31 March 2009

Turn your freezers into cold-frames

Ever since we ditched our fridge and freezer for food preservation, we have found some excellent uses for the well insulated and sealed boxes. See last December's post on our Freezer Incubator and Brooder, along with some other ideas. This spring, we are testing them out as cold frames for some early greens. The sealed lids are a bonus for this time of year, when the snow is blowing, we can seal them up out of the cold wind.
First we built a false-bottom, 7 inches from the top. We left 4 inches for soil and 3 inches for growing room. The soil will settle a bit, but we didn't want to put the plants too far below the lip otherwise they would get shaded out too much in the morning and afternoon. This one is intended for mesculn and spinach, so they don't have to get very tall before they are harvested.

We lined the false bottom with the ever useful feed-bags. It is semi-permeable, and will allow excess moisture to drain away. We are hoping that the insulated air cavity below the plants will act as a thermal sink, heating up in the daytime, and holding some heat over through the nights.

We put a layer of fresh horse-manure down first, like a hot-bed, to provide a bit of heat and some extra fertility when the roots reach that depth.

Then dressed the top with a layer of well composted goat and sheep manure and potting soil.

This size freezer allows space for three rows of greens, 9 row feet in total. We planted two rows of zesty mesculn mix and one row of mizuna mustard greens. We have too many flea beetles in the garden come spring to plant these kinds of mustards, their favorites it seems. Even with row covers, the flea beetles come up out of the soil underneath, and really give our brassicas a hard time. But there's no flea beetles out now! I am even beginning to think that I could use the freezers as brassica sanctuaries in May. We usually transplant our brassicas to the garden in mid-May, but the tender transplants are quite vulnerable to flea beetle damage. If the flea beetles come out of the ground and have nothing much to eat, then they won't breed as rapidly. So I may try transplanting the young brassicas into the freezers mid-May, and let them grow a bit stronger, and past the prime flea beetle season, and put them into the ground as bigger plants in early to mid June. Too much transplanting can put a lot of stress on the plants, but if it is less stress than the pest damage, it may work out in our favor.

Finally a few sheets of glass on top to complete the cold-frames. Under a clear sky, it easily got to 35C (100F), and the temp can be regulated by sliding the glass sheets to leave vents. The day after planting, we got a snowstorm (another foot of snow!), and simply put the freezer lids over the top. It was holding at 3C (35F) with the lid on.

27 March 2009

Harnessing the dogs

It was a glorious +8C (45F) and sunny yesterday. The snow is slowly melting, and then freezing over at night, which makes it pretty easy to get around on top of the snow. So we got outside and took a tour around, searching for signs of spring.

Grass is amazing stuff, it's started growing under the snow, on top of the compost piles which are just beginning to peak out. Our first sighting of bonafide dirt and vegetation since December!

This is as close as we get to flowers this time of year, last year's evening primrose pods. But they are beautiful in their own way.

The larch are beginning to show some of the bright spring green of new growth.

Still, the most beautiful feature of the landscape is the snow itself. We had some light snow and wind this week, and it left ripples in the snow like sand on a beach. The melting snow even felt like wet sand under our feet, we could close our eyes with the bright sun and reflecting snow in our faces and take a no-hassle, zero-impact and entirely free vacation.
This one reminds me of an Andy Goldsworthy sculpture.

And then I couldn't help myself, I had to see how far away the garden is, so we got out the shovel. In the lowest spot, we have less than 2 feet to go! And and there's double digits and rain in the forecast for tomorrow! (50F) The soil is only frozen in chunks, so the frost has already started to come out of the ground.

To prolong our beautiful day outside, we got the dogs out to pull the sleigh around. We made some harnesses for them, and have been training them to pull a light sleigh. Partly to teach them to work, as they are the right age, and partly because they have so much energy, they pull our arms out on our longer walks. It took them a few times in the harnesses, pulling the empty sleigh to get the idea of pulling, but once they got used to it, the were jogging along, tails up and dog-grins on their faces. Animals like to know their purpose.

We had to get them in the right order too. First we tried the alpha male in the lead, and the female, who is second in dominance, in the rear. But the alpha male kept turning around, in mid run, to nip at the other dogs, and the female, in the rear, was pulling most of the weight. So we switched them around, and our female, Ruby, is an excellent lead dog, she leaps into the harness to get the sleigh going when I call her. And the alpha male, Blackie, is an excellent rear dog because he has the strongest herding instincts of the three and loves to keep the others in front of him, nipping at their heels. Buster, the middle dog, is the good natured follower, and would follow either of them around.
And now they are ready to pull a load, we gave them a couple of logs to pull down to the house. With the surface of the snow still fairly hard, they could easily pull a load of about 100 lbs, 500 feet down the field. Harnessing the dogs this time of year has been good for them, it settles them down and gives them something to learn. Next winter we hope to have some second-hand cross country skis, and harness the dogs up for skijoring. Ruby and Buster will no doubt be thrilled at this, but it will take some training to keep Blackie out in front of us, and not in the rear, herding us home!

25 March 2009

Breaking open

The world is not ending.
I do not see an end,
I see that we have destroyed
our way of life, and our home
is changing, beyond prediction or recognition.
The only curse upon us
is that we must watch it collapse,
watch the life support systems fail.
I watched my mother die
not of cancer,
but of the treatment of cancer,
though the tumor would have overwhelmed her,
in it's own time.
In trying to save her, we subtracted,
until her organs, or what remained,
could not possibly perform all of the functions
her body required.
In the end, I believe,
she died of a loss of hope,
finding no other way to escape death,
with pain and kidney failure
snapping at her heels, she let go.
Maybe it was the graceful ending,
maybe we will all die of broken hopes.

One thing I regretted, after she died,
after the flowers faded and the memorials
were spoken, I found that I did not know
who she was, deep inside of herself,
this woman who birthed me into the world.
There were so many pages of her story
ripped out, kept private, never spoken
aloud. Before it was too late
I never asked, and she never told,
what, above all, did she desire for her life,
what, above all, did she regret?
From that clear-sighted precipice before death, still
we lacked the courage
to unburden the artifacts of her life's work,
and stitch the unfinished pieces together, the things that she learned,
the life that she lived and left
behind her, whatever the end result. Instead
we let it lie, sequestered in her body, we let it die
with her, locked and encoded in her blood.
Her story was a key I regret
not seeking.

Who will come
to our collective bedside, as the oceans like kidneys
collapse, and what remains of the forest lungs
succumb to disease and fire? Here too,
we have subtracted, to claim another day, another year.
What desperate and futile measures
will we attempt, sequestering the truth,
bioengineering the manipulated results of our industrial experiment,
to preserve ourselves, to salvage our way of life
for the few? Should we not
gracefully break upon the hard kernel
of our hopes, and let go of this earth
for ourselves? Is this not
the time to turn within, to dredge
our hearts, revive our spirits,
and confess to the next generation,
to those who will inherit the consequences
of our cumulative actions, our mistakes,
our deepest unfulfilled desires,
the simple truths we all knew as children,
but denied for fear, greed or fame?

Otherwise, what will remain
of another civilization fallen to ruins?
If we leave this part of the story untold,
will there be enough left behind,
scattered among abandoned artifacts
for the future generations of an unrecognizable
earth to pick up, rethread, and carry
forward the tapestry of our human inheritance?
Not what we accumulated,
but what we learned,
and how we loved.

by Freija Fritillary

21 March 2009


We celebrate the re-appearance of
small things:
fresh milk steaming in a pail,
a perfectly formed rose-brown egg
in the nesting box,
robins and dark-eyed juncos,
spring's first sunrise
clear and bright,
melting frost through the eastward
faces of the kitchen windows.
This is the direction
spring comes
stealing quietly over morning's
hard frozen snow,
leaving small gifts
on the doorstep of our waking,
promises, still tightly wrapped buds,
patiently bidding their time.

by Freija Fritillary

20 March 2009

Local resources

We were graciously gifted this week with some treasures, to us anyway, another's throw-aways. We have been looking for a stationary bike like this, to experiment with bicycle-power generation. There's countless uses for a sturdy stationary bike like this, grinding flour, threshing grain, spinning butter... But the way that we currently do these chores is pretty efficient, and the bike would not necessarily be a great improvement in these areas. The most valuable part of this bike is the heavy wheel, it acts like a flywheel once the bike is in motion, and would work great as a generator. So we are on the lookout for a 15amp alternator and regulator, like you would find in a ride-on lawn mower. Our solar panel generates enough power when the sun is out, but on cloudy days, we run a gas generator for 30 minutes to charge up the batteries. So the pedal-power generator could conceivably be used to supplement our solar panel, and eliminate the gas generator, and the monthly cost of the gas. Usually, on sunny days, we are outside doing plenty of physical labor, but on cloudy/rainy days and in the winter, 30 minutes on the stationary bike would be welcome. So we'll post more when we get some parts to play with...

And from another neighbor came a collection of Mother Earth News from 1977-81, the good juicy peak years before all the adds. So you can guess what I've been doing this week...

There's an article with Helen and Scott Nearing in each magazine...

And oddities like this steam powered bicycle.... hmmm, well we've got plans for a wind-powered electric bike....

And we've been brainstorming about a solar oven, for the summer months when the wood cookstove is unbearable... of course, there's dozens of designs that Mother Earth tested and trialed through the years. This one looks good, we are going to modify it a bit, but we definitely need something that will focus the light up here, we really only have strong sun and heat for a few weeks in late July, early August.

And of course there's piles of recipes and interesting tidbits, lots of solar heat collectors and solar hot water designs... It's the original blogosphere. But to be honest, I find a lot more relevant and useful tips, designs, news and stories on my favorite blogs. But we are grateful for the gifts.

16 March 2009

Out in the sun

Everyone got out in the sun today. We have had some gorgeous sunny days this week, but it's just hanging at the freezing point in the daytime, and darn cold at night, -15 to -20C, so the snow is still not melting, 3 feet to go. I get a bit antsy for the snow to melt this time of year. Drives Mr. Fritillary crazy. I even went so far as digging a hole in the snow over the garden last spring, and measuring how deep it was every time it melted a bit! Good thing the birds start to show up again in April, and keep me busy. I started identifying the birds last spring with my Peterson guide and a spyglass. A birding pirate at the kitchen window! Mr. Fritillary keeps himself busy writing (besides fetching wood and carrying water), working on some essays on Postmodern Agrarianism. Patience is the name of the game now, soon enough the busy growing season will sweep aside all other pursuits.

The goats and horse stick to the packed snow in front of the barn. Pilgrim tested the snow a week ago, but he can't go far. You can tell it is Pilgrim's usual hang-out, that's not dirt you see! It is a bit of a sun catch, out of the wind, and he likes the company of the goats.

Check out that bag! Pretty good balance too. :)
Juniper has absolutely no fear of Pilgrim, even though this is the first horse she has ever hung around. She treats him like a big goat, and walks right underneath him, Pilgrim is a gentle giant with the goats. Poor fella can't wait to have a proper roll and romp out in the pasture.

Even miss kitty found a warm spot out of the wind for a snooze. Up in the bay window where the seedlings will be moving, hopefully she is not troublesome, we may have to put up a little electric fence to keep her out. She is cute, but not very smart. Promptly after this picture, and the bit of attention it got her, she rolled over to strike another pose and fell off! Wish I got that picture, hanging by one paw to the wood. Giggle. She did the same thing off the front steps this morning, not the brightest button.

Even the bikes got some sun... Winter is hard on them too, salty roads and rusty chains and all.
Snow bank at the end of the driveway is still about 6 feet tall. Mr. Fritillary cuts some stairs into the bank for access.
Sorry I haven't gotten many pics of the kids up here, they don't stay still long enough for a decent shot! Only when they are drinking milk. We got them drinking out of the bucket this week. Not something they take to on their own, always preferring the nipple. We don't like to starve them into drinking out of the bucket, so we submerge the nipple into the milk and they drink through it like a straw. Once they get the idea that there's milk down there, they figure out the rest.

13 March 2009

Unfurling their leaves like banners

It's that time of year for us. The sun is high in the sky, and the season is upon us, even if there is still three feet of snow on the ground, and -20C last night! I love watching the seedlings elbow up out of the soil. It is such a hopeful time of year. It is especially gratifying as I do more of my own seed saving. I am really impressed with the germination rate of my tomato and tomatillo seeds, just about all of them started nosing up on the morning of the 6th day.

I've yet to successfully save my own brassica seeds. There's a cabbage in cold storage to put back in the ground this spring, and some Winterbor kale heavily mulched under the snow, and I am just plain determined to beat the frost this year for some broccoli seeds. The red cabbage on the right is seed from 2005, they are a bit reluctant to wake up, time for some new seed.
These are our own spinach and lettuce seeds, and they came rocketing out of the soil on the 3rd day after planting, some of them got a bit leggy, they grow so fast! We don't use any lights for seed starting, so they get germinated behind the wood stove, and the moved up into the bay window we built for the seedlings. But some of the lettuces got up so fast, and I was still trying to germinate the rest behind the stove. Nothing stops them from racing toward the light, lessons in determination and resilience.

09 March 2009

Every 3 Seconds

Well, among today's international radio news headlines, after the news of Japan's lowest stock market level since 1983, and China's skyrocketing unemployment rate, and the Canadian Auto worker's concessions to avoid bankruptcy at GM, Barbie's 50th birthday made it as international news. It's pretty dire out there, and I think most of us are re-evaluating our plans and household economies to pull through the next few years. We are more grateful than ever that we have the ability and opportunity to grow our food and keep the pantry stocked. With our minds and hearts usually swimming with reports on the spike of world poverty and hunger, we would not normally give Barbie more than a passing thought. But a statistic caught my attention With one Barbie(R) doll sold every 3 seconds somewhere in the world, Barbie(R) remains the world's most popular doll and a powerhouse brand among girls of all ages.

I found it sadly ironic that Barbie's sales match the rate at which a child dies of poverty in our world. One child receives a toy, and one child dies for want.

"Sometimes, it breaks your heart, but you realize your guilt is only futile since you see the tear stain on her face, not your own. You look at the image you've made, and it breaks your heart again. You know that nearly half of all kids in this country are malnourished and stunted, but you, yourself remain nicely cushioned around the bones. You come from a country where people worry about getting fat, not malnutrition. So you stay. You want to help. The guilt remains, even after more than a year in this country. But the guilt soon begins to blur with responsibility. And then responsibility begins to blur with action." -quote from the photographer Wen-Yan King

It does break your heart, it breaks ours. But I love what this photographer says, guilt blurs into responsibility, and responsibility blurs into action. We try to take this responsibility into our hearts, and make decisions about the way that we live that can, we believe, make the world a better place for children to be born.

As much as the "bad news" crowds for space in our minds, we also see much talk and action around Social Responsibility. There are a lot of people working on these issues, and we are reaching out to make connections with them. Our little homestead has been a necessary step along that path, because we believe it is the strongest base from which to act. We are trying to reach a scale of subsistence that buys us back our time and resources, so that we can contribute more to resolving the devastating, heartbreaking state of our world. This is our approach, and there are as many paths and solutions, as there are beating hearts.

Sorry about the sad blog. Keep hope alive. Plant seeds. Encourage friends. Grow.

04 March 2009

The golden egg

Eggs! Back on the menu! Our older layers quit mid-December, and our young flock would be ready to start laying eggs this spring. There are no other small farms around us who raise natural eggs, and instead of buying organic eggs from the grocery store, we figured we could go a few months without them. At first it challenged me in the baking department. Most of my dessert recipes call for at least one egg. But in my short life as a vegan, I ate plenty of delicious vegan cookies, so I knew it could be done. I tried my pumpkin cookie recipe without eggs, and they came out just fine, and I continued to experiment with substitutions like applesauce, and adding ingredients like poppy seed and dried blueberries, and spices such as corriander and cinnamon to give the desserts a more distinct flavor, and not just flour, sugar and fat. We missed eggs for breakfast, but oatmeal porridge is our favorite winter breakfast. After a few weeks, eggs were just a pleasant memory that we knew would reappear, like flowers and fresh greens. And the day finally came, two days in a row, an egg in the nesting box!

I cannot do justice to the flavor and savor of our fried egg breakfast this morning. The creamy texture of the yolk... yum, I love my eggs right on top of the toast.

The two hens that layed these eggs are 8 months old, we could have encouraged them to lay earlier with a light in the barn, but it is a cold time of year to start laying eggs, so we let them concentrate their feed on keeping warm and growing to full size, and knew that they would start laying when the light approaches 12 hours. There is another batch of hens just now 6 months old who should start laying eggs this month as well.

This picture was taken a few months ago, they are now grown to full size. This is our first home-incubated brood, we crossed a Plymouth Barred Rock rooster over the commercial laying hen, called Isa Brown, which is a cross between Rhode Island Red and Rhode Island White. They came out with four distinct coloring, some more attractive than others, and had the vigour of hybrid crosses.

This rooster shows the characteristics of both parents, and even has some iridescent green feathers in his tail like the Rhode Island Red. The hens that look like the Barred Rock are just that, and do not have the red and green feathers. And there is a kind of White Barred Rock hen, the one who layed the first egg, who, to be honest, is not the most attractive of the bunch and looks a bit sooty. But she is the biggest hen, and won the prize for the golden egg.

We have been feeding our chickens our own wheat and rye, without any other protein supplement. Last year we ran into problems feeding soy to our chickens, they had underdeveloped organs, and did not gain weight. After doing some research, we decided to cut the soy out of the feed. The wheat and rye are 13-14% protein, and the pullets are growing well. With this mix, we may not get an egg a day on a pure grain diet, but when they are out on pasture, the protein will be supplemented in a more digestible form. This summer we will also be growing more peas and amaranth to add to the winter ration.

So, with eggs and milk back on the menu, I am revisiting old favorite recipes with a greater appreciation. I am also glad to know first-hand that resource rich foods like dairy, eggs and meat can be incorporated as seasonal foods, with a bit of substitution and creativity in the kitchen.