stones, do some tile work.
With a newborn the progress has slowed considerably. Rightfully so. But we are finding that going slowly allows us to incorporate design changes that reflect our actual patterns of use. Cardboard and patience turn out to be great planning tools.
Pregnancy weeks 33 and 34 have been wicked busy with flooring and finishes. We are on schedule and under budget, but running a deficit on sleep.
Everything now is driven by getting the radiators installed; in order of sequence, the walls and ceiling needed to be painted, the floor then installed and finished, the base molding cut, primed, painted and installed, and then the radiators hung. A different order of sequence would get heat in sooner, but it would be a much less clean install.
It is worth the effort and push, but the mild weather of October has passed quickly. Tonight we are having a Nor’easter and temperatures will drop down below freezing. The good news is that the flooring and finishes are complete.
Eastern White Pine floors fit our budget, and we love that look. The softest of woods, the boards will dent and ding over the years, but you know, these indigenous trees of the region have provided flooring for hundreds of years throughout thousands of New England homes. Cherry, Oak or Maple may be the vogue today but white pine floors have a long tradition and we chose to follow that path.
I sourced the boards from a mill in Mercer, Maine. I mean to say, that the wood came from trees felled in Somerset County. Our floor is local. I purchased 540 square feet of 3/4″ thick “tongue in groove” boards in widths up to 18″ and lengths up to 16 feet. This length assured that our floor as no joints. It is a beautiful floor. “It looks like a table top,” the tradesmen say.
I purchased “premium”, which is marketing talk for wood of a lesser grade – knots that is – but because the sawyer is retiring this month, he sent down clear “select” – boards without knots. One of the boards, 18″ wide and 16 feet long, has no knots and no sap. 18″ of heartwood!
“King Pine” they are called here. In Colonial times, by Royal decree, all white pine trees with a diameter more than 24″ belonged to King George I, to be used as masts for the ships of his Navy. But 18″ of heartwood without knots would only come from the center of a trunk much greater than 24″. It is easy to think that tree could have been 48″ in diameter with a height pushing upward of 150 feet. A massive tree. Regrettably felled, but now having a pride of place in the center of our dining room floor.
First we measured the diagonals to check that the room was square. Surprisingly it was only about 3/4″ off square. Then we laid red rosin paper over the subfloor to ensure the floors won’t creak. The paper acts as a barrier between the subfloor and top layer, so that the expansion of the boards moves freely.
We cleaned any dust or wood chips as we went along, careful here lest they get trapped under the boards and cause creaking.
It took us 38 hours – two days – to lay the floor. In a 180-year old house, the floors pitch and roll like a ride at Coney Island. In new construction you might be able to glue the boards in place, or use cut nails, but we needed the bite of screws. We toe-nailed the boards in place, and then screwed down the groove side using 2 1/4″ course thread square drive trim nails, placed approx every 24 inches. It is very clean.
Glen taught me to set the screws by “reverse drilling” (putting the driver in reverse, counter-clockwise) while pushing the screw down into the wood. It is counter intuitive, at the least, but it breaks the wood grain, so that – after turning the driver to forward (clockwise) rotation – the screw will cleanly enter rather than ripping the grain. Small details matter.
We set the screws approx 1/4′ deep into the boards, and later I filled the holes using Woodwise brand “Maple-Ash-Pine” wood putty. By setting the screws into the sapwood, the color match is closer.
It was a lot of work but we got the job done. All credit goes to Glen. The floor is beautiful! Every tradesman who enters the house stops and stares at it.
I thought long and hard about the finish – urethane or oil? I opted for Tung Oil – the traditional finish – which would penetrate the wood, rather than sit on top. Research lead me to the Waterlox Sealer-Finish, which will not show water stains. I heard that “Danish Oil” products will not safeguard against water stains and wanted to stay clear of that. But Waterlox requires four coats, plus 72 hours to hard-cure – at 65 degrees. I am working in an unheated Maine farmhouse, so easily the cure time could be double. And the cost was going to run upwards of $1 per square foot. I definitely had not the time, and preferred not to incur that cost.
Laying the floor took longer than I expected, pushing me deeper into the cold season. The mild October has moved into a Noreasterly November – cold and damp – and I decided that I could not hold out for the traditional finish. Also, Noah, my contractor, said that the tung oil would not block stains from grape juice, etc, which is likely given two little children. Tung oil was beginning to look less and less attractive.
I chose to use a water-based urethane finish from Vermont Natural Coatings. It is made from recycled whey protein of dairy farms. The product is low VOC, has neither odor nor dryers, but cures – in normal conditions – in one hour. In my cold house it has cured in approx three hours. The manufacturer suggests three coats but it seems that I will need four coats. Even requiring a fourth coat, I have happily solved the cure time issue.
Tonight I will apply the third coat. I will sand with 150 grit between each coat. Hopefully by the end of this weekend I will have the final finish on the wide pine floor.
Well, I anticipated a bumpy Fall for our daughter starting Pre K, preparing for the arrival of a baby brother and gearing up to move into a new home. What I did not anticipate was the utter grief and confusion she would experience with her father’s frequent absences. David has been doing a good bit of the rehab himself and this combined with a full time job and preparing for another baby is enough for any adult to manage and try to cope with. To a 3 1/2 year old child, it’s enough to tilt her axis. I confess I have been less than my idea of a good mother through many of the melt-downs, and last night’s was epic. I sent her to her room following some acting out and anger directed at me. I told her to come down when she felt able to make different choices. She went upstairs and screamed and sobbed for “daddy”. I felt helpless. Quite honestly I feel as big as a boat and as tired as any 42 year old might be in the 3rd trimester. I’ve been at the wall with how to navigate through all of this.
I got out some paper and oil pastels and started making marks…marks to describe how I felt. Later, my daughter quieted and we had some cuddling and talked about things that make her feel better when she’s upset. She listed off things like rocking in her chair, listening to stories, and I asked if she would like to see the picture I started, showing the strong feelings that I was having. Soon she was adding to the picture with bold, frenzied, strong-armed marks and telling me how MAD they were. She seemed to walk back through that energy but in a more contained way with the marks on paper. It was something. I witnessed, I watched and I was greatly reassured that we will all get through this. Not around it, not over or under, but through.
It’s 9 at night as I write this. David’s task tonight is sanding the new pine boards in the kitchen/dining room. Our girl just yelled out for him and again, he’s not here. I went in to try and comfort her and surprisingly she didn’t refuse me. She asked why daddy wasn’t home yet. I explained what he was doing again and it FINALLY occurred to me to get her one of his shirts to sniff and cuddle with while she went to sleep. A big smile, two thumbs up and now, 20 minutes later it is quiet.
Apples are a staple of New England and I took this afternoon off from the house project to press apples for cider.
At my day job, I tend an orchard of 100-year old apple trees, a mixture of Cortland, Macintosh, Golden Delicious and some unidentified astringent varieties. While not good for eating, the astringent are excellent in cider, adding a complexity to the flavor.
I pressed the apples over at my friend David Buchanan’s farm in Pownal Maine. David has recently had a book ‘TASTE Memory: Forgotten Foods, Lost Flavors, and Why They Matter” published by Chelsea Green Publishing in Vermont.
David is a serious cider enthusiast and has a first-rate operation. The first step is grinding the apples. In the photo below you can see the drop shoot, motor and receiving bucket of the grinder.
The mash is then placed into the water press. The press has a water bladder in the center of a round metal colander. The apple mash goes inside the colander and the valve is opened, filling the bladder with water. The pressure forces the apples against the metal colander, crushing them and extracting the juice.
The pomace – the mass left over after the juice has been extracted – was cleaned out and scattered in the woods for the deer. Nothing was wasted. We pressed 8 bushels and got 18+ gallons of juice. It is absolutely delicious!