Backyard Flock’s Broody Hen Adventure: Easter Hatch 2012!

We have no idea what we’re doing.

Back in February, Skipper and I started to muse that if our favorite Blue-Laced Red Wyandotte hen went broody in the spring, we might let her hatch out some chicks.  How adorable it would be to have her lead chicks all over the yard!  Not long after that, and well before we’d had a chance to think through the logistics, Hen went broody.

We considered our options in our small set-up.  There weren’t many.  We tried moving Hen to a brooder in the workshop.  She wanted to be back with her flock, and she returned to her nest box.  We decided, what the heck, collected some eggs and let her sit in the nest box.  The other hens, after some protest (not laying, then laying UNDER the coop), went back to laying in 2 nest boxes instead of their usual 3.  And we waited.

Hen was an awesome broody.  She sat devotedly, but also took care of herself.  She would get up, eat and drink, take a walk and stretch her wings, take a dust bath.  On a nice day, we would let her out of the run by herself, and she would spend twenty minutes or so stretching and flapping and walking around the whole yard before returning to sit on her eggs.

When we decided to leave Hen in the nest box, we started thinking about how the chicks would manage when they hatched.  They needed a ladder!  This was our first concept of how to hatch chicks in the coop:

Note "curtain" duct-taped up to give Hen a little more privacy. 🙂

Eggs take 21 days to hatch, in theory.  But in reality it can take 20-23 ish, and there are always reports of extremely early or late chicks that still make it.  20 days was April 4th, the earliest date for the first eggs that we put under Hen (the majority went under her about 12 hours later).  That Wednesday came and went, as did Thursday, day 21.

On Good Friday, we started to see some action–heard some peeping, and then saw our first chick emerge!

As the big day approached, though, we had started to realize that the ladder was not going to work.  Day-old chicks would not be able to get up and down.  Where would they eat chick food or get water? If all 9 eggs hatched, how would they all fit with Mum in the nest box?!  How would the rest of the flock react to these little bodies running around?  How would Mum react to the rest of the flock getting near her babies?!

I did some research on how folks raise chicks with the rest of the flock in the coop, but most of the time people who do this have lots of space, and simply partition of a section.  Our 4×8 coop is tight for our flock of 9 as it is…Then I saw it.  The chick condo!  Skipper built a platform coming out from the nest box, complete with security edges, so that the chicks could walk out from Mum and get to food and water.

Chick Condo V. 1.0: Note hardware cloth to keep the big birds from being too curious and to keep the chicks in...

By Friday night, Skipper announced that we had twins!

Saturday morning, though, was very sad.  Skipper went down early to check on everyone, and found that one of the twins had made it, but the other had not, and a third chick, that we had heard peeping under Hen the night before, was lying crushed underneath her.  We couldn’t be sure what had happened, but that night had been a very cold one–frosty and below zero celcius.  It was possible that the wee one had just not been able to keep warm enough overnight.  That morning was still chilly, and we knew there were more chicks on the way.  We set up the heat lamp in the coop, over the platform, which meant that the first chick could now be comfortable when s/he left the nest, could get to food and water, while Hen hatched out the rest of the eggs.  As the next chicks emerged all dry and fluffy from under Mum, we gently brought them out of the nest and dipped their beaks in the waterer.  Before long, we had 5 happy, active chicks racing around from the nest to the warm spot under the heat lamp.

By Sunday morning, Hen had left the nest.  She had given up on the last 2 eggs hatching, and sure enough, when we checked them, there was no noise or movement.  We gave up on them too.

But once Hen was up and moving around, the limitations of our set-up quickly became obvious.  For one thing, the heat lamp was too hot for Hen.  She would jump down off the platform, which we had anticipated, thinking that she could get to food and water and move around.  But we hadn’t thought about how much Hen would want the chicks with her!  She desperately wanted to show them around the coop, introduce them to the food and water, to scratching and running.  She would jump down, scratch about, find food, call excitedly and the chickies would all run to the edge of the condo.  At one point, I went to check on them and saw that there were only 4 chicks!  Hen was sitting on the floor of the coop, and luckily the 5th chick was tucked safely underneath her.  No idea how it got down there!  And of course, it had no way to get back up! Back to the drawing board…

After contemplating our options once again, we decided to repurpose our wire brooder and move it into the chicken run.  The brooder was at least a bigger space, on the ground, had room for food and water, and in the run would be predator-proof.  With a few alterations, it worked great.

Then we had to decide whether to separate the new family from the rest of the flock, and if so, how to do that in our limited space.  For the first day or two, the new family slept a lot and seemed happy to stay in the brooder.  We shut the rest of the flock out of the run for an hour or so each day and let Hen and the chicks get out and explore.  Watching them all in the dust bath was a hoot–until one of them got lost underneath her!  We let the flock back in and watched closely to see what would happen.  Although they were all mostly ok together, one chick did get pecked, and all the big birds were extra curious about the food that might be in the brooder…and I fussed like the mother hen, worried that the babies would get stepped on or lost in the big run.

So here’s what we have set up now:

Brooder V. 5.0: Skipper has fenced off the portion under the coop and running back by the ramp. Happy flock!

This is working great at the moment.  The chicks are growing fast, and my hope is that in another week or so, we will start experimenting with taking down the fencing and having everyone mingle.  The chicks, now a week old, are racing around, digging and scratching, and have no trouble following Mum from quite a distance.

The learning curve for all of this has been steep this week, but we knew this time around would be.  Our loose plan is to do this again, so we’re really figuring out the process before we build (and by “we”, I mean the Skipper of course!) anything more permanent for brooding chicks with a broody hen.

What we’ve learned so far?

I’m pretty sure that our poor-ish hatch rate is because we didn’t keep our eggs cool enough.  The books say, keep the eggs at “room temperature” “on the counter in the kitchen.”  The problem?  Our woodstove and open-plan living space.  Our kitchen stays at about 25 during the day, is very dry, and gets a lot cooler at night.  Not a great place to maintain the integrity of an egg!  So next time, we will try for a bigger batch of eggs, and take better care of them while we wait for the broody to take over.  On this hatch (although its hard to tell exactly yet), it looks like the eggs we bought are largely the ones that became healthy chicks–those are the ones we kept cooler and were fresher.

I don’t think we’ll go back to brooding in the house ourselves.  The natural way is SO much better, despite the bumpy start.  It’s amazing to see the chicks in the hay and dirt so quickly, and handling ordinary temperatures so young!  They are getting so much richer a chick experience than we could ever give them.  There’s no heat lamp outside, and the chicks don’t seem to care at all.  They tuck under Mum at night, and whenever they need to warm up.  Otherwise, they are out on our 10 degree days with seemingly no trouble at all.  They have no need for vaccinations or medication, because they are building their immune systems on the deep litter in the run–eating dirt, flock poop, and all the low levels of bacteria and micro-organisms.  I keep a little apple cider vinegar in their water to keep their probiotics up, and so far so good.  Their environment is in every way superior to living on a shelf-liner in our bathroom!

If we ever build another coop, we’ll build in an area that can be flexible for brooding.  But in the meantime, we can do this in our small set-up, with a little resourcefulness.  There are lots more stages in this process to come, though, so we’ve got a fair bit to figure out yet.  Like, what will we do when this batch grows up?!

And, yes, we’re kinda hoping that in another month or so, Hen or another hen will go broody, and we’ll get another chance to apply what we’ve learned.  By the end of the summer, we will either have a staggered flock or a replacement one.  At least that’s the plan!

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!

A Warm House

Remember Oscar and Emma and the saga of the digital thermostat?

Well, that’s the Skipper and me.  Only not the way you might think.  Yes, I’m the one who’s always cold, and he’s the one with the built-in furnace.  But when it comes to heating the house, my internal environment critic goes around turning down the heat until it’s just barely comfortable, and then putting on sweaters, and the Skipper is the one turning up the heat behind me and putting on his t-shirt.

The paradox has driven me crazy for years.  I never felt like it was worth burning energy to heat a whole space when I’m going to be cold anyway.  And I could never figure out how my husband, the same man who looks outside to the coldest, blusteriest, stormiest day and says excitedly, “let’s go sailing!” wouldn’t be able to keep warm at an environmentally-friendly temperature.

This fall, some pennies dropped.  I asked the Skipper one day, “did you grow up in a cold house?”  This was the same house that I knew had no running hot water and only 2 electrical circuits and was insulated with newspaper.  “You mean did we wake up in the morning with frost and icicles on the inside of the bedroom walls?  Watching our breath? Umm…yeah.”  So now, as an adult, the Skipper hates a cold house.

I also realized that I was acting out of some built-in habits and beliefs, namely that being “good to the environment” = being uncomfortable.  Hmmm…Calvinism anyone?!  Deep in my Scottish Protestant bones is still the visceral belief that if I’m not suffering in this lifetime, I’m not doing it right! 🙂

So, ’round and ’round we went, the Skipper and I, me trying to suffer, he trying not to, each with our own moral arguments, up and down 1-2 degrees on the digital thermostat.  But no more.

Drumroll please…..

The woodstove is in!

Our house was originally designed for a gas fireplace: there is a chimney box framed in that was then hidden behind drywall.  No gas line ever arrived at the property, but we’ve intended to put in a woodstove since we moved in.  This fall, we decided we were ready to take the plunge, and the Skipper took down the section of drywall, tiled a hearth, and we found a stove that would fit the space and a company to install it.  It’s been in and operating for almost a week, and though the space still needs some finishing touches (paint), the experience of heating with wood has already been transformative.

Forget fighting over whether we “should” be uncomfortable at 20 (68) degrees or whether we spend the money and burn the hydro at 23 (73).  Now we’re both warm by the fire at 25 (77)!  My sweaters are off, guilt-free; the throw blankets I just got are now purely decorative.  The tension in my shoulders that stays until summer comes back is unwinding.  And there’s more!

Our house was already pretty efficient, with a high-efficiency electric furnace and a heat pump, so it will take a few years for the stove to pay for itself, in theory.  Skipper had the system tricked so that the heat pump worked on its own, without the furnace, most of the time.  But the numbers are staggering nonetheless.  Running the furnace (which we do use, once the temperatures are around and below freezing) uses in the 20,000 watts range; using the heatpump takes us down to closer to 10,000 watts.  At the moment, we’re running the blower fan on the stove (50 watts?), and a ceiling fan (200 watts?), and then when the main room gets too hot, we turn on the furnace fan to pull the heat downstairs.  It uses less than 450 watts. So less than 1kw altogether.  Amazing!  Then there are the auxiliary benefits: just like in the summer, it seems RIDICULOUS to use the clothes dryer when the house is so toasty (I know, we could have done this regardless, but we were lazy), and staying by the fire is so nice that we’re not spread out around the house in different heated and lit spaces on different computers.  When I’m cold, I also take longer, hotter showers to help me warm up.  Add to this that the Skipper is scrounging pallets and other waste wood at his jobsite, and there are a LOT of wins here.  For the first time in a while, we’re looking forward to getting our power bill!

There’s nothing like a warm house…especially when it’s guilt-free.

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?! 🙂

Not Busy: Full!

This is my attempt at a new mantra.  Life is FULL.

These last days of summer are zooming by so fast it is literally making my head spin.  There have been visits and social times, big changes in my work circumstances (and seemingly new ones every day!), and in the midst of it all, the constant rhythm of harvesting, canning, crabbing, freezing.

I’m reflecting all the time, and mostly grateful and overjoyed that this is my life.  But anytime someone asks me how life is these days, or asks about adding one more thing to the whirlwind, the answer I hear myself give is that life is “crazy” and “crazy busy”.

I’ve become a little worried that when a friend hears that, s/he might think that this means we are overwhelmed, or that what we’ve taken on is too much or maybe too challenging for any less ambitious person.  And maybe it is, a little.  It’s true that when friends or family ask me about going to a movie or a play, I can barely remember the last time I did such a thing.  And squeezing in a trip somewhere–even a weekend trip to the mainland to visit family–feels nearly impossible most of the time.   Because we’re just too busy.

I regularly feel the tension of trying to live a more direct, less outsourced life within the requirements of a twenty-first century world.  The last time that the mass population grew, harvested, hunted, processed and strored its own food (let alone produced much of its own clothing, energy, or household goods), the world was a very different place.  Society may be dynamic and always changing, but it is also a whole, integrated system.  Back in the days before industrial production, gender roles meant that women devoted ALL of their time to managing household systems, they had many children and extended family as labour, and men earned the supplemental necessary cash.  City-working men were paid salaries that recognized that they had families to support. (In fact, one of the reasons that women still earn less is because when they entered the workforce en masse, male business owners rationalized that working women were adding extra money to the household income, not supporting children, and so they didn’t need to be paid as much!)

I was reading yesterday about haying, and how in traditional communities, every other task needed to be dropped when the right weather hit for haying.  One trouble today is that all of society doesn’t work around these cycles any more, but farming often still does.

In no way do I romanticize the past.  There are excellent reasons why families encouraged their children to leave farms and find a “better” life, and I am exceedingly grateful for the running hot water and high-efficiency washing machine and dishwasher that my mother-in-law raised three children without.  And I’m even more grateful that I am not bound or chained to life and behavioural expectations based on being female.

I’m recognizing more and more that what we’re doing here on the Backyard Homestead is not going back in time, though it might look that way, and it is often inspired by pre-industrial practices.  Instead, Skipper and I are learning and adventuring into the future, into uncharted territory.  We are successfully growing a significant portion of our vegetables.  This year it’s 100% from June and counting.  We are learning to harvest wild foods as a significant portion of our protein: salmon and crab are now staples in our diet.  Our chickens are providing eggs and the occasional roaster.

We are also building what Sharon Astyk calls a Real Economy.  This is her term for the bartering and trading and relationships that have sustained humanity through all time, even in times where contemporary economies collapse and by all rights populations should not be able to survive (Cuba, the Soviet Union).  So through relationships with friends or friends of friends, we now are stocked with locally caught and canned (and some smoked) tuna, and cases of maple syrup from Quebec.  Our neighbours are getting a milk cow this fall, and we’ll figure out a trade for enough milk to make butter and cheese (wow!).  We’re giving away our excess produce to everyone who stops by! 🙂

All of this feels like resilience, like diversity, like networks of security.  It’s also delicious.

And all of it takes substantial amounts of time and labour.  Sustaining life was once an almost-full-time job, a job that was the primary focus of the family and of wider society.  Today, no matter how I crunch the numbers, how much we simplify our lives, earning enough income in the form of money is the necessary full-time job, and certainly is the focus of wider society.  That’s the reality of where and how I live.  I have, technically, other options; Skipper and I COULD go live somewhere cheaper, we could live in a trailer or other cheaper home, we could forgo the Energy-Star appliances and new materials for raised beds and drip irrigation.  But we don’t want to live far away from family, we want a home large enough to accommodate visiting family and friends; we love this climate and the culture and community here.

And so we celebrate the privilege of having enough work to have the freedom to make the choices we have, and we fill in our life-sustaining homestead in around the edges.  Which does take up all the hours in the day.  But all this busy-ness is purposeful and joyful.  The satisfaction of the filling pantry and freezer, the routine of evenings spent making jam and shelling crab, of eating simple meals that are often the product of our own land and labour is richly meaningful.  And we still have time for friends and for sharing the bounty with visitors and neighbours.  And I know now that come winter, the dark, cold evenings will bring time for movies and music, for cuddling, relaxing, and for dreaming about the spring to come.

And THAT’s the message that I want my friends and family to hear.  Not that I’m too busy.  Not that life is simple and decluttered and zen-like in its minimalism.  But that life is FULL.  So full it’s brimming over all of the time and there aren’t enough hours in the day to enjoy it all!  So much fun and so satisfying that you should try a little of this kind of life too!

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!

Stocking Up

There’s something about August.  As a perennial student and now teacher, September continues to mark the End of Summer to me, regardless of what the weather’s doing.  As soon as the August long weekend has passed, the shift into fall seems dramatic and poweful.  The shadows lengthen, the lawns bleach out, the mornings are darker longer, the nights cooler.

And the harvests shift too.  It’s a paradoxical time in the garden; the real crops of summer, the tomatoes, beans, zucchini, and cucumbers start to finally come into their prime at the same time as I start nervously taking stock of what might continue into winter and what I might be once again behind in planting.  Will it have time to size up during these cooling, shortening days?

But most of all, this time of year, the pantry and freezer slowly but surely start to fill.  The staples that will sustain us for another year are ready to be put away, and each year we gain confidence in our backyard homestead and manage to stock up on a little more, understanding how much we might need.

I planted garlic in two batches last fall, and the last one is now ready to put away.  It was a good harvest of almost 60 heads, which should give me enough to replant from my own stock in a few months.

This year I was also on a mission to learn how to grow onions; the beautiful Bedfordshire Champions are a heritage yellow storage onion that was very successful for me.  They bulbed up really nicely, and I only seperated these two out for quick use due to potential rot (the rest are curing outside out of today’s rain).

I also tried Thrifty Red onions that have bulbed up reasonably well but haven’t toppled over yet; I’ll take the water right off them once the rain has passed.  Between both types, I was hoping for enough onions to take us through the winter, but germination rates weren’t great for either, and I didn’t end up with as many transplants as I was hoping.  I’ll go big with the planting for next year, though, now that I’ve had this success!

Also now harvested and ready for storage: 120 lbs (?) of potatoes!

There are more in the box behind!

The final weigh in isn’t totally complete, but that’s an educated guess and if anything, it’s conservative.  These are the Kennebecs and Russian Blues that we hope will get us through the year, and so far, it’s looking good!

The tomatoes are starting to come in steadily, and the onslaught of beans (first bush, then pole, then dry/shelling) is underway.  It won’t be a good squash year, but with a nice September and October, we might get a few.  It’s a GREAT year for apples–I wouldn’t be surprised if we end up with another 100 lbs of those to store.

And lastly, the freezer is stocked with Sockeye and Spring salmon after strong local returns this year, and Skipper and I are in the thick of crabbing once more.  Another week or two and we should have enough crab in the freezer to keep us going until next summer (though, truly, people crab year-round here, and there really is no pressure to store enough for the year.  But it’s an intensive routine that’s nice to do in one go).

It’s quite a remarkable feeling to stock up and realize that we will be able to meet so many of our food needs through the year.  Protein? Salmon, crab, eggs, and a few chickens in the freezer (well, the extra roosters.  That’s for another post. 🙂 ).  With any luck, some home-dried beans.  Supplemented with purchased cheese, nuts, tofu.  Starch? Potatoes! Supplemented with rice, pasta, oats and bread/flour.  Veggies?  Stored onions, tomatoes, squash; carrots, turnips, beets, and winter greens and brassicas in the garden for as long as we can stretch them.  Possibly some beans and other veg in the freezer; there will be a little sauerkraut and possibly some other pickles in the pantry.  Dried herbs and garlic for seasoning.  Fruit? Apples, frozen rhubarb and berries, jam.  Skipper has a batch of his own beer on the go, and the hops are ripening on the vine.  Next year they will be in full production, and our cherry and plum trees will slowly come on line as well.

I wish I could find the words to express the awe I feel as I take stock of these staples.  Perhaps it shouldn’t be a measure of security, but it does feel that way.  As well as just immensely satisfying.  It’s a primal, visceral sense of connection to land, people here, ancestors, but it’s also a joyful pleasure in the abundance, the return on months of happy labour, and the signal of winter feasts to come as we share this delicious wealth with friends and family in the months to come.

Here’s to fall!