Morning in the Fall Garden

The raised veggie beds with tomatoes under cover
Gardener's Delight cherries still producing nicely
Fall Veggie Plot #1: Spinach, lettuce, beets, carrots, kale...
Grapes netted against the hungry birds
Soon-to-be Red Bull Brussel Sprouts
Dewy Silver Sage
Blueberries (with chives and allyssum) gaining their fall glow
Golden Raspberries
Volunteers in the Morning Shade

More Garden Tour Pics

Sigh.  Technical difficulties.  Here are more pics from the day’s adventures:

The blueberry patch in another whimsical front-yard raised bed garden
Chicken Tractor Coop built on a large wheelbarrow base. Ingenious!
Large, fenced veggie plot using keyhole raised beds. The whole thing is positioned on the bottom side of a stone retaining wall reflecting heat and light onto the beds.

Happy garden dreaming!

Cowichan Valley Edible Gardens Tour

I’m always trying to peer over garden fences and pry holes in hedges to peek at the amazing veggie gardens in my neighbourhood.  So when I found out that the Cowichan Valley Green Community was putting on an Edible Gardens tour for the first time this year, I knew I had to go.  What better way to spend a fall Saturday afternoon?!

The tour had 10 properties scheduled for viewing over 4 hours–not nearly enough time to do all of the gardens justice.  The properties ranged from a 37-acre farm that a colleague of mine is trying to set up over the next few years as a permaculture teaching farm (woot!) to the tiniest of city lot front-yard veggie plots.

It was inspiring to see so many folks using the simplest and cheapest techniques to create productive spaces.  And so much fun to see all the different plants and combinations being created.  I’m particularly interested in the ways that people mix vegetable, fruit and flowers in beds and borders.  I know this is the way to go, but I haven’t quite been able to make it work to my satisfaction in my own gardens.

I’m actively planning my garden structure for next year, including re-building the raised beds and re-conceiving a large perennial flower bed, which could become a mixed area of the garden.   I’m also keen to acquire some chickens and/or ducks next year, so we’re pondering how these might impact the property in the best possible way.

Inspiration and goodwill abounded at every turn on the tour.  Here are a few images that capture the fun…

This roadside garden bed outside the front gate was the potato patch! Note the grapevine planted at the base of the telephone pole...
The front-yard garden on the other side of the gate: raised beds, scarecrow, rebar-polytunnel frames, and reusing asphalt shingles between the beds to suppress grass.
Spectacular and tasty 8 ft tall Amaranth! I'll definitely find a space for this next year.

Our Refrigerator is (Almost) Empty

Could you live without a fridge?

A year or two back, this was a hot topic among those striving for the ultimate sustainable lifestyle.  For those in the Riot for Austerity trying to cut their energy and resource use by 80%, the refrigerator came in for close scrutiny.  It’s a huge energy suck–often the biggest draw in the house besides heating.  So there were many who experimented with unplugging the fridge all together.  Usually this meant taking lots of things out of the fridge that don’t need to be there (most condiments, for instance), buying smaller amounts of fresh foods more often, European market style, and learning to do without a few things–like ice water or ice cream–that many folks around the world do without too.

Many who experimented were surprised to find out that they didn’t miss their fridges.  They were able to modify coolers or ice boxes for short term use and didn’t miss the constant electric hummmmmmmm or the charge in their utility bills.  Others found that there were a few really important things that needed refrigeration (breast milk came up a few times!), but that they could easily make do with a bar fridge or other, much smaller, appliance.

I watched all of this with some bemusement at the time and generally felt this was a more radical move than was necessary.  We moved into our condo and I LOVED my brand new, highly efficient, bottom freezer, stainless steel refrigerator.   Every couple of weeks, the Skipper and I would take a trip out to our favorite farm, and we’d come home and STOCK that fridge.  It would be packed with fresh produce from top to bottom.  My most important criteria in a fridge became large, deep crispers with humidity control–the more the better.

When we moved, we knew we would need a new fridge at some point.  The one we’ve inherited is 10 years old, white, the seals get moldy, and the freezer is up top.  The crispers are ok, but they are at the very bottom, and you have to open the fridge door REALLY wide to access them.  There’s also not enough tall storage on the door…you know…for the wine bottles. 🙂  We are such geeks that we have spent more than one Saturday walking through appliance stores drooling over the wares…

Most importantly, I thought we would need a bigger fridge.  After all, I thought, if I was stocking the last one full with the produce from the farm, surely with my garden producing well, I would need something even larger?

Well here it is, the peak of the harvest season (such as it is), and our fridge has been on the verge of empty for months.  It holds eggs, cheese, milk, juice, condiments and sometimes leftovers.  And the occasional piece of fruit that is creeping too quickly toward overripeness.

The bulk of what we’re eating is, of course, in the garden!  And although I could harvest all the carrots now and keep them in the crisper, there doesn’t seem to be much point when they might just get a little bigger if I leave them in the ground.  It is more convenient sometimes to harvest a couple of heads of lettuce and assorted spicy greens, wash and dry them all at once and keep them in a bucket for easy salads over a few days, but even that isn’t constant or even essential to freshness.  Then there are the tomatoes, which should never even see the fridge, and so are taking up the dining table (we eat on the couch, of course!).

The pantry is filling up slowly with potatoes, jam, and with a little luck, canned tomatoes, and the freezer is PACKED.  Crab bait, crab, salmon, berries, a few loaves of bread, and the odd Costco purchase buried in the bottom.  Can’t live without that.  But the fridge?  I’m rethinking what we might need.  Maybe we don’t need a full on kitchen reno to get some more counter space.  Maybe we just need a bar fridge and a countertop swapped in where the standard one is today.  Might save some money and energy too.

The Crabby Life

As I alluded to in my last post, these days the crabbing is FINE.  The crabbing life is a new routine for me, and I thought that it might be unfamiliar to many out there, especially those without much experience on the coasts.  I’ve also been reflecting on the idea of doing a few posts on the daily experiences of sustainable living–especially for those dreaming and wondering what it might feel like to live a little differently.  So if you’re stuck in an office looking at the fall rains, or if you’ve only ever eaten “imitation crab meat” from the grocery store or in a California roll (or both!), come with me on what has become our evening routine…

Evenings on Cowichan Bay

The phone usually rings about ten to five.  “Almost ready?” The Skipper calls when he’s a few minutes from home, and I start getting ready to head to the boat.  Sometimes I walk the 15 minutes to the marina, other evenings I hop in the van when he swings by.  Skipper comes in and grabs the bucket, some fuel, his old work gloves, and some bait from the freezer by the back door.

Crabs are the scavengers of the ocean floor.  They are notorious for eating EVERYTHING (they’re the ants or the cockroaches of the sea, really!), but they seem to particularly like fresh remains.  So folks around these parts save the bones and assorted carcasses from the salmon or other creatures they’ve caught through the season to feed the crab.

In the early evenings, the winds on the Bay are usually dying out, and we spend a peaceful few minutes motoring out in our wee sailboat out to our traps.  It’s a chance for us to unwind from the day a bit and hang out together without any distractions.  If there’s still a little wind, we might put up the sails for a half hour just to relax a little longer.

Our traps are down between 100 and 180 feet, depending on the location.  I haven’t thought much about those distances, other than to think about where the crabs might be (they like deep water).  But the Skipper observed this evening that these discrepancies mean that within a few hundred yards, the ocean bottom rises up 8 stories and then dips back down again!  There’s a huge hill under the water that we don’t even realize is there.  Amazing!

The trap’s location is marked with a small red and white buoy–you can just see it by the rail of the boat in the photo above.

Once we get to the marker, the real work begins.  I take the tiller and try to hold us in one place, while the Skipper gets ready.  He hooks the buoy with a pole, and then begins to haul the trap up by hand, up 200 feet of rope!  You can imagine how much effort that takes in the resistance of the water!  But he doesn’t seem to mind. 🙂  In fact, all through his teens growing up on the East Coast of Canada, he fished commercially for cod with his uncles.  They were “handlining” or “jigging”, which meant spending several hours a day pulling up 10-30 lb cod fish on a small fishing line with a hook, one after the other.  He swears that’s where his muscles come from!

The Skipper at Work

As the trap gets closer to the surface, he can start to tell how full it might be! (Either that, or we’ve caught an octopus, a giant starfish/sunfish, or hooked an old boot 🙂 )  Much anticipation until the trap breaks through the water….

Then, if we’re lucky…


We can keep 4 per fishing license per day.  So between the 2 of us, we’re looking for 8 males that are big enough to pass muster (there’s a regulated size limit).  Small ones and females go back into the deeps.

If they can get out, they're too small!

Big ones go in the bucket where they wrestle for space and make funny whispery noises to each other–almost like they’re smacking their lips.  If they had lips.  Maybe that was me.

The bait gets replaced and the Skipper hefts the trap back over the side.  We’re so low-tech that he measures the depth by the feet of rope left after the trap hits bottom.  Simple, but it works!

Once we’re home, the big pot gets some water under the steamer basket and gets set on the stove.  The Skipper has the slightly grisly job of “dressing” the crab, which means he pops the big back shells off them and rinses out all the guts and brains.  They get cracked in half and stacked in the pot, then steamed for 15-20 minutes.  Then we usually eat dinner–usually not crab!

We’re stocking the freezer these days, so after dinner, once the beasties have cooled off, we spend the evening shelling and then vacuum sealing the meat.  Crab in pasta, sushi, chowder, pizza…it’s going to be a good winter.

It’s a time consuming routine, and my hands are toughening up from cracking shells every evening, but it’s very satisfying.  And still feels like a miracle to bring wild foods–exotic and special when purchased in the store–into our staple diet.  And shelling, like so much of the fun of self-sufficiency, is easy to do while being entertained by episodes of The Simpsons or Trailer Park Boys! 🙂

The next day, I’m faced with a big smelly pile of shells.  There’s so much nutrient value in there that I’ve been loathe to throw the pile away.  But they can’t go in the regular compost pile, or we’d have every cat and raccoon for miles around in our backyard.  So I’ve been burying the shells in the trenches where I’ve just pulled up our potatoes.  I’m hoping by next summer they’ll be broken down enough to feed some happy plants.  Next, I have to find out what veggies like calcium!  (I know about tomatoes, but they’re in the potato family and can’t go there next year…any ideas?)

The Paradox of the Nanaimo Bar

The most evil of industrial foods?

They looked soooo good.  And what a bargain! According to the label, I was looking at 1.48 kilograms (more than 3 lbs!) of Traditional Nanaimo Bars:”delicious, creamy pastry filling generously layered on top of a traditional chocolate and coconut base and covered with velvety smooth chocolaty topping” for all of $7.99!

I was standing in the “bakery” section of Superstore, your basic mass warehouse-supermarket chain where nothing has seen anything resembling a bakery in days.  I had not taken leave of my environmental ethics or of my senses; I was looking for a treat.  The Skipper and I were headed off sailing for the weekend, and this time, we weren’t going to eat out at all.  I had carefully planned for 4 days of simple meals, easily prepared under sail or on the Coleman stove (found one at a garage sale fo r$2! Score!).  Pasta, salmon, salad, sandwiches, cereal, eggs, etc.  But I know that treats–both sweet and salty–are important for the morale of all sailors when confined to the small cockpit for hours each day.  All that fresh air seems to make us hungry more often, and we do more snacking and eat smaller meals than we do at home in our regular routine.  Portability and easy storage is also key, and finger foods, or foods that can be eaten with minimal cutlery straight out of the container, are most welcome when everything is sliding about on the waves.

So I felt nothing but glee as I walked out the store juggling my giant cardboard box of fake “chocolaty” goodness.  I knew the Skipper would be overjoyed–nanaimo bars are his favorite and rarest indulgence.  And I wasn’t going to pack ALL of them; that was the best part.  These babies could be easily frozen, and then we could take them out and savour them occasionally for weeks to come.

Over the weekend, then, we licked the chocolate-coconut crumbs from our fingers each night (and afternoon) and rolled our tongues around the slightly oily “cream” filling as we tried to eat the squares in as few bites as possible, before the heat from our hands melted the chocolate coating.  And I contemplated the paradox of the nanaimo bar.

I realized, of course, that what we were eating was an almost completely non-food product.  And most of our time is spent trying to eat nothing but real, whole food.  I wondered out loud to the Skipper, “do you think we could make a real food version of the nanaimo bar?  You know, with butter, real chocolate, etc?”

But as soon as I posed the question, I realized its futility.  You see, most of the time, the industrial food that we talk about is based on some kind of traditional dish.  Frozen pizza, chicken burgers, canned spaghetti, deli meats, string cheese….you know what I’m talking about.  Children don’t know these can be–were once always–produced from scratch in the home kitchen for hundreds of years, and most modern tastebuds don’t even recognize the original flavours.

But the nanaimo bar is a different beast.  This was a square invented by a housewife in the 1950s, and it owes its existence to the unique baking/non-baking, melting/non-melting properties of margarine.  It would cost a fortune to make these puppies from quality, organic ingredients, and the Skipper and I agreed, they wouldn’t taste at all the same.  This is not a treat of the real, it’s an industrial indulgence and should be appreciated for exactly what it is.

I recently shared my philosophy about such things in a comment on the inspiring Seattle-based blog, Sustainable Eats.  Annette was lamenting the busy start to the school year and the food shortcuts that become necessary sometimes when life gets crazy.  I could relate, but I realized that I had become far more relaxed about these moments in the last few years.  I have come to believe in an 80/20 principle.  I believe that it matters what we do MOST of the time, not what we do ALL of the time.  I think that when we first awaken to the seriousness of the crises that confront us we often head straight into panic.  We want to change everything in our lives so as not to contribute a moment longer to the troubles of the world.  But I know for me this quickly turned into a longing for purity, an attempt to create a life completely apart from the everyday evils.

In my experience, that attitude leads quickly to two things: burn out and a sense of doom.  Because it’s not possible, in any way, to escape the world as it is today.  There is no such thing as purity.  Scientists have found toxic chemicals that are only produced in one region in China deep in the most pristine Arctic permafrost ice.  Those few remaining indigenous communities in the world trying to stay true to a traditional way of life do so with the full knowledge of the alternative that is knocking at their doors.  We’re all a part of this world and all of its industrialized craziness whether we like it or not.  And if we try to escape, if we search for purity, depression, anger, and bitterness seem to be the inevitable result.

So what do I do, then?  I do the best I can, and I enjoy–with JOY being the key word–the changes I can make in those areas that are in my control.  Like growing my veggies and fruit, supporting those who are trying to produce food in sustainable ways, and campaigning actively for changes to the larger system.  But I also pay tribute from time to time to the realities and pleasure of the industrial system.  It’s evil, but it has its perks.  The way the world is going, these perks are likely to be fleeting, and they deserve, in my opinion, some appreciation for their cultural time and place.  It’s entirely possible that our grandchildren won’t ever taste a Twinkie or be able to understand what margarine is/was.

So whatever your favorite industrial indulgence, enjoy it.  Not often, and with the full recognition that you are working to eliminate it, but enjoy it–without guilt and in solidarity with your cultural community.

And then go back to what you do 80% of the time.  Which for us is eating food as real as real can be.  Like this!

Crab! Hauled by hand off our sailboat 1 km from home using the bones and scraps from our salmon filetting. Ultimate sustainability!

PS: Apparently everything I’ve just written about Nanaimo bars is a lie.  According to the City of Nanaimo website, the best recipe is made from butter, sugar, cocoa, nuts, eggs, etc. and the most industrial ingredient is Graham crumbs.  I must say those aren’t the ingredients on the label in front of me!  But we may have to test my theory and try the recipe… 🙂

Back to School Pause…

Yep, it’s back to school this week for me too–I’m back in the classroom teaching.  I’ve got lots to post about, but no time at the moment to write!  Please bear with me, and I’ll try to get back to regular posts next week.  Happy harvesting!

Self-Sufficiency vs Self-Reliance

This summer was a bit of social experiment for me. After finishing teaching for the year in June, I’ve been off for July and August, which also cut my income in half. It was a chance to really think through how much money we need, how much we can do for ourselves, and how much we need to work. I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to live out those questions, instead of just trying to intuit solutions from reading our bank statements!

I’ve read a lot about how farmers can’t make ends meet without an off-farm job (or 2!). I’ve also read about the 1970s back to the land movement, and how money became the downfall for many who gave it their best shot. In Back From the Land, Eleanor Agnew shares what she feels was a pretty typical cycle. She and her husband were urban professionals in their late 20s when they decided to sell their house and buy a homestead in the country. They had no running water or reliable electricity, but they had Mother Earth News to guide them! They put all of their energy into making the simple life work: improving the old house, putting in and eating from a huge vegetable garden, making their own clothes, bartering for what they couldn’t do themselves. But they were living remotely, and so they needed a car. They had an old car, and it periodically needed repairs. They or one of their children would get sick or injured. Any of these kinds of expenses would be more than they could handle financially, so eventually one of them had to go and find work. But working in a town meant that the car HAD to work, and eventually they simply got deeper into debt. The stress of it all ultimately led to the break up of the marriage, and the author moved into the city, went to graduate school, and was forever grateful for the opportunities that an urban, more conventional life gave her. (This is a really quick and superficial synopsis.  It’s an enlightening read!)

Discussions about the simple life over the last ten years seem to have started from the assumption that we, North Americans collectively, are living urban or suburban lives of mindless consumerism and dysfunctional frivolity. There is a strong suggestion that all we need to do is get our spending under control and we will be able to stop working in short order. It is assumed that we earn a reasonable living, and so without destructive consumer habits, we should be able to save considerable amounts of money each year, and then as long as we live simply from then on, we’re set.

It’s a good theory, and it has clearly worked for many people–I suspect especially boomers who really do earn substantial incomes and maintain expensive lifestyles. And it’s also true that the Skipper and I see in our own community many who earn less than we do and who spend much more on the latest gizmo–especially big trucks and boats. We can only guess how these are financed.

But the Skipper and I have spent the last number of years paring down, paying off our debts, and simplifying our lives. It paid off when we were able to make this move and buy our wee sailboat. And this summer, we were able to take our lives to the next level of the simple living experiment: growing almost all of the produce we ate, fishing for most of our protein, and having only one person working and commuting. It was blissful (well, for me!), but also enlightening.

This summer I’ve learned that we can only simplify so much, and that infrastructure matters. My mother is on the verge of retiring, and she’s concentrating on how to manage her life in terms of monthly expenses. This is what we need to focus on too. If we want to work less, then our monthly expenses need to come down, and food is only part of that picture. Our hydro bills are high, because everything in our home, including our furnace, is electric. A woodstove would bring those expenses WAY down. We will continue to grow our produce, and will work on becoming self-reliant in food over the next few years. But in the short term, we need to build up our raised beds, which means some up-front costs as well. We love our sailboat, which means continuing to pay moorage and some maintenance expenses. We want to continue to improve our home, which means some reno costs in the coming years. We hope that increasing the value of our home may give us some options down the road, but again, there will be some up front costs.

So even with me as housecleaner, gardener, cook, and financial manager, and with the Skipper as carpenter, painter, car mechanic, house maintainer, and fisher, we need income now so that we can keep our monthly expenses lower in the long term.

And so I’m going back to work.  I’m also shifting focus from goals of self-sufficiency (get me out of the capitalist labour market!) to self-reliance, which to me means gradually moving away from looking to the industrial economy to meet our needs and looking towards a life that is emotionally, psychologically, physically, and financially sustainable and sustaining for both me and the Skipper.  I feel dramatically better about working in this context, and I’m excited about what work might look like in this next phase of life.

So, for now at least, “dropping out” is out and reliable paychecks are back in.  But don’t worry–we’re still rebels!