Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Living on the Edge

Have you ever noticed how weeds grow so well (and quickly) at the edges of driveways, garden beds,  fences, retaining walls and other structures?  In permaculture we call this the "Edge Effect".  Edges (also known as Ecotones) are the blended result of two or more ecosystems meeting (which results in highly fertile, ultra diverse places).  Edges are also "nutrient collectors" because they tend to "catch" debris and runoff (which further boosts fertility in these already diverse places).

Each "area" in a landscape is it's own ecosystem (as well as forming part of a larger ecosystem).  Looking at the picture below you can see the grass in the distance (which is it's own ecosystem), then in the mid-ground, you can see our (immature) food forest with a wood chip pathway.   Notice how in the lower right corner, the creeping weeds have rapidly taken over since recent rainfalls.  This area (lower right corner) is highly fertile because it's the edge between the gravel driveway and the wood chip pathway.  It ALWAYS gets weedy faster and is the perfect example of an Ecotone.   Instead of fighting the weeds here, I could plant creeping thyme or another creeping plant that would thrive in this setting and choke out the invasive weeds. 

Below is the front of the food forest (bordering on the front grassy area).   Notice how the dandelions and other weeds have been hard at work establishing in the grass along this ecotone.  I should have taken the picture BEFORE I weeded, because there were PLENTY of weeds in the wood chip mulch along this fertile edge.  Normally, this area would be planted out to take advantage of the edge's fertility, but as we are moving, all further development of the food forest has halted.  Last year, this area was planted to potatoes to help break up the soil in preparation for planting this year.  Berry bushes and edible perennials would thrive in this location.

In other areas of the garden we have raspberries planted all along the edge between the driveway and the orchard.  Clearly, these berries are happy as the canes are just loaded with berries which will hopefully be ripe enough for us to enjoy before we head to the coast.

Lastly, for beauty, fragrance and bee food, these climbing roses are making full use of the fertility along the garden fence (another Ecotone).  It may be hard to see, but nearly every flower has a bee hard at work inside!

 Ecotones can also be good places to plant somewhat invasive plants IF CAREFUL ATTENTION IS PAID to setting limits to spreading.  As an example, I have mint growing where it is surrounded on 4 sides (2 concrete walkways, a metal window well and a frequently used stone pathway).   The mint grows well in this ecotone thanks to all those edges and it repels mice from tunnelling under the concrete stairs (the primary reason for choosing to plant it in this area).   As I have planted it in this highly limiting/constricting space, it can be controlled with ease (and has been for several years).   

A common Ecotone in urban settings is along a driveway edge.  Planting a berry hedge in an area such as this can solve the "weed" problem AND net a tasty yield with very little work.  Instead of looking at weedy edges on your property as a problem, look at them with a new view and appreciate them as a fertile asset.  Determine what you could plant to net a yield which would take advantage of the Ecotones on your property.  I'd love to hear about your plans :)

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Pacing for the Long Haul

I have a long and sordid history of working myself ragged in order to meet a self imposed deadline.  What is UP with that?   I suppose I'm just goal and task oriented which makes for a major mental struggle when I need to slow down, adjust my pace or (horrors) my expectations of myself.   I'm getting a lot better at pacing and scheduling myself now that I'm firmly planted in middle age because let's face it - most things just aren't important enough to warrant exhaustion and burnout.  Middle age has taught me that in all honesty, few things matter more than family and self care.   Are you nodding with me?

So how does this flesh out in real life?  As with most things, it starts at the beginning.   The planning stage of my day (or week, month or season) is where it's all at and where I used to (unintentionally) set myself up for feeling inadequate.   Poor planning and unrealistic expectations have led to many a negative feeling in me (goodness knows, life is hard enough without making yourself feel bad).   Now, I err on the side of prudence and I pace myself with kindness and so can you.

Planning for a mid-day break has made an enormous difference in my life because it gives me time to stop and refocus my energy for the afternoon.  Life changes pretty quickly here (more people = more variables) and this short break gives me to time to adjust my expected outcomes to match the time I have left in the day, my energy level and the needs of my family.    My list is not my master.  I am the master of the list and I have an eraser!  

I've had some trouble sleeping through the night lately (too much on my mind with the move and likely hormonal changes as well) which means I'm not as productive during the day as I usually am.    While I'm not up in the night with young children anymore, I need to treat myself like I am because I'm operating on a sleep deficit just like a new mother.  Knowing myself intimately means accepting that I always succumb to respiratory illnesses (which often progress into pneumonia) when I'm run down.   Letting myself get to that point is the ultimate unkindness.   I don't do it anymore, but let me tell you I certainly did for many years.  Placing my personal needs WELL below the needs of everyone else in my family (and community) was a common occurrence.   Do you do that, too? Enough!

Yes, the list is long.  Keeping up with maintenance here all while sorting through every single thing we own to pack it, sell it or donate it is an EPIC task.  Not to be underestimated is the mental exhaustion that comes from making So Many Decisions each day.  Should I keep this?  Do I love it? Is it useful?  How hard is it to replace if I get rid of it?  What is the value of the item?  Is it hard to move?  Do I have a place for it in the new house?  Urgh.  Asking those questions hundreds of times over and over is fatiguing beyond measure.  Factor in meeting the emotional needs of teen and tween kids who are uncertain about this move and wrapping up the logistics of living in a place for 18 years and I've got a HUGE job on my plate.

All of this uncomfortable transition will be over soon.  It's a bit like being 9 months pregnant.  I'm over the thrill of the "news" and am mighty uncomfortable.  Eventually, the pain that is moving (like labour) will end and we'll be celebrating our long time dream realized (just like how when you hold your baby for the first time, you forget how much labour HURT).  Strange, but true...

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Grow it, Make it

Look at these juicy berries!  All my strawberry plants are producing well and are happy with onions planted between them.  The flax straw is doing a good job of mulching and in a sudden post rain flush, these mushrooms have all fruited through the front garden!    I wish I had an experienced mushroom forager to look at them for me - I'm scared to eat them because we have many toxic species that look a lot like edibles...  I took a foraging class a few years back and ended up even more more terrified to eat mushrooms we find here.   There is no substitute for having an experienced eye and hand to guide you as I'm not willing to risk our health (or our lives!) in the absence of it!

The garden is giving us tender greens (generously) and as I haven't planted anything other than peas (before selling the house) that's about all we are eating from the garden (aside from perennial herbs and fruit).   The peas will be ripe enough to enjoy soon and we certainly hope we'll be able to gorge on the raspberries which are forming as I type.  It's going to be the BEST raspberry year ever - the canes are positively LOADED with fruit!

My kombucha is thriving and my system of brewing every 3 days works well.  This jar is one that's just been started and in 3 days, the SCOBY will be covering the top and the tea will be bubbling nicely.   Three days is just about right to go through a half gallon jar (stored in the fridge while the next jar is brewing).    It's satisfying to make refreshing drinks instead of buying them.  I find that I crave kombucha when I'm hot and thirsty from working in the garden as it's much more thirst quenching than any other drink.   It's really frugal to make our drinks and while the kids aren't crazy for kombucha, I think they will like the fermented lemonade I'm starting today.

The packing is continuing as is the purging and sorting.  It's quite tiring, but it feels incredible to go through all the bits and bobs to eliminate anything unnecessary.  Just yesterday, I did some niggling tasks - counting change from the change jar and putting it in my purse to spend on groceries this week, sorting through all the keys and labelling for the new owners (plus finding our bike lock keys, padlock keys and spare vehicle keys), sorting through the "hardware bin" which was a mess of tacks, hooks, suction cups, pins, nails and screws, etc).  It's all organized and purged of things we won't need so those are good jobs done.  I really don't want to move anything that needs sorting!   I'm trying to use up as much as possible before we go so am strategically planning meals and snacks around what we have in the pantry.  The freezers are all but empty so I'm not having to worry about that...

I use a lot of baskets in my home and some are lined.   The liners have been set aside to be washed and line dried today to get rid of all the dust.   It will be a good job done so I can get things put away in the new place right away.  

All in all, things are coming together quite early because we don't want to leave much to the last minute.  It's just too stressful to be madly rushing around in those last days.  Moving is stressful enough all on its own.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Feeling a Little Melancholy

I'm truly happy to be moving forward after so many months of being in limbo but I have to admit, I'm feeling a bit melancholy about leaving my garden.  After 7 years of exhausting labour, we have finally reached a year in which there's nothing to do but harvest and maintain what we have developed.  The berry canes, bushes and plants are literally BURSTING with fruit and the trees are forming loads of apples, cherries, pears and plums.  The perennial plants are filling in beautifully (many of which were started from seed) and the garden is finally looking lush and abundant.  My soil is teeming with life and the rewards of all our hard work are finally being realized.   And we're leaving....

We have a lot of work ahead of us to get established at the new property and while I'm excited for the challenge and the opportunity to design from scratch, I'm also (truthfully) a little daunted at the sheer volume of work ahead of us.  I have to keep my eye focussed on the fact that all the mistakes I've made here so far (there's been plenty of them) will help me avoid unnecessary work at the new property.  Those mistakes taught me more than any class ever could have so I suppose I'll have to be content with the fact that true and irreplaceable reward (learning) is coming with me.  

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

A Hot Commodity and the POWER of FreeCycle

Our hottest commodity right now is boxes.  Who'd have imagined the lowly cardboard box could be worth so much?

I have always loved FreeCycle (we give away most of our no-longer-needed things in this way) but never have I loved it more than now.   As it happens, a family who quite often takes things we no longer need has a nifty box connection.  The husband works in a place where sturdy uniform boxes are available in abundance and he VERY KINDLY has been bringing home large quantities of flattened boxes (which I stop and pick up on my trips into town).  Praise for the kindness and generosity of FreeCyclers!

These boxes are truly surplus waste at this fellow's place of work and are hauled off for recycling on a frequent basis.  I'm glad to be putting them to good use rather than buying moving boxes (which are insanely expensive and frankly, not that sturdy).    I've also managed to find some inexpensive packing paper (roll ends from the local newspaper) which sell for $5/roll and have loads of unprinted, unbleached paper on them.  I'm quite pleased :)

I have big plans for all this cardboard and paper on the "other end" of this epic move.  Can anyone guess?  YUP!


 I have a large garden to establish so will make good use of all the "carbonaceous" materials we are bringing with us.  Combined with my Uncle's vast supply of well rotted horse manure, some green manure crops and cover crops, I should be in a good position to plant by next Spring!

Monday, 13 June 2016

Surplus to Needs


Over the years, I've collected a lovely selection of reference books on local plants and animals. These books have been well thumbed through and even have some dirty prints gracing the pages as I'm usually covered in garden grime when I reach for such a book!  Nearly all were bought used for a dollar or two and some were given to me.   These books have now turned me a small profit as I sold them as a lot last night to local naturalist/gardener for $25.00  This was a great deal for her as the new value was several hundred dollars but good for me too as I've recouped my cost with a wee bit extra.  

This my friends, is a snow rake.  Have you ever seen one?  It's a very long tool with a plastic scoop at the end.  Believe it or not, when we get heavy snowfall (especially over a few days), the accumulation of snow on the roof can be too heavy for the roof trusses!  We might hear groaning and creaking (under the snow load) which is the signal to get rid of some of that snow.  Climbing up on the roof is no fun and definitely not safe (especially not in -30C with a howling wind out of the north), so this handy tool means you can easily reach up onto the roof and "pull" snow down.  Those of you in warm climates night get a kick out of that :)

I'll not be sorry to never see this beast again!  It's loud and obnoxious but super effective at moving a lot of snow.  We would not have easily lived here without it as drifting snow can easily be 4' high (or more) in certain areas.  Think about the snow rake again....  did you wonder where all the snow from the roof gets dumped?  Yup.  Right next to the house where it falls!  Many hundreds of pounds of snow launched right near the house is NOT good for access (and flooding when it melts), so it must be moved a second time.  Enter SNOW THROWER.  The new owners of this house have agreed to buy it from us (and they'll need it!).

Onward we proceed with sorting and purging.  We don't have a lot of clutter, but there are tools and equipment we won't need in a warmer climate so we've been listing items (and selling them) every day.  I think we've made about $1,000 so far which will come in incredibly handy to defray moving costs.  

Friday, 10 June 2016

What's ripe?

This is such an exciting time in the life and maturity of my garden.  We've lived here 7 years and in that time, we've been transitioning 2.5 acres of mostly grass into a productive food growing oasis.   It's been hard but incredibly rewarding work and I'm grateful for the learning that has come as a result.  My many mistakes and "trials" have taught me what won't work but in that "failure" process, I've learned what WILL work in our cold climate. 

These early strawberries are the direct result of using thermal mass to full advantage.   The reflective heat off the concrete driveway coupled with the temperature regulation it provides through the night (as the stored heat is released from the concrete) has netted strawberries a good 10-14 days sooner than I'll see from plants just 10 feet away (around the corner and away from the concrete).   Using thermal mass strategically works, my friends :)  I'm in the process of potting up runners from these plants so I can take them with me when I move.  It will save me money and I also like that I'll be bringing a piece of my Alberta garden west with me.  

The Haskap berries are in full production so I'll be picking those today and for many days to come.  They are quite tart but are just loaded with antioxidants.  I'll probably add them to smoothies with banana to sweeten them up a bit and I'll make a syrup for our weekend pancakes.   I won't be making jam as we are moving and I don't want to add any weight to the moving truck so we'll have to eat this bounty fresh and call on friends to eat any surplus.

The lettuce is at peak production and so healthy after a struggle to establish (due to high heat and drought in Spring).  We've been enjoying the wonderful flavour and tender texture in sandwiches and salads.  There is NOTHING like fresh picked lettuce - it's incomparable to store bought.  The cost of buying organic lettuce here is very high and I must say mine is eons better than store bought (which has travelled for many hundreds if not thousands of miles to get here).  Even local lettuce is harder to come by as I have to drive a long distance to get to the farmer's market.  With a little planning and some shoulder season protection, growing food in a cold climate can be very rewarding and extremely helpful in reducing food costs. 

Our raspberries are absolutely LOADED with berries this year and we will soon be eating them.   It will be our biggest bounty EVER and if all goes well, we should be able to eat a good portion of them before we move.  We'll call on friends to come pick as I won't be able to freeze any this year as I usually do.   

The cost saving of growing raspberries is staggering as they sell for $5-$6 per half-pint/pint here.  Using those prices, I'd be rich if we sold all that we grew!  There must hundreds of thousands of berries forming and I know from experience growing them here that they produce for many weeks in the summer.  I'm also potting up all the new shoots that are coming up near the parent plants.  How fitting that I'll be taking those with me as 7 years ago, this patch was started from shoots my Mother brought me from HER garden back in BC!  My gardens have truly been a frugal mish mash of sharing and generosity which I hope will continue long into the future...

We also have kale and spinach ready to eat and peas growing up the garden fence.  That will be the extent of my harvesting this year as we're on the move in a month's time.  So exciting but also a bit sad to leave the garden I've worked so very hard to establish.   I'm quite excited to apply my learning to our new location, though and my mind is really spinning with ideas.  

Stay tuned!

Thursday, 9 June 2016

Healthy Food During The Transition

Now that we are full steam ahead with the move my mind is chock full of the details, arrangements and jobs I need to do to make it happen.  I have several lists going which are in a constant state of change (tasks are being added as fast as I complete jobs and cross items off the list)!  Each day is full but brings us one day closer to making our dream a reality.

Normally, this is my season of heavy gardening but I've barely set foot outside to work in the gardens here as I'm packing up the house.   I am harvesting some lovely fresh greens and herbs but I'm not seeding or aggressively growing food at this time because it won't be ready for harvest before we move.   Once we received an offer on the house 3 weeks ago, I halted all seeding and planting (which just happened to be ONE day before I intended to seed the main annual garden). Talk about timing!

We've been eating lovely fresh greens and herbs and the strawberries have started to ripen as well.  Such tasty and delicate treats after a long winter of shop bought produce!  This year I planted out my ceramic planters to edible greens instead of flowers.  It's been handy to nip out the back door to harvest some lettuce and snip herbs for a lunchtime salad.  Doing this really proves that you CAN make a dent in your food bill through container growing. 

Two days ago, I revived my sourdough starter which was on "holiday" in the fridge while the craziness of the real estate madness was in full swing.  It turned out to be very much alive and quickly responded to several small feedings in short succession and I now have sourdough bread proofing on my counter as I type.  After many weeks without it, I'm REALLY eager to eat it warm with butter for my lunch. 

 I've been pushing to keep up with sandwich bread baking rather than buying shop bread.  My aim is to keep us well fuelled with good food during this time of intense stress and hard work.  We will need it now more than ever...

To accomplish decent (albeit basic) meals, I need to plan my time wisely to avoid burnout so I've been stopping and cleaning up all packing and moving related work by 3pm so I can have my cup of tea and rest for a few minutes before the kids gets home and the afternoon routines of homework help, supper prep and end of day tasks must be done.  

Hubby has been busy packing up his garage and dealing with vehicle maintenance in preparation or the big drive. He's also busy trying to establish employment on the Island (which is going well, but there is a lot to sort out and decide about).  We are needing to book the moving truck around his new job, so that's just one of the pieces we are trying to fit into this complex "puzzle" that is an out of province move.

Stay tuned!

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

It's Official - SOLD!

Our house is SOLD and we are moving to the West Coast!  After 10 months of waiting and feeling horribly "in limbo" we're decluttering, packing and eating our way through stored food items as we prepare to hit the road in July.  The timing couldn't be better as our children will be finishing the current school year at the end of June then will both begin the next school year in September at their new schools.

Here's a (blurry) picture of our new home.  It's so sweet and full of character.  I can't wait to sit on that verandah with my tea.  Even in the rain, it will be a lovely spot to sit and think and survey the gardens :)

My dear parents are overjoyed as they have been temporarily "housesitting" in our new home waiting to begin the process of building their cottage.   Since our sale on Friday, they have submitted the papers and application forms for approval to be our own general contractor on the cottage build.   Once that's stamped and approved, we can then apply for a building permit.  All told, it will be several months until we can break ground on the cottage for my folks but they are happy to reside on site in their bus which has all conveniences ad comforts of a home (including power, water and septic hook up).

Meantime, back here in Alberta, the packed boxes are slowly stacking up and my mind is focussed on design plans for our new gardens and all the customized elements that will help us develop a thriving and diverse permaculture garden.  We'll be hitting the ground running as our first tasks are quite big:

- build a wood shelter and get a load delivered to kick start our stockpile

- buck, split and stack wood from cleared trees (in preparation for cottage build) until we have 3 or 4 cords built up

- do a complete design survey and sector analysis of the property and create accurate drawings to work from (which will include 10 months of observations done by my parents)

- start a worm farm and major compost operation

- build a small portable coop and acquire hens

- begin sheet mulching to convert grass into gardens for next year's planting

- create hugelkulture beds (to make use of brush cleared for cottage build)

- create a nursery area for plant starts/cuttings, etc

The list goes on...  but I'll stop there before I get overwhelmed.   Our aim is to maximize yield from the smallest footprint of development possible because we know that as we age, we won't want to be tending gardens spread far and wide on the whole three acres.   Sustainability in terms of labor to maintain our systems is very important so I'll be thinking hard about zones and easy access as I plan our future food supply.  Truly productive annual gardens are ones that are close and intimate enough to easily tend.   The spaces further out will be planted to species not needing as regular "tending" (berry canes, fruit trees, etc...).

The countdown is on so follow along with me as we continue our preparations to head out West!