12 May 2016


Despite the odd winter which cycled from frigid to warm throughout the season, it appears that relatively few plants were seriously damaged. A prolonged and very warm spell in December caused some iris to break dormancy and send up leaves. Despite nights in the low single digits, the leaves endured and now have produced some spectacular blooms, both in size and number. Its difficult to appreciate from the image but the deep purple/blue iris blooms are the size of my hand.

The wild iris have also prospered this year. The common blue iris (Iris Virginica) is opening all over the farm, adding those intense touches of blue here and there.

A farm buddy down the road gave me a five gallon bucket load of yellow bog iris (Iris pseudacorus) from his field two years ago. Considered an invasive pest in many areas, these were planted in the "it won't hold water pond" fro whence they are unlikely to escape. Bless his heart, Warren has since died after a valiant battle with cancer - his iris will remind me of our friendship year after year. 

The grasses and attendant weeds are also thriving. After lubricating every grease fitting on the riding mower, it is back in service for the season. Although carrying the Sears brand, it was made by Husqvarna and has been a durable performer under difficult conditions here on the steep landscape. Its main use is around the house, under trees, and on slopes too steep to safely take the big tractor. The wee spreader is handy for applying lime and fertilizer in spot applications.

The Yanmar continues to exceed expectations. The underbelly mower was lubricated, belt checked and remounted tot he tractor (you cannot plow snow with it mounted). Theoretically it is a mower, not a bush hog, but it will whack a fair sized locust with aplomb.

The seedlings are rocketing upward. About five hours were spent yesterday in transplanting wee seedlings i their Jiffy-Pots into 4" pots.

Summer is just around the corner - what will it bring? Wet? Dry? Hot or cold? Or a real surprise, might it be normal?

04 May 2016

Daily Deluge

"In the spring I have counted one hundred and thirty-six different kinds of weather inside of four-and-twenty hours." Mark Twain, speech delivered at the New England Society's Seventy-First Annual Dinner, New York City, Dec. 22, 1876.

The National Weather Service in Blacksburg (Virginia) announced that our area was in the first stages of a drought just ten days ago. April was exceptionally dry in a month when spring rains are more typical. After a cold beginning, the month became unseasonably warm. The one exceptional night of 21F (-6C) produced widespread damage on Stratheden's flora. Even the grass in the pastures had growing tips killed. Several small trees that I planted 3-6 years ago and were flourishing had all their brand new leaves frozen. All looked bleak but in the last week, it appears all chlorophyll laden residents of the farm, large and small, have recovered without long term damage. Perhaps the hay yield will be normal.

freeze damaged Golden Rain tree (Koelreuteria paniculata)

My wonderful neighbor came by several weeks ago with his tractor mounted tiller and in about 15 minutes, turned all of the large garden. After letting it remain fallow for all of 2015, the weeds and grass roots were sufficiently large and strong as to choke the small tiller. My deepest thanks to him for saving me a couple of days of hard hand labor. The next step in the large garden is to replace the deer fencing which was damaged badly last winter, presumably by wildlife. Ten 9 foot T-posts await being pounded in to reinforce the extant posts. once that is complete, new deer fencing must be raised. Then, once the area is protected, seedlings may be set and seeds (pumpkins and squash) may be planted. The small garden is about 50% planted with the remaining area awaiting seedlings maturing in peat pots becoming large enough to transplant.

leading edge of the storm
 The farm and flower garden are in bloom. The drought seemed to be slowing the maturity of wild plants but last Saturday, the drought broke dramatically with 1.7 inches of rain, followed by a like amount on Monday. Suddenly, the ground went from being powdery dry to gooey mud. A week ago, my concern was whether garden seeds would germinate due to lack of moisture (the 75F days were otherwise perfect for germination); now the concern is whether they will damp off or drown (tomorrow's high is forecast to be only 51F, too cold for almost any seeds to germinate). As Grandfather Field said, farmers are never content with conditions.

Springtime tasks include tractor maintenance (especially greasing fittings) and the change of accoutrements. After a final pass at grading the driveway to repair the vagaries of winter's influence, the blade is now safely tucked away in the barn, hopefully for the season, replaced by the E Z Lift (the entire swap process without mashing a single finger). With it in place, it can be used in lieu of a ladder to stand on whilst pounding in the T-posts. Much more convenient (and safe) than a step ladder on uneven, soft ground.

And a sample of what is currently blooming around Stratheden Farms:
Clematis on the patio

Cranesbill geranium

Virginia Sneezeweed?
Fire Pink

Five blooms on one stalk

This iris is the size of my hand!

Peonies ready to burst with blooms

14 April 2016

Small Miracles

On this day in 2009, one of those small miracles of life on Planet Earth happened in the bedroom, much to the relief of Gypsy Girlie who was at the point of bursting. She was in great discomfort for more than a week before giving birth; she moaned frequently and it was heartbreaking to hear, knowing there was no way to ameliorate her pain.

She had come to the farm late one cold afternoon in February, so scrawny it wasn't clear she would survive. What she knew, and no one else did, was she was pregnant. For weeks she downed kibbles like there was no tomorrow, gaining weight until her figure was normal - but still she chowed down. She grew larger and larger until everyone realized she was soon to be a mother. On April 14th, over about five hours, she gave birth to five kittens, three females and two males, four orange and one dark smoke. They were christened Buster, Fred, Beatrice, Annie and Tadpole. Poor Girlie was thoroughly exhausted.

12 April 2016

A Cents of Community

Floyd takes care of its own, in exemplary ways. Last weekend, there were two good times which raised monies for good causes: the annual Empty Bowls and a special very local dinner.

Empty Bowls is an long standing project by local potters and soup chefs to raise money for a very deserving cause - hungry children in the community. For $20, you select a stoneware bowl made by a local potter and then select a gourmet soup to fill it (I chose West African Peanut Soup). The proceeds allow school kids to be sent home on Friday with a backpack of food so they will not go hungry over the weekend. Hundreds of people attend raising thousands of dollars. There is also a silent auction with locally crafted items. Yours truly was fortunate to be the high bidder on a set of fancy nesting Shaker boxes by local artisan Don George.


The other fund raiser was for a neighbor, right down my road, just eighteen years old, who needs a liver transplant. Various forms of insurance will pay for most of the direct medical costs but the family is below the poverty line and this money will pay for the numerous out of state trips to hospitals and allow the family to stay in a nearby motel while Kaytie has her surgery and recuperates. It was held at the Falling Branch Methodist Church, conveniently located at the end of the road, with singing upstairs in the church and dinner downstairs in the basement. It was a fine opportunity to visit with neighbors, eat some home cooked cuisine and just plain have a old-fashioned sort of good time. There was a silent auction here, too, and Mr. Fuzzy brought home a loaf of sourdough bread and a pecan-caramel cake. Those notoriously tight farmers donated over $5,000 for the family's needs. Charity begins at home and you couldn't get closer to home than this; God bless them all.

06 April 2016

Winter - Spring - Winter - Spring - ?

Eastern Redbud

"And if I belonged in this place it was because I belonged to it. And I began to understand that so long as I did not know this place fully, or even adequately, I belonged to this place only partially. That summer, I began to see, however dimly, that one of my ambitions, perhaps my governing ambition, was to belong fully to this place, to belong as the thrushes and the herons and the muskrats belonged, to be altogether at home here. That is still my ambition. I have made myself entirely willing to be governed by it. But I have now come to see that it proposes an enormous labor. It is a spiritual ambition, like goodness. The wild creatures belong to the place by nature, but as a man I can belong to it only by understanding and by virtue. It is an ambition I cannot hope to succeed in wholly, but I have come to believe it is the most worthy of all."
         Kentucky author Wendell Berry, The Long-Legged House, page 169.

From The National Weather Service today: " By the weekend...we will see temperatures 15 to 20 degrees below normal...which equates to a hard freeze. Freezing temperatures are expected each morning Saturday, Sunday, and Monday...and Sunday morning we are looking at lows in the teens in the mountains and 20s elsewhere! That is really cold for April!!! And...there will even be snow showers in the mountains..."

Its hard to speak for the fauna but the farm's flora are certainly confused about timing their flowers and leaves because of the wild swings in the temperatures here. Monday the high was 70F, sixteen hours later, the sunrise temperature was 28F. This morning it was dead still and 29F, which killed the just opened leaves of some trees. The peonies have rocketed up from the ground in the last few days and are certainly very tender. If the forecast is correct, it will plunge to 24F (-4C) Saturday night. Every bucket and empty flower pot on the farm will be inverted to cover peonies, hydrangea, dicentra, day lilies, rudbeckia, columbine, roses, etc., with hopes of no lasting damage. 

The entire winter was a chaotic mix of unusually warm and unusually cold weather, swinging back and forth like a pendulum. Nonetheless, there seems to have been relatively little winter damage and some flowering trees, especially the cherries and eastern redbuds, are extraordinary in their floral displays now. There have been winds of sufficient strength to bowl over highway signs but thus far, the flowers and trees have been tenacious enough to retain their glory.

Here are flowers from around the farm, taken this week. Enjoy.


Lilac about to open



23 March 2016

Facts and Fotography

Nota Bene: this is a post with nothing to do with Stratherden Farms but a rant/whine about the current state of photography. You may wish to return to your regular channel now.

Brother of another mother and my photographic mentor, Tillman Crane, passed through Stratheden Farms recently and, as always, there was some amount of lamentation regarding what passes for fine art photography these days, both what hangs on art institution's walls and what is published in magazines and books. My thinking was further sharpened & stimulated that same day by a brief visit from Bill Moretz, Virginia photographer extraordinaire and repository of encyclopedic knowledge about photographic equipment. Their presence reminded me that although learning from the internet is viable alternative, it is a poor substitute for learning from a live expert with decades of priceless experience. Reading a few web sites may impart some facts but not wisdom.

With this in mind, your humble author begs leave to bring your attention to two texts viewed on the internet this week.

On an old student's (who is now a major photo-editor) Facebook page, one of his contacts wrote: "_____, do you know where I can take a photoshop class. I may start teaching a digital photography class with photoshop. All I know is from playing. I think a real class will help me. Thanks." About 35 years ago, my  friend Ted Rice neatly labelled this the "take a class - teach a class" syndrome (in reference to a student who had taken Ted's platinum printing classes and was now advertising his own "Master Class" workshops in Texas a few months later). The temerity of people to believe that taking one class on a complex technology will enable them to know the subject well enough to teach it is far beyond my comprehension but it is a common approach. Further, the gullible nature of their students who believe they are receiving quality instruction for their large outlays of money to charlatans.

From a photographic equipment blog with 19,500 followers, a writer noted his qualifications, "I got into photography because of a camera [duh]. In late 2012, I saw a Yashica Electro 35 ME on a Swiss auction-website and just wanted it. I didn’t know much about cameras, photography or film... Over the next year I bought about ten different cameras." His aspired to someday have a darkroom and learn to develop film & make his own prints. Three years later, he was an expert on cameras made about the time he was born... obviously a much faster learner than your current author. Get real, kid, other people red the same blogs that 'informed' your posts. Exposing a couple of dozen rolls of film makes you a rank amateur with aspirations, not an expert. Talk to me after you shoot three or four hundred rolls or have worn out a camera or two - then I may find your blether worthy of notice.

You are far too many to enumerate but this is the proper place to acknowledge those who, over my 50 years in photography, have freely imparted their hard-won knowledge to a not-always-worthy student. It all began with industrial photographer Charlie Manion, 17 November 1966 [more on that on 17 November 2016's post]. Thank you for your devotion to the art of photography, my friends, and your dedication to perpetuating it.

P.S.: It is edifying to learn that the object formerly termed "film camera" when I used one, is now "analog hardware."

made with a c. 1958 Mamiya Six Automat IV camera

16 March 2016


The toasty temperatures have continued. The table below, from the Blacksburg office of the National Weather Service, illustrates how extraordinary this trend has been. Alas, over the coming weekend, a cold front will overrun the land and perhaps snow will fall on Sunday. Today it hit 75F on the farm under a brilliant, unimpaired sun.

"and in other news..."
Sleep cycles get stranger and stranger as you age and sound, deep sleep seems a bygone concept, at least on a regular basis. Out here in the country, sounds such as coyotes celebrating a kill only 75 yards from the window is scarcely a lullaby. Worse, when the dogs go screaming yellow zonkers at 2;10 a.m., and although you expected to find Freddie Krueger at the door, no cause could be detected. The adrenaline burns off in an hour or so and perhaps a fitful sleep returns. Now, imagine if you will, this happening three consecutive nights. Ghosts? Boggles? A trail camera mounted on a porch post the fourth night revealed the answer:

And other causes of insomnia:
The following night Rufus the Dogge woke me up about 2:00 a.m. (what is it about 2:00?), a little distressed by something, clearly not needing to go to the bathroom... then I heard it, that piercing electronic BEEEEEP from downstairs. Oh crap, the carbon monoxide alarm! Opened a couple of bedroom windows, took a deep breath, skittered down the stairs, threw open two doors then looked at the detector, which has a readout of ppm of CO. But instead of a number, it showed ERR. Error? Alright, punch the reset. ERR. Off to the internet for the solution... or, if my bleary eyes had been more able to focus, the words on the back of the detector: "Seven years after the initial power up, this unit will 'chirp' every 30 seconds to indicate that it is time to replace the alarm."
Kidde KN-COPP-3 Nighthawk Plug-In Carbon Monoxide Alarm with Battery Backup and Digital Display

It is my most earnest hope, dear reader, that your nights are spent in deep and restful sleep. I have a vague recollection of that state.