I have been intimidated by the number of windows in this house ever since we bought it. There are 35 altogether. The windows are “6 over 6” throughout and all but two have storm windows. The ones without storms are modern all weather windows and the smallest in the whole house.

The west side of the house gets the dirtiest because it faces Bradley Street and Rt. 96 and the prevailing wind. On Tuesday I started with those windows on the ground floor. Not only are they the dirtiest, but they are also the ones that the guests look at during breakfast. Now they are clean. This afternoon I cleaned the windows of the French doors on the front porch. The south side of the house is the second dirtiest.

Once I get going on windows I wonder why I put it off. It is sort of a rewarding job, really. When they are cleaned there is such a big difference and you refine your technique as you go along, so they go more quickly and you fall into a sort of rhythm.

I am using a squeegee for the first time. I bought them years ago and forgot about them. I am a habitual user of newsprint for cleaning windows. This time I use the squeegee for the first pass and then clean up the corners, edges and tough spots with the newsprint.

I’ll just keep doing a few at a time over the next few weeks and then I will be done until next spring.

First daffodils

Last weekend we called up Soil and Water and asked them, “Do you have any fern left?” and they said, “Six bags,” and we said, “We’ll take them.”

On April 23 I’ll drive over to Dryden and pick them up. The Soil and Water Conservation Service is a part of the USDA. They sell herbaceous plants and shrubs every spring at very low prices.  The ferns come in bags of ten plants, five species in pairs.

We bought four bags last year and the survival rate was pretty good. It actually might have been 100 percent. Sometimes when you plant a fern it will just sit there for a year before deciding to send up some greenery.

The offending Potentilla

We’ve got a Potentilla bush right in front of our front stairs that I have been wanting to move every since we moved in. It isn’t an Abbottswood, because the flowers are yellow, not white, but it has pretty much the same habit. It is planted right at the corner between the walk to the front steps from the sidewalk and the walk that wraps around the east side of the house. It is annoying to brush up against, shovel snow around and mow around. It needs to get a new home. That will happen this month sometime. It is still a little wet right now and it still might snow again.

Thursday was bright, sunny and relatively warm (it snowed early in the week), and we had been talking for weeks about going over to shop at Famous Brands. So, on Thursday with the new rack cards in the back seat, we headed down Rts. 227 and 79 to Watkins (no one calls it ‘Watkins Glen’ around here).

I had been needing a new pair of walking/work boots and Deirdre wanted to shop for pants. Famous Brands is a combination of a outdoor recreation, work and casual wear store right on Franklin Street in downtown Watkins. When we arrived we found that they had expanded the store enormously in the previous year. They had added an entire second floor to one of the three historical storefronts that the business occupies.

I shopped carefully for boots. Store personnel cycled by at intervals to see how I was coming along and eventually gave me some expert advice on how to properly fit a shoe. Deirdre bought two pairs of pants and our retail mission was accomplished in about 40 minutes.

It was still early afternoon, so instead of going directly home we bore left as we climbed the hill out of town and went up Rt. 414 instead of retracing our route on 79. Rt. 414 is the Seneca Lake Wine Trail East and it was time for us to drop off our newly printed 2009 rack cards at the wineries.

Our first stop was Silver Springs Winery LLC, a place we had never visited before. There were no other customers there on a Thursday in April and we found the owner practicing his guitar playing behind the tasting bar. John Zuccarino told us that his winery had been there for about 10 years. He grows his own grapes down the hill toward the lake and also out of the north fork of Long Island (he is originally from New Jersey).

The lower quarter of the east (west-facing) side of Seneca Lake is known locally as ‘the banana belt.’ It gets linger afternoon sun and its steep slopes are well drained. A few acres here and there along the banana belt are warm enough to sustain syrah, merlot and cabernet sauvignon grapes, which is rare in the Finger Lakes, where the predominant red varietal is cabernet franc.

Zuccarino’s wines are called ‘Don Giovanni Wines.’ Most wineries name their wines after the winery, but at least one other winery in the Finger Lakes has a different name on the label than it has on the sign out front (King Ferry Winery makes Tréleaven Wines). Zuccarino has several merlots available for tasting, including a 2002 merlot, which was so nicely aged that it tasted like a French bordeaux, a 2003 merlot that we ended up buying a bottle of, and a “bold merlot,” which had spent more time in the oak cask than the other merlots.

It was unusual to find a 2002 bottle for sale in 2009 at a Finger Lakes winery. Most places sell much younger wine. Zuccarino seems to put aside bottles to see how they age. Dr. Frank’s winery over on Keuka Lake also presents older wine at the tasting bar. His chardonnay was unusual in that it was a ‘French style’ bottle, having been made entirely in steel and never stored in oak. This is done elsewhere in the region, but usually a winery will also make a barrel aged bottle.

Zuccarino approaches wine making with a biochemistry perspective and gave detailed (but rapid) descriptions of how he had blended different grapes to get just the flavor and color that he wanted in his wines. He refers to his wines informally as ‘organic.’ The claim is not on the bottle or in any of his literature, so he is probably referring to the fact that he does put sulfites or any additive (dyes, fruit flavors etc.) into his wine. The lack of sulfites is particularly noteworthy, as many people are allergic to them.

We left some rack cards at Silver Spring, bought some of their wine and took along some of their brochures and headed north to Atwater  Estate Winery. The ‘estate’ part of the title means that all the grapes in the wine are grown right there at the winery (unlike Silver Spring, which grows on Long Island, which makes Don Giovanni Wines ‘New York State wines.’

The Marks family owns Atwater, but none of them were there on this midweek early spring afternoon. The lone employee present told us that Katie Marks was in New York City taking a course in the history of wine. We once again had the tasting room to ourselves and enjoyed hanging round with the taster and essentially toasting the beauty of the Finger Lakes region for about half an hour (the tasting room look out over the lake proper).

Atwater is a favorite of ours, so there wasn’t an exploratory aspect to this part of the afternoon. However, they had just released a 2007 pinot noir, which proved to be superior. Many Finger Lakes pinot noirs are a bit thin or downright bad because the grape is on the edge of its range here. In some years the growing season simply isn’t long enough, dry enough or warm enough for pinot noir and the wines bear this out. Atwater new release, however, was robust, smooth and had nice berry up front.

Chateau Lafayette Reneau is right next door to Atwater. The tasting room was again empty but for a single employee. Our host told us that in these slow months he was able to spend more time teaching online. He teaches history and politics at the Community College of Vermont. It has been our experience that a lot of the winery employees have other jobs, some of them additional service economy jobs, but it isn’t unusual to find that you are standing across the bar from an artist or a teacher.

The high point for me at CLR was their cabernet franc, which was a solid Finger Lakes red with the combination of smoothness and pepper that makes this such an enjoyable wine to drink by itself or with almost any food. Deirdre liked the dry riesling, which is the notable white varietal for this region. Some of them are amazing complex with different things happening in the beginning, middle and end of a taste. The CLR riesling was not that complicated, but had a clean, fresh, lightly fruity taste.

Our last stop was Red Newt Cellars. I had been to a mixer at the winery two weeks before and so had tasted their wines then, but Deirdre hadn’t been able to come along. Once again the tasting room was empty and two employees were occupying themselves with paperwork when we arrived. Red Newt does not grow any of their own grapes, but instead buys them from growers in the region. The Finger Lakes wine industry began when some (but not all) of the local grape growers decided to start making wine.

We tried several of the varietals, but were most impressed by the winery’s blend, which is called Red Eft. Every year they mix together several varietals to produce this low-cost bottle. This year’s Eft is especially good because the owner and winemaker, Dave Whiting, decided not make any wine from a particular crop (I think it was the cabernet franc in 2007, but I’m not sure) and instead mixed all the grapes into the blend. So what wasn’t quite good enough to make a straight varietal bottle produced an outstanding blend.

It was then time to head home and get ourselves some dinner. We had left behind four piles of rack cards, but acquired six very nice bottle of wine.

Visiting the Owls

Trumansburg is at the northern edge of Tompkins County and the next county up, Seneca County, is full of active and inactive agricultural land, interspersed with woodlots and dotted with villages and hamlets. During the winter the county roads (most of them still unpaved) are excellent for trolling for open country birds like northern pipits and snow buntings. These are birds that generally don’t come to feeders and are only in this area during the winter. More dramatic are the rough-legged hawks, short-eared owls and snowy owls, all of which are less common than the pipits and buntings, but a bit more heart-stopping when you spot them.

Center Road snowy in flight

Center Road snowy in flight

A fellow bed and breakfast owner, Michele Manella of Hayward House up in Ovid, has become an avid birdwatcher since moving to the Finger Lakes from Pittsburgh. She is part of a network of birders who let each other know when unusual species have been spotted. Several weeks ago she let us know that a snowy owl and several short-eared owls had been hanging around the intersection of Center Road and County Road 129 in Ovid, and she encouraged us to go have a look. The best time was around dusk, which was happening around 7 p.m. in early March.

We tried to make up there one night a couple of weeks ago and arrived at about 7:20 p.m. when it was already too dark to identify anything out in the field. Snowy owls, because they are from the tree-less tundra, will often sit on the ground in the middle of a field for hours. It is often difficult to tell the apart from patches of snow or wind-blown plastic bags. The short-eared owls like to sit on the rolls of hay out in the fields, but they tend to like the lee side rather than sitting right on top, where it would easier to see them …

Then, earlier this week Michele gave us a call. Someone had spotted the snowy owls after no one had seen it for several days. The network of birdwatchers maintains a phone tree and the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology posts a regularly updated list of local notable sightings. We picked up Michele at her place and drove up Rt. 96, and took a left onto Center Road and began scanning the fields on either side of the road. The first thing we spotted (Michele spotted) was a male northern harrier. These hawks fly in a distinct manner, teetering on narrow upswept wings, swooping low and then rearing up sporadically when they appear to have spotted something down below. The males have blue-gray backs and black wing tips. The female–whom we saw shortly thereafter–is larger and brown instead of blue-gray. Both have a distinctive white crescent at the base of their tails.

We encountered two dedicated birders who were doing owl surveys for Cayuga Birds (I think). It was a cold and windy evening, but very clear with good low light. Michele (again) found the snowy owl crouching out of the wind in a hedgerow. We could see only its head sticking up out of the high grass. Deirdre set off up a lane paralleling the hedgerow to see if she could flush the owl into the open. She got within about 50 feet of him when he popped up and flew about 30 yards out into the field and set down in full view. The males are whiter, while the females tend to be streaked with brown. This was definitely a male.

One of the owl surveyors predicted that he would sit in the middle of the field for a while and then, when it started to get dark, fly up into a tree at the end of the hedgerow. (In the end, that is exactly what he did.)

We turned our attention to the north side of the road where a bird was singing from one of the cylindrical hay bales. I thought it was a red winged blackbird because I’d seen them around for a few weeks now. But he turned toward us and the setting sun and his yellow breast lit up: a meadowlark. He was back up north a little early, but he was definitely back and singing with enthusiasm.

The harrier were still about, but we hadn’t seen the short-eared owls yet. Evidently they represent a sort of changing of the guard, with the harriers ending their hunting just about the time the short-eared owls start their evening shift. After about a half hour of waiting without seeing any short-eared owls we prepared to go. Of course, just as we were about to get in the car one sailed into view, followed shortly by another. They swooped in to have a look at the snowy owl (who by now was in the tree) and then disappeared over a hill, apparently to hunt over a recently plowed field. We’d seen dozen of gulls flying over it earlier in the evening. They were gone now and had left the field to the owls.

Visiting Off-Season

The Finger Lakes are a popular tourism destination between May and October. From November to April it is quiet and we’d love to see a few more people visit. A lot of people seem to have the impression that we get a series of enormous snowstorms all winter, but that isn’t actually the case. That happens in the “snow belt,” which is a broad swath of New York beneath Great Lakes Erie and Ontario. But the southern edge of the belt reaches down to only the northern ends of Cayuga and Seneca Lakes.

Ithaca and Trumansburg are at the southern end of Cayuga Lake. We get our share of snow, but not those three- and four-foot dumps that they get so regularly in the snow belt. And what I regularly tell warm weather visitors who express trepidation is “Hey, this is where salt comes from!” Indeed, much of the road salt for the northeast comes out of salt mines under Cayuga Lake and the Genesee Valley (the mine under Seneca Lake is apparently used largely for table salt). In other words, the roads around here are possibly less icy and safter than some of the ones that folks have to deal with in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and downstate New York.

And what is there to do in the winter around here? Well, pretty much everything that you can do in the summer. Go to the wineries (yes, most of them are open all year), eat at excellent restaurants, see top quality live theatre, visit the gorges (OK, some of them are closed, but Taughannock is open all winter), see live music (just not outside, as you might do in the summer) and visiting artist studios,  art galleries and bookstores.

There isn’t a lot of downhill skiing around here–Greek Peak is about 40 minutes to the east–but the cross-country skiing is widespread and varied. Trails at Hammond Hill State Forest southeast of Ithaca are heavily used by local people, so it unlikely that you would even have to make your own trails. The Finger Lakes National Forest trails are good for beginners because many of them run north and south along the height of land between Seneca and Cayuga Lakes and so change very little in elevation, while passing through open fields, woodland and isolated ponds and gorges.

If you like wine, really like wine, and would like to hang around and talk about it with the people who make it, then you are much better off visiting the wineries between November and April. You are likely to walk into the tasting room and find almost nobody else there, except the person behind the counter, who may in fact be the winemaker himself. Even if it isn’t the winemaker you encounter, the taster will have much more time to talk wine with you and, as they are usually savvy local folks, tell you where to go for a good meal and some reasonable accommodations.

In other words, if you visit the Finger Lakes, you will be hanging with the locals and learning a whole lot about the region that you can apply toward your subsequent warm weather visits. As the area gets more and more popular, inside information will serve the clever visitor by helping him avoid the crowds and see the “real Finger Lakes”.

We didn’t have a lot of snow this winter, but we had snow often and it was bone-chillingly cold for weeks in a row.  Changes in the weather were often accompanied by howling winds. The white pines and Norway spruce on the north side of the house took a beating this year; there were limbs down all over the place.

Overproduction of cones is not a good sign.

Overproduction of cones is not a good sign.

The pines in particular are in rough shape. The needles have been yellowing and falling off for at least three years now and there are a troubling number of mushrooms coming up under the trees. It could be that they don’t like cars driving over their roots all the time. It could be that they have got some blight. Or it could be that they are just getting old. Because they are probably at least 80 feet tall and less than 10 feet from the house, we have been talking about having them taken down. It will be a real shame because they add a lot of character to the property.

The spruces are far less majestic and arranged in a line extending from the corner of the back deck. The pines may actually be shading them out, so they at least may benefit from their removal. Left standing there on their own though, they may look a bit scraggly.

Two years ago we planted four hemlocks. Two of them are under the pines and next to the spruces. Hemlocks are happy to grow in the shade of other trees, while pines and spruces are not. In the best case scenario these 10-foot high trees will be 15 or 20 feet tall when the pines have to come down.  The other two hemlocks are out in the open and have been growing much more quickly, so when the pines go, the hemlocks formerly under them are likely to really take off.

We have a large box-elder on the northern boundary of the property. These soft maples grow quickly, but do not live long. We’ll have to have our tree guy do a clean-up of the dead limbs this year. It is a majestic, spreading tree, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I outlived it.

One of the pines is at left and the spruce branches hang over a little hemlock.

One of the pines is at left and the spruce branches hang over a little hemlock.

Along the western boundary on Bradley Street there was once a continous row of sugar maple trees. They were the result of a Progressive Era planting campaign throughout the village. Since they were all planted at the same time, they are all entering into senescence at about the same time. When the trees were planted, nearly all the roads in the village were dirt and there were far more horses around than cars. The advent of paved roads and winter salting has done these shallow rooted trees no good at all. In addition, their roots have thrown the flagstone sidewalks all over the place. Many of them have already been removed and many other have been liberally trimmed. The village is in the process of seeking state aid to replace these street trees.

In a couple of weeks, when the twigs and pine cones are not still frozen to the ground, it will be time to get out there and rake. The village DPW comes around once a week on Mondays to pick up yard detritus. You have to make sure everything is less than four feet long and you have to tie it up so that they can throw it up on the truck easily. Anything smaller has to go into a paper (not a plastic) bag. Trumansburg is on a schedule with the other villages and towns in the county; the grinder comes around periodically and reduces all this yard waste to something like compost, which residents are then invited to go scoop up and spread around their shrub borders.

A small but constant number of people who visit McLallen House remark that they too have entertained the idea of owning and running a bed and breakfast. Almost always they add, “when I retire.”

This is not a good plan.

Running a bed and breakfast requires a lot of physical labor, especially if you have one in an old house. From day to day there is laundry, cooking and cleaning to do. If you have five guest rooms, then it like doing all of that for a family with 10 children, except that you don’t tend to have the same faces at the table from week to week.

The analogy of house full of kids extends to your regular need to repair things that have been broken. Your guests are not familiar with the geography and technology of your home, so they are more apt to break things than a continual resident might be. For example, we had no fewer than five bed and breakfast guests backed into the lamp post in our parking area until finally a friend administered the coup de grace one winter night. The next day it snowed and the guy who plows our driveway missed the driveway itself, scraping over the portion of our lawn where the fallen lamp post lay, smearing it in pieces across the landscape.

Interestingly not one of the bed and breakfast guests who backed into the lamp post ever acknowledged having done so (our friend ‘fessed up immediately), even though the paint of the post was on their bumper and the paint of their bumper was one the post. People, as they say, are funny.

The original sash windows are still hanging in our house, but the counterweights have long since parted ways with the chains that connected them to the sashes. We therefore have to prop up the sashes with pieces of wood. On a good day I remember to tell guests that if they wish to turn on the air conditioning that (1) they should close the windows first (yes, you have to tell some folks this), and (2) they have to let the window down carefully after removing the wooden prop. Nevertheless, at this writing there are at least two cracked windowpanes in the house where someone has forgotten and dropped the sash.

Before the cold weather comes I’ll have to scrape out the old glazing, remove the window and install a new one. Of course what I really need to do is reconnect the counterweights to the sashes. But that is a job that will likely take several weekends as there are 22 of these old windows in the house and the joinery around the windows has to be partially dismantled in order to get into the compartments on either side of the sash where the counterweights (used to) hang. This is all assuming that the lead weights are still in there.

There are also jobs that you might let slide if you were living in a private residence that you really can’t let go if you are having guests all the time. In our case it was the haphazard flagstone side walk that had been thrown about by the maple trees that used to line the street. The up-thrown stones created impromptu risers in the sidewalk that were up to 4 inches in height. This, coupled with the fact that the stones tend to be slippery when wet, was an accident waiting to happen.

After a couple of loads of sand (in the back of the Volvo) and two weekends wielding a pike and a few cunningly cut pieces of wood I managed to get the walk somewhere back toward level. I didn’t attempt to make in entirely flat; I just tried to get the edges of the stones to meet up. The result is a much less dangerous, but still charmingly bucolic looking sidewalk.

But the stones are about three feet on a side and 3 or 4 inches thick. They are heavy and not something that I would want to be manhandling in my retirement years (I am closing in on my 48th birthday, so I am not exactly young either).

In addition to the physical demands, there are also the amount of time required to simply keep up with the paperwork involved in running a small business. In addition to the usual bookkeeping and bill paying that goes along with running every small business, the innkeeper must keep track of the guest calendar. Technology has made this easier in various ways, but the things that allow you to take reservations can also make it more difficult to keep track of them.

We forward our land line to our cell phone and take the calendar with us where ever we go. We can therefore take a reservation on paper, but we don’t bring a laptop with us and wouldn’t be able to get on the internet everywhere in order to immediately update our availablity online. The cost of incomplete bookkeeping in this regard is embarrassment at best.

If your idea of retirement is to keep busy all the time, then maybe innkeeping isn’t such a bad idea, especially if your retirement income allows you to hire other people to take care of a lot of the physical tasks.

But if you had the idea that innkeeping was mostly about baking muffins and carousing with pleasant visitors, then you might want to look into it a bit more.

After researching how to create a meadow/wild flower garden (out of a former Scottish Highlander cow pasture at MacKenzie-Childs in Aurora, NY) I decided to try an experiment at home. In the east side yard of our bed and breakfast, McLallen House, located in Trumansburg, NY near Ithaca, on the west side of Cayuga Lake in the central Finger Lakes region, the wild garden experiment began in August 2006. A perimeter strip was mown around the garden area and the interior plants were allowed to grow, develop flowers and set seed; in November, everything was mowed to about 5 inches, and my collection of old seeds (annuals and perennials) was sown directly onto the garden area. Plant hardiness zone 5b.

Year One (2007): In late April, mowed perimeter grass strip and two walking paths through the garden which is loaded with yellow Celandine flowers – plants die-back in summer. In June, the Village zoning officer phoned about a neighbor’s complaint that “they aren’t mowing their lawn” (sure enough, it was the same person who led the charge against our winter-season, acoustic house concerts – that’s another story!). I submitted a garden maintenance program with a list of sown seeds. He paid a visit and we walked the garden area; he was satisfied that it was a garden in the making. Much of what flowered that first year was a variety of grasses, asters, rudbeckia, phlox, dandelion, butter-cup, Queen Anne’s lace, pre-existing planting of oriental poppies, day lilies, and sweet woodruff..primarily a fall season floral display. In August, I drove ten minutes from our house, along Searsburg Rd (County Route 1 to Seneca Lake), and dug up and transplanted ragged robin plants collected along the road of the Finger Lakes National Forest, and Bill transplanted the butterfly bush from the north-side of the house. For spring season flowers, in fall, we planted 1,000 mixed daffodil bulbs in the garden and wood hyacinth bulbs in the lawn. We finished planting the bulbs on a warm Christmas day.

Year two (2008): In April, Bill mowed the perimeter and the two walking paths through the garden. The daffodils bloomed from mid – late April through May along with existing young red bud trees (Cercis canadensis: some planted and some self-seeded). June 1st: Dug up clumps of existing, rampant Celandine (intent is to control invasive growth over time) and planted clumps of Euphorbia, Ajuga, Geranium subcaulescens, Solomon’s Seal, and lily of the valley from Mary Fanelli’s in New Hampshire. Mowed another tributary path to get closer to other plants under the Hemlock tree. In other dug-out Celandine patches: sowed seeds of Cosmos ‘Sensation Purity’, Centaurea cyanus ‘Blue Boy’, and Helianthus ‘Autumn Beauty’ with the purpose of letting them germinate in-situ. When they’re plug-size, they’ll be replanted in new dug-out Celandine patches through out the garden.

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