Lazy Folks Work the Hardest

Can you think of a way to express this sentiment without coming off as a self-righteous jerk? I’m not sure there is one.

Unless, that is, you are saying it to yourself, which is what I was doing at about seven o’ clock this morning, after a half an hour of turning straw bedding in my chicken coop, and the realization that I was going to be at it quite a while longer if I expected to do a thorough job.

You see, I began a system of “deep litter” bedding in the coop this fall, tossing down layers of locally-grown wheat straw with the understanding that as I added more layers, the chickens would scratch and blend it all together and magically it would turn into the most gorgeous compost ever created. What could be easier? Let the birds do all the work!

Turns out, it’s not as easy as that. Turns out, if you keep adding more layers of straw and you don’t help the turning process along, you get something quite different–a fact I discovered when, after a glorious thaw this past weekend, I walked in the coop and was knocked back by the sharp odor of ammonia.

If the smell was bad for me, it was much worse for the chickens who, although granted plenty of access to the outdoors, still expect to spend the long winter nights inside their cozy, 100-year-old abode. Not only that, but the smell of ammonia equals the loss of nitrogen–nitrogen I’d prefer to lock up with the straw’s carbon and spread in the garden come spring. There wasn’t much I could do about it last night other than crack the window, but when I woke at 5:30 this morning, I figured I could get in a couple of hours of work before…well, before work.

After coffee and letting the dogs out and feeding the dogs, the cats, and then the chickens, I started to dig. If it hadn’t been such a ridiculous monster of a project to dig down through all those layers of compacted straw, I might’ve been laughing about going overboard off the extremely deep end of the deep litter system. Just keep adding straw! The chickens will do all the work! By the time I dug down to the floor of the coop and flipped and fluffed the first 3′ x 18′ strip along the back wall, the rejuvenated litter was waist-high to where I stood in my hole. We’re talking deep litter.

I’m glad I didn’t take the advice of the folks on a certain Facebook group I asked for help. The mantra about ammonia smell in a deep litter system is that either the litter is too damp, or there’s not enough of it. In fact, if the litter is too damp, it also probably means you don’t have enough of it.

I enjoy Facebook, and I follow a few different groups there. I like the West Central MN Birders, and I shadow the posts on the mushroom ID one, too. I hope to get better at identifying edible ones, and I hope the other posters do, too because I don’t know how many more Lion’s Mane mushroom pictures I can see without making a snide comment about participants either never having looked at any of the other posts, or simply showing off to those less fortunate.

I do feel absolutely confident about morels, a fact I like to advertise in case my services are needed for identification (and eating) purposes. That happened a couple of years ago, when I got a call from a friend in the southern part of the county one balmy late spring evening. I was working in the garden when he called, and he asked if it wouldn’t be too much trouble for me to come down there (about a twenty minute drive) and inspect these fungi popping up in a food plot he’d mowed the previous fall. I was about halfway there by the time we ended our five minute call.

And yes, they were.

Anyhow, I’ve been a member of this regenerative agriculture group on Facebook for a couple of weeks. There are members from all over the world, and it seemed like the kind of place where a gal could get some systems-thinking, down-to-earth advice and trouble-shooting. And indeed, I got advice.

I got advice from across the planet about magical products I might buy or prepare (from plants that are dormant under snow at the moment), the mantra about ammonia smell meaning my litter wasn’t deep enough, and also instructions to change my whole system to a different carbonaceous material that I don’t have ready access to without spending a bunch of money. I don’t mean to be ungrateful, and certainly the comments were offered in a helpful spirit, but I do understand the basic tenets of the deep litter system, and it shouldn’t require rare and expensive inputs to work correctly.

The best advice I got through the group turned out to be from a friend and former colleague who lives about an hour down the river valley from here. Julia told me my litter was compacted and anaerobic, and what I needed to do was turn and mix it to incorporate oxygen and trigger aerobic composition.

In other words, Get your fork out honey, ’cause you’ve got a big job ahead of you.

She was right. After about two hours of digging and turning (and sweating and grunting) this morning and another hour this evening, I’ve got that litter thoroughly mixed, and it smells just lovely and earthy in there. There was a nice pancake of beautiful moist humus at the floor level beneath the roost, and the rest was just dry, compacted straw. It wasn’t too wet, and there’s sure as heck enough litter.

In fact, there’s so much poofy litter that it’s seriously awkward to walk on, and it’ll be impossible (OK–an insane amount of maintenance) to keep aerated. I know now that I can’t just lazily throw more and more straw on top and let the birds do all the work (though they sure loved getting access to all those buried “treasures” today, and I found my pie plate that went missing a couple of months ago). By spring, my current system would’ve required a stepladder to climb into the coop, the hens would’ve been laying in the rafters, and I’d need about fifty more straw bales than I have stockpiled.

I decided this evening that the “easiest” thing to do would be to go out again early tomorrow morning and fork out at least a third and maybe half of the litter that’s in the coop now–moving it to the run outside where there’s only a patchy veneer of ground cover left under the snow. Aerating what’s left will be a lot easier if there isn’t three feet of it to dig through.

Even removing half of what’s there, it might be a couple of weeks before I need to break open any more bales and leisurely strew fresh straw over the top–allowing my chickens to “do all the work” of mixing it in.

In the meantime, I’ll be working a little harder on my “lazy folks” method of winter bedding in the coop!


Winter Journal

Up early and at it hard. John’s down south all day in a Southwest Arts & Humanities Council meeting, and while that cat’s away, this mouse is playing catch-up. The sun is shining, and NOAA says we might hit 12 degrees above zero this afternoon with a less than 10mph wind, which seems like a certifiable heatwave given the past week’s brutal chill.

The chickens are finally outside after several days of being shut in. At one point earlier in the week I opened their coop door because the real temp was above zero, but not one of them took advantage, and then the wind came up, and down I went to shut them in again. The two Americanas are finally laying their pretty green eggs (both of them started on the same day!) after a six week hiatus–they are not dependable winter layers like the “Buffies” (Buff Orpingtons) and “The Coven” (Black Australorps), but I know my customers like to see those “Easter Eggs” in the cartons.

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Overall, laying is down even with supplemental light, but the few more minutes of day length we’ve gained since the solstice are giving us a couple more eggs than we got back in December. So far, everyone is doing fine in the unheated coop–last year’s hens proved themselves during the Polar Vortex (and Polar Vortex II), and this year’s batch are even heavier, hardier breeds.

John and I are planning our late winter travel. For me, it’s important to get out (if I’m going to get out) before seed-starting season commences in early March. I haven’t been to Seattle in five or six years now, and my dear friends out there should not have to wait any longer! That, and it’s always rejuvenating to visit the west coast in winter and to dream of what it might be like to live in a place where rosemary and lavender grow as luxurious full hedges rather than having to be potted up and brought inside or buried under bales for the winter.

Yes, it’s possible it might be cold there when I go…if by cold you mean, like, 35 or 40 degrees (it’s 46 there right now!). Maybe I’m nuts, but it seems a little safer, if I only have a week or so to travel, to go to someplace that’s only marginally warmer so that the contrast of returning to the northern prairie doesn’t send me into a deep-freeze-induced depression. The shock of returning to the cold climate should not be a problem for John, as his travel plans include a foray up above the Arctic Circle to visit a former exchange student and hopefully capture some aurora borealis images.

Seed and tree ordering has commenced, with our St. Lawrence Nursery order going in first of all since Bill MacKentley is retiring and there seems to be no clear succession plan at present. The first iteration of that order was pared back quite a bit, but I still got in a few things I’d been keen to try, but had cut from orders in the past: some hardy shagbark hickories, sweet sap silver maples, and blight-resistant American chestnut, as well as a couple of apples, a pear, a plum, and a few grapes.

The only thing I am having second thoughts about is leaving off a Northrup Mulberry, but I guess if I really want a mulberry tree (or fifty, or five hundred), I could get Harry’s permission to head down to the old farmplace in Vermillion and dig along the fencelines and then see what makes it through the winter up here.

I’ve also begun my regular winter session of being a pain-in-the-ass to my local SWCD guy by e-mailing him every other day to ask if he can get this or that native tree or shrub that’s not on their (really, kind of disappointingly short to a native planting fanatic like myself) list. So far he’s located bundles of Homestead Hawthorn and Nannyberry Viburnum for me, and we’ll add to that a few more oaks, hackberries, cottonwoods, cherries, hazelnuts, and maybe a few evergreens. My poor husband will think I am trying to kill him (again). I swear I will help more with planting this year, even if it means taking a couple of days off.

Seed orders are also taking shape–Pinetree is already done and submitted–I like their smaller size packets of herbs and flowers, plus squash and other things I just don’t need a ton of seed for. Their Summer Dance cucumber is the best, most productive and perfect-looking bitter-free cuke I’ve grown. I’m almost afraid to say that publicly, since a couple of other great F1 varieties I’ve raved about over the years (like Lavender Touch eggplant and Papaya Pear summer squash) have reportedly been bought up by Seminis (a subsidiary of Monsanto), and now I won’t grow them anymore. I grow very few hybrid varieties–if I grow one it has to be better (in my estimation) than anything else I’ve seen. When Summer Dance gets bought up, well, I’ll start trialing open pollinated cukes like I did O.P. eggplant and yellow summer squash. Not the end of the world.

Territorial Seed Company will be a small one–a few things I can’t get elsewhere (LOVE the Talon onion and wild garden mustards!), and Johnny’s is the biggie–though most of the volume is several kinds of organic cover crops–buckwheat, oats, field peas, winter radish. I’ll pick up a few other things from Prairie Road, High Mowing, and Seed Savers Exchange too, but I have quite a bit of seed that’s still good from the last couple of years. Everything from 2012 I’ll try to use up this season, and there’s no seed older than that because of the house fire in 2011.

In my fever of catch-up and planning ahead today, there’s still plenty of time for strolling the prairie and running the dogs. Vega will always be my “saint” dog–the one who’s stuck with me through some incredibly trying times in my life–but I am getting immense pleasure from Joe Pye’s company these last few weeks. I’ve nicknamed him “my shadow” because as soon as I get up from my chair, he’s right on my heels (sometimes literally!)–and especially if I head toward the outside door. No matter how brutal the day, he’s game to keep me company during chores and check-ins, and although I’m still working on training him not to rush the chicken pen fence just to see the “girls” scatter and squawk, I thoroughly appreciate his playful (and occasionally peaceful) presence.

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John and I have been taking the two of them for “prairie galavanting” twice a day almost every day since Joe Pye came to live with us, and the exercise has made a huge difference in Vega’s (and our) energy levels. Still, sometimes the “old lady” (Vega, not me!) needs to retreat and spend the afternoon stretched out napping on her upstairs bed in the sunshine, away from the attentions of her too-eager little brother.

I brought my camera on today’s morning walk to document some of what everyone in the region has been talking about since Thursday’s “big blow.” We took the least-used path that runs through the lower prairie along the west side of our property. It goes unused because it’s the most open to the prevailing winds, and snow drifts deep in those paths, making the way difficult for Vega with her small paws, long legs, and aging hips.

A plume of light brown road dust forms as a truck passes by.

A plume of light brown road dust forms as a truck passes by.

We live on a graveled county road, so we get a fair amount of dust rolling off from traffic. Our own vehicles are constantly coated in it, and this time of year it’s hard to get rid of because the car wash isn’t open and gas station squeegees are frozen solid from the intense cold. But road dust is an easily recognizable grayish-tan. What’s accumulating in our prairie is our neighbors’ good black dirt–topsoil, that is, pulverized, ridged, and bared by fall tillage, and eroding by the truck-full.

This ain't road dust, folks.

This ain’t road dust, folks.

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There does seem to be a little more stubble on the fields this winter–a few more roots left intact to hold the soil in place. I don’t know if that’s because farmers and landowners saw how bad the erosion was last winter and nixed fall tillage, or because the cold and snow came on too fast this year for the ground to get turned. I hope it’s the former.

A couple of fields down the road from us during a brief thaw a couple of weeks ago.

A couple of fields down the road from us during a brief thaw a couple of weeks ago. The corn stubble holds the soil and snow cover.

Absent a federal farm policy that actively and forcefully discourages practices that seriously damage the land, we are, all of us, counting on individual farmers and landowners to do the right things. By “right things,” I mean those practices that are proven to preserve and protect the soil & water–cover crops, no-till (or at the least, no fall tillage), grass waterways, buffer strips, and keeping marginal lands under perennial cover.

There are more, of course, and many of these practices are eligible for cost share and technical assistance. But they don’t work unless farmers and landowners use them, and it sometimes amazes me how hard Soil & Water Conservation District staff has to work to get farmers and landowners to sign up. I’ve heard conservationists say that farmers who are good stewards of the land will do the right thing regardless of programs and payments, but farmers who are only in it for the bushels (or dollars) per acre won’t do the right thing even if you offer to pay them (but they might if you fine them for not doing it).

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I don’t know if it’s that simple, but I sense there’s a grain of truth in it. Still, farmers, like everyone, need to make a living, and because we have a federal farm policy that encourages and even rewards practices that cause environmental degradation, we can’t only point our finger at farmers if what we get what we paid, and voted, for. We all have a stake in a better food and farming system, and unless we all push for policies and practices that encourage what we say we want (soil and water conservation, protecting pollinator and wildlife habitat, limiting the amount of toxic chemicals in the environment and in our food, and…you fill in the blank) and discourage what we say we don’t want, it’s just not going to get better.

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One more thought before I leave this depressing track: did you ever think there would come a day when we’d have to consider listing the Monarch butterfly as a threatened species? That day is sadly here.

Aside from documenting the collection of our neighbors’ topsoil, we’re doing a significant amount of farm planning for the coming year. With tree and seed orders going in, we’re also having to figure out where all this stuff will get planted, and how we’ll clear out more of the windrows of cut-and-dropped buckthorn in the grove to make room for things we’d prefer to have growing. If you’re feeling sorry for that invasive species we love to hate, don’t worry–we’ve also got a generation’s worth of buckthorn seeds just waiting to sprout that are causing us to consider (gasp!) getting a couple of goats. The final decision has yet to be made on that thorny subject.

We’re also hoping to remove a bunch of old fence from various parts of the grove–layers of fence in woven and barbed wire–fence that has become part of the living wood of the trees that have grown up through it. It will not be pretty (it’s not pretty now), and I’m guessing it will take many an afternoon with fencing pliers, wire cutters, colorful language, and probably a come-along to heave those old metal posts out of the ground.


Doesn't this look like fun?

Doesn’t this look like fun?

And did I mention the chickens? An expansion of the laying flock and another round (maybe two?) of “Drummies” for the freezer are on the to-do list. A couple of rain gardens, maybe some rain barrels, too, and, oh, I think I want to take out the entire front lawn to build for a terraced rock garden for perennial herbs, flowers, and maybe a few vegetables, too.

I know that all this might not seem like enough to keep us busy, but I’m pretty sure I’m forgetting a few of the major projects on the list.

It’s going to be a busy year.

Pecking Order

If you ever want to see how apt a metaphor, “pecking order” is for hierarchical office politics, feed your laying flock an hour late.

I slept in this morning, and I usually wait about an hour after letting the chickens out to give them their daily (in the Drummies’ case, twice daily) ration. That gives them time to stretch their legs and forage for weed and bug appetizers before they’re sated with grain. So, it was 8:30 by the time I got out to fill the feeders.

Do not question my authority!

Do not question my authority!

The Barred Rocks, Ruby and Bea, are the unquestioned queens of the flock, along with Lacey, the Silver Lace Wyandotte. Lacey Does. Not. Allow. any younger or smaller hen anywhere near the feeder–they don’t belong there until she is finished, and she’s not sure they belong there at all. Ruby and Bea are a little more mellow so long as any interlopers don’t interfere with their right to eat from any and every part of the feeder they want. Insubordination is met with a harsh verbal and physical reprimand.

Spurz, our little Jungle Fowl rooster, is also at the top–the bigger ladies may not respect him in other ways, but they don’t chase him from the feeder. The second-tier hens are also fully mature from last year’s starter flock–they’re just smaller than the others (though as big as, or bigger than Spurz), so they have to wait their turn.

If they don't find you handy, they should at least find you handsome.

If they don’t find you handy, they should at least find you handsome.

While the Americanas (Gilda and Frannie) respectfully wait to eat until the big girls are getting full, the Silkies are always jockeying for position. Robeson especially likes to sneak in and grab a beak-full of grain with the big hens, then run back out when she’s pecked–proceeding to give as much and more grief to the younger pullets flocking around the periphery. Robeson’s broody mates, Fog and Micheaux, take turns running out of their corner to steal some grain, careful to keep their prize egg hidden from view and squawking loud warnings when the pullets come too close. Talk about micro-managers!

And the poor pullets? Well, the six I’ve collectively nicknamed “juvenile delinquents” are now as big as Spurz-the-rooster, and bigger than the Silkies. But it’s not size that matters at this point–it’s sheer meanness! One of the new-crop Americanas is almost as big now as Gilda and Frannie, and she lords it over her brooder-mates. But when it comes feeding time, she hasn’t yet developed the “pluck” to challenge the higher-ups–and especially the middle management Silkies.

Last on the pecking order are the youngest–the nine Buff Orps and Black Australorps that are catching up to the “delinquents” in size, but who know better than to venture into the henhouse when the big girls are eating. Well, all except for this one rogue Orpington, who starts to peek in the door once the big girls have gone out and the second-tiers are getting at the “goods.” I think she’s the same one who gives us such grief every evening when it’s time to go in–breaking off from the flock and dodging out of the run to hide back under the currant bushes. I don’t know if it’s cleverness or sheer obstinance, but I do know she’s careful to remain out of range of the Silkies’ cruel beaks.

Rouge in disguise.

Rogue in disguise.

There’s a lot less strife when it comes time for the two batches of this year’s pullets to eat. There are more of them, but they fit better around the feeder, and I think the fact that they’re merging in size and that they spent a few weeks in the brooder together makes them a little less likely to jockey for position.

While there’s plenty of politics in the henhouse during a late feeding, I haven’t noticed anything like it with the “Drummies.” Sure the Red Rangers are constantly challenging each other out in the run–standing up tall and facing off (I swear they’d beat their breasts with tiny fists if they had them) before forgetting what the big deal was and running off in different directions–but feeding time is something altogether different.

Hey buddy, what're you lookin' at? I outweigh you by an ounce!

What’re you lookin’ at? I outweigh you by an ounce!

They’re all the same age, they’re all close in size, and they’re all going all-out for the same three feeders without the comprehension that there’s plenty for everyone. When I put the first feeder down, they climb all over each other to get at it before a few of them realize there’s another fully-stocked feeder three feet away. Eventually, they all disperse at the different stations and realize they aren’t going to starve if they just calm down, look around, and leave the greedy scrum for a more convivial “table.”

Maybe a better metaphor here is the 99%?

Most of the time they’re running in all different directions satisfying each individual’s chicken-y desires and getting a little peevish if anyone or anything gets in their way. But occasionally, like when I open the kennel and they taste the freedom of the morning, or when a shadow or loud noise threatens the flock, they all move together with a whooshing of wing feathers and a collective purpose that’s beautiful, powerful, and incredibly fun to watch.



Pushing Too Hard

It has been a long while since there’s been a “She Said” post. Trust me, there are a few drafts in the queue, but this is the season of all-out work. Last Spring, “He Said” and I were still living in my house in Clinton and the focus was almost entirely on getting the house buttoned back up, so we could move in and ultimately have a lovely summer wedding on the farm.

We accomplished all that and more, but the gardens and grounds got short shrift, and there was a pile a mile wide of tasks that got shoved from summer to fall to this spring–which ended up coming cooler and later than any of us would have wished. I keep reminding myself that the place I moved here from was the “banana belt” of South Dakota, and up here we’re about two weeks behind and ten degrees cooler than what I might’ve expected there–if expectations count for anything in our changing climate. From what my former farming partner has said, I got out of there just in time.

Of course, if you read on to learn the true nature of my personality when it comes to gardens, you’ll see that perhaps the “getting out just in time” comment wasn’t related to the global climate weirding at all. I am glad to see that others have taken over the garden space that once was Flying Tomato Farms–and less glad, though perhaps satisfied in some evil way that others are cursing that gumbo area along the western edge of the gardens that I cursed roundly on more than one occasion.

Listening Stones Farm lost three hens to Marek’s disease earlier this Spring, but it seems like everything has stabilized out in the coop now that the weather has somewhat stabilized. I’m down to eight hens a’ laying, but there are fourteen more pullets plus a young Black Australorp cockerel who’ve taken up residence in the hen house, and we’re getting about half dozen eggs a day–more than we can eat by a good measure, and eventually we’ll be offering eggs for sale rather than simply foisting a dozen upon every unsuspecting visitor.

A little over a week ago we picked up 50 Red Ranger broilers to fatten up over the next couple of months–part of a bulk order with a few friends over on the eastern edge of South Dakota. They (the chickens) are now out in their very own semi-secure quarters in the goat barn, awaiting the time they can set out within the grassy fenced pen to do what their name suggests (range, that is, not practice communism–we haven’t held a HUAC hearing as yet to know their political leanings, but rest assured, we are watching them very, very closely).

Communists? We are watching...

Communists? We are watching…

On an evening earlier this week, when Mr. White was getting ready for his MN Master Naturalist conference this weekend, I started getting anxious about a place to put the tomatoes. I knew where I wanted them, thanks to a brush-and-stump burning project down below the existing raised bed garden that left a small section of the prairie scraped and blackened.

I expressed my anxiety to the Mr., who was attempting to rest in order to get better from our latest plague (this winter and spring have been atrocious), and then I headed outside to pick eggs and survey my intended new garden spot. Heard a machine start, and here he came on the maiden Listening Stones Farm voyage of the 1979 JD 317 garden tractor that a friend recently gifted to us.

He did a couple of passes with me standing by a little disgruntled (My tractor! My garden! Waaah!) before he saw my tractor-tantrum coming on and willingly gave over the seat and went back inside to more fully recuperate. If you have somehow heard that I’m a saint for putting up with Mr. White, you have it exactly wrong. I am a serious pain in the arse when it comes to anything garden related (we can quibble over the other stuff, but in this arena, I humbly acquiesce).

Spent the next hour (or was it two?) cultivating my new garden space, and thinking very seriously that I should have bundled up better. But, you know, how can a gal leave her willing little tractor when it’s doing such a splendid job? Yup. And that’s how JGW got better enough to go on his splendid weekend adventure with the MN Master Naturalists, and I got what I deserved for not taking better care of myself.

I think I’m going to name the tractor Eunice. Or maybe Viola.

At any rate, I’ve been feeling rugged this weekend, though with the weather so perfect and no husband to remind me that resting on occasion and eating regular meals are reasonable things to do, it’s probably a good thing that my body is reining me in a little.

Puttered around with mowing on Friday evening–especially the goat pen where it was getting long (nope, we don’t have goats–the former owners built the pen and barn named for the beasts and we’ve stuck with it), but I avoided a big triangle of dandelions in full bloom and buzzing with early-emerging pollinators.

All at once I saw a crowd, a host of golden dandelions!

All at once I saw a crowd, a host of golden dandelions!

Saturday I felt the worst and only puttered slowly with broad-forking a bed running parallel to the road and planting with a buffer strip of sunflowers, amaranth, cosmos, zinnias, and broom corn to hopefully shield the tomato garden from spray drift from fields across the road (tomatoes are especially susceptible to herbicides). Moved a few finer-leafed daylilies from the raised bed in which they overwintered to a bed along the sun porch. They, along with several other perennials I’m still trying to figure out a place for, were gifted from Earth-Be-Glad Farm near Lewiston, MN.

Today…more small puttering repotting a bay tree and separating our tomato plants from the ones I’m offering for sale, plus a small amount of mowing that once again confirmed I am a total weenie when it comes to driving a riding mower over uneven ground. I remain convinced that I will tip over and kill myself on every bumpy patch–and we have quite a few of them even after I dumped several wheelbarrows full of sand into the foot-deep ruts where the septic pumper truck got stuck earlier in the week (a kindly neighbor came with his large tractor to pull the guy out).

Houseplants become deck plants in the summer.

Houseplants become deck plants in the summer.

It’s hard to slow down even being ill when it’s spring and you can finally get going on the pile a mile wide of projects. T.S. Eliot said that April is the cruellest month, but really it’s May–the month that everyone up here is really yearning for in the depths of winter…when it’s really and truly spring and the weather is so fine and suddenly all the projects of the past six months are falling upon your shoulders if only you were well enough and there were enough sunny days to accomplish them….

There aren’t enough sunny days or hours within all the days of the month, even if they were sunny, to accomplish all one dreams about doing in the first deliriously warm weeks of the spring. Best to just recognize the limitations of one’s capacity and also the importance of taking time for pure enjoyment–of listening to the birds, dozing with the windows wide, and spending time with loved ones over a glass of wine in the gilded evening light.