Friday, February 27, 2015

Permaculture possibilities

Permaculture is something that has interested me for some time. To be honest, though, I found that a lot of the definitions that I was coming across in my reading were vague and left me feeling a little cloudy on the whole subject.  It seems that permaculture experts don't want to pin it down as any one thing, such as a gardening philosophy, and so there aren't many concise, clear explanations.

To sum up my understanding of it (at least as it makes sense and is useful to me!), the idea of permaculture revolves around designing agricultural systems that serve human needs while mimicking ecological systems found in nature.  In other words, while our garden and property will certainly be home to species not naturally found in PEI, they will work together as a community, forming a web of interactions that promotes harmony and allows each plant or animal to play multiple roles (e.g. a plum tree can provide shade, produce blossoms that feed pollinators and plums that feed us, slow the evaporation of moisture from the soil, serve as shelter to songbirds, etc.).  It is difficult to imagine a system that is really as self sufficient and sustainable as even the simplest natural community, but even using this premise as a guideline seems like a solid starting point.

This kind of harmonious gardening appeals to me greatly, so I have been reserving books at our local library that will teach me more about how to properly design this sort of system.  The first one that I borrowed was absolutely awful.  I became a bit skeptical about the whole thing and then I got this book out of the library: Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture.

This book, by Toby Hemenway, is an excellent primer on permaculture and designing your garden to enhance your environment in order to provide food, habitat, beauty and enjoyment.
I loved reading this book.  The author lives in California, so some of the plant suggestions aren't applicable to our zone 5b climate, but all in all, I really enjoy the way he has laid out this book and there are some very usable suggestions in it.

One thing that bothers me when reading about permaculture is all of the forest gardening information.  It's not that I don't think forest gardening is great, but our property is almost entirely wooded!  The little area where I have sun will most certainly not be planted in huge perennial shrubs and fruit trees that will eventually shade out everything else, thank you very much!  Finding information about gardening in the forest, however, is much more difficult.  This book has a few suggestions that might work for growing edibles in the woods, however, and some of the information about planting forest guilds lends itself to translation into planting in the woods.  It also has good ideas to add to the companion planting and sheet mulching I already plan to do in our annual beds.

What I found most helpful though were the space-saving garden design tips, such as this one:

Using keyhole beds (without the central compost tunnel) allows small spaces to be used much more efficiently, eliminating much of the necessary walkway space and freeing it up for use for planting.

This image of a yard planted with interconnected keyhole beds captivated me.  Our front yard (the south side of our home) is currently an adorable little rounded green lawn, surrounded by a thick border of perennials.  My first objective is to turn the perennial border into an edible border, made up of annual veggie and flower beds, fruiting shrubs, and areas where perennial veggies such as asparagus can be planted.  However, if I can convince my lovely husband to eventually give up the front lawn, this design would be a way I could maximize the sunshine in a beautiful way.  Each of the keyholes seems like an exciting, secret little place to visit and the thought that they'd be filled with sugar pumpkins and flowers and berries and tomatoes makes them seem all the more magical.  I imagine putting bird baths and little sculptures and fairy houses throughout as well, with bean teepees and sunflower forts and things that my kids would find enticing.  I love this.

Additionally, in the section on water conservation, I loved one of the ideas that he highlighted regarding greywater use.  Our house is a little curious, because although we are on municipal sewer, we get our water from a well.  So we pull water up out of the ground, but none of the water we use gets treated and then returned to our soil--it gets pumped off to the municipal treatment plant.  This doesn't sit overly well with me, and so I had been wondering about a way to use greywater--the used water that comes from showers and sinks and tubs and washing machines, but not the nasty toilet water (or blackwater).  I knew that you couldn't use the water directly on vegetable beds, but irrigation seemed like the best use of it so how would that work?  I don't want a lawn to water.  I want tomatoes and strawberries.

When I saw this, I thought, "Yes."

My dream greywater system.
The used water comes out of the house, goes first to a submerged gravel cleansing marsh stocked full of native wetland plants that can use the slightly grotty water and that are home to the bacteria that will cleanse it, then it goes through a series of tiny little ponds where the water becomes even cleaner until it ends up in a slightly larger one that could be used for ducks.  I'm not keen on koi, but even providing habitat for local frogs would be lovely!  Then I could dip my bucket into the final pond and use it for watering as well as habitat.  The system would have to be very small, but the enhancement to the yard and the re-use and return to the soil of previously-used water is very attractive.

These are the two main new concepts that I got from this book, and there are a lot of other great tidbits in there, particularly for those who have a larger property that we do.  I'd really recommend it for any gardener to read, but especially for those who would like to garden in a more nature-inspired manner.

What ways do you derive inspiration from nature in your garden planning?

Monday, February 23, 2015

Organic grains come to Invercauld

*Warning: my nerdy science past may come out to play in this post.*

Although I love my planet and I care deeply about the health of our family, I don't always buy organic. I know that I should, but I don't.  Supporting organic farmers is very important to me, but I often make my purchasing decisions based on budget and not my values.  One thing that I was consistently not buying organic was grain products, most specifically, flour. We don't have a flour mill on PEI, but there is an organic grain mill in Woodstock, NB, which is about 415 km from where I live.  Maybe not close enough to qualify for the 100 mile diet, but when you think about it, in Canada that isn't really a huge distance is it?

I was added to a bulk buying group for that company about a year ago but I stalled on putting in orders.  The pickup was a bit of a hike from our old home, and the price, while reasonable, was a little high for my slim student/mother budget.  I meant to put in an order, but I just didn't, for the time being.

Then I started to read articles, on blogs, mostly, about the spraying of glyphosate on wheat crops just before harvest.  I didn't relish the idea of a fresh dose of Round-Up on my wheat just prior to being turned into flour, and I hoped that since this was information from the blogging world (which we all know is full of scientific hogwash) and from the US (I like to pretend to myself that we make better choices in Canada, which is a bit of a fairy tale in so many ways!) that it probably wasn't an issue here.  I started to look into it and found this link from the University of Saskatchewan regarding the pre-harvest application of glyphosate to wheat crops.  I take the word of a university in the wheat capital of Canada as fairly solid when it comes to how crops are grown.  The government of Saskatchewan also notes this as a common practice on its website, and explains when and how to apply it.

I understand that weeds are annoying and problematic, far more so for a large crop of one species than for a small diverse garden, so I don't want to vilify those who use federally regulated substances.  Farmers are just trying to make their living, after all, and I believe that they care about the soil that they tend.  However, I don't really trust the regulating bodies or the pressure that big pesticide and processing corporations can exert on governments and farmers.  I also don't trust non peer-reviewed articles.  So I tried to look a little harder at the issue, and while I haven't conducted any major research, I easily dug up a few articles from peer-reviewed journals containing studies that showed that there are concerns for human health related to the use of glyphosate.

It isn't even so much the glyphosate, but the chemicals that are added to it to improve its function that are the problem.  These studies show that the adjuvants (or added components) can make the glyphosate accumulate in human tissues more easilycan harm placental, embryonic and liver cells, and act as endocrine disruptors (mess up hormone function) at levels lower than those used agriculturally.  These studies came out of France, which isn't surprising since Europeans are far more conservative with their regulation of pesticide products and their use in crop production and are likely making more of an effort to study the harm that these substances can do.

I think scientists need to look at these effects more conclusively over the long term, but this reading is enough for me to decide to exclusively purchase organic grains from now on.  In our world we come into contact every day with things that can harm our health.  We can't worry about it too much, I don't think, because we have to just live, and an over-thinker like me can end up with major bouts of anxiety!  But we can take steps where possible to minimize our exposure to things that can harm us, and in particular, our little ones.

So all this to say, I was super excited to scoot out to the country, to the hills where I was raised, to pick up my first (finally!) order of local-ish, organic grains today, and I'm even more excited to begin baking with them!

I promise the next post will be more fun.  I just felt I had to explain my lengthy decision-making process.  I can be long-winded like that.  Sorry!

Sunday, February 15, 2015

2015 Homestead Objectives

This photo was taken on January 27th, during the first major snowfall that we've had recently.  Since then we've basically been bombed by snow, with a total of 200 cm since January 27th--that is six and a half feet in under three weeks!

As the snow continues to pile up outside our windows and to bury our future vegetable garden beneath what now seems to be is metres of glistening white, I like to spend my indoor time daydreaming about our property and what we'll do this year.  Most of this daydreaming occurs while washing dishes, changing bums, and in particular, while nursing Ellen, since I can have the latest library book about gardening open on my lap just beyond her sweet, fuzzy little head.

I'm realistic about what we'll accomplish, because I want to enjoy time at the beach with my family during the summer.  There are chores to do inside and kids to cuddle and meals to make.  I don't want to try to do too much, get burned out and cranky, and end up feeling disappointed that I didn't end up checking very much off the list.  So this year's list of homestead objectives will be less ambitious, but hopefully that will mean that we can review it at the end of this year and feel a sense of satisfaction for having accomplished many of our goals.

So, here goes!

  1. Relocate the current perennials that we'd like to keep to new homes before commencing any work on the garden.
  2. Start seeds indoors for the vegetables and flowers that need an early start to the season.
  3. Obtain enough materials to start a lasagne garden where we will plant vegetables for this coming year.
  4. Build tomato trellises that can be used year to year for at least a few seasons.
  5. Confer with neighbours about our hopes for backyard animals and put a proposal into the town to amend bylaws to allow for chickens and goats within certain parameters.
  6. Build a little trail through the woods for the kids to run along without tripping over roots and branches (this is really for Susannah, the accident prone wonder child!)
  7. Plant a few fruiting shrubs/trees/vines.
  8. Establish a perennial flowering herb garden with pretty and medicinal species.
  9. Try to make even a minute amount of maple syrup from our trees.
  10. Resume canning!  I really miss our own tomato sauce and jams this year.
  11. Spend time on a friend's farm getting to know more about goats.
Eleven objectives looks like a lot, but most of them have to do with the garden and are really just steps on the way to establishing vegetable beds where our current perennials were planted by the previous owners.  It seems sad to remove their hard work and beautiful beds, but I've experienced large perennial beds before and found that I was clearly and woefully not up to the task of maintaining them.  I have a bigger drive to maintain gardens when they feed me.  Obviously I think with my stomach...

I really just want to start dabbling again with different things.  If we are able to harvest a few basketfuls of veggies, try one pancake breakfast's worth of homemade maple syrup, and have a chance to meet with town officials about my hopes for chickens and goats, I'll consider that a success.  As the children grow, I know I'll have more time for these hobbies and that with each year comes more experience and more opportunities to try new things.  For now, I know I can fall back on my awesome CSA veggie boxes and I can visit goats and chickens elsewhere.  Mostly, I want to spend as much time as possible with our children outside in the yard, the woods and the soil, discovering and trying new things and having fun together in the fresh air.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

A new adventure

This past fall was one of many beginnings, and a few endings as well. In late August, we gave our hens to a friend, dug up a few strawberry plants, and moved out of our home of seven years. On the day that the sale of our house closed, we didn't have any idea of where we would end up living. A summer of looking for homesteads in the country in the beautiful hills of central PEI had turned up nothing that was just right for our family. Our oldest child started school in our previous city, not knowing where he would end up later on.

Two weeks after moving in with my parents, our third child was born, a beautiful little girl who completed our family and my heart.

Two weeks after her birth, we moved into our new home. It was a bit surprising in that we hadn't expected to find our forever home in the community in which we are now living.  I, especially, wanted at least two or three acres (preferably one hundred!) in the country. My husband appreciated the beauty of the area in which we were looking, but his heart has always more or less been loyal to Charlottetown. When we stepped out of our vehicle to have a look at a home on one wooded acre in a small town, situated almost exactly halfway between my area of choice and his, we fell in love with it and we bought it the next day.

I felt like I had stepped into a fairy tale wood with the beautiful colours of early fall surrounding me in a peaceful, homey place. It felt like home immediately and I forget what it was like before we began to build our new life here.

Our children love to run through the trees and visit with a little girl who lives nearby. They find sweet little details left by the previous owners, a carved wooden chicken, horseshoes hanging on a tree branch, a tiny, perfect plant with a single pink rose, etc.

There are many maple trees waiting to be tapped.

The current bylaws prohibit chickens and dairy goats on residential lots. This was a disappointment to me but it only furthers my resolve to work proactively with the town to change its bylaws such that homesteading activities can be carried out, respectfully of neighbours, in our area. I finally have a sunny yard. It isn't the backyard, but the front where I am already planning on harvesting perfect, juicy tomatoes and sweet small melons.

I'd like to chronicle our homesteading journey from the very beginning. I hope it may be interesting for some of you that used to follow my old blog, and for anyone who stumbles across this one. I won't be writing homestead how-tos and offering expert advice. I may share how I've done things and make suggestions for others who are interested. I'll definitely write about how things worked out or didn't! Mostly, I'll just be sharing our story, the story of a family growing and loving and planting seeds on a small homestead in the trees.