Moving Towards the Light: Goals for 2013

Technically, it’s the winter solstice that marks the longest night.  But around here, it takes a little while longer before the days themselves actually get longer.  Yesterday, Skipper began the ritual that tells us we are moving towards towards the increasing light of the new year:  he adjusted the timer on the automatic chicken coop door up 10 minutes!

I know lots of people scoff at new year’s resolutions, and I think it’s because often making them feels like making an abstract list of things one should do, usually in order to become a “better” person by society’s standards in some way.  It becomes a list of socially acknowledged flaws that one is supposed to overcome in order to more acceptable and therefore, instantly happier.

So, I’m long over that!  I’m sure my list of social flaws is long, but most of the time, it doesn’t cross my mind to care.  It’s AWESOME not being 20 any more! 🙂

Instead, I feel the ancient sense of reflection and rebirth that this time of year brings.  I was telling a friend over the holidays that there’s something special about the week between Christmas and New Year’s.  It’s the only time of year that the Skipper and I get holidays at the same time, unless we plan and schedule them to do something specific.  The week at the end of the year, if you don’t fill it with shopping, is an odd kind of limbo space, neither the old year over nor the new year yet begun; an in-between, threshold time.  It seems to me that to honour this time between cycles by reflecting on the year that’s been and making decisions that will impact the year-yet-to-be is worth doing.

I don’t know about you, but for all the debate about the significance of 2012, the year was intense!  It was a year of huge growth, awakenings, and emotional shifts for me and those around me.  I spent much of the year studying climate change and peak oil research, and then trying to learn how to be in despair and move through life in a functioning way at the same time.  The good news?  I’m getting the hang of it, I think!

Despite the despair, I’m happy with how the homestead evolved in 2012.  We have a really good supply of winter food this year, which was one of my major goals.  We expanded the vegetable beds, and learned a lot more about raising a small flock of chickens, including processing and eating the roosters.  We started officially eating meat as a staple of our diet, including our first side of pork from a local farm.  I canned with determination this year, and we have a stocked pantry to show for it.  I’m feeling like I’ve got a handle on the vegetable production after 3 years, and I’m ready to take on some modest new projects.

So in 2013, my goals are about taking more baby steps toward resiliency.  I mean baby steps, though.  After the year that was, I’m not up for major projects…rainwater harvesting in a big way, for instance, will likely wait for another year.

My gardening goals are to renovate 3-4 small flower beds to include more medicinal and culinary herbs, as well as pollinator-attratcting flowers.  In the last few years we’ve been taking out ornamentals to make room for vegetables, but it’s time to put some of the flowers back into the ecosystem.

I want to get a handle on using green manures and cover crops this year, and get a good supply of winter greens in the greenhouse for those frosty and snowy days when the crops under cover are frozen.  Always hard to do in the heat of the summer, but would be so nice to have right now!! I’ll also be slowly building up the soil in the places where a few more future beds will go, but I’m not going to worry about planting them yet.

My last gardening goal is to start getting serious about seed saving.  Buy a book, start with the easy plants (beans, peas, lettuce, tomatoes), where you don’t have to worry about cross-pollination, and actually select for the traits I want.  In other words, start saving seeds from the first tomato that ripens, instead of the last straggler, which is the one we don’t want to eat! 🙂

Beyond the garden, I’d like to build a simple solar oven and learn to use it.  When the summer days are too hot to cook, I want this to be my go-to option.   I’m hoping that the Skipper also finds time this summer to build us a simple solar dehydrator.  We have a few other small infrastructure building projects to work away on, so those 2 additions to our food production system seem reasonable.

Lastly, I’m feeling ready to take on the biggest step towards building more security in uncertain times.  No, it’s not learning to hunt, or buying MRE’s to stash in the basement!  It’s being willing to come OUT of my homestead, and start joining with others to build stronger community and social networks.

I’ve intellectually given this idea lip service for some time, and have certainly found like-minded friends and recognized the vital importance of their support.  But too often, given an intensely social job, I have spent my off-time hiding, and in my moments of panic for the future, have busied myself in worrying only about my immediate family.  But after some emotional processing and deep thinking, I am ready to embrace the fact that in my relationships with others lies not only my security, but also my well-being and release from panic.  I’ll write more about this in another post, but here are my social goals for 2013.

I’m going to actively join and participate when possible two local groups working hard at resiliency: the Cowichan Green Community and Transition Cowichan.

I’m going to make sure that Skipper and I host at least one party for our immediate neighbours so that we can all meet and get to know each other better.  And we’d also like to host at least one other gathering for all of those friends we have made across the local area.  These are both things that we have talked about doing since we moved in, but it’s time to make them a reality.  The key for me is to see them as joyfully celebratory, community-building fun, rather than another task I don’t have time for!  If you’re reading this locally and would like to come, let me know!

To find the down-time to myself that I need in order to balance the extroverted job, I am also going to make a conscious effort this year to wean myself off of pointless internet surfing.  I’m feeling conflicted about my screen-time these days; truly, the internet is a source of amazing information, community, and entertainment.  We don’t have tv, don’t buy music, and love to learn.  However, I spend a LOT of time at a computer for work, and I’m wary of the creep that happens between work hours and off-hours when I’m online in my off time.  I also feel like the internet is another industrial grid-system that it isn’t good to be dependent on, which right now, it feels like we are.  Clearly, this is totally out of habit and not necessity; the Skipper and I are both old enough to remember life without it very clearly!

I’m really aware, too, though, that the internet-suck is preventing me from having time to work on other, creative projects, to procrastinate less, housekeep more, and to build community with the actual people around me, instead of the virtual people in other places–wonderful though you are and as much as I learn from you!  Interestingly, I’m actually feeling like I want to blog more–that doesn’t count as an internet time-waste, LOL.

And the last thing that I want to free up time for by decreasing internet time is meditation.  I don’t have a specific goal around this, although perhaps I should set one.  I just know that some regular meditiation time keeps me calm, keeps my fears for the future in perspective, keeps me focused on the joys of my life as it is now, and reminds me that there are mysteries of the universe that I do not understand that may be working in ways that I cannot see.  I know all of this keeps me much saner and healthier.

With all of this to look forward too, I’m ready to move into 2013 with excitement and anticipation.  Here’s to sunny skies ahead for all of us!


Taking Stock and Stocking Up

It’s no coincidence that I’ve been AWOL between Labour Day weekend and the first week of December this year.  Can you say “School semester?!”  Sadly, this was one of those semesters that just didn’t leave me 2 hours free to put a post together.  I’ve considered dropping the blog altogether, but that doesn’t feel right either.  So my goal is to post once a month or so and see where that takes me.

The fact is, there’s been lots going on around here, and I want to share it.  It’s been a busy and productive fall, and all the reading and grappling with the transitions underway have had some transformative impacts on our lives.  There are also still many things that I remain unsettled and anxious about.  I continue to swing regularly between despair and acceptance about what’s happening in the world, and my homestead work calms me to some degree.  But I also recognize that the real work needs to happen at the community level, and I’m reflecting on how I want to participate in that broader picture.

In the meantime, I thought I should report a bit on what we accomplished this fall!  One of my goals after last summer’s chicken-ravaging of my winter garden was to do a better job of extending our garden’s production for as long as possible.  About halfway through the season, I also got serious about preserving and stocking up the pantry, even if that meant buying some local produce from off the property.  The results have been so heartening–and a giant leap forward!

The Well-Stocked Larder
The Well-Stocked Larder

This fall, we are looking at a pantry with

  • 48 pints of thick tomato sauce, plus some stewed tomatoes and salsa
  • almost 100 lbs of potatoes stored–enough to get us to spring, if I can keep them from sprouting!
  • umpteen jars of assorted pickles: cucumber, zucchini, beets
  • canned cherries and peaches, frozen berries, and umpteen jars of jam
  • a decent supply of onions, as well as a garden full of leeks, some garlic
  • a garden bed full of huge rutabagas and parsnips
  • a successful patch of cabbage and (hopefully!) brussel sprouts–enough cabbage til May
  • 40 lbs of winter squash
  • a few lbs of stored dry pinto and fava beans
  • a covered bed of salad greens that we should be able to eat from for another month or so
  • a solid patch of healthy chard also covered to pull from for another month or two
  • a decent bed of winter kale
  • a freezer full of corn, green beans, chicken (ours and some heritage roosters bartered with a friend)
  • eggs and…a half-side of pork raised by a farming colleague!

And…from a half-dozen espaliered and dwarf apple trees: 450 lbs of apples!!

The bulk of the apple harvest with the last of the fall tomatoes
The bulk of the apple harvest with the last of the fall tomatoes

These have been taken off to the local u-brew to make cider (we don’t yet have a press/grinder), frozen for deserts, and made into apple sauce.  We’re still working our way through the last of the processing; I’d also like to try drying some slices by the wood stove.

In other words, we’ve got enough of our home-produced food to keep us going for a number of months yet, supplemented by a few basic grocery staples: rice, oats, pasta, bread, milk, cheese, etc.   I have accepted that our homestead (for now!) will not produce grains and dairy.  But I’m so impressed that we’ve produced so much else, and very curious to see how long it lasts!

As the December break rolls around, I’m setting new garden goals and getting ready to order seeds.  I want to improve my carrot and beet production, and continue to clear brush and ornamentals to make room for more food.  I got an expanded strawberry patch and an asparagus bed set up last year, but I killed off most of the blueberry starts 😦 .   And I’m planning next year to make a concerted effort to save seeds.  We managed a few beans and sunflower seeds this year, but I want to start settling on my favourite varieties of my crops and starting to strategically and systematically save seeds from those where viable.  Right now we just save a few once the plants are done and the harvest over, but that isn’t actually selecting for the best traits!

Beyond the garden, we’re also starting to think more strategically about our overall homestead and its sustainability and resilience.  We continue to count our woodstove as one of our biggest blessings, and with its help, we’re trying to reduce our energy use even more.  The Skipper has decided that using the dishwasher–though a high efficiency model–can’t possibly be as energy-efficient as heating water on the woodstove to handwash dishes.  We’ve bought some cast-iron enameled pots to experiment with cooking on the woodstove.  In BC, we have a two-tiered billing system for our electricity, and the Skipper has set us the challenge of trying to get our consumption down to the first tier: about 22 kwhrs per day.  We bought a bigger freezer to accommodate the food storage, and with a new energy-star model, we got rid of an older extra fridge and the small freezer and are now using less energy with more space. Win!

Also on the priority list is some rainwater catchment.  We’re on a good well here, but resilience is about redundancy, and at the moment we are completely reliant on our well and it’s electric pump.  There are manual pumps available, and we might also look into one, but rainwater storage makes a lot more sense as low-hanging fruit.  I’ve been angling for this for months now, but the push came last night, when the Skipper said a colleague of his is stuck at the moment because his pump went, and it’s (of course) thousands of dollars and a huge hassle to have someone come with a machine to pull out the pump (!), repair or replace it and put it back in.  That’s the kind of personal emergency that Sharon Astyk reminds us about.  I don’t know how we would pay for that kind of problem at the moment, and of course, while all of that decision-making and work is in progress, you have no water!!  There’s a strong case for a back-up plan!

There’s lots more to share, but I’ll stop there for now.  Hope you are also looking forward to a winter with a full woodshed, a warm fire, and tasty food shared with good company.

The Homestead Takes Shape: Spring Projects 2012

Funny how everytime I disappear from blogland for a while, it seems that everyone else is slowing down too.  Have we all been busy with Spring Frenzy getting the planting season up and running?

There’s been far too much going on here to fit it all in, but I thought I’d post this little photo essay to show a little of what we’ve been up to.  I’ve written before about our journey over these past few years: year 1 we mostly observed the property and brought some of the interior of the house up to snuff.  Year 2 we re-did the raised beds and brought chickens into our lives.  Here we are in year 3: we have been steadily shifting the rest of the property, which was mostly ornamental gardens, into more food production.  We’ve moved shrubs, taken down trees, and built more raised beds.  AND today we should be hatching out our SECOND batch of chicks with our mama Blue-Lace Red Wyandotte hen!  The garden is alive and thriving (mostly), and we’ve been eating greens all of May.  As of June, we’re adding turnips and new potatoes to the homestead diet, and peas and strawberries will be next…Now all we need is the heat to arrive to shift us from spring to summer! Click on any of the photos to see them in more detail.

Before: Spring 2010


The new raised beds we built last year (2011). One of the big spring projects you can see just behind them, under the large apple tree. We dug up and rearranged blueberry plants, then added an everbearing strawberry and an asparagus bed in front of them.


A couple of notes about this photo: you can’t tell that these new beds overtake and use up the bit of lawn that was there before, and you can see the new hop supports towering over the whole garden!

Hop Alley

I know I need to do a whole blog post on the Skipper’s Hop Project.  A happy homebrewer, he ordered organic hop rhizomes from Left Fields Hops, which grows hops for the famous Crannog Brewery.  He has, if I remember correctly, Galena, Mt Hood, Cascades, Chinook, and Centennial–good West Coast intense flavours.  In year 3, hops plants reach maturity and go crazy.  So Skipper has installed a 16 foot-high support system, complete with pulleys, so that they can grow in a controlled fashion and be harvested “easily.”  Stay tuned for how things turn out!

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the garden…

New raised beds where ornamental shrubs used to be…
Skipper took down the tall cedar that’s in the middle of the Before pic, which let the sunshine back into the middle of the garden. Then he built a new 6’x8′ bed.


The late spring crops are underway:

Summer Brassicas on their way…


And in the coop behind them rests our Broody Mama Hen…

Her first batch, which hatched out at Easter, is now 10 weeks old!  (Pics are from a week ago, though) We have 3 sleek pullets and 2 wee roos, who will go to Freezer Camp in another 6 weeks or so.

Ginger, one of our newest pullets…

The 10-week-old crew was hatched from a mix of purchased Blue-Laced Red Wyandotte eggs (2 of which produced pullets) and our own eggs from Australorp and Silver-Laced Wyandotte hens, fertilized by a Blue-Laced Red Wyandotte Roo.  We ended up with the two Silver-Laced Roo and one Australorp-cross pullet, known as Cocoa Bean.  As we waited for Hen to go broody again, we wrestled with what we we would hatch out next–really the decision about where we wanted to take our flock.

Having essentially 4 breeds in a flock of 10 was not always easy, and we wanted to get down to two breeds at most.  But how to choose?!  In the absence of a decision, we simply collected some of our own eggs again to keep on standby just in case.  When the time came, I suddenly realized that we might have inadvertently solved the problem: if our eggs were crosses of our best egg layers (the Buff Orpington and Australorps) with our favorite temperament and prettiest birds (BLR Wyandottes), the crosses might end up being the best of both worlds!  So that’s what’s under Hen right now.

Report to come once the chicks arrive–stay tuned!




The Vagaries of Spring

It’s officially spring and usually in these parts, we’re well into cherry blossoms and pea sprouts.  This year, though, has been full of fits and starts.  I don’t know whether the universe is in the erratic throes of birthing a new and transformative season, or whether mother nature just can’t make up her mind about what she wants!

The weather has been wild.  One day full of sunshine and the promise of gentler times ahead, the next day we experience every possible weather combination all at once: gale force winds, rain, sunshine, snow, hail…

The greenhouse seeding has begun, and onion sprouts and early brassicas in their soil blocks are coming along on their heat mats.  It’s time to start the tomatoes, basil, and other warmer summer veg inside.  It’s long past time to get the ultra-early spring crops in, the garlic, fava beans, peas, radishes, but we’ve alternately been busy getting the bones of the garden back into shape and hiding from the weather by the woodstove.

Speaking of the garden’s bones, big changes are afoot…

Trees are coming out and being heavily pruned back


A large bed of blueberries is being reorganized and becoming a larger perennial bed

Blueberry bushes were moved to the back of this bed, a couple were added, and in front are everbearing strawberries and asparagus. Yum!


And more shrubs and trees are being moved to make way for new veggie beds.

See the stump? That was a large cedar tree. Now it will let huge amounts of sun onto the veggie bed in the foreground, and the space left is big enough for a 6 x 8 growing bed!


In the picture above, you can also see where we will add a small deck; it will extend from the pond, which you can just see at the top, and extend over the concrete circles in the foreground.

On the right side of the garden, the shrubs are going, going, gone…

After! Enough sunny space for 3 more 4 x 8 veggie beds! We're also expanding and planting up what will be a flower bed in front here, to soften the view and attract birds and bees.


And then there are the chickens.

The first sign of spring on a homestead, it seems, is a broody hen.  Triggered by the warming days and lengthening daylight, a hen will start to want to sit on her eggs and hatch out chicks.  Even though we were planning to honour that process, if the opportunity arrived, we weren’t at all prepared when our favorite hen, Hen, one day wouldn’t get out of the nest boxes and stopped laying eggs.

Once we decided we would let her go through the process, there was much to do. According to all reliable sources, a broody hen needs to be on her own in a safe place, away from other chickens, to hatch out her chicks.  So first we had to find such a place!  After much debate, we decided on a corner of the shop, which isn’t far from the coop, and would be sheltered, quiet, and predator-proof.  We set up a pen with a comfy nest in a corner under the window.  Then, under cover of night, as suggested by every source we could find, we moved her from the coop to her new “broody pen.”  She was completely asleep, and didn’t even move when we rearranged her in her new nest.

In the morning, however, when I went to check on her, she flew out of the box and headed back toward her flock.  I let her back into the yard, and after socializing for a bit, she went back into the nest box to sit!  Hmmm.  Try again.

The next night, we moved her again.  This time, we thought, we’ll just keep her closed in for a day or two until she settles down.  The next morning, she seemed perfectly content in her new space.  Until she decided she was now ready to go home.  Once she started flapping around and being generally distressed, we didn’t have the heart to not let her out, so back to her nest box she went.

That day, we decided that our goal is to work with nature, and that clearly, when you fight nature, you generally lose one way or the other.  So that night, we just lifted her up in her nestbox and put the eggs in underneath.  Chicks are due April 4th-5th!  Then we’ll have to deal with the logistics of chicks in the coop with everyone else.  Or maybe Hen will come around to the idea of being moved, with her chicks, to a safer spot.

What eggs is Hen sitting on?  We would have liked for Hen to have hatched out some of her own eggs, but she stopped laying before we figured out we needed to keep some out of the fridge!  So supplements it was.  I bought some more Blue-Laced Red Wyandotte eggs from a local breeder.  We are also using some of Patti and Selma’s eggs.  They are Silver Laced Wyandottes, who have also been mating with out head Roo, who is a Blue-Laced.  Apparently when you cross Blue-Laced Red with Silver-Laced (which is black lacing of white feathers), you get something called a Blue-Laced Silver, which is blue lacing around white feathers!  Sounds gorgeous, so I have my fingers crossed…

Being plunged suddenly into research about broody hens and hatching eggs has opened my eyes to this whole other question of sustainable, non-industrialized livestock.  I knew that no commercial breeds (of pretty much any animal) are able to reproduce naturally.  One reason conserving heritage breeds is so important is that it preserves genetic diversity, but the other reason is that the quality of animals being able to reproduce and raise their own young has been bred OUT of livestock over the decades.

I hadn’t really come to terms with what that meant on the ground today though, until going through this process.  Many poultry breeds, even heritage breeds, are now unreliable brooders and mothers.  Even notoriously broody breeds, like our Buff Orpingtons, will GO broody, but may not be able to follow through and sit long enough to actually hatch out eggs.  Or they will hatch them but have no interest in raising the chicks.

Broodiness, even in the burgeoning backyard flock world, is largely treated as something to be broken.  When birds want to sit on eggs, they don’t lay their own, and thus their primary purpose for the homestead is gone.  Many people look at the bottom line with their birds, and base decisions on the economics of whether the eggs are paying for the feed.  If not, the hen is culled.  So broodiness is a pain in that context.  And I’m not judging.  If all of my hens were broody through spring and summer, I’d be annoyed too!  Or if I had an urban flock without a rooster, again, the instinct to brood might be a big source of frustration.

But consistently eliminating the broody trait has left us vulnerable and reliant on electric incubators and industrial scale hatcheries, completely removed from nature’s free and reliable process.  Once again, when we take on a process that nature provides, we have to simplify the process to imitate it, and we require massive resources to imitate it so insipidly.  Where will we be when our food doesn’t produce itself, and we have no fossil fuels to produce its weakly simulated cousin?

So, the grand experiment continues.  We have no idea if this will work out, no real plan on how or if to expand our flock.  But Life, in the form at the moment of Spring, clearly does have a plan.  And we’ll try our best to keep up!  Go Hen!

The Path to Self-Reliance: Year Three Begins

Spring is in the air, and so is the energy for clearing out, taking stock, and moving in new directions.  It was a short winter here (I’m already declaring it dead and gone, though we’ll have some intermittent frosty nights through March and usually into early April), but one filled with intense reflection and learning.

When we started down this road to more food self-sufficiency, a few folks from around these parts told us that it had taken them about five years to get there.  I was heartened, but also longed for some detail.  Why five years?  What were the steps?  Where should I start?  What did it feel like along the way?  What did eating from your own property year round look like? And what did self-sufficient in food really mean?

My blogging has shifted over the last couple of years to focus more on sharing my anwers to these questions, and as my third year begins, I’m realizing how much we’ve changed over that time.  The problem is, food habits aren’t the only things that have been impacted, and I’ve been feeling like the food-focus of the blog is too restrictive.  Though I’m nervous about making changes here too, the truth is that seeking a different, more holistic, balanced, and sane life is a big part of why people are taking on their food production, and pulling a fragment of my life out for examination outside of its true context just doesn’t make sense to me anymore.  So my blog posts may be shifting a little too, over the months to come.  There’s been lots going on outside of the garden this year!

Recapping the Journey

For those who are interested in where we’ve been so far, here are the essentials.  We were more or less newbie gardeners when we moved in to our lovely house on its deer-fenced 1/2 acre.  Our property was hugely appealing because it came with mature apple trees and lots of berry bushes.  It had a beautiful English country-style ornamental garden, and what we thought was lots of space.

We spent the first year getting to know the place, making lists of what we wanted to change. We got some horse and chicken manure, renovated a couple of empty flower beds for vegetables, and tried to keep up with the weeding and pruning.  We bought a weed-wacker, but have no lawn.  I grew as much as I could in the beds that were here, and learned a TON about growing vegetables.  There were many failures to learn from, but enough successes to be inspired to do even more the next year.  We planted a couple of cherry trees.

Last year, year 2, was a big year for taking charge of the garden and starting to make it work better for us and our needs.  We rebuilt the crumbling raised beds, built a chicken coop and run, and raised our current layer flock from chicks. We planted a couple of plum trees, and officially designated a mini orchard area.  I got a handle on starting seeds in the greenhouse on a heat mat, and later moved to soil blocks.  The vegetable garden last year produced very well, although there were still a few failures and much to learn.  I produced a lot of food through the spring, summer, and early fall, and did much more preserving.  But my winter garden didn’t come to much (for some obvious reasons, like not enough chicken protection and planting too late!), so that will be one of the main focuses this time around.

Year 3:

Yarnsalad is still with us, a staple part of our family for another few months it seems.  She’s sad to be away from her Sweety, but it’s hard not to be distracted by all the planting that’s beginning, the chicken tv, the pruning and re-organizing of the garden.  She’s been such a helpful support for us, in fact, that I’ve been wondering what on earth I’ll do next year!  I’ll have to go looking for a WOOFER!  On the other hand, thanks to her baking and determination to learn how to make the best bread possible, we’ve all put on a few pounds and are heading into spring with vows to lighten the diet for a little while. 🙂

I’m taking stock of the pantry and our eating habits over the winter, and am incorporating these lessons into the garden planning ahead.  The onion harvest lasted into early January, and I have a couple of leeks left in the garden.  Last year I started more than 300 onion seeds, but the germination was spotty.  This year we’ve done almost 500 (plus three times as many leeks and a whole pile of scallions for spring), and I’m watching the germination in case I need to start some more.

The garlic is storing well, and there are still lots of cans of tomato and apple sauce, sauerkraut, and dill pickles.  Skipper has declared that he’s taking over 2012 paste tomato production (that’s a story for another post), and I want more bread and butter pickles and possibly a few more pickled beets next year.

One of the biggest question marks for me last summer was how much of the produce to freeze for winter.  I had excess spinach, leeks, kale, broccoli, beans, etc, which I knew many folks blanch and freeze for later use.  But many of these things grow a second crop through the fall and into winter, so I wasn’t sure whether freezing the first crop’s surplus was necessary.  Turns out it would have been great.  I did blanch and freeze some of the green bean bounty, and it’s been a treat to pull something fresh and different out to go with the root veg and cabbage from time to time.  And for a variety of reasons, the winter harvest here hasn’t been as abundant as it might be; it would have been awesome to have more frozen greens, etc to supplement.  So that’s a lesson I’ll be taking action on in the months to come.

The biggest shift for us at the end of the season last year and over the winter here was again getting comfortable making this space work for us, even if it means radical changes to the garden we inherited.  Much of the new-garden resource base out there is targeted at suburbanites with flat, empty lawns.  That’s not us!  And it’s always a big internal battle for me to not worry about resale value and whether to move.  I love it here, and we’re ready to commit to being here long enough to transform the property in our image…I think.

We’ve started to take down a major tree to provide more light to the growing beds.  We’ve taken out some of the grape vines, are thinking about taking down the kiwi, in favour of more of the foods that we do eat and want to prioritize, like hops and berries and asparagus.  Next up is taking out a section of shrubs to put in what will likely be the last of the veggie beds.  This should take me up to about 1000 square feet of planting space, which is workable long-term for the two of us.  It’s just that because of our odd garden layout, those beds had to be tucked around the property in a variety of places, rather than in just a big rectangle.

A challenge for this year or next will be putting back in something we’ve been taking out: flowers!  I really notice the difference that a huge area of pollinating and beneficial bird and insect attracting flowers and shrubs makes to the life and productivity of the garden.  Taking out the ornamentals to make room for the veggies has been the first priority, but once the veggie infrastructure is set, I’ll be looking for ways and places to create manageable flower beds.  Next year, we’ll likely tackle the side garden, too.

So that’s where we are on our journey so far!  Much more to come: a photo tour! Our reflections on life with livestock on a small scale, the decision to homestead rather than farm, and my thoughts and learnings on gardening with my intuition, as part of an integrated ecosystem.  Now all I need is more hours in the day (hours, that, as the Skipper added, no one else knows about!).

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!

Going Gaga for Garlic

So… I’m in trouble.

You know how you have these great ideas? I’m going to grow tomatoes from seed!  Let’s get chickens! I wonder if we could grow some different hops to make beer?  You know the ones.  Where you think, it will be so easy!  I’ll just order me a packet of tomato seeds/a trio of chicks/ a hop plant from the garden store.

And then you find out that each of these ideas has a miraculous, fascinating history and diversity entangled in historical drama and ancestral culture, and you require not only much time to explore and research, but also MUCH MORE SPACE than you originally intended.

Well, time to add garlic to that list.

Last year, I realized just how easy garlic was to grow after we harvested the volunteers that we didn’t even know we had.  Last fall, I headed to the garden store and bought the standard garlic for these parts, a porcelain hard-neck variety with impressively big bulbs developed on Gabriola Island.  I planted 30 or so cloves, and then realized I was being ridiculous–we needed way more than 30 bulbs of garlic to get us through the year!  So I went to a local farm and bought another few bulbs and planted another 35 or so cloves, so that not only would we have enough for the year, but enough seed garlic to start again this year.

And it was a great success!  I grew beautiful (if slightly rust-affected from the July rains), big bulbs that I happily cured and stored in the pantry.  I picked out my biggest ones (HUGE!) and replanted 70 or so cloves to be able to do the same again next year.  Job Done.

Then one day, I was talking to my neighbour, who told me that her hard-neck garlic hadn’t stored all that well, and that she had run out of garlic in the early spring.  Oh no!  I did a little research into the rabbit hole that is information about the history and types of garlic and came out with 2 realizations: 1) garlic history and families and breeding is incredibly complicated and I could spend a lifetime reading and never fully get my head around it, and 2) I needed me some soft-neck garlic.

A quick distillation of the facts I was able to retain: hard neck garlic has big cloves, produces yummy scapes all spring, but stores for a shorter period of time (5 months?); while softneck garlic has smaller cloves, it doesn’t produce scapes, but that means you can braid it for storage, and it stores longer.

Where was I going to find some soft-neck garlic?

Well, the Skipper and I pass a farm stand every day that is just up the road from us.  They mostly sell animal products and flowers at the stand, so we had never stopped in.  But a couple of weeks ago, we pulled in for a relish tasting that they had up.  (Yum!)  We watched their beautiful Narragansett turkeys range about (surely we could make some room for a couple of these?!) and admired the free-ranging chickens.  Adele, one of the farmers, came out and chatted with us for ages about the farm and everything they do.  Skipper bought some awesome wool socks made from her heritage-sheep wool.  Then we noticed the garlic.

Adele had 4 or 5 kinds out, all with bewildering names.  But I spotted the keyword: soft-neck.  Turns out she was selling the small cloves there inexpensively for kitchen use, but that she had a barn full of curing seed garlic that she could probably go through if I was interested.  She gave me a copy of their garlic list, and I latched on to the only name that meant anything to me from the soft-necks: Creston.  Creston is a town in the BC interior where I have cousins.  It’s as good a criteria as any!  We laughed as she agreed that when going through massive lists of available types, sometimes how the name appeals to you is the only way to narrow your choices.

I took a head of the Creston garlic home to taste, and agreed to come back for seed garlic.  Skipper and a friend and I later compared the flavour of the Creston to the porcelain that I had grown.  Wow! They were so different!  Who knew?

When I went back to meet Adele last weekend to pick up the seed garlic, I had no idea what I was getting into.  I mentioned to her that we had been amazed at the different flavours and heats available, and wouldn’t mind experimenting a little more.  She said the magic words, “well, I think I have some other types handy in the house…”  I jumped at the bait.  I came home with 5 different types of garlic: a bulb to taste and another to plant of each type  if we liked it.


From the list I had drooled over,

I can't believe I restrained myself to 5!


I picked out the Creston soft-neck, then 2 more Rocambole varieties:

Chinese Pink



Cuban Purple


The Chinese Pink is described as:

“Very early season.  Garlic lovers rejoice!  When fall planted, this extra-early-maturing variety will put fresh garlic back into your … recipes a whopping 4-6 weeks ahead of almost all others… in late May to early June.”

How cool is that?! I started to realize that if I really got organized, I could plant different varieties to stagger harvest and storage times in order to have a steady stream all year round…

The Cuban Purple:

In most years, the darkest of the Creole garlics, … a distinctly purple colour that can be almost a dusty blackish at times.  TASTE=WOW! a rich, earthy garlicky flavour with very little pungency.”

We confirm; the taste is awesome.  It has a bit of bite at first, but then quickly mellows into sweetness.  It was almost overpowered in a salad dressing, but I bet would be amazing in an aioli.  See? You need different garlic for different dishes!

Next up is a Purple Striped variety, which are described as having 8-12 cloves per bulb that keep well.  I chose the lovely Siberian Red Stripe:

Siberian Red Stripe


Are you ready? I’ve saved the best for last.  It’s an heirloom French variety that literally took my breath away when Adele brought it out.  If she’d brought it out first, I might not have taken anything else!  We have confirmed that it has a fantastic flavour, with the perfect amount of punch for salad dressings.  Adele’s catalogue description:

a French creole variety that is medium-hot… loved for its unique flavour described as a “deep sort of muskiness.”  Harvests mid-late season and stores 7-8 months.”

Except for the temptation of some of the others on the list that I may have to return to for next year (Tibetan! Tuscan! Korean! Persian Star! Yugoslavian!), this last one I think may become our signature, house garlic.  ‘Cause you know, everyone needs a signature garlic.

Drumroll please…

The spectacular "Rose du Tarne"


Do you see why I’m in trouble?

So now the real challenge begins.  I clearly need a bed set aside for all of these types to be grown as experiments.  As it is, though, I don’t have space to rotate my tomatoes and potatoes this year unless we create some new beds… so…time to reorganize the garden to create more vegetable beds!  And I guess garlic will go on my Christmas gift list for next fall, while I whittle down my choices so that I can keep to the same 70 or so bulbs that should get us through the year and that I can fit in the space I have.  Hope I haven’t created the same problems for you!

If you’d like to contact Adele or get a copy of her dangerous, corrupting garlic list, her family’s Legacy Farm (no website) is on Koksilah Rd, with the red roofs, just as you turn off the Island Highway.  I can pass along her email if anyone is interested.


October Reflections

You guessed it; life is continuing to be … full.  I know I’m more than overdue for an update.

I have a mixed relationship with fall.  I live for the heat and abundance of the summer.  I’m one of those annoying cold-all-the-time-skinny women, and in this maritime climate, I don’t get days very often when I’m willing to leave the house without a sweater.  So when the real heat hits, I rejoice, and then I mourn its passing painfully as the days get noticeably shorter.

Once I accept that fall is truly here, though, I can acknowledge and celebrate its beauty.

And fall has lots to offer!  The summer harvest still trucks along, even though at this point I’m pretty sick of eating the tomatoes, beans, and cucumbers that have been our mainstay now for 3 or so months.  Their harvest has been good, though, and there are jars of sauce and pickles in the pantry, as well as bags of frozen whole tomatoes and blanched beans in the freezer.

As with the rest of the year, I’m looking forward to the transition into the next crops: fall carrots, chard, kale, leeks, and salads.  Right now, those precious crops are getting as big as I can get them before the weather really turns; I’m hiding them under row cover to give them as much warmth as I can.

In other good news, after a non-harvest last year, our apple trees this fall are LOADED.

Now the fun begins with what to do with them all for the months to come!  The freezer is full of berries, but those will mostly become jam, so the apples are really our only homegrown fruit crop until the rhubarb pokes its big fronds up in the spring.  I see many pies and perhaps a dehydrator in our future…. not sure yet about applesauce.

Sadly, it looks like I’ll be headed to the farm or to the store for my fall cabbages and brussel sprouts.  Though my winter leeks look good, yet again I just don’t think I got these brassicas in the ground early enough.  😦  I also don’t think this bed is getting enough sun in the summer–so there are some shrubs and trees that I’m eyeing dangerously! Note the bounteous weeds and make-shift chicken proofing in the photo below…

It’s an in-between time, this autumn season.  The Skipper and I start to turn our attention inside, to the house projects we might get done over the winter.  We start the fall clean-up outside, which enables us to see the bones of the garden that had disappeared in all the lush summer growth, and we start to strategize about which projects might get tackled before next summer.  On the list for this year, inside and out: a woodstove (hurray!), painting and decorating my office, reconfiguring and adding some new veggie beds (which may mean taking down some trees–more another day!), siding the Skipper’s small shop.  There are always more projects than we can tackle in a year, but those feel like the top contenders at the moment!

But in the midst of all this planning and reflecting on what worked and what didn’t, there is still bounty coming in that needs dealing with!

  Sigh.  Looks like a big batch of green tomato bread and butter pickles, and maybe a batch of relish or chutney.  Christmas presents anyone?! 🙂

Thanks Mom!

The late summer garden is in full swing–tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, zucchini are pouring in each day.  I am also pulling up earlier crops (beets, carrots) to make space and get ready for the fall clean-up.  All of which means, it’s time to figure out what to do with all of this produce!

Most of the year, “eating out of the garden” for me means just that: the garden is my grocery store, and I just harvest as I need supplies for a meal.  I actually find myself forgetting that I even have produce in the fridge, which is dangerous! But this time of year, the produce doesn’t work that way.  Lettuce can just sit in the ground for a couple of weeks, but tomatoes can’t sit on the vine.  It’s a new phase in the cycle, and I’m often sluggish with the transitions.

So I was unexpectedly grateful when my Mom came to visit this weekend, and ended up kick-starting me into preservation mode.  Mom’s a hugely experienced cook, gardener, and spent much of her early career in commercial food service, which turned her into a self-proclaimed “food factory.”

Together we harvested, blanched and froze green beans and tomatoes, and she turned the extras into sauce for eating that day.  She boiled up pickling brine for the beets that had turned into giants in the garden, and explained in detail how easy refrigerator bread and butter pickles are to make.  She also made mayonnaise with me, so that I could get the technique down and get used to using our fresh eggs for this task!  After she left, I was motivated enough to keep going; I canned the sauerkraut that had been fermenting for the last few weeks and started digging up pickle recipes.

I’m a confident and experienced cook, and none of these tasks is difficult.  I like to remember that our ancestors did all this with few recipes and technologies, so it can’t be that hard!  But getting started isn’t always easy, and feeling overwhelmed as the dining table starts to get swallowed by the vegetables covering it is often my first reaction.  So it was great to have Mom come and just get stuck in without hesitation.  And there’s nothing like having someone offer all kinds of smart tips to make the job seem easier and less time consuming.  One great one I noticed?  When blanching tomatoes to freeze, stick the freezer bag upright in a yogurt or other tall container!  Then you have an easy routine of “plop tomatoes into boiling water, scoop into cold water, squeeze off skins and drop into bag”.  No step of “open bag with wet, sticky fingers and try to carefully slide slightly mushy and slippery ball into narrow opening”!

Thanks to that support, I’m ready to get fully into the canning season.  Diced tomatoes, garlic dills, canned bread and butter pickles, and probably some more green tomato preserves of some sort, as well as ultimately (fingers crossed) some tomato sauce.  I’ve been out picking wild blackberries, and the raspberries are piling up in the freezer to be ready for the Skipper’s fall jam-making sessions. Bring it on!

Thanks Mom!