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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. Joanne Toft says:

    This sounds like our winter last year here in Minnesota. Last year I got stuck in a snow drift in my back yard. (I live in Minneapolis). I have water raining in my kitchen on warm days. It did leave me with a new kitchen this winter. Lemons to lemonade! This year has been little snow and cold but still very happy to see signs of warming weather. I am worried we will be to dry this year. I did start a few plants under lights this week just to see green and new growth. It’s a few weeks early for our frost date but love watching the sprouts come out of the soil. Happy Spring everyone.

  2. Ann Greenwald says:

    There is a product called “Big Wally’s plaster Magic” http://www.plastermagic.com/
    that fixes cracks in plaster walls. We used it extensively in our old victorian house. It really does work wonders. It reattaches the plaster to the lathe underneath. Check it out!

  3. Rebecca Moore says:

    My complaint is lack of winter. Here in the SF Bay Area. We’re looking at highs of 68-75 degrees. Desperate for rain, but at the same time it’s beautiful out. Spring fever in Early March. The weeds are sprouting like crazy! Or hills are a lovely shade of green, but they won’t stay that way for long. Our state is in poor shape.

  4. Peg Lotvin says:

    It’s above 32 degrees this AM. Much celebrating……..but outside it still looks like a huge cake with Royal Frosting draped over everything.
    A friend just came back from a trip to Turks and Caicos with a TAN!! She actually contrasts and stands out against the snow while the rest of us fish belly white ones just meld with the landscape.

  5. Chris says:

    We moved to Long Island from Wisconsin 27 years ago, and decided to retire and stay here because the winters were shorter and milder. NOT THIS YEAR !! It has been the longest, coldest, . snowiest year ever. So moving from Wisconsin to New York will not solve the retirement location dilemma. However, it is pretty where we live. Just pick a location that you like, stock up on firewood and birdseed, have your cup of coffee every morning, and enjoy the fact that you no longer have to commute !! Right , Margaret??

  6. Mary says:

    Here in upstate NY at the end of January I was quite self congratulatory, even smug–“there, that wasn’t so bad, the deepest darkest part is over and now we sail on to spring.” Then February hit! I miss the earth, I miss my body, I miss being so sweaty and dirty and somehow energetically opened by a day in the soil, I miss my compost pile……all this will come again and please, to whatever universal power there is, soon, soon!

  7. Fern says:

    The next time someone mentions ice and salt, it had best be around the rim of a margarita. or there’s likely to be trouble round these parts.

    Hippity-hoppity! Spring is on it’s way. Or so they say . . . who trusts meteorologists any more?

  8. Kate says:

    As a museum preparator, I’m afraid your framed vintage seaweed specimens will be a casualty of your disintegrating wall! Maybe you should take them down, put them in a safe place, and put up a giant poster of a sunflower to cover all the cracking mess to get you through til spring and the repair time!
    Good luck! We’ll get there… :-)

  9. Meredith Bliss says:

    Until last week’s storm , my garden near the house received its annual ” nibble” by the dear deer. Now No leaves on the rhody’s, the arborvitae are 6 ft topiairies, and they are eating any and all the birdfood that sucessive snow doesn’t cover. About 7 of them are bedded down about 100 ft from the house day long. I think they are starving-for them Spring and its arrival is a question of life or death. I don’t like them eating or being reminded of the survival of winter as a metaphor for our own.

  10. Zoe Gustlin says:

    Weather? What weather? Oh that sunshine and the 75 degree temperature we are having today. We are rototiling the garden and planting tomorrow. Ah, the beauty and warmth of California. But I will be back to complain in the summer when we have no water from lack of rain and our garden is shriveled up and dying.

    1. margaret says:

      Nice to “meet” you, Zoe, and yes, no water out there. Much more serious than a bad winter, since at least we have (so far) a pretty steady supply of moisture in season and out. But I have to say rototilling sounds nice right about now…

  11. Debby says:

    The lack of food up north for Pine Siskins has sent hundreds of siskins to my feeders in central PA since Feburary. As of today, they have consumed 250 lbs of seed. I usually use 50 lbs of black oil sunflower seed per month in the winter. Now it’s 50 lbs. a week. I’m happy to feed these starving, eruptive birds. But winter needs to end so they can go home! The local herd of deer have chewed off most of my native shrubs up to the 4 foot mark and clean out the feeders every night. The Philly Flower Show this week cheered me up quite a bit, but the 2 hour drive home in freezing rain was a nightmare. This record breaking Winter needs to end now!

  12. Pam says:

    I know it is not admirable to feel better because of your problem, but thank you anyway! I am also thankful that I decided to bring several Coleus and all my big leaf Begonias inside and set them on a table in a window I can see every time I struggle to get up my long treacherous driveway. Coldest February ever on record in Central N.Y.!!

    1. margaret says:

      Happy to make you feel better based on the condition of my wall, Pam, and thanks for saying hello. I’m loving my begonias right now, too. Thank goodness for them, flowers and all at the moment.

  13. Mary says:

    It is so refreshing that the grumbling comments here are devoid of profanity and the ever present trolling you see on so many blogs! Reading all of these comments reminds me more than ever that we are all in this together and one mans misery is sometimes, well, another mans misery, albeit slightly different. I’m from the Midwest and although the snow has not been as bad, the cold has really gotten to us. Our son just moved to NorCal and it is striking to see an entirely different set of climatological issues with the drought they face. I must say, however I am looking forward to spending a few weeks out there this spring. You know something is amiss when temps in the 30s feel like a heat wave. And good luck to all dealing with far worse than we have here in the Midwest. Lovely, well behaved polite group of grumbles here I must say!

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Mary; thanks for joining us. We are a pretty civilized bunch, for seven years now since I began the site. Nobody ever acts up or acts out, and I am glad. Gardeners tend to be pretty good-natured, plus I think they must know I would object! :)

      1. Mary says:

        Thank you Margaret for the welcome. Love your blog. So full of great info. Been here a few years reading from the sidelines. Was very excited recently to see you appear on one of the PBS garden shows we watch most mornings. My husband thought it was quite humorous that I was so excited to see someone whose garden blog I follow on TV! You were great! Thank you for your great insight and info.

  14. Jean says:

    I live in Utah, Park City to be exact and this is a winter like no other I have ever encountered and I was born and raised here some 58 years ago. We have had mud season off and on since January. We get a few inches here and there and then 50- 60 degree temps for a week or two at a time. Not trying to make you East coasters feel bad but but we love snow here and this is the 4th year of a drought and looking grim for gardening this summer.

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Jean, and thanks for joining. I feel blessed to have moisture of any kind, no matter how brutal it sometimes feels lately. Drought is an impossible opponent, and it seems it is an increasingly tenacious one as well.

  15. This being my first winter in Columbia County, NY I have learned a lot about managing an old house in the cold and snow. I never even heard of an ice dam! The water started dripping into the dinning room and down our new sheet rock and paint job. Then the drip became a flood on the upstairs bedroom floor. The best thing is that it is almost over.

    Next will be the flooding basement and then it will be time to start battling the crop of Japanese knot weed.

  16. Dahlink says:

    We have set several new weather records here in Baltimore this winter, but when I hear from cousins in Minnesota about their winter I can only feel fortunate. We also have family in California where they get excited about any measurable rain. Today it is in the mid-40s and the big melt is beginning. Now for pothole season!

  17. Tracy says:

    For the last few years, I’ve worked from home and here’s my dirty little secret: in the middle of a suburban neighborhood full of snowy commuters, I gave up shoveling my driveway after 9″ of snow froze solid and so have not even started my car or left my house in almost three weeks! I feel positively like a housebound pioneer in the middle of a Great Plains winter. But that’s not the secret…The reality is that I’ve LOVED it. I had stocked up on a cord of seasoned firewood, stacked within arm’s reach under the eaves on the front porch, filled a garbage can full of several hundred dollars of hulled bird seed in the garage and stocked my freezer and fridge with quality ‘ingredients’ to supplement my packed pantry. As long as I have power and Internet connectivity, I’m happy as a semi-hibernating chipmunk. I set up a heated birdbath just outside the door off the dining room and have been keeping all the local birdies (and squirrels, who are looking positively gaunt this year), fed and watered. I light a wood burning fire almost every day or evening and peck away to its crackling background noise. And the cooking! Lord, the cooking that’s been going on! I’ve turned all those ingredients into container after container of homemade frozen meals, rich stock, etc. So while I’m ready for Spring and can’t wait to get my mitts into the gardens’ soil, I surrendered to winter and loved it. (I think I’ve been watching a lot of Alaska Frontier…)

    1. Judy says:

      Tracy, I love the hibernating, too. It’s cozy, as long as you have food and everything you need on hand.. along with electricity and nothing freezes. Yes, a winter like this year can be a hardship and a drag. A lot of people had home damage and suffered. In NJ, we got the freezing cold and snow, but not as much snow as further north and in New England. I’m glad the temperature is warmer (today 60F). A lot of snow has melted, and it’s a relief.

  18. Susan Bradley says:

    And in this odd year when my relatives (and poor you) are lamenting the snow/frost/cold, we, in California are sunny, warm, and unfortunately way too dry. Have plenty of Sunshine. Willing to trade a little for some of your snow. All inquiries welcome. Wonder if we can FedEx it from the East Coast to the West Coast or use one of those Oil and Gas pipelines to move your winter to my Spring?

    1. margaret says:

      Thanks for joining us, Susan, and welcome. I would rather be cold and snowy than without moisture, but none of it is very reassuring, is it?

      1. Susan Bradley says:

        Indeed. I was at the farmers’ market this morning [oh I’m going to rub it in even harder, aren’t I?] buying fresh spring lettuce, citrus and even early strawberries and all the rest of the bounty of our winter sunshine all commenting that we wished we had a little less sun and more rain.

  19. Dirtgirl says:

    Oh ladies, how your stories of cold, fost and snow brought back memories of my childhood in UK and the main reason I came to Australia some 45 yrs ago. This climate has been a complete turn around from what I grew up with, but I have loved it.
    At present we are now in our Autumn, but to me there really are only 2 seasons, Summer for almost 9 months, Winter for 3 months. Our temperatures are still hitting the low to mid 30’s celsius, but we have been having the most wonderful late afternoon/evening tropical storms which has not only filled the 3000 litre rainwater tank, but kept the garden growing like something out of the movie Day of The Triffids!
    We started with a blank site just over 5 yrs ago after building a new house next to the old one that was literally falling down around us, so your tales of plaster falling off the wall rang bells! Now we sit and look out on a garden filled with trees, shrubs and plants and even chickens free ranging in amongst it all.
    Happy gardening to you all when your weather improves.

  20. Leah Kinder says:

    To Tracy…….and Margaret……you must use some substitute for dairy milk, right? Or do you freeze any milk…..(I know it is not too good for drinking after freezing, but can be used in cooking and baking, etc.). Are there also other substitutes you use in such conditions?
    Luckily, we in northern VA are seeing some good thawing today and have some 50 degree days in our forecast for next week! We’ll finally get to see if any of our jonquils, crocus, etc. are finally poking their noses out of the ground.

    1. carol says:

      Leah . . . my husband buys raw milk, 6 gallons at a time, from a dairy in the next county to ours. He freezes most of it. We’ve found that it’s just as good after it thaws as when he brings it home. The trick is to shake it up well before freezing so the fat is thoroughly mixed in.

    2. Tracy says:

      To be honest, I don’t have kids and can easily go without milk or cream for weeks at a time. I did stock up before the first of these many sequential snowstorms in the northeast, and because I buy only organic dairy, it lasts much longer in the fridge than non-organic. But I find I don’t use much other than butter, which keeps a very long while. But I don’t use much milk in cooking.

      I have to say, I’ve enjoyed my hermit existence this winter and try to lean into the situations each season brings. I also do a ton of reading in the winter, which I love. I am a soup nut, and a crwckling fire, bowl of really good soup and a great book is heaven to me. But believe me, by the end of April, I’ll be climbing the walls to get outside and dig! A few warm days and a single afternoon of warm breezes and I’ll be roaring to go. I always think the cruelest months are March and April, not the supercold winter months.

      1. margaret says:

        I definitely have the grocery-shopping in winter down to every couple/few weeks, Tracy, so I understand. Why bother? :) Soup is on the menu here most days for at least one meal.

  21. Corinne says:

    Upstate New York’s February was coldest on record, since 1880’s. We, still have 3 feet of snow on the ground. Let’s hope that March coming like a lion means out like a lamb. No flooding, no mud ruts, no frozen groung until May. Hey, the sun is shining today.

  22. Laurie Ann says:

    I so feel your pain and helplessness. We also have doors that won’t close or open. The decks are banging loud enough to wake the dead, and there are cracks where there have never been cracks before.

    Neighbors have had the lines freeze from their wells to their homes, and water mains have been bursting around the Capital District daily.

    I have lived Upstate since 1968, with the exception of three years down south, and have never seen it this bad. Two more weeks until spring!!!

    Looking forward to Open Days at your gardens:-)

  23. Pat Cattermole says:

    I am so sorry to see those nasty cracks. That’s just rude of old man winter! We have had the most unwinter season ever. I am in British Columbia Canada – almost no snow and no cold. I have never experienced a warmer winter in my life!

    1. margaret says:

      Thanks for joining us, Pat, and welcome. Friends in the PNW of the US say the same — and that spring is already half gone (magnolias in full bloom, early bulbs past…). Crazy.

  24. Marianne Zimberg says:

    Hi Margaret, It is diagnostic, I have “Winter Delirium”! The other day I looked out at 3′ of snow and saw giant snow drops, crocus, winter aconite all blooming! I rubbed my eyes and sure enough, I had hallucinated spring growing on the snowfields! Treatment had to be extreme, I ordered 20 hellebores! I am calmer now, hoping the next thing I see out back will be the “real deal”.
    Marianne

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