Sunday, December 22, 2013

Updating That Resume

Yesterday I officially added a new "skill" to my resume: Forklift Operator. I know, my parents must be very proud. That college degree and 20-plus years of newspaper editing are really paying off.

At the nursery, we use forklifts to unload trees and shrubs and such from semi-tractor trailers. And spring, when the plants arrive daily by the truckload, is just around the corner. So I got my first forklift training yesterday, on the nursery's new Toyota nonetheless. Very exciting. Not sure if they'll really tap me for the unloading task, but hey, how cool is it to say: Yeah, I can run a forklift. I'll be putting that right after "proficient in Adobe InCopy Design" on the old resume.

Until spring, however, I'll be taking a few weeks off from work. "Praise Mohammed," exhales the lonely mountain man Mason. January is a slow month at the Barn, so why not take some time off to smell the roses? Or paint the new shed and the cabin ceiling, while I'm at it.

The projects awaiting my attention are endless, but we'll focus on the new shed, the cabin loft ceiling and expanding the non-tiki bar "tiki bar" area with some new mulch. Oh, and building up the flower bed in front of the porch. And finish raking and shredding all those leaves. And I need to sew some covers for the beer crates. And it'll soon be time to start taking down trees for NEXT winter's firewood supply. And I need to ... well, you get the idea.

Meanwhile, sorry Mom if it's disappointing to say, "My daughter threw away her good career to go live in a hunting shack drive a forklift." Who knows, maybe I'll go back to editing someday. Until then, who else do you know who can lift that Dumpster (yes, people, that's capitalized; it's a proper name) and take it out to the curb (or kerb, in Australia)? Take THAT trash talk.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Nail Gun Alert

The new shed (right) will sit next to the crowded old one (left), and we'll create a little covered area in between the two. 
Productivity returned to Flat Top today, coincidentally just as the temps climbed back into the upper 50s and the sun returned in full glory. The project du jour? Shed No. 2.

Another shed, you wonder? Well, take a look at how crowded that first one is. We're really not pack rats. We do a good job about tossing/recycling/donating all those things we don't use. But when you live on the mountain and are constantly in a state of construction, you need a lot of tools. Not to mention that my gardening affliction requires a mower, tiller and a wood chipper/leaf shredder. The final straw came when Mason refused to start building the guest cabin until he got his cluttered shed resolved, and I want that damn guest cabin, so ...  meet Shed No. 2.

Mason exceeded expectations today by getting all but one small wall up. Me? I helped now and then, but spent most my time on an art project that's going to be a Christmas gift, as long as it ends up looking more crafty than crappy.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Solar Panel No. 3

Getting ready for the new (smaller) solar panel.
We thought today was going to be a washout with rain all day, so we slept in. (Well, yes, Mason always sleeps in ... But I stayed in bed, too, reading "The Tiger.") As it turned out, we slept through all of the rain and rolled out of bed to the slightest orb of sun trying to burn through the clouds that have been hanging over us for nearly two weeks now. So much for our lazy day.

After our usual leisurely breakfast (scrambled eggs with smoked turkey, celery, shallots, bell pepper and cheddar!) and dog walk, Mason launched into installing our third solar panel. Yup, a third one! But it's just a small one, and it's not about powering the house. This one's for juicing the battery on the propane generator. (When this "emergency standby residential generator" is installed under normal circumstances, the battery is kept fully charged by "utility power." So we needed a workaround ...)  

I managed to get all of the plants on the back porch into the ground, and found various other projects outside to kill the day, which topped out at 54 degrees. Not bad, considering the suffering of friends in sub-arctic Minnesota and family in icy Texas. (And speaking of killing, Nick unearthed a fat mole that was burrowing in near the house and sent it to mole heaven.  Good boy!)

Yes, that's right, we're feeling pretty good about Tennessee just about now.

Yet another Mason butt shot. Can you blame me?
Oops, she did it again.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

An Early Resolution

Leaves, leaves everywhere.

Now, you may not celebrate this news, but I’m making a New Year’s resolution to more frequently post accounts of our life in the Tennessee mountains. I know, I may have said this before. But hey, sometimes change starts with a sputter.  Just ask President Obama. And yes, I know it’s still 2013, but I’m trying to get a head start.

I don’t want to bore you, but then I started to think about how I check my friend Leslie’s daily photo blog every day. Now, granted, she posts a stunning photo every day and a hip-happening urban lifestyle to tell us about. And I’m not going to aim for a daily update, but maybe at least weekly.

This week we’re rejoicing over my return to the mountain. I’ve finally dropped down to a three-day workweek, which means I get to spend more days puttering in our yard than I do helping other people with their yards. During the fall I dragged home a bunch of plants once they hit the clearance rack, but for weeks they sat on the back porch because my free time was minimal. But now I’m down to just four more to nestle into the soil before the cold of late December and January come.

Bottling the latest batch.
 Mason just finished installing a second solar panel, which we won’t need in the summer -- but in the winter months, when the sun drops low in the sky, it should keep us better juiced. Of course, as soon as he got her up, the skies clouded over and we've hardly seen the sun for the past week.

Now he can return to building the second storage shed, which has a shiny red floor but no walls yet. And when he’s not building something, he’s brewing or bottling. Our latest favorite homebrew is Midwest Supplies’ “Ferocious,” which mimics Surly Brewing Co.’s super hoppy Furious ale. Good stuff.

In between all that excitement, I reveled in my first buck sighting since moving on the mountain. We see does and fawns all the time; they ate just about every leaf off my mountain laurels last week. I'd be mad if they weren't so cute. But this buck? Gorgeous! I spied him running across a foggy field on the morning after Thanksgiving as I was driving off the mountain to go to work. Almost made the workday worth it.



Thursday, October 31, 2013

Fall in All Its Glory

The view out of our loft bedroom windows this morning.
We had a surprise day off today because we managed to finish an expected two-day landscape job in one long day for a super nice couple who have a beautiful yard out in Cleveland, Tenn. Despite our aching muscles and fierce leg cramps, we celebrated with our usual morning walk with Nick the Dog through the falling leaves of the season. The shot above was the view this morning out of our windows from the loft. (Sorry if the focus is lame; I shot through the filthy window.)

As you might imagine, there's no chance of trick-or-treaters out here tonight, but we do plan to carve a pumpkin. And also toast my mother, who celebrated a landmark birthday today. (Note: Everyone in my family was born on a holiday except for me. Yes, I am bitter.)

And we leave you with the colors of fall from today's walk:

Mostly maples, but also a sourwood, a hickory.
Hello? Beautiful!
A back corner of our property
My boys, up by the "lake."

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Busy Season

Some landscape designing, with the help of Mom's gifts of colored pencils and fancy pens.
Fall's the best time to plant here in Tennessee, and that means I've been blazin' busy. For the past month, I've added an extra day every week at the nursery job. Lots of folks have been coming in wanting major landscape designs, and of course then they want someone to come plant it for them. So Mason and I have picked up a little side work. (Lucky Mason: "These are supposed to be my golden years," he keeps saying. "You're killing me!") Then there's all the planting to be done around OUR house. ...

This was taken a week ago. It looks better now. And yes, the leaf  raking has begun.
So we got the last little patch of lawn seeded, and most of it is coming in great. And I'm dragging home plants from work (to Mason's dismay) to keep filling in the acre of dirt sourrounding our Home Sweet Hovel. Most of the plants have been perennials that are looking a bit haggard from a summer of sitting in little pots. I really need to invest in some major shrubs ... but all in due time.

What's Mason been up to, you ask? Fixing cars, generators and refrigerators. And brewing beer. And building out-of-control bonfires. And digging holes for me, poor man.

So I leave you with a gorgeous aster blooming at the corner of our well house. It was yet another gift from Craig, whose own garden is to die for.

My lovely aster.  Love the purple against the brown fence.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Home Sweet Hovel

The new lawn will start in the upper right corner of this photo.
After a three-week break from Flat Top, it sure is good to be home again. And I'm pretty sure not 24 hours had gone by before I launched into my fall lawn-seeding project. This will be the last patch of lawn we'll be putting in. (I kinda doubt that, sez Mason.) It will circle the so-called "tiki bar" area (which has no tiki theme, nor a bar yet, so we might should consider a new name). 

The new patch of lawn will lead out past the well house to the forthcoming veggie garden area, which is slated for spring 2014, but we'll need to build a deer fence around it, so it may not happen until the following year. It also will lead out to the guest cabin that I SWEAR is still on the project list.

As for fall, only the sumacs have turned red so far, but it's definitely in the air. The days are still warm, but the nights are cooling off. Last night we had a lovely bonfire, compliments of Mason and the massive pine tree he took down this summer.
That's the fire raging in the background, with Mason tending it.
In the foreground is a cool yellow sunflower given to me by my cool co-worker Craig.

Mesmerizing, isn't it? For scale, that firepit is about 8 feet wide.
As for those weeks away from Flat Top, they were a blast. Texas was all about eating all of Mason's favorite foods -- and a few of mine -- and seeing family. Then we trekked to Minnesota for the first time in three years and were feted with a fabulous bonfire party by former coworkers, helped spring a surprise 50th birthday party for a close friend and played tennis for the first time in eight years (a note to fellow players: the butt bruise is still six inches around and a lovely, through now fading, magenta.)

Me, Courtnay and gracious hostess Catherine
around the bonfire, sometime well after midnight.

Courtnay, Michiela and me, after much-needed girl time at the mall.
(And yes, I need to teach Mason how to focus the damn camera.)

Your friends from Flat Top.

We miss all those close friends and thank them all for their wonderful hospitality, and are amazed how many have already made the trip here to Flat Top, our home sweet home, aka our hovel sweet hovel ...

Thursday, August 29, 2013

It's Summer Again

My Encore Azaleas make an encore performance (Notice Nick in background.
Also, my itty bitty plastic greenhouse way back there.)
Not much news, other than it hasn't rained in a whole week. Of course, now it's 90-plus degrees and sticky sweaty. Pick your poison, huh?

Tonight's sunset washed an incredible glow of gold over our yard. That happens here a lot. I've tried to capture it in photos, but the pics never reflect the magic of it. I need my photo queen Leslie to shoot it.

So, for lack of news, here are a few photos for you.

Beautiful despite its unfortunate name of "Toad Lily."
Love the color in the new growth on this "Dream Catcher" beautybush.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Mason and Nick, Sitting in a Tree ...

A kiss on command. 
Seriously, folks, I'm starting to get a bit concerned about all of the time Mason and Nick are spending together alone while I'm at work. Nick gives Mason a "kiss" on command these days. A serious daddy's boy. But kinda cute, huh?

August has brought even more $%#!#$! rain, and some record-low highs. As I type this, I'm wearing my winter slippers. This isn't right.

But today's cool afternoon was perfect for transplanting a small tree that needed more sun, and roto-tillering the final patches of dirt that I plan to seed with grass in a few weeks. Sound like a productive day? It gets better: It started with a home-cooked French-toast breakfast, followed by climbing back into bed to finally finish Robert Caro's fourth book in his LBJ biography, followed by an hour-long nap.

Yes, the mountain life is good to me. As for Mason, he's been busy cutting up and splitting a 90-foot pine tree we felled recently. We accidentally took out another tree in the process, but it's OK. At least it wasn't the house, and, by taking out that pine, we gained at least another hour or more of evening sunshine on the solar panel.

(Side note on Southerners: I've learned from talking to customers about the sunlight in their yards: When they say "in the evening," they mean anytime after 1 p.m.)

So, for the record, we reward our hard work here on Flat Top with an icy cold beer  -- but only in the evenings!!
Save the bees!
A fabulous rudbeckia that fabulous co-worker Craig gave me! 
FYI, when Craig came to visit Flat Top, he pointed out I had wild blueberry bushes. Huh. I had never noticed before, probably because when I was on walks, I was too busy scanning the ground for snakes and the air for huge spider webs to notice the blueberries, which were tiny but mighty delicious last month.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Southern Living, Sweetie

My favorite morning happy place
Out to dinner in Wisconsin with about 10 close friends, one of the men in our group chatting with our waitress called her "hon" (as in honey) and let me tell you, the head of every woman in our group did a quick, in-unison turn in his direction as our jaws dropped.

Now this was years before I even considered living in the South. But this friend, Mike, is a salesman and at the time, he traveled extensively in the South and spent the rest of that night defending his "hon" remark to five women who had some seriously ruffled feathers.

Fast forward five years, and now I'm a shopgirl in Chattanooga. In the past four months, I've been called "sugar," "sweetie" and countless times "honey." The first time it was a young woman, bottle-blond with bubble-gum pink toenails, who called me "sugar," and all I could do was squint my eyes, cock my head and recall that night in Wisconsin. 

But now when a customer drops that Southernism on me, I flash a quick smile, slip into a Southern twang and move on with selling them that starter fertilizer or some other upgrade. Now, don't get me wrong: I can't imagine I'd ever use the lingo myself. And I think what works in the South doesn't necessarily work in Wisconsin. And maybe it doesn't "work" in the South, but believe me, it's here to stay.

SO, back at the homestead. ... The endless rain has finally ended and the power of the sun continues to amaze us, now in our third month of relying only on our solar panel for our blender drinks, evening TV and lights. The native black-eyed Susans are in full bloom, as are the coneflowers, and the grass lawns remain fairly lush. I've been well-behaved, saving my money rather than bringing home new plants; we'll see how long that lasts.

And life -- the good life -- goes on.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

9-Plus Inches of No Outside Time

In the past eight days, we've endured more than 9 inches of rain. Our doors are swollen. Our cabinet drawers are swollen. Our skin is sallow. A waft of mold creeps through the cabin. The giant fire pit in the front yard is full of water. We've been stuck inside. Arrgh!!!

I took a photo of the worst part of our road, which in good times is a series of loose, rocky shelves of sandstone, but in rainy times is a small waterfall.  Mason managed to kill the photo off his 1990s-not-so-smart phone in our attempt to download it. Trust me, it was a sight.

OH, and it's supposed to rain tomorrow. And the next day, too. The first day that I see half of a sun in the forecast is Saturday. Sweet Mohammed, help us!

In related news, we've managed to limp along this past week with just our solo solar panel charging the batteries (OK, OK we watched TV in the dark on Friday night, but we made it). We got just enough sunshine the past two days to bring the batteries back up enough that we may just make it to Saturday's half-sun and not have to generate any power for our evening lights and TV. Kinda cool, huh? Free electricity!

In unrelated news, I made homemade ranch salad dressing tonight and my world has been turned upside-down.

In more unrelated news, Nick turned 9 years old last week. I took a photo, but he didn't smile.

In further unrelated news, I'm greatly disturbed by the growing number of car commercials using hit songs from my college years.

And on a final note, I love these red gladiolas:

And in one final unrelated note: Mason says, "Why am I still cutting and splitting firewood for next winter? I'm retired. dammit! These are my Golden Years. (Golden Days?) Whatever.
Oh well. We got solar, a full propane tank and about nine cords of firewood. Bring on the apocalypse!
Cheers, y'all.  

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Little Miss Apologies Here

My 21-year-old nephews Scott (left) and Justin
Well THAT was a long bout of silence from your favorite mountain dwellers. First, I assure you that all is well on Flat Top: The blackberries are ripening along the roadsides, and my "gardens" are looking fuller by the day. My utmost apologies for no updates. Let me list all of my excuses for our blogging silence:

1. Work. Add in my hour commute each way, and the day is basically shot. But now I'm only working three days a week, so I've got more free time!

2. Visitors: First was a surprise visit from our former newspaper co-worker Ken Chia, who had been in Atlanta watching his beloved Twins playing the Braves when he found himself with a spare three hours and somehow persuaded his fine travelmates that a side trip to Flat Top would show them the real Tennessee. Then came my sister Maggie and her family of men, who took quite well to life in the woods, especially when it came to splitting firewood and military-style (i.e. short) showers. We also dragged a few of my new garden nursery co-workers to come see where we live. And last week, our old boss from the L.A. Times National Desk was vacationing in the area, so we kidnapped her and brought her up to our shack.

3. That pesky septic system: It waited until the first week of 90-degree temps to give us trouble, and we ended up having to dig a trench (60 feet, in hard Tennessee clay) and install a new drain line. At least it was kind enough not to break down while the visitors were here.

4. Solar success: Our solar "system" has been such a success that a neighbor hired Mason to install the same thing at his cabin, keeping him busy while I've been working at the nursery.

Well, that's enough excuses. It won't happen again. And I leave you with some photos of spring's bounty!
My front porch "color"
My only rhododendron, so far.
Caesar's Brother siberian iris. Only three blooms for their first spring, but I'm remaining confident in continued success.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Flat Top Goes Solar

Isn't she beautiful? Not the wisteria bud in the foreground, but the solar panel! For the past five days, we've been tapping the sun for our power, and it seems to be working out great. Amazing, huh?

So far, this 265-watt baby, perched atop our well house, has been keeping our batteries charged quite nicely. Of course, we've just had five glorious days of sunshine. (We'll see what rainy days and gloomy winter bring. It's a work in progress, as always.) We still have to run a generator when we take showers (the well pump, 375 feet underground, requires more juice than the batteries can provide), but now we only have to run that generator for those 20-30 minutes -- however long it takes us both to shower.

While Mason's been busy on the solar installation, I've been working in the garden. I've added a few new shrubs -- camelias, mountain laurels and others -- and have been babying the new swath of lawn on the north side of the cabin. Here's a glimpse of some of it ...

Sum and Substance hosta
Check out that leaf size!

The new north lawn, with Nick hiding in the trees. See all that dirt I need to plant still?

Columbine that I planted from seed during our first summer here.

Heucherella "Stoplight" (From the Barn Nursery)

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Happy Earth Day to Us

I'm more than a week late posting our big Flat Top news: On Earth Day we ordered our solar panel system. Trust me, this is very exciting! As soon as it's set up, the only time we'll have to run a generator is to refill the water tank. Stay tuned for photos and tales of our adventures getting the thing installed and wired properly. Or more accurately, Mason's adventures.

Meanwhile, signs of spring continue to pop up around here. These dwarf irises, above, grow wild around here near the creeks -- and some somehow found their way into one of my flower beds. My cheap little Home Depot azaleas (purchased long before my new gig at The Barn Nursery) continue to hang on, and the grass I seeded about two weeks ago is finally peeking up out of the soil.

Congo azalea
Encore azalea
Not sure what these are. Clipped them from a tree alongside our dirt road.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Working Girl

I've gotta tell ya: Working four days a week has really cut into my prime-time spring gardening time. But I'm still really loving the job, so I shouldn't complain. And seeing as how my friends in Minnesota just spent today shoveling 6 inches of snow, I'm damn thankful.

I'm also thankful that the Barn Nursery has some pretty cool people working there. After a bit of badgering, the dude in charge of perennials, Craig, had Mason and me over to check out his yard. People, it was truly magical.  It was a wild mix of whimsy and wonder, just packed full of the most fantastic selection of trees, shrubs and perennials. We had a lovely evening of beer on tap, shrimp off the grill -- and as a bonus, a bounty of viburnum saplings and other plants that quickly found a home in my burgeoning garden. Below is one of the many viburnums he gave me, this one a precious "shasta" from horticulture guru Don Egolf. Trust me, you should be impressed. This baby is going to be stunning in a few years!!

In other news, Mason's been laboring intensely on splitting the logs from a massive oak we felled weeks ago to make room for solar panels. The wood's grain looks like shredded wheat inside, greatly complicating his efforts. Just ask Colleen -- she helped split some while she was here two weeks ago.

And I spent the past two days roto-tilling one-and-a-half yards of compost into a stretch of dirt that will become our last little patch of grass up here on Flat Top.  As long as tonight's storms don't wash away all my efforts, I should be able to get the seeds planted tomorrow ... after work.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Guns and Gardens: Flat Top Edition

Our friend and former Star Tribune co-worker Colleen came to visit us for a long weekend. After four days here, she's convinced we could open a boutique B&B/adventure destination here called Hillbilly Holiday, which would feature survival hikes through the woods, target shooting, tree-trunk rolling and her personal favorite: log splitting.  And after all that calorie-burning, there's the hammock, Mason's fabulous homebrews and my penchant for cooking too much food. Finish the evening off with a bonfire (which we did) and we may just have a money-maker!!

Alas, we did our best to show her a good time, and we also abused her just a bit with lots of firewood splitting (she has a blister to prove it) and an afternoon of shrub planting. (See those cute yellow Kaleidoscope Abelias we planted alongside the new gathering area? That table is a new feature of the area, too; I salvaged it from a Minnesota neighbor's trash years ago and finally got around to painting and varnishing it last week.)

Today was our last day together, so we did a little tour of downtown Chattanooga, enjoyed good food and cocktails at the Boathouse on the river, then came home to a little target practice. Only Mason excelled at clay target shooting, but Colleen is a pretty mean shot with a pistol. Me? Realllllly not my thing. At all.