Archives for posts with tag: shadows

Here’s what we’re up against this time of year. In the late morning, just before noon, the sun is near its zenith. Any yet, the shadows of the trees to the south of the garden are tickling the feet of the tomatoes and eggplants as they pass by.

In a few weeks, the shadows will be patting the nightshades on the head, like a visiting uncle does his nieces and nephews, looming over the children and shielding them from the light. The kids love their uncle but are a bit relieved when he moves on.

Lengthening shadows are one of the difficulties of cusp season gardening. The already short day is further reduced by obstructions to the sun’s lower inclination. Fall is upon us.


The days are getting shorter and the shadows are growing longer…

Warning:  Insect photo below.

Fall returned this week, like an old friend who had been away visiting others for a few months (family in the southern hemisphere, I believe).  It is good to see the autumn come around again and bittersweet to watch as our houseguest, summer, packs up and leaves.  We had some good times these past three months but we’ll have more fun with a different crowd in the months ahead.

The changing season gives me a warm feeling, even while the weather is turning decidedly cooler.  On the one hand, a swim in the pool has almost suddenly lost its appeal (time to close it soon) and I can actually wear long trousers, having faced up to the possibility a week ago.  In the morning, I need a sweatshirt when I go out for a run.

On the other hand, sleeping is much more comfortable.  The air is crisper—although not yet as dry as it will be in winter—and warms up by late morning.  It can be almost as hot as in summer, in an absolute sense, but the heat is usually moderated by cool breezes.  The sun is lower and shade is more plentiful; it provides a handy respite from the still-intense rays of light.  All things considered, this a good time to be outdoors.

Unless you are a vegetable.  Many of the plants have withered away, leaving only bare spots behind.  I’ve already mentioned the shortening day and increasing solar screening by adjacent trees (see August 25, 2013).  Now, with overnight temperatures dropping into the 50s and 60s, the vegetables’ growth rate has slowed to a crawl.  The tomatoes, green beans and squash are still producing but not as much and not as often.

The vegetables are starting to miss their summer companion and will soon be joining its exodus from the garden.

Trees are a treasure, a joy to have around.  They provide a habitat for birds, insects and other critters; act as a buffer against wind, rain and snow; and are the main generator of atmospheric oxygen and consumer of carbon dioxide.  Plus, they are beautiful to behold.  If they are not the focus of a picturesque view, they are probably framing it.

But sometimes they get in the way.  Usually, this is merely an annoyance, such as when they block the view (see, for example, August 12, 2013).  Other times, though, trees can block solar exposure, often to detrimental effect.  I’ve become painfully aware of this phenomenon in the garden as the summer has wound down.

I noticed this morning, for instance, that the garden is still in the shade long after 8:00 am, the hour at which it came into full sun at summer’s peak.  Two months after the summer solstice, however, the sun is already quite a bit lower in the sky and as a result, the tall trees to the east of us are obstructing its direct rays.  It is light in the early morning but it is not exactly sunny.

Similarly, this afternoon, the tips of the fir trees on our neighbor’s property, just to the southern side of our pool fence, are casting a shadow on the south wall of the planters.  The inclination of the sun will only get lower as the days pass while the trees will only get taller with each passing year.  Soon, the shadows will pass across the vegetables shortly after midday, further shortening the growing day.

This is in spite of the fact that we removed two large trees in the spring (see May 17, 2013 and May 17, 2013, part 3).  Their absence has made a huge difference in the garden’s afternoon sun exposure but as it turns out, the impact’s duration is limited to the period starting a month before the solstice until a month afterwards.  Outside of that two-month range, we will feel the effects of the changes in solar exposure in the house more than in the garden.

Which brings us around to the beneficial aspects of solar shielding (to end on a positive note, lest anyone think that I am hostile to trees).  In warm climates, properly placed trees prevent solar gain within buildings and reduce their cooling load.  Where the weather is warm the year round, evergreen trees maintain a constant screen.  Alternately, where winters are cold, deciduous trees conveniently drop their leaves, allowing solar radiation to pass and provide natural heating.

A recent article by Pamela Doan in the June 21, 2013 issue of The Paper (see “When It’s Okay to Kill a Plant”) led me to some further reflections on tree removal.  I share the writer’s angst over removing a tree—or any other plant in the garden, for that matter—and, like the author, I also agonize over the decision (see, for example, February 6, 2013).  I agree that there are several factors to consider and believe that removing a tree should not be undertaken lightly.

One issue she did not address is that often, removing a tree improves the conditions for the trees that remain.  For example, we live in a deeply wooded area where there is little to check the growth of the trees.  Each year, thousands of maple seed whirligigs twirl to the ground and many, if not most, of them germinate.  I (and my aching back) know this because hundreds of seedlings pop up in our gardens and patio areas every spring.  I must pull them out like weeds lest the house be swallowed up.

A proportionally larger number of seedlings sprout in the woods where there is no one to pull them out.  Instead, they take root firmly, continue to grow unabated and, with the passing years, become taller and larger.  They all crowd together like riders on a subway train, producing a dense canopy of sun-seeking branches above and a deeply-shaded understory below.  Commuters lucky enough to get a seat on the subway during rush hour know how it feels to be beneath the tangle of outstretched limbs.

The trees produce elongated trunks as they push their leafy tops higher and higher in search of a clear view of the sun (imagine the subway riders standing on tiptoe to read the advertisements that form a frieze along the sides of each car).  The trees wind up over-tall, spindly and top-heavy.  Aesthetically, they are lacking and the inefficiency of their shape cannot be good for their health.  Also, the preponderance of maple trees crowd out other varieties, reducing the diversity of species (probably 3 of 4 or 8 of 10 trees around us is a maple).

In a better world (or, at least, a better woods), I would take the same approach to the maple trees as I do with the radishes and beets:  thin early, thin often.  A larger spacing would lead to fuller trees that would not need to grow as high to gather their solar radiation (and they would look better) while still shading the forest floor.  Fewer maples would allow other tree varieties—oak, elm, poplar, even evergreens—a chance to increase their numbers and would make the entire woods less susceptible to harmful diseases or insects.

Like the crowding on rush-hour mass transit, it is a situation that is not easily changed.  I have often surmised that we could spend a week with a chainsaw, pruning and culling, and hardly make a noticeable difference in the local population density, never mind the entire woods or beyond.  Instead, we will take it tree by tree and consider the possible beneficial impacts—incremental and local though they may be—that could result from a tree’s removal.

We’re running behind with the cucumbers which should have been in the ground over a week ago.  With plans for the weekend, we decided to make time during the working week to get caught up.

The cucumbers, like the squash, are moving out of the box.  Specifically, we are locating them along the fence behind the west planter, safely distant (we hope) from the east planter where they grew last year.  Next year, we will move the cucumbers to that portion of the fence.

I briefly considered putting the cucumbers behind (i.e., north of) the squashes where there would be no danger of their being shaded.  But that would be putting all of our cucurbits in one basket.  Because they are susceptible to the same harmful insects (e.g., the ubiquitous cucumber beetles) and diseases (such as the seemingly omnipresent powdery mildew), the cucumbers and squashes will be better off if kept as separate as possible.  Besides, at this time of the year, the sun casts a very shallow shadow.

We measured six locations, spaced at two feet on center, and brushed away the cedar mulch.  Rachel used a standard shovel and I used a spade to dig holes about six inches deep.  It is interesting that a standard shovel is best suited to a hemispherical hole while a spade, with its flat, rectangular blade is better for cubical excavations.  The shoveled holes were about eight inches in diameter; the spade-dug holes were approximately six inches square.

Once the holes were completed, we mixed up two batches of soil (each batch consisting of one 40-pound bag of compost and an equal volume of peat moss) and filled the holes.  We kept the mounds small in diameter (especially compared to the squash mounds) because they are located along an access aisle.  We want the cucumbers to be as tight against the fence as possible.

We expect that the cucumbers will grow high and wide.  To support their wandering branches we installed a chicken wire trellis along the fence.  We marked locations for six cedar posts (seven might have been better but we were short by one) and, using an old steel chisel and a sledge hammer, formed pilot holes.  This step is necessary due to our rocky soil.

Then, we pounded in the stakes.  I had originally planned to embed the six-foot stakes by 18 inches but had to stop at a foot (the depth of the pilot holes).  Once a stake encounters a rock, there is a risk of splitting or crushing it with further pounding.  Using our trusty Velcro tape, we tied each of the stakes to the top rail of the pool fence.  The stakes have a slight backwards rake to them (their bases are about three inches outboard of the fence) which will both stabilize the trellis and prevent it from feeling too imposing.

To form the trellis, we unrolled a 12-foot length of four-foot-high chicken wire and stapled it to the stakes using an electric staple gun.  (We acquired this tool many years ago for reasons I can no longer recall.  It always strikes me at first as silly—like an electric carving knife—and yet it is very useful and practical.  Although it delivers a staple with great force it does not otherwise disturb the work and requires very little effort.  In that regard, it is more akin to a pneumatic nailer.)  We held the bottom of the chicken wire eight inches above grade to give the young cucumber plants room to sort themselves out.

After that, we set out the cucumber seedlings, alternating the slicing and pickling varieties for visual interest.  On a leaf of one of the pickling cucumbers, I noticed a small white spot that might—I say, might—have been the beginning of a powdery mildew infection.  Just to be on the safe side, we tossed the seedling on the refuse pile and chose another.  Powdery mildew on the cucumbers is almost inevitable (we’ve had it every year) but we certainly don’t need it this early in the season.

To wrap up the planting (literally and figuratively), we dressed the soil mounds with straw mulch.  In addition to all of its other advantages—moisture retention, weed control, erosion prevention—the mulch will act as a visual marker of the cucumbers presence, just like the yellow tiles on the edge of a subway platform.  While installing the trellis, we found that it was easy to accidentally step on the mounds and now that the cucumbers are resident, we don’t want that happening again.

Due to the trellis’ location, I had to remove the hose rack and then reinstall it on the fence, two pickets to the right (east).  Eventually, we will install a timer-controlled soaker hose to irrigate the cucumbers but today, I gave them a bucketful of water (laced with fish emulsion).  Tomorrow, rain is forecast (as Tropical Storm Andrea makes its way up the Atlantic coast) so the cucumbers should get plenty of water.

I’ve found that the best way to assess the impact of the removal of trees is not to do it at all, at least not consciously.

If, after a tree has been trimmed or felled, I do not notice anything different, then usually I conclude that removing it was the right thing to do.  This has happened in the past when a tree was removed while we were away.  When we returned, we did not immediately realize that the work had been done.

Alternatively, if I do become aware of the change, it becomes a question of how I become aware of it.  For example, if I get the feeling that something is missing, that there is an unnatural gap in the treescape, it can mean that the removal was too extreme or not well chosen.  Luckily, this has not happened to us very often and fortunately, when it has happened, the surrounding trees eventually grew in to fill the void.

If, however, I get a feeling of openness—sunlight or airiness where there was none before—or notice a new and exciting view, previously obscured, then we probably made the right choice.  This was the case today.

With the two trees gone, the garden remains in the sun until after 6 o’clock, an extension of the growing day of at least three hours.  As an added bonus, we can now see a vignette of the surrounding mountains, framed by the remaining trees.

After reading about it in the paper, we tried a new trail (new to us, I mean) in Fahnestock State Park.  We’ve been hiking in the park for years and it is exciting to realize that there are still significant portions that we have yet to explore.

We checked our trusty—and well-worn—trail map and found that the trailhead for the Sunken Mine Railbed Trail is located just a short distance (about half of a mile) closer to us than a trailhead we have been using for many years.  We’ve passed by the parking area a hundred times with only a vague notion (at best) that another convenient hiking opportunity awaited us there.

As its name implies, the trail follows an old mine railroad.  This seemed apparent for the first quarter of a mile from the trailhead as the path was wide and flat.  However, the trail then traversed up and over a ridge (where several trees, toppled by Hurricane Sandy no doubt, made passage difficult) and dropped steeply down to a pond.  I don’t think even a mine railcar could manage that terrain.  While we were enjoying the view, we noticed that the night had been cold enough that a thin scrim of ice had formed over the pond’s surface.

From there, the trail widened and continued in a straight and level alignment along a raised berm; clearly, this was the former railbed.  Although not physically challenging, I enjoy flat, roomy trails because they allow two or three hikers to walk side by side with less fear of stumbling or tripping.  This, in turn, facilitates conversation making for a much more social experience; walking and talking in the wilderness.

When we’d been hiking for half an hour, we came to a sharp turn in the trail and again checked the map for potential routes back to our starting point.  A loop was possible and would have been preferable except that another quarter hour of outbound walking would have been needed.  We didn’t have the energy for what would wind up a hike of 90 minutes duration and so decided to turn around and head back the way we came.

Further study of the map revealed that the comeback point on the loop we could have taken is the same trail intersection that we passed, from a different direction, on a hike last month (about which, for a change, I did not blog; for photographs, however, see October 7, 2012).  I was reminded that everything, potentially, connects to everything else.  (And I wonder, for instance, whether this section of mine railbed connects to a similar section of the Appalachian Trail; see January 1, 2012.)  With today’s hike, I have filled in a gap in my mental map of the park.

On the walk back, the sun was in our faces and its warmth felt good (even if it was also blinding).  There is a quality to the light at this time of year that always makes it feel later in the day than it actually is.  Even at its highest inclination, the sunlight remains oblique and thus heavily filtered by the atmosphere.  In the summer, this condition only occurs near sunrise and sunset but in winter, it lasts all day.  As a result, the look of early morning quickly transforms into the appearance of late afternoon.  It is a strange sensation to completely skip a time that feels like midday.

On the other hand, the low angle of the light is great for studying textures.  The shallow rays accentuate the smallest surface irregularities so that even tiny pebbles and diminutive tree roots cast shadows that drape across the full width of the trail.