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Faith in Vermont: Before the Freeze

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Posted on October 20, 2015 | Blog Category:
By Faith Gong



Our new house – the house where we will move next summer – needs work. It gives the impression of having been left in mid-renovation: wires and bare bulbs dangle from the ceilings, the upstairs bedrooms lack window trim (and closets), many walls are primed but not painted, and where there is paint the job is often half finished. Also: It needs a new boiler, there’s water in the basement, and – as we discovered during a recent rainstorm – the roof leaks.

We’ve brought many friends through the new house, and they invariably react in one of two ways: either they spend the entire tour shaking their head in disbelief, or they exclaim, “This is great!” It’s a revealing litmus test of personality. There are, it seems, two types of people: those who find a blank canvas terrifying, and those who find it exhilarating.

***

During our first few weeks of new homeownership, my main concern has not been the many renovations needed inside the house; my main concern has been getting plants in the ground.

The house’s previous owners left us three juniper bushes, one rhododendron, one potted fern, and four raised beds of weeds surrounded by decaying wooden frames.

At our current home, I have nurtured a variety of perennials and fruit bushes. Rather than start from scratch at the new place, it made financial and emotional sense to take some plants with me.

So, the race was on. Because we’ll be away on my husband’s sabbatical in the spring, the time for transplanting had to be now. I kept a wary eye on the local forecast, which predicted freezing temperatures by mid-October.

Every spare second of my free time became dedicated to plants: digging them up at our old house, and preparing their beds and transplanting them at the new one.

The first step was to dismantle those raised beds, which was easy enough (and satisfying) with a sledgehammer and crowbar. Skimming the weeds off the top revealed good topsoil below, into which went the blueberries, raspberries, and herbs.

Making space for the flowering perennials was more challenging, as it required breaking new ground. After my first few shovelfuls, I discovered what almost everyone here already knows about the dense, clumpy nature of Addison County clay.

My father watched me chip away at the sod, making mere inches of progress over the course of an hour, and suggested a rototiller.

I looked into rototillers. As it turns out, the local equipment rental outfit won’t rent rototillers for breaking new ground; apparently they already know about Addison County clay. The expense of buying a rototiller wasn’t justified given what we’d already budgeted for home renovations, and hiring someone to till the land didn’t seem cost-effective or possible with freezing temperatures now only a week away.

So I cleared my new garden beds by hand, armed with a shovel, a cultivator, and many, many bags of GrowMax 3-in-1 soil and mulch. My two youngest daughters got very used to amusing themselves in the dirt. When I’d sit down – finally – every evening, the thought of lifting my arms seemed impossible.

Somehow all of the plants made it into the ground before the freeze. Then I noticed something else about our new environment: the wind. In contrast to our current, wooded yard, our new house sits on 12 cleared acres. The wind whips up the valley between the Green Mountains and the Adirondacks, and meets no resistance in our yard.

“Godspeed,” I whispered to my plants, already autumn-shriveled, weighed down by clay below, buffeted by winds above.

They’re not looking great right now, those plants of mine, but any gardener knows better than to trust in appearances.

***

My own plants aside, the rest of the Champlain Valley is putting on its best appearance at the moment. It’s peak foliage season, and the trees glow with the yellows, oranges, and reds that have been hiding beneath the green. When we eat breakfast, the sky is purple; when we eat dinner, the mountains have turned purple. In between, the autumn sun coats the landscape like golden honey. Even the occasional grey clouds only seem to heighten the brilliance of this autumn world.

Yesterday, I sat with all four of my daughters atop the tree house at Happy Valley Orchard. We had just picked out our pumpkins (as usual, my daughters ignored the biggest, roundest offerings in favor of small, narrow pumpkins to which they assigned names and personalities), and we were munching on fresh cider doughnuts.

I told my daughters how very lucky we were to live in this place. I told them how not many children get to grow up down the road from an apple orchard with views of silos and mountains. I told them how, when I taught 3rd grade in New York City, the school playground was on the roof of the building, five stories above the street, because there was no other space for a play yard.

“I get it!” my daughter exclaimed as we read stories in front of our recently active woodstove the other night. “Everything has to die before it can come back to life!”

It’s the lesson of autumn. You’ve probably heard it before. But some lessons bear repeating, lest we freeze them out.

 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. Since moving to Addison County in 2011, her work has involved caring for a house in the woods, four young daughters, one anxiety-prone labradoodle — and writing for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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