Fall comes in a rush in northern Vermont. The high branches on the maple trees are decking themselves in crimson already, and the trees that line our hilly country road, just yesterday deep green and jungle-like, are taking on a golden hue as they begin to draw their energy inward. Bright yellow buses are back on the road. They make long treks here, crossing county lines to shuttle kids to school, sometimes an hour or more each way. The wood is stacked, oil & propane tanks filled. Mums replace petunias in the planters. The ambitious will make cider, pickles, and tomato sauce, or put up jams and jellies in mason jars.
Yesterday, I put up a few jars of pickled beets – boiling them until fork-tender, slipping their skins off under cold water, dicing them to reveal their jewel tones of ruby, coral, quartz, and citrine. A few cloves in each jar, before covering with a claret-colored mixture of vinegar, sugar, and salt. Then into the water bath to seal the lids, and finally the reassuring ‘poink’ of the inner lids clinching themselves in place. The entire process for these five small jars took me a couple of hours. While I waited for the water to boil, I wondered if I could repeat the chore for beans, and again for tomatoes, and again for pepper jelly.
Among the many things I thought I would do this year – free from the nine-to-five – was plant a substantial garden. I would grow a few varieties of tomatoes, herbs, peppers, and lettuces from seed, triple the size of my current 4′ X 3′ raised bed, add a trellis for spring peas. On March 23rd, two days after the first official day of spring, it snowed 32 inches – this on top of the one or two feet we still had on the ground. My ambition began to fade.
I wouldn’t add a new bed but would plant my small bed from seeds – a testbed, if you will. I purchased a seed starter tray, potting soil, and organic seeds for heirloom tomatoes, romaine lettuce, basil, and five or six other somethings just for the beautiful illustrations drawn on their packages. I sowed the seeds, carefully following instructions, put the plastic greenhouse lid on each tray, and waited. Slowly, little sprouts popped up; they got long and leggy. Of the four trays I had planted, two were doing well and two were nothing but undisturbed soil. I wish I could tell you which vegetable showed the most promise, but I had forgotten to label each tray and … well, how do you tell a basil sprout from a tomato sprout anyway?
The sprouting and not-sprouting continued for several weeks, but nothing looked hearty enough to transplant – yet alone identify. Slowly, even the greenest of little buds began to wither. When I got the email that said our CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) market at Joe’s Brook Farm was about to begin, I unceremoniously tossed my sad-looking seed trays in the still partially frozen compost bin.
A garden is always a series of losses set against a few triumphs, like life itself.May Sarton
I built those compost bins out of old palettes, using directions I had found on Pinterest. The Pinterest version was stained a uniform dark brown and had bright orange and yellow marigolds planted along the tops of each side. The four pallets were fastened together with stainless steel brackets, then lined with sturdy galvanized wire garden mesh to keep out hungry critters.
Mine are a vintage weathered natural pine, hastily screwed together with GRK fasteners. This required angling the screw gun so that the palettes could connect at right angles, which meant, for me, more than a few near misses. Each corner features one or two purely ‘decorative’ fasteners that fasten nothing. I lined the bins with plastic garden mesh, that is until I ran out. Suffice to say, the groundhog, his wife, and his many children that have built a family compound under our yard are well-fed. I skipped the marigolds altogether.
All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make, the better.Ralph Waldo Emerson
Next year, I think – as I have thought for the last three years – next year, we will get chickens. First, we must instigate a groundhog diaspora. Then build a coop with a sturdy fence to keep out the many other local varmints. Chief of which, at least during daylight hours, might be our two-year-old yellow lab, Rangeley. After dark, coyotes are the biggest threat. We hear them most nights, sometimes a few miles away, and sometimes too close for comfort. How badly do I want those fresh eggs?
It’s cold here in the winter, and it snows a lot. We would also need to keep the chickens warm and shoveled out. We could add a path to the coop to our snow blowing route. From the driveway to the propane tank, past the gas boiler outlets on the side of the house, around the woodpile, to the compost bin, and out to the tall grass for Rangeley’s daily ‘constitutionals’ before circling back to the front door of the barn. Yikes.
This will be our first year with the snowblower. We’ve relied mostly on old-fashioned shoveling and our plow guy – a hard-working Czech immigrant, who never wears a jacket even on the sub-zero wind chill days – to keep us in the clear. But after last year’s abundance of the white stuff, we’re purchasing mechanical help – let’s hope we have all our fingers come spring.
Most Vermonters plow their own driveways, with truck or tractor that converts from lawn mower to snowblower. But we don’t own a tractor and <gasp> pay someone else to mow our lawn. This puts us in the minority for Vermonters. When we were first looking at neighborhoods and houses here, I remarked to the realtor, “wow, Vermonters sure love their lawns!”, after seeing acres and acres of neatly mowed yards surrounding even the smallest of houses. She replied, “no, we love our tractors.”
No tractor, no garden, no chickens. And that quintessentially Vermont herd of black and white cows grazing on the hillside behind the house? Yeah, those aren’t ours.
Well then, why did I buy an old farmhouse and retire to Vermont? True, I had imagined myself the countrywoman, tending her flock, planning her gardens, driving a tractor. Heck, at one point, I was thinking, “now, where should we put the goat pen?” But that stuff requires a lot of hard work – the kind of work that only pays off if it is a labor of love.
When I was working, it was simple to say, “I don’t have enough time for a garden or chickens,” whether it was entirely true or not. I didn’t have to consider, honestly, whether I was committed to taking on these hobbies or just mildly curious. This year has been about discovery – there are so many things I wanted to do and try, homesteading among them. Having ample time to explore these pursuits fully, be it gardening or a different type of career, and decide “yah, no, I don’t think that is for me,” has been liberating.
Become who you are!Friedrich Nietzsche
The fact is, I love the product of the outdoors – the proximity to so many farmers markets and farms with their self-serve business models and a never-ending supply of meat, cheese, vegetables, flowers, honey, and maple syrup – not the effort of it. As much as I love being in the outdoors, I’ve learned that I don’t have enough passion for laboring with and against the land and the weather simply to say that “I grew this.” Besides, don’t we already have enough zucchini?
Each Tuesday afternoon from mid-May through mid-October, I drive 3 miles to Mary and Eric’s farm on Joe’s Brook and select from the just-picked assortment of cucumbers, mint, peas, kale, lettuces, onions, garlic, melons, three varieties of beans, endless peppers, potatoes, parsley, basil, fennel, radishes, carrots, squash, and the reddest, juiciest, plump tomatoes on the planet. Then, I take my basket and a pair of shears to the flower garden and clip armloads of dahlias, alliums, love-in-a-mist, snapdragons, zinnias, and sunflowers. And finally, I open the cooler in the farm stand and pull out a cardboard carton of eggs – fresh from another nearby farm and now mine for $4.00, which I drop into the cash box on the wooden counter.