At year’s end a shiny windless day invited neighbors to track into the new snow. Green patches marked where a pair of does slept in the storm. The dirt in their tracks was muddy, warmed by recent rains and a little sunshine. Only distant traffic, the occasional crack of hunter’s practice rounds and the camera shutter break the quiet.
Even light wind today would have relieved the pines of their easy burden of snow. A few have branches crippled by the heavy ice and snow of a recent storm. The fallen trunks and limbs in the adjacent Woodland Conservancy now have been cleared from all but one of its trails.
One day of this year remains and rain is again in the forecast. It’s a good time for indoor projects or just relaxing. The first of the seed and nursery catalogs has reached the reading table but for now the trees and farm will just rest.
He was an old man who raked alone on his suburban lawn and he had gone all afternoon now without stopping for coffee. His grass was closely-trimmed and green in Detroit’s November, the mowing over for another year. Two dozen metal tines scraped across his sidewalk to bags nearly full with leaves all waiting at the curb for transport.
Fifty years ago diesel tractors stole the Sterling farm’s topsoil to carve these streets and basements. New owners rolled out thin sod, flooded maple saplings between the curbs and driveways with too much water and began the litany of weed-and-feed, trimming and raking that ensued. He was there in the first years when toddlers dotted every yard and the parish school blossomed. While neighbors and their children moved north or west and new ones came his family was rooted here. He remained after he sold his store and stepped away from its drums and guitars. Empty bedrooms and now nearly-naked branches marked the turning of the years.
Alone each brown wet or crisp red leaf held its story until, when swept together, its voice disappeared in the rasp of the pile being pulled across the lawn. The raker’s shoulders and back were tired and showed his age. Today he did not much care for what the leaves could tell of his neighborhood. There were no majestic trees here like sycamores with giant leaves larger-than-life even as they fell. Tall oaks would have held fast most of their leaves until the first snowfall or even later. Like its people it was a subdivision of maples; soft or hard, crimson, Norway or silver and all-American.
A gust freed more pilgrims to reach ground in the afternoon sun, their labors done. He stood his rake in the back corner of the shed knowing that tonight a wet snow would blanket them. Then it would be time to find a shovel but now he would dream of catching a fine fish.
The calendar says Spring. Frosty ground that crunches underfoot and ice-glazed puddles argue otherwise, backed by a stiff north wind. Hat, coat and gloves are still required these March mornings, and even later unless you find shelter in the sun. Or better yet, in a warm porch or car.
It’s the season of poplar cuttings, set indoors with one brown bud just above the potting soil. Fewer are needed now than in years past, but these rapid-growers tolerate Michigan clay and hot summer days better than any of the other plantings. Orders for a few dozen more walnut and norway spruce seedlings are placed; bright pink flags where they will be planted wave in the breeze. Tiny sugar maples and sycamores will fill gaps here and there in the existing pine and spruce plantings to provide eventual diversity.
Neither grass nor weeds have broken the bonds of Winter. On the other hand, the 7 Bluecircle hens are laying eggs again. Their first hours in the run beyond their coop were filled with scratching, pecking and happy cackles.
Paw Paw Lake was flooded and ice-free weeks ago but lake-effect snow squalls from the big lake have lingered. The afternoon sun dims and shines moonlike on the icy water, longing for April warmth.
The advent of Spring at the Bluecircle brings its share of surprises, from a (? last) burst of lake-effect snow to an outbreak of small tornadoes and nightly visits from a portly skunk. Meanwhile, the greening of buds and grasses proceeds. A new batch of hybrid poplar cuttings rests in the greenhouse and awaits more sun and fewer frigid nights. The first bare-root trees of the year are planted and today’s soaking rains are just what they needed to settle in their new rows.
The Bluecircle hens have agreed that Winter is over and egg production is back to normal. They are happy that most of the coop window covers were removed to restore their view of the big world. Fortunately the red fox of the Woodland Conservancy who brought a feathered chicken dinner home as “take out” last week enjoyed his meal a few hundred feet beyond their coop. Now the winds of March have scattered the feathers of this unfortunate prey.
The months roll by on the Bluecircle and soon the last of the Fall colors will be under the first blanket of lake-effect snow. Mowing is almost done for this year and both the machine and mower are ready for a break. The red oak grove and Douglas firs pictured here hide the spruce and pines behind, but the last leaves remaining at the top of the poplars show them towering over the field. After six years of planting, sun and rain this area of the farm is beginning to mature.
North Watervliet Road at the bottom of this hill marks the east edge of the property. Two-year tulip poplar, maple and oak seedlings here will eventually define a path into the older plantings above. White plastic “grow tubes” around some of the maples are needed to discourage grazing by the doe and fawns that traverse this entrance to the farm.
Looking northwest over a recently cleared and planted area with hybrid poplars and tiny pines in the foreground. Taller Scotch pines and wind-bent poplars are beginning to hide the storage barns. Behind this clearing rows of white and blue spruce seedlings will mark a corner of the Bluecircle.
The season brought a small addition at one corner of the BlueCircle acreage. The owner finally decided to sell out leaving the foundation and front steps of an old cottage, a rusty furnace and smashed sink, and lots of briars and vines. Once the dead ash and dying cottonwoods are cleared out knows what other “treasures” might be found. Tonight the rare Christmas full moon shines through this scruffy woods promising colder weather and at least a little snowfall before work can begin on this project.
New trees will need to join the scattered maples, birch and black locust that surround the old building site. Lots on the Fairview plat were small and the original cottages were often built only a few feet from lot edges. Two and possibly three cottages may have occupied these lots in the past. Today groundhog burrows and dumped construction debris have replaced them, at least for now.
Even in an unseasonably warm year the dimmed December sun sits low above the horizon. The garden still yields carrots and surprisingly good leaf lettuce, this time the “volunteer” variety that reseeded itself when we tilled that part of the garden in August. The mower deck is off the garden tractor to be cleaned and greased; at least the grass knows this is a season of short days and rest. The year-end accounting of tree seedlings that survived and those that will need replaced is underway and encouraging. Most of next year’s planting will be in a recently cleared area replacing brambles, dead black locust and weeds.
The mowing season is nearly over and as the last weed blossoms fade the dark green of healthy conifers shines through. Although the volume of rainfall in late summer was less than ideal, seedlings from one and two years ago show substantial growth. A warm September may have stretched another inch or two of growth in some rows. The marking flags so critical to locating seedlings in their first year have torn and faded. Their rusted remnants will be pulled in the Spring.
Two rows of sycamore, a future shady lane, are rising between hybrid poplars that grow even more rapidly. Walking/biking trails were not in the original Bluecircle plan but as more and more of the acreage is filled with trees they become a possibility.
Future sycamore lane
Some of the tulip poplar, maple and oak seedlings planted this year have been growing in tree shelters that stand like tall white straws on the downslope to N. Watervliet Rd. This was a pilot project since the shelters cost substantially more than seedlings, but so far survival and growth in the ventilated plastic tubes is encouraging. The shelters should discourage browsing deer as well.
Spring tree planting was in full swing this weekend. Tulip poplar, chinquapin oak and maple leaf virburnum seedlings from the Berrien County Conservation District found their places on a grassy slope facing N. Watervliet road. The work was closely supervised by our resident vixen who recently brought at least 7 kits out to play. Determining the exact number of little ones is challenging because they’re always in motion, but thanks to my neighbor’s photographic and observational skills we get incredible close-ups and updates on the pack. The leafing-out of underbrush and spring grasses will soon hide the kits and their den.
The Solstice approaches and long shadows are everywhere.
Where weeds grew taller than kindergarten trees their seed pods and frost-ravenged skeletal remains no longer hide the progress of the conifers. What snow had accumulated was rained away and green grass remains a significant part of the landscape, albeit peppered with faded oak and maple leaves. The annual inventory of surviving pines and poplars came to just over a thousand. Overall success this year was very good except in a planned windbreak of red cedars. This planting at the crest of a hill suffered from being in heavy clay and too far from a water source. So far only hybrid poplars appear to thrive just about anywhere.
Pines, either Scotch, red or white now outnumber the short-needled spruces and firs. A few that were planted as “3-yr transplants” instead of seedlings now stand chest high or better. The 5″ pine seedling on the left took root in the shadow of grasses but should rise above them next year.
A dawn redwood after the frost
New this year were a few Dawn redwood transplants. They grew well but it’s too soon to say how they will handle a snowy winter.