3125790208_6bb06f59e5

Dark-Eyed junco and American Goldfinches

Who knew birdwatching in winter would be more fun than in summer!

We’re experiencing our third snowstorm in five days – or is it the second one come round again? The scene outside is magical, but to me there is also an aspect of danger. I see the trees laden with snow and think: oh, so beautiful! Then the wind blanks out the view and I think: electricity outage!

Amie has been nothing but ecstatic. She has made angels, climbed the snowbanks, eaten the snow (making the funniest faces), threw snowballs (it’s not sticking much, though, so no good for snowmen) and sledded down our front yard hill. Pulling the sled and the child back up was Mama or Bab’s job, as was shoveling and maneuvering the car back up the steep and long and slippery driveway.

3125786652_d868e9836f

The birds at our feeders are just as ecstatic. Except for the Juncos, the Mourning Doves, the Northern Cardinals and once in a while a Downy Woodpecker, many were not to be seen… until the snow came!

3121064153_44ae90387b

Mourning Dove (click on image for larger)

3125783306_2d3d10aa30

Black-Capped Chickadee

3125784300_daea7c6652

Tufted Titmouse

3124952731_63bb7d26e0

Red-Bellied Woodpecker

3121060205_89d5a21d8f

Northern Cardinal

Suddenly there they were again: the Black-Capped Chickadees and Tufted Titmice, the Carolina Wren and the Blue Jay, the American Goldfinches, the White-Breasted Nutchatches and even the Red-Bellied Woodpecker (who is supposed to live in Florida). The Dark-Eyed Juncos are out in droves, playing in the snow, chittering at one another, performing great feats of on-the-spot flying (we call that “bidden” in Dutch: praying).  No wonder they’re called snowbirds: they love the snow!

It makes for a big hullabaloo at the feeders as they all vie for prime feeding spots. I deny the compost bins our old bread and rotten apples, putting it out for the birds instead. I stand by the bedroom window, watching the woefully overgrown juniper and Rhododendron bushes where they take shelter. I could stand there all day…

It’s supposed to snow more today and this evening, and then there will be a couple of clear and windy days and a deep freeze. I’m sorry we won’t be around for that: I wanted to experience walking on the ice on top of the snow. We’ll be off tomorrow to NY City and then Washington DC until a couple of days after New Year’s. I might be able to post, I’ll do my best!

3125788932_e771b76f4e

3125789358_eea8f223f7

snow1

Finally we got some snow: about an inch, I should say. Amie ran out to play before school. For once it wasn’t difficult to get her into her clothes! Sadly the snow was too hard for snowmen, snow angels, and snowballs, but she had a lot of fun just scraping it off our car and pelting her snow-shoveling Mama with it! It is going to rain later on in the day, so I let her play and be just a little bit late for school. We packed away a snowball in the freezer.

amiewithsnowballinjar

Inside the house, I finally began selecting seeds. I was very intimidated by the process. I’ve been intimidated by this garden all along! I can never do something simply, but want to know and plan everything first, and then get daunted  by the complexity of the scheme. First I fretted about  the location and layout and how much and where to plant and how to prepare our crummy soil. Then I got flustered with how to start the seeds, and when, and should I buy peat pots or plugs or make my own? Then – oh no – where to buy seeds, and which?!

Then I read on Sharon’s blog that some seeds are already sold out and that only augmented my paralysis. But yesterday I saw that both risa of Stony Run Farm and Kathy of Skippy’s Vegetable Garden have ordered their seeds. That got me going: apparently I needed a positive message. A “you can do it too – let’s get started” message.

So I chose one catalog: Fedco’s, which is suited to my climate and has so much useful information. I spent the entire evening with the downloaded version, jotting down what appeals to me. Most of my chosen seeds are organic, from small growers, and not patented. I’ll publish the list as soon as I’ve made my order!

In the meantime: my neighbor’s snowy pine (?), from our living room window. I love that majestic tree!

winterwonderland2

wirecompostbin

It’s warm! 50 F in the shade at 9 am and now, at 11:30: 60 F! This weather is unbelievable… But I believed it and immediately went out to set up that compost bin I talked about earlier.

The only problem with the plan was that it was impossible to get the 4 stakes that are supposed to hold it open and support it into the ground. The soil is dense forest soil, shot through with tree roots. I tried for about 15 minutes, but it would have involved digging a trench, which was overkill for a portable bin made of chicken wire! So I cut 2 sturdy sticks to the size of the diameter and simply made a cross inside at the bottom of the bin. It does the job. Sorry, forgot to take a picture.

Cost: $7.94 for the chicken wire (36″ high, 10 feet long).

Then I moved over the content of our second Earth Machine, the one with the coffee grounds/orphan pumpkins/leaves and straw. That heap had cooked initially, but then had gone cold as the bin filled up with waterlogged grounds and everything got very compacted and possibly even frozen through (because it was so wet) when we had our hard frost. So moving it to a rather airy location (we are planning on making a wind break around it) and adding many layers of straw was, I hope, a good idea. It has enough critical mass, air and moisture to start cooking now.

Let’s see if the critters move in. I didn’t make a bottom or a lid, as you can see, as I ran out of wire. We didn’t buy much because we were afraid that the 1 inch openings would let too much fall through, but some clever positioning of the straw and that was not an issue.

Took me 2 hours to make the bin and move the heap. It was great, being out there, in the perfect temperature for hard physical work. Even the gusty wind felt warm, and it whipped up the leaves and shook the trees overhead…

We had two experiments going on here yesterday and part of today.

  • First: dunking cones

3105537982_783a2879fd

When we found this cone on our Outdoor Hour walk last week, we identified it as a Norway Spruce cone. It was wet and cold when we brought it in, and we (I) had observed that the scales were slowly opening as it was drying out, or as it was warming up.  Then I read  Michelle’s cone experiment, which suggests it is the water that closes the scales. This makes sense: so the seeds won’t get washed or washed out. Yesterday we got to reproduce the test. (The stone on top was to keep the cone down in the glass.)

Amie was very into it as a Game With Water, in the living room no less!

3104707829_e60ccea1cd

I took the lead, going on an on about seeds etc. But Amie really got the point once we had a wet and a (as yet) dry cone one next to the other. When her Baba came come she could tell him the link between wet and closed.

3104706979_f2bf0dd2ba

Isn’t it amazing? I mean, the cone is dead, right? it has been severed from its tree, even its tiny seeds have long gone… Yet it still moves, it still functions. Maybe something to do with the construction of the scales: contact with water produces a chemical effect that makes them contract in a certain way… Gotta find out exactly how that is.

{UPDATE} “The scales open when dry because their outer halves shrink more than their inner halves, and they pull away from the cone. When wet, the scales swell shut.” (here)

  • Winter apples, winter animals

Our second experiment involved an apple that had gone mildly bad. We ate the good part and rather than throwing the bad part into the compost, I cut it up and put the segments out on our balcony, right in front of our big living room window.

3104706577_c832b4f74b

Who would come and eat it?

3105539260_68797232f0

Bird? Or mammal?

Not one animal touched the apples all afternoon, all evening, or all night! Then, today between noon and one, our resident squirrel picked up piece after piece, moving some to we-don’t-know-where (his nest? a “cupboard“?) and munching others in plain view on our balcony. We talked about how squirrels don’t hibernate, but chipmunks do (sort of, to some degree). We haven’t seen a chipmunk in over a month.

3105540418_61d6fdc6fe

What a treat, to have been kept waiting and then to see the happy squirrel eat the apple made of the bright winter sun!

I also happened to read Mary Oliver’s Why I Wake Early yesterday. There’s this line, in “Something”:

and sometimes I am that madcap person clapping my hands and singing;

and sometimes I am that quiet person down on my knees

3085014343_f91d7ed4e5

Amie has taken the next step in the development of drawing humans: clothes.

She had just come home with the cutest class photos and we were discussing that we should cut some out to send to the grandparents and godmothers. She didn’t want to.

– I want to keep all of them. (*)

– But they’re all the same (I returned, admittedly quite nonsensically).

I explained how much they would like a photo of her, to frame and put on their mantelpiece… Amie saw we were at an impasse. She is very proud of her compromising  skills (*), so she said:

– Okay, I have a solution. I’ll draw them a picture of myself and we’ll send them that.

Well, I’m never one to say no to a drawing.

She sat down and was about to draw the arm when she paused and drew… a sleeve.

– See, she’s got sleeves, right? Like me, I’ve got sleeves too. And her arm is in it and comes out of it.

3085851254_04cd5f2b79

Then followed trouser legs and shoes and “humongous hair that hangs in her face”. Which is also quite realistic:

081205a

(*) I’ll write soon about sharing and compromising with Amie. It’s taking on interesting aspects, to say the least…

I’m pretty sure that our Tia Tata doesn’t read this blog, so I think we’re fine, but

IN CASE YOU’RE TIA TATA, LOOK AWAY IMMEDIATELY!

Okay, that said, all the rest of you can get a preview of one of our homemade Christmas presents. It’s a diorama for our friend Tia Tata, who is a social worker, marine biologist and diver (she founded and runs Dive Kulture, just so as you know, a fantastic program for inner city kids here in Boston). So of course it had to be of the ocean.

Amie was all for it, and she adores the word “diorama”. We sat together many afternoons drawing and coloring and cutting out  fishes, gluing together an octopus and several more fantastic creatures.  They’re hardly  anatomically correct – we’ll make it also a learning experience  next time around.  We selected a box and painted and decorated it, then played some, of course, and then put it all together.

Except for the glue and paints, some of the paper and the googly eyes (which were a gift from my mom), the whole thing is made of stuff that was bound for the recycling bin or the trash. Just like our Manush house way back when.

Here are the results (Tia Tata, if you are still reading, look away now). Click for larger images.
3066280386_56ed270dde 3065443495_24fcc353b7

3065446027_54ed3b1337

3085017437_5c63e2cb3e 3085017149_6377fef228

So much fun! Now, with me falling sick we’ve also fallen behind on our present-making… We’ll have this week and the next to make up!

This hurts, because to tell you might dimish my own chances – no one said I was perfect – but Peak Oil Hausfrau is hosting her first give-away: a year’s subscription to Mother Earth News!

Don’t go over there, though. I mean: do go over there, by all means, just don’t comment.

Oh that’s not good either.

Do comment but on another article.  ‘T Is the Season is a great one, about more era-appropriate gift baskets.

{UPDATE} Bummer!

While lying in bed, surrounded with a lot more books now (so I’m feeling better!), what better things to do than dream, despair over how little we’ve done (as a prod), and plan our next moves. One of our priorities is our compost bins.

The Starbucks coffee grounds and the neighborhood orphan pumpkins have filled our two Earth Machines to the brim. So much so that we’ve stopped collecting from Starbucks and are praying no more pumpkins come our way, at least until we’ve set up a “second stage” composting area.

I think I’ve figured that stage out now. It will be further away from the backdoor but closer to the future garden and right next to the fenced-in-area for leaf-mold (thanks Opa!), in the far corner of our backyard for immediate access to carbon.

But what kind of bin? I like that stationary three-bin system, with the plexi-glass lid and all, in Storey’s Country Wisdom (*) (p.438). But really it’s too involved and expensive.

storeys

  • Portable wire mesh cylinder

I also like a more portable system, and one that is very easy to turn.  Storey’s also has a circular wire mesh bin (p.437): you roll up some 36″ wide 1″ poultry wire to a diameter of about 3 1/2 feet, place it and set 4 to 5 metal or wooden stakes against the inside  of the cylinder, pull it taut and drive in the stakes there it is, after some cosmetic adjustments. The idea is that when it’s time to turn the pile, you simply lift the cylinder up over the stakes, letting the compost tumble out, then move the cylinder next to it and simply fill it up again.

The wire mesh will allow for a lot of aeration, and we plan on putting in a chimney: another wire mesh tube, or long PVC pipe with lots of holes, that sits in the middle of the pile, sticking out quite a bit so that it doesn’t accidentally get filled. It’s supposed to do wonders and also minimizes having to turn the pile.

One great tip I hadn’t read before was to open up the soil underneath the bins with a fork before you set the bin on it: that helps drainage and  facilitates access for the earthworms.

I’ll need to reserve three spaces: two for bins, and one empty one for the turning process, like so:

O  O  O

1   2  3

Set full bins on 1 and 3, and when it’s time to turn, lift up bin on 1, move  to 2, shovel in the tumbled out compost. Then lift up bin on 3, move it to 1, and fill it up with the tumbled out compost.  As they’ll be close together, 1 and 3 are not a stretch. We just need to take care that there’s enough space in between to accommodate the compost tumbling out.

The proposed site is exposed on all sides, and we’re on a hill. There are lots of trees around but in winter they prove to be a windbreak full of holes. But our neighbor has promised us some free planks (the outsides of the trunks he cuts up) and so we’ll make an enclosure around the three bin spaces on all sides except the south.

This system is so simple and portable that, once we have even more compost we can easily set up more of them, and wherever we want on our property.

  • Some concerns

Do we need a lid and do we need to secure the bottom of the bin to keep the critters out? I hope in this second stage, when most of the contents of our Earth Machine have decomposed some, no critters will be interested in them anymore. We’ll keep an eye on it, and if we see critter activity, we’ll anchor the bottom rim of the wire with screws or stakes into the soil (like our Earth Machines), and we’ll devise a wire mesh lid or hatch. Roll with the punches.

As we’ll be filling up that bin or bins immediately, I will also be able to make the timing of our composting more precise. So far we’ve just been throwing in our kitchen wastes, coffee grounds and pumpkin whenever they come round, and we’ve only used a little of the finished compost for our “Bomb-Proof Mulch” experiment. I’ve read (in Storey”s) that if you leave finished compost too long its nutrients deteriorate leach away, but then elsewhere (about every other book) it says you need to put compost through several rounds of heating before it is “finished”. Needs more study!

In any case, we’ll be investing in a compost thermometer. This news made DH salivate: “Oh, one with several sensors and a digital, wireless reader?”” “No honey, an analog meat thermometer, only longer”. Needs careful attention to purchasing!

Any suggestions are very welcome!

(*) This collection of the many of the small Country Wisdom Bulletins is possibly the most useful book I’ve ever bought. And I love the format: bound large newspaper sheets with lots of room for notes.