Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Seed Catalogue Seduction

This is a very inspiring time of year for gardeners with seed catalogues arriving in droves through the mail.  As we are currently in the depths of winter (with snow on the ground to boot), we aren't remotely NEAR time to start seeding for the 2014 garden but it IS time to start ordering seed!  I like to buy heritage seed that hasn't been genetically modified, so it's really important to buy early while selection is good.  

I started buying from Heritage Harvest Seed last year and I'm EXTREMELY happy with both their seed and their service.  My order came quickly and the seed all had a very high germination rate which is very important to me given our short season.  We don't have a lot of time to re-seed if a crop fails to germinate.  The clock is really TICKING here with only 3 months of reliable frost free growing!  I especially like this company's dedication to preserving the stories behind the seed varieties which is such an important part of our nation's history as well as our little region's history.  Their site is easy to navigate, too so online ordering is a snap.  Do pay them a visit!

I also bought seed from Harmonic Herbs last year and was equally impressed with the service and quality of seed.  I discovered this company at Seedy Sunday in Edmonton last year and was pleased to meet the owners (both very kind people who know a LOT about seed and growing in our cold climate).  I highly recommend them, also!  

I've had a good poke through my seeds saved from last year and I culled the older ones today.  Not to waste them, I have seeded them in flats in the garage to feed to my hens.  Thanks to Suzy for this idea!   I saved quite a bit of seed myself last year (for the first time) so I'm pleased to have less to purchase for this growing season.  

On a side note - cool wooden box, hey?  I was lucky enough to receive a few of them on free cycle last year.  They have come in very handy (one stores our homeopathic remedies alphabetically, this one is for seed and the last one is in the garage for hubby).

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Eating what we produce

It's pretty amazing to eat a meal made from ingredients grown or produced within 100 meters of your table.  Now that's local food!  We hope to can less and less of our harvest in future, which might be the opposite of what the general homestead thinking model is.  Canning/bottling of any kind requires a lot of energy (largely of the fossil fuel variety) and I'd like to rely far less on energy inputs to preserve my food (and store it for that matter).   We are looking at building a large solar dehydrator in addition to improving our long term cold storage options.  Variety is the end goal (as in not having all our "eggs" in one basket).   If we have say, berries both frozen AND dehydrated, chances are, if we incur major loss of some kind (due to long term power outage or a flood for example), at least ONE method of storage will hopefully remain viable.  As with anything, diversity is the key to success, right?

Every day, we strive to eat as locally as possible.  Over the last 4 years, we've grown quite a lot of food for our table.  The rest we source from local producers.   Every bite of it is valuable because of the effort and energy extended to grow it, harvest it, preserve it or source it.   It is our hope to produce much more of our future caloric intake through the development of our land using permaculture principles.   Aside from taking an incredibly informative Permaculture Design Course through Rob Avis of Verge Permaculture, I've been researching how other people apply permaculture design strategies to their own land in colder climates (and to what end).  

Ben Falk is a brilliant man who has learned a great deal through 10 years of trial and error on his Vermont farm.  I'm smart enough to learn from those who have trail blazed before me and I humbly bow down to those who possess the courage to try new things (and make mistakes along the way).  Ben's work is very inspiring to me and I highly recommend that you get a hold of his new book The Resilient Farm and Homestead.  It's FULL of information and experience regarding the practical application of permaculture principles in a climate with a cold winter (gained through the ever effective teachings of "trial and error").  This book is of immense value to me having successfully broken down considerable mystery and uncertainty on several topics.  

Do check out Ben's site as it's eye candy of my very favourite kind :)


Monday, 20 January 2014

Preparing for Bees

Oh my goodness, my mind is BUZZING following a 16 hour Level One weekend beekeeping course. The pun was very much intentional (sorry, I couldn't help myself!).   

Eliese Watson of Apiaries and Bees for Communitites (in Calgary) came up to teach us 19 Edmontonians how to prepare for and keep bees in both urban and rural settings.  AWESOME learning is all I have to say.  Eliese knows her stuff (and then some) and as the founder of A.B.C, she works TIRELESSLY to bring bees, people and communities together.    

We learned all about the features of Top Bar and Langstroth hives as well as PLENTY of information about bees and bee behaviour.  Bee colonies are simply amazing - they are one of just a few species that live as a super organism rather than as individuals.  Fascinating stuff!

Eliese has designed a lid for a Top Bar hive to facilitate super-ing.  It works very well and allows for stacking Top Bar Hives.  The plastic grill is a queen excluder.  

Below, you'll see an open Langstroth Hive.

and here it is with a super on it and a queen excluder.  

I'm so excited to get bees, I can hardly stand it (although I'm truthfully more than a little nervous about making mistakes and killing my bees!).   I committed in spite of my fear and bought plans for making Top Bar hives.   Hubby and I are hoping to get cracking on them pretty soon.  We have lots of scrap plywood to build them out of so the cost should be minimal.  Just time, really...

Can you see that strange looking tool on the plans?  That's a hive tool for working a Top Bar Hive.  Eliese had them made up through a friend and she's really happy with the design.

Isn't it bee-utiful?  You use it by sliding the L-shaped end down the inside wall of the hive to separate any wax that's adhering to the side wall (sometimes the bees will attach wax right to the inside wall of the hive).

I've got lots of reading to do to prepare for the season in addition to making the hives.  Wish me luck!

Monday, 13 January 2014

Winter Eggs

Chickens are an important element here on our homestead.  While we don't aim for self sufficiency (for many reasons), we do aim for resiliency ~ a sturdy and diverse system that can withstand adverse and variable conditions.  Chickens are critical in that system, giving so much for so little.  Not everyone uses chickens to their full potential but can they pack a powerful "output" punch if carefully managed.  In no particular order:

  1. Eggs
  2. Manure, feathers and egg shells for the compost
  3. In situ fertilization when rotationally grazed (directly depositing manure where they graze)
  4. "Weed" management in the garden and wherever grazed
  5. "Pest" management 
  6. Heat (direct body heat in the coop and indirectly, thermophilic heat when we use deep bedding to manage manure in winter)
  7. Meat
  8. Light tilling (they do a fabulous job of tilling up a bed in readiness for seeding)
  9. Fall clean up (eating all spent plant matter from the garden)
  10. Orchard management (fertility and keeping dropped fruit from attracting pests)
  11. Disturbance.  Healthy systems need periodic disturbance to thrive.  Chickens can disturb the ground very effectively if tightly grazed and moved daily.  
  12. Recyclers.  Our hens eat nearly all of our kitchen waste, effectively turning a waste stream into a resource (eggs first, but second to that, manure).
  13. Entertainment.  Chickens are hilarious and they provide us with endless entertainment.  There's value in that!
  14. More chickens!  If allowed to breed naturally, you've got a successional supply of all of the above.

At the moment, we've got 8 dozen eggs in our fridge which is a rare thing in winter.  We've been experimenting with a few different techniques this year in order to maximize the health of our poultry over the cold winter months and one of the byproducts of that effort has been HEAPS of eggs!  It wasn't our intention to ramp up egg production, but that benefit is sure nice as we use a lot of eggs on a regular basis (summer and winter).  We also supply our 2 adult sons with eggs, so we are pleased that running short hasn't been a problem so far this winter.

In summer, our hens have access to all sorts of insects and a diverse number of plant species  (grasses, garden greens, tree leaves and herbs).  They have everything need at their beaks (so to speak) and can pick and choose what to eat given how they feel and what they need.  In winter this isn't the case.  Those birds rely solely on us to bring them all their food ~ gone is the freedom of natural foraging choice.    

First, we set to ensure that their staple feed is of the highest quality we can find. We feed them locally grown organic wheat screenings and supplement from there with an aim for diversity.   One way to achieve diversity (and probiotic benefit) is to soak the grains.  A 3 day soak is just enough to get the seeds sprouting which packs a nutritional punch for the girls. We give them soaked feed once or twice per week.  

As well, we grow herbs in the house in winter and I give some to the birds every few days.  Some days they gobble them down, others, they leave them.   Herbs are great for parasite prevention which can be a problem in flocks that are in close quarters.  We also feed our hens meat in winter as our oldest son hunts and he saves the trimmings for the birds.  We freeze them and dole them out once/per week (which they also love).  Our hens eat mice as well and believe me, the mice know that there's grain in the coop!  Any mice who dare to enter are promptly caught and eaten by those sharp eyed chickens (especially those Rhode Island Reds).

When the weather is REALLY cold (below -30C), I will often cook up some oatmeal for the hens in the late afternoon (with a bit of lard or bacon fat) .  This ensures that they have something warm in them going into the coldest nights.   This doesn't happen frequently, but it does give them a nice treat :)

Our hens do go outside in winter when it's not too cold out (by choice).  Snow doesn't bother them,  but cold wind and frigid temperatures DO.  We always leave the coop door propped open just enough for them to come and go as they please so they usually choose to come out for short bursts during the day to snack on scraps and peck through the snow.

Lastly, we always have oyster shell available in the coop.  This is important for shell building and in winter, those girls don't have access to grit in the soil.  I'd like to have a more local alternative - anyone know what I can use here on the prairie (in place of oyster shell)?

Our next project is to seed some greens for the hens in the garage under a grow light (hubby is an electrician and is going to rig me up something).  I'd like to give them a flat of greens/day and I figure if I seed 7 flats on one day each week, after a few weeks, I'll have enough in rotational sequence to make it work.  That should be a manageable enterprise (time wise) once it's established and buying seed in bulk will be essential in keeping the cost element down.  As well, as mentioned in my previous post, we shall soon have enough worms in our worm farm to be able to supplement the chickens' diet even further.

All of these factors combined seem to be contributing to our hens' health.  They have clean water at all times and a varied diet which appears to be keeping them in good form.  I would imagine that we wouldn't be getting near as many eggs if they were short on nutrition.  If you live in a cold winter climate with snow cover, how do YOU keep your hens healthy?

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Worm composter update

A few months back, my (amazing) husband converted this broken down (irreparable) freezer into a worm farm (affectionately known as "The Wormery").

It's situated in the garage up on blocks to facilitate drainage for collecting worm wee.  I posted about The Wormery before, but didn't show you detailed pictures about the construction at that time due to technical problems with the computer where the pictures were stored at that time.  If you must know more, here's the breakdown:

First, Kelly built up from the bottom to create a false floor halfway up.  This is for easy access and also good drainage/airflow.  He used pavers (found on free cycle) and non-pressure treated lumber scraps leftover from the many projects here at Little Home In The Country.  Don't use pressure treated wood as it leaches harmful chemicals into your worm farm.

*  Note the hole in the bottom of the freezer (pre-existing from the factory).  Don't plug it!  You WANT excess moisture and worm wee to drain out as it's great for mixing up in a tea to fertilize your plants.

Next, he cut two 2x6's to fit the space and laid them across the vertical blocks of wood (supports).  They are stable and don't wobble.  It's all rock steady.

On top of those, he placed 1x4's (commonly used for strapping) to create another air space.

On top of those, he placed a section of perforated, aluminium soffit material.   This will form the base that we start building our worm habitat on.  Notice that the perforations push DOWN to facilitate drainage.  

On top of the soffit material, he spread washed pea gravel (robbed from the driveway).  We really don't want standing water anywhere in this system to reduce odour and provide a healthy environment for the worms.  Lastly, he laid out landscape fabric (leftovers from the previous owners of this home).  This is important to keep any casting and debris from settling in the rocks which will eventually work it's way down and plug the drainage.  Kelly taped it well up the sides of the freezer (gorilla tape) to prevent it from slipping down and leaking sediment down the sides (sorry no pictures of that).

Finally, it was time to bed the area and move the worms in!  I laid out newspaper, ripped/shredded paperboard (toilet rolls, mainly) and moistened it all well.    Very unceremoniously, I dumped the ice cream pail of worms and compostables given to me by my friend.  I didn't feed them anything extra, as because you can see, there were quite a lot of food scraps in the pail already.  I used a watering can to lightly water it all in but was careful not to drench it.

I left the whole thing for a good week or so to settle.  Truthfully, I think it was longer than that, because I didn't want to overload the system with food when there was still food for the worms there. I knew that they'd need time to adjust to the new environment and settle in.

Eventually, I added food for them and now am in a good routine of feeding them about once or twice/week.  The bulk of our food/kitchen scraps go the hens and anything chicken related (scrap wise) goes to the dog.  We don't feed chicken to chickens!   I save all our tea leaves and coffee grounds for the worms in a separate bin and we add in a few fruit and veggie scraps plus some crushed eggs shells for grit.   I keep an eye on the moisture level in The Wormery.  The bedding material should resemble a wrung out wet sponge.    A simple sprinkle with a watering can provides moisture if needed.

*A special note about drainage.  Kelly put the freezer up on blocks but he was careful to put the side OPPOSITE the drain hole up HIGHER.  This means that any water/wee that makes it's way to the bottom will not stagnate ~ it will drain out the hole right away.  You don't want a level worm farm!

Eventually, after about 6 weeks, we started to see some moisture seep out of the worm farm.  YIPPEE - that brown stuff is like liquid gold!    To avoid evaporation, we are going to fit tubing into the hole and direct the wee into to a lidded jug.  

Below is a picture taken just the other day.  You can see the worms happily making their way through the tea leaves and coffee grounds.  It's moist in most areas but not all.  They can move to where they are comfortable.  I have seen tiny white eggs and very small baby worms (hard to picture), so breeding is happening!  This must mean that conditions are good for them.  

I have started to cover the top of the bedding with newspaper to keep moisture in.  It's winter here and it's DRY.   The top of the bedding was drying out and the worms were all at the bottom where it was moist.  Because worms can't talk, I need to "listen" to them by observing them and respond to what they are "saying".   The worms do seem to like this extra protection and are busier at the surface of the bedding now, so I think I've averted any problems with dry out.  As well, I've been adding shredded dampened toilet rolls to the bedding when I feed the kitchen scraps, which gives them a balance of new food to eat at their discretion.  

As to the water - I've been filling buckets with snow from right outside the garage door.  Rain water is better for the worm farm than tap water is, plus, it's more convenient than hauling water from the house.    This bucket of snow will melt in the garage and I simply fill my watering can with it.  Easy peasy!

I have yet to harvest castings (or worms for the hens), but it's early yet in the life of my worm farm.  I'd like to build up the population and the size of the bedding area before I start harvesting anything (other than worm tea) to avoid a collapse.  Once I see a big growth in population, I'll begin to slowly feed my hens a few worms (vital for winter health when they can't scratch in the garden).  Given how many babies I see in there, I'm hoping that will be very soon.

We are certainly not experts at this and are learning as we go.  So far, so good, but we are in the early months yet.  I'll keep you posted!  

****** Edited to add******

Hi again.  I forgot to mention the lid.  It's important that the lid of the freezer NOT close tightly.  Kelly screwed a few long screws into the top lip of the freezer to prevent the lid from closing all the way.  We like this method because it's adjustable.  We can unscrew the screws a bit more if we want more airflow (in hot humid weather), or screw them down more when we want more heat and moisture to stay in (in winter).    See the first picture for how the lid looks right now (small air gap as it's cold and dry here).

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Here, in January

On Tuesday, I "set this place to rights" by putting the last of the Christmas decorations away and cleaning up the remnants of the festive season.  Our home has been a hive of activity since Christmas and while is was great fun to host visiting family (and entertain large amounts of people), we are all craving "normal" here.   After nearly 3 weeks off, my husband is back at work, the children are back in school, and I am back to my studies and my work here at home.   

 I've been busy restoring our regular "family anchors" (mealtimes and the routines before and after them).  Zooming the focus back onto the family table is an important part of the process of returning to normal.  Gone is the glitter and sparkle of the Christmas table and along with it, the treats and rich foods that we look forward to all year.   We now crave healthier foods to warm and nourish us without the after dinner slump.  Immune systems are boosted during this time of colds and flus with homemade bone broth soups and stews chock full of vegetables and fragrant spices.   Taking centre stage on the table this week are a few special things that were my Grandma's (given to me recently).  

I've given the poor neglected houseplants some grey water and will next water them with my worm tea (brewing as I type).  

Outside, the snow is thickly blanketing everything around us.

The HUGE straw bale is half buried and all the trees and shrubs have a thick protective layer of snow to insulate them from the cold.

Rose, if you're reading this, this is the driveway with the markers.  Without them, it's hard to see where the driveway IS to plow it clear!  The other markers scattered on the property are to mark young plantings so the snowmobilers (of which we have many) don't drive over them.  

The 6' garden fence is half buried.   Those gates won't be opened for many months yet...

Inside the 3 season greenhouse, it's eerie and dark thanks to a thick blanket of snow on the roof.   The plants are either dead or in hibernation. 

Sawhorses rest atop the cover cropped bed (fall rye) in anticipation of early Spring when they will be put to use together with old doors to make seedling tray tables.

The hoop house is frozen in the snow,

the A-frame chicken tractor base is resting quietly, too.

The children bundle up with extra layers now when going to school.  The north wind can suck the heat out of you faster than you can say "Alberta"  :)

It's time to hibernate, rest and rejuvenate after a demanding month, giving us time to look over seed catalogues, plan the Spring garden, sew, read, knit and pursue other hobbies.   January can be dull and colourless outside, but inside, the fire is on, tea is brewing, bread is baking and the warmth of a comfortable home is inviting to us all :)