Sunday, October 31, 2010

Witches in the Woods and all things Halloween

Tonight is Halloween one of my favorite holidays and only one of two holidays that I decorate my house for.

Every year, on October 1st I drag my "Halloween" box down from the attic and sort through the decorations that I've made and collected since I've lived here. There isn't a lot left in the box that my kids would remember. I'm decorating for me now, not a seven year-old and two year-old. Even so, I still don't like the large and scary theatrical decorations--big black rats, animated mummies and bloody body parts. Who wants to find a place to store them for the rest of the year?

What I do have is a glow- in-the-dark bowl that has seen a lot of candy but only one big trick-or- treater, some spider string lights, a porcelain pumpkin or two and a "Boo" sign. I have a cute quilted skeleton that I made from a pre-printed panel in the '80's when my kids were young and a framed counted cross-stitch witch that I made in the '90's.
All of my recent halloween-themed acquisitions, have been either spiders or witches. I'm not exactly sure why my draw to spiders, unless it's because I have a lot of respect for them as garden helpers. As for the witches, I believe in the everyday magic that surrounds us and witches have come to symbolize that for me.

As a matter of fact, if you find yourself out walking in the woods today, you may just come across a witch waiting for you. She's lurking near the edge of a trail, just under a large tree and partially hidden in the shadows. You have to look really carefully to see her. She hides particularly well among the yellow leaves of the trees above her but if you do find her, you'll see that her magic is particularly strong this week.

The witch I'm describing is (Hamamelis, virginiana L.). American Witch Hazel grows in most parts of the eastern US and Canada in moist woodlands. It's a tall understory shrub about ten to fifteen feet but sometimes can take on a tree form. The magic and mystery of witch hazel is that it blooms NOW, when most trees, and shrubs including witch hazel, itself, are shedding their leaves and going dormant. The flowers are pale yellow and spidery and cling to the bare branches. They're also lightly scented. The seed pods which form during the summer dry out by fall and eject the seeds by "shooting" them up to a distance of 30 feet. There are other species of witch hazel and a few hybrids some of which bloom later in winter or very early in spring, depending how you look at it, and give winter color and interest to the garden.

The aromatic twigs and bark of witch hazel are still distilled today for astringents, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics. You probably have a bottle of witch hazel in your medicine cabinet. Native Americans were using witch hazel to treat bruises and skin ailments when the first settlers arrived and probably introduced the plant's medicinal uses to the them.
One of the most interesting bits of witch hazel folklore is that a forked branch can be used to "divine" water. Whether there is any scientific truth to this, I can't say, but I'd probably be much more skeptical if I hadn't seen it done.

Shortly after moving into my house our shallow well went dry and we had to have a new deep well drilled. The well driller who showed up cut a forked branch from a witch hazel bush and walked around my property for about half and hour with his stick bobbing up and down. "Yup", he said, "your best water's right here" pointing to a spot, "and it's 100 feet down". Witch Hazel was wrong that day. We got water at 85 ft.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Planting Trees

A couple of weeks ago, my friend Sandi (the friend who only plants purple and white flowers) invited me along on a field trip to a nursery we both like visiting because they have such a large inventory of unusual trees and shrubs. Sandi was in the market for some conifers. A few months before we'd been there on a reconnaissance mission and Sandi was going to pick up a few trees to plant along her property line.

I wasn't really in the market to purchase that day but they were having an end of the season 50% off sale on trees, and well you know how that goes when you are a gardener. It's like flashing a checkered flag in front of Jeff Gordon.

So to make a long story short, I went home that day with six 2 1/2 ft. Korean firs (abies Koreana). My excuse for purchasing them is a section of the hill in my backyard where's it's been pretty near impossible, without the use of chemical fertilizers, to maintain any kind of lawn so pretty much it's been left to sweet ferns and whatever weeds can hang on to the bony soil. Since the sign at the nursery said that Korean firs were draught tolerant, I thought I'd give them a try.

In comparison, they pretty much look like any other fir species, in fact I thought they were balsams when I first spotted them growing in that section of the nursery until I noted that they lack that telltale balsamy/piney fragrance.

According to the the guy at the nursery and what I could find online, they grow rather slowly about 2 to 4 inches per year, which I like too. They also have a dense habit, deep green needles with silver undersides and they bear attractive violet-blue cones when only a few years old. Their tolerance for warmer summers make them a good choice for where I live and because they tend to grow into an almost perfect conical shape without shearing, I'm trying them out as future Christmas Trees.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


The landscapers/masons have been here almost three weeks now and most of the stone work has been completed. After much soul-searching and some budget compromises, I decided to extend the original project of replacing the retaining wall where the tank had been removed to re-setting the front steps and walkway and replacing the little stone wall that abuts it. All of these areas were in pretty rough shape from: 1) not being installed right the first time; 2) from little night time creatures tunnelling underneath and 3) from large daytime creatures who removed supporting stones to make planting beds easier to dig. Not too mention that the NEW retaining wall made everything else look that much worse.

The brick steps and landing were replaced with two massive granite slabs that came from an old bridge somewhere in New England and unlike the brick steps which were starting to get loose from water damage, these two monoliths will be staying put and probably outlast all of us even the house.

The guy (landscape contractor) who is doing all this is Derek, a UNH Thompson School grad and his two assistants who all have an amazing knack for working with rocks. To see them start out with a pile of rough odd chunks of granite fieldstone and then pick stones that fit perfectly and match in texture and color with no gaps or bulges and with some beautifully manipulated curves is like the watching a quilter making a really complicated design--creating the templates; choosing the colors and fabric; cutting the pieces; and finally sewing the intricate seams together.

I know that there is art in both processes, one only has to look at a fireplace or landscape created by Lew French to know that masonry is as akin to sculpture as quilting is to painting. I'm just glad fabric doesn't weigh 168 lbs per cubic foot!

Friday, October 22, 2010

I'm here...really

I've been meaning to post, really I have but things have been happening around here and I've been distracted by the last days of summer which has now turned into fall which is fading fast into winter with the shortening of the days.

Shorter days, cooler nights, plants have stopped putting out new growth, squirrels and chipmunks are crazily collecting nuts and seeds. They've all gotten the message...time to slow down, fatten up, get ready to rest. We still haven't gotten a hard frost yet but we've had a few nights when temps dipped into the 30's so it's only a matter of days.

I feel like the chipmunks and squirrels as I try to get my home improvement projects done before the first flake hits the ground.
The big hold up was getting the underground oil tank removed but it's gone and good riddance. In its place was a big hole that needed to be filled with dirt and a stone retaining wall that needed to be rebuilt. This meant getting quotes, comparing prices and checking references. And as sometimes happens one project leads to another. The completed stone work looked so good, it made the large sinkhole in the middle of the driveway seem very shabby so a new driveway is in the works too. The gutters that were installed 20 years ago are starting to lose their grip on the roof and they've got to be replaced.

At last all of the contractors have been lined up and work has either begun or is scheduled. Now I can pick up where I left off with my quilting and sewing projects until the leaves finish falling off the oak trees and then it's time to get the rake out.