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May 10, 2009

Spring Chores

spring chores

Mud season is known as Vermont's "fifth season." This year's softening of the earth brought comments from neighbors claiming, "This was one of the worst."

The 3.5 mile trip down the mountain to the village during late March and early April requires patience. The dirt road's surface changes by the hour as the sunlight draws the frost and moisture out of the frozen depths. The final half-mile up to our land is impassable for four months due to snow and then an additional month on account of the mud. By late March or early April it takes on the feel of wet concrete in a wheelbarrow.

We made the mistake of trying to drive in to the land a couple of weeks earlier than we should have this year and my truck came close to becoming a permanent part of the road. One of the "quick" sections of the stone and sand aggregate tried to swallow us. The truck dropped into the sloppy gravel until the vehicle's underside floated on the road's surface. I didn't even want to think of the work it would have taken to extract the pickup if we'd come to a stop. Keeping on the throttle and holding my breath we clawed our way to firmer ground and vowed we wouldn't be tempted again.

spring chores

Despite the challenges of mud season, springtime is a busy season of preparation in advance of the land’s annual renewal. After three years of steady effort, we have cleaned up the apple orchard that had suffered from the careless operations of a logging operation under the land’s previous owner. When the land changed to our hands you could not walk amid the two dozen fruit trees in the middle meadow. They were surrounded by the scattered slash (branches and tops of trees that are left behind after a timber cut). The wood does eventually decompose on the forest floor, but in this case the meadows and orchard had been used for preparing the saw logs and depositing the slash. Without cleanup, the meadows and the orchard had been rendered inaccessible for fruit and crop production.

In the top photo I put our small John Deere to the test and skidded the remains of an old fallen sugar maple to its final resting place at the edge of the meadow. At the lower end of the orchard we created two house-sized piles of the remaining slash that will be burned after the first of next winter’s snows blanket the ground.

spring chores

When the earth begins to come alive again in spring much of the thinking is of gardens to plant and warm days ahead, but it is also the time to put up the next year’s firewood. Gypsy is extremely energy efficient, requiring only a single cord of wood for heating from September through April. There is no shortage of firewood on the land in the form of downed trees. Above, I put a chain on a maple that had fallen across the stream and skidded it to the spot where it will be cut to 12” lengths before being split and stacked for next winter’s use.

spring chores

One of the downed maples shows good quality wood (lower right in the photo above) that I may spare from the fire and mill it up for the kitchen cabinets yet to be built.

spring chores

Next came the turning of the earth for our first vegetable garden on the land. The soil is a nice loam but will benefit from the compost that will be added over time. Given our latitude and altitude the danger of frost does not pass until the end of May so we still have time to get a deer fence around the perimeter before young tender plants temp the many animals that share the land with us. (This Memorial Day's forecast low is 33 degrees.)

spring chores

The Greenhouse

greenhouse

If the images in this entry have the feel of time-lapse photography it’s because the story of the greenhouse began late last fall and the project was not completed until late April. Such is the way some things go.

We conceived the greenhouse as a dual-use structure, giving us a warm place in which we might extend the growing season but also serving as a space for working on other projects out of the weather. The design was adapted from a shed that is used on the Maine coast for boat storage (called a bow-roof shed).


greenhouse

We opted to build on a 16’ x 12’ footprint. I set the stakes that secure the greenhouse to the ground during the first week of December (before the earth froze solid and put the project off even more!).

greenhouse

Our original plan had been to complete the greenhouse by the end of December but the snows just kept piling up and the winter temperatures rarely warmed beyond the teens. (The photo above was shot a week after Thanksgiving.) Finally, by late-February (below), we had some warm (relative) days and set out to cut and bend the arches.

greenhouse

The frame is made primarily out of 1x3 strapping screwed to four-inch lengths of 2x3 blocking. We used the sill of the greenhouse as a level plane on which to bend the bows – ten of them in all. The bending can be a bit frustrating due to the amount of breakage involved. With each bow there was a long anxious moment as I bent the wood around the form and secured it in place. In all, we experienced a breakage rate of about 25 percent. (Five of the 16-foot lengths of 1x3 snapped while being forced into the curved shape.) We gave up on some days when it felt like the wood was snapping due to the cold, but more likely it was just the pattern of grain and knots in the strapping that led to the failure.

greenhouse

By the end of February we had the ten bows bent and erected the first of the gothic arches. The plywood gussets at the peak hold the bows securely to the 2x4 ridge beam. Once the ten ribs of the frame were in place the project was put on hold again, this time for maple sugarin’ season.

greenhouse

The sap flow finally gave way to budding trees and we boiled our last batch of syrup on April 14th. Time to frame in the ends of the greenhouse, creating openings for the door and vent windows near the peak.

greenhouse

As is the tradition with timber framers over the centuries, we “topped off” the frame with the bough of a tree (called a “whetting bush”). The custom is to use an evergreen species and place it at the highest point in the frame.

greenhouse

Sourcing the greenhouse film to “skin” our greenhouse proved to be a bit of a challenge. For whatever reason, suppliers seemed eager to charge outrageous prices for shipping something that is really not much more than a large sheet of polyethylene plastic. Granted, it has UV protection and anti-condensate layers built in but the 720 square feet of the film that we needed doesn’t weigh more than 20 lbs. We eventually found a source within 50 miles (New London, NH) and drove to pick it up. When I had the film in hand the $100 - $180 shipping fee that other online sources had quoted seemed even more ridiculous! Now all we needed was a wind-free day on which we could pull the film over the frame and secure it in place.

greenhouse

Soon after completion the greenhouse/shed became an indispensable “how did we ever live without it” addition to our Tunbridge land. One final step remains – the addition of automatic vent openers that respond to temperature and open or close the vents at a prescribed level of warmth.