The Winter Homestead

Winter is a strange season in the temperate climate of the wet coast.  Despite predictions of one of the coldest winters on record, so far this has been quite a mild one.  We’ve had many frosty, icy mornings; many nights we’ve brought the chicken’s waterers indoors overnight so that we can replace the frozen ones in the morning.  But we haven’t had any snowfalls materialize as yet, and we’ve had many weeks of dry weather.  The fall was so dry, in fact, that I actually started to worry about whether our ground would get saturated enough to get through the summer drought!

The shortened days of December were tough; it’s a tiring time of year for me.  But it was brightened by the fact that we were still eating 90 % of our food out of the garden and out of storage, and I made it though the darkest night of the solstice.

As we hit the middle of January, our produce habits have reversed–I’m down to my last few small onions, the potatoes are already sprouting (not in a cold enough spot), I dug up the last turnip today, and the Skipper came up with what he thinks were the last 2 parsnips earlier in the week.  The chickens finally got underneath the row cover veil that has kept the salad greens safe for the last few months, and they demolished the last of the arugula and spinach in a matter of hours!  I didn’t begrudge them their opportunity for a last real feast of greens; I’ve resigned myself to the reality that our own foods have become the supplement to the store-bought staples for the next few months.

But as the days steadily get longer, marked by the extended times that the timer to the automatic door of the chicken coop get set to, the spring chores are looming, and the countdown to the planting season has begun.

I’ve done my seed inventory (taken stock of what I have on hand from the previous 2 years), and made my list.  Thankfully, this year my list is quite short–I just need to top up a few veggies that gobble up seeds like peas and spinach and add some of the crops we want to expand, like everbearing strawberries and asparagus.  I’m thinking the most efficient way to meet my needs this time might be heading to a local Seedy Saturday rather than paying shipping charges for just a few seed packets.  Although I love the idea of the big seed swap meet-up, I found the one in the city way too big and overwhelming a place to actually buy seeds the year I went.  But I needed a lot of everything then; now I’m just looking for a few specialty items.

The sun shone today, and I wandered around the yard trying to assess everything that I want to do.  There is lots of pruning to get to, lots of clearing out and digging up.  We want to take out a couple of trees, and there are some large trellises that are falling apart that we will likely just take down as well.  I have a feeling that those large moves will change the whole feeling of the garden’s space so much that I’m reluctant to plan any more until I actually see the new layout.  It’s exciting to get really stuck in and feel how much space we really may have here, but it’s a dauting amount of work, too, especially tucked into weekends.

So it’s an odd time, winter here; not really a season for rest–though there is a month or so of that, thank goodness!–more of a time of a delicate tension between indoor work, eating lots of soups and slow-cooked meals from the foodstuffs in storage, and feeling the pull of spring just a few weeks away.  Our first year here, February was really fine, as it can be, and I planted peas under cover in the first week!  I likely won’t be that eager again, but at the turn of the month I will need to get digging out anything that needs to be moved, spreading manure and compost, and starting the early seeds on the heat mats in the greenhouse.

With 2 years under my belt, I feel like I’m settling into the seasonal cycles more fully.  I’m no longer disappointed to be eating from the grocery store, as I know with some more practice that will become less necessary.  I can feel that window of dependency shrinking each year, and though I know we won’t be fully meeting our needs again until May or June, the fresh food will start to creep back into our diets much sooner than that.  Asparagus, chives, parsley, rhubarb, nettles…there’s so much to look forward to in the coming months.

We culled a rooster last weekend, and that felt like a primal winter thing to do as well.  As the core flock settles in for the winter, we’re also thinking about what broody hens the spring might bring!  We have no specific plans for chicks, but we’ll see what happens…our neighbour today was talking very soundly about allowing the hens to hatch out whatever chicks they like and then using the results either for replacement layers or for meat birds.  Which means strategizing about our space again…Oh to have 3-5 flat, green acres! 🙂

So here I am, in the dreamy paradox of a west coast winter evening.  We’re warm by the woodstove fire inside; the chickens have their feathers puffed up and are snuggled up together in the coop.  We’re measuring out the winter staples for a few more months, while wishing for a few warmer days in the coming weeks so that we can work outside getting ready for the burst into growth that’s just around the corner.

How about you?  Can you smell the spring yet?  Or are you in one of those strange places that has yet to see winter yet?

2011 is Dead; Long Live 2012!

So ummm…I know.  It’s been almost a month.  Ummm..there’s been some, you know, stuff going on.  Lots of it is great, much has involved deep thoughts, and most of it I’m just not up for posting about.  Though I suspect many of these goings on will come up in future posts as new lessons get applied in the new year.

It was a busy end to the teaching semester, as always.  I have now embraced and accepted that I do not get any time off before Christmas, but that I will often get a week off between Christmas and New Year’s, like everyone else.  The new semester has now begun, but there is a little bit of easing in this week; ironically, I need to catch up on my sleep!

Some highlights of the holiday season:

Our good friend yarnsalad came to stay with us in early December as she waits for her immigration to the US to go through.  Poor thing has been trying to reunite with her husband in North Carolina for 7 months!  I’m mindful of Sharon Astyk’s belief that in an expensive-energy future and a potentially depressed economy, many of us may find ourselves either on the move or bringing more people into our households.  Though that cause does not apply here, the temporary addition to the family is a useful exercise to see how our household resources can stretch.  So far, reasonably well–the new woodstove means we can absorb some increased energy use, the garden and eggs have meant we can absorb some extra food costs.  Friend is more than happy to contribute time and labour, chicken sitting, baking and general good humour, and offers other supplies as she can afford them.  So far, everyone is happy with the arrangements.  But it is a bit of an eye-opener.  One person of simple needs doesn’t sound like it would have much of an impact, but as YS put it, in a household of 2, “I’m 50% more!”  We’ll miss her lots when she finally gets her “go-date.”

Our Christmas rituals:

Since my father passed away a few years ago, and since my family moved in a couple of different directions, the Skipper and I have struggled a bit to find the right balance of Christmas celebrations.  We decided to let go of gifts altogether several years ago and have never looked back.  We have a couple of people that we put together a special little food basket for–this year it was all from the garden!–and we did buy one small present for my young nephew.  But other than that, Christmas is Skype calls and good food and maybe a bird-watching walk.  Some years we have tried joining extended family for their Christmas feasts, other years we have tried doing nothing Christmas-related at all.  This year, I think we got the balance right, but mostly because Christmas fell on the weekend!  Christmas eve morning, I went outside and gathered some cedar boughs and holly, and made a centerpiece with a candle on the dining table.  Later that day we brought a jar of homeade sauerkraut to the Ukrainian-themed dinner with my sister’s wonderful in-laws.  We came home late, sated with family, friends, and fabulous food.  The next day we slept in, built a fire, had a lovely breakfast, Skyped with the family, and then went for a sail in the bay in the sunshine.  Then we came home, warmed up by the fire and made a dinner of lobster, bread, cheese, and a salad from the garden.  Heaven!

Getting organized for the New Year: When we moved into this house, we got the main parts of the house painted and changed lights and other small fixtures.  Then we went outside and never came back in!  My office has been one of the rooms that never really got any attention.  This past week, I decided that needed to change.  I hemmed and hawed over paint colours, did a MASSIVE cull of my books, and cleared out a closet.  There’s still more to do, but the walls have been painted, the furniture rearranged, and a peaceful workspace created.  Hurray!  As long as I don’t open the closet which houses the “to-file” piles… 🙂

Garden Reflections:  I’ll try to do a more detailed year-in-review garden post soon.  But suffice it to say, we continued to eat 90% of our produce out of the garden through the end of December.  I’m so proud!  My most important realization (besides plant earlier, plant more!) is that had my winter cabbages and brussel sprouts and broccoli actually produced something (they were a total bust), we would have little trouble meeting our veg needs well into the new year.  As I had a fantastic spring/summer brassica crop, the winter garden will get my more detailed attention in 2012.  A very attainable goal that will make such a difference!  The garden resources will last another month, supplemented with the grocery store; we’re still eating a little salad, a few turnips and parsnips, a bit of kale, and several leeks.  The storage onions are just about gone, the potatoes are sprouting already (!), and the apples are going soft in the garage and desperately need processing, but there is a TON of garlic, lots of tomatoes, green beans, pickles, berries, and some crab and salmon.  And then there are all those Christmas leftovers and the desire to pare down after all the holiday overeating!

Looking ahead to 2012:

I have no real resolutions, per se.  But we have no shortage of projects that we are considering: in the interest of making our existing veggie beds more productive and potentially adding more, we are contemplating taking down a few trees and digging up several big shrubs.  We need to add some wood storage and improve the chickens’ “summer pasture.”  And there are a number of home improvements to be done.

The biggest shift for me in the year ahead though is psychological.  I have finally become permanent faculty in the university here (hurray!!!), which has opened up the possibility of real financial stability and security.  I say the possibility, because the Skipper would REALLY like to make some big changes in his work life, so the overall picture may not change much!  But the shift in my position has calmed a lot of my “project for the future” energy, and I’m recalibrating.  I suspect there will be a future post on “Why I will not be Becoming a Farmer.”

In the meantime, we have chicken chores to get to–a rooster needs culling and the rest of the flock needs worming.  But the poultry are happy and reasonably content this winter, and we’re still getting 3-4 eggs a day from our 7 layers.  We’re ALL looking forward to longer, brighter days.

Happy New Year to your flocks and families!