The Garden in Late Autumn

Late November is always poignant for me.  My birthday falls on the 19th, and my favorite holiday–Thanksgiving–comes just a few days later.  Inevitably this time of year finds me in a particularly contemplative mood. I think about what it means to be another year older and reflect on my own mortality while also taking time to thing abut gratitude and the good fortune I have enjoyed.  A strange mix of melancholy and joy that I struggle to explain.  I remember growing up in farm country in eastern Pennsylvania and having that same feeling as I walked or rode my bike along the corn fields that had been cut down to ragged spikes and were now host to hers of whitetail deer and flocks of crows.  I doubt that I was contemplating mortality all that much at that age, but nevertheless, I can recall that same mix of sadness and delight.

I spent the better part of the past weekend cleaning up leaves and cutting back dead perennials and putting away the garden tools for the winter.  It is late autumn in New England and it has turned cold and we are reminded that winter is close. I’ve had A lot to think about today.  Recently turning 45 has weighed on my mind. We recently celebrated Thanksgiving with friends, and so I also thought about gratitude and good fortune.  Never far from the ecological, my thoughts drifted to things other than my lifelong affinity for merging the mournful with the celebratory. While cleaning up leaves I thought about the absurdity of cleaning up leaves and shipping them away.

As the light began to fade and I finished putting the garden to bed for the season I returned to that old preoccupation that is for me so tied to this time of year: life and death and the passage of time.  Gratitude, fallen leaves, and death. This may all sound a bit disjointed, but completing my work in the garden in late fall somehow tied it all together.


Gratitude can transform common days into thanksgivings, turn routine jobs into joy, and change ordinary opportunities into blessings. –William Arthur Ward


Each seasonal transition signals a set of duties I must fulfill–cleaning gutters, raking leaves, re-caulking windows and on and on and on.  A lot of people will roll their eyes and effect their most sarcastic tone and say “ahhh, the joys of home ownership.” I often say that myself, but without the eye rolls and sarcasm because  these are not chores to me.  They are rituals, and I love rituals.

It may seem absurd at first to think about the yearly chores of home ownership as sacred rather than profane, but I do.  What some would see as nuisance–raking leaves, cleaning gutters, cleaning out window boxes, cutting back perennials, and stowing away the gardening tools for the winter–are something more than what they superficially seem to be.

Rain barrel disconnected and turned on end to prevent ice damage

Far from rote, annual toils, these rituals of late autumn are another reminder of what it means to be thoughtful and to exercise care for the things around me: our home and the environment around it and the critters with whom we share our little corner of Marblehead.  Showing care for the things around me is how I express my gratitude.  So I go about my late Autumn tasks with the devotion of a pilgrim.  Perhaps “he piously kept his gutters clear of leaves” could be my epitaph! After a passerby got over the absurdity of that inscription he or she might consider what it means: that we may express our piety through attention to grand religious rituals, or, as I and many others do, through our attention to and care for common tasks.  I’m not a particularly religious man.  In fact, I lean heavily toward atheism.  However, I have always admired the Shakers for their devotion and craftsmanship.  On a trip to Hancock Shaker Village in western Massachusetts I saw a saying that really resonated with me: “Hands to work, hearts to God.”

In defense of leaves

Nature will bear the closest inspection. She invites us to lay our eye level with her smallest leaf, and take an insect view of its plain. –Henry David Thoreau


Autumn in New England brings many things: changing foliage, apple picking, cooler weather and, of course, a proliferation of Ugg boots.  Autumn also brings the near constant whine of 2 cycle leaf blowers as landscapers descend on our neighborhoods to rid each and every yard of the greatest scourge known to man (I mean besides Ugg boots): fallen leaves.  It is a ridiculous autumnal ritual that even I admit to falling prey to, though I am happily becoming more and more of an apostate.  I still blow the leaves from our small yard and driveway and walkways, but when it comes to the garden and beds, I am an advocate  for leaving the leaves alone (sort of).

  1. If I must pick up leaves, I try to find a way to use them on the property. Leaves that I clean off of the driveway and walkways around the house I put into a wire bin to make leaf mold which I use to mulch around plants.  I also add leaves to the composter to boost the amount of brown material.
  2. When I can, I leave them where they fall.  There are many benefits to doing this.  The leaves protect and insulate plant roots.  Leaves are also a vital habitat for small mammals, toads, turtles, and birds, all of whom need cover and protection during the cold winter months.  In the spring, I either work the leaves into the bed with a cultivator prior to mulching, or if there is too much buildup, I will add them to the composter.
  3. I spread  them in the treeline where, along with brush piles, leaves can return nutrients to the soil while providing vital cover.

It is ridiculous to think about the resources we expend rounding up leaves and hauling them away.  More ridiculous to consider how much of it winds up being landfilled.  For more information on why you should leave your leaves check this out.

The garden on the cusp of winter

“I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure in the landscape – the loneliness of it – the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it – the whole story doesn’t show.”- Andrew Wyeth

The vegetable garden has been put to rest for the year and I have cut back the perennials that have gone from summer green to a crisp, autumn brown after a late October frost.  When I cut back the desiccated plants I leave behind the seed heads from cone flowers and Black Eyed Susan among the leaf litter so the birds and squirrels may find a bit of forage before the first snow.  The leaves have lost their October hues and  lie scattered across the garden beds.  Brittle and snuff-colored they rustle now at even the slightest wind.  The garden in late autumn is austere, but beautiful still.  Dried stalks of grass remain upright, though they will eventually bend to the first snow fall.  Until then, their dried seed heads are luminous in the late November sun.

Inflorescence of the Miscanthus sinensis


This Pennisetum orientale ‘Karly Rose’ has lost its deeper red hues in favor of pink and brown while its remaining seeds disperse in the autumn wind.
A stand of Panicum virgatum ‘Heavy Metal’ has fade from steel blue to bister, but continues to define our property’s edge.

Besides the evergreens, there is little color left, though the stems of the dogwoods seem to intensify in hue as we reach deeper into fall.

Red and yellow twig dogwoods, Cornus sericea

If the summer garden invites us to explore the proliferation of life, the winter garden–quieter but just as welcoming–invites us to consider the end of things.  Thoreau wrote of the falling Autumn leaves:

“How many flutterings before they rest quietly in their graves! They that soared so loftily, how contentedly they return to dust again, and are laid low, resigned to lie and decay at the foot of the tree, and afford nourishment to new generations of their kind, as well as to flutter on high! They teach us how to die. One wonders if the time will ever come when men, with their boasted faith in immortality, will lie down as gracefully and as ripe,–with such an Indian-summer serenity will shed their bodies, as they do their hair and nails.”–H.D. Thoreau, Autumnal Tints

Colder and more melancholic but just as vital and intriguing, the garden in late Autumn inevitably draws us to a meditation on death and the passage of time.  The year’s work is done, the harvest is in and we may take our rest.

Happy Birthday to Me

I turn 45 years old today.  There is always a bit of wistfulness  when another year passes.  I think more and more about being on the lee side of middle age. I also think a lot about the time I’ve wasted on frivolous pursuits and other distractions.  But in the end, I’ve not much to complain about.  I have a good job and family and live in a small town by the sea.  I have more than I thought I would.

Looking down slope from middle age I think about how much I still want to learn and do and the skills I want to master (such as the hand cut dovetail, which I will post about next week).  I have always tended toward a bit of melancholy and can easily find myself dwelling on regret; it really is just who I am.  But I don’t wallow too much because in the end what I feel most acutely with each passing year is a deepening sense of gratitude for everything I have: my community, my friends, my family, my colleagues and students, and my little corner of the world where I get to plant and grow and build and create.

“Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.”

Winter Provisioning: Sauerkraut

Given my German and Eastern European heritage I pretty much have sauerkraut in my veins.  I love it, but always find the store bought stuff (whether in a  can or bag) disappointing.  Pennsylvania Dutch lore tells us that a meal of pork and sauerkraut on New Year’s Day will bring good luck in the coming year.  Not sure how that tradition got started, but I keep to it year after year.  Preparing for the New Year’s feast (not to mention hot dog’s, sausages, verenyky and all the other things that go great with fermented cabbage) means making a batch of kraut.  And if you thought the advent of “freedom fries” at the outset of Gulf War II was a new peak of jingoistic stupidity, guess again–during the first world war sauerkraut was temporarily renamed “liberty cabbage.” Anyway, cooler temps outside as well as in the basement (where the fermentation will happen) signals that it is time to start shredding cabbage.

At its most basic, sauerkraut is simple: cabbage and salt.  That’s it.  Shred the cabbage, mix it with the salt and then allow it to ferment in a crock or jars for a few weeks or months.  The art is getting the salt proportion right so that you create a 2% brine solution.  The ratio is 1 tablespoon salt to 1 3/4 pounds of cabbage, or 3 tablespoons per 5 pounds of cabbage (1.66 tablespoons/pound).  Too much salt and the kraut is, well, too salty to eat.  Too little salt and you will not create the briny environment where the lactobacillus thrives and converts the cabbage into kraut.  So, the ratio is important.  This year, I got some cabbages from a local coop that turned out to be the world’s cutest cabbages.

So here is my process:

1. Remove the tough outer leaves from the cabbage (but keep them for later), halve or quarter (depending on size), and core.  Finely shred the cabbage.  This can be done with a knife, but is is definitely worth investing in a cabbage shredder.  I use this one and it works brilliantly.


2. Add salt and mix.  When mixing, “beat up” the cabbage a little bit.  I use a wooden masher.  Use only Kosher or pickling salt with no additives like iodine or anti-caking agents.  I also added caraway seed this year, but that is optional. For an 11 pound batch I added about 5 tablespoons of caraway seed.

Kosher salt and caraway

3.  Pack cabbage into crock or jars.  My buddy Jay makes huge batches for his family and uses a crock, which is the traditional approach.  I may go that way in the future.  For now I use 1/2 gallon canning jars fitted with airlocks.  I leave a few inches of headspace to allow for expansion when the fermentation begins.  after putting in the shredded cabbage I top it with some of the large outer leaves I removed and then add a glass weight to keep everything submerged.

Jars packed with salted cabbage and topped with a leaf and glass weight.

4. Place in a cool, dark spot and let the magic happen.

Just a couple days in and there are clear signs of fermentation.  Use a drip tray in case brine overflows the airlocks.

It is as simple as that.  If you find that the cabbage does not put off enough liquid after the salt is added, you can always make a brine solution (1 tbsp salt to 4 cups of water) and add it to the jars or crock.  Easy peasy.


Learning the Dovetail Part I

I have been a woodworker for many years but until now I have never set about learning how to hand cut a dovetail joint.  This is really something I should have learned years ago, but for whatever reason it did not happen.  I have a few upcoming projects that require dovetails, which leaves me with two options: I could buy a dovetail jig (which I have used before) or I could finally learn how to do them by hand.  I am choosing the latter.  Before I get to the how of hand cutting a dovetail, I will talk about the why; not just why to use the dovetail, but also why one should learn to make them by hand.

The reason dovetail joints are so popular with furniture builders is simple: they are  aesthetically pleasing and incredibly strong.


There are two main parts to the joint: the pin and the tail; the shape of the pins and tails create a joint that is very resistant to separating, twisting, or racking.  The mechanical strength of the joint is reinforced by the additional glue surface it provides. As the picture above also demonstrates, the joint is downright pretty by creating alternating pattern of end grain.  Many furniture makers will further highlight this with contrasting woods.

Dovetails by hand: A meditation on means and ends

I’ve cut a lot of dovetail using a router jig or a table saw jig.  While I have always cared about craft, I have often been driven by expediency as well.  What I have come to realize though is that as the pace of the world quickens I now value woodworking more and more as a refuge from the noise and hurried pace of everything else.  This is partly why I rely more and more on hand tools; I’m just as likely to use a brace and bit to drill a hole as I am a power drill. In other words, I’m becoming more attentive to the means, and learning to hand cut a dovetail fits with my increasing emphasis on means rather than just working towards the ends.

Obviously the final product matters.  We want to see our projects to fruition and enjoy the benefits of a piece of furniture or pass along a gift that we have made for someone.  There is no doubt that a table saw can rip a board quickly and accurately or that a router can cut the dovetails for a drawer with speed and efficiency.  A mortising machine can give us snug joinery with minimal effort.  But in facilitating the completion of these tasks and speeding us toward the ends (that is, the completed item), we are increasingly divorced from the means.  I would never argue that the use of power equipment doesn’t require skill—of course it requires skill and knowledge.  It does not however require the same degree of skill and knowledge and practice.

Power tools can too easily become a substitute for the craftsman’s skill.  One no longer needs to practice how to sharpen and employ a hand plane to flatten or joint a board or learn how to properly guide a hand saw to produce a straight cut or how to lay out and accurately hand cut a dovetail.  Power tools replace a portion of the energy and skill of the craftsman and substitute it with electricity and the skills of the tool’s manufacturer.  The automation of the process disengages us from means in order to speed us towards the end.  And the means is not just how to use a tool, but also how to sharpen, adjust, and care for the tool.  A world of engagements with skills and practices is subsumed by the machine.  Thus, our connection to the skills of the past—handed down generation-to-generation and master to apprentice and parent to child—are lost to the machine.  The power, literally, taken from our hands.

Hand tools also provide relief from a world that is increasingly loud and hurried and distracting and that demands of us ever greater speed and efficiency.  If my shop is a sanctuary—which it in fact is—then why fill it with incessant noise?  Why should speed and ease be the primary goal?  I like the quiet rhythm and that hand tools for me to slow down and preserve woodworking as a contemplative undertaking.  I’m not claiming to be a purist or a Luddite.  I love my table saw and my routers and power drill.  We needn’t give those things up all together.  Rather, the transition to hand tools occurs not through complete power tool abstinence but simply through seeking out the opportunities the craft affords us to learn new skill and to slow down and engage our hands and our energy more directly.



Fall Harvest

I spend the spring planting, the summer cultivating, and the early fall harvesting.  When the gardening and canning is done I turn my attention to the hunt.  First day out for small game was cold and wet; that is to say, it was a magnificent fall day and though drenched to the bone I would trade very few things for the three hours I spend trudging through the underbrush.

“…hunting provided us with an ever scarcer relationship in a world of cities, factory farms, and agribusiness, direct responsibility for taking the lives that sustained us. Lives that even vegans indirectly take as the growing and harvesting of organic produce kills deer, birds, snakes, rodents, and insects. We lived close to the animals we ate. We knew their habits and that knowledge deepened our thanks to them and the land that made them.” —Ted Kerasote


Tim and I took three pheasant.  After cleaning and dressing, I spatchcocked the bird and brined it:

1 Gallon water

1/2 Cup Kosher salt

2/3 Cup light brown sugar

Brine for as little as a few hours or as long as 24 hours.  I brined for 24 house before marinating the birds in olive oil, rosemary, garlic, and season salt.  I was originally going to grill them with a bit of sherry wood smoke but a Nor’easter blew through and outdoor grilling was off the table so I opted to pan sear and oven roast.