Friday, November 20, 2009

Simpler Living Column -- A year in review

"A year ago this month, I wrote my first Simpler Living column. In it, I described how we'd moved from a semi in suburbia to a 71-acre farm in a small village in eastern Ontario.

Our dream was to slow down and get away from the hectic pace of life we found ourselves in. Truth be told, during that first year, we only managed to exchange one kind of hectic for another...."

To read more, please go here.

Want more? Here's a complete list of earlier installments of "Simpler Living" written for Bankrate Canada:

October 2009: Preserving the harvest for year-round enjoyment
September 2009: Foraging for wild edibles in your own backyard
August 2009: Gardening is a labour of love whose rewards is a harvest of vegetables and knowledge
July 2009: Save money and get healthy by cooking more vegetarian meals
June 2009: Raising kids on the lean and green
May 2009: Reducing the amount of garbage you produce is good for the pocketbook and the planet
April 2009: When life gives you leftovers, make compost
March 2009: The appeal of raising backyard chickens is growing across cities in Canada
February 2009: The perils of seed catalogues
January 2009: Once you learn to make do with less, it's hard to remember why you needed more
December 2008: Preparing for our first winter, homesteading-style.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Our midnight surprise

Lucy and her triplets - two boys and a girl!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Morning barn madness

Farmers are early risers for a good reason.

There's lots to do, especially when you've got animals.

Thankfully, many hands make light work and the kids have taken to helping me with the barn chores (they actually look forward to the visit -- most mornings.)

So here's a peek at our post-breakfast routine:

1.) Feed equines. Gallagher first, donkeys next.

Yes, Gall is our biggest animal but feeding him first has more to do with managing herd dynamics than his size: If we don't give him his grain first, he gets all snooty and pushes the donkeys out of the run-in (he's the alpha so he has to eat first in the name of "protecting" the donkeys). Hay in the summer? What about grazing, you may ask. We also have a paddock roped off in the larger hayfield but it's so buggy out there right now, the equines stay pretty close to the barn during the day. While we're still trying to get some weight on Gall, the donkeys certainly don't need any help there. But it's either we feed them hay or they eat the barn. No kidding.

Gentle boy

We think Cinder was looking for the self-serve buffet.

Lee too. He's got to work on his stealth skills though (note that donkeys are not allowed in this part of the barn.)

Putting those muscles to work.

Breakfast, finally.

2.) Release ducks.

The ducks are free range during the day but we house them in a converted goat stall at night. Once the donkeys are munching on their hay, there's a clear passage from the barn to the duck/goat yard where they've got their water and paddling pool.

Once (if?) we get our hay cut, they'll be able to access the ponds where they can paddle at will (the Rouens at least. The Muscovies aren't too sold on this whole swimming thing. They prefer flapping, perching and sleeping. And squeaking once in a while (they can't quack, though they do try so hard.))

Peeking duck

Getting ready for the big release

Paddle pool or bust!

Testing out the wings (the Rouens prefer the feet)

Upside-down duck limbo

Like a duck to water

3.) Release chickens.

We've got 30 "babies" (they're three months old now -- I'll get around to posting about their arrival soon) in addition to our nine laying hens (we lost one Red in the spring.) We keep them inside the barn during the night but let them out first thing in the morning. We've got a poultry "yard" made with chicken wire and snow fencing (so classy) but the chickens use that perimeter as a loose guideline. They're usually roaming around the barnyard, scratching in equine poop (of which there is a lot of ), picking at weeds (of which there are also a lot of) or catching bugs (ditto for lots of those).

Chicken run

On their way...

Strike a pose

Henry really needs some sheep or something. The chickens just didn't want to be herded.

We have proper nesting boxes but the chickens have taken to laying in a secret nest among the straw bales.

4.) Feed and water goats.

We've been keeping the goats inside lately because Lucy, who we suspect is pregnant (yes, us greenhorn farmers didn't realize that a buck could be so 'fruitful' at such a young age. We've fixed the problem (okay, we fixed Sammy) but we're left with the prospect of a goat kid (or kids, it's hard to tell) sometime in August) likes staying close to home during the day (who knew goats could get barn sour?). Sammy likes staying close to Lucy (though he also loves tearing around the barnyard terrorizing the sumac.)

Lucy (behind) and Sammy on goat mountain.

Getting in to her work

More muscle power (That look means, "Come ON mum, this water bucket is heavy!")

The nighttime routine is pretty much the same (but in reverse) except we also feed the chickens and ducks and collect eggs. The ducks usually return to their pen on their own around 6:00 pm and the chickens come in for the night at dusk. Of course there's also cleaning, sweeping, fixing, grooming, picking feet, refilling feed bins, stacking hay, etc. (And we're only hobby farmers at this point -- just wait until we get our 'working' animals!)

It's a lot of work but it's worth it, especially when I've got my farm hands to help.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Think she's trying to tell me something?

Monday, July 27, 2009

Veggie garden update: July

To say it's been a weird and wacky summer weather-wise is something of an understatement. I'm loving the absence of sizzling heat waves and stifling sleep-inducing humidity. But my veggie garden isn't, and mine isn't the only one.

I've been following the blogs of my cyber friends in Minnesota, Chicken Mama and Mama Pea, among others, and vegetables everywhere are suffering the same fate -- all show, but no go. In other words, there's lots of growth, but the plants just aren't producing.

We're having mixed success here in zone 5 but I'm trying not to stress over it. Not really. I'm just so happy to be growing something other than pigweed this year.

That said, if we had to rely on our harvest for the winter, we'd be mighty skinny (starving) come spring (September) and my hat goes out to all the farmers who base their livelihoods on such uncertainty. I admire you and aspire to be one of you someday.

But in the meantime, here's an update on my little patch of green since I planted it three weeks ago:

I mentioned that I'd planted 24 tomato plants -- no two heirloom varieties the same and of many shapes and colours. While I'll eventually get around to highlighting these lovelies in their own post (once we start harvesting them), here's a a list of what we're tending in the garden: Money Maker, Mortgage Lifter (see a theme there?), Black Zebra, Black Ruffle, Cherokee Purple, Black Krim, Paul Robeson (a black beefsteak), Marvel Striped, Yellow-out Red-In (can't wait to see this one!), Dr. Carolyn (a yellow cherry), Mennonite Heirloom, White Queen and Snow White (my daughter's favourites), Mennonite Cherry, Grape, Black Cherry, Thai Pink Egg, Ivory Egg, Yellow Pear, Ailsa Craig (medium-sized red fruit), Silvery Fir Tree, Elberta Peachy, Persimmon (orangey beefsteak) and Green Grape.

While all the fruits are still green, the plants themselves are growing like gang-busters. The black cherry is so tall, I've had to stake the cage to prevent it from tipping over!

The lone red pepper plant is struggling along. I'm thinking there's just not enough heat for the fruits to develop. I tell myself that it's a good thing I didn't "invest" in more pepper plants for this year and to use this as a lesson for next year -- perhaps I'll try them in a small hoop frame or better yet, a hoop house. And I wonder why I have such a ridiculous to-do list.

The strawberries are doing okay. We've only been picking one or two berries at a time but no one seems to mind (they are so sweet and flavourful.) I'd like to establish a proper berry patch next year and add several more plants but five is good to get us started and teach us the ins and outs of growing berries.

The carrots were something of a surprise. I flubbed the planting as the row of seeds got washed away into a bunch (how do you keep those tiny seeds in a row? I've read something about putting a plank over them until they sprout -- does that work?) and they took forever to germinate but they're doing okay now. At least we have enough to enjoy one meal (okay, a small side-dish) with them. Maybe I'll even share one or two with the equines (because they're not spoiled enough already.)

The beets - a specialty mix of four heirlooms (Golden, Cicoggia (with red and white concentric rings), Bull's Blood and Cylinda) are another surprise. Besides getting washed into a bunch like the carrots, they're leafing out nicely. I know they should be ready to harvest now but we put them in late. Again, they'll soon make a nice (and pretty!) side-dish.

The bean plants are a questionable success. Out of 12 seeds only about one-quarter of them germinated and one is climbing well (it's there on the right-hand stake, really.) In fact, it's climbing so well that I've got to extend the starter trellis onwards and upwards.

But we're not getting much in the way of beans yet (market gardeners Ontario-wide would be shaking their heads at this moment -- I mean, that's what is in season!) but there's still time, right? Sigh.

The zukes exploded overnight, well the plant parts did. Only two survived the transplant but wow, did they leaf out -- all the rain we've been having lately certainly helped get them established. Unfortunately, it also turned the one, lonely three-inch-long green zucchini into mush. I'm holding out for more success with the remaining blossoms.

Only one cuke plant survived the transplant (that's when we had our heat and all the seedlings got fried -- great timing, huh?) but it's a bit buried under one of the zukes. I'm not sure if moving it will set it back too much but then again, it's not like it's actually producing anything! I'll keep you posted.

The kids' watermelon is finally leafing out. When we get some more heat I'm hoping to grow at least one fruit -- I'd even take a baby one! In the meantime, the kids are excited to just watch their plant grow.

Ella and I planted potatoes as almost an afterthought -- mostly Russian Blues along with a couple of Banana and French Fingerling -- but they're starting to fill in. I thought having some gourmet/novelty potatoes might help the kids enjoy eating spuds. I mean, how many kids could resist purple mashed potatoes? Mine, probably.

We also planted some sugar pumpkins a bit late but they're starting to grow. Just.

I'm not too, too worried if they don't reach maturity (so she says now) because we have this monster growing out of the compost heap (along with the only vigorous potato plant in the place.)

Leave it to Mother Nature. Thanks, mama.

I only planted a few herbs this year but I'd like to start a dedicated medical herb garden next year. I've got some basil, oregano, chives, thyme and dill in pots by the house but the garden basil is doing great next to the tomatoes (and strangely enough, I'm always hungry for pesto after I'm done my weeding.)

Then there are the mammoth sunflowers that we grew from seed. They're only about waist high (to my height, which isn't saying much) so they still have a ways to go, but I've loved watching them emerge from the ground, leaf out and grow tall. It'll be such a reward when they finally flower.

The nasturtiums are truly the only productive ones in the lot, working hard luring aphids away from the veggies. Now if I could just convince the Japanese Beetles to follow suit! I've been meaning to dress some salad with the flowers but I'm reluctant to take the only colour away from the garden.

I'll be planting some cool-weather crops in the fall (or sooner, if this weather keeps up) as I missed planting them this spring. But for now, that's my garden. It's small and not what I expected but I tell myself I'm gaining confidence, experience and inspiration for what to try next year.

I still don't know what I'm doing half the time and the learning curve is more like a learning mountain. But when I stop thinking about all that stuff and just focus on savouring the smells of growing tomatoes and fresh basil, watching new life emerge from the soil or feeling the warm earth between my toes (yes, I garden barefoot), I am completely and blissfully content.

Now if I could only convince the kids how much fun weeding really is.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Do donkeys dream?

And if they do, what about?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

What's in a name?

From Flower Fairies of the Autumn, by Cicely Mary Barker
Click photo to enlarge

Every farm needs a name and we started thinking of one shortly after the “sold” sign went up.

We knew some locals referred to our place as “the old Dunn farm,” after the former owners who lived there for 30 years and sold to the people we bought from.

But we wanted to give it a new identity for the next 30 years.

We tossed around a few ideas but nothing really seemed to stick. Then one night while watching a DVD from the BBC production, All Creatures Great and Small, based on James Herriot’s novels about a veterinary practice in rural Yorkshire in the 1930s and 1940s, I watched a scene where the lead characters find their dream home. It was named Rowangarth.

I loved it instantly, partly because we’d once considered naming our son “Rowan” but also because it just sounded “right.” But I wondered, what did the name mean?

Turns out the word “Garth” is old Norse for “keeper of the garden” and “Rowan” is Gaelic for “little red one”. Etymologically speaking, it seemed like a good fit, considering our red house and barn and my horticultural plans.

But what really convinced me wasn’t the etymology, but the dendrology. Simply put, it wasn’t the meaning of the word Rowan, but the mystical properties attributed to the tree of the same name.

The Rowan tree, Sorbus aucuparia (commonly known in North America as mountain ash), has a long-standing history as a protector from evil spirits. The Celts believed it could bring good fortune, repel negative energy and when planted close to the home, offer protection against witchcraft and enchantment.

Seems like a good tree to have around.

So we chose the name Rowangarth Farm. And while we don't have our own rowan tree yet, we already have a place to plant it by the door, to keep our house from harm.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

First of the season

Fresh in-season berries don't last long at my house.

As we put in some strawberry plants only this year (and my daughter picked them clean of ripe fruit before they even went into the ground) we've been buying pints direct from local farmers.

But we do have a mature raspberry bush -- albeit a small one -- behind our house and I've been keeping an eye on it from my kitchen window. Just this morning I discovered the first of several lovely black berries.

My daughter actually squealed when I gave her the first berry of the season. My son led the chase to the bush and then they both started circling around it trying to spot the ripe ones before popping them into their mouth like candy.

We only harvested a handful but they're already looking forward to tomorrow's next mini-pick.

We might not collect much at one time but at least this seems like a delicious way to learn the true meaning -- and value -- of eating local and in season.
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