Friday, October 31, 2008

An Experiment in Winter Planting

Today, I planted three white kale in a row, in a location of the yard that will continue to get a lot of sunlight during the day, even as the sun angle decreases with the onset of winter. This is a simple experiment in late season planting and winter growing inspired by an article I recently read in the 2009 Old Farmer's Almanac.

My plan is to build a small wooden box around the kale and fill it with about a foot of organic mulch before the Big Freeze really settles in. Through out the winter, I'll occasionally harvest small quantities of kale, water during the warm spells, and see if I can keep this process going through out January, February, and into March.

Kale row in a sunny part of the yard

The afternoon sun is casting long shadows now, as demonstrated by a tall weed growing through the walkway; this is by far the sunniest part of the yard year-round, and the future site of a large, bordered herb garden

While looking over some of the containers out front, I couldn't help but notice that the pollinators that had been so busy merely a month ago are all gone now. With the exception of a few very small flies flitting around the flowers, there was no more of that frantic activity during the sunny hours of the late mornings and afternoons that I had come to enjoy so much. Of course, winter is nearly upon us, and the bees are done collecting their pollen, having stored it all away in anticipation of the vernal birth of the next generation of their bee progeny.

However, I did come across one honey bee -- extremely large and lathargic, he appeared to be completely sacked of energy from the recent cold spell. He wasn't flying, rather just crawling around on one of the containers. It looked like he wanted a comfortable location to camp out, so I managed to get him to cling to a small twig, and placed the twig just below a canopy of salvia. He was still sluggishly exploring the contours of his twig when I wandered off to do a few other things.

Later, I returned to the salvia, and he was gone. Perhaps he had some other spot in mind to begin his journey into that good night. Meanwhile, down the street, and away from the house, I could hear the murmurings of the busy inhabitants of my own eco-system -- children and their parents, gradually emerging from their homes, to enjoy this relatively mild evening and the celebration of yet another All Hallows Eve.

This day is done, and the darkness falls from the wings of Night
- Longfellow

Monday, October 27, 2008

Tin Lanterns and Oyster Shells

A few days ago, a Revere-style punched tin lantern, which I had ordered from Garber's Crafted Lighting, in Mammoth Spring, Arkansas, arrived at my house. It's very nicely made, with a sun-burst pattern and an accompanying wall hanger. Intended for the spinning room, the lantern found its place on the old plaster partition on the north side of the room, just to the right of the northeast chamber door.

Spinning room north wall and new hanging lantern; note the nail protruding from the door jamb

The spinning room has two such plaster walls, the other being on the opposite (south) side of the room. Both look very old, with coarse undulations on their surfaces and many years worth of obvious repairs and patching in spots. The north partition is particularly odd in that it curves off toward the parlor chamber doorway at about a 30 degree angle from a smooth bullnose joint, with the northeast chamber door just to the left of the bullnose. It appears to have been constructed with the specific objective of providing privacy, and leads me to believe that the northeast chamber may have served the house as a birthing and sick room

The bullnose is just between the lantern and door jamb; looking into the spinning room from the parlor chamber doorway

Interestingly enough, the other two walls, one being an exterior wall and the other concealing the attic stair, are relatively recent constructions of modern sheet-rock. But the two surviving old plaster partitions are quite remarkable, and I often wondered how old they actually might be.

When the house was completed in the late seventeenth century, it most likely had no interior plaster; rather, just exposed timber planking, and perhaps interior partitions consisting of simple wooden panels wherever necessary. In fact, plastering generally wasn't practiced in colonial New England until the early part of the eighteenth century, and certainly wouldn't have been viewed as something necessary in the earliest days of a wilderness settlement like Derby.

Close-up of the plaster surface with its rough texture and undulations

So, presumably, these partitions would not have been built until at least the early-to-mid 1700s. By comparison, all of the remaining plaster through out the rest of the house is much more finely finished, and clearly of a relatively modern vintage. For example, in several other walls, I've found milled lath and plaster with horse hair filler, which in my mind suggests constructions ranging anywhere from the late nineteenth century to about the mid-twentieth century.

North partition and ceiling; south partition wall and very old plaster just below the tie-beam

Shortly after hanging the lantern, I decided to remove two old nails that were protruding from the door jamb of the northeast chamber entrance. You can plainly see one of these nails in the first two photographs, just below the lantern. The other nail was just below the first one.

The nails served no clear purpose, and furthermore, there was a small risk of someone getting hurt by brushing up against one of them. So I extracted the uppermost nail first with a vise-grip, and in the process, a small amount of plaster broke away from the wall, and along with it, a fragment of an oyster shell.

Nail protruding from door jamb; the two extracted nails and oyster shell fragment

I've read that the earliest plasters and mortars in colonial times were thickened with crushed oyster shells. So my theory that the north partition of the spinning room is quite old was confirmed by this discovery. And I assume the south partition to be of the same vintage as the north, of course, based on their close similarity of appearance and the fact they are part of the same room.

As for the extracted nails, they are 2-1/2 inch, machine-made, square-cut nails. The head of the nail on the left in the photograph above appears to have been hammer-shaped, while that of the other looks like it's machine-cut. So my guess is that the first nail was made in the mid- to late-eighteeth century, while the other might be just a bit newer. It's hard to tell for sure how old they are, but they do seem to represent two slightly different manufacturing techniques.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Early Fall Day

Today's was a quintessential New England fall day. Cool, crisp, and slightly blustery, with large clouds slowly scudding across the sky and occassionally blocking out the sun. I worked at home, and in the morning, went out to water and tend the herbs, including several salvia (azure sage, or salvia azurea) I recently purchased.

The honey bees were having a field day with the salvia, which had gone from a relatively flat to a deeply flourescent blue, just a few days ago. There were easily five or six bees buzzing about them, collecting pollen and consolidating it in those small sacks on their hind legs.

Two honey bees in the salvia (just left of center of photo); close-up of a third bee

Honey bee alighting on salvia bloom; another with his orange pollen sack

Back around early August, I purchased four additional herbs: Two basil and two marjoram. I have several round (barrel-shaped), wooden containers that I've used for various plantings the past few years, including several small conifers that decorated the front porch last winter.

Since then, the conifers moved to permanent homes in the side yard, and the containers were excessively weathered and slightly insect-damaged in spots. I repaired the damaged areas by bushing on a waterproof wood glue, and later re-stained the outside surfaces with Minwax Wood Finish (#222, Sedona Red).

Even though it's not intended for outdoor use, the Minwax is what I had on hand, and since these are fairly rough pieces, it didn't particularly bother me if they started to fade and weather again come winter.

Basil and marjoram in re-finished wooden containers; yet another bee, enjoying the basil flowers

In each container, I planted a single basil and marjoram plant. And after two months, the basil plants had grown to enormous sizes, and began flowering just a little over a week ago. The marjoram is also quite substantial compared to when it was planted, but the basil is truly prodigious, and its fragrance pervades the entry porch area where the containers sit most of the time.

Subsequently, I had repaired the three remaining containers, and during a late morning break today, completed re-staining two of them. Just about that time, UPS showed up to deliver a map chest I had ordered. It's very nicely made, and a highly utilitarian piece of furniture, with nine flat drawers for organizing flat-laying documents, drawings, designs, etc. I am going to use it to store my various architectural, restoration, and woodworking designs and plans. It found it's way into the spinning room, which I'm using as an additional reading & writing room, the southeast chamber being my main work area and computer room.

Re-staining containers in the spinning room; the newly delivered map chest

A little while later, as I was looking over the two stained containers, it struck me that perhaps tung or walnut oil might've been a better choice of finish. At least it's more environmentally friendly. So when I have another free moment, I'll give it a try on the last container and see what sort of results I get.

Recently stained containers; about 3" of gravel ought to help drainage and keep most bugs out

Blue sages in their newly finished container homes...
Butterfly in the blue salvia; BRT by the north side of the house and a lot of early afternoon sunlight filtering through the trees