February 25, 2016

Musings on Education

Fixin' tractors with firewood and milk cartons.
I recently acquired a used BCS two-wheeled tractor and discovered some significant mechanical gremlins that went unreported by the seller (caveat emptor, eh?). I took a stab at the job rather than paying big bucks and waiting weeks for a small engine repair shop to perform the work and I am happy to report a successful outcome. The major work included repairing the power take-off transmission to address some worn gears and a fuel system overhaul (including a carburetor rebuild) to address a fuel starvation problem. Other work included general control cable adjustment and lubrication, repair of an electrical short circuit, engine valve adjustment, and replacing spark plugs and the air filter. All told, the project was fun, vastly informative, and very attainable with the help of online tutorials and a willingness to tinker.
What does small equipment repair have to do with education?

I have absolutely no formal training in small engine repair. I also have no formal training in any number of trades that are commonly employed around the home such as plumbing, carpentry, wiring, and painting. Heck, let’s even throw sewing in there for good measure. A homeowner faced with a need for these skills typically has two options - learn the skills or hire them out. I, being of frugal stock, typically (but not always) chose the former. I am fortunate to have a father who showed me how to change oil as a youngster, thus imparting the first lessons of mechanical literacy. The rest has been trial and error.

Again, what does this have to do with education?

Aside from one semester each of shop and home economics in middle school, my public education was completely bereft of trades topics. The trades are almost completely absent from the American curriculum even though they are essential to our daily lives. Grade schools focus nearly exclusively on math, history, science, writing, and reading and the obvious path preferred by society is for students to graduate high school on a college track to prepare them for a white collar career. This was my path and it has suited me relatively well but I feel that I missed a whole lot. Yes, I have a broad liberal arts training and can hold conversations on diverse topics in mixed company. But I get a bit anxious when I am faced with an ostensibly simple task such as replacing a water heater. I mean hell, I cloned my own DNA in biology lab, how hard can replacing a water heater be? Umm..yeah...screw up that 240 volt wiring and you can kill yourself pretty quick. Or flood the basement if the pipes aren’t soldered correctly.

So what, hire a contractor, right? What I’m getting at the education system displays an inherent bias that “smart” kids should only pursue academics and that everyone else is predestined for the seemingly less worthy world of trade work. For a high school student with good grades to even express an interest in the trades would bring the immediate scorn of guidance counselors, teachers, and peers. And unfortunately, the kids with less than exceptional grades are made to feel like they are not as worthy and their future successes will be limited. Except, trades are no second fiddle and require as much training and intelligence as academic work plus a whole lot more common sense! Plus, the trades offer the possibility of business ownership that is often absent from the white collar world. Recognizing that tradespeople work long hours in demanding conditions, I think that there is a lot of satisfaction and pride in the problem solving and craftsmanship that accompany these lines of work. And then there is the college educated office worker who shuffles through the workday alternating between boredom, apathy, expediency, and contempt. Sure, the trades have these attitudes too, but I just don’t see as much pride and satisfaction in the white collar folks. Certainly not as much common sense.

I think there may be a sizable percentage of high school and college age students that would be much happier if they were given a chance to explore alternatives paths. Perhaps some core classes such as introduction to trades, entrepreneurialism, basic accounting, and agriculture (one can be optimistic). The school system wants to develop specialists; I say let’s develop well rounded citizens literate in academics, arts, and trades. I once heard the concept that conflict between two people or groups arises from differences in skill sets. Or to quote Mark Twain, “it ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble, it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” Expand literacy, bridge the gap between blue and white collar workers, build an educated and capable citizenry, and rebuild this democracy.
Keep tinkering on those tractors!

February 12, 2016

New Adventures

My wife and I recently purchased 6.8 acres of land in northern New Hampshire with the goal of building a home and homestead and moving there full time within five years. Oh, and do it all with cash out of pocket without a mortgage. Ambitious? Unrealistic? Sure, and perhaps, but I’m up for this challenge!

What are my motivations for wanting to leave a comfortable home, good paying job, and established social circle? Well, it’s complicated! First and foremost, I love spending time outdoors. In my twenties, I expressed this love by partaking in backcountry ski tours and backpacking trips into the wilds of New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York and motorcycle trips all over New England and beyond. Over time those adventures grew repetitious and I progressed into more home-centric pursuits of gardening, food preservation and preparation, and simple woodworking. Having children certainly ushered this transition! Now nine years into my garden experiment, my ambitions and space requirements have grown beyond my quarter-acre suburban parcel. I need some space to try things out! My wish list includes: growing most of my family’s annual supply of grain and dry beans, establishing a fruit, nut, and firewood orchard, raising a flock of sheep for meat and pasture mowing, raising chickens for eggs and meat, and expanding the kitchen garden to increase the percentage of fresh home-grown foods consumed by my family. Still being the adventurous outdoorsman at heart, I want to do all this within a short drive of some real mountains with hiking, skiing, hunting, and fishing opportunities. Hence the selection of the property merely minutes from the White Mountain National Forest and less than a 30 minute drive to some of New Hampshire’s most spectacular mountain playgrounds.

I have other motivations as well. I want to provide my children with a foundation of essential life skills, a respect for physical labor, and a reverence for nature. I’ll break down these three concepts a bit further. By essential life skills I mean skills that are universal and transferable such as growing and preparing food, using hand tools, making basic repairs to homes and equipment, and proficiency in social interactions, among others. I recognize that these skills can be taught in any setting, urban and rural alike; however, the nature of a working homestead should be conducive to these lessons. Socials interactions may or may not be more difficult in a rural setting; neighbors are few and far between but schools and community groups such as 4-H can fill that gap. We currently live in a neighborhood with many children but most times they are indoors behind a television set since outdoor play is constrained by busy roads, property boundaries, and ill-defined fears of "danger". As far as the universality and transferability of skills, cooking, building, and fixing are performed in all parts of the world and are the basis for higher skills. If my children want to specialize in something more esoteric like computer programming or high finance, fantastic, but they will at some point have learned how to pluck a chicken. Should the job market for esoteric skills crumble, I hope my children can fall back on basic skills for employment. When it comes to physical labor, my goal is not to make them love labor, but to have done it and therefore respect people that labor for their livelihood. Basically, I want them to know that labor and laborers are not beneath them.  Reverence for nature is a fairly straightforward but deep-reaching concept. It is easy for urban dwellers to champion movements to combat distant environmental degradations because they don’t directly see how their own resource-intensive lifestyles are the root of such degradations. Living in and among nature on a farm adjacent to forest could offer a more direct pathway to see how our actions influence nature. I would like to teach my children how to pursue a lifestyle that regenerates ecosystems.

My third motivation for the homestead is rather ambiguous so I’ll just throw out some thoughts in an attempt to define it. I foresee a decline in the American standard of living; in fact, this decline is well underway. Our nation is no longer the king of the heap with regards to manufacturing prosperity and we are moving towards a service economy with severe global competition. Globalization is forcing down wages, benefits, and the quality of goods while shifting wealth to multinational corporations. I foresee the power of sovereign nations diminishing in the face of consolidating corporate influence. Perhaps most significantly, I am concerned that the current growth economy model will falter as we tap out finite natural resources. How will our 401(k) plans fare if the Ponzi scheme that is Wall Street falls apart? Someone will still get rich but it won’t be you and me. We have the illusion of wealth in the form of new McMansion homes and shiny vehicles but I suspect much of this is supported by unending debt. We as a society have decided that convenience is paramount, so we willingly hand over cash to purchase items and services that we could easily produce or perform ourselves. When we hand over cash we relinquish control, and that is precisely how corporations have gained so much influence. So how do we regain control over our finances and government?  DO IT OURSELVES! By “it” I mean as much as possible; build our homes, grow our food, participate in government, so on and so forth. A man unburdened by debt and obligation is not easily manipulated. So to wrap up this thought, my homestead can be thought of an experiment in independence, or perhaps a long-term safety net for my family should the economy really start to slide. Now, I am not a doomsday prepper or anything like that, but I think having a piece of land that produces food, fuel, shelter, and recreation is as valid and diverse of an investment strategy as a mutual fund, if not more so. Trees continue to grow during floods, droughts, wars, bear markets, and the decline of civilizations. So why not invest in trees?

All of this is grand philosophy until I can pull it off!

February 9, 2016

Kindling the Spark

I enjoyed a wonderful parenting moment this weekend. My son Finn and I took advantage of a sunny February afternoon to hike in the woods and spend some time together after a busy work week. We drove to a nearby state-owned conservation land and began our trek at a lesser-frequented section of trail that is bestowed with interesting bedrock formations, stone walls, a relic truck body, and a sugarbush strung with sap collection lines. In other words, an area ripe for exploration by a four-year old, his dad, and their eager dog!
A snow storm two days prior had coated the forest with an inch or two of wet snow that was juxtaposed by temperatures nearing 50 degrees. We hiked with snowboots and light jackets and reveled in the warm sunshine on our cheeks. The first hour found us winding on and off the marked trail, climbing onto rock outcrops, and throwing snowballs for the dog to chase. We walked to the edge of a pond, marveled at the snow-covered beaver lodges, and turned back to retrace our footsteps to the car once the dog had a well deserved pondside drink.
I’ve noticed an interesting behavior with my son. In the presence of my wife, he often defers to her especially when faced with some sort of challenge. I suppose it is his instinct to turn to his mother for nurturing, which she instinctively provides. This is all good stuff, but I (perhaps too dogmatically at times) would like to see him at least attempt to struggle with challenges. Perhaps it is my fatherly instinct to prepare my son for the rigours of life. Anyway, when he and I are alone, on this hike for example, he is much more willing to take on a challenge. He walked nearly the entire 2 or 3 miles and only once asked to be carried over a particularly steep and slippery bit of trail. He never once complained about wet gloves or tiredness, and maintained his youthful inquisitiveness and sense of exploration throughout the hike. Without his safety net, he was far more willing to take risks.
The highlight of the walk occurred minutes from reaching the car when I pointed out a standing dead birch tree that was colonized with mushrooms. I asked Finn if he knew what the mushrooms were doing on the tree. “They’re eating the tree,” he correctly replied, recalling lessons from earlier hikes. (Such are the burdens of having a father with a degrees in biology and environmental science...no hike is safe from an impromptu science lesson). He then inquired why the mushrooms were eating the tree. I explained how all living beings, plants and animals alike, eventually die and the mushrooms eat dead things to return them to the soil. He chewed on this for a few seconds then astutely stated, “So mushrooms make the tree into little pieces of soil so that new trees can grow. And then those trees die and become new trees!” And within this 30-second bit of dialogue, my son intuitively grasped one of the fundamental cycles of life. We walked a few yards past the dead birch and he turned and quietly studied it for quite a bit longer as the revelation resonated in his brain.

As a parent of young children, my biggest hope is that I can at least instill a sense of wonderment, respect, and awareness of the natural world. After yesterday’s hike with Finn, I think I’m on the right track.

February 8, 2016


I need to write more. Not just blog posts, but in general. Writing skills, as with most abilities, develop and hone through repetition. I left an environmental consulting job for a more field-oriented position over a year ago and no longer do much technical writing. Writing was so central to that job that, in retrospect, “writer” would have been a more suitable job title than “senior project geologist”. There were aspects of technical writing that I enjoyed and despised, but one positive point was that the tedium of preparing technical reports pushed me into creative blog writing as an outlet to blow off intellectual steam. The desire to continue this blog, however, waned along with the work-related frustrations when I took the new position. However, I desire the challenges and rewards of creating, so thankfully I have this venue to reinvigorate that body of work. This blog is mostly for my own use; sure, I am satisfied if others read it, but its true purpose is my creative outlet. Writing in the public domain also challenges me to focus and refine my musings, unlike my sometimes rambling and intensely personal handwritten diary entries. So, here goes.

May 10, 2014

Vignettes of Mansfield

This post has been kicking around as draft for over two months.  Today has been the first real kick of summer; 80 degree temperatures, humidity, and a late-afternoon thunderstorm...perfect to reflect upon the recent cold months and one helluva ski adventure.  Plus, I don't think Marquis de Richmond would forgive me if I failed to publish this...

All the weeks of planning and anticipation smack us in the face as we step outside the warm cocoon of the truck, coffees drained, and the insistent cold instantly penetrates our clothing.  A creeping urgency overcomes us as we hustle to don ski boots and packs and make the first nervous uphill strides towards an icy, uncertain summit with the rising sun at our backs.  The first mile passes quickly and intensely as we struggle to build warmth against a stiff headwind; breath condensing and freezing on our beards until we resemble some sort of macabre ice beasts.

The urgency softens atop the first pitch as the grade mellows and the trail carries us into the relative shelter of the trees.  Grooving now, we progress in a steady rhythm of strides and contemplation, punctuated only by pleasant conversation and the occasional biting gust.  The aerobic furnace delights me, as I am only wearing a thin baselayer and a light fleece jacket in light of the minus single digit temperatures.  Only upon traversing an opening in the trees does the wind remind me of the relative human frailty in the teeth of a Vermont winter.  Nature, it has been said, is neither for you or against you, but entirely indifferent.  And intolerant of mistakes.
Marquis: illuminations in civil twilight.

We gain the summit of Mansfield and waste no time in seeking the refuge of the Octagon Lodge and a prime seat on a sunny south-facing bench.  After a rejuvenating hour of beard thawing, polypro drying, hot chocolate drinking, and snacking, we again suit up and venture into the maw.  We slink towards the summit of the Nose and are only momentarily baffled by an apparent discrepancy between the map and reality.  We gain the correct trail in short measure, weigh our options, and plunge into the Teardrop.  This short mile weighed on our minds during the ascent, for it is the test piece that can make or break our voyage.  The Teardrop, you see, plunges us down the west side of the mountain; two ridge lines and many miles from the truck, and guarantees us a rigorous ski home.  The descent, as it turns out, is but a brief Alpine interlude to a day of Nordic travel.  After a few quick bursts of adrenaline, "oh shit I'm not in my 20's anymore" moments, and hoots of exaltation, we come upon our next trail and the movie rolls into the next scene.

The Teardrop is familiar terrain, but new at the same time.  We visited these woods almost exactly eight years ago on a similar trip (different ascent), anchored by inadequate gear and meager skills but buoyed by boundless youthful enthusiasm.  The common denominator is timeless enthusiasm...for skiing, wilderness, and companionship.
Now...March 2014
And then...March 2006.  Same kid, same icicle, different perspective(s), plus Voltron.  Photo credit: Clarksie. 

Indulge me for a minute more as I wax nostalgic...because it's fun and I'm slowly aging and these things become really important.  Here are the protagonists, now and then, on Mt. Mansfield adventures...
Marquis and Woods Hippie, west flanks of Mansfield, 2006.

Woods Hippie and Marquis, en route to Mansfield, 2014.

Well that's enough reminiscing!  We survived the modern-era Mansfield adventure with 13+ miles under our belts that day.  After a celebratory pint and a well-deserved shower at our host's home (Mrs. Woods Hippie's aunt and uncle), we ventured even further north into the wilds of East Albany and proceeded to throw down the ski swagger with vengeance.  Not to brag (and by that I mean to totally brag), these old farts woke up before 5 AM, climbed and descended Vermont's highest peak, delighted in Vermont's finest brewery, and raged Vermont's finest IPA until the wee hours of the morning.  Then we woke up and raged a 14 kilometer Nordic ski while the Texan defiled himself in front of an obliging crowd (no photos...to protect the innocent...and by the way, these Woods Hippie posts are full of hidden meanings and inside jokes; you really must join me on these trips to get in on the action!). 

Mansfield from Morrisville.
The highlight of the East Albany adventure was Sunday morning, when we struck out from Jebediah's homestead in fresh powder on the light Nordic gear; true backcountry skiing in the sense that there are no set trails, no grooming, no snow-making; just pastureland and woods through which the intrepid explorer sets his own path.  There is no easy way to words to describe the experience of the blissful cross-country ski; where you simply close your eyes and traverse a field by feel and sound alone more than vision, navigating southward by the warmth of the sun on your cheek and the sensation of untrammeled snow beneath your skis.

These are the moments that carry us through what will undoubtedly be another long, hot summer.  But for now, we enjoy the lingering New England spring; our annual reward for surviving a winter for the records.  Spring, the eternal season of rejuvenation and redemption, but never far from our minds is the promise of unequaled adventure in the snowy north woods...

Be well,

Woods Hippie.

January 4, 2014

A poem about trees

Some images emerge with clarity from the fog of childhood
Stately hickory, maple, and ash casting shadows of reprieve
from the warm Connecticut summer

But, as the saying goes, these too shall pass
as the child kneels in a pile of woodchips
and vows to once again pierce the sky with the softening canopy
of bough and leaf

So, as the snows settle in and the soil freezes deep
the child, and the children of children
anticipate those warm Connecticut days
when three traveled apple trees will take root
and cast their first spindly shadows upon the world.

December 6, 2013

On Food and Religion

Any dedicated readers of this blog (all two of them, I fear) have likely gathered that I value food quite dearly.  More specifically, I value the concept of nutritious, whole, safe, right food.  Not just USDA-Certified Organic, which has become a marketing tool for a lucrative sector of international agribusiness, but local food grown by people who care about soil, body, and spirit.  To me, a sound interest in food is a gateway to health unparalleled by today's "advances" in medicine - the contrast of a proactive lifestyle vs. reactive treatment.  At least that's how I see things now, having been blessed (whether by genetics, lifestyle, or blind luck) with an existence free of medical issues.

My quest for sound food burns bright.  I want to spread the word, either by growing great produce for my wife and child, convincing my parents to adopt better eating habits, or blogging about gardens.  I can feel it; the intrinsic sureness that the power of community surrounding local agriculture is key to wrestling our economic, governmental, medical, and spiritual freedoms back from the exploitative corporate oligarchy that looms over us.  Our salvation from consumerist dystopia!

But then I take a step back and reflect on my passion for sound food and the words I use to describe it.  Blessings.  Freedom.  Salvation.  What separates me from the religious zealot who seeks to convert all to his mindset?  The proselytizer who is convinced that his absolute viewpoint is absolutely correct?  The power of God and the power of organic carrots...in the grand analysis....do the indifferent ears upon which the message fall even make a distinction?  Just more noise in a world where everyone is looking to sell their schtick?  I am not a religious man nor am I versed in theology, but I sometimes fear that my dedication to the food thing amounts to more than worshiping false idols.  Perhaps I should be focusing energies elsewhere...but where?  Nonetheless, I am guided (and reassured) by the sense that my passion is morally right despite the uncertainties of swimming upstream against the stiffening current of a consumer society that increasingly devalues such introspection.

To be clear, I use food as the centerpiece, but by no means the sole focus, of my philosophy.  My concepts of a wholesome lifestyle extend beyond simple nutrition.  Connections - to the earth, our bodies, minds, and fellow humans, are paramount and intertwined.  The religious man very likely holds the same values, with the obvious additions of the love a greater being and the promise of an afterlife.  Me, my anguish and dreams alike are rooted in the belief that this earthly existence is our one shot, so we better well make a damned good stab at it.  And if that means I must swim upstream, so be it.

October 4, 2013

The Wood Shuffle

The arrival of the autumn foliage means that it's time for the annual firewood shuffle. I have about four or five cords of seasoned wood that have been drying in the shelter of pine and hemlock trees on the north and northeast side of my property. I'm in the process of restacking this wood on pallets on my back patio so I'll have easy access to it through the hatchway door come winter. Last year I burned about 3 1/2 cords of wood and ran out by late March. I should have plenty on hand for this winter! 

The seasoning area beneath the trees will be occupied shortly with freshly split white oak, maple, and hickory that will constitute next season's fuel. The wood burning game means I'm always stocking (and stacking) wood for a season or two in the future. I quite pleased to note that I've scavenged all of this wood for free from family and friends who have had trees taken down for various reasons. I've yet to cut down a tree for the sake of firewood.  With all this wood, I only burned 3/4 of a tank of oil last winter.  Burning wood is a lot of work but it keeps the oil man away!

Speaking of splitting wood, I've switched over to the Fiskars X27 splitting axe. I've previously used a standard splitting maul from the hardware store. The Fiskars axe is lightweight and has a razor sharp edge to slice its way through wood rather than bludgeoning the log like a maul. I can swing this axe for hours with far less muscle soreness. The trick is to keep the edge very sharp; Fiskars offers a slick little sharpening tool. Of course, the largest logs require the traditional wedge and sledge technique to make smaller chunks that I can split with the axe. I save the gnarliest and knottiest pieces for the hydraulic woodsplitter.

Here's the equipment I'm using right now.  I use the maul to drive the wedge, but a long-handled sledgehammer is probably a better tool.  Stay safe and get yourself a pair of safety glasses and work boots, too!  The Fiskars axe is worth every penny.  I've split about 5 cords with mine and I've been very pleased.

A season's worth of heat = homeland security.
Now, allow me the opportunity to wax poetic on wood splitting for a bit. I love it. I really love splitting by hand rather than using a hydraulic splitter. Why? First and foremost, hand splitting is quiet…I can listen to the birds in between chops with the axe. Also, hand splitting is highly meditative; much like motorcycling and backcountry skiing, complete focus is needed to do the task well. Each piece of wood becomes a silent puzzle…I become the Log Whisperer and read the grain to determine which way it wants to split. I look for knots and other features that might influence the direction of the split. The swing of the axe is a calculated application of inertia and muscle. I can step back for a moment and admire the remaining color in my fall vegetable garden and watch the evening sunlight play on the pines that tower above my chopping block. A few hours of splitting settles me into a slow rhythm of physical labor that is eminently rewarding as I sweat out my frustrations and the pile of split wood grows. 
Gabby dog supervises the stacking operations with a tasty pine cone.

It ain't just choppin' wood, folks!

September 30, 2013

Chimney Sweep on the Cheap

Autumn is here, which means the first fire in the wood stove is only a few weeks away.  Although the forecast this week is for daytime temperatures in the 70s and 80s, the shortening days inevitably mean colder weather to come.  This winter will be the third season I've burned a wood stove at my home.  I decided to do a quick chimney sweep on the cheap to ensure trouble-free heating once the frost makes itself at home in central Connecticut.

Here's an easy method to sweep a stainless steel chimney using household materials and some vegetation.  You may have to modify this method to suit a masonry flue.  Disclaimer: Please hire a professional if your chimney is heavily fouled with creosote (and stop burning green wood, eh!).  Chimney fires are no joke.  This technique is for lightly to moderately fouled chimneys. And don't blame me if you fall off your roof!

  1. Rope, at least as long as your chimney plus a few extra feet
  2. A branch from a tree or shrub that is big enough to scour the flue without getting stuck
  3. An old tennis ball or similar sized object
  4. Duct tape 
  5. A buddy to call 911 if'n you do something stupid 

Step 1:  Remove the rain cap on the top of the chimney and the clean-out plug from the bottom of the chimney, if it is so equipped.  Enjoy the different perspective while standing on the roof.
Of course I somehow had to include the garden in this blog post!
Step 2:  Duct tape the tennis ball onto one end of the rope.  The ball acts as a weight to carry the string down the chimney.  Drop the ball and rope down the chimney (hold on the other end of the rope, duh!) and cut the rope a few feet longer.  Duct tape the branch onto the upper end of the rope.

Step 3:  Position the branch in the flue.  Have your buddy on the ground slowly pull the end of the rope with the tennis ball to draw the branch down the pipe.  A good amount of dry dust should come down with it.  Repeat the sweep a few more times.  Reassemble the chimney.

Appropriately enough, the branch I used was from a shrub called Lena's Broom.

If the branch comes out of the chimney coated with sticky tar-like substance, then you have a real creosote problem.  Creosote is formed when wood gases are not completely burned in the stove and then condense into tar on the cooler flue surfaces.  The best remedy for avoiding creosote is to burn properly seasoned hardwood instead of resinous softwoods such as pine, avoid slow smoldering fires, and use a stainless steel flue that will heat up faster than a masonry flue.

There are reasonably-priced DIY products if my dirtbag approach is not your style...

Woodheat.org has a ton of well-researched and FREE information on how to season and burn wood efficiently.  Check them out right now!  

The woodlot in all its glory.  Bonus points if you can spot the dog.
The sun sets on another suburban homestead project.
Can't wait for winter, but I love fall!

September 21, 2013

Cover Crops in the Fall Garden

I have three species of cover crop growing in my garden right now.  I like growing winter cover crops rather than just covering the garden with leaf mulch for several reasons:
  • Grassy cover crops grow extensive root systems that protect the soil from erosion.
  • The plants uptake soil nutrients that otherwise would be lost to leaching.
  • They inhibit weeds.
  • The tall cover grasses increase soil moisture by trapping snow and shading the soil.
  • Legume species produce their own nitrogen fertilizer.
  • Cover crops increase levels of organic material in the soil.
  • They're cheaper and easier than hauling in manure or compost and serve the same functions.
  • I like looking out my window in mid-winter and seeing plants in my garden!
A well-established bed of rye and vetch sown after the potatoes were harvested.
I've sown winter rye and hairy vetch in most areas where I've pulled out the summer vegetables.  Rye and vetch are the most winter hardy cover crops for New England and will grow until the deep cold of January and February.  Vigorous growth will resume in the spring.  The spring growth will produce an amazing amount of biomass from the rye, and the vetch (a legume) will increase the fertility of the soil through nitrogen fixation.  The rye/vetch mix will have to be mown and tilled under in the spring.  The major drawback of rye is that the residues will inhibit the growth of other plants for at least three weeks after tilling in the rye.

Rye and vetch sprouting beneath the fall lettuce patch.
The tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant were undersown with oats around mid-July to provide a living mulch.  I'll pull these veggies once the first frost hits, leaving behind a well-established oat cover crop. The oats will die over the winter and leave a nice mulch on the soil to protect against runoff during the spring rains.  I can either plant spring crops directly through the mulch or till it under.  Similarly, I planted rye and vetch beneath some of the fall veggies like lettuce to let the cover crops get a head start.  I typically plant the winter cover crops no later than the second week of September; any later and the tender young plants will not fare well against the early frosts.

Oats were sown beneath the tomatoes in mid-July.
Next year I will experiment with more mid-season undersown cover crops using legumes such as dwarf white clover.  The clover will act as a living mulch that should reduce the slug problems I had this year using leaf mulch beneath the plants.