lilacs of late

Observant North Country folk will notice an abundance of blossoms appearing on woody clumps of bushes this time of year.  I’ve seen light and dark purple, pink and white blooms in this area. Most, and especially those in the wild, are light purple. The lilac’s scent is unmistakeable; it hangs heavy and sweet and travels on the breeze. Delightful.

Lilacs are zone three hardy. They can take anything the No Co dishes out, including weeks of subzero winter temps if necessary. (That degree of cold seems increasingly rare these days; no complaints.) Some lilacs, like ours, hedge the property line. Others appear randomly, spreading along roadside or far back in fields. Lilacs return like tried and true friends.

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straw bale gardening (SBG)

Last spring I posted about our experiment with straw bale gardening. It’s high time I reported back on our experiment.

Supplies were minimal and some can be reused. We purchased nine straw bales, landscape fabric, six metal posts, and fencing wire; big bag of fertilizer and waterproof bin to store it in; a soaker hose, small metal stakes to secure it, and a water timer. A couple hundred dollars and carefully selected seeds and seedlings later, we were in SBG business. I’m happy to report I was pleasantly surprised by (most) of the results.

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amish co-gardening

tomatoesSeveral years ago we employed two young Amish couples on our dairy farm. One year the Hubs came up with the brilliant idea to collaborate on a vegetable garden. It sounded quite perfect to me.

I hated the idea of gardening because I despise snakes. Seriously. It doesn’t matter if they are harmless or small. A snake is a snake is a snake. (You may appreciate some of my dramatic snake experiences.)

The Hubs loved the idea of gardening but it seldom played out well. True to his “go big or go home” nature, he over-engineered. When reality hit in the form of acres to plant, mow, bale, or chop, the garden got short shrift. It was neglected to the point of joint embarrassment by early July. Even then, I refused to enter!

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sunrise, moonset


I rushed outside for the sunrise
Winter coat thrown hastily over nightgown
Bare legs braving the frost
Misty fog of warm air rising from the river
Horizon slowly warming, blushing in pearly hues
Welcome to this new day.

I returned slowly, savoring the thought of piping hot coffee
That first cup always tastes the best
Pleasantly surprised by the harvest moon
Lingering as a bright ball of light
Slipping behind bare maple and birch, scruffy cedars and pine.


Last night at dusk I startled a deer in the cornfield
He snorted and blew, fleeing over stubble
His white tail flying like a flag, he all but flew
Over corn stalks the combine left behind.

Oftentimes it seems life is like the deer
Gone in a flash. What was that? Was it really there?
Sunrise and moonset remind me to breathe
Just breathe.

You have made my life no longer than the width of my hand.
    My entire lifetime is just a moment to you;
    at best, each of us is but a breath.
We are merely moving shadows,
   and all our busy rushing ends in nothing.
We heap up wealth,
   not knowing who will spend it.
And so, Lord, where do I put my hope?
   My only hope is in you.

Psalm 39:5-7 New Living Translation (NLT)


~ René Morley



open house, open hearts


On the first Saturday of December we hosted an open house with Santa. It was one of those stars -have-aligned sort of opportunities. First Christmas in our new home. So many people to thank and so many reasons to be thankful. Young grandchildren and great-nieces and wee friends from children’s church experiencing the magical wonder and holy awe of Christmas. New friends in the community. Lots of good reasons to plan a Christmas party.

Most importantly, this will be the first Christmas since our beloved Betty passed over. She loved the Christmas season more than anyone I’ve known. Christmas a la Betty was a sight to behold. She trimmed the tree, the house, the yard, until every nook and cranny was graced by Christmas spirit. She spent an entire year preparing, purchasing gifts well in advance and baking sweets and treats for weeks leading up to the big day.

By the time I entered the scene the family was so large that gifts were exchanged in family groupings over the course of a week leading up to Christmas. Even then, she always exceeded expectations with beautifully wrapped packages spilling into the dining room from under the front room tree. On Christmas Eve, the entire brood gathered at the farm before church services. Santa made an appearance to the delight of the children as adults battled over Betty’s famous dill pickles in a gift exchange. Christmas was a celebration of family as well faith.

On the days leading up to our open house, it was almost as if my mother-in-law was shadowing each step. She felt very near as I was baking spiral hams and dozens of rolls, trimming with lights and baubles and scents of the season, wrapping packages to fill the gap under the mammoth tree that the Hubs, a.k.a. Clark Griswold, couldn’t resist — he carries her Christmas torch. I knew she would be pleased with our preparations for sixty guests. My sisters-in-law and others showed up with helpful contributions just as I knew they would because they also know family matters. Betty’s example and joyful celebrations of family life and Christmas will serve us well in to the future.

In one important way, as the song below so beautifully illustrates, this is her first Christmas. Listen in… and if that doesn’t boost your Christmas spirit, then spend some time with my Christmas playlist!

And it was just (February) past 
She said goodbye, and breathed her last 
And the great-grandchildren miss her so 
But if she could she would let them know … 
This is my first Christmas 

First time to hear the angels sing 
Glory, hallelujah to the risen king 
And a holy night is what this is 
‘Cause this is my first Christmas 
This is my first Christmas




I’m pleased to report the open house with Santa a grand success and a ton of fun. The house was buzzing with conversation among family, friends, and neighbors. Twenty children leaned in one by one, wide-eyed and eager to bend Santa’s ear — except for our three grandgirls, who each preferred to keep their distance! Santa gifted each child with a Little Golden Book retelling the first Christmas story.

I crouched low on the carpet, observing each of the children up close in their moment of joy on Santa’s lap. They were just precious. One of the most memorable was in 3 year-old Henry’s Santa exchange. It was a very short conversation. “I want a bounce house” (trampoline), Henry proclaimed. I prompted him to continue on his sister’s behalf, just as he’d practiced, so Santa would know Anna Bea would like “something that squeaks.” Alas, he’d changed his mind about sharing this detail. “No, GiGi,” he said. “She’s fine. Beasy don’t need nothing.” Well, huh. I sure hope Santa doesn’t forget her!

Long into the eventing we ate, drank and were merry in the making of memories and start of a new Christmas tradition.


Merry Christmas!

~ René Morley

straw bale garden

IMG_4754Last weekend I stumbled on an article in the The Virginia-Pilot, “Greener Living: Norfolk gardener sold on straw bale veggies.” Straw bale — what?  Turns out there’s a whole movement around a form of container gardening that uses pre-conditioned straw bales!

I read just enough on the Straw Bale Garden website to convince me to buy the book. (Of course, it’s even cheaper on Amazon.) The founder, Joel Karsten, tells a compelling story. The science behind it seems sound, the benefits real and significant, and the investment to get started quite low. It does require some advance preparation, a couple of weeks to properly condition the bales. Joel has been working at this for twenty years, so there is a lot of detail packed into the book.

The proclaimed benefits of straw bale gardening seem too good to be true. It works beautifully for most vegetables, including root vegetables — which are hard to grow in our clay-heavy soil. It works great for tomatoes and vine vegetables, herbs, even cut flowers and especially annual bulbs. It works with either seedlings or seeds and provides a boost to the growing season — another No Co benefit. It’s less work and — get this — no weeds! Furthermore, a straw bale garden will grow, quite literally, anywhere. The mere presence of soil is irrelevant. The method has been proven all over the world.

Given the state of our lawn, formerly known as hayfield, and the work ahead of us this spring as we settle into our new digs and begin landscaping, I know that we’re not up for a “real” garden. I think a few straw bales are worth a try! Not convinced? Listen in on the first 12 minutes as Joel does his thing …

Here is another fella’ using straw bales as a container. This is a pretty good example of what not to do — according to the SBG method. He also can’t seem to remember he’s working with a bale of STRAW not hay! But I couldn’t resist sharing “Daddy Pete’s” perspective. ;=) Joel’s SBG book seems essential for getting started on the right foot.

Stay tuned for our No Co straw bale story … assuming the Hubs climbs on the straw bale bandwagon. Are you in? Ready, set, garden!

~ René Morley

this old house

We moved into this house early in 1987 with three small children. A classic American farmhouse, built in the 1800s, it perches on a knoll overlooking the river, presenting some nice views. It certainly offered more space, which we desperately needed. But it was in rough shape.

We were young in parenting and in life. I was quite comfortable in our first home, a tidy little bungalow in the nearby hamlet. I had misgivings about a move further into the country. It wasn’t the condition of the place or the work ahead but that I liked having family so close by. One sister-in-law’s back yard bordered ours. Another lived across the street. I felt connected and protected in between.

Despite my objections, the Hubs insisted on this move to what I disparagingly called the Cordwell Ranch. In retrospect, it was the right move. True to form, he had a longer field of vision. So many times it has happened that way: he has had the courage to take the risk and press forward or encourage me onward.

It truly didn’t matter to us that it was so rough; we hardly noticed. Looking back, however, it is clear why nearly everyone who visited said something like, “Well, it has potential.” It was the kindest thing they could muster.

The kitchen was terribly out of date, with uneven cupboards that wouldn’t close properly (the mice loved — eek!) and an ancient wooden countertop with long grooves that caught everything (mother-in-law hated — a health hazard!). The yellowed linoleum was torn and worn and looked dirty, no matter how much I scrubbed.

The one room that could serve as a family room was more like a man-cave; once an attached woodshed, now complete with bar. Its walls were authentic barn wood, flecked with cow manure. The corner wood stove was absolutely required to compensate for its lack of foundation and the biting wind blowing across the open field through the icy cold north country winter. But we didn’t know that, yet.

The second story was one large open room, roughly finished, the stairway steep and narrow. The main floor was a series of small rooms, some daisy-chained together. The walls were lathe and plaster. All the windows and doors needed replacement, as did the electrical wiring, as we would soon discover. The ceilings sagged, the floors sloped, and the pipes froze in the winter. And that’s only on the inside! Outside was a scraggly yard as rough as a wagon trail abutting a barb-wire fence. The house was covered in deteriorating masonite siding. What’s not to love?

Oh, yes. There was also a grandfather maple tree gracing the back yard — the redeeming feature of an otherwise scrappy place. The grand-maple has been present through the seasons; ablaze in glory every fall and a reminder of God’s good gifts spring, summer and winter. I treasure this tree like no other!

Screen Shot 2015-08-28 at 6.52.26 AM  Screen Shot 2015-08-28 at 6.53.11 AM Screen Shot 2015-08-28 at 6.53.03 AM

Our first contractor was a retired farmer who charged us $5 an hour, God rest his soul. His first project was to create three bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs. Al didn’t understand sheetrock and insisted on using a circular saw for every cut. I can still see him, entirely masked in white dust, peering out through safety goggles. His signature was using trim to fill the gaps in his rough finish.  There was a lot of trim!

Another image seared in my memory is of our youngest, aged two, proudly painting molding laid out upon sawhorses. All of our chids learned early how to pitch in and each became a hard worker; life lessons that continue to serve them well. I quickly learned how to mud sheetrock and hang wallpaper, thanks to my mom and mother-in-law. I was never very good at either, unfortunately but we had a lot of help, thankfully. Many nights, long after the Hubs and chids were asleep, I was painting and papering an old house into a home.

Al’s final project involved a new kitchen ceiling. We realized it must be replaced only after ordering the new linoleum, which was to be installed the next day.  At the very least, we had to get the old ceiling out of there. The Hubs took a first pass, knocking down as much lathe and plaster as he could before going back to milk on Sunday afternoon. He left me and the chids knee deep in pile of debris across the kitchen, a portion of the ceiling still intact. But before he left, he called Al.

Good ol’ Al. He arrived within the hour and dove in. He was 70-something, still strong and determined, but he ran up against some difficulties where lathe ran behind the cupboards. Suddenly he ducked out and took off in his truck. He returned with a chainsaw and fired it up in my kitchen without a word. That finished the job. There was a thick haze of blue smoke and chain saw oil splattered everywhere — including across freshly painted cupboards. As I said, that was Al’s final project!

Screen Shot 2015-08-28 at 6.49.35 AMIn the nearly three decades we’ve lived here, we’ve more than rebuilt the place. Our biggest project was to remove the kitchen entirely and rebuild with full basement and second story in 2000. That was an adventuresome summer of cooking at camp, our living room completely disconnected from sleeping quarters and bathrooms. We’ve added brick patios with potting shed, cozy fireplace and soothing fountain. Last fall, we created a lovely master suite. It’s taken a lot but we’re pleased and proud of the results.

Over the past few years, however, it’s become less and less of a good fit. We don’t use the space fully or well. I began imagining the adventure of building new home, single story please, and dreaming about moving this old house on to the next generation to fill with laughter and love. Last year, the Hubs came on board with letting it go. For once, if only once in 33 years, I had the viewfinder.

This morning as I write, I’m waiting for the moving truck to arrive and our dream to begin to become reality. Grandboy Henry and family will inhabit the upstairs for the next few months as we build a new home on the adjacent lot. I can hardly believe it’s happening — any of it. I am so thankful. I hope they will be as happy here as we have been. I can’t wait to see what they do with the place!

May the Lord bless and protect you; may the Lord’s face radiate with joy because of you; may he be gracious to you, show you his favor, and give you his peace. Numbers 6:24-26

~ René Morley