The Turning Tide…Now What?

2011 is already shaping up to be a very interesting year if you pay close attention to climate change issues.  The flooding in Queensland is terrifying to me.  Partly because I spent a fair bit of time in and around Brisbane in the late 90s, and partly because the Canadian newscasts keep defining the flooded areas as “the size of British Columbia” and Brisbane, as a city of about 2.5 million, is the same size as Vancouver.  It’s all too easy to visualize my whole home province underwater, with the water moving in closer and closer to Vancouver until it too is watching helplessly as restaurants and homes sail by.

Yesterday CBC was reporting on the looming crisis in Winnipeg and throughout Manitoba.  The ground throughout the province is completely saturated with water.  There are feet of snow on the ground, which is normal, but the rivers are up to 2 meters above their normal levels, and the temperatures are up and down in huge swings.  Winnipeg is known across Canada as “Winterpeg”, and they’ve got another 4 months of winter yet to go.  But authorities can see the writing on the wall: they may be in for the flood of the century.  And that’s if nothing takes a serious turn for the worse (ie heavy precipitation) between now and spring.

Yesterday, as I was teaching grammar, we were reading a sentence about Calgary (Alberta) and chinooks.  A student asked what a chinook was, and I explained that Calgary is in a unique geographical area where periodically during the otherwise frigid winters, a warm wind blows through and brings spring-like temperatures in for a few days.  Then I stopped and commented, “actually, I guess we’re all experiencing that these days!”

I don’t know about where you live, but doesn’t it seem pretty clear that the days of consistent, predictable weather are over?

Now I know, these phenomena are not unprecedented, and I know I’m not supposed to confuse climate with weather.  And it’s an El Nina year.  But, really, aren’t we there yet?!  For years  environmentalists and scientists have been telling us about all the terrible things that could happen to us in the distant future if we don’t start to change our ways today.  Well I don’t know about you, but I think there’s ample evidence that we’re right smack dab in the middle of climate change disaster.  And apparently, it’s only going to get worse: there will be more of these severe weather events, in more places, more often.  On the west coast, here, we’ve gotten lucky so far, but I’m starting to realize in a more visceral way that whatever major disaster we might face is coming.  It’s when, not if.

Which begs the question, so what?  It’s not like I haven’t been working on my carbon footprint for years; I’ve kept up with the science and I know there are controversies.  I’ve changed MANY of my household habits, joined groups, had heated discussions, written letters and signed petitions.  I teach environmental issues in my classes, even if they are English classes. 🙂

Today, though, I was really struck by another aspect of the problem.  I was listening to the radio, and the call-in show was about mining in BC–traditionally a hugely important economic industry here, though less visible on the coast.  The Minister for Mining was talking about the trends and technologies that make up mining today.  Yet almost every single caller was questioning the environmental issues associated with mining–which are legion and highly destructive.

What struck me while listening was the impasse…the same old problem of two parallel truths and stories that are fighting it out right now.  On the one hand, the Minister took a realistic approach.  The elements being mined are essential for our lives today.  Metallurgical coal, for instance (which incidentally was a major Queensland industry whose incapacitation is having a massive global impact), is used to make steel.  You cannot make steel without metallurgical coal.  The Minister outlines the very real problem: do we need steel for pretty much everything? yes we do.  Is there a substitute for steel? Not many, and many of the substitutes, like plastic in cars, are not better, from an environmental perspective.  What’s your environmentally-friendly water bottle made of? Mine’s stainless.  So then we ask ourselves, would we rather that this metallurgical coal was mined here, where we have strict environmental and safety regulations? Or somewhere else?

Of course, this is the same argument the Canadian oil industry uses about the tar sands…

The public keeps saying, loudly, NO.  We don’t care if it isn’t logical, if there aren’t alternatives, if it hurts the economy.  We aren’t thinking about that.  We just want our salmon rivers to survive, and we want clean air to breathe, and we don’t want an oil spill in our coastal waters.

It’s hard to tell if that’s the same thing as making progress.  I think it probably is in the long term.  But in the short term, I’m noticing something interesting in myself.  I’m becoming politically more and more disengaged; I’m having fewer debates about most things, and I feel less sympathetic toward any kind of rhetoric.  I roll my eyes at the knee-jerk predictability of polarized positions.

We have two leadership races underway, a referendum coming up, municipal elections scheduled, and possibilities of both provincial and federal elections looming.  This could be a big year in BC politics.  But all I want to do is garden and hang out with chickens.

I think it’s because in my gut, I feel like all the rhetoric and political action is getting to be beside the point.  People can keep talking all they like.  But the reality is unfolding before us–the world and the weather is changing dramatically.  I’m done worrying about the future and trying to change everyone else.  The disasters are here, and I’m trying to build a life that can survive and thrive in the midst of them.

And the best part about that approach?  It’s fun!

So I hope you’ll pardon this long, serious post yet again.  I’m in fact feeling quite energized and excited about this new year.  I might not even vote at all! 🙂

Taking Stock: 2010 and 2011

Well, we’re two weeks into January, and I’m already behind.  Anyone else feel that way?!  2010 was an eventful year, and my list of hopes and goals for 2011 (no resolutions here!) was mighty long.  But with starting a new semester of teaching, dealing with some unexpected issues with our vehicles, some extra cold and snowy weather (well, by West Coast standards.  You know.  It got below zero overnight, and it snowed, and the snow stayed on the ground!  For more than a day!  Classes were canceled and the campus closed!), I just haven’t found my groove yet.

I hit an overwhelmed moment over the weekend, where I thought, “We’re just never going to get all of this done.  It’s time to scale back the expectations.”  So I thought it was time to take stock.

My goals in 2010 were pretty modest (by my standards!).  It was our first year in our new house and property, so there was just a lot of learning.  We watched and celebrated every new plant that burst out of the ground, admiring and photographing each new bloom.  We weeded and pruned, we added cubic yard after cubic yard of bark mulch, cedar chip for pathways, and topsoil to top up neglected beds for vegetables.

We learned.  The Skipper took a pruning class, I read every book I could get my hands on (and a few I couldn’t–thank you Google books), we went on garden tours and farm tours and edible garden tours.  I started planting in earnest in February, and we ate until December (well, we’re still snacking a bit here and there, actually!).  Our pantry is still stocked with potatoes and some garlic, and the shelves are lined with jars of tomato sauce and jam.  We learned how to crab, and the freezer is still loaded with crab and salmon.

Most of all, by the late fall, I felt like this garden was really ours, and that after a year of observing and reflecting, I was ready to make some changes and create a homestead that would work for us.  Setting the goals was easy:

  • move and rebuild the compost bins
  • create a real orchard space where a few fruit trees are now; add pasture grasses and other forage plants underneath
  • move most of the perennial flowers to the front of the garden, where we can enjoy them from the house and deck, and create a few more small flower beds out of the overgrown perennial garden (where the orchard-to-be is now)
  • rebuild the main raised beds to make them much deeper and to get more growing space out of this section of the property
  • get chickens and ducks!  Which means decide on breeds and sources, build coops, raise chicks, and fence off the orchard to be their summer free-range area (they can free-range the rest of the garden in the off-season)
  • plant more fruit trees
  • rebuild, expand, and create a paved area around the pond so that we can better enjoy it (this area is a mess right now, but expanding it means a lot of work, including moving trees)

Like I said, making the plans is easy.  But carrying them all out is another thing entirely.  What’s not on this list is working full-time and maintaining the garden that we have now, as well as continuing to grow as many–if not more–veggies than I did last year.  And that’s not even the whole list, it’s just this year’s goals for the garden! The house, boat, and other projects would be another whole blog…

So I’m trying to find ways to make this doable.  This weekend I need to get my seeds ordered and the first few seeds of the year started (luckily, I have a large stash from last year’s buying frenzy 🙂 ).  I have started to weed the current raised beds to try and minimize the weeds in the future ones, which will incorporate the soil from these.  I’m trying to be thorough, which also means it goes slowly.  I also need to finish cleaning up the fall beds (the ones that aren’t getting ripped out) and get some manure on them, so that I can plant into those in the next couple of months as we rebuild the new beds.  This includes moving a VERY dense and overgrown strawberry bed.  Sigh.

My original goal was to get all the perennials moved, and the “orchard” re-planted with some pasture/forage crops so that spring chickens and ducks (March? April?) would be able to enjoy them.  But attached to that goal was moving and rebuilding the compost bins so that we could build and set up the coop and then fence the new section that’s been nicely replanted.  All by…the end of March?  It doesn’t seem possible now.

So what will have to wait?  I’m considering letting go of the poultry dream for this year…or even just for this spring.  I think just getting the gardens re-organized and the infrastructure set up should be our main focus.  If we manage to get everything done by the end of the spring, then we can always buy a few pullets instead of raising chicks.

It’s hard to let go of the dream, especially when dreams are so instant!  But I’m a big believer in avoiding burn out by going slowly and enjoying each day.  I don’t want to get frustrated and feel like giving up before the summer starts!  And I don’t want to see my beautiful garden as an overwhelming chore–the goal is to gain joy and have stress dissolve when we step outside, not to stop seeing the flowers for the lack of progress.

So there’s my official resolution for 2011: don’t try to do it ALL, and enjoy each of the baby steps along the way.


Seeds for the New Year

It’s a pleasure to be joining gardeners and small farmers everywhere in the new year ritual of choosing seeds for the year ahead.   I have been amazed at how quickly I’ve let go of 2010 and have been watching for the signals of spring.  The daylight hours are already expanding rapidly, we’ve had a week of blazing sunshine despite cold temperatures, and the January schedule is filling up in a way that makes it feel like February–time to plant peas, spinach, radishes and other cool spring crops–is just around the corner.

After my experiences as a total newbie food gardener in 2010, I’ve made some decisions about my criteria for seeds in 2011.  Last year I knew I was being ambitious in how much food I wanted to grow my first time around.  I decided to simplify and stay conservative to help my chances of success–I bought almost all of my seeds from just one reputable company in my region, and I focused on varieties that promised to do well in my area under less than desirable conditions.

The strategy generally worked–especially with tomatoes.  Though it was a terrible year for tomatoes, I did ok, partly because of the varieties I chose, and partly because of the sheer volume of plants I ended up with!  But I realized pretty quickly that there wasn’t any point in getting lots of tomatoes regardless of the weather if they didn’t really taste very good!  Last year featured Siletz, which did reasonably well under adverse conditions and tasted ok,Taxi, which didn’t taste like much of anything, a couple of cherry tomatoes, Golden Nugget and Gardener’s Delight, which were extremely tasty, and the Gold Nugget was very early too, and a roma, Amish Paste, which did pretty well at the end of the summer as a sauce tomato, very productive and ripened pretty well inside during a wet September.  But it tasted awful fresh, so it was really a single purpose fruit.

So this year I’m making some changes.  I’ve decided I’m ready to focus on open pollinated seeds, so that I can start experimenting with seed saving.  I’m also dreaming of a hobby/ market farm one day that specializes in heirloom veggies and heritage livestock, complete with the stories and histories to share with customers.  That’s a either a long way off or just a delicious fantasy, but it has inspired me to also focus on heirloom seeds this year.

Last year I went through the seed catalogue closely, but decided not to mail order; to save the shipping costs, I just went to the local stores with my list and found most of what I was looking for.  But it took time, and I want to be more organized this year.  So I’ve chosen my companies and I’ll be sending off orders direct.  I hope to bypass the impulse buys that way too!

Here are the seed companies I’ll be ordering from this year:

West Coast Seeds.  This is the big, dependable, local company that developed out of Territorial Seeds in the US.  I bought all of my seeds from them last year, and the seeds were rock solid reliable.  They have a large selection overall, and where I can’t find what I’m looking for elsewhere, I’ll be heading back here.  They have a good selection of organic, open pollinated seeds, but they carry others too, which is what expands the selection.  And, of course, I still have a large stash of their seeds from last year that I’ll be drawing on this season too.

Stellar Seeds. Stellar is a wonderful smaller company based in the Kootenays (Eastern BC).  They focus exclusively on organic, open pollinated seeds and ran the seed saving workshop at our local Seedy Saturday last year.  Great people that I’m looking to support, but a smaller selection overall.

Saltspring Seeds. Dan Jason at Saltspring Seeds is a towering figure in food security and food activism, and his farm on Saltspring Island has been an important source of organic, heirloom, open pollinated seeds for 40 years.  They have a smaller selection overall as well, but they also carry some unusual and tempting goodies like garbanzo beans and lentils (!).  They are also our closest possible match climate-wise.

Two Wings Farm.  Two Wings is a very small operation just outside of Victoria–as local to us as it gets!  As you can see by the website, they have the best selection of heirloom and unusual open pollinated tomato varieties I’ve seen!  The most important criteria for me, though, is that they actually discuss tomato flavour in some detail, complete with 11 varieties that make their top 10 list. 🙂  They also have a number of varieties that come from north eastern Europe, which means they are reliable in cooler climates like ours without too much (if any) protection.  I’ll be picking my tomatoes exclusively from them–wish me luck narrowing the list!

Heritage Harvest Seed. I’m so excited about this company!  This is an operation in central Canada–Manitoba–that specializes in saving endangered and rare heirloom seeds.  And what a selection!  I’ll be covering as many of my needs as I can from their list, which I know will mean some experimentation on my part.  The Manitoba summer is shorter than ours, but also hotter, more humid, and more intensely sunny for a longer period of time.  But that’s the beauty of heritage seeds to me.  These were the seeds that immigrants brought with them from their homelands and climates, and they adapted the varieties over the generations to their new environments.  With a little patience, and where the characteristics–like flavour!–warrant it, I can do the same.  And who can resist stories like this:

Crimson Flowered Broad Bean (1778)

At one time, not long ago, this broad bean was on the verge of extinction. An elderly curator of precious bean seeds lost almost all of her harvest but luckily sent the remaining seed to Henry Doubleday Research Association (HDRA). From just four seeds, HDRA was able to successfully propagate this bean and save the Crimson Flowered Broad Bean from extinction. This is one of the true success stories when it comes to saving heirloom vegetables. The Crimson Flowered Broad Bean is an extremely ornamental plant. It is covered with crimson flowers all summer long and into the fall. It is also very productive and produces many tasty green fava beans that can be used fresh or dried for winter use. One of my all time favorite vegetables and definitely pretty enough for the flower bed! EXTREMELY RARE.

Makes my list!  And demonstrates once again that I am a sucker for a good story.  I had even decided not to plant fava beans this year! 🙂  Oh well, I can always feed them to the chickens….

So what seeds have you excited for the new year?