Spring is just around the corner, March 20 to be exact. Here in our muddy valley, the first chores equinox of the year, which took place yesterday, is a sure harbinger of spring. Chores equinox happens twice a year; it is the first and last days that the evening chores, which must be done at dusk, are done after one sits down to dinner. I love both the spring and the fall chores equinoxes. This time of year, I look forward to all the long evenings I can spend outside after dinner. In the fall, I look forward to chores being the last outside job of the day, followed by dinner and a snug evening indoors. It felt a little strange walking out there with a full tummy last night, rather than an appetite!
In my experience, nothing beats a south-facing barn. On cold sunny winter days like today, with the snow blue and crunchy and the mud frozen into hard ridges underfoot, the morning sun rises at just the right angle to flood both stalls with sunshine right to the back wall. Lucky equines, to be snug and dry and munching breakfast while sunbathing.
In the summer the sun tracks much higher in the sky, and except in the very early morning the stalls, thanks to the roof’s overhang, are plunged into deep shade, a cool retreat from the heat of the day.
Our prevailing south westerlies and winter northerlies are well blocked by the barn’s design. In stormy weather, the big sliding barn doors may sway a bit in the wind, but they never slam open, or shut. The rain never blows inside the open stalls either. It’s the height of mud season right now, and except where our little desert flower donks have peed the stall floors remain dry as a bone. Resourceful and fastidious donks have set up their own temporary “indoor” pee spot, about 2 x 2 feet, which they use carefully and exclusively, so they can avoid putting even one dainty hoof on that horrible white stuff. They have a separate small spot where they deposit their manure. Good donks, this makes them easy to clean up after.
The loft stores upwards of 250 bales of hay and thanks to our new roof vent keeps it dry and mold-free year round – an impressive achievement in our wet west coast climate and a real money saver, since we can buy enough hay for the whole year at the peak of haying season and at its best price.
I don’t know if the builders were barn design experts, or if our barn’s functionality was just a happy accident, but either way, the almost fifty year old building still does its job beautifully. Over the past few years, it’s needed some restoration work, as well as a new roof, and it’s been money well spent and a job well done by our soon to be son-in-law. This morning, as I hung out enjoying the sunshine and listening to the equines contentedly munching their hay (such a peaceful sound), I once again quietly thanked whoever designed and built it. Form and function, this humble barn has it all.
With more than a foot of snow falling over the last couple days, getting around the barnyard has been a trial. Especially hauling full water buckets. RG came home today from a weekend at her boyfriend’s (it’s ok, covid safety is important to our family, he’s in her bubble) and promptly shoveled all the hundreds of feet of trails I had stomped through the drifts while doing chores, right down to bare ground. She also texted me a few times as she worked, to warn of particularly slippery areas. ❤️
DH cleared the whole driveway, multiple times. And worked on our road along with the other neighbourhood guys and their tractors. A narrow lane really, that dead ends not far past our place, the municipal plows don’t exactly prioritize it. He also carefully filled the back of my truck with snow, packed and levelled for safety, in case I need to go anywhere. We have a fairly large parking area and drive, his snowbanks are now taller than his tractor. ❤️
Chores were so much easier this morning, even though I had some fence repair to do. George had once again knocked down the electric line between him and the donks, in a fit of pique about the weather I’m sure. I can tell it was him and not the donks because a) he is the one with the temper; and b) the donkeys have not set foot outside their stall since the ground turned white. I had to move their water inside, when I realized about twelve hours in (!) they had not gone for a drink since it started. The chickens don’t like it either. All the barnyard crew are getting fed up with this white stuff, they tell me so every time I go out to see them. Except the ducks who love to eat it, puddle around in it, and turn it into a soggy poopy mess, much like they do bare ground.
I am getting fed up with it too. I don’t know how my prairie relatives manage their version of our Canadian winter. Better than us west coasters handle this snow I’m sure…
Oh the rain we had yesterday! Our little workhorse of a creek swelled up enormously as she digested her floodwater meal, gulping down every bit of it with her usual aplomb.
My neighbour up on the hill to the NW of us checked in at one point, reporting waterfalls gushing down from the heights above, down to form a “new” pond at the bottom of their place and then across the road and into the valley bottom along which our little Goward Spring Creek runs.
We were watching our creek carefully, as is prudent for those of us who live beside any waterway in stormy weather. As her crest passed around five pm, we still enjoyed a clear foot of space below our permanent bridges, phew! Again I quietly thanked those who put our house where they did, mere inches from the water’s edge and yet safe and dry for many years now.
Fingers crossed our luck holds. Last January we had 262 mm, the highest monthly total in more than ten years but still well off the hundred year high of 358 mm set in January 1953. Our place was built in 1972, so who knows what will happen if another hundred year record breaker comes along. Hopefully we won’t find out!
Our big side-yard hawthorn (Crataegus Oxycantha), British expat and lovable invasive species, has finally succumbed. She had been visibly failing since October and probably long before. Her capitulation was precipitated by the heavy snow load Mother Nature delivered yesterday on the first day of winter.
Always a pleasant neighbour, Ms. Hawthorn graced our side yard for many years. She made herself useful, as both trees and the British tend to do.
Each May saw her don her trademark white-tinged-with-pink floral dress for ten days or so, before flinging it off all at once as the weather warmed. We always enjoyed the resulting petal-storm, so much gentler than yesterday’s frigid blast.
She was a steadfast summer helpmeet too, her hundreds of thousands of tiny shiny serrated leaves collaborating to shield us from the hot sun, as she dabbled her toes in the cool creek, rejuvinating her green frock. In this shady role Ms. Hawthorn silently chaperoned dear C’s graduation celebration, dear K’s wedding shower, and many teen parties and get-togethers over the years.
Every September she produced bountiful shiny clusters of the reddest of red berries, edible, but not very palatable, admired by passers by and relied upon by our local wild bird population.
Her roots must have been imperceptibly loosening as the fall rains softened the bank she stood on because she began to tip over into the yard, managing a full forty five degrees from her traditional upright stance before we noticed that she was losing her grip and moved the hammock out of the way.
We decided to keep clear and let her come down on her own, for safety, worried that if we began sawing, the release of the strain she was under would snap us straight to kingdom come. I expected her to collapse within days of our discovery, but she doggedly hung on, long past Halloween, right through November and a series of heavy deluges, and indeed almost through December, until yesterday.
Presciently, I had taken a quick photo of her as I slogged by on my way back from the barnyard and the lunchtime feed. She was heavy with wet snow as was our whole valley. I had divested myself of my sopping snowy outerwear, poured myself a bowl of hot soup and settled down at my desk to read email when a text came in from Resident Gardener, “that hawthorn broke”.
“Just now?” I asked.
“The one we thought would come down soon” she continued, our conversation following the usual frustratingly disjointed cadence of my texting sessions.
“Ya heard it crack when I was outside just now” RG then observed.
By now I had made it to the bathroom window where I could indeed see that my dear Ms. Hawthorn was no longer peeking over the shop roof, and the adjoining trees’ branches still wobbling with the shock of it all.
“Wow” I excitedly exclaimed to RG, having by then switched over to a voice call. “I just took a picture of her! Should have stood there and waited I guess.”
I ran downstairs and outside, slid into my boots and made my way carefully down the slushy path past the shop until I could see her in all her recumbent glory. I took another quick shot or two, then retreated back into the house and my warm office.
The end of a lovely tree, another casualty of 2020. RIP Ms. Hawthorne. I take solace from the fact that we can look forward to your many inevitable heirs sprouting in your place. May they grow as tall and as buxom and as indefatigably as you grew, until 2020’s latest weather bomb got the best of you.
As a havoc-filled 2020 continues to unfold in all its dismal glory, I am, like everyone else I suppose, doing my best to keep calm and carry on. Pandemic and lockdowns, a crazy president refusing to admit he lost, climate change breathing down our necks, ridiculous conspiracy theories deluding millions. 2020 will surely be a year for the history books, and we’ll all be able to say “yep, I was there…” and have a story or two to tell, hopefully stories where everything turns out ok.
I find that keeping busy helps, and so I do, falling asleep each night planning projects and spending my weekends accomplishing them. There’s work too, to fill my days, and chores, and once or twice a week there’s errands off the farm. It’s thankfully easy to keep busy around our muddy valley.
Yesterday after some deep coop cleaning in the barnyard, I finished tucking in the garlic bed for winter with a thick blanket of leaves; going forward I will focus on raking leaves for chicken pens. I wish the leaves would dry up a bit, the birds enjoy scratching through dry, crackly leaves so much more than damp ones. But it is November after all, so I’m not holding my breath.
November as usual has been cold, and wet, and dark, and yet I love it so much. One of my favourite months, November provides plentiful opportunities for savouring the chill alongside warmth’s sweet contrast; for labouring in the crisp air until I must peel off first one layer and then another to cool myself; for long quiet evenings in front of a crackling fire, listening to the rain tapping on the skylight. One dusky, slightly surreal day last week, heavy clouds dimmed the light so dramatically from sunrise right through to sunset that it felt like a day long eclipse. There’s just so much potential for cozy in November.
November was my mother’s least favourite month. A prairie girl born and bred, she much preferred the sunny winters of her youth. Our rain forest weather was hard on her at times, although she loved living on the coast. Mom’s been gone for many Novembers now, nine to be exact, but of course I think of her often. Like the other day, as I was traversing the soggy, slippery northeast field dragging my empty wheelbarrow pony-cart style, having just spread another load of leaves on the garlic beds.
There was this perfect little puddle, you see. Not a run-of-the-mill mud puddle, rimed with muck and no bottom visible, this was one of those short lived mudless puddles that briefly appear in low spots after a heavy rain. A crystal clear miniature watery valley, a freshwater tidal pool, each blade of grass and bit of colourful leaf litter suspended as if in glass; silent, peaceful, still. It looked to be just perfect for stomping in, so I gave in to my childish impulse. Dropping the wheelbarrow handles, I went all in, swishing the water over the toes of my boots, rinsing a layer of mud away and stirring up the depths into a most satisfactory squishy, muddy stew. Take that, 2020! And then my inner voice spoke up, “For goodness’ sake you silly old woman, you’re almost 59! What are you doing?”
Stomping in puddles is what I was doing, like a little kid. What an idiot I am at times. As shamefulness began to creep over me on its sharp little claws, a stray thought came too, a gift from my mom that made everything ok again. The memory of her advice, given in the toast she made at my 21st birthday party, “Value your inner child, don’t ever grow all the way up. Hold on to her magic because you will need her sometimes.” Yes mama, I will. I do. Love you. Thank you.
I smiled with satisfaction at the rain’s soft pattering on skylight. Right on schedule. How sweet of Mother Nature to water in the thousand cloves of garlic I had just spent most of the morning sowing, one pointy clove at a time.
We always plant lots of garlic, it’s so easy to grow it’s almost ridiculous, and we use it all up every year so why not? This year though, we have increased our garlic patch by about 50%. Planting against an uncertain future increases my sense of control.
Our 2020 crop was so good that we had plenty of really stellar heads to choose our seed from. Plus lots to supply all our four households, and to share. Organic local garlic goes for five bucks a head around here, making last years’ crop worth a cool $3,140. My seed garlic would have cost me $750, if I’d had to pay for it. Not bad. In fact, with its minimal effort and cost inputs, garlic is by far our most lucrative crop.
Growing garlic is one of the few farm activities all our residents play roles in, which is nice too. Even Dear Husband, a tinkerer not a farmer who prefers to spend his hobby time on taking apart and putting together vehicles, or computers, or various other items with moving parts, does his bit. I know he likes to be a part of the garlic effort.
He tinkers with the tractor, gets the rototiller attached, his pocketful of shear bolts ready (those critically important sacrificial bits of steel that snap instead of the rototiller tines when he unearths rocks), his fluids topped up and lube points lubed. Resident Gardener and I (with opinions from avid non-gardener DH 😉) finalize the spot. Where to plant the garlic this year is always a topic of much serious discussion and pondering for several weeks prior to plowing day. To avoid disease, garlic needs to be planted on fresh ground on a minimum three year rotation. There needs to be not too much, and not too little, moisture; we save our limited irrigating for the veggie gardens. We need enough sun too. Luckily we have the space for options. Our muddy valley bottom is also blessed with a couple-foot thick layer of dark loam above clay, above bedrock ten feet down. Drainage can be an issue, but fertility is great.
This year we settled on the north east field. It’s the first time this corner of the place has been used for anything but grazing in more than 20 years, if ever. It pleases me that we are bringing a fallow area of our little hobby farm into active production; we didn’t even get the equines on it this year. RG cut the long grass, marked four corners with bamboo stakes topped with (recycled) pink plastic strips, and then DH climbed on the tractor, where he spent the next few hours coaxing his rototiller through virgin pasture, keeping a sharp lookout for rocks. His rototiller (and about seven shear bolts) discovered less than a wheelbarrow load of potato-sized beauties in the whole 1500 foot square patch.
A few days later, It was RG’s turn to climb on the tractor so she could bring many loader scoops of well rotted chicken/horse/donkey manure compost blend over. She spread the compost and raked the patch into four rectangular raised beds at least a foot deep, with nice wide paths between.
And yesterday, with all the hard work done, it was my turn to majestically stride out there, give the beds a quick surface rake to level them, and plant my garlic. It’s great sometimes, being the matriarch.
I prised open all 150 tight heads, separating each clove, a task that had my fingernails aching by the end. Anyone who has hand peeled garlic for dinner can imagine what I’m talking about here. After years of planting garlic, I have learned to do this job all at once at the start, sitting comfortably rather than bent over in planting position.
I count the cloves I plant for record keeping, and I always have trouble with this deceptively simple task. Planting garlic is a contemplative activity for me, as explained in previous posts, therefore I often lose track of my numbers and have to start over. So for a change this year, I counted each clove as it went into my yellow planting bucket rather than as it went into the ground. It was easier to keep track of them going into the bucket for sure. Then I was free to let my mind wander, and by the time the bucket was empty, another 300 cloves had been planted. Problem solved.
Our last task before winter will be to bury the garlic beds in their thick leaf blankets, but we must work with the trees’ schedule on that one. Not many leaves have even turned colour yet, much less fallen. It’s been a slow fall so far in 2020. How apropos.
Spaghetti, butter chicken, tacos, tomato soup, salsa, meatloaf, chicken paprikash, mulligatawny, hamburgers, curry, chili, beef stew. It makes sense for us to grow tomatoes, because we use them in so many dishes. Resident Gardener starts them from seed, usually saved or traded, in January each year. This means they are easy on the budget too.
Since the sixteen century when the Spanish brought tomatoes home to Europe from South America, their use has spread around the world like…well, like an indeterminate tomato plant. You know…the ones that just grow, and grow, and grow.
Our gold nugget cherry tomatoes always ripen first, in July usually, and by late August we are buried in tomatoes of all colours, shapes and sizes.
Heavenly. There is nothing better, in my view, than a still-warm-from-the-sun Italian Stallion tomato, sprinkled with pepper and eaten out of hand…buttery, umami, nirvana.
By the time September rolls around I’m preserving tomatoes like crazy. RG picks them a couple times a week, taking everything from fully ripe to just starting to pink up. I finish the half ripe ones in the house. Tomato harvesting is a race against the weather in our damp climate, and in this way we maximize our harvest. Once picked and brought in, which can be done as soon as they “break” (10-30% of the surface turns pink) I set them along the window ledges so I can easily see when they turn red.
In another month or so, when we pull the plants, hopefully just ahead of the blight that shows up each fall, I’ll fill paper grocery bags with mature green unblemished fruit and then check for pink ones every few days as they ripen slowly in the bag. Some years we are eating homegrown tomatoes almost until Christmas. I know some folks make green tomato salsa, and pie, and chutney, and I admire their innovation, but I like them red. Or golden or black or chocolate…depending on the variety.
I process our ripe tomatoes in various ways, with my goal being to enjoy them in all the dishes mentioned above, all winter long. I used up my last bag of frozen 2019 tomatoes in June this year. Perfect timing.
Every year I roast tomatoes with olive oil and garlic, bag and freeze. The flavour is incredible, but sometimes I forget they are in the oven which never ends well. Or I make ketchup and can it. The easiest method is to simply de-stem, rinse, bag, and freeze. This has been my preference for years; it’s so simple. I add them straight out of the freezer to whatever I’m cooking that needs tomatoes. On the rare occasion when I want to get all fancy and remove the skins, I hold them still frozen under warm running water, squeeze slightly, and the skins slide right off. The single drawback to freezing tomatoes is that they take up a lot of room. And freezer space is hard to come by around here in the fall, even with our big upright freezer, RG’s small chest freezer, and three fridges going.
A couple weeks ago I saw a discussion about drying tomatoes on one of my preserving groups. Some people dry just the skins, left over from canning tomatoes. Others dry the whole fruit. “Oooooh boy”, I started thinking, “if I could get the tomatoes out of the freezer, maybe I will have room for some local lamb!”
I had several pounds of ripe ones in the fridge, so I sliced them a quarter inch thick, the cherry toms into halves or thirds, then onto trays and into the dehydrator they went, for about eighteen hours at 135 F. I suppose you could do them in your oven. But my friend says tomatoes don’t go well in her little Nesco dryer…so be warned.
Once they snapped when I bent them, I unplugged the dryer, piled them all into the blender together and zipped them into powder in about thirty seconds flat. 25 cups of tomatoes, eight 15×15 inch trays full, almost fourteen square feet of tomato slices, dried down into about 600 ml of super concentrated tomato powder.
So far, I have mixed my tomato powder with water (two tablespoons) to make an almost-too-rich tomato paste for spaghetti sauce and sprinkled it sparingly (two teaspoons!) into homemade veggie barley soup where it both added a tomatoey tang and reddened the broth. The flavour is intense. I can already tell I will need to be careful to not use too much. Best of all, it stores in glass jars in a dark cupboard where it takes up very little space. I added a silicone crystal sachet to the jar too, to keep it from clumping.
I will still roast, and freeze, a few tomatoes. But most of them are going in the dehydrator this year. And now to find me a nice box of lamb…
It’s that time of year again, broodies sitting on eggs or raising babies all over the barnyard, with varying degrees of success. Lots of my Marans are broody this year, which is a bit strange. In all the time I’ve kept this breed I’ve only ever had one or two wanna-be mommas. My sister has a Marans broody from my lines, and it appears that now I do too. Except I seem to have seven or eight. Luckily they have mostly been doing a good job, especially for first time moms.
The latest one hatched a surprise Wyandotte x Marans chick last week. It was a surprise because I thought I had put a couple infertile eating eggs under her, to give me time to gather fertile ones and then hatch chicks in the incubator for her to raise. Or at least I thought they were infertile.I also didn’t realize the placeholder eggs had been under her for quite as long as they had, until one morning I walked into the barn to hear peeping coming from her nest box. Uh oh, we’d had a little accidental hatch, and well ahead of the incubator hatch too. Damn, now I couldn’t give her any extras, her singleton would be a week old when the next group hatched. I would have to do the work of raising that batch myself.
In retrospect, I am glad I didn’t give this Marans any more responsibility than she already had because she turned out to be not particularly interested in mothering. I moved her and the chick out of the nest box into clean quarters, as I do after every hatch, putting them in a large brooder with some two week olds and a heat lamp. After making sure momma was fine with the two week olds, I left them to their own devices.
Over the next few days, little singleton settled right in, playing with the big kids then running under momma’s skirts every time he needed a warm-up. But momma wasn’t happy. She just kept pacing the fence line, all day long. She totally ignored the older chicks, and kind of ignored her singleton. He really had to yell to get her to stay still long enough for him to warm up.
I thought momma might be happier back home, and thus do a better job with her baby, plus I knew from past experience that her baby would be safe with the mostly calm, laid back Marans and olive eggers, so I took them home to her flock, and then carried on with my day.
But at dusk when I went to lock up, what do you think I discovered?Had indifferent momma made a nest in the fluffy thick shavings I laid down in her preferred corner for that purpose? Was she snuggled in for the night with her baby? No. Of course not. She had hopped up high on a roost, leaving her baby behind on the floor, where he was stomping around peeping pitifully for her to ‘get down here!’
Now the logical next step would have been to take momma and baby out of the Marans coop and put them in a small private brooder, with no roost. And honestly I did think of that first. But when I looked up at the rows of black chickens, preparing to scoop her up, I realized I couldn’t tell which one was momma. And she sure wasn’t talking – none of the 20 black hens looking back at me showed even the slightest interest in the complaining baby below.
So what could I do? I scooped baby up instead and walked him back to where he had come from. He would just have to bunk in with the older chicks, in the only brooder with a heat lamp.
It has been a few days now, and things are going great for little singleton. His bunkmates all snuggle together to sleep, and he just worms himself right into the middle of the pile where I can’t even see him. The heat lamp is only on at night, but he seems to have no problem making it through the day with no momma to warm up under. It helps that it is summer, and that the brooder coop is snug and dry, he can always get in out of the wind. The little guy is actually thriving!He even has a “bird of a feather” to flock together with, another little black chick who is much bigger than him now, but not for long.
I am pretty impressed with this little guy’s resilience, it’s a talent we could all use lots of in these most eventful days. I hope that I will prove to be as strong and resourceful as my little singleton. It’s sure worth a try anyhow, just look at him go!
Happy Canada Day everyone. And as our most wonderful Dr Henry says…Be kind. Be calm. Be safe. ❤️🇨🇦❤️
Google may have cancelled April Fools’ Day, but my silly husband didn’t get the memo. After forty years of him savouring every April 1st, I should have known I could count on him to coax a giggle or two out of me, even in the midst of a pandemic. I can’t remember most of the tricks he’s played over the years, although the one where he duct taped the kids’ bedroom doors shut is hard to forget. I think it was all the scraping and trim repainting required after three kids howling with laughter ripped duct tape from their doors. Or the niggling thought that perhaps partially disabling their exits for a night might have been not quite super safe. But all’s well that ends well and we got a precious family memory out of it too.
This morning when I got up and headed to the kitchen to make coffee, I couldn’t find the kettle. As usual, it took a while for the penny to drop. Ohhhhhh, April 1st.
I finally located it, camouflaged by the cozy we use to keep the bodum hot. I smiled, thinking “of course he couldn’t resist” and feeling relieved that he had been gentle with his trick this year, and I had figured it out so easily. I should have known better.
When the kettle boiled I opened the drawer to grab the coffee, and discovered that, as usual, he wasn’t quite done with pulling my leg. My morning scavenger hunt ended, as so many hunts do, right back where I started. How did he know that when I saw his first note, I’d head off on that wild goose chase, rather than opening the drawer to its full extent to find the coffee canister hiding at the very back? By the time I had the coffee brewing I was giggling hard.
And how did he know that I would next grab my phone, to take some shots so I could share? It took a little bit to get my phone out of the case it sat in backwards, so I could use it. “I wonder if he’s done yet?” I thought. Again as usual, I will spend the rest of the morning warily living my usual routine, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Well, I did marry him because he made me laugh. And forty years later, I’m still chuckling. ❤️ Happy April Fool’s everyone!