Yes, you probably heard; it snowed.

We don’t get much snow here in the Valley.  More than in Victoria, Vancouver, or Seattle, it’s true, but just like in those places, it usually melts within a day.  Victoria is notorious for selling its snow removal equipment one year (the year before a big dump, of course!).  Folks around here just stay inside for a day until the snow melts.  It sounds wimpy, I know, but I’ve put in my time in Edmonton (northern Alberta) and Montreal.  I’ve paid my dues!

It’s not like this was a surprise.  The weather-people were predicting below-freezing temperatures and some flurries.  I added a piece of poly over my row cover-covered carrots, lettuce, and spinach, and decided at the last minute to throw a piece of poly over my chard and kale.  The brassica patch I figured could take a hard frost and maybe a brief coat of snow.  I left them alone.

4 days well below freezing and almost 8 inches of snow later….

Purple Sprouting Broccoli? Galleon Cauliflower?
Sir Broccoli with Snow Hat

The trees in the background there?  Those are our apple trees.  Notice that they still have leaves on them!!!

Here’s my carrot/lettuce/spinach patch…it was doing so well…. sigh.

What you can’t see is that under all that snow, on top of the poly, is about an inch of ice!

I’m a little worried about my garlic.  Some I planted in October, and it was already sprouting through its mulch.  A second batch I planted about a week before this.  They say to plant garlic about 6 weeks before a hard frost.  Usually in a raised bed with some leaf mulch, that gives us until about November 15!  With so long to go until spring, I’m hoping at least some of it will be fine… and I know the brassicas will likely bounce back, and even the spinach might in the spring.

On the plus side, this probably killed the annual weeds and weakened my creeping buttercup severely.  And, unable to work outside, I was forced to take a few days off to cuddle up inside and just relax.  Skipper got a surprise day off too, so we had some fun around the house.  It hasn’t been all bad!

And besides, it’s pretty.  And it should be gone by the weekend.  Right?

I Don’t Want to Go Back!

To the grocery store, that is.

Here we are, mid-November.  There’s kale and swiss chard going reasonably strong still, and my August planted winter crops–lettuce, beets, spinach, corn salad, gai lan, and carrots–are coming along fine.   I’ve got a vigorous-looking brassica patch, but not much of it is really ready to eat.  I planted most of these too late, I fear.  Everything grows SO much more slowly in the fall.  I now see why west coasters are advised to have the fall crops in the ground even in July!  In mid-summer it felt impossible that the growing season would be over so shortly, but once the days start getting shorter in August, the window really does close quickly.  I get it now.

We’ll have supplements to our meals from our garden for a while yet.  I’ve got a cold frame to put over the chard, a row cover over the more delicate greens, and the brassicas will weather most anything.

For our first year of growing, we’ve done pretty well, I think.  I’ve got a good stash of canned tomatoes (diced and in sauce, and green tomato relish) put up.  We’ve got lots of potatoes to keep us through much of the winter, and a few onions and a bit of garlic.  There are lots of berries in the freezer, with enough salmon and crab to keep us going for months yet.

But the 100% eating from the garden is officially over.  I’ve had to start supplementing at the grocery store more seriously in the last few weeks: fresh fruit, a full head of lettuce, some brussel sprouts.  A bag of carrots when the succession gap in my planting became clear.

It’s not a lot to have to buy, but I haven’t been in the produce section of a grocery store in months, and it’s a bit of a shock, I have to say.  The grocery store is a complicated ethical minefield in ways that the garden just eliminates.  This seems especially true this time of year, when local produce is scarce, what is local is rarely organic, and what’s organic starts to come in from farther and farther away.  It’s a sad, frustrating feeling to stand in the middle of a huge, brightly-coloured fun-fair of abundance and feel like there’s nothing I want to bring home!

There is the farmer’s market, which has wound down considerably, but in theory runs year-round.  But I’ve found the farmer’s market a bit frustrating too, this year.  Either everyone seems to be growing what I am (and therefore what I already have), or they’re not growing what I would be growing and would like to buy.  Brussel sprouts are our favorite winter vegetable, and I’m not sure mine are going to come to much–they haven’t yet.  But I can’t seem to buy them from any of our local farmers!

All of this is, of course, highly motivating.  The mantra continues: “Next year will be different!”  That is, if we ever get through these mounds of winter projects so that next year I can pay a little more focused attention to my planting schedule. 🙂

So beware, any of you who are thinking it might be fun just to grow a little food in the backyard.  If you’re anything like us, before you know it you’ll be trying to grow everything you can and then some.  Next come the chickens and ducks (I’m anticipating their help with the clean-up next year 🙂 )…I’ve even been reading about pigs and goats! (I’m repeating to myself regularly that we don’t have enough space…yet.)  We’re brewing beer, wine, apple cider… How quickly when you opt out of the industrial food system you just can’t bear to step back in!

The Reading Season

I finally have a day to really get at the garden projects, but, inevitably, Mother Nature is not working to my schedule. 🙂  It looks like November storm season is beginning today; not too much rain, and the temps are mild, but winds are gusting up to 90km/hr!  Gusting is the key word though, so I’m hoping to get out in the calmer moments.

But with Daylight Savings time now a memory, colder, rainier weather and early dark evenings are the new normal.  I’ve been reading steadily for the last few months, but as my teaching term winds down, I’m building up a winter reading list too.  Love to hear some suggestions–what have been the great books (fiction and non) that you’ve been enjoying recently?

In the last month, I’ve read a ton of books about keeping chickens, and I had a brief flurry of research about goats as well.  We’d love a dairy goat, but it seems that it won’t be practical in this property’s current organization.  Oh well!  I’ve also been reminding myself of the permaculture principles and reading books on designing kitchen gardens–I keep struggling to reconcile the two, and I’m getting there! (more on this another day)

Other notable recent reads:

The 100-Mile Diet.

I know I’m way behind the times here.  I followed Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon during their journey as they posted about it on the Vancouver-based online newspaper, The Tyee, but I never got around to reading the book.  I was surprised by the personal and reflective nature of the book, and also by the recipes–what a different way of cooking and preparing local foods than I am doing!  Definitely worth a read.  I was particularly moved by their experiences at their property in northern BC.  The Skipper and I have spent a fair bit of time in the North, and I absolutely love it.  I think I’ll go looking for other writing about life in northern BC…

No Impact Man.

As with the 100-mile diet, I followed No Impact Man on his blog throughout his project and really enjoyed it, but I never did get around to reading the book (or seeing the movie!).  By the time these came out, I basically felt like I was the converted and was working on my own sustainable life projects.  I have to say I didn’t enjoy this book as much.  I like Colin Beavan and enjoy his writing.  But I found that although there were some very informative and moving moments in the book, a lot of it felt very repetitive.  I skimmed through a lot of the information that I already knew, or where he came to the same conclusions over and over again.  The culmination of his experiences is certainly inspiring though.  And he did really get me thinking about the value of some technologies in our current lifestyles, and what we don’t want to throw out with the bathwater.  First on his list?  The clothes washer.  I can see it!

I’m currently working my way through Eliot Coleman’s New Organic Grower, which I will also be buying a copy of at some point (most of my reading comes from the library).  Athough some of his innovations are now commonsense around these parts, there are still some brilliantly useful sections.  I’m ready to take the plunge into soil blockers in the spring, I think (I’m converted to the idea of growing seedlings for just about everything; last year I tried direct sowing just about everything); his section on crop rotation is the most helpful I’ve read (so many suggestions are just too simplistic for the diversity of crops in the home garden; Coleman’s rotation is an 8 crop one and he provides a process to work out one for yourself); and perhaps my greatest takeway so far is from his green manure section.  I’m inspired to get into these more seriously, and his undersown green manure system is perfect!  I’ll definitely be trying sowing clover, for instance, underneath squash, potatoes, carrots, peas, etc.  Polyculture, weed suppression, and the fertility and soil structure improvements of the green manure when you turn it under after you pull the crop.  Brilliant!

I’ve also enjoyed Jennifer Bartley’s Designing the New Kitchen Garden, Diana Anthony’s The Ornamental Kitchen Garden, and a number of books by the wonderfully named Bob Flowerdew.

Among the books on my request list at the library are:

Mini Farming: Self-Sufficiency on 1/4 acre by Brett Markham, Homesteading: A Backyard Guide to Growing your own Food, Canning, Keeping Chickens, …. by Abigail Ghering, and Charles Sanders’ The Self-Reliant Homestead. Notice a theme?!

I don’t expect to learn lots of new things from these books, but I’m looking for portraits of how to pull the various elements together into a cohesive, functional homestead.  And it keeps me dreaming of spring and waiting for the seed catalogues!

Happy Reading!

Working Backwards Towards Spring

I know I haven’t been posting very often.  I find small consolation in the fact that no one else seems to be either.  It’s such a busy time of year!  Right now the school year is in full swing, the daylight hours are fewer, and our focus has shifted in two directions: back to our projects for the inside of the house, and starting to take action on our projects to remake our garden.  Remember our late summer garden mantra, “Next Year Will be Different!” ?  Well, next year is right around the corner.

I posted the other day about our decision to bring chickens and ducks to our wee homestead in the spring.  We’re so excited!  I can’t wait!  Well, actually, I can, because here’s the list of things that has to be done before we’re ready for them:

Clean up the corner of the yard where the compost is going to be moved to

Use the current compost housed in the bins at the moment somewhere in the yard

Build new 3-4 bin system (hurray!) and dismantle the old (2-bin) one

Build chicken coop (house and run), which is partly going where the compost bins are now

Over in the orchard-to-be, I am currently digging up creeping buttercup out of wet clay soil.  I will be doing this in half-hour chunks almost every day for the next few weeks!  Missed my chance to do weight training in preparation…

I’m digging up a four-foot wide strip about 20 feet long.  When this is done, I will mulch with manure and other goodies (possibly the unfinished compost above) to start improving the aforementioned wet, clay soil.   Did I mention it was rocky too? This new bed will eventually be outside the fence containing the poultry range/orchard-to-be, and I’m hoping to plant the fence line with more tayberry plants, and in front of those, herbs, flowers, and some large perennial vegetables: artichokes, maybe amaranth, possibly sunchokes, sunflowers, etc…permaculture layering style.

When the soil is prepared, then I can move the rhubarb up to its new home in this bed and divide it.  When the rhubarb is out, I can plant some fall rye over the area it leaves behind.  This needs to happen asap, before it’s too late to plant the rye!

When the bed is dug, I will then start digging up the perennials that we won’t keep from the orchard-to-be.

At the same time, I will be digging up areas that will be becoming flower beds, to where I’ll be moving the perennials from the orchard-to-be that we want to keep.

I will have to pick something to plant in the holes left by the perennials; something the ducks and chickens will like to eat; mostly crimson clover, probably.

When or as the digging is going on, we can also plant some more fruit trees and fence the orchard, and build the duck house and predator-proof pen.

Whew!  That’s the domino effect of the chickens and ducks, but in no way is that the end of the winter garden projects!

The Skipper is currently weatherproofing a small workshop on the property that he wants to be a proper workshop.

I have leaves to shred, compost to build, fall rye to plant in other places, and garden beds to clean up (I’ve been so bad with this!  Next year will be different, because I’ll have my chicken labour to help clear up the last tomatoes, weeds, etc and to till in their freshly dropped manure to prepare the beds for winter 🙂 )

I’m hoping to dig up my blueberry bed, take out enormous mint and lemon balm plants, as well as just about everything else, do a weed-suppressing mulch and soil amendment, separate out the blueberries and possibly plant some more.  Then I’m turning the bed next to them into the herb garden.

Last, but certainly not least, we will be tearing out all of the raised beds that we inherited and were growing in this past year, and rebuilding 12″ high raised beds in a more effective pattern.  We’ve got a growing pile of horse manure out our front window which will be mixed with topsoil to put in the new beds, and I’ll be sifting out (hopefully) all of the perennial weeds that currently inhabit the old ones–mostly field horsetail, but also strawberries!

I have to find a new home for the strawberries!

And all of this we hope to have done by Feb/March, because I want to start planting seedlings in the greenhouse a little earlier this year and see if we can’t be eating our own produce a little earlier than the May that we managed last year…

Luckily we have mild winters, and will likely only not be able to work on these projects mid-December through late January-ish most years.  It’s a rare year that the ground really freezes for any length of time, so working on the raised beds in early February should be pretty straightforward.  In fact, I always remember that the Skipper and I had our first real date around the 20th of February way back when.  I remember the day so clearly, because it was one of those first spring days that was really warm; that first day you really had to get out of your coats and sweaters as you walked in the sun.  Temps much like these days, probably!  By that time of year the buds are out on the trees and it feels like the crops SHOULD be in the ground, even though it’s a long time yet until they are big enough to eat, and there is still a regularly frosty night…But I digress.  Dreaming of spring already?!

Wish us luck!

PS: Thanks to those of you continuing to post comments; I’m sorry not to be responding to each one as I like to.  I am reading and appreciating your thoughts and stories!