If you’re just tuning in, this is a recurring series in which I document each month of our lives out here on our 66-acre Vermont homestead. After leaving urban Cambridge, MA in May 2016 to chart this wholly different life, we’re experiencing a constant learning curve of exploration (and plenty of stupid novice moments). Check out last month’s installment here.
May was a disjointed month of blistering sun followed by torrential, frigid rains. We were whipped back and forth, in t-shirts one minute and searching for the winter fleeces I’d prematurely packed away the next.
I emptied our front hall mud room of coats and face masks and hats, in a rush for the instruments of spring: the bug spray, the sunscreen, the hats.
No sooner had I laundered these vestiges of winter than the temperatures mandated we scrabble for them again. Such confusion beset us that we finally surrendered to the improbable need of flip flops sat next to muck boots, our mud room a silent testament to May’s mercuriality.
May marks our one-year homestead anniversary! We moved here last May in a blaze of relocation wonderment. Our entire world was upended as we made the transformation from urban to rural and nearly every detail of our routine changed.
I’ve documented our evolution over the course of the year and I realize that, in many ways, the life I used to lead in the city militated against my true nature. I am happier out here. I am less stressed. I am simpler. There’s less for me to worry about, less to contend with, and much more time and space for me to think and do among our acres of woods.
Mr. Frugalwoods and I spent the month glued to the windows, noses pressed to the glass, trying to discern whether or not the rain was taking a break at that particular moment. Every time it looked even marginally clear, we’d rush outside and cram in spring-related activities.
Thanks to Mr. FW’s
nerdy amazing weather station, I can tell you that we received exactly 5.8 inches of rain last month. This felt like a lot. After the monochrome of winter, these rains ushered in every gradation of green. There are the deep, staid greens of the pines, for whom green is nothing novel, the perky near-neons of the mosses that grow unchecked in our creek beds, the all-American green of Maple tree leaves, the husky, silvery green of apple trees, the renegade, defiant green of weeds, and the pale, graceful green of the birch trees. The landscape stands transmuted into a green mirage.
I don’t mind rain. I like the sound it makes as it pelts our steel roof while we lie in bed, watching it glance off the skylight over our pillows. I like how the earth smells after a good rinsing. I like the cleanliness it leaves in its wake.
I don’t, however, like to hike in the rain. I’ll do it, I have rain gear, I have waterproof boots, but it’s not particularly high on my list. Snow? No problem! But rain has a way of snaking into the crevices of my neck, coursing down my shirt, and soaking my core. Babywoods and I dashed out on the trail whenever we deemed it safe and only got caught unprepared a time or two, returning home like two crestfallen cats, damp and matted.
The Blooms Of May
Our apple trees bloomed, our plum trees bloomed, our cherry trees bloomed, our daffodils bloomed, and our lilac bushes sprung forth a bounty of purple blossoms.
Our yellow globe flowers made their first appearance and every dandelion on earth sprouted in our yard. As so often happens in life, the drudgery of the rain was not without benefit.
May Is Plantin’ Time
It is our great, unrelenting aspiration to grow masses of vegetables on our land. Having lived here for exactly one year, this is still very much an aspiration in progress. Last year, we were able to plant a few timid veggies that produced a rather anemic output in response to our novice ministrations.
We stepped things up a level this year in the hopes of coaxing a more robust bounty from our earth. However, we remain neophyte gardeners, beset by mistakes, learning curves, and the endless need to practice more.
Our neighbors are tremendously helpful in advising us–as is the internet and a stream of books we devour–but there is no teacher as powerful as doing. And there is no better way to learn than by immersing oneself in the dirt of life, quite a literal undertaking in this instance.
In May, we planted veggies three ways:
- From plants we started from seeds indoors (these are called “starts”).
- From seeds we planted directly into the ground outside.
- From starts we purchased from our local farmer’s market, a friend, and a local farm stand. These starts were much larger and healthier than ours and they enabled us to round out our retinue of veg.
The Frugalwoods Plant Training Program
Since Vermont has a relatively short growing season (aka there’s snow on the ground much of the year), you have to begin growing plants with long maturation time indoors. The reason being that they wouldn’t be able to reach maturity–and bear fruit–in the time that Vermont’s summer provides naturally. And so, back in March, Mr. Frugalwoods dutifully planted tons of bitty seeds in tons of bitty pots and arrayed them on a table in our guest bathroom, a process I discussed in greater depth here.
After painstakingly starting these many wee vegetables from seeds in pots inside our house, May was their graduation month. But before encountering the whims and risks of the great outdoors, these fledging plants needed to go through a training session I call “how to be a successful outdoor plant.”
Their training regime was thus: First, Mr. FW set them outside on the porch for an hour or two every day so they could acclimate to the sun, the wind, and the fresh air. Next, they stayed outside basking all day long. Finally, in their last experience of plant childhood, they had a sleepover on the porch. Now, they were ready to be planted. This process is called “hardening off” and the idea is that it allows tenderfoot plants the opportunity to gradually become accustomed to life outdoors before the shocking transition of being planted into the ground.
Their hardening off coursework complete, Mr. FW handed them all their hardiness diplomas and planted them in the ground with plenty of water and fertilizer to ease their transition. Prior to planting, Mr. FW used the tiller on our tractor to turn over the earth and create garden beds. Next, he prepared mounded rows of dirt with a rake and shovel. These mounds are–in theory–designed to better support the growth of vegetables.
Another subset of plants were planted from seed directly into the ground. The hardiness–and growing season–of each crop dictates whether it needs to be started inside or planted directly into the earth. Last, we planted the starts we’d purchased from our more experienced neighbors. We have two garden areas this year: one in the raised beds behind our barn, which was the sum total of our gardening efforts last year, and the second, tilled spot located below our mini apple orchard.
Timing Planting: A Tricky Business
Unfortunately, right after Mr. FW carefully planted our entire garden in late May–all the seeds and all the starts–another cold snap descended, accompanied by a deluge of rain. Some rain is OK and some cold is also OK, but we have a sinking feeling that this might’ve been too much cold and too much rain for our still-fragile plants. They look alright at present, but sadly, few of the seeds appear to have germinated, which might mean we’ll reap primarily from the starts.
It’s a tricky business timing when to plant: do it too early and they’ll rot from cold, damp weather; do it too late and they’ll never reach maturity and bear fruit. When to plant is an especially precarious decision for us since we’re located in an odd micro-climate on the top of a hill.
Our growing season is remarkably different from our neighbors who live just 5 minutes away. Plus, there are no weather forecasts that accurately cover our location. We have our own weather station, the data from which will inform future years, but alas, it’s not predictive. We follow the conventional local wisdom of our closest neighbors–those sited up here at 1,900 feet with us–and hope for the best, as every farmer before us has done.
We’re grateful that our survival–and our ability to eat–doesn’t hinge on our ability to grow food. It’s a privileged position that we can buy food and afford to feed our family even if our entire garden is a flop.
Fortunately for us idiot gardeners, the previous owners of our property planted a few perennial foods years ago that are still yielding results. Asparagus, rhubarb, apple trees, black raspberries, blackberries, and plum trees give us the chance to harvest food and feel like real farmers.
In an unexpected stroke of horticultural luck, the arugula I planted last summer came back this year! I’ll be honest with you, I had no idea it would do that, but lo, I am eating peppery greens every other day. All hail my magic arugula.
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Onward to June frugal comrades!