Old Man Winter

December in New England was one of the warmest on record. Old Man Winter changed all that yesterday when temperatures dropped and howling wind gusts strong enough to knock you over greeted us upon arrival in New Hampshire. We arrived when darkness had fallen and awoke this morning 14˚ temperatures and 20 MPH gusts under beautiful, yet deceiving sunny skies.  Who would go out in this weather? New Englanders, that’s who…. and mister gardener who couldn’t find the coffee machine. Bundled up, he ventured out to find coffee and came back with Dunkin’ Donut java, only to discover they added cream and sugar. He drove back to the store. “I asked for regular,” he told them. “Well….” the lady said. “Regular around here means cream and sugar.” We’re learning!

New England residents seem to be immune to the bone chilling wind.  We’ve watched several joggers in wool hats and gloves breeze past like it was a balmy 60˚.  We see dog owners walking briskly along the road. Then our old dog, Mattie, staring out across the moor gave us the heads up to a little ice hockey game that was getting started.

Even though it was a warmer 20˚ outdoor by this time, it made me shiver to watch them.

Christmases Past

Christmas is here. It has arrived. If you visited us during the holiday season, Santa greeted you at the door but that’s where all signs of Christmas ended.  There are no holiday greens inside the house. As our household items are being carefully wrapped in paper and packed in boxes and our furnishings being loaded piece by piece on the moving van, it’s hard not to feel a sense of being way out of step this year. We visit friends whose mantles, doors, tables, trees are adorned with ornamentation and we return home to zero Christmas trimmings. We’re not sad about it but it’s a bit of a numbing feeling.

We’ve never been all about Invasion of the Christmas Lights or Celebrity Holiday Homes but we always have enough red and green in recognition of the season.

Meaningful handmade ornaments from friends and family have been used to trim our tree, a tree that had to be perfect in every way.  Now, for the first time in our lives, we have no Christmas tree. Ornaments are safely boxed and loaded on the moving van.

On Christmas Day, we will gather one last time with family before we head out of the state.  Instead of exchanging gifts this year, my siblings and I have donated to charities that are meaningful to us, an idea that puts a song in my heart.  And, due to the move, mister gardener and I have also decided to ‘skip’ gift exchanges this year, too.

However, I’ve been a pretty good girl this year.  So shhhhh….. I’m leaving a short list and two cookies next to the fireplace: wool socks, a heavy sweater, spikes for my boots, earmuffs or warm mittens. I think any of these are necessities to help prepare me for what might greet us in New Hampshire. Thanks Santa!

A Parting Gift for the Gardens….

Today I decided to break from the tedium of packing, sorting and purging. Our dog (yes, we are down to one dog. The grandchildren in Louisville took the younger… where she now sleeps in the master bedroom between the king and queen of the house.) and I paid a visit to the gardens on this chilly December day.

In my hand, I carried parting gifts for my flora. Plant labels. Each of my trees and shrubs have common and botanical names that are as familiar to me as my good friends’ names. But I must leave this landscape full of old garden companions. To introduce them to new caretakers, they now wear the “Hello, my name is….” labels for ease of introduction. If they want to know more about a certain plant, all the new curators need to do is google their names.

ilex x attenuata fosteri

Sciadopitys verticillata

Or perhaps the new homeowners will simply open the garden shed and read the wall. Yes, I saved labels and created encyclopedic walls of information on the plants I’ve purchased through the years.  Sigh……

Purge-atory!

We are down to the wire in organizing our household for a giant leap to life in New Hampshire and things aren’t going so well. First, there’s the little worry that we’re moving north when the New England weather is a bit unpredictable. I assured the moving company that the driveway will be clear of snow and ice… and I hope we can guarantee that.

But that’s not the big problem. The biggest headache comes with downsizing. mister gardener had no problem parting with material goods saved through the years. Purging the furniture was easy for me. I marked items we can’t take with green stickers and invited siblings to a gifting party. They came for two days and maybe a third day soon. mister gardener has visited DAV many times in the last couple of weeks. The local humane society will soon come for more furniture for an auction, the public library has dozens and dozens of our well-loved books and clothing wardrobes have been reduced. And it makes me happy to see the faces of the happy recipients.

It’s personal things that are giving me trouble. Am I an honest-to-goodness hoarder? You can’t see clutter when you walk in this home. All the cache is hidden neatly in closets and drawers, behind cupboards and well-organized in plastic containers. When I’ve watched the TV show, Buried Alive, I shake my head in disbelief at a homeowner’s inability to SEE the worthless piles of possessions.

But the emotions I have when having to let go of sentimental items connects me with those Buried Alive folks. Every personal item I handle evokes emotion. My solution is to purge in layers. The easy things go first. The things I must handle and say goodbye to go second. I’m on level 3 now. Personal possessions are in piles. I stare at them a lot. My childhood dolls stare back. I am looking through years of children’s Mother’s Day cards and their kindergarten schoolwork, two dozen photo albums, letters from friends, newspaper clippings of family members, wedding invitations. Emotions…. Memories…..

Those who help hoarders say to imagine your house is burning and you have minutes to save possessions. What would you save? I answer that I might not survive the fire because I would have a hard time making up my mind. It’s painstaking and slow but it will be done.

Four and Twenty Blackbirds….

It’s flocking time for blackbirds in the mid-Atlantic area. Once the breeding season has ended, these birds will band together for protection. On any given day in the fall and winter, it’s not uncommon to see large blackbird flocks consisting of red-winged blackbirds, common grackles, brown headed cowbirds, and starlings descent upon this yard to noisily feed on insects, grass seeds, our suet feeder and sunflower seeds from our bird feeders. I can’t say I’m happy to see them and their voracious appetites but it can a spectacular sight.

The screeching noise of the entire flock is loud, grating and annoying. Why can’t they just be quiet and eat?  When the noise becomes a bit too much for us, a simple clap of my hands or the banging of two metal cat bowls together will send them off en mass. But they don’t go far. We can hear the screeching sounds just down the shoreline. When they think the coast is clear, they return.This scenario can be repeated all day for weeks until they decide to move on to other locales.

After a week or so, the birds can become accustomed to me rushing out to shout, clap or bang and they just fly upward to fill the area trees and squawk until the crazy lady goes back inside. Then they return to their noisy feeding.

The birds that visit me are flocks but there is another amazing phenomenon of coordinated movements involving masses of birds that is breathtaking to see. It’s called murmuration and can involve thousands of birds. The purple martins put on a spectacular show in Richmond every year but the blackbirds dazzle us with their aerial ballets just about everywhere. The masses seem to collaborate as they dip and dive and rise and divide in unison. There is no leader. How do they do this? Are there any rules? No one really knows but it’s awe-inspiring to watch.

To get an idea of the beauty of murmuration, check out this video of two young people, Sophie Windsor Clive and Liberty Smith, who paddled their canoes in wet, winter weather and caught all the wonderful cloud action of starlings on film. Spectacular!

Murmuration from Sophie Windsor Clive on Vimeo.

DIY Birdbath….

I belong to the most wonderful art group that meets about every two weeks for two of my favorite pastimes, a potluck breakfast followed by a creative art project. Our last project, a leaf basin, was so much fun yet simple to do that I thought I’d pass along the steps. Although this was new to us, all our leaf basins were stunning. This would make a fun gift for a gardener friend, a teacher or a gift for your own gardens… nestled on the ground among the ferns.

A finished leaf birdbath

Products needed:

Sawhorses

Tarp

plywood

Sandbox sand, slightly damp

Small bag of Quikrete

Water

Disposable gloves

Large leaves with good veins and ribs (banana, hosta, elephant ear, rhubarb)

Lay the plywood on the two sawhorses out of direct sun. Line with the plastic tarp. Mound up damp sand on the tarp in a dome.  Lay the leaves over the sand and smooth out wrinkles.

With gloves on, mix the Quikrete and water with your hands to the consistency of a brownie mix, making sure all lumps are out of the mixture. It may look too dry, but pat the mixture several times. If the surface begins to shimmer with moisture, the Quikrete is ready. If not, add a bit more water and so on.

Mold the mixture about an inch and a half thick over the leaf, starting at the top and not extending too much over the edge of the leaf. Smooth out the surface and allow to dry for 24 hours. We sanded and cleaned up rough areas. Our leaf creations were then colored with acrylics and sealed.

With the small amount of Quikrete mixture left over, we made other forms of garden art. Using pieces of pine cone for the ears, we fashioned a family of mice for our gardens.

Back Home

I’m home. Virginia will always be the place I call home. After spending the past week and a half in New Hampshire over Thanksgiving, followed by a frantic search for housing in Portsmouth, I am home to mentally and physically prepare for the move.

It was good to wake up again on the North River in Gloucester. Mornings in Virginia begin the same way they have since last spring after I accidentally trapped and transported a Carolina Wren home in my camera bag when photographing on Gwenn’s Island. The wren has appeared outside my office window each morning since then giving me the sweetest wake-up call. Some might say he is simply being territorial but I like to think it’s for me.

Carolina Wren

House hunting in Portsmouth was hectic and tiring but tolerable because my daughter and son-in-law bore much of the burden of calling, searching and driving me from place to place. Not a thing worked out in Portsmouth so we began to venture to small towns surrounding the city to search for rental properties. And we saw them all…. from third floor condos to townhouses to restored historic to the one we finally selected… a saltbox in Durham NH located on a knoll above a vast salt marsh and pasture land.

Although we are close to salt water, it is a much different setting from our Virginia home where we are surrounded by trees and gardens. This quaint Durham home has minimum plantings and overlooks a vista appearing more like a scene from Wuthering Heights.  Standing on the knoll looking over the treeless grassland, brisk winds swirling, I also wonder if I’ll hear the hound of the Baskervilles running over the moor in the dark of a winter night.

Moorlands of North Wales

There is a certain beauty in the grassy landscape and I am excited about exploring, discovering and learning about the habitat and the plants and creatures that exist in this seemingly inhospitable climate. I’m sure a whole new world awaits me.