Thursday, July 7, 2016

Garden in early July

This is our first year with a vegetable garden at this property so things are a little humble--we're just getting started.  But we have been loving spending time caring for it and I'm hoping to have at least a decent harvest this year!  Chronicles of suburban livestock in Cornwall have been extremely discouraging, so at least there are bright green beauty plants to cheer me up.  Here are a few shots from this morning!

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

A living playhouse made with willows

Ever since I planted willows on several farm properties while working with an environmental organization back in 2007, I've been fascinated with them.  We stuck bare little sticks in the ground and then these amazing shrubby trees grew; the farmer coppiced them after about 3-5 years, right to the ground, and then they came back!  They were super plants!  Plus they're beautiful.  Then I helped work on a "fedge", or a living willow fence/hedge that was planted on a property in NS I visited while working in another job.  When I saw that you could plant young willow branches and tie them together to make a living playhouse, I knew it was only a matter of time before I tried it myself.  It took me about three years, but I finally did it.

Note: mine does not look as pretty, woven, and perfect as those you may find if you google a willow dome house.  But I'm really happy with it.  And this is how I did it:

In early April, I gathered about twenty-two or twenty-three willow branches that were about 2-3 seasons old and about 8-10 feet long, that had grown up from a coppice (they'd been cut to the ground and allowed to regrow from the stump, so there were many stems growing simultaneously from the same plant), rather than ordering straight cut lengths from a willow nursery, so mine are a little rustic, slightly less flexible, and a bit more branchy.  I convinced my younger sister to help me round them up and borrowed our dad's truck to get them home.  Thanks, Bec!  Once I got them home I trimmed off the side branches from each main stem and set them aside.  I didn't take pictures during this whole process, sorry!

I cleared an area in a perennial bed in our front yard, near the veggie garden so that the littles could play in the shade nearby while I garden.  Using a big 10-inch spike/nail thing with a string tied to it to measure the circle's radius, which was roughly 3-4 feet, I poured a trail of flour around the circumference of the circle which would be the eventual walls of the dome.  My students could tell anyone that I am horrible at drawing circles, so that string really helped me have a proper circular shape for the base.  Then I used that same spike and a mallet to pound holes into the ground every 30 centimetres or so (switching between imperial and metric like only a Canadian can!) in order to open up a hole for the branch.  I pushed the cut, bottom end of the branches as far as I could into the holes and as I made it around to where I had begun, I left the space between the first and last willow pole just a little larger to act as the door.  I lashed the branches together at the top to form the dome's roof, and then took the larger of all the side shoots I had cut off and planted them in between the larger branches to help fill in space, and so that I can weave them through eventually to reinforce the dome's walls.  You are supposed to put two to three between the structural willows and weave them through in an almost basket-like weave, but I didn't have enough so I am planning to do it with shoots coming from the established branches as they grow.

However, the top of my willow dome was really unattractively tied, due to the fact that at that point I was exhausted and wanted to go inside and sit down!  I left it like that for about a month, hoping against hope that the branches would take.  Ideally, I would have had them buried more deeply, covering more of their length in the soil, but the ground was still partially frozen and I had a hard time getting them in.  I wanted to do it while they were still dormant, and with work it has been hard to set aside much time for this sort of project, so I just sort of jumped at my chance that weekend and hoped for the best.

Then this weekend, I untied the tops and retied them, and I feel that it looks a lot better.  Not perfect, but more rounded and less embarrassing to have so close to the property line! Next, I put down a layer of mulch as the "flooring", and to finish it up, I planted scarlet runner beans that we started in my classroom at the base of every structural pole to climb up and help fill in the space as it gets established this year.  I'm really pleased that with the warm weather this weekend, the yard is greening up and I was rewarded with buds bursting open on each of the main poles and all of the small branches as well, showing me that (at least for now) our living playhouse really is alive!  I'm very hopeful that I can keep it that way, and as I have willow cuttings that I planted last fall coming up in other parts of my yard, the materials to "renovate" or fill in gaps that may not make it will be much closer at hand next time. :)

Here are some photos from this weekend.  I still plan to put a small outdoor rug in with outdoor cushions to make it cozy.  It's hard to see the little door, but in the first photo on the left it's the little arch toward the right of the dome.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Garden update : 2016

This past year has been an extremely busy one, with me going back to work teaching science and math in a French school about 82 km away from where we live, and Craig working full-time but also doing a placement for his social work program.  Our homesteading activities have been rather limited, compared to where I had hoped to be, but life sometimes makes the decisions for us and we do the best we can while we pursue other responsibilities and try to just spend time together as a family when we happen to all be together.  I intend to write a few posts over the next couple of weeks to bring any followers up-to-date on where we are currently find ourselves.

Food and Garden

  • I planted a perennial herb garden last year in a small garden bed outside our side door.  I dug up hostas, spiraea, and a few other plants and shrubs that were the original occupants of the bed and planted Hidcote and Munstead lavender, French thyme, Italian oregano, lemon balm, peppermint, chives that I found in the backyard (yay!), tarragon (which I am rather unconvinced has made it through the winter), echinacea, as well as rudbeckia and monarda to fill up some space and attract and feed pollinators.  Today, I went out early in the morning and gathered some chunks of sandstone to make a path throughout the herb garden so that the kids and I (and the oil man) don't compact the soil too much when walking through.

  • In the fall of 2015, I used every leftover cardboard box we had from the move to this property and laid them out over a perennial bed in the front yard along the front path.  It was a little sad to cover up the perennial bed, because it was beautiful out there, but it's the only really truly sunny part of our yard, the soil was quite compacted and heavy with clay, and tomatoes are first priority!  I borrowed my father's truck to go fill the back with horse manure from an old school bus friend from when I was little, and spread that all over the cardboard. I continued piling on compost from our backyard compost pile, raked up leaves, and threw over it all random chunks of veggies, coffee grounds, and eggshells and whatever odds and ends that I found that seemed as though they would make some decent soil after having time to break down.  This spring, I can see that the volume of the material has really decreased, and I intend to continue building the soil throughout the growing season and especially next fall. I still see the odd worn-out looking avocado pit and there's one still-huge brussels sprout stalk, but it broke down really well over the winter.
    • The one problem I had to deal with is a really resilient and determined patch of astilbes that had broken through the cardboard and compost to raise its little leafy heads.  I wasn't able to dig those out before putting down the sheet mulch because the root mass so was strong, so I spent much of Saturday afternoon going through all the soil and digging it all out.  I was really pleased to see that being under all the sheet mulch had weakened the perennial root masses enough that it was a lot easier to dig them out.  It was also good to see that the cardboard had really broken down, I wasn't sure about how that would work and was worried it would remain intact for a long time.
This bed doesn't look like much now, but I'll update as I like to believe it will be positively teeming with life in a few weeks!
  • I have a few plants already growing on the windowsill in my classroom and am a little late getting others started but have planted a few with the kidlets, and will probably just buy seedlings for this year.  I'm focusing this year on the most important plants for our family : tomatoes, basil, garlic, and yellow beans but will be putting all sorts of other things in as well to fill up space and experiment.  I'd like to continue building the soil in the front bed and fighting weeds and other perennials that are still fighting to keep their sunny home, and plan to expand the veggie garden next year.  We have perennial beds lining the whole perimeter of our front yard so there is no lack of work to be done!
  • Our fruit and nut plantings to date include two female and one male hardy kiwi vines, a pear tree, two hardy pecan trees, two hazelnut shrubs, three pawpaw trees, and a red currant bush.  At some point I'd like to get raspberry plants in along the border between our house and the house next door That might happen this year but I'm leaning toward next year for those.  We still have the two plum trees out front, but they didn't really bear anything last year.  I was told by an acquaintance that they alternate between heavy fruiting years and sparse fruiting years, so I'm hoping for a more plentiful harvest from them this year.  One fell over during an early winter ice storm this past winter, but the trunk and roots seem intact so we've already started shouldering it up and I hope it will make it.  It seems to be doing well from what I can tell, and is budding so hopefully that "every second year" rule will work in our favour.  Yesterday I planted ten Ozark Beauty strawberry starts in a small patch near our herb garden.  They were just tiny sad-looking crowns and roots stored in soil, and looked rather like minuscule dead octopi, but I will keep my hopes up to see signs of life in the next few weeks.
Flower buds forming on our little four-in-one pear tree that we planted last year.

Our hardy pecan trees look pretty good this spring as well.

These are the buds on the plum tree that was knocked down, keeping our fingers crossed!

  • Finally, last month I harvested a bunch of young but long willow branches and took them home to attempt making a willow dome playhouse for the kids.  You can read more about that in my next post. :) 
  • Because of our rather uninspiring vegetable gardening effort last year, I continued to be a part of an amazing organic veggie CSA that we've subscribed to for a few years now.  Additionally, we were thrilled to find out that there was a new veggie CSA opening up through the winter months that included eggs and locally made cheese.  That was a really bright spot in our winter as the selection was surprising considering the winter months.  I expected a lot of rutabaga and cabbage and carrots but there were greenhouse-grown tomatoes and cucumbers and there were sprouts and all sorts of great yummy items!
Yay for Island-grown, nutritious food.  Hopefully I'll make progress this year in growing more of my own, but I love the awesome veggies we get from our super farmers too. :)

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Spring has sprung

Well, despite my love of hot chocolate, wood stoves, handmade quilts, movie nights, snowshoeing (not that I did any this year), and, of course, Christmas, it felt like this winter would never end.

But it has!

I've been missing for quite some time because April was a wildly busy month due to some rather unexpected community involvement, and then during May, at various points each of the children was sick, as was I, and my love was away in Halifax for two weeks so I got a taste of the single parenting that so many island ladies are undertaking when their spouses are out west.

However, I'm back at this blogging thing, and I thought that to announce that I am still among the living, I'd share a couple of quick snaps as evidence that our beautiful island has emerged from the 540+ cm of snow (yes, that's almost 18 feet).

A robin spent one entire day working on building a nest in our gazebo.  The next morning, there was no sign of her.  I suspect she decided that the location wasn't entirely suitable for bringing up a family.  I was equally torn between disappointment that I wouldn't have such an intimate view of her young and relief that our children wouldn't disrupt her nesting behaviour to the point of losing the clutch.

One thing that I love about having a wooded backyard is that some of my favourite little wildflower friends have popped up to say hello!  Here is starflower (Lysimachia borealis, formerly Trientalis borealis) which darling little girl loves to wear in her hair.

A rather blurry photo of Clintonia borealis, of which we have a large patch in the woods.  I've been hearing ovenbirds so have been hoping that they might be attracted to the cover on the forest floor here!
The flowers for false lily-of-the-valley (Maianthemum canadense) haven't just come out yet but I love their delicate and dainty nature.

So this is the far less native and more intrusive lily of the valley, which I nonetheless appreciate.  Especially covered in raindrops!

I don't care where forget-me-nots pop up, they make me incredibly happy.  The kids love them, I love them, and they make adorable mini-bouquets all through the house!

I would like to pretend that I know what this is, but I'm not entirely certain.  It's obviously a fruit tree in the rose family, and I think it might be apple but I didn't see one bit of evidence of apples when we moved in late last September, and I didn't notice anything when we looked at the property in late August.  Cherry maybe? Plum? I don't know.  One of the trees is really damaged after double whammy of the children climbing on it while buried under a heavy snow load, so I intend to plant apple trees between the two existing whatever-they-are and then eventually remove them.  For now, though, they're beautiful.  Sadly, they are NOT covered in bees as I hoped they would be.  I have only noticed one bee at any one time in our entire yard.  Is it possible that I have one resident bumblebee and that is it?!

Who doesn't love the happy smiling faces of pansies!  My vegetable-hating children think that it's cool that you can eat them, so I plan to put them in salads this spring and summer in the hopes of enticing them to eat something photosynthetic.
Yay for spring!  I don't even mind the black flies and mosquitoes too much at the moment, because there is life and warmth and growth out there.  Hurray!

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Thoughts on sustainability and self-sufficiency on our homestead

I recently read a post about defining sustainability on one of my very favourite blogs, and I've been considering it ever since.  It is such a buzzword these days and can sometimes be so meaningless, but it is also something that we're striving for, little by little here, so I think it's important to consider it.

Although there is a little part of me, the perfectionist hard-working part, that would love to meet every single one of our needs independently on our property, most of me understands that this is impossible.  I can't knit, for one, although I'm learning.  We don't have enough room to grow grains and to pasture animals.  We have a wooded lot, but not a woodlot--and I refuse to cut down our tiny forest for firewood.  There are all sorts of things that I can't or won't do to provide for our needs here.

There are also all sorts of things that I can and will and hope to do.  I would like to grow toward supplying all of our maple syrup from our home!  This will be years in the making, I am quite sure.  I'd like to have a productive vegetable garden and establish perennial crops in the form of berry bushes, asparagus, fruit trees, rhubarb plants and others.  I love canning and already make a variety of preserves, which I'd like to continue to expand.  I bake all of the baked goods we need at home.  I am so incredibly hopeful that we'll be able to have chickens for eggs and goats for milk one day (my presentation to town council went pretty well, I think, by the way!).  I'd like to look into forest products that could meet medicinal and culinary needs and potentially be a small, renewable source of income or useful for trade.  I'd love to install a greywater system to reduce our water usage and irrigate our garden, and we want to eventually install solar panels and other renewable energy options in our home.  With all of these endeavours, and more, I think we will be able to provide a lot for ourselves, quite nicely!

In terms of our ecological footprint, it's big.  As much as I'd like to think we don't have much of a negative impact on our precious earth, we do.  We use a lot of water.  We use a lot of electricity.  We mostly use oil for heat and we have two vehicles.  We have more electronics than I would like to admit, and we don't always make the best purchasing choices in terms of carbon emissions or agricultural practices, although we've been making strides in changing that one!

I guess the bottom line is, I don't know that we'll ever achieve a lifestyle in which we give back to our earth as much as (or more than) we take from it.  I think this is what I would term sustainable.  Am I not only refraining from using up all the resources I have at my disposal, but enriching the world around me?  I'm not sure if we can, not entirely.  But I believe it is a worthy objective.  And I believe that even if we can't, every single little step that we make toward such a lofty goal will make a difference.  Especially as they begin to accumulate!

As well, I know that we won't ever be self-sufficient.  Not truly self-sufficient, and so a homestead that is entirely "self-sustaining" won't materialize in this little corner of the world.  But as I thought about it, I realized, I wouldn't want it to.  I want to meet many of our family's needs in as healthy and ecologically sound a way as possible.  But I don't want to meet all of them.  I think if I was working that hard, I'd be pretty darn grumpy a lot of the time.  I know that I, and my patience, have limits.  I want to enjoy this and share a beautiful, peaceful, rewarding life with my greatest treasure, my family.  I doubt it would be very beautiful or peaceful if I was stressed out and squawking at everyone.

Additionally, I don't think it is natural for humans to strive for a lifestyle that eliminates the need for others.  We are a naturally gregarious species, and we have developed a myriad of ways in which to cooperate with one another and in so doing, to achieve great things.  We love friendship, and sharing, and enjoying one another's company, and I think that is something that is extremely valuable.  I think we are so blessed to live in a small province where the sense of community runs deep, and I'd like to see it grow and blossom so that the strengths of each individual further bolster the community at large.  We are richer together, I think, than we could ever be on our own.

As a result, I think it is ok that we can't produce our own wheat, or all of our own firewood, or our meat.  Because there are others out there doing an incredible job producing those things.  We just have to find a way to encourage each other to pursue our strengths in such a way as to enrich the land and the water and the air and the people around us.  And then we will be a sustainable community that finds sufficiency within the network at its core.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Trees for the future

I have been contemplating how best to use some money that I received for my birthday, and what I decided on was to purchase some fruit and nut trees for our property.  Trees in and of themselves aren't really necessary, because our one acre is almost entirely wooded, with native species. We also have two plum trees, one that produces dark purple plums and one that grows plums that are peachy-blush in colour.

I think that fruit and nut trees are a really great investment in a property, and one that I've been waiting to make until I was living in a place that I knew I would want to stay.  The idea of having a fresh harvest of our own organic fruit each year is a beautiful one, and I love the idea of being able to trade or share our bounty with others.  As a result, I've been trying to decide on varieties that are less frequently seen in our area.  Things that are a little unusual will be fun for us to try, and I also think they may be more desirable to trade.  I'd love to see more of a barter economy here on PEI, where we can share and trade our own goods with those of others. (Too bad you aren't living here, Jackie, or I would definitely be trading you fruit for your honey when you get it flowing!) Food security is very important to me too, and a perennial crop of nutritious food that is a source of vitamins and protein and good fats seems like a good idea.

So I found a nursery in Ontario that will ship to us in the spring, and I just submitted my order, which I am really excited about!

It was a little pricey but I think trees are a wonderful way to keep giving back to our family year after year.  So really, it's the birthday gift that I will receive every year, for the rest of our years here on this homestead!

I have been looking for a Canadian supplier of pawpaws, and while there are a few, the other two I contacted didn't respond.  I can't wait to see how these turn out, never having eaten a pawpaw in my life! They're supposed to be like a cross between a banana and a mango with a very tropical scent and taste but they can grow in our zone 5b climate.  They are supposed to be anti-carcinogenic and amazing sources of vitamins and minerals.  I'm intrigued!

Photo of pawpaws on a tree. I also fully intend to sing to my children, particularly the youngest, about being "way down yonder in the pawpaw patch".  If I'm honest, that might be a strong reason for choosing this fruit!

I was also thrilled to find a pecan variety that is hardy in our area.  This is by far our favourite type of nut so I ordered two for what will hopefully one day be a decent crop. We have native hazelnuts in our area but I have never seen the fruit at maturity and I assume they all get devoured by wildlife before most humans have the privilege of tasting them.  So I ordered two hazelnuts as well that I hope to plant near our house and keep under a watchful eye.

Finally, as a treat, I got a small Natalina fig tree to grow in a container. I think that indoor fig trees are beautiful anyway, but if one day I'm blessed enough to taste a fig from my own tree, it will be a truly wonderful thing and a reminder of my time in my beloved Italy.

I also have plans for multi-graft apples and pears, hardy kiwi, and a lot of berry bushes.  I'm not sure how many I can get in this year, but I wanted to start with the trees because you really can't plant them early enough and I'd love to see a little return from them, at least a few of them, in the next five years or so.  I'll update as my darling seedlings arrive!

What are you planting this year to promote food security for your family?

Monday, March 23, 2015

Planning for Planting

Yesterday's snowfall was absolutely beautiful, seen here in the early morning before the high winds started blowing snow around and causing major whiteouts.

In this never-ending winter of massive snowfalls and school cancellations, it's hard to believe that we have already passed the first day of spring!  But we have. And so this weekend, I realized it was time to get myself organized and write out a seed planting list so I'll know when to plant which seeds. Here's the plan:

Seed planting schedule, 2015

Veseys lists our final frost date as May 15th. They are the gardening specialists, but I think that May 15th is entirely too optimistic. I've based my seed starting on a tentative final frost date of May 30th, and I still think that transplanted seedlings will need some added protection until at least June 2nd, which is the first full moon in June.  I was brought up with that as the key factor in deciding when to plant more tender annuals.  Luckily, this year it's early!  When it's near the end of the month I can't really abide by it.

Seed starting dates organized by number of weeks before final frost date that they should be started.
 You may notice that I don't have any root crops on the list. I love carrots and beets, for example, but since I'm hoping to do some lasagne gardening this year and didn't start my beds last fall, I want to give them time to break down and improve soil quality before sticking root crops in there. I'm still part of my incredible veggie CSA so will lean on those root veggies this year!

Planting tray plans with numbers of each variety.

I might have been a little overzealous when I bought the seed starting trays that I'll be using this year.  I bought them because they have deep, hexagonal cells that I hope will meet the seedlings' needs until it's time to transplant outside. I'd like to skip the transplanting into a slightly bigger pot step.  However, these trays are for the pros and have 72 cells per tray.  I do not need that many! I may give a few seedlings to my dad, since he's planning to put a raised bed out at their cottage this summer, and I hope I can squeeze the rest in somewhere.  Especially the tomatoes!

Just a glimpse of some of our seed packets for this year.
 I have a few seed packages from last year and a few that I bought new this year.  Most of my seeds came from Heritage Harvest Seed in Manitoba, and they even threw in a free package of parsley which was nice.  Some are from Veseys, some from the Halifax Seed Company, and some from Burpee.  We'll see how they all do!

My schedule, drawn up on Saturday, reprinted in good copy yesterday, tells me that I need to plant my lavender now.  So I had better get on that.