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Storing Summer Gear for Winter

As most of us prepare to hibernate for the winter, so, too, should we prepare to put away our outdoor summer gear for the the cold days ahead. From furniture, to gardening tools to machinery, how we prep and store our seasonal items can make the difference between enjoying them for years to come and wasting money replacing them. Below are a few simple guidelines for maintaining and storing warm-weather items throughout the fall and winter.

Whether wicker, metal, plastic or cloth, it is critical that all outdoor furniture is clean and dry before being covered or stored. With upholstered cushions, we are all guilty of forgetting to put them away before they have been exposed to some measure of moisture. During the summer, this is generally not a problem because any mildew that may have grown will eventually be killed by exposure to direct sunlight. But, when storing your outdoor pillows and cushions for the winter, it is best that they are brought indoors instead of being covered - and it is very important that they are fully dried (especially when being stored in a dark basement or garage). Once dry, they should be beaten for dust, wrapped carefully and placed in the driest possible place.

Metal furniture should be cleaned with mild soapy water (Murphy's Oil Soap is a good choice) and be sure to drain any water trapped in the frames. Most metals can stay out with a secure cover, but it is recommended that steel furniture be brought in, if possible, because of the greater risk of oxidation and rust. Wicker furniture should also be cleaned, dried and stored inside and again, Murphy's Oil soap is a great option for keeping the wicker supple. Most wood can be left outside if properly sealed and cleaned, but leave some room for air circulation. Stone pieces - especially table tops exposed to repeated freezing - would fare best inside, but a sealant and a loose cover should do the trick in most cases.

Gardening tools:
While gardening tools are generally made to withstand all types of heavy use and the elements, if you wish to keep them at their best from year-to-year, they need to be cleaned and maintained at least once per year. Metal tools should be thoroughly cleaned with a wire brush, fully dried and hit with a quick shot of lubricant like WD-40 (paying special attention to hinges, bolts, screws and crevices). Wooden handles benefit greatly from a quick shot with low-grit sandpaper and a nice coating of neem or linseed oil. These simple steps will help to avoid cracking and splintering and will ensure you will have rust-free tools ready to go in the spring.

Landscaping machinery:
Since mowing is often a grueling chore for homeowners, it is tempting to roll the lawnmower right into the garage and not look back until the spring season. But, lawnmowers and other gas-powered machines benefit greatly from proper maintenance and this can save a lot of stress and money over the years. Here are a few recommendations from lawn mower experts, Briggs & Stratton:

1) Always remove the spark plug lead wire before performing any type of mower maintenance.

2) Remove, cover and store the battery. Starting with the negative terminal first, remove your mower's battery, clean any dirt, debris or corrosion, treat the terminals with a basic protectant and store in a clean, dry place.

3) Treat fuel tank. Gas-powered machines should never be left for months on end with partially full tanks (especially months with high precipitation). Moisture can gather in the tank causing rust that can clog the carburetor. It should either be run completely out of fuel or, better yet, filled to capacity and treated with a fuel stabilizer. If opting to fill and treat the fuel tank, be sure to run for a few minutes to allow the stabilizer to circulate throughout the carburetor. Store in a clean, dry place far away from furnaces or any other source of heat or flames.

Now that you've thoroughly cleaned and properly prepared your summer furniture, tools and machinery for winter storage, one final bit of advice is to park them behind not in front of your snowblower, shovels or generators as it won't be long before they'll need to come out to play.

Gearing Up for Cold Weather Ahead

There are very few places in the U.S. that weren't hit hard last winter. Even the generally calm, suburban Philadelphia neighborhood where I lived was plagued with multiple ice storms that down many power lines and rendered the roads impassable.

Folks in Boston faced record snowfall at 108.6 inches and one storm has come to be known as the January 2015 North American Blizzard (unofficially named Winter Storm Juno). To predict this early in the fall what we'll face this winter would be an exercise in futility, but being prepared for whatever comes is never a waste of time.

When asked what they wished they had done to better prepare for last year's historic storms, homeowners in the northeast part of the country tell me the following, in order of importance:

Purchase a Generator:
Losing power for even a day or two can be a hardship. Heat and hot water is lost at the time when it is needed most and the food on which you so diligently stocked up can be spoiled in just a few hours. Last year, millions of people across the U.S. lost power for a week or more and in some cases, it cost human lives. Whether you live in an area prone to tornadoes, tropical storms or severe snowfall, owning a generator will never be a regrettable decision. Since operating a generator is much more than plug-and-go, click here for a basic guide to purchasing the right machine for your needs.

Purchase a Snowblower:
While shoveling snow is an excellent cardio workout, it can also be dangerously strenuous for those not already in relatively good physical shape. The second most popular lament from ill-prepared homeowners was that they wished they had a snowblower for the storm of 2015. As one property owner tells us, It's not just the lazy factor - it's removing the snow quickly and thoroughly from driveways and sidewalks to avoid potential injury to those walking about. "It just gets to be too much," another makes note. "Sometimes it's better to just wait until all the snow has fallen and get it in one fell swoop."

Better Insulate the House:
Even for those homeowners who never lost power, the hardship came in the form of hefty energy bills. With furnaces working overtime and more people stuck in the home, heating and energy bills can be a disaster of their own kind. One very simple and affordable way to avoid energy loss is to pick up a few tubes of caulk and find the areas around the house where air is entering or escaping. Hovering a candle around door and window frames is the tried and true way to locate drafts, and sealing them up will make a marked difference in your level of comfort and your energy costs over the course of the winter. Another very simple and effective trick is to wrap your water heater to avoid heat loss. Quilted moving blankets are a great choice, but any old blanket will do.

Maintain the Gutters:
If cleaning the gutters is something that ends for you after the first major dropping of fall leaves, you may want to reconsider your plan. When snow and ice amounts surmount what your gutters can handle, it is important that they are as clear and free as possible. In addition to leaves, there is a lot of dirt and debris that can accumulate in your gutters - debris that can cause major problems once frozen in the system. A thorough initial cleaning at the end of October is a great start, but taking a peek once a month through the end of February can help avoid damage to the gutters - as well as to the roof. There are some inexpensive gutter tools out there that will avoid the dreaded ladder, but the first major cleaning should ideally be done by hand.

While we can never truly outsmart Mother Nature, we can surely be better prepared to take her on. We wish everyone a happy 2016 winter and hope that these simple tips can help make it as safe and comfortable as possible. Let it snow!

Snow Days -- Remembering Winters Past

What a difference snow preparation makes in Boston. I remember being there at a conference when a similar storm hit. It was total chaos. Roads impassable, not plowed, skidding, traffic tie-ups. Crossing the border into Cambridge was a little better, but not much. However some town lines were cleared and a blessing. And it was easy home. And snowstorm cleanup in Boston was also pretty good this last storm thanks to good preparation

For fun, just think what snowstorms were like in the past, especially before electricity. A good strong teenager with a shovel was worth his weight in gold. Imagine trying to shovel to the barn to milk the cows. Or get the horse attached to a sleigh.

Or trying to get home while the woods were filling up with snow. As Robert Frost did when he stopped to watch the woods on a snowy evening. Without a farmhouse near. His horse gave his harness bells a shake to ask why he was stopping here. The answer was, ďThe woods are lovely, dark and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.Ē

Just think before telephone communication. How did you check on your relatives to see if they were OK?

Just think today, before TV and the Internet. This present storm was a Snow Day with free time, which gave us a chance to catch up on people all over. Plus every friend in Florida or California, who watched the news, called to see how we were.

Just think again before the TV and the Internet. We sat warm and dry watching the storm everywhere, minute by minute. New York City deserted. Hugh waves crashing across breakwaters and flooding shore towns, while wind driven snow blew sideways. Enjoying children sledding in the Boston Common. We watched the occasional car or plow on deserted highways.

So welcome this nice Snow Day. A day of enjoying the world around us, doing things we hadnít gotten around to, or maybe just resting and watching the tennis matches in hot, hot Australia.

Well, maybe a day of rest, except for the shoveling of course. But thatís where the value of a good strong teenager with a shovel was still huge. Some things never change when it snows.

Lessons of Winter -- Just Look and Learn

Look about you. Winter gives us information in unexpected ways. For instance, you can tell the temperature outside just by looking at the rhododendrons.

At 32 degrees, they curl up. About like a cigar. If they curl even more tightly, like a cigarette, itís about 20 degrees. Some varieties curl up tighter, some not so tight. But always at 32 degrees. When warm sunshine hits a particular leaf, that leaf uncurls.

The varieties from colder ecosystems, curl more tightly than those that are not as hardy. Itís related to salt concentrations in the sap, and obviously, the freezing point of water.

Another piece of most useful information is to see whether oneís trees are well balanced, and whether certain branches are dead.

First look at the branch structure, which is best visible from a distance. If a huge wind blows up, will the tree waver too much in one direction or another because of uneven weight and possibly fall or crack?

If so, consider calling a certified arborist for an opinion about pruning. Pruning is expensive, but donít do it yourself because of the serious accidents and death rate.

To tell if a particular branch is dead or alive, look at the end. If there are small branchlets and twigs, itís probably alive. If there are no little twigs, check it out in spring to see if it leafs out. Dead branches eventually break off in storms and can cause damage. Consider having a professional tree company remove it. (A local Belmont boy was so killed not long ago.)

Winter is a good time to decide how to shape small trees and seedlings, because the branching structure is completely visible. Young trees put out too many small branches, all around, on the sides and top. To get a strong scaffold in the mature tree, itís necessary to shape it when young. It should have a main central trunk, and some well spaced branches that will grow to become a well balanced tree.

Does this all sound too technical? It is. However, anyone who looks carefully at a tree, slowly and thoughtfully, will learn lots of useful information.

And while you are looking around, see if you can glimpse a coyote pack, or even a wolf, if there are any in your town. Centuries ago, January was known as wolf-month in northern Europe. Itís the mating season and also food is scarce, hence the fairy tales The Three Little Pigs and Little Red Riding Hood. Fortunately the woodsman came, chopped open the wolfís stomach and rescued Little Red's grandmother (whole and intact). Today itís only free roaming cats and dogs near conservation lands that are at risk.

A Few Thoughts for the Holiday

The Holiday Season is a special time to think, to share, to remember. It's a family and friends time. It's a time to talk to each other, face to face, instead of texting and tweeting, and not being with another warm, live body. Holidays are one of the few times where people still sit around and talk to each other, one on one. And reach out and touch someone. And share their thoughts. Instantly, in human time.

Instead of in electronic time, with those repetitive 3 or 5 second pauses, while a little electronic gadget spins its electrons. The cell phones and other electronic gadgets are the new faces at our tables. We have to get used to and adjust to these heart-less and soul-less little creatures as a part of our lives now. But we still need a human touch. And to communicate in human time.

If you are brooding that you didn't have time to get all the presents ready, never mind. You can always give GOODFERS. These get put in an envelope with a card inside, and then hung with a nice ribbon on the tree or on one's stocking. Goodfers have the person's name on the outside, and on the inside they say, "This is good for a new bike." or "a book", or "a shopping trip", or "an ice cream sundae", or something special like "for your college fund".

If you are sad, take a walk in the woods on a sunny day, with family, friends, even the dog, to cheer your soul in these dark, dank, winter days. Short days are thought to cause winter depression. The sun's wavelengths are supposed to be restorative. There are even special lamps you can sit in front of, to get the right wavelengths.

Again this year, I am cheered by the many decorations on Gina's little Christmas tree in the woods, which still sparkles and shimmers in the sun. When she was 5 years old, her father wanted to have a special holiday tree with her. The chosen tree was just as tall as she was. And each year, they have returned to add more decorations and usually a big red bow, or a star on top.

Now that pine tree is almost 15 feet tall, and Gina is a lovely teenager. But all of those shining holiday balls are still on the tree. They sparkle and cheer the woods, actually all through the year, when the western sun is at just the right angle.

Whenever one Christmas ball falls down, a passerby on the trail picks it up and re-hangs it. And so for years, everyone has spontaneously shared the care and joy of a little girl's Christmas tree. It's a good lesson that the world could learn from, instead of the evil, threats and worries in the news today.

Winter Solstice -- and Why We Need the Twinkly Lights

December 21 is the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. And it is why we need the twinkling lights of Christmas.

The winter solstice brings depressing darkness to the northern hemisphere, and the farther north you go, the shorter the days become. Boston, at 42 degrees latitude, is closer to Rome and Madrid, than to London or Scandinavia where there may be only 2 to 4 hours of sun a day.

For early cultures it was a mystical time, for the earth was dark and barren. Plants and trees lost their leaves. The goddess of the harvest slept, or maybe even died. Very scary.

But some insolent plants held on to their green leaves, defying the evil spirits of the dark and cold. Druids, Greeks and especially Romans worshiped these brave evergreens. They cut them, decorated their houses with them, and also drank a lot of wine, presumably for warmth and reassurance.

And so, they became the brave evergreens of Christmas, holly and ivy and mistletoe.

Poisonous all, they were used medicinally by early priests and shamans. Mistletoe, a parasitic weed of trees, was sacred to the Druids. White-frocked priests plucked it with a golden sickle to cure illness, infertility and pacify oneís enemies. To kiss beneath it ended grievances, which by some mysterious convolution, became todayís romantic custom.

Pagan tribes in England and Germany kept holly to ward off evil spirits, bad weather, and to protect a maidenís virginity. (How does sex always end up in these folk tales?) These myths have evolved into our winter customs, continuing their reassurance that indeed spring would come again.

Before electricity those nights were long and dark. Very dark. (Try the inside of a closet.) Illuminating the darkness was reassuring and protective against irrational fears. It still is.

So at this winter solstice, the joyful holiday lights are most welcome Ė to reassure and comfort us Ė and make our towns a twinkling wonderland. And I do as much shopping as possible at our local stores. Their holiday lights cheer, for me, the depressing darkness of these shortest days of the year.

The Last Rose of Summer

"Tis the last rose of summer, left blooming all alone.
All her lovely companions have faded fast and gone."

So goes the romantic, nostalgic song from the 1920's. It's still true each year as we watch the damp, dark, cold winter approach.

This year we had snowflakes on the roses. A first in my garden. And the blood red leaves of the Japanese maple were flecked with white snowflakes. Beautiful. The first time I have seen this. For some fleeting moments it was Old Man Winter's fall pageant.

Fall's show is its blaze of colors that treat the eye. They slowly change over their several weeks, for those who take the time to notice and share their passing. It's human time, not the click-click-click-quick-click of our electronic time.

The old song's Snowflake Clown slowly flies from on high to kiss the apprehensive last rose of summer. She knows his kiss means death.

This is Nature's time frame. On it were created the myths and religious holidays of old. Would the goddess of the harvest return after the winter? Would the people who made these myths survive the cold and bleak and often hungry darkness? They used the rising sun after December 21, the shortest day of the year, to mark the season.

Today, our winter holidays are ones of hope. Christmas, Hanukkah, and many other religions, are also timed to celebrate the expectation of next year's spring.

For the past few years the climate has changed most significantly, and is especially visible in the garden. The plants feel it. Global warming is very, very real, even if certain huge, wealthy companies, and their political friends refuse to admit it.

As the season ends, and in accordance with Nature's time frame, it's our time to put the garden to bed. Closing down the garden always means a big list of things to do. To be honest, one can never get them all done. However, be content, to finish even a few. And never mind those chores unfinished. The goddess of spring will come, no matter.

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