Tuesday, May 1, 2012

First greens!

Happy first day of May! 
May all your weeds be wildflowers and may all your bugs be ladybirds!

Monday, April 30, 2012

Madcap Monday: Horse power

A growing number of ecologically-minded small farms are turning to draft animals (horses, donkeys and/or mules) to work the land instead of using tractors and other heavy machinery. We're not one of them. Our old (28ish) thoroughbred horse is retired and largely functions as barnyard eye-candy. And the donkeys? Well, they're supposed to be on predator watch, but we all know how good a job they're doing there... or not.

However, the grassy paths in the kitchen garden were looking a bit unruly last week but instead of cutting with the mower, I enlisted the help of my four-legged friends.

While they mucked up the beds a bit, they did a great job razing the grass to more manageable levels. And the natural fertilizer* they left behind can't be beat! Now if I could only get them to help me plant peas...

* Yes, I know you have to age manure before you use it in vegetable beds.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Seedlings under lights + 2012 garden plan (so far)

2012 seedlings, before thinning
As this space is meant to include a garden journal of sorts, I thought I'd provide a quick update of what's growing under lights.

I had good germination this year (85% on average), using a heat mat to help get the tomatoes, basil, peppers and eggplant started. After cooking the first batch of Brandywine tomato seedlings, I realized I need to be much more careful about moving the seedlings off the mat sooner. Of the varieties that didn't do too well -- Jimmy Nardello peppers (2 out of 7 pods), cinnamon basil (3 out of 9 pods), for example, were from older seeds, so that's not too surprising.

I decided with this year's garden to grow more of less; put differently, more quantity of food from fewer crops/varieties.  So, as an example, I took brassicas off the list (no broccoli or brussel sprouts) and only four varieties of tomatoes (not 18, like I did my first year). Last year's food garden totally got away on me (we're talking invasive weeds, horrible insects and rampaging deer) and as I'm still on a steep self-taught learning curve (mountain), I want to keep this year's garden manageable.

So, taking a peek under the lights, there are:

Tomatoes: Brandywine, Amish Paste, Isis Candy (new), Baxter Bush (new)
Peppers: Bull Nose, Early Cal Wonder, Jimmy Nardello
Eggplant: Pingtung
Leeks: Scotland
Onions: Evergreen Bunching (already have some in coldframes, and will direct seed more this weekend, plus plant some yellow and red sets)
Kale: Red Russian
Swiss Chard: Bright Lights (have some in the coldframe -- will move outside this weekend as looking leggy and droopy inside)
Basil: Cinnamon, Lime and Italian Large leaf
Sage: White
Parsley: Single hardy Italian

Plus some sunflowers (doing beautifully), zinnias (doing beautifully until the cat nipped the tops off of half) and marigolds (the first batch was a total bust -- 1 out of 25 germinated, so I've started a second tray with new seed).

This weekend I'll be starting my cukes (National Pickling & Mexican Sour Gherkin (new)) and winter squash (Butternut, Buttercup and/or Acorn), and maybe some summer squash (Cocozelle zucchini (new) & pumpkins (Small Sugar & Connecticut Field).

I'll also be direct seeding some peas (Tom Thumb (new) and maybe some Sutton's Harbinger), turnips as companions (Early Snowball (new)), carrots (Danvers 126 & Nantes Coreless) and beets (mixed heirloom) and whatever else strikes my fancy! I'll also top up the coldframes with more lettuce, spinach, radishes, etc. 

The traditional 'planting out' day for frost-sensitive plants in my zone is May '2-4' weekend (aka Victoria Day weekend), which this year is May 19 to 21st -- or approximately three weeks from now. I originally thought I may get out sooner, but we were hit with frosty sub-zero temps last night so despite our March 'heat wave,' I think I'll just stick to tradition.

So on the planting out weekend, I'll direct seed lots of beans (Kentucky Wonder Pole, Contender Snap bean (new), Blue Lake bush (new) and maybe some rare heirlooms that I'll write about later), some heirloom corn (Mandan Bride) and four different kinds of organic seed potatoes that I got from a farmer friend. So exciting! The tomatoes, cukes and peppers will move into the yet-to-be-covered-in-plastic-because-the-weather-has-been-crappy greenhouse.

I'll also be seeding more flowers as companions (California poppies, nasturtiums, more sunflowers, to name just a few) and then there are the yet-to-be-ordered starter plants for the new herb garden.  And then there's the plants for the bee garden and... and...

Hey, wait a minute... so much for not getting in over my head this season!

Thursday, April 26, 2012


As I was walking to the barn yesterday to start my morning chores, I noticed an unusual huddle --a wild turkey and a few crows picking at something down by the pond. The something was snow white, which puzzled me, as I knew all the chickens -- including the few white Columbian crosses we have left -- were safely locked in the barn. 

I struggled to think what it could be -- the wild ducks that we've seen visiting our pond are all dark and brown earthy colours. Then I remembered: two of the Muscovies, one male and one female, refused to come into the barn the previous night. I tried to chase them, shoo them in, but they simply flapped away from me. As I left the barnyard I felt uncomfortable leaving them outside as we'd seen a mature fox just the week before, but the male duck can be a vicious beast, so I told myself the lady would be ok.

As I walked towards the carnage crew, I realized I was wrong. As the wild birds flew away, I saw the lady duck, gutted; her chest and body cavity ripped away, with bloodied feathers scattered around her.

I didn't cry or freak out; in fact I felt strangely disassociated from what I saw. I was disappointed, sure, but we'd lost ducks and chickens before (though usually all that's left is the feathers) and my mind started spewing platitudes of all sorts -- "Where there's livestock, there's deadstock"; or "It's part of farm life"; and "Nature can be cruel."

I picked her up carefully by her limp neck and started walking back up the hill towards the barn, stopping only to grab a shovel. I continued past the barn and into the woods at the back of the second paddock, the donkeys and horse following me in a bizarre funeral parade.

I quickly dug a grave and buried what was left of the lady duck, saying some sort of cursory 'return to earth' blessing, ending with an apology. Then I returned the shovel and continued on with my chores. This is part of farm life, I told myself -- buck up and get on with it. It's just a duck.

But for the rest of the day I felt agitated, uneasy, fragile, and the more I tried to dismiss that, push it away, the more it grew. Until finally, just before the kids got home, Lucas called me on the phone to see how my day was.

My eyes started to gloss over, my throat tighten and a sick churning began deep in my belly. The details of the story gushed out and I wanted to share with him, unload, all of the gory images that were weighing heavily on me -- the shocking contrast of the blood to her feathers, her breastbone picked clean of all flesh, her unseeing eyes, and how just the night before, after giving up on trying to get her back into the barn, I had taken a moment to admire her form, her beauty, her aliveness and gentle personality, as she paddled off into the darkness after her mate.

As I shared the story, I could sense the pain lose its grip on me. I didn't feel any less sad that the lady duck had been ravaged this way, but I could feel the sadness and not suffer by it.

I thought of a passage that author Jon Katz recently wrote on his Bedlam Farm blog about how these sorts of losses are a part of life:

"This is a familiar part of life on the farm, this sickening feeling seeing things you are responsible for and live with killed suddenly, and then the process of sorting through it, because you know the foxes or raccoons or whatever will return... It is a nice life, not a perfect life, and there are no simple or easy solutions... So there is the happy time cuddling a lamb and the other time picking up body parts of animals you were talking to the day before…. It is disturbing, yet also oddly routine. It happens, anyone with a farm and livestock has experienced it. This lesson, I learn again and again. It is not a crisis, not a drama. It is life itself."

In trying to remove the drama, or what I thought was drama but was actually just feeling, I stifled a piece of my humanity. Rallying against these inevitabilities creates suffering, but so does not fully acknowledging the pain that accompanies these losses. Keeping animals on a farm is such a gift, but if you're not careful, it can become a burden, and I've wondered before that perhaps I'd be better off if I didn't keep animals as I get so attached to them. But that would deny me the happy times. 

So what's the solution? I'm learning that allowing myself to completely appreciate the joy of their life, then fully acknowledging and experiencing the sadness of their death, before finally letting both go, leads to greater feelings of peace, acceptance and ultimately freedom. It's something of a roller-coaster ride, but then again, that is life itself.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Yarn along -- Baby cardi

Taking inspiration from Ginny over at Small Things, here's this week's Yarn Along update:

I've had a silly week with work (desk work, not farm work, which is actually okay as the weather has been horrid the past few days, so we haven't managed to put plastic on the greenhouse, for if we had I'd rather be out there than in here), but I'm trying to finish off this sweet wee cardigan before a baby shower this weekend. (The pattern is available on Ravelry here.) I only have another 15 rows or so to go and then I can go back and knit the sleeves.

As for books, I have a number on the go right now, but my most recent acquisition from Thomas Allen & Son is "Homegrown Whole Grains: Grow, Harvest and Cook Wheat, Barley, Oats, Rice, Corn & more" by Sara Pitzer.

I've been thinking that I'd like to add small-scale grain growing to our farmstead activities (eventually... not this season, or even the next) and this handy book provides a solid introduction on how to grow, harvest and cook nine nutritious whole grains, from wheat to millet, rice to heirloom grains, including amaranth, quinoa and spelt. There are also a number of tasty recipes, from simple cornmeal dumplings to millet-broccoli souflé.

I'll eventually write a The Bookish Farmer review, but for now I've got to get back to work. Or maybe I'll just knit a few more rows...  

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Raising the roof

“The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for.
And the most you can do is live right inside that hope.
Not admire it from a distance, but live right in it, under its roof”
~ Barbara Kingsolver

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Taking steps

I was supposed to go to a soil workshop today but work got in the way of my plans. I was looking forward to the opportunity to learn from an expert speaker and tour an innovative organic farm. But it was 1-½ hours away (one way), and such a visit would take too much out of my day.

My mind started wandering down the path of disappointment, but then I stopped. While the workshop would have been interesting and useful, is it something I really need to do right now? Would this knowledge inform that tasks that need to be accomplished today, or even this season? Then I started thinking about how often I prop myself up, even distract myself, with research. I look outside for information -- I turn to books, workshops, experts who can tell me what to do and how to do it -- while I have the best teacher right here: the land itself.

It has so much to teach me and while conventional learning is vitally important, experiential learning -- digging in the dirt, nurturing, growing, being there -- is where the magic happens. But sometimes that kind of learning scares me -- what if I'm missing something, what if I make a mistake, what if I fail?

But really all life is like that. You can prepare all you want for a certain task, a job, or even parenthood, but it's in the doing where you reach the highs and shoulder the lows. That's where the living takes place.

And that takes trust, a certain leap of faith, and ultimately, a letting go of the results because despite our best actions and intentions, what happens after the work is done is completely out of our hands.

While I feel safe in my smallness, doing my reading and research until I have learned enough, know enough, about whatever work I'm doing -- whether it's how to grow vegetables in my particular soil, or how I can do the work I love and support my family financially at the same time -- none of that is enough.

It's about taking a step in a direction, learning from that step, and then taking another one -- perhaps in the same direction, or possibly a different one. Failure doesn't come from action; it comes from inaction, from getting stuck, from staying small.

Wendell Berry wrote, “It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.”

Well, my mind is certainly baffled, but I can continue to feed the discomfort around not knowing what to do, or I can simply start doing. Participating in life makes one complete. And I don't need a workshop to tell me how to do that.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Making felt wee folk

Ella has been feeling under the weather for the last few days. On Saturday she was lethargic and grumpy, yesterday she was feverish and sleepy, and this morning her chest rattled when she coughed. She said she felt fine to go to school (she so loves school) but I knew she wasn't fine; besides the cough, my little girl had lost her sparkle.

So she stayed home today and after her brother and dad left for school and work respectively, I got her settled on the couch, gave her a chest massage with some essential oils (marjoram, bergamot, lavender and geranium -- more a relaxing blend than the immuno-stimulant one she gets a bedtime) and set her up with some books, promising that once I'd finished my chores and must-do work, we'd spend some time together.

I gave her the choice of three activities: work on some Brownie badges, do some baking or start a new art project. She chose art.

This was hardly surprising as Ella is rarely without a pencil, crayon or marker in her hand. She is constantly drawing, writing and creating and when asked what she wants to be when she grows up, the answer is the same as it was when she was two-years-old -- an artist. (Though sometimes she adds teacher-gardener-mother-rock star as a secondary career.)

Ella was so upset about missing school that I wanted to do something special with her. I thought we'd try an art project that's been on my mind for months and months now -- making my fairy lover her first felt wee folk from fibre artist Salley Mavor's book.

(If you haven't already discovered her work through her books or her blog , Mavor is a fibre artist who creates the most incredible, beautiful 3-D storyboards populated by whimsical felt wee folk.)

While the making of the wee folk requires the skill, care and patience of big hands (but not too much skill, and the instructions were very good), Ella was quite happy to sit with me and make the important decisions about which pipecleaners we'd use for the body, what colours of embroidery floss we'd use to wrap the legs and arms, and of course answer the big design questions as to which petals we'd use for her skirt, what felt we'd use for the tunic and would she have blond, brunette or rose-coloured hair?

In a busy life of bills, farm chores and must-dos, I still find it hard to make time to do art without it feeling like some kind of indulgence. And yet when I do make time, I realize how much I miss it. We are all artistic beings and nurturing our creativity, in whatever form, makes us whole.

It also helps little (and big) girls find their sparkle again.

Friday, April 13, 2012


All the parts are here, and I can almost taste fresh greens in January!
Now we just need to figure out how to assemble it....

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Moving asparagus

Asparagus is one of those vegetables that make most gardeners go a little loopy. Because store-bought can't compare to fresh-picked spears, it's a big deal when the tips emerge in the spring; in fact, many purists only eat asparagus in season.

While we have a few well-established plants in various perennial beds, happily coexisting with the lilies and the peonies, I always thought it'd be great to have a proper (read permanent) asparagus bed. So I, too, went a little loopy when my dad brought me two dozen two-year-old crowns last year.

As asparagus starts producing in its third year, planting two-year-old crowns mean we'd get a jump on the harvest. Trouble is, I had no place to plant them.

Growing asparagus requires an investment in both time and space; it's a lot of work to prepare the bed properly, and according to Barbara Damrosch in her book, "The Garden Primer," growing 50 plants (enough for a family of four) requires about 250 sq. ft. of land. (So with half the number of crowns, we'd need half that size of plot.) Because asparagus is a perennial (once established, it can produce for 15 to 20 years), it's important to prepare the soil properly before you plant.

To plant asparagus, Damrosch suggests digging trenches 12" to 18" deep and about a foot wide, free of all weeds and perennial grasses and mixed with rotted manure/compost, with mounds of soil running down the middle spaced 18" apart. Simply drape a crown (which resembles an octopus, sort of) over each mound, and with the roots laid flat cover the tips with 2" to 3" of soil. Continue to fill in the trench as the spears grow.

Needless to say, when my dad brought me the crowns I had no such plot prepared, and no time to dig one. I did, however, have a small plot in the kitchen garden, in the front row where I'd recently harvested some lettuce. Only 2 ft wide and perhaps 3 ft long the conditions were cramped, to say the least. (I may stink at math, but even I know that's nowhere near the 125 sq. ft. suggested by Damrosch.) And like the tall kids in a school photo, asparagus should never go in the front row.

My dad was amazing and he hand dug and planted each and every crown in a makeshift trench. I knew it wasn't the best place for them, but I figured I could easily move the plants next year into a more suitable permanent home. The roots wouldn't have that much time to establish, so I thought -- that's if the plants even overwintered successfully.

Well they overwintered just fine. So fine in fact that having already dug up the plants, I can offer this piece of advice: Don't move asparagus. Ever.

When I went to transplant the asparagus last month, on a sunny March morning, not only were the plants thriving and starting to send up new shoots, the tenacious roots had already formed deep masses of invasive and twisted "tentacles," making it impossible to tell where one plant stopped at the next one started.

I thought couchgrass was bad, then I met asparagus.

It was frustrating and challenging work, and despite my best efforts at a careful excavation, I lost about half-a-dozen crowns. The rest are sitting in our second fridge, wrapped in damp newspaper and waiting to be replanted in the new perennial field garden, where they will remain -- undisturbed -- for the next 15 to 20 years.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

New-to-me potting bench

When we first moved to the farm I was thrilled that the former owners left a small potting shed. Sited conveniently across from the kitchen garden and parallel to the hayfield (tucked into the windbreak), it would be the perfect place to store all my gardening stuff, as well as a place where I could do my seeding, play in the dirt, and putter.

However after the first season it was no longer a horticulturalist's dream space, but a total nightmare, filled to the brim with a chaotic mess of too many pots, trays and tools. When the snow melted, I pulled everything out of the shed and except for one box of "stuff" that got chucked in there on moving day, most of the gardening items were still useful and needed.

At the same time I've been trying to figure out how to create a more useable work & storage space, I've also been revisiting our poultry-keeping practices. While the chickens thrive in and around the barn during the winter months, I've found it very tricky to fence off an area in the barnyard (adjacent to their laying boxes) that keeps them contained and safe from predators (especially foxes) as the equines share the same space.

For some time I've been thinking about building a moveable coop -- something that will allow the chickens to graze on open pasture within the confines of an electric fence (rather than wander willy-nilly as they are now) -- but I've been put off the building part because of my already too-long to do list. (Not to mention the fact that I've never built a coop before, or anything resembling a coop. Lucas usually does the building, but he's already got enough on his to-do list, and I know I can do it myself and I want to do it myself, but it's still a bit intimidating. Even though I wish it wasn't.)

Then it hit me: I could turn the potting shed (which wasn't working as a potting shed) into the chicken coop. While it might not be moveable right away -- I need to find an old (read cheap) trailer chassis to put it on -- I can at least use it to start the next batch of chicks and then encircle the shed/coop with some electric fence netting.

If I was moving the chickens in, then I needed to move the growing stuff out. I envisioned a space where I could store all the tools, trays, pots and amendments, where there was room to mix and prepare soil, and also a workbench where I could do my seeding and transplanting.

So I set up shop in the drive shed. While the second bay (of three) is currently home to various tractor implements and the riding lawn mower, and the third houses a large pile of wood and offcuts that are too useful to discard (plus some inherited 'junk', like several prison bed frames and a garage door that doesn't fit any building on our land), the first is where I've set up my new-to-me potting bench, using an old bathroom vanity that I found in the barn, plus a jerry-rigged table made with some leftover plywood sheeting.

As the space is unheated and uninsulated, and open to the elements on one side, it can be a bit chilly when the weather turns.

But it's got a great view of the barnyard (complete with bleating goat soundtrack), plus it's bright, spacious (I can mix small batches of potting mix in the Tupperware, and larger batches on a tarp on the dirt floor) and inviting to little hands who want to help.

I hope the chickens will like their new digs; I certainly enjoy mine.

Friday, April 6, 2012


Every year by early March I start seriously craving greens. While I'm grateful for the nutrition supplied by overwintered root vegetables, I miss the aliveness of fresh-from-the-earth lettuce, spinach, green onions...

So while I'm still waiting on the cold frames, I've been feeding my cravings with sprouted seeds -- a delicious and easy way to add fresh crunch to a meal and vitamins, live enzymes and nutrients to your diet year-round.

While you can buy sprouts at most grocery stores, it's easy and inexpensive to sprout seeds at home, and you don't need any fancy equipment.

I bought mung beans (see photo) and a sprouted seed mix containing red clover, radish, alfalfa, and red & green lentils from my local health/bulk food store.

Simply scoop approximately 2 tablespoons of seeds into a glass mason jar. In the photo I used 500 ml jars, but I should have used 1 litre jars (the 500 mls ones were handier). Cover the seeds with water then soak "all day" (instructions vary between six and 10 hours).

Drain the water, then rinse again.

Cover the top of the jar with a breathable lid (cheesecloth/screen mesh/fine cloth/pantyhose). Rinse the sprouts with fresh water at least twice daily (more frequently if it's hot or humid outside).

On the fourth day, move the jars into sunlight to encourage green leaves to form. On the fifth day harvest, rinse one last time, and store in the fridge in an airtight container. Use within four days

I've been adding these to salads, wraps, sandwiches, rice -- anywhere that can use a little crunchy boost. And at this time of year when the chore list is long and the hours in the day (seemingly) short, I'll take any boost I can get!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Cold frames update

A few weeks ago, during our March heatwave, I seeded the first of our two cold frames with a mix of spring veggies: Bright Lights Swiss chard, Green Banner onions, Belle radishes, Viking spinach and an heirloom leaf lettuce mix.

The first to appear was the radishes, followed by about 50% of the lettuce. The chard and spinach were next, but the onions were pretty spotty.

Then a week later, on the first day of spring, the kids and I seeded the second cold frame with three more rows of mixed leaf lettuce, Polar spinach, Sparkler Tip radishes, a half row of Tennis Ball lettuce (2010) and a half of Buttercrunch lettuce (2010) and some red cored carrots, just for fun.

Then a few days later our 26 degree Celsius day unexpectedly plunged to a minus 8 degree Celsius night. The radishes in the first frame got killed off and the spinach tips and the sprouts on the out edges were damaged by frost, too. The second frame is faring better as the sprouts had yet to emerge at the time of this wickedly cold night.

I've noticed that the interior temperature of the frames vacillates between quite warm during the day (despite propping open the lids) and chilly at night, which is causing some stress on the more tender seedlings (not so much the spinach -- it's doing just fine).

The lettuce is ok, but small. No fresh greens for us this Easter weekend.

As this is our first early spring using the cold frames (we built them last year in late March, but didn't start seeding until April) it was a good reminder that because the boxes sit on top of the ground (not buried) I need to better insulate the outside of the frames with straw bales to buffer against these wacky temperature swings. I think adding a layer of insulation inside -- perhaps from a feed bag and/or a light layer of mulch -- would also provide some extra protection.

So it'll be a few weeks still before we're enjoying our greens but one thing I've learned is that growing food teaches patience, respect for Mother Nature's mood swings -- and perseverance!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Small farmers fighting back

Sorry for the absence lately. Besides too much desk work, I (alongside a veritable army of passionate supporters) have been helping a farmer friend try to save her flock of rare breed sheep from being slaughtered by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) under the government's scrapie eradication program -- even though the sheep have so far tested negative for any disease.

The 41 Shropshire sheep, including 20 pregnant ewes due to lamb in a month, were supposed to be confiscated from her farm on Monday, but when the CFIA arrived the sheep were already gone -- stolen.

(To read the backstory, I've been sharing the details about the order to destroy, Monday's rally, the theft and the ensuing press reaction on the Rowangarth Farm Facebook page.)

I hope to eventually write down my thoughts about this madness in a more cohesive and comprehensive way (not yet though -- I'm far too mad and emotional, and this kind of issue requires input from the head, not just the heart) because it's not just about my friend's farm and her flock, or even this particular breed of sheep -- this kind of heavy-handed government action is destroying the lives of small farms across Canada and the United States.

To highlight just one: I recently read about the Baker family of Baker's Green Acres in Michigan whose farm is under attack because the U.S. government has designated the heritage free-range pigs they raise as "feral." Let me repeat: the government has said the pigs they raise are in fact feral, and are thus a risk to crop growers. This kind of action isn't to protect farmers -- it's to protect industry, as in Big Ag.

(For more information on the Michigan Department of Natural Resources actions under an Invasive Species Order, go here or here. This second page also features a YouTube video of the farmer, Mark Baker, sharing his story.)

While governments profess to be supporting small farmers, these kinds of actions -- and any regulations that make it impossible for farmers to grow, process or market their products without intrusive bureaucratic interference (for example, the loss of local, small-scale abattoirs is making it increasingly difficult for farmers, especially organic ones, to have their livestock butchered, and it is still illegal for farmers to sell raw milk despite increasing consumer demand) -- only serve to destroy and "depopulate" small farms.

And it's not just the loss of small farms that is at stake here: biodiversity is lost, consumer choice is lost, food sovereignty is lost, personal freedoms are lost.

When I first started posting news updates on my personal Facebook page, a few friends expressed concern thinking that I was the one under attack. I told them no, it's not me -- but it could be. It could be any small farmer. And that means it should be everyone's problem.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Buried treasure

While I was clearing away winter debris in preparation for tilling the kitchen garden yesterday, I noticed some very un-weed-like sprouts poking up from one of the garden beds.

I scooped the dirt away from the base and found this.

The greens in the cold frames won't be ready for a few weeks, so this find was like unearthing buried treasure.

While most of the onions that I'd harvested in the fall have long since been eaten (it was a disappointing harvest), and the rest sprouted (not good storage onions at all) and I'd say only half made it to this size (most were the size of golf balls), this robust specimen overwintered beautifully. I pierced the skin of one and it just dripped with sweet living juice. There were several more like this, too.

I noticed some similar sprouts in the garlic bed, even though I didn't plant any cloves here last fall (the kitchen garden is undergoing a renovation, of sorts). A pack of marauding deer had infiltrated the garden late last summer and in one night of debauchery I lost my lettuce, broccoli, brussels sprouts, sunflowers, leeks and all the tops on my garlic and onions. When it came time to harvest, without the greens to guide me, I didn't know where all the cloves and onions were anymore. I thought I'd harvested all of them. Guess not!

Rather than individual cloves, these are fully-sprouted garlic heads, pearly white and smooth, without their papery overcoats.

While Lucas has little to no interest in growing food (he's all over the eating, though) he loves growing garlic. Or the idea of growing garlic. Me growing garlic. Truth be told, maybe he just loves garlic.

When I showed him my find, he dug up one of the garlic heads, pried away a clove, dusted off the dirt and popped one in his mouth. At first it tasted milder than cured garlic, but then delivered a firey kick.

I haven't yet decided what to do with these -- I think I'll roast then mash them, then smear a thick paste over some crusty bread for a early season homemade garlic treat. In the meantime, I have roughly six heads waiting in a basket in our multi-purpose laundry-bathroom-farmcrap room... and it smells delicious in there; a mix of spring earth, greens and of course, garlic. And to think they call it the stinking rose!

It's funny how this tiny harvest has got my green thumbs (and fingers) even more itchy to sink my hands into the sun-warmed earth and get growing. And to think it's only March!

Foto Friday -- (A) Good morning

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Tiny interloper

When I went to let the chickens out of the barn this morning I noticed the lid on their feed bin was flipped upside-down. Not too unusual, but then I saw there was a small heaping of detritus accumulated in the centre of the lid, which I first dismissed as a mix of shavings, feathers and other chicken debris (i.e. poop).

Then it moved.

I brushed away some of the debris, took a closer look and this is what I found.

A small salamander covered in crud... and kitty litter.

How this tiny creature got from the kitty litter, which is in a separate room, to the top of the chickens' feed bin is completely beyond me.

Even more amazing is that she got past the chickens. (Those hens are fierce carnivores, given half the chance.)

I washed her off and at first I though she was a blue spotted salamander.

On closer inspection, I'm wondering if it's a Jefferson salamander,which is currently listed as "Threatened" under both provincial and federal wildlife acts.

Jeffersons have especially long toes and can release an ooze-like substance when threatened.

This one was certainly sticky as I tried to rinse her off and just look at those toes!

But it does seem somewhat out of its usual range. Most Jeffersons are concentrated in southwestern Ontario, around the southern portion of the Niagara Escarpment and the western portion of the Oak Ridges Moraine. (For all your non-Ontarians, that's about three to four hours west of here.)

Regardless of what kind of salamander she is, I'll keep her only until the kids get home from school so they can help me re-home her -- on the edge of the woodland, close to the stream and ponds, amongst the leaf litter. At least that's where I think she'll go, though I'm not up on the the standard 'endangered salamander release protocol'. Google is no help either.

Unfortunately if it is a Jefferson, they're quite particular about their habitat, which is why they're under threat -- largely due to habitat loss and degradation due to urban development. They don't typically travel far from their birthplace, which makes this barn discovery even more odd. Stranger yet, this isn't a fluke discovery -- each spring I find a one or two salamanders in the barn, which is nowhere near the woodland or the wetland. However, the well that feeds our barn is down by the pond, so perhaps they make their way up through the drain.

It's all a big mystery and I hope this wee creature takes to its new home. But then again, anyplace is better than living in the chicken coop!

* * *
After school photo update:

Bye bye, salamander. Good luck and stand away from the chickens!

Sharing a great idea -- homemade soil blocks

One of the joys of blogging isn't only in the writing, but in the reading. I've learned loads (and found much inspiration) simply by reading other people's blogs. Annie's Kitchen Garden blog is no exception.

In today's post Granny shared a tutorial on homemade soil blocks, which I, in turn, wanted to share with you.

It's such a simple idea, and yet one that I would never have come up with myself. My brain just isn't wired that way.

In Eliot Coleman's book "The New Organic Gardener", he devotes an entire chapter to soil blocks, which are pretty much what the name implies -- a block of lightly compressed potting mix with a small preformed indentation for the seed.

There are several advantages to soil blocks. The blocks are both the container and the growing medium, so you don't need to bother with pots and plastic. You can adjust the block size for any seed, and even transplant blocks into one another when it comes time to pot up you seedlings. When transplanted to the field, the seedling becomes quickly established.

The downside is the upfront price. Johnny's Selected Seeds sells them starting at US$25. A Canadian company (SoilBlockers.ca) sells their mini blocker for $25 and a medium four or five blocker for $30. I get that it's one-time investment, but it can add up.

I've been reusing a motley assortment of pots and flats for my seed starting, but I might try Granny's so-smart, low cost idea for making blockers out of medicine bottles, drawer pulls and assorted hardware. Thanks, Granny!

What do you use for seed starting?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Welcome, spring!

"The flowers of late winter and early spring occupy places in our hearts
well out of proportion to their size."

~ Gertrude S. Wister, horticulturalist (1905 - 1999)

May your lives and gardens be blessed with abundance
and may today bring forth joyful beginnings.
Happy first day of spring!

Monday, March 19, 2012

Luuk hat is done!

I finally finished Ella's Luuk hat. It was one of those project that was supposed to be quick and easy that morphed into a miserable mess of wonky pink loops and mismatched twists. Each time I got to the decrease, I had to rip it back -- and I did this four times. Seriously? It's not even like this was an intarsia or Fair Isle knit project. It's a simple hat, for pity's sake.

This project sat stewing in my knitting basket for almost a month (OK, maybe the hat wasn't stewing, but I certainly was) until on Saturday night when Ella said to me, "Mama, I hope you finish my hat before I go back to school on Monday." (The kids have been off since March 9th for their school break.)

Then Jack said, "Of course she will, Ella."

Two hours later and the hat was done. Notes to self: 1.) don't knit while half asleep and, 2.) read the pattern.

I'm thrilled with the result. I think my girl is too.

She didn't want any embellishments on the top (the pattern calls for a wee bobble), so I finished it very simply. (You can find the Ravelry pattern here.)

It has a lovely snug fit and covers her ears nicely, which will be great when the cold weather returns.

Granted it's been 20 degrees Celsius the last two days, so the hat didn't stay on her head long.

However she did wear it to school this morning. Of course she did.

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