Solar Tracking

Solar Tracking
How low can you go? Snow and ice and cancelled school.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Monday Morning

Monday morning. 

The school building is quiet. Outside, fog hides the hills, the road is wet, the tree branches that dance outside of my winter window are finally bare. Cars come and go, a constant parade of parents, employees, late students, the occasional police vehicle….Inside, the building is warm. It smells of lunch and breakfast, showered and sweaty kids,  cheap perfume. Right now, it is still. Everyone is tucked in classrooms; far away, the Lunch Ladies’ voices echo up the stairs . For once, there are no beeps and warning whistles, no upset students shouting. My neighbor walks by quickly, heading to the copy machine before the next class begins.  In my room, the new strands of white lights hang under the plant shelf; beans sprout on windowsills; the painted chairs are still up on the desks; Becca’s Thousand Cranes spin softly for a paperclip hanger in the ceiling.

It is Monday morning—peace, warmth, and routine surround us.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Pound Pears

                Mark and I made a pilgrimage to the local Pound Pear tree this morning and picked up sixteen very large, hard pears.  It was a bit of a workout carrying them home in our daypacks, but they did curve nicely around my spine, unlike the complete works of Shakespeare.

We love the pound pear—it has been around, perhaps, since Roman times, and there are documents going back to the 16th century, at least. It is a Homestead fruit, planted as part of an orchard for winter eating. The pears are rock hard when they fall, ripe, from the tree and they never soften. It is not a fresh-eating, delicate fruit. But, it keeps. If you pick them before they fall,  they will last for months. Then, in late winter, you can stew it down on the back of the stove for some loose, sweet fruit on toast.  If I had space, I would plant one.

This particular tree is in the back of a local park, near some houses, on the edge of town. It must be the last tree from an old orchard. It is fifty feet tall and all of the fruit is far above our heads, even with a fruit picker. It’s unassuming, shaped like the other, younger trees in the area, and about the same height. You wouldn’t know there was anything different unless you walked close and spotted the pears on the ground in mid-November. They range in size from a large eating pear to two fists together. They are hard; many of them are still not bruised, even after falling from the high branches.  They do weigh a pound!  We hunted down the best looking ones, avoiding the splits and chomped edges.

When we came home, I hacked up five of them, whacking them hard with my knife, cutting out the cores and bruises, and tossing them into the crockpot. I added some fresh ginger left over from making cough syrup and a cup or so of water and turned it on. They will cook down for several hours until they soften. At that point, I will taste them and add a little sugar or honey, but they will be remarkably sweet on their own. The rest are tucked in the larder, waiting their turn for the pot. We will finish them up in our January oatmeal and yogurt. 

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Front Garden Fence

                We are reworking the front garden bed this fall. For years, there was a gigantic volunteer fennel plant dominating the space, reaching about seven feet into the air towards the fig tree.   Then several other invasive, weedy, but drought tolerant species  moved in. The hop vine, which was once centered near the walkway trellis until we moved the pathway, spread underground. Spring bulbs proliferated.  It was not orderly, but it provided a nice screen, so we let it be.  When the fennel  reached the end of its natural life, we were ready for a change.

                In August, I pulled up all of the asters and loosestrife and mint that had spread throughout the bed and covered everything with a thick mulch of straw. I placed the gooseberry and black current, still in big planters about where I wanted them to see if they were happy with the light levels. Then we left it all until the rains really started, because we need to drive stakes in for the new fence.

                While I waited for the rains, I dug through the shed and asked around for old, dying garden implements.  Rake handles and heads, small shovels, some funky edgers and seeders gathered under the plum tree in the back yard. I experimented with laying them out on the ground, asking the key question: Do I fill in half the fence completely or all of it more sparsely?  We decided on sparse.

                This week, we took small stakes out front to think about the uprights. Straight line? One foot in? A “bay” in front of the big red currant? Maybe a zig-zag to evoke old rail fences and provide a place for the other two shrubs? We laid it out and studied it for several days. Today Mark placed the big stakes, one to three feet in, with three zigs for the shrubs.  They will be deep; there are drunken students in the neighborhood.

                While he worked on the stakes, I worked on excavation. There was once a soaker hose in the bed. I found that and pulled it out. There was once a little path at one end, like a second exit. I found that and pulled it out. There were stepping stones in several places to help harvest the red currant. I found those and pulled them out. I also took out several scraggly plants and some comfrey roots. I was amazed at how far down all of this stuff was; the years of leaf and straw mulch had added up!  Finally, I hauled up yards of hop roots which had spread throughout one side of the bed. Mark was worried that we would have no hops left until I showed him the mother root.

                By noon, we had the rough draft of the new bed and fence. Mark will pound down the stakes another six inches, then we will lay out our garden tools as rails and infill. Once done, I will plant the two shrubs and deeply mulch the entire bed with leaves for the winter. Then, as time goes on, we will add more tools.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Is the Heat On?

            November—and we have not yet turned on the heat.

                I have always been slow to turn on the heat in the fall and quick to turn it off in the spring.  Even when the heat is on, we keep it low—64 to 66 degrees when we are home and up, low 50s when we are sleeping or working. The cats have nests around the house where they curl up on blankets or sweaters during the day.

                Why? Maybe it was being raised in the energy crisis of the 1970s, when Jimmy Carter put on a sweater and turned down the thermostat—to 68, Mark points out on cold December mornings. The university extended the winter break for several years by a eek to save on the cost of heating all of the buildings during the cold spells that hit New Hampshire in early January.  I have always been away of the consequences of burning fossil fuels and the need to reduce our reliance on them. We have gas heat.

                Maybe it is a New England thing, because old houses were designed to shut off little used rooms in the Winter, bringing the entire household into the kitchen during the evening and sending them to bed in unheated rooms every night. I have always loved heavy blankets and nightcaps. Even now, our bedroom is the coldest room in the house.

                Maybe I am just cheap, hating to throw money after a little warmth that could be just as easily provided by a heavy sweater. I remember one winter when we were determined to only purchase heating oil once, all winter.  We spent most of the winter in the bedroom, wrapped in blankets with the cats, watching old movies, when we were not at our warm kitchen cook jobs or out exploring the winter wilderness. It was chilly, but cozy as well.

                For whatever reason, the heat is not yet on here. We have spent considerable money, over the years, to insulate our little house—ceiling, windows, walls, and floor—and we have an efficient furnace as well. It was all part of our design to reduce our carbon footprint. I made lined curtains for the living room. We have a plug for the fireplace.  Even as costs have gone up, our costs for heating have stayed about the same.

                This year, the challenge has been much easier than in the past. Last February, Mark moved his little Kimberly stove into the dining room, a small, well insulated space that was once the garage. It is fiddly to start and maintain and only takes small chunks of wood, but it is very effective.  Mark loves it because it is very efficient and cutting edge in design. I love it because it is clearing up piles of old scraps of wood. The cats love it because they can sit on the slate fire pad, which holds heat for hours after the fire dies away. It heats the dining room and the kitchen and we, in old New England tradition, have moved into the smaller space, leaving it only to sleep at night.

                Soon, we will break down and turn the heat on. We like being able to use all of our rooms especially when the weather is bad and we need a little more room. But, until then, I will toss another chunk of laurel into the chamber and sit in front of the stove.


Sunday, October 29, 2017

Soil Prep

              The season of growing is done, harvest almost done, and soil preparation is upon us. Last week, I pulled the last of the tomato plants from the back garden and then the long climbing zucchini off of the greenhouse. There were a few small fruits on both, but, really, how many zucchini can one household eat? Mark has finished sifting compost for the season and has three large garbage bins full, including the repurposed wheeled recycling cart that I use to gather leaves off the street. It is time to begin the layering of organic matter.

                First, I will compost in place anything that is not disease carrying, like the goldenrod branches in the front garden. A rough chop and they are laid down where they grew, closing the nutrient loop. Then I haul the vegetable plants to the big compost hoops, tossing them in whole. They will break down this winter. The summer mulch stays in place, usually layer of straw that has already begun to break down. If the beds are not part of the chicken tractor rotation, I layer some compost in them; when we have a rabbit, they also receive rabbit droppings. I pull the weeds and volunteers that I have allowed to bloom for several months. The beds are ready. This is where we are now.

                Across the street, six full grown linden trees are dropping their golden leaves. Two doors down, a birch is shedding red leaves. The fig is about to drop some huge brown leaves and the oak is waiting until December. I am watching all of them closely… soon the landscapers will be around with rakes and leaf blowers, pushing the bounty into the street. When that happens, we pounce. First, lock the grey cat into the bedroom so that she is not rolling in the road. Then we find the leaf rakes—one in good shape, the other dying—and the rolling bin. Maybe we grab the big blue tarp as well. Working quickly, racing the dark, we fill the bin and dump it, over and over, one binful per garden bed. The street pile disappears. The garden piles grow. An hour later, all of the beds are covered in leaves. If there is time and leaves, we will set up a hoop in the driveway and fill that as well.

                All winter, the leaves mingle with the other organic matter, followed by the chicken tractor. For a month, the coop sits on each bed while the chickens rummage around, turning over slugs and eating weed seeds. When the coop comes off, I toss the leaves and straw and everything else over lightly, mixing it all with the soil. This allows it to all break down before I begin planting in March. Every year, the beds hold more moisture, have fewer pests, and grow strong vegetables.  And it all begins now.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Harvest Reckoning

The Harvest Season is about over. I pulled the tomato and squash vines from the back garden today, preparing for leaf fall, which began during the winds and rains of the weekend. It was, overall, a good year, although being gone for the month of July has impacted our fall garden crops.  We all decided it was time to “Eat Down” on the stock of jams, butters, and pickles already on the shelf.

This is what we have in storage for the winter (bold indicates from our yard):
                Three quarts dried
                Two quarts frozen
                12 half pints of apple butter
                4 quarts dried
                5 pints in sauce
                3 quarts dried

                10 pints canned
                12 half pints chutney
                7 quarts dried
                4 half pints apple butter (more next year!)
                3 quarts dried
                14 pints of sauce
                1.5 quarts dried
                30 half pints roasted
                14 pints of salsa
                4 pints of Bread and Butter
Green Beans—
                5 pints
Gooseberry jam—
3 half pints
                6 pounds of All Blue
                31 pounds of Desiree
                30 pounds of Butte
                17 pounds of Yukon Gold
Dried Beans—
1 quart of Indian Woman
1 quart of Cranberry
1 pint of white

There’s also cabbages, beets, and parsnips in the garden and six small pumpkins and several squashes in the larder.  I’ve ordered 70 pounds of onions, more dried beans and winter squash, hard wheat berries and oatmeal (which came today!) and garlic. We are almost set for the winter.

Sunday, October 8, 2017


After a long, cold, record-setting wet winter and an August full of the smoke from forest fires all over the West, these golden Autumn days have been a real gift.  The nights are cool, the days are warm, and the grass is green again after a few soft, all day rains. All of the fall flowers are blooming in my yard, deep purple round faced asters bounce against the long yellow bands of goldenrod. The bees hover above the round bed and feast on the fallen, cracked open, ripe figs before packing the last hive box full for the winter.  I am also moving food inside—potatoes, figs, tomatoes, and winter squash—and changing our diet to reflect the new season. In the afternoon, the cats and I bask in the sun, lower in the sky, but thicker, richer light because of it. The Harvest moon shines over us all at night, lighting my hands as I clean out the herb beds after dinner, not quite ready to move inside for the season.