cracking up: confessions of a winter-weary gardener and her wall

cracked wall detail 2THE SKY ISN’T FALLING, but the living room wall is. I’m cracking up from too much winter, one slab of 1880s plaster at a time. With each chunk lost to the upward force of a foundation heaving from frost, I lose a shard of mental status, too. Sound familiar?

As a policy, I don’t like to complain about winter. I’m hardy but herbaceous, inclined to hide quietly and regroup each offseason—happy for the downtime and change of scenery, happy for moisture in any form to recharge the system around me. But this is silly:

The back door hasn’t opened since December; the front one will, but not the storm door just beyond. Just a single portal to the forbidding outer world beyond is operable, and it requires cardboard shims (below) to stay shut, the latch and strike plate no longer embracing willingly like the old friends they are, or were.

shim in doorOf course it’s not just here (where February was the coldest since 1934): There’s news of sleet from Texas to Tennessee; 2 feet of snow in parts of Kentucky; of Boston, Boston and more Boston (102 total inches last time I checked); of no snow (or rain) where it’s desperately needed, and too much where it’s not.

cracking up 7I LISTEN to the world talk about the weather from my perch on the living-room sofa, the only room where my ex and I left the original plaster in place when we otherwise gutted this old house decades ago. Lately, the meteorological headlines are punctuated by the occasional small thud, but mostly by a sound like handfuls of coarse sand falling onto a hard surface from on high. Crumbling.

There is nothing to do (ah, true powerlessness), and won’t be until sometime in May, when the frost is out of the ground—when the doors can open to get construction debris in and out. Each day, the wall takes on fascinating new dimension; the tributaries of the single vertical crack that opened three weeks ago are now many, and the branching and widening continues.

When I first came to this landscape, about 30 years ago, I learned about the frost line pretty quick. Naïve but energetic, I dug a water garden 18 inches deep, and promptly populated it with fish. Around Thanksgiving that first year, as the weather turned abruptly, someone mentioned that the frost line here was twice that depth—that I should have gone at least as deep, or else.

The Victorians who dug what is now my foundation apparently knew from frost lines, and went 5 feet down, but time has undermined their efforts. No matter; it’s just a wall.

SO HERE’S the reason I am writing this:

If you want to complain about the weather, this is your big chance.

And then, together, weather or not, we shall move on and sow some seeds, and draw our plans for the garden to come, yes? We’ll just let it all go, and gather momentum in a forward march, moving out of the frozen state that has possessed my doors and my brain, and into locomotion, propelled by volition and by hope.

(P.S.--Before you ask: Those are vintage herbarium specimens of pressed seaweed hanging–barely–on the erupting wall, part of a collection of them displayed throughout the room.)

Categorieswoo woo
  1. Carole Clarin says:

    After reading your story and seeing your wall any snow and ice issues I have had seem minor. I truly admire yourositive outlook, something we all need after this outrageous winter.

  2. Sallyc says:

    I can hardly complain about settling – our modern ranch house hasn’t done nearly as much as yours! However, when some of our interior doors would no longer latch, my husband discovered adjustable strike plates which help. I generally love winter, but after this one (still snowshoeing to the bird feeder, compost pile and chicken coop in March), I’m actually looking forward to mud season.

  3. Jan Glass says:

    My back door is frozen shut. I have to go the long way round in my rubber boots to feed the birds. I am thinking I should get my hair dryer out there to defrost it. One wonderful thing about all this snow and frozen ground is how many birds are visiting. Their footprints in the snow make exquisite patterns, along with numerous unidentifiable, to me anyway, animal foorints. I shall miss that.

  4. Vicki Brown says:

    well…here in Prospect Bay Nova Scotia we are thinking its an absolute ice age and sales of ice picks for our boots have increased. Sidewalks are no longer cement and we get to practise ice skating in boots! I work at a children’s centre and I must say the crazy carpeting is awesome and there have been many times when children didn’t even need the carpets…they just slid down using their snow suits. Birds have been busy and there are lots of them. An Osprey left its wing prints in the snow as it darted from the sky to eat a smaller bird…): sad but beautiful print! March sun is warm, snow will melt, there is hope. Yes I’m planning my garden…first step germination of “Rose of Sharon” seed.

    1. margaret says:

      Wow, Vicki, sounds glacial indeed! Ice is the biggest opponent here on my tricky hillside, too–when it takes hold, I often just stay in for days and days at a time. Too hazardous to reckon with. Thankfully my neighbor has a sand truck so I can eventually get rescued if I really must go somewhere before it recedes…

  5. Lisa says:

    Since we are all venting this one last time: I thought my newly planted Green Giant arborvitaes made it through the winter until this week. In just five nights a pack of deer managed to eat 15 evergreens right to the ground. So much for a privacy screen of trees, and lesson learned, Green Giants are not deer resistant! They went down like a row of garden vegetables. Back to the drawing board this spring to see what other deer resistant evergreens I can use. Happy Spring everyone! So sorry about the indoor wall!

  6. Lorie says:

    Venting does help. Makes you wonder what the pioneers who crossed the Plains in their covered wagons vented about when they basically had to cut their own trees to build their homes that had mud-packed between the logs as insulation. We’ve come a long way, baby.

  7. Mike says:

    I have been waiting for the planting season for a while now, I have drip irrigation just waiting to be installed. I have herbs started in self-watering pots. I WANT SPRING! Not the Average temp of 41deg to be usurped by the continuing cold of 15deg.

  8. Ayo says:

    I’m holding my breath as the snow slides from the roof onto my wooden deck, where it is now piled higher than the railing. Please weather gods and goddesses, don’t collapse my deck– it’s the best garden viewing and cocktailing location I have!
    I like to think gardners are the ultimate optimists–but this year it’s sometimes hard to imagine the garden’s explosion of color and life when it’s buried so deep.

  9. Jacquie Katz says:

    You are so calm. I am inspired. We have had so much weather (snow, rain and awful wind) in the piedmont of North Carolina, I have delayed starting seeds inside. We usually have begun and planted potatoes and carrots outside too. I was loath to begin seeds and then lose power and have them get cold and lose light. And it is still too wet to work the soil. But I am inspired by your calm. One boot in front of the other, it will be dry and sunny eventually, and the fresh potatoes will taste so good! While I was waiting for the power to return, I reread your Parables. Also very calming and thoughtful!

  10. Michelle Brandt says:

    The water trustees have asked us villagers to leave a facet running until April 30!, Apparently warming just drives the frost deeper. They do not want to pay digging up any more burst pipes. What an irritating noise, a running facet! That’s my venting. Dusted my flats of allium seeds with tropical beech sand I had a baggy of. Read somewhere a gritty surface keeps the algie growth away. Will see, like to try experiments. Enjoying your blog, love reading about gardens in winter.

  11. Kathy says:

    Yes, I know about the doors. And I am sitting here wondering if the crack I see in the wall of this wonderful 200 year old house is bigger than yesterday or if I’m beginning to get paranoid. But spring is in the air–you can smell it. And the birds are singing again. All good signs.
    Now back to the seed packets to see what I need for my newly planned gardens.
    Thanks for sharing everyone

    1. Brigit says:

      I love that someone said, “Bring on mud season” above! Where I live in southern Maine there are only dirt roads, and this mud season promises to be a doozie!!

      I posted my website here because the home page has a photo of my now-buried deck in glorious summer, and I’m dreaming of it now! The two feet of snow/ice on our upper metal roof let go last night, and I wasn’t sure whether the roar was the roof coming in, or the snow coming off!! Thankfully only a flattened stove exhaust vent resulted, which will have to wait for warmer days!

      OK – that’s my vent – nice to know I have lots of company!

      1. margaret says:

        Yes, mud season should be a winner on this dirt road, too, Brigit. Thanks for joining the conversation; welcome.

  12. Matt says:

    Myself living in Northern Ma I respect your positive outlook on the weather. It’s so hard not to be negative when everywhere you go your listening to others with opinions more negative than yours. There is finally a break the last few days in the weather and things are melting, I even saw GRASS the other day where the snow had melted. Where only a couple inches away from breaking the snowfall record, and it could still happen. Good luck with the wall, spring is around the corner!!

    1. margaret says:

      Thanks, Matt–and welcome to the conversation. I feel so lucky to live here and enjoy the birds and the landscape — even snow-covered — out the window, that I have to be positive. The wall is a bit of a drag (what a stupid thing to have to spend $$$ to fix, right?) but thankfully I am safe and there is no water damage or anything, like so many people are having from ice dams on the roof.

      1. Lynn Dunning-Vaughn says:

        Your plaster wall is easily repaired, Margaret. The materials are cheap and it only requires reading the directions to fix it yourself. The foundation should be looked at when the area can be cleared to make sure it’s structurally secure–and intervention to ensure it won’t heave again. Good luck with it!

        1. margaret says:

          Thanks, Lynn, for the optimistic view. :) The 1880s loose-stone foundation is definitely not stable, and will heave again (unless I lift the house and pour a new, modern one). Where I live, in all the old farm houses nearby, this is the exception rather than the norm. Thankfully the damage is only cosmetic, to the one piece of original plaster!

  13. Rae Koberna says:

    Today, there has finally been some melting. Perhaps the tunnel that is my driveway will get below at least six feet because the snowplow has piled it between my condo and my neighbor’s. She just called me to report that her garage is leaking and the association has to provide a roofer. I told her to wait until the snow melts, but I don’t think that satisfied her. It’s more important that my dog can stop doing her business in the driveway because of the snow mounds. All I have been thinking of is all the plants which have been completely buried since early December. What is my new hellebore conjuring up under her blanket?

  14. Rosemary says:

    Good Morning Margaret

    A sunny 24 degrees c in Rosedale Gippsland Victoria Australia.

    Yes we seem to be not drought free, its sunny, its cloudy it rains then the ground looks somewhat similar to your wall in that its full of cracks. Since moving here I have removed the old rotted stumps fungied citruses replanting my Crete garden 6 olive trees in and my mowing man thinks I am starting a fruit and vegetable farm!

    I had a load of mulch delivered in my backyard from neighbours across the road who have a huge garden with 20 gum trees reaching to 100ft plus and after reusing my old carpets lined two pellets into compost bins.

    Now I am saving for the half acre of grass to be pulled up and replaced with substantial mulch in its place, with my sandy pathway around my home at least then the existing plants will be alive and the new natives WILL SURVIVE I hope!

    I will send my garden poem to you I have started writing poetry on guess what gardens.

  15. Rosemary says:

    I heard it on the grapevine what a good friend you are of mine
    But then I saw you crouch near Poppy
    Who was next to a Sunflower
    And I thought your just a convulting Convulus aren’t you?
    You turned and looked at me with those Heath eyes
    Oh I nearly wilted on the spot
    I felt like a fig for taking you out
    I knew those thornless blackberries were sweet
    I should have left you at my feet
    Dry you survive
    Rain you survive
    Those honey bees like their hive
    Best put you back Lavender Rose
    I suppose. By Rosie from Rosedale

  16. lynn novick says:

    We have the ice dams and cracked leaking ceilings–but it could be worse.
    Went through all my seeds today and made a list so I don’t double up like I usually do.
    Getting ready for our first garden club meeting of the year and that keeps me going. I also love your blog.

  17. Joan Gillespie says:

    My banister broke leading to my front door, my one shudder off and my mailbox was hanging by one side. I’m from Cincinnati Ohio, our weather was bad but not like yours. Most of our snow is melted and the forecast looks promising.
    I run a Community Floral Garden and I have seeds that we are dying to start but the maintenance guys are afraid to turn the water on for fear we will have a freeze. I know spring will be here soon. I am patiently waiting and it’s reassuring that my house is not the only one with problems.

  18. Lisa - Ontario says:

    My biggest complaint is: it was too cold to snowshoe. Now it is warm enough, but too warm and the snow is getting all slushy. It will be a long slush period before the mud season. Spring will be late, but it will get here in a month or so.

  19. Lacey says:

    Here in southeaster zone 7b, winter turns to spring like an ill-tempered person with a short fuse. We still had 3 inches of snow on the ground last week when we had a 70 degree day. It was almost 80 yesterday, but we can’t embrace spring yet because this good humor will run out some time this month and another blast of cold fury will hit.

    It was one heck of a winter. I miss my frogs….

  20. Jackie P. says:

    This winter I added new skills to my resume: roof raking and trench digging. The trench allowed the melting snow to escape from the ankle-deep puddle–or should I say pond?– at the end of my driveway, onto the dirt road, which is now a pool of mud! It will be a long mud season. All in all, the over 3′ of snowfall in southern NH made for a beautiful landscape and a great backdrop for the many hungry birds at our feeders. Indoors, I have blooming amaryllis and begonias and have been able to open our three-season porch on sunny days to enjoy 80° temps out there. It’s coming!

  21. Carol says:

    January and February in New Jersey were frozen times, ice feared more than snow. Haven’t seen grass on my property since Dec. Several times, I hung out a 2nd story window to push snow off a lower roof with a shovel, hoping to prevent a cave in. I live at the top of a 4 block hill, and, many early mornings, I could slide down 50 ft. of frozen front sidewalk to get to my car. Speaking of my car, two days after leasing a new one, I dented the front passenger door, right-turning out of my ice-sided driveway. Spring, where are you?

  22. Terryk says:

    A long time since I have visited and hope by now you are out of the grips of winter. Although I imagine you are still experience some of these annoying snow flurry days. Having visited your property I know your sloped property. We have a shed that is located on cinder blocks and with the lay of our land, a contractor said the force of ground water is knocking it off the cinder blocks. I also had plaster ceilings and walls in my other house. Watch the cracks, you could have the wall pieces falling down. A bathroom ceiling fell down one morning and thank goodness my daughters were not in there when it happened. Good luck!

    1. margaret says:

      Thanks, Terryk. The wall is still as it was in the photos, and all ceilings thankfully intact. The ground is frozen solid, even raised beds. Frustrating!

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