Under Winter’s blanket

Pines and firs blanketed by a February snow

The new year brought the season’s first real lake effect snows to Bluecircle. The ground has remained white since then, with the recent storm leaving a “too deep for boots” total. At least the transplanted pines of 2021 are well hidden from snack attacks by deer – like the one that left the tracks pictured below.

Sunny afternoons have been plentiful, albeit usually well below freezing. Electrical problems kept the Gator in the shop (again!) through the month so no ski tracks were packed. Fortunately the nearby Sarett Nature center’s trails have enabled plenty of exercise. A defective wiring harness apparently caused the Gator’s problems and it’s good to have it back in the barn. However, the current snowpack is too deep for even it to navigate.

This leaves plenty of time for trombone practice, beginning with a dozen exercises composed by E.F. Goldman in 1909. He described them as the “Daily Prayer” of every brass instrument player so I suppose this is just a little religion in the Bluecircle.


A little distracted – or so many notes to play

Bluecircle from above, 2021

The warm seasons have come and gone since the last post here so some explanation seems in order. Happily the farm’s people, dog and extended family have stayed healthy despite the pandemic. As opportunities to play brass music in groups emerged from last winter’s snow the writer found the lure of playing in them irresistible. This led to concerts in jazz, symphonic and brass band groups based at Southwest Michigan College. The new skills required to play trombone in a jazz group put me in the practice room on a regular basis. Poetically, “the Blues scale” was lesson 1!

The summer season included community and St. Joseph Municipal band concerts with the euphonium while my brass band baritone rested. In a just-completed holiday marathon of 8 concerts (over 10 days) by 5 different groups all 3 horns each got their turn to shine.

So, this blog has been neglected. The aerial view of the farm shows areas now filled by Scotch and red pine, with firs and cedars making progress. High winds have damaged silver maples and upper trunks of the hybrid poplars, and even topped some tulip poplars. These holidays will include a first – the cottage stove will be fired with wood from poplars planted when the farm was founded.

Deep Midwinter

After a reluctant beginning the depths of a Michigan winter have arrived. Paw Paw Lake froze at the end of January and now rests under its snowy blanket. Nightly the beacon of the Bluecircle fairiehouse casts tree shadows, its light amplified by drifts of lake-effect snow.

Fairiehouse as a wintery beacon

A daily inch or two of fresh snow has fallen this week so the dog and her people have concluded it’s too deep for long walks in the woods. Even the Gator slides and struggles in the drifts as it tries to keep a packed trail open for cross-country skis.

Trails in the trees

It was a long year of social distancing, hand sanitizing, masked shopping and generally staying out of harm’s way. The Bluecircle’s original Gator – all-purpose (but fun) vehicle – found a new owner a few months ago and was replaced by a winter-ready Gator that’s now leaves its tracks in the somewhat snowy woods.

Gator footprints twice around

A trails network has been part of the farm plan since tree planting started. Some of the original locations have already been abandoned as pines reached their branches across potential trails, and the early demise of one poplar planting enabled a new trail along the eastern boundary.

Trails in the “old woods” show the legacy of the Woodland Conservancy where young maples were slashed and left to regrow as brittle, multi-trunked specimens. The carnage left by summer stormbursts is now starkly visible. Mature ashes killed by the emerald beetle have now mostly fallen and add to the mazes of broken limbs.

Tulip poplars, maples and little oaks mark the downhill to N. Watervliet Road

On a shadowless December afternoon the hues of Winter are browns and grays with a touch of muted green. The images raise the question, are there no straight trails in the Bluecircle? An aerial view would show that most of the seedlings planted over the last decade were evenly spaced and aligned. As the canopy of pine branches rises a straight trail or two may cross these sanctuaries. Until then they are reserved for the rabbits, deer, crows, hawks and fox.

In the distance, the older woods of the Conservancy.

Oaks up in the weeds

November 1 brought frost and bursts of gale-driven snow to signal the winding down of farm color for another year. The low angle of Fall sunlight enables vivid reds and oranges but yellow, brown and faded green will soon be the dominant landscape colors.

Our Bluecircle hens already know Winter is coming – we’ll be buying eggs while they take a sabbatical leave until March. The plastic panels that shutter their coop windows aren’t required yet but already they roost huddled together for warmth. A few more pleasant afternoons are forecast this week.

The Bluecircle recently celebrated a birthday; 10 years have passed since the first spruce and arborvitae were planted on the north property line. Most of the acreage is filled with conifers and hardwood but a few projects remain. A bare-root planting intended to be red oak turned out to bear hybrid chestnuts instead of acorns, presumably because of a shipping error at the nursery. Hybrid poplars from one of three suppliers were disease-prone and 23 died off in the last year. And the Japanese beetles that plagued Pinot Gris grape vines are equally fond of red raspberry leaves.

In a prickly cocoon this hybrid chestnut is definitely not an acorn.

So there will be room for a little more planting and a new trail site in the new year. For now its time to break out the leaf blower!

Falling softly

Seniors today get reminded about fall prevention even as most come to realize that the ground is harder than you remembered from your youth. Other realities: climbing back up is more work than before, and the kinds of things that trip you are smaller and less obvious than before. The goal then is to move safely, but always land as softly as possible.

In the season’s lengthening shadows Bluecircle sand has begun to collect its first leaves, mostly maple and cottonwood. The dew has become heavier with cool nights and wet grass persists until almost noon. Ducks that mate in Fall rehearse their head-bobbing dances on the lake below and every day more trees show color. A late-blooming summer squash is gambling to nurse its first fruit before cold weather breaks.

Nearby, the din of heavy equipment sounds nearly every day. Several more of the century-old lakefront cottages and their tall trees have fallen to the wrecker. New construction that fills the gaps will create the only shade likely to be seen on these properties for many years. And once the clatter of the builders, roofers, cement workers and equipment operators dies away the routine quiet of this vacation home neighborhood will return.

What grows faster than ivy in May?

A rhetorical question to begin this post, but poison ivy is one of the best-adapted vines in this landscape. When a thunderstorm downpours registers “zero” on the Paw Paw Lake East rain gauge it’s time to get a ladder and investigate the gauge. Spider nests, cottonwood or maple seeds or other plant debris plugging the rain collector funnel at the top of the gauge are common offenders.

This week poison ivy, a more formidable problem, was to blame. The image above is the usual, shade-loving ground variety of the ivy whose 3 leaves mean “no contact allowed”. Below, the rain gauge decked out in what might be called “tree ivy”.

The rain gauge reports that it was a wet spring.

Again, no contact allowed with stems or leave , especially without gloves and long sleeves. Definitely no weed-eater allowed because it would create a toxic sap spray. Weedkillers are seldom used on the Bluecircle, but this situation called for a hand sprayer of ivycide. Fortunately the solar panel on the weather station was not covered, so cleanup of the collector and internal rain meter should be all that’s needed to get the station operational.

A more common form of poison ivy begins in the shade of evergreens that are too small to have a ground covering layer of old needles, or pine straw. Here ivy tendrils reach the trunk and climb, eventually branching out onto the upper boughs. In the example below nearly the entire top of the spruce is hidden. This is far too high to manage with a sprayer, so clippers will have to be used to strip ivy stems from the lower trunk and restore sunlight to the spruce top.

Baby leaves and not quite acorns

New oak leaves and their flowers are providing fresh color despite the late surge of cold air this weekend. Hopefully the frost won’t interfere with the acorn production our abundant black and grey squirrels depend on. One has already taken the liberty of an oak flower snack while dangling from the branch tip. In a taller tree a neighbor’s kind donation of pork chop left-overs made Mothers Day breakfast for another fat black squirrel.

Gnawbone squirrel, vegan no more.

Pea, spinach, lettuce and radish leaves are growing day by day in the early garden and we have enjoyed the first asparagus of the year.

Snap peas and salads of the near future

Arbor Day 2020

Tree seedlings from Wisconsin’s Chief River Nurseries arrived today on a cool, damp Arbor Day to join the peas, leaf lettuce, radish and spinach already sprouted in the gardens.

Planting the hickory seedlings with a tree spade took only a few minutes, best described as putting sticks in the grass (budded end up, of course).

The hemlock and fir seedlings were more heavily rooted but still amenable to tree spade planting. Since that was the approach recommended by the nursery they too were “spaded in”, leaving a signature divot a few inches from the stem. Hemlock planted here a few years ago have grown rapidly and are now over eight feet tall. The new hemlock will fill thin areas along the south edge of other plantings.

This will be the first season for the blue-green concolor firs. In a few weeks they will be joined by a some Douglas fir seedlings to improve the balance between pine, spruce and fir.

A 10-inch concolor fir seedling in its new Bluecircle home

The Circle’s blue fairie house

Tax day again brings the last shrouds of winter snow to the rising buds of Spring. It’s a time of transition needing both parkas and jackets, boots and sneakers by the front door. The still leafless woods stand snow-clad while wild roses show a little green and early rising flower stems are nearly blanketed.

This is the season that brought the blue fairie home to the farm. Today her house is roofed with the last, fleeting snowflakes but tomorrow it will be bathed in sunlight. The cottonwood stump beneath it serves as a reminder of the cycle of growth and returning that inspired the Bluecircle’s name.

Blue light streams from the house at night, brighter than the stars but like them a cool, silent witness to the passing days and years. There is no music at this place of memories save a distant chime that speaks on windy days. Like all butterflies, the small one that rests on the faire’s toe is silent.