Wednesday, 31 July 2013


Our current consumptive culture is creating a generation of people that are conditioned to buy versus creatively and resourcefully make what they need and want.  Money seems to rule all and the rampant (rabid?) retail frenzy is in full swing.   All around us, we see the "ideal life" pictured ~ a big new house, 2 cars, lots of "toys" (for the adults, too), tropical holidays in winter, never ending electronic upgrades, frequent meals out, fashionable clothing, spa treatments, gym memberships, daily drive-through special coffees...     I read a great article on Verge Permaculture's blog that explains exactly what I'm talking about ~ do read it.

There's a quiet uprising brewing.  In my permaculture class (taught by Rob Avis of Verge Permaculture), the overwhelming majority of my 20 some classmates were applying for (or had just been granted) a reduced work week in order to carve out more time for worthwhile activities such as gardening, preserving, cooking from scratch, working on eco retrofits to their home and landscape, recreation and simply, time to rest and relax with their families.  In our own family, my husband recently switched to a 4 day work week which has dramatically improved our lifestyle.  With a 3 day weekend, there's now enough time to work on projects that we've been wanting to try, not to mention, time at last for the creative juices to flow which fuels our resourcefulness.

Oh, the stories my Grandma tells about the Depression era and the resourceful frugality that reigned at that time.  People who were resourceful and creative made it through that wretched decade and I dare say that the general populous could use a healthy dose of resourcefulness in this day and age.

Over the last few years, we've been working hard at cultivating our sense of resourcefulness and creativity in order to develop our property.  Not only is that good for our finances, but also, it's good for the environment (by re-directing materials that might other wise end up in the landfill).   I'm a huge fan of freecycle and lately, we've been fortunate to receive a lot of really useful things through this network of generosity and goodwill....

Two adirondack chairs for our deck, fence boards for our planned hen run and food forest expansion, perennials, building materials, etc.  Between freecycle, kijiji (online classifieds) and bartering, we have managed to progress pretty far into our development plan without spending much money.

Here's the fence boards (100 - 1x6" 6 footers):

My son and I hammered all the nails through and pulled every last one. 

We stacked them all on a dolly so that it's easier for Kelly to cut off the last few inches that are rotten. Trimmed and painted, they'll be like new!  

Here's one of the 2 adirondack chairs.  They were in SAD need of a paint job - lots of peeling paint was falling off but they were sound with not a speck of rot!  

Kelly took them both apart and Reece sanded every piece down with a mouse sander.   Paige primed them and we are all taking turns painting them with outdoor white trim paint leftover from our renovation.

Kelly is building a shed right now and so far, it's made nearly entirely of recycled/repurposed materials.   He's only had to buy a few joist hangars - although not many as most were found in a bin in the garage when we moved in.   As you can see the first sheet of 3/4" plywood for the floor has gone down - and yes, it's got paint all over it, but it's being repurposed from another project.  This weekend will be all about getting the walls up and (fingers crossed) the trusses (which were leftover materials bought by Kelly  for just a few dollars each on an old job site).

The concrete sidewalk blocks were also on site when we moved in.  Bonus!

Stay tuned for our progress - Kelly has a 4 day long weekend starting Friday, so we really hope to get this shed finished and I'd like to finish painting those chairs so we can lounge in them on the deck!

How have YOU used resourceful solutions to meet your needs?  Do share :)

Monday, 22 July 2013

Cob Oven Workshop with Dirt Craft Natural Builders

Just over a week ago, Kelly and I attended a cob oven workshop together.  It was a long day full of hard work, but we are very glad that we had the opportunity to learn from experienced natural builders. Ashley Lubyk and Heather Noakes together own and operate Dirt Craft Natural Builders and we highly recommend them!  They are extremely knowledgeable and very experienced having travelled the globe to learn about different techniques and types of materials used in natural building.

We began our day with some theory...  what a great classroom, no?  While we learned, we listened to the chickens clucking, the cows mooing and the birds singing at Good Note Community Farm.

Below, you will see the foundation that the farm owners had constructed on their own using rocks and clay from their land.  A simple concrete slab was used to create a nook for storing firewood and with clay, sand and straw mixed together, they created a base on which to sit the cob oven. 


Below, Ashley Lubyk (our instructor) is teaching us how to assess the clay (found on site) to determine how much sand to add to it to make good cob.

We were really quite surprised how MUCH sand we had to add to make strong cob.  It's always best to  add as much sand as the clay will take, as the sand is what gives integrity and strength to the cob.  Speaking of sand, uniform washed sand is NOT best...  you want rough, unequal particles for the best strength. 

Below, Ashley holds up the result of finding the sweet spot - just the right mix :)   When you throw a cob on the ground, it should flatten a tad on the bottom, but not splat or fall apart.  Also, no major cracking!

Once we had the mix right, we all set to work mixing up cob on tarps with our feet.  We ended up using 7 tarps full of cob in the end with each tarp holding one 5 gallon bucket of clay, 3.5 buckets of sand and enough water to mix it thoroughly.  It was surprising how long it took to mix each batch!  Below, is Kelly with our fellow "cob mixer", LOL.  I have no pictures of me, as I was in charge of the camera all day!


First step, was to level off the previously made base with sand and then lay some firebricks flat and perfectly level to create the inside bottom cooking surface of the cob oven.  After that, a large dome of wet sand was created (sandcastle style) to form the shape of the cob oven (a mould essentially).  Wet newspaper was placed on top so that it would be easy for the owners to know when to stop digging the sand out of the oven cavity when it's done curing.


Here's Kelly with the completed mould all covered with wet newspaper - READY FOR COB!

Below, is the cob application.  Cob is never slapped or pushed, it's kind of chopped down into place with the side of your flattened hand - starting from the bottom of the oven and working up.  While making that motion, your other hand is supporting the cob on the outside so it doesn't push out.   The first layer was about 3" thick.

Next, was the cob/straw layer which was about 4" thick.  The straw added a bit of integrity for good measure.

Next, the straw layer was pressed and "finished" by Ashley using a 2x4 in a rocking motion.

Following that, we layered burlap overtop of the oven and then poured clay slip over the entire surface.  

Here's Heather Noakes mixing clay slip (clay/water slurry) to pour on top.

The slip was quite literally, poured on top and rubbed in to smooth the surface.

Lastly, an insulative layer of cob and wood shavings was added to provide some valuable insulation to keep the heat IN the oven and prevent the outside from being hot to touch (sadly no pics of that, I was COVERED  in clay and didn't want to touch my camera).  If I remember correctly, one last slip layer was poured on top...  WHEW!

In the end, the oven turned out GREAT and we learned a ton.  Nothing like being shown something in person!  We did choose to buy a book that our instructors recommended as it's going to prove REALLY handy to have that resource on hand when we are building our own oven.

Stay tuned for that post...  we hope to start on the foundation this month!

Monday, 15 July 2013

Learning to compost

My previous methods of composting were rather haphazard as I was doing it by guess and by golly (which meant that I ended up producing "not quite compost" as opposed to COMPOST).  I'm still learning, but feel more confident now about how to go about it with some help from this handy  Compost Calculator.  It's pretty cool - you can change the amounts of each material you have or want to use and you end up with the right ratio/mix to create the kind of compost that you need.  It's really easy to get the ratios right with this little tool, so give it a try.

We use deep bedding in our coop over winter so we end up with a large quantity of hen manure mixed in with lots of different carbonaceous materials come Spring.  It's partially decomposed when we shovel it out of the coop, but nowhere near "finished compost" status.  All of that manur-ey bedding needs to be properly composted to ensure that we kill off pathogens and mellow out the "heat" of the chicken manure (which is a really HOT form of nitrogen).  

I learned something recently which made me realize that I've NOT been thinking...  We had previously been sprinkling diatomaceous earth in our coop to help prevent mites but (duh), that stuff does the same thing to the microscopic critters in the soil food web!  The very biology that I WANT to thrive and grow in my compost don't stand a chance when I'm liberally sprinkling that stuff all over the coop.  That precious coop muck is the foundation for my compost which ultimately feeds my garden, so let me tell you, that practice stopped in a big hurry!  I am still concerned about mites, however, especially with a large flock that spends a lot of time confined to the coop in winter.  My research led me to some interesting findings...


Check those links out - what an education!  The herbs will decompose and not pose a threat to the soil food web in my garden.   I'm hopeful that herbs will be the answer to mite prevention - stay tuned for the results.

Back to the compost pile...

This 3 bay compost bin was FULL TO THE TOP in all 3 bins when we cleaned out the coop a few months ago.  We layered the coop muck (which was comprised of manure, wood shavings, shredded cardboard and paper, alfalfa and straw) with some green weeds and some small twigs and filled all 3 bays.  We watered it all in well, covered it up with straw, pushed the compost thermometer in and crossed our fingers!

Up, up, up went the thermometer right into the HOT side of the active range for a good solid week to 10 days which was excellent!  I watched closely to make sure the temperature didn't surpass the safe zone and start killing off the soil critters (it didn't).  Slowly, the temperature came down to the low end of the STEADY zone which meant  it was time to turn the piles (which at this point had shrunk by 50%).

I removed the straw covering and set to work mixing in more green weeds, kitchen scraps and most importantly, some forest duff to inoculate the pile with different strains of mycorrhizae and species of soil food web critters.

I watered it all in REALLY well and covered it back up with the straw. 

Here's what it looks like now...  getting closer to the coffee grounds black/brown colour and slowly turning into compost (insert smiling gardener's face here).

I'll report back here in a few week time and we'll see how it looks!

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Lots going on...

  It's the time of year when we are pulled in a million directions... so much to see and do while we have great weather!  Thank goodness for long daylight hours so that we can fit it all in (or at least try to).

One of our major summer projects is to build a verandah on the front of our house.  The previous owners didn't use the front entrance, so they decked the area and didn't worry about access.  We ripped off the (now rotting) deck which left us with an old set of concrete stairs that the deck was built over all those years ago...   The stairs function, but we'd love to have a spot to sit and enjoy our morning coffee again not to mention have better access from the driveway to the front door.  We're thinking of a natural stone walkway, but we'll see what materials we can source within our budget.  For now, we wait on our carpenter to help us get a good start on the deck.   I can't wait for that to be done after 4 long years of waiting because I have grand plans for a productive food forest out here but I can't plant it until the deck and walkway are in.

I've been planting up a storm elsewhere on the property, though.  Finally, there's a bit of time for such things now that my course has ended :)   I started a lot of plants from seed this year plus received a generous lot of native plants from a friend.  

In the background below, I've grouped lavender and hyssop with a grape vine that my neighbour gave me.  Apparently, hyssop aids the growth and fruit production of grape vines, so I'm going to give it a go.  We struggle to keep lavender alive through our cold winters, but I'm told that this variety should make it if it's planted against the house on the south side (I think it's a Morden). Fingers crossed XO

This lovely peony is in bloom for the first time and was one of my fall bargains last year. I call it my "cheap and ugly rescue operation" because I scout nurseries at the very end of the season and buy up all the sad looking perennials, shrubs and trees at a mere FRACTION of the cost of retail.  This peony was a real find and I'm quite certain that I only paid a dollar or two for it.  i must get another photo of it because now that it's fully open, it has softened to the most delicate, creamy shade of pink.

The insects have been very busy this past month visiting all the flowers that are in bloom...

The garden is beautiful right now...  lush, full of colour and alive with the sound of pollinators!   I'm trying to drink it all in as our seasons are short (intense, but short).  

The food is coming in from the garden too - first lots of greens graced the table, and most recently, broccoli, baby carrots and herbs.  

My next sowing of greens is nearly ready to go in the ground...  it's been a good year for them with all the rain we've had.

I picked up some garlic scapes today at the farmer's market and whipped them up into a gorgeous pesto.  I can hardly wait to taste it on some pasta tomorrow.  YUM! 

Next post is my compost update...  WOW - great progress on that!!!