Friday, February 22, 2013

Foto Friday: New day

I have always been delighted at the prospect of a new day, 
a fresh try, one more start, 
with perhaps a bit of magic waiting somewhere behind the morning. 
~ J. B. Priestly

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Between two worlds

I've come to dread mornings. It's not that I mind getting out of bed per se, though on days when the wood stove has almost gone out and I'm snuggled under a pile of wool blankets it can be hard, but it's getting the kids up, fed and out the door for school that makes me want to lose my mind. Especially since I know I get to do it all again the next day. And the next.

I know the value of routine and giving kids lots of time in the morning (especially if they're dawdlers like mine) but no matter how early we get up, or how many lists I write, and how much warning and prodding and eventually hollering I do, there is almost always a last minute scramble followed by running down the driveway for the bus. The routine seems to deteriorate as the week progresses: on most Monday mornings the kids are ready to go a full 20 minutes before the bus arrives, and they're rewarded with time to read, draw, listen to music -- whatever. But by Wednesday, my carefully crafted routine has fallen apart and once again I'm yelling and they're scrambling and usually one, if not all, of us ends up in tears.

Sometimes I wonder if my expectations are too high because as soon as I ask them to do more than the basics -- eat their breakfast, brush their hair and teeth, and wash their face (they pack lunches the night before) -- there is a cacophony of whining, talkback, attitudes, and sometimes even temper tantrums. I admit to not always being consistent with them -- sometimes I make hot breakfast as a treat, other times it's up to them (usually when I'm making something else, like today it was homemade granola for tomorrow's breakfast) and while we need to bring in wood every day, I don't always make them do a load, and as Ella forgot to wash eggs last night I asked her to wash all eight of them this morning (which she proceeded to do in a sink full of her yet-to-be-washed breakfast dishes… ugh) and that evidently takes a ridiculous amount of time and before I know it Jack is still in the woodshed, Ella has yet to have her hair braided and the bus is at the end of the driveway. (We're lucky in that the bus passes our farm twice, but the kids always want to get on the first pass so they have extra time with their friends.) They's only missed the bus a handful of times in 4-1/2 years, but too many times the kids have left their "other" responsibilities (the abovementioned dishes, wood, etc.) and I'm left to clean up the mess.

I know my reaction doesn't help -- the more they drag their feet, the more impatient I become and the more my tone starts to rise. Before I know it I'm cajoling and prodding and hollering again, because I'm just asking them to pull their weight and is that really too much to ask? You always hear that the country is a great place to raise kids because it teaches them responsibility, but in our case it seems to be teaching them how to push mum's buttons until she explodes. (And yes, I'm being somewhat disingenuous here.)

As I've always been home, they're used to mum being there and picking up the slack when they don't get things done (like their laundry or dishes or taking out the recycling), but I have other jobs beside being a mother, like working to pay the mortgage.

And while I believe that mothering is my most important job, I often feel caught between two worlds (and I know I'm not alone), especially now that the kids are getting older (Ella is eight, Jack turns 11 tomorrow). I believe that to become functioning and contributing human beings they need to learn the value of work, responsibility and seeing tasks to completion, but against that, I want them to have as much time to just be kids. They're only young once, and before I know it they'll be off to school and I'll have just myself (and the barn animals) to look after.

Growing up my mum was always home and while that provided security when I was younger, it became stifling as I grew older, especially as she fell deeper into her alcoholism. She had no real life of her own, beyond my father's and mine, and as I grew from a pre-teen into a teen, and tried to find my own way in the world, she stewed in her codependency and inability to take an active interest in her own life, instead sinking hooks into mine. I know this made her deeply unhappy and this, in turn, fueled her drinking and her rages against my dad and me, but as much as I committed then to always be there for my kids, I never wanted to lose myself like she did.

And therein lies a seemingly impossible conundrum: always being there for your kids without losing oneself. I know that parenting is like reaching for an ever moving target and the kids and I are always changing, but too often I seem stuck in the middle between two opposing armies -- one side doing too much and the other not enough, for them and myself.

I want to model that women can be strong and independent and have lives that are theirs alone (while teaching them the value of real food and "simpler living" in our materialist world), but I've also committed in my heart to home-cooked meals and family sit-down dinners, help with homework and baked after-school snacks, bedtime stories and pre-dawn snuggles. Can I do all that and still retain some sense of me? I don't know yet but on mornings like this it feels like neither side wins.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013


Around this time two years ago I placed an order for several fruit trees with the Green Barn Nursery in Notre-Dame-de-l'Île-Perrot, Que. after hearing owner Ken Taylor speak at EcoFarm Day 2011.

I situated the orchard near the beehives to encourage cross-pollination. Unfortunately, before the bees could work their magic, a pack of marauding (or perhaps just hungry) deer chewed back all the new foliage on the young trees.

Last spring I installed what I lovingly call my redneck deer fencing, made cheaply with t-bars, chicken wire, baling twine and old CDs. Ugly but effective it keeps the deer away, and out of 10 trees planted and then mauled, nine recovered (one of the heartnuts is still under observation) and the mulberries even produced a wee harvest of juicy red fruits.

But the trees will take several years to yield any sizable harvest, and while the orchard is an important step towards self sufficiency, I want to diversify (and increase) fruit production on the farm. So this year I'm planting berries (and a few grapevines).

As the focus of the Green Barn Nursery is on cold hardy and disease-resistant plants and trees (you can source peaches, paw paws, kiwis and seedless grapes from these folks!) and they've done much of their extensive field testing in the same planting zone as the farm (zone 5a) I'm fairly confident that the cold weather won't kill off these plants. (However, I can't speak for the groundhog/deer/rose chafers that have been plaguing me for the last few years!)

It's been hard (really hard) to narrow down my choices because there are so many possibilities (currants and haskaps and seaberries, oh my!), but I'm trying to keep my workload manageable while getting a good cross-section of species established. I'm also trying to balance the initial upfront cost of the plantings against the eventual savings at the grocery store, both in dollars and food miles.

So in no particular order, here's this year's fruit order (with comments about the variety from the nursery):
Polar green seedless grape (2): "Our best and sweetest green table grape for northern climates. Mid-season".
Redliance seedless grape (2): "A mid-season variety that produces large pink seedless grapes that have excellent flavour. Good for eating fresh for for making juice or jellies Stores well."

Purple raspberries (Royalty, 25): "Late season purple raspberry with very large and firm fruit. Non-suckering."

Elderberry (2): "These disease and pest resistant plants are easy to grow. They tolerate wet areas and will form a berry thicket. In the spring an elderberry's magnificent flowers are edible. Its berries have a very high vitamin C content and are great to eat or make into wine, jams or pies."

Strawberries (Clés des Champs, 25): "A mid-season hardy variety that produces a good sized berry that is very firm and keeps very well. These shiny red berries have a very delightful taste and are a favourite for small market production."

Goji berries (4, for my dad): "Native to Tibet, this ‘superfood’ can grow in almost any soil type even depleted soils as long as it is well drained. The oblong bright orange-red fruit is most commonly dried, tasting like tart raisins but they can also be eaten raw or cooked."

While I'm excited to harvest the fruits from these plantings, taste isn't my only motive. Sure, I'm reducing our reliance on bought sources of food, especially berries, which can be cost prohibitive (though we love our local berry farm where the kids and I go to get strawberries for our annual jam making), but I'm also making an investment in this farm and my place in it.

While annuals, such as vegetables, grow and die in one season, it's going to take a lot of work for me to get these properly established this year (especially if faced with similar drought conditions as last), and I won't get to reap the benefits of this work for a full 12 months. It takes a certain faith to put the work in now for an uncertain reward in the future. Over the past year, since recognizing my tendency to get in over my head, I've taken to living within my safe little box, doing things only when I know they'll work out. But it can be horribly claustrophobic in there. And I think fresh berries are a good reason to climb out of my box, don't you?

All images courtesy of Green Barn Nursery (

Monday, February 18, 2013

Madcap Monday: You know it's cold when...

... an egg freezes in the coop!

 Ed note: No chickens were harmed in the making of this blog post.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

a bucket o' goats!

Friday, February 15, 2013

seeds of the future (aka 2013 garden plan)

I finally got a nagging to-do off my list: I finished this year's garden plan. I'm sourcing most of my seeds from The Cottage Gardener, the same Newtonville, Ont.-based  heirloom seedhouse and nursery that I've used for the last four growing seasons. I still need to check my seed stash (here's a useful primer on checking seed viability), double-check my quantities (I often run short on some seeds, like lettuce and spinach, and have too many of others (how many zukes does a girl really need?)) and triple-check my budget, but now that I've made my choices, weighing productivity vs. hardiness vs. disease-resistance, and of course taste, I feel like I can relax a bit on the garden planning front -- for another week or so.

(And then I start to think about how messy I left the kitchen garden last year and how long it's going to take to get it prepped for spring planting, and how I want to build six raised beds despite the absence of any real carpentry skills, and that's on top of getting the greenhouse finally finished, and cleaning out the barn,  then there's the herb garden that I want to put in where we took out the above-ground pool and I start to hyperventilate a little and my one measly check on my to do list doesn't seem so significant at all!)

Still, I love ordering seeds. Besides being beautiful in their own right, each one offers the promise of future garden goodness, and each packet brings us another step towards food security, which seems more pressing each day as grocery store prices continue to climb. As Vandana Shiva, activist founder of the revolutionary Indian seed-saving organization Navdanya so eloquently says,"seeds are our mother."

For you seed nerds out there, here's my 2013 seed starting/planting lineup (so far):

Beans: Contender (bush), Kentucky Wonder (pole); Roc d'or Bean (wax)
Beets: Specialty beet mix with Golden Detroit, Chioggia, Bull's Blood and Cylindra
Broccoli: De Ciccio
Carrot: Danvers 126, Chanteray Red Cored
Cukes: Longfellow, National Pickling
Lettuce: Black Seeded Simpson, Red Oak, Parris Island Cos, plus a mesclun mix with Arugula, Russian Red Kale, Osaka Purple mustard green, Tatsoi mustard green,  Red Salad Bowl lettuce and Persian Cress. I wanted to get Drunken Woman Frizzy Headed Lettuce but it was sold out. Go figure.
Kale: Dwarf Blue Curled Scotch Kale
Leeks: Giant Musselburgh
Onions: Evergreen bunching, Sturon sets
Peas: Sugar snap peas, Green Arrow
Pepper: Quadrato d'Asti Giallo Sweet Pepper (yellow), Quadrato d'Asti Rosso Sweet Pepper (red), Early Jalepeno (hot)
Pumpkin: Connecticut Field, Small Sugar
Radish: Bouquet radish mix (with Pink Beauty, White Beauty and Plum Purple), Sparkler white tip
Spinach: Longstanding Bloomsdale
Summer squash: Black Beauty, Yellow bush scallop (aka Patty Pan)
Winter squash: Burgess Buttercup, Table Queen Bush Acorn Squash, Waltham Butternut
Tomatoes: Miel du Mexique, Martino's Roma, Box Car Willie (I'm only starting three varieties as I'm quite certain my dad will pick up some at his local farmer's market)

While order seeds certainly is fun, this garden dreaming has got me itching to get back out in the dirt. Who's with me?

P.S. If you're still putting together your seed/plant list, I urge you to check out this home-garden variety vegetable varieties list to ensure that you don't inadvertently support the evil Monsanto empire.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

love cards

Over dinner last night Ella told me that all of the kids at school get stuff for Valentine's Day -- chocolates, toys, cards and the like. I hear this a lot -- whether it's at Christmas, Easter, St. Patrick's Day, birthdays, whenever -- friends at school invariably get lots of stuff. (One friend even got a trampoline for Easter. When I was a kid I got a chocolate bunny.)

Every time these conversations come up I feel my hackles (if I had hackles) rising. I mean, stuff is one of the problems with society. Our love affair with stuff is at the root of many environmental and social issues. (Instead of listening to me rant about this, check out "The Story of Stuff".)

But bringing it back to the dining room table, I gently tried to reaffirm to the kids (without sounding like a total grouch) why I'm encouraging we stop coveting stuff: because we're watching our spending, because stuff invariably ends up at the thrift store or landfill, and days like Valentine's Day, or Mother's Day, or any Day that has its own Hallmark card, have largely evolved into a marketing scheme that encourages people to spend money on stuff to show others how much they love them. And instead of taking one day of the year to show our appreciation fr each other, why can't every day be Valentine's Day or Father's Day? (This isn't a veiled excuse to eat more chocolate, even if I had a big sweet tooth, which I don't.)
The kids have been getting this speech for years and they seem to get it (Jack even said to me several times this past December that although it was a small Christmas, it was an awesome Christmas) and I tell them how much I honestly understand that it's hard to be "different" from other families. So far, at ages 8 and almost 11, there hasn't been much of a backlash (though I'm bracing for it).

But we find other ways to mark these special days, often with homemade treats and some sort of crafting. Jack no longer makes Valentine's Day mailboxes with his class (that's grade five for you) and he said there wasn't an in-class party or anything this year. However, he could have bought a $2 carnation for that special someone. He wanted absolutely no part of that. None. Nada. I think he was a bit mortified by the idea.

But Ella still loves to craft Valentines for her friends. So last night, while Jack practiced his skateboarding in the garage, we made simple paper heart flowers and attached them to colourful postcards.

While I know most kids at school with be exchanging store-bought cards (no judgement there -- just stating a fact), I love our annual card-making ritual. Each year the cards get a bit more fancy, the cutting is a bit more precise and there's more glue on the cards than on the table. She hasn't yet been teased for her homemade creations and I hope when that time comes she can find the strength to follow her heart. Especially on Valentine's Day when love for oneself should trump love for more stuff.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013


You know that awkward feeling when you pick up the phone to call a friend who you've meant to call about a dozen times but every time you do something gets in the way or you get distracted or you don't really feel much like talking anyway and so months and months pass but  you know that it's too important to put the phone call off yet again, and you really don't know what to say and however you start it sounds sheepish and self-deprecating and you really wish you could just pick up the phone and pretend like months and months haven't gone by, but you know you can’t and you really need to explain your absence even though you feel like a self-indulgent and self-absorbed tool for doing so? Well, this blog post is a bit like that. It's also a bit like an awkward, over-sharing confessional that I may regret a day, month or year from now. 

Deep breath, Fiona, and away we go...

In the relative downtime of winter, I try to spend time catching up on my accumulated piles of books. (Some women have a shoe fetish; for me, it's books.) The latest I'm reading is "Sufficient" by Tom Petherick (Pavilion, 2007). His basic premise is that it's time for us to become more responsible for our rampant levels of overconsumption and to change to a more self-reliant way of living. In his words, "It is a book about feeling satisfied with what we have -- in short, 'sufficient.'"

His idea of sufficiency speaks to me on many levels. What drove us to the farm in the first place was a need to find a simpler way of living. It was about scaling back, making do with less, growing our own food and reconnecting with the things that matter -- family, good wholesome edibles, and the wondrous earth that supports us and all living things.

While we knew this kind of living wouldn't actually be easier, this life off-the-beaten-path was the only one that made sense to me. Having grown up in Toronto and spent seven years in suburbia, I knew that I needed to get away from the corporate ladder and from the 'keeping up with the Joneses' mentality that elevated compulsive shopping to a form of therapy, or worse, recreation. I was tired of the noise, the traffic, the stuff, the concrete and the disconnect between us (as in our society) and the natural world.

I wanted desperately to move to the farm, to raise kids, grow food and write about it (among other things). Simple, right? Yes, but not easy. The first six months on the farm was blissful, filled with long walks in the woods, trials in the garden and the deliciousness of fresh air and silent nights (except during cicada and spring peeper season - it's noisy then!). 

But then I let my bliss get the better of me and I started bringing critters home to the farm. In quick succession we went from a family a four plus a dog, to a family of four plus a dog, two cats, 12 chickens, six ducks, three goats, two donkeys and a geriatric horse. We went from simply living on the farm to a complex life juggling a tribe of creatures with differing needs, all while figuring out how to get us through the winter without running out of wood, running out of patience, or most crucially, running out of money.

Job-wise, I was able to make the move to the farm fairly smoothly in that as a freelance writer and editor I was able to take my work with me. But Lucas had to largely start from scratch in the summer of 2008 when the recession hit hard and he lost a long-term contract that he was relying on to get us established in our new home and community. To say it was tough is a gross and laughable understatement. Looking back, it was foolhardy and hugely irresponsible to rush into getting so many animals (and those of you who have been following the blog since the beginning most likely saw that), but I was impatient to be living the dream. Now. (I even knew fairly early on that it was foolish and foolhardy but I resisted "fixing" my mistakes because that would have been an admission of failure. Yes, seriously.)

But we continued to struggle along, dealing with frozen barn pipes, predator problems, depreciating savings and an overwhelming sense of "I have no idea what I'm doing." Eventually Lucas got a two-year contract (now ended) and I cobbled together enough contracts to make a living wage, including a job that gave me a steady paycheque but left me feeling depressed, short-tempered and miserable. But by this point, Lucas was spending 60 hours a week away from the farm and I was spending more time in front of the computer than out in the fields. Slowly the dream was crumbling, bit-by-bit -- or so it felt (keeping in mind I have a shocking affinity for the dramatic).

Tensions at home started to rise because I didn't feel like I had enough help and Lucas felt like he was drowning in responsibility while trying to follow his own dreams that didn't involve shovelling poop or digging in the dirt. The simple life was anything but simple and the bliss that permeated the first year was, by year three, intermittent at best. This isn't to say that it was all terrible -- I fell head over heels in love with beekeeping, discovered the aliveness and gorgeous taste of fresh homegrown veggies and fruits, and reaffirmed my love of working with animals, both feathered and furred. I rediscovered knitting, found peace and solace in long wandering walks in the woods, and unearthed a passion for kitchen and traditional remedies, as well as cooking real food with real ingredients. Jack and Ella had blossomed into happy country kids and we truly felt that we were raising them in the best possible place.

But the stress brought on by shortcomings in what I thought I should be doing and what I actually had the capacity for doing kept growing. Lucas wasn't interested in farming, and the kids, who I'd envisioned helping me in the barn and the garden, simply were busy doing other things. There was my dream, my lonely reality, and a huge chasm in between filled with unfinished projects and a never-ending to do list. I felt betrayed, let down, bitter and above all, deeply sad.

But then last summer I went away on a solo camping trip for a week. I brought with me only some essentials -- a tent and sleeping bag, a small one-burner stove with some simple foods, a few changes of clothes, my hiking boots, my camera, some reading books and my journal. I spent the week hiking, reading, writing and thinking. It was sufficient, it was enough, and I was happy. During this time I realized how much my decisions had placed unnecessary strain on my family and yet rather than assume responsibility for that, all of which were mine, I was blaming everyone else for my missed expectations and unhappiness.

The farm or my family hadn't let me down -- I'd given up on it and on me. It was a realization that was both liberating and crushing -- so many people would give anything to be where I am, and yet here I was moaning about how things weren’t working out as planned. I felt humiliated and humbled. It was during this time that I disappeared from the blog, turned inward and tried to rekindle my sense of direction, without expectation of what things should look like. Writing can be like turning a magnifying class on yourself, warts and all, and I needed some time to rebuild my confidence. What's more, I needed a break from comparing myself to everyone else.  

But I've been re-visioning the farm and my place in it. I've also quit a job that has left a hole in my bank account but some space for this new dream to grow (which I'll be writing about over the coming months).

While the farm is still blanketed in snow and my plans are still largely on paper, I admit to running the risk of ramping up the complexity of my days (it's about reaching for a dream without falling over the precipice's edge). The difference now is that I don't have expectations that Lucas (or the kids) will be walking this path beside me. While they're 100% supportive of my dreams (and they appreciate the benefits they receive), this farming gig is mine alone. (I don't say that with any sense of self-pity either; not anymore, at least. This is meant as a declaration, not a resolution.)

I've always struggled with my own perception of being enough, and I often label myself as falling short. I let these insecurities fuel the fear of failure that's inherent when stepping outside one's comfort zone to reach towards a dream. I've written about this before (at times that often correspond with these lengthy blog absences). But I'm so very tired of that sad story. While it's damn hard to work, run a farm, keep a homestead and raise children, it's harder on my heart to not. In the year that I turn 40, isn't it time for me to finally feel satisfied not only with what I have (which is easy), but what I am, warts and all?

As Petherick writes, "This then presents an opportunity to look how we can become more self-reliant, particularly on the home-production front. There is little point in lingering on how badly wrong things have gone -- the question is what can we do to effect change for ourselves and the community around us… We are at the beginning of an exciting time when our true worth will come to the fore."

This year I'm looking forward to moving back to my simpler living roots, reaching for the stars and for being gentler with myself when I inevitably fall short. Besides, life's too short to take everything so bloody seriously.
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